The fifth and last vision the Lord gives to Amos (Amos 9:1-4) is, like the previous two visions, followed by an extended comment on its significance (Amos 9:5-10). This last one envisions the total annihilation of an idolatrous sanctuary in the northern kingdom of Israel, perhaps at Bethel (3:14; 4:4; 5:5-6; 7:10, 13). Amos prophesied in the region of Bethel, was opposed by the priest of Bethel, and Bethel was Amos’s primary idolatrous target.
The basic message of the vision is that “not one of them shall escape” (9:1). This was probably occasioned by how Israel responded to the preaching of Amos. Some were saying, “Disaster will not overtake us” (9:10). The prosperous proud nation did not believe that judgment was coming or that their nation and sanctuaries would tumble. This accounts for the emphasis in this section of Amos (chapters 7:1-9:10). The dire warnings were aimed at an unbelieving and stubborn nation puffed up in the pride of their prosperity.
Amos sees the Lord standing by the Bethel altar and announcing its destruction. With the sanctuary demolished as the capitals of the columns fall upon the worshippers’ heads and everyone who is left is killed by the sword, there is no escape. Without the sanctuary there is no god to whom the people could appeal. Without protection they are slaughtered. Indeed, the image reminds us of Samson who destroy the temple of the Philistines by pushing over its load-bearing columns. What Samson did to the Philistines, God will do to Israel.
Israel may think it can escape and the vision imagines potential escape routes.
- to Sheol (grave)
- to heaven (sky)
- to the top of Carmel (mountain)
- at the bottom of the sea (depths of sea)
- and…in captivity… (Assyria)
In every place God finds them and executes punishment. Twice Amos uses the term “take” (9:2, 3). Previously Amos had used this term to describe Israel’s leaders “taking” taxes and “taking bribes” (Amos 5:11) as well as their boast that they “took” Karnaim (Amos 6:13). Now, God will take them. If they dig to Sheol (deep into the grave), God will grab them or if they hide on the top of Carmel (the beautiful peak within Israel proper), God will grab them. Even if they ascend to the sky or descend into the sea, God will find them. The imagery of the sea–a place of fear and chaos where the serpent frolics–is terrifying. To escape into Sheol or hide in the sea signals their desperation. In the sea, the serpent (sea monster) will devour them even as earlier in Amos this metaphor reminded Israel that even when they feel safe danger looms (Amos 5:19).
Captivity, however, is where many will go. But this is no escape from God’s judgment either. It is, indeed, part of divine judgment, but it is no place of safety. Rather, death awaits Israel there as well. For Israel exile–a new Egyptian (Assyrian) bondage–will result in death.
But the ominous line in this vision is the last. It is, in fact, a kind of summary of God’s present disposition towards Israel: ”I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.” It seems a rather astounding statement that God intends “evil” (ra’ah) instead of good for Israel.
The term “evil” has a wide range of meaning. It may refer to what some call “moral evil,” but it may refer only to disaster (cf. Amos 3:6) or calamity, even “natural evil.” It is what happened to Job (Job 2:11; 42:11). The “evil” intended here is the disaster that will shortly overwhelm Israel is Assyrian captivity. It is the “disaster” (evil; same word in Amos 9:10) they hope to avoid, but they will not. God has determined to bring disaster or calamity (evil) upon the nation; to curse them rather than bless them (as per the Deuteronomic promises of blessing [good] and curses [evil] in Deuteronomy 27-28).
Amos follows this stunning statement with an affirmation of divine sovereignty. Is it appropriate for God to intend “evil” rather than “good” for the covenant people? Can God justify himself? Amos’s response is fundamentally that Yahweh rules the cosmos (Amos 9:5-7). Yahweh is God.
Amos draws a picture of God as one who controls the chaotic features of the cosmos. Earth dwellers may mourn in response to the chaos that surrounds them, but it is God who “touches the earth,” “builds…and founds,” and “calls..and pours.” God is an active agent within the chaos.
The chaotic results of these divine acts are evident from the language. The Lord earth melts (and the people mourn). The earth rises and falls like the Nile of Egypt which is probably a metaphor for earthquakes. Yahweh calls the waters present in the upper chambers in the heavens and the waters in the vaults of the earth; God commands them. “Waters” are chaotic in Hebrew theology, but Yahweh controls them. The Lord will pour them out upon the earth. Chaos will devour Israel at the Lord’s command.
This is flood imagery that echoes the great Noahic flood itself. Just as God flooded the earth from the windows of heaven and from the vaults of the deep in order to cleanse its evil in Genesis 6, so God will pour out the waters upon Israel in order bring “evil” (disaster) upon them.
But are we not your people? One can almost hear the response of the people as they listen to Amos. In one sense Yahweh is the Lord of all nations. Just as God brought Israel out of Egypt, so God also brought the Philistines from Caphtor (Crete) and the Syrians from Kir (Mesopotamia). The Ethiopians (Cushites) are important to God. Yahweh also cared for all nations, not just Israel. Yet at this moment Yahweh is focused on Israel because of their sin…but he will not totally destroy them. Israel will yet have a remnant. Amos leaves room for hope.
The hope, however, does not avert judgment and the execution of justice. God will shake Israel like a sieve–the grain (the remnant) will fall through but nary a pebble. Sinners will not escape judgment but there will be a remnant. This is the hope of Israel, but even the remnant will experience the “evil” (disaster) that will overwhelm the nation. The innocent will suffer alongside the sinful.
As Deuteronomy 4:26-31 outlines, God promised that he would not hesitate to remove Israel from the land if their sins multiplied like the Canaanites before them. At the same time, the covenant promise remains–God will faithfully act to receive them again. ”For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath” (Deuteronomy 4:31).
What does God do with a “sinful kingdom”? God is active among the nations. Just as Israel came from Egypt, so the Philistines came from Crete. God’s hand was present in the movement of the nations. The covenant relationship Israel had with God heightens their responsibility, but all nations are accountable to Yahweh. God even yet judges sinful kingdoms (evident from the Apocalypse).
Israel was judged for its economic injustice and idolatry. The nations should pay heed. God’s relationship with Israel was a witness to God’s intent for the creation. The nations, including the United States, should listen, learn, and heed the message of Amos. Just as Israel was not alone among the nations in God’s movement of Peoples, so Israel is not alone when it comes to God’s judgment either.