1 The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.– Amos 1:1 ESV
Amos describes himself as a shepherd from Tekoa, a city located 10 miles south of Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah. And later on in his book, he elaborates on his background by adding a few additional facts: “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” (Amos 7:14-15 ESV). Amos’ somewhat adamant-sounding statement, “I was no prophet” may seem strange, considering the fact that he admits that he was called by God to prophesy to the northern kingdom of Israel.
But Amos was only trying to make the point that he had not always been a prophet. For most of his adult life, Amos had been a herdsman (bôqēr), a Hebrew term that was often translated as “shepherd.” Over the centuries, biblical scholars have speculated that Amos was actually far more than a lowly shepherd. In the opening verse of his book, he refers to himself as a being “among the shepherds of Tekoa.” The term he uses there is nōqēḏ, which can be translated as sheep-raiser or sheep-dealer. It is the same term used in 2 Kings to describe the king of Moab.
Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheep breeder (nōqēḏ), and he had to deliver to the king of Israel 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. – 2 Kings 3:4 ESV
Either Amos worked as a shepherd-for-hire, contracting himself out to the sheep breeders of Tekoa, or he was one of them. When he refers to himself as a “dresser of sycamore figs,” he seems to be describing the process of “gathering” (bālas) the fruit of the tree. This involved the scoring or cutting of the skin of the fruit so that it would ripen. So, it could be that Amos was nothing more than a seasonal day-laborer, who made his living by hiring himself out as a shepherd or field hand.
But regardless of whether Amos was a wealthy sheep breeder or a lowly sheepherder, he found himself going through a mid-life career change that was divinely ordained. Amos was called by God to leave behind the figs and flocks and begin his new life as a prophet. And whether Amos was rich or poor, highly successful or barely making ends meet, this would have been a significant change in his career trajectory.
A prophet (nāḇî’) was considered to be an “inspired man” – a divinely commissioned spokesman who operated under the influence of the Spirit. The Hebrew word actually means “to bubble forth, as from a fountain.” A prophet of God was divinely inspired to speak on behalf of God. And that is exactly what God had commissioned Amos to do.
“Go, prophesy to my people Israel…” – Amos 7:15 ESV
What is interesting is that Amos, a citizen of the southern kingdom of Judah, was being called to go as a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel. Ever since the end of King Solomon’s reign, the nation of Israel had been divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was comprised of ten of the original 12 tribes of Israel. Samaria was its capital and Jeroboam II was its king at the time Amos was called. The southern kingdom was made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and their king was Uzziah, who ruled from the throne of David in Jerusalem.
It is important to note that this division of the kingdom of Israel had come about because of Solomon’s disobedience and unfaithfulness. As the son of David, Solomon had inherited a powerful kingdom that was marked by peace and prosperity. And while Solomon had been gifted by God with great wisdom, he ended up amassing a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines. And the author of the book of 1 Kings makes it clear that Solomon’s actions were far from acceptable to God.
King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” – 1 Kings 11:1-2 ESV
Solomon allowed his love of women to diminish his love for God. In order to appease his many foreign wives, he allowed them to worship their foreign gods. But eventually, he became influenced by their idolatry and began to promote the worship of false gods within the land of Israel.
…when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. – 1 Kings 11:4-6 ESV
As a result, God determined to punish Solomon for his unfaithfulness by splitting his kingdom in half. Solomon would be allowed to finish out his reign, but his son would inherit a kingdom much diminished in power, size, and influence.
“Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant.” – 1 Kings 11:11 ESV
By the time Amos comes along, the two kingdoms have co-existed for hundreds of years, but their relationship was strained and marked by constant conflict. From its inception, the northern kingdom of Israel had been plagued by idolatry and apostasy. Its very first king, Jeroboam I, had commissioned the creation of two golden calf idols, placing one in Dan and the other in Bethel. Then he instructed the people of Israel:
“You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” – 1 Kings 12:28 ESV
From that point forward, the people of the northern kingdom of Israel were effectively “paganized.” They no longer kept the Law of God or made the annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate the prescribed feasts and festivals. Instead, they made their way to their own sacred sites to worship their own man-made gods. And Amos will declare God’s dissatisfaction with them.
“Come to Bethel, and transgress;
to Gilgal, and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three days;
offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened,
and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them;
for so you love to do, O people of Israel!”
declares the Lord God. – Amos 4:4-5 ESV
And God will use Amos to call the rebellious people of Israel to repent.
For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:
“Seek me and live;
but do not seek Bethel,
and do not enter into Gilgal
or cross over to Beersheba;
for Gilgal shall surely go into exile,
and Bethel shall come to nothing.” – Amos 5:4-5 ESV
And Amos, the newly appointed prophet, will begin his career by calling his northern neighbors to give up their idolatrous ways and return to the worship of Yahweh.
Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. – Amos 5:14-15 ESV
But Amos will find his new job to be much more difficult than tending sheep or dressing figs. He will quickly discover the obstinance of the people of Israel and, eventually, he will be required to deliver a sobering message to their king, Jeroboam II.
“‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’” – Amos 7:11 ESV
Just imagine the change that took place in Amos’ life as a result of God’s call. His world was turned upside down. He went from herding sheep to haranguing kings. Rather than scoring figs so that they might ripen, he was now excoriating the faithless so they might repent. Amos would quickly learn that being a prophet was a far-from-glamorous job that required great commitment and total reliance upon God. Despite the divine origin of his message, he would find his audience unreceptive and his presence unwelcome. He spoke on behalf of God but was treated as a pariah by the people of God. They didn’t want what he was selling, and they will repeatedly reject the God he was representing.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.