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THE PROPHET AMOS THUNDERS AGAINST ECONOMIC INJUSTICE PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 28 August 2005

By Jim Jordal

Amos (meaning "burden bearer") didn't particularly think of himself as a prophet. He was admittedly not a prophet, nor was he the son of a prophet. But even as a humble shepherd and tender of sycamore fruit he recognized God's call. He relates: "Then the Lord took me as I followed the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to My people Israel.' " So Amos became a powerful voice in Israel--along with contemporaries Isaiah and Hosea--against economic injustice and oppression of the poor by those in political and social power. And his words shout down through the ages, as clear now as then.

Amos rose to prophetic prominence during a time of peace and prosperity in the northern tribes of Israel under the long reign of Jereboam II. As was usual, prosperity and peace led to spiritual degradation, political corruption, and economic oppression as people turned their attention from God to themselves.

Especially troubling to Amos was the practice by the rich of creating economic conditions leading to increased debt for the poor, and then foreclosing on their property and possessions when they defaulted. Not only was this morally wrong, but it represented a direct contradiction to the Jubilee concept promoted by law in ancient Israel.

Amos' prophecies begin with thundering diatribes against Israel's enemies, namely Syria, Philistia, Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and the large Israelite tribe of Judah. He then turns his attention to his own people, Israel, with a scathing commentary on greed so consuming that it would enslave people for insignificant unpaid debt. In his words, God's judgment was upon Israel "Because they sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals. They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor, and pervert the way of the humble" (Amos 2:6b-7).

Amos reveals the powerful imperative and terrible burden of his prophetic call when he says: "Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets. A lion has roared! Who will not fear. The Lord God has spoken! Who can but prophesy?" (3:7-8). These words further support the clear biblical teaching that revelation arises as God reveals His plans to those who will heed the prophets. With such inspiration available, who can refuse to speak authoritatively concerning God's word?

The prophet then draws attention to the rich, idle, women of Samaria (capital of the ten northern tribes), whom he likens to "cows of Bashan" (a rich, fertile, nearby region known for its fat cattle). He accuses them of oppressing the poor and crushing the needy (4:1), and promises impending disaster to such sinful people.

Amos goes on to complain that Israel refuses to accept correction, even when God expresses His displeasure through drought, plant diseases, destructive pests, plagues like those visited upon Egypt, the death of the young in war, and other calamities. (Perhaps those of us who label natural disasters as purely random events should consider this).

But his most stinging rebuke is reserved for those who think religious ritual can atone for callused, deliberate, evil deeds. Speaking for God, he thunders: "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream" (5:21-24).

Contrary to what we often hear, it seems as if God is not happy with religious ritual and observance unless and until it is accompanied by obedience to His clear commands. As Proverbs 21:3 states: "To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice."

Amos further complains: "Woe to you who put far off the day of doom, who cause the seat of violence to come near, who lie on beds of ivory, stretch out on your couches, eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idly to the sound of stringed instruments, and invent for yourselves musical instruments like David; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint yourselves with the best ointments, but are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph" (6:3-6).

Here he speaks of the casual arrogance and indifference to human suffering often displayed by privileged persons and groups. And even worse, when finally confronted beyond dispute with the reality of human suffering, these bastions of arrogance respond with hypocritical sympathy and pittances of charity, while denying that the economic and political policies they support are major causes of the suffering they moan about.

Amos' last major diatribe attacks those who create economic injustice by using the system they control to further abuse the needy. He states: "Hear this, you who swallow up the needy, and make the poor of the land fail, saying: 'When will the new moon be past, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may trade wheat? Making the ephah small and the shekel large, falsifying the scales by deceit, that we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals--even sell the bad wheat" (8:4-6).

Amos speaks in this instance about the ability of powerful groups to control markets as well as the medium of exchange needed to participate in this commerce. Were Amos speaking today, he would certainly castigate the recurring cycle of boom and bust that periodically crushes the poor and further enriches the prosperous. He would certainly advocate against forces using the nation's supply of money and credit to manipulate markets on which the poor depend for their very existence. If you don't know how this is done, just follow the news for a week.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright 1978, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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