God of the Nations

And he said:

“The Lord roars from Zion
    and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds mourn,
    and the top of Carmel withers.”

Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Damascus,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they have threshed Gilead
    with threshing sledges of iron.
So I will send a fire upon the house of Hazael,
    and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad.
I will break the gate-bar of Damascus,
    and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven,
and him who holds the scepter from Beth-eden;
    and the people of Syria shall go into exile to Kir,”
says the Lord. Amos 1:2-5 ESV

Amos received his commission from God at a time when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were both enjoying remarkable peace and prosperity. In the south, King Uzziah had led the nation of Judah in a series of successful battles against the Philistines, their neighbor to the west. These military victories allowed him to expand Judah’s borders into former Philistine territory. His greatly expanded army even made against the Egyptians and Arabians, earning Judah a growing reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the region. According to 2 Chronicles 26:8, “his fame spread even to the border of Egypt, for he became very strong.” The Ammonites, located for to the east, recognized Judah’s growing influence and formed an alliance with them, paying a yearly tribute to King Uzziah.

To the north, Israel was also enjoying a period of expansion, under the leadership of King Jeroboam II. He proved to be a particularly evil king who continued the track record of idolatrous behavior that his predecessors established. In fact, he was named after Jeroboam, the man whom God had made the first king of Israel after He divided Solomon’s kingdom. Jeroboam had been the one to inaugurate Israel’s period of idolatry and apostasy by establishing his own religion, complete with false gods and its own priesthood. His namesake would follow in his footsteps, further enhancing Israel’s reputation for rebellion and unfaithfulness. Yet, despite all this, God allowed Jeroboam II to greatly expand Israel’s borders.

He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel – 2 Kings 14:25 ESV

Unwilling to allow Israel to be destroyed, God sent the prophet Jonah to guide its wicked and rebellious king. With the help of Jonah’s prophetic counsel, Jeroboam II was able to secure victories over Israel’s enemies and restore its borders to where they had been during the glory days of King Solomon. This godless king became an instrument in Yahweh’s hand to accomplish His sovereign will for the nation of Israel.

…the Lord had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash. – 2 Kings 14:27 ESV

With all this as a backdrop, we can begin to look at the opening lines of Amos’ divinely inspired oracle. In verse 2 he clearly states that his message is from God.

“The Lord roars from Zion
    and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds mourn,
    and the top of Carmel withers.” – Amos 1:2 ESV

In the midst of all the success taking place in Israel, God is about to deliver a much-needed message of judgment against His covenant people. And this shepherd from Tekoa wants his audience to understand that what he is about to tell them is the word of God. He is speaking on behalf of Yahweh. And the tone of God’s message will be ferocious and fearful. The prophet Jeremiah also picked up on this imagery of God as a roaring lion, preparing to devour His helpless prey.

“The Lord will roar from on high,
    and from his holy habitation utter his voice;
he will roar mightily against his fold…” – Jeremiah 25:30 ESV

Even Hosea, a contemporary of Amos, provided a similar description of Yahweh as an apex predator, ready to destroy its unsuspecting victim.

“So now I will attack you like a lion,
    like a leopard that lurks along the road.
Like a bear whose cubs have been taken away,
    I will tear out your heart.
I will devour you like a hungry lioness
    and mangle you like a wild animal.” – Hosea 13:7-8 NLT

Amos describes the sound of God’s voice as emanating from Mount Zion in Jerusalem. It was there that Solomon had built his grand temple and dedicated it to Yahweh, the God of Israel. But when Solomon’s kingdom was divided in two, the ten tribes to the north decided to build their own temples in Dan and Bethel, where they erected altars to the golden calves that Jeroboam had constructed. And at that time, he had instructed the people, “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).

Now, from the top of Mount Zion, where the temple was located, came the roar of God’s voice, declaring His judgment upon not only Israel and Judah but also the nations of the earth.

Beginning with Syrian, Amos delivers a series of stinging oracles against those nations that surround His covenant people. He will include Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab.  His list begins with Syria, a foreign power that had played a significant role in Israel’s history. From there, Amos begins to list out the nations that encircle the covenant people of God. From Gaza in the land of the Philistines to the Phoenician city of Tyre, Amos provides a concentric circle of kingdoms that have interacted with God’s people over the centuries. And for each one of them, Amos has a specific message from Yahweh.

“The prophet began with the distant city of Damascus and, like a hawk circling its prey, moved in ever-tightening circles, from one country to another, till at last he pounced on Israel. One can imagine Amos’s hearers approving the denunciation of these heathen nations. They could even applaud God’s denunciation of Judah because of the deep-seated hostility between the two kingdoms that went as far back as the dissolution of the united kingdom after Solomon. But Amos played no favorites; he swooped down on the unsuspecting Israelites as well in the severest language and condemned them for their crimes.” – McComiskey, Thomas Edward. “Amos.” In Daniel-Minor Prophets. Vol. 7 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. 12 vols. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein and Richard P. Polcyn. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985.

Ultimately, Amos will spend the majority of his book addressing the rebellious people of Israel. But, in order to establish God’s sovereignty over all nations, Amos begins with Syria. And he opens up with what will become his favorite phrase:

For three transgressions of Damascus,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment…” – Amos 1:3 ESV

He will repeat this phrase eight different times, inserting the name of a different nation with each occurrence. And in each case, Amos provides no details concerning the nature of the four transgressions. His point seems to be that each of these nations stands before God as guilty and worthy of His condemnation and judgment. The mention of three transgressions is compounded by the addition of one more.

Amos originally penned his book for a Jewish audience and they would have recognized a pattern established in the book of Proverbs. On four separate occasions in the chapter 30, Solomon utilizes a similar “three-plus-four” pattern.

Three things are never satisfied;
    four never say, “Enough”:
Sheol, the barren womb,
    the land never satisfied with water,
    and the fire that never says, “Enough.”  – Proverbs 30:15-16 ESV

Three things are too wonderful for me;
    four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
    the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
    and the way of a man with a virgin. – Proverbs 30:18-19 ESV

Under three things the earth trembles;
    under four it cannot bear up:
a slave when he becomes king,
    and a fool when he is filled with food;
an unloved woman when she gets a husband,
    and a maidservant when she displaces her mistress. – Proverbs 30:21-23 ESV

Three things are stately in their tread;
    four are stately in their stride:
the lion, which is mightiest among beasts
    and does not turn back before any;
the strutting rooster, the he-goat,
    and a king whose army is with him. – Proverbs 30:29-31 ESV

Based on this repetitive model, Amos’ Hebrew audience would have probably expected him to list the four transgressions. But he fails to do so. Instead, he provides rather generic descriptions of their crimes, focusing on what they had done to the people of Israel.

…they have threshed Gilead
    with threshing sledges of iron… – Amos 1:3 ESV

Syria, also known as Aram, had constantly invaded the region of Gilead to the east of the Jordan River. This area, also known as the Transjordan, had been settled by the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. These three tribes, located outside the actual land of promise, were subject to regular raids by Syrian forces. Amos compares these unprovoked attacks to iron farming implements ripping through the land, leaving devastation in their wake. During the time when Jehu was king of Israel, God had used the Syrians to punish his disobedient people.

In those days the Lord began to cut off parts of Israel. Hazael defeated them throughout the territory of Israel: from the Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the Gadites, and the Reubenites, and the Manassites, from Aroer, which is by the Valley of the Arnon, that is, Gilead and Bashan. – 2 Kings 10:32-33 ESV

But even though God had sovereignly ordained Hazael’s successful forays into Israelite territory, He would also hold Hazael responsible.

I will send a fire upon the house of Hazael,
    and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad. – Amos 1:4 ESV

Throughout these eight oracles, Amos will accentuate God’s sovereign control over the nations. But he will also emphasize their collective guilt. They are not innocent parties or lifeless puppets animated by the hand of God. Each of these nations is responsible for its actions. God was not forcing them to act against their will but was simply directing their natural dispositions to accomplish His sovereign plan. As Solomon records in the book of Proverbs: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21 ESV). Hazael had plans to invade and conquer the Transjordan territories of Israel, but God used this pagan king’s selfish aspirations to accomplish His greater purpose. And Amos wanted the people of Israel to know that God would hold each and every nation accountable for their individual transgressions.

And, as far as Syria was concerned, God had plans in store for them that would fully repay them for their crimes.

“I will break the gate-bar of Damascus,
    and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven,
and him who holds the scepter from Beth-eden;
    and the people of Syria shall go into exile to Kir…” – Amos 1:5 ESV

Amos was trying to assure his Hebrew audience that Yahweh, whom they had forsaken, was still in full control. He was still on His throne and was ruler over all the nations of the earth. And if God was ready, willing, and able to hold the Syrians accountable for their sins, He was more than prepared to judge the Israelites for their many transgressions.

These oracles of Amos were not just hyperbole. He was not spouting spiritual-sounding rhetoric that was all bark and no bite. What he decreed would actually take place. And, in the case of Syria, his predictions were ultimately fulfilled.

So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” Ahaz also took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasures of the king’s house and sent a present to the king of Assyria. And the king of Assyria listened to him. The king of Assyria marched up against Damascus and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir, and he killed Rezin. – 2 Kings 17:7-89 ESV

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