The dialogue between Amos and Amaziah (7:10-17), which interprets the third vision (7:7-9), is followed by a fourth vision (8:1-3) with a further interpretative comment (8:4-14). Ripe for judgment, Yahweh reminds Israel exactly why they will face eventual calamity. God judges them for their economic practices and the greatest calamity they will experience is divine silence.
In the third vision Amos sees a basket of ripened summer fruit ready to eat (or sell). The fruit must be sold or eaten soon. The time for waiting has passed.
The “end” (the extremity, the end of the road) has arrived. Their sins have brought them to this point and God “will never again pass by them.” There is no more recourse; there will be no more delay. The decision has been made. Their festive temple songs will now become howls of distress and hurt as the dead bodies pile around them and are strewn over the land.
What is the appropriate human response in the midst of such horror? When the “end” arrives, the prophet calls for “stillness” or “silence.” “Hush,” says the prophet. Perhaps the silence is a reverence for God, maybe even an avoidance. Perhaps it is shock as people look at the devastation around them. Whatever the case, horror begets silence as there is literally nothing to say in the face of such tragic circumstances. It is over; there is nothing more to say.
But Amos does not want to leave Israel without a rationale or some idea of what to expect. The third vision is interpreted by a chiastic oracle (“Hear this,” 8:4).
Rationale for Judgment (8:4-6): Economic Injustice
Description of Judgment (8:7-8): Land Trembles.
From Feasting to Mourning (8:9-10): Lament
Description of Judgment (8:11-12): Divine Silence
Rationale for Judgment (8:13-14): Idolatry
Two rationales for judgment, seemingly always present in Amos, resurface in this interpretation. One is economic injustice and the other is idolatry.
Amos complains that Israel’s economic practices oppressed the poor. The prophet identifies the specific practice of lightening the ephah (which measures grain) and weighting the shekel (which measures silver). When merchants use unfair weights and measures, they buy and sell to their own interests. Archeological remains in Tirzah demonstrate that sometimes merchants used two different weights–one for selling and one for buying (cf. Mays, Amos, 144). Prohibitions in the Torah, as well as in Ancient Near Eastern codes, demonstrate that this was a common practice (cf. Leviticus 19:35-36; Deuteronomy 25:13-16).
With such economic advantages, merchants did not like to close their shops on New Moons or Sabbaths. They were more interested in economic gain than they were worship or devotion. Indeed, they targeted the poor and needy as the object of their greed. As Shank (pp. 282-3) points out in his College Press commentary, the merchants short-changed the poor, charged excessive prices, cheated with false measures and weights, forced the poor into slavery who could not pay their debts, and sold inferior quality goods (even the “sweepings” along with the grain). This is called the “pride of Jacob” (Amos 8:7).
“I will never forget their deeds.” I wonder if this should not give the American economic system, or any economic system, pause for introspection. If God will never forget how the poor and needy were oppressed, cheated, and sold inferior goods for the sake of profit or gain, Americana–including global economics–should “hear this word” of the Lord. If economic practices bring judgment–and this is what Amos specifies rather than sexual immorality–American Evangelicals should heed the warning as they protest the demise of “Christian America” while the poor are caught in the middle of the American economic machine.
Amos, however, does identify a further sin other than economic injustice. The bottom of the chiasm references idolatry. As the people thirst for water due to the judgment of God (ironic in that the judgment is pictured as a flood), the people who swear by the gods (“Guilt”) of Samaria from Dan to Beersheba will know the terror of the Lord. Idolaters will fall, “and never rise again.” Dan in the north and Beersheba in the south (Amos 5:5) were idolatrous worship centers much like Bethel (located in the middle of Palestine). Divine judgment will cleanse Israel of its idolatry. Those who swear by these false gods may look to them, but they will receive no help…either from them or from Yahweh who is now silent.
Amos uses two metaphors to describe the judgment. First, the land will tremble as it is flooded with judgment. Just as the Nile rises and falls every year in Egypt, so the flood of judgment will pour over the land of Israel. The result will be mourning and lamentation.
The second metaphor Amos uses is a famine, but this is not a lack of bread or water. Rather, it is the silence of God. Israel will get its wish. Just as Amaziah told Amos to leave as they had no interest in his message, so Yahweh will no longer send prophets among the people to warn them of the coming judgment. The flood of judgment will be accompanied by the silence of God. They will want to hear from God and they will seek a word, but God has already spoken and will speak no more to Israel in the context of this judgment.
The middle of the chiasm is striking. Judgment day is a day of mourning. The day is catastrophic–darkness will envelop the land at noon and their festive celebrations will turn into mourning. Everyone will wear the sackcloth of lamentation and shave their heads as they weep. The mourning will be so great it will be as if everyone in the nation is mourning the death of an only son. Lament and bitterness will fill the day; nothing will alleviate the pain and hurt. Israel, which should have mourned for its sins, will now mourn its dead.
The northern kingdom’s sins–unjust economic practices and idolatry–spelled its doom as a national entity. Those categories are important to God–it is about the poor and justice as well as about loyalty and allegiance. “I will never forget any of their deeds” should ring in our ears as a warning to all nations that economic justice and allegiance to the kingdom of God are primary concerns for God.
The Christian Faith, instead of absorbing the cultural values of its context, should embrace the message of Amos and speak prophetically to a culture for whom economics and allegiance are more about self and the nation than about the poor and God.