Amos is every bit as unlikely a prophet as Elisha. While Elisha was a ninth century BC farmer, Amos was an eighth century BC shepherd. (Remember that, as we count backwards from the birth of Christ in the Old Testament, the eighth century is later, not earlier, than the ninth.)
Amos was from the sticks, a small village in Judah. God sends him to prophesy to the king in Israel and to all the cultured and educated city people who surrounded him. (At this time, the land of Israel is divided into two parts: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Picture, say, an illiterate Alabama farmer instructing New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, on economic policy and you get some idea of what an surprising and uncomfortable encounter God has willed.)
You can read the whole Book of Amos in a few sittings. You’ll find it between the Books of Joel and Obadiah, and though Amos can’t rival Obadiah for brevity, it’s only nine short chapters, many of them famous in the Judeo-Christian tradition for their powerful defense of the lowly against those who would abuse and exploit them.
God sends Amos to the court of the Israelite king, Jerobaom II, at a time when Jerobaom’s armies were triumphant and his poll numbers were high. Who cares if the poor are trampled into the dust, as long as Israel’s armies are winning their battles? Well, God cares, and Amos is God’s voice.
It’s tricky to reproach a popular or successful leader. Amos’ technique is worth noting. He begins with the sins of Damascus and denounces them publicly. No argument there, the Syrians are evil. Then Amos moves to Gaza and Tyre and Edom. One can almost hear the crowds as they cheer Amos on, “Down with Gaza! Down with Tyre! Down with Edom!” We are in agreement that our enemies are God’s enemies, too, and so deserve divine wrath.
But we can also sense the dis-ease in the crowd as Amos moves closer and closer to Israel, and home. He denounces the transgressions of Judah. “Okay, enough, stop there,” the people must have thought, and hoped. But early in chapter two, Amos turns his sight on Israel and does not relent. He calls them, “You who turn justice to wormwood, and lay righteousness to rest in the earth!”
He warns Israel against a religious life that has no room for the least and last. “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!” he cries, “For what good is the day of the Lord to you? It will be darkness and not light.” He seems to be saying that, if Israel gets things so turned round in this life, what makes them think they will see any clearer on the day of the Lord? If we can’t see the face of God in the faces of the poor and hear God’s word in their cries, what makes us think we will be able to apprehend God’s light when it appears.
Amos thunders, “But let justice run down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Let those words be our prayer and our call today.