This text begins the fourth major section of Amos which contains five visions (Amos 7:1-9:10). While the structure of this part of Amos is variously understood, the five visions form the heart of its message:
1. Locust (7:1-3)
2. Fire (7:4-6)
3. Plumb Line (7:7-9).
4. Summer Fruit (8:1-3).
5. Pillars (9:1).
Amos “sees” the future, intercedes for Israel, and Yahweh responds. The vision of the future Yahweh gives Amos is negative, filled with loss, and destruction. Amos pleads for Israel in the hope that Yahweh may yet relent.
As a result this section of Amos is dialogical and autobiographical. Amos exercises the covenant privilege of intercession. Yahweh honors that faithful address. Yahweh listens, considers, and responds. A major point of this last section, then, hears Amos’s fervent pleas for Israel as Amos laments the future and seeks to intercede for Israel. This last part of Amos, therefore, evidences the relational nature of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel as one of Yahweh’s prophets represents Israel rather than prosecuting them. While previously Amos was Yahweh’s prosecutor as Amos indicted them for their sins and announced their judgment, now Amos pleads with Yahweh for mercy on Israel’s behalf. The prophet mediates the relationship between Yahweh and Israel.
In these first two visions Yahweh responds positively to Amos’s intercession. Yahweh relents and decides to forego the implementation of the visions he showed Amos. Yahweh opens the future to Amos and reveals what the Lord of the covenant is about to do. In both cases Amos pleads for forgiveness and Yahweh relents. Yahweh changes the future.
In the first vision Amos sees a swarm of locust devour the spring crop just as the king has been given the first fruits. Locust (grasshoppers) eat the crops that were intended for humans and they appear at the most hopeful moment–the king has his share (to support the state and military) and the people are about to receive their portion. At this point Amos sees the arrival of an army of locust to devastate the land. A famine will ensue as their is no crop and no grass for the livestock.
In the second vision Amos sees a fiery judgment that consumes the land. “Fire” was a common judgment metaphor in Amos 1-2 and here it probably refers to a heat wave that will dry up the water in the land. In other words, this is not a Sodom and Gomorrah event, but rather than drought that will thoroughly dry up life in the land.
In response to both visions Amos pleads, “Yahweh God, please forgive (or cease)” because Jacob is too “small.” Jacob will not survive such an onslaught. “Small” is an interesting word has it has a semantic range of young or insignificant as well as referring to size. Probably size is the main reference such that an extensive famine or drought would totally annihilate the population of Israel. Does not the God of Israel want Israel to survive? Implicitly, there may be an allusion to the covenant promises of God.
The intercession makes a case, as did Moses in Exodus 32. Israel will not survive because it is too small. God, don’t you want Israel to survive? Do you intend to totally annihilate your people, the remnant of the house of Israel? The intercession pleads for another way, and God chooses another option which yet might leave a remnant in the land. He chooses to send Assyria rather than a famine or drought (as Amos 1-6 testifies).
In response to both intercessions Yahweh “relented,” declaring that what Amos saw will not happen. The future will be different from what Yahweh showed Amos. The future is open in some sense as Yahweh shows Amos two possible ways in which the Lord might judge Israel. Amos’s intercession moves God to go a different route.
“Relented” (7:3, 6) is an important word in the Hebrew Scriptures. It describes Yahweh’s grief over the sinfulness of the antediluvian world (Genesis 6:6-7; cf. 1 Samuel 15:35), part of Moses’s intercession that God would adjust the end that was decided for Israel (Exodus 32:14; cf. Jeremiah 26:3, 19; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2), that Yahweh would have compassion on Israel (Deuteronomy 32:36; cf. Judges 21:15; Psalm 135:14), that Yahweh decided against an earlier intent to destroy Jerusalem (2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Chronicles 21:15), that Yahweh would show pity by adjusting the present predicament (Psalm 90:13), and that Yahweh does not change the determination made (1 Samuel 15:11; Psalm 110:4; Ezekiel 24:14).
The Hebrew term basically means “change.” The context must determine the nature of the change or the kind of change. For example, God changed from delighting in the good creation to grieving the sinful Noahic world (Genesis 6:6-7). God changed from a determination to destroy Israel and renew it through Moses in response to the prayer of Moses (Exodus 32:14). God changed from anger to compassion (Deuteronomy 32:36). And sometimes Yahweh remains committed to a previous intent and the Lord will not change or choose a different course (1 Samuel 15:11).
The intercessions of Amos presume that, as far as Amos is concerned and as far as we can see from our limited and finite perspective, Yahweh listens and that Yahweh might relent (change). The vision was not determinative, but a possibility. Yahweh showed Amos the future, but then Yahweh changed the future. Yahweh was going to do one thing but now, in response to prayer, Yahweh does something different.
Whatever our theories about the divine nature, we pray like Amos prays. We intercede in the hope that God might act in certain ways. We pray in the hope that God might listen and respond to our prayers. We pray with the real possibility that God might say, “Yes.” We make our case in prayer and leave it in the hands of God, trusting that God will work out the divine purpose in whatever happens.
But does not God always know what is best? Should we not simply pray, “your will be done” and accept whatever comes? That is certainly possible, but it does not appear to be the way God made the world or us. This Amos text indicates the prayer (intercession) has meaning and power. It can change God’s mind.
Maybe it is better to think of this covenantal relationship in the context of God’s creative intent. God created us as partners (junior partners, to be sure) in the world. We co-rule with God; we co-create with God. We create the future with God. The relational nature of this journey is cooperative though we always acknowledge God as the sovereign Lord (as Amos does).
Prayer is one of the ways history moves forward; it is one of the ways we create the future with God. This is part of the honor and glory God has given to humanity as we represent (image) God within the creation.