Transgressions and Punishments of the Nations
Life was good in Israel and Judah in the days of Jeroboam (II) and Uzziah. Territories lost to the Arameans had been recovered; Assyria was consumed with its own affairs. Prosperity had returned to Israel and Judah. The Israelites expected the good times to last; Israel had been made great again.
YHWH called a shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees from Judah named Amos to prophesy to the Kingdom of Israel (Amos 1:1; cf. Amos 7:14-15). He was not a prophet or a son of a prophet, yet he proved faithful to his calling.
YHWH roared from Zion and uttered His voice from Jerusalem, and the land withered (Amos 1:2). YHWH was the creator of heaven and earth; if He spoke a word of condemnation against a nation, it would come to pass. And so Amos began to prophesy against the nations surrounding Israel according to a pattern: for three transgressions and for four YHWH would not revoke the punishment (e.g. Amos 1:3, 6, etc.). Amos did not contradict himself; the trope indicated fullness, perhaps even overabundance, of sinfulness on the part of the nations, and thus the justice inherent in YHWH’s punishment of them.
Damascus, representing the Arameans, were the first indicted: they had devastated Gilead, Israelite territory, and the Arameans would themselves be devastated and lost (Amos 1:3-5). Gaza, representing the Philistines, and Tyre, representing the Philistines, had delivered up an entire people to the Edomites; fire would consume their cities and their rulers would be cut off (Amos 1:6-10). The Edomites come under condemnation for having attacked his brother, the Israelites, and maintained anger against him; fire would consume them as well (Amos 1:11-12). The Ammonites, like the Arameans, made incursions into Gilead, and slaughtered pregnant women; their cities will be devoured and their king exiled (Amos 1:13-15). The Moabites are indicted for their vile treatment of the king of Edom; they also will suffer fire and devastation (Amos 2:1-3).
So far all of the Israelites who would have heard Amos would have had no difficulties with anything he had said. They would all assent to YHWH’s care and provision for His people and the justice involved in the nations around them getting their just deserts for their mistreatment of the people of God.
But then the condemnation came for Judah: they rejected the Law of YHWH and followed the vanities of their fathers, and fire would come for their cities (Amos 2:4-5).
And now the moment of truth and indictment had come. If the Israelites had thought justice coming for the nations was good and right, then they had better be ready to endure the judgment YHWH would pronounce on them. YHWH would not revoke the punishment of Israel for its transgressions, either (Amos 2:6)!
Amos decried how the righteous were sold for silver, most likely a reference to rampant bribing of judges or other officials to pervert justice (Amos 2:6). Amos was deeply concerned regarding the treatment of the poor: the needy were sold for a pair of sandals, representing a paltry sum, the head of the poor were trampled, and the afflicted were turned aside, all no doubt in the pursuit of greater gain (Amos 2:6-7; cf. Genesis 14:23, Leviticus 25:39-46). Many among the wealthy had gained their wealth at the expense of the poor; soon all their wealth would be consumed and taken away.
Amos condemned the shocking immorality present in Israel: a man and his father would go into the same girl, profaning the holy name of YHWH, perhaps a reference to Israel’s participation in Canaanite religious rituals, or an indication of the level of sexual licentiousness among the people (Amos 2:7; cf. Deuteronomy 23:17). Amos envisioned the Israelites laying down next to altars on garments taken by pledge and drinking wine in the house of their God purchased with the fines of the poor: they likely presumed themselves to be the chosen people of God, and their wealth demonstrating YHWH’s favor, when in reality they were committing terrible sacrilege and heaping up iniquity for the day of judgment (Amos 2:8).
All of Israel’s prosperity depended on their position in the land and the favor of their God: it had been YHWH, after all, who had removed the strong Amorites from the land, and had brought Israel out of Egypt when they had been slaves (Amos 2:9-10). YHWH raised up prophets and Nazirites in the land, and yet the Israelites did not want to hear the message of the prophets, and forced the Nazirites to drink wine, breaking their vows (Amos 2:11-12; cf. Genesis 15:16, Numbers 6:1-21, 13:32, Joshua 10:1-27, 24:11).
All of this iniquity and presumption could no longer stand. The day of YHWH would come swiftly. YHWH would press Israel down in its own land: all of the mighty men would lose their strength, their ability, and the best of them would flee away naked on that terrible day (Amos 2:13-16).
While we might hope that some Israelites were convicted by Amos’ message, the historical record would indicate most would have tuned him out once he turned to indict Israel. Judgment for everyone else was expected; surely YHWH would not turn against His own people! And yet, within a generation, Israel would be devastated by Assyria, and all Amos said regarding the Kingdom of Israel would come to pass.
God sees the transgressions of the nations; He will hold them all to account in judgment. The people of God throughout time have taken comfort in God’s vengeance against those who work iniquity, especially those who persecute the people of God. And yet, as Peter reminds us, judgment begins at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). If God will hold those in the world to account for their oppression of the people of God, what will He do to the people of God who oppress others, or, God forbid, one another? If God will condemn the nations for sexual immorality, what will He do to the people of God who have flagrantly committed sexual immorality? Yes, the day of judgment will come against all who commit iniquity; yet God will show no partiality.
Yet how will the people of God today respond? As in the days of Amos, so today: messages condemning the iniquity of the nations prove popular. But what happens when that same message is turned toward the people of God and their iniquity? Will we scoff as Israel did? Then we will reap the same condemnation as Israel. May we learn from the example of our ancestors in the faith and turn away from our iniquity and sin, repenting in lament, and seek to follow all God has established in Christ so we may obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry