We do not know a lot about him. His oracles portray him as nothing out of the ordinary. He was a shepherd or breeder of livestock, a cultivator of sycamore fig trees, an inhabitant of the town of Tekoa in Judah, and one who probably travelled to the northern kingdom of Israel to ply his produce. He lived in the days of King Uzziah in the South and King Jeroboam II in the North. But God took this ordinary man Amos. He drew him out from his ordinary trade, thrust him into a land not his own, and placed him under obligation to perform the task of a prophet with a nation that would have no inclination to listen.

The prophecy of Amos is rich for its courage, depth of insight, and contemporary relevance. One example of this is one encounter within its pages that has some sobering words for those of us who have been appointed by God and his church to engage in ministry. The encounter is between the prophet Amos and Amaziah, a priest of Bethel in the eighth Century BC. My intention here is to explore the text of Amos 7:10–18 in the light of the obligations these two men had before God and to observe what we can learn from their encounter for our own ministries.

The larger context of the encounter is set by a series of five visions that are given to Amos. These visions begin in Amos 7:1 and conclude in Amos 9. All the visions involve God judging his people. The first vision (7:1–3) is of a locust plague which God uses to judge the wickedness of his people. The response of Amos is to mimic the prophet Moses by interceding on behalf of the people. God responds to such intercession just as he had with Moses in Exodus 32 and relents from sending disaster. The second vision is of God judging by fire (7:4–6). Again, Amos intercedes on behalf of the people and God again relents. The third vision is the famous but somewhat enigmatic one of a plumbline (7:7–9). This time Amos does not intercede and there is no relenting on God’s part. Instead, God promises a fierce judgment that will reach not only the religious establishment but also the secular, striking even the house of Jeroboam. The mention of Jeroboam is significant because until this point Amos has largely focussed on the social and religious sins of the people and has not specifically mentioned the king and it appears as though it is this mention that lies behind the events that unfold next.

The broad scope of the story is straightforward. Verses 10–11 describe how Amaziah reports some oracle from Amos to Jeroboam and accuses him of conspiracy against the king and then uses this as the basis for a command to leave Bethel, a suggestion that he ply his trade back at home in the south, and a ban on his prophesying any further in Bethel. In verses 14–16, Amos responds by maintaining that he is not a prophet by profession and that he is in Bethel under commission from the Lord to prophesy there. Finally, Amos speaks his only oracle in the book against an individual (17). It is an oracle primarily against Amaziah and his family but is linked with an oracle of judgment against the people as a whole, threatening exile. We are not told of the result of these incidents but there is nothing within the book that indicates that Amos did as he was commanded by Amaziah, that is, stopped prophesying or went back to Judah.

With this broad overview in place, we can now turn to these two men who are engaged in God’s ministry among his people. First, there is Amaziah. He is identified as a priest of Bethel, which was one of the two main religious centres of the northern kingdom, established by the first king of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam I, and therefore probably the king’s sanctuary (13). It is probable that Amaziah was therefore the high priest of his sanctuary and consequently the highest religious authority in the kingdom. As a high priest, his obligations were clear. He was one who was to ensure that God was represented properly, that the word of God was taught to the people (e.g. 2 Chron 15:13; Jer 18:18; Ezek 7:26), and that God’s forgiveness was mediated to them (e.g. Leviticus). His role was therefore fundamentally a religious one (although in the ancient world there was no really neat divide between religion and politics).

However, Amaziah acts in a way that is contrary to his primary obligations. In verse 10 he accuses Amos of conspiracy against the king and cites two utterances by Amos in support. The first asserts that Jeroboam will die by the sword, while the second claims that Israel will surely be exiled. The first claim is not documented within the extant oracles contained within the book but may possible be surmised from verse 9. The second is something that Amos has said repeatedly throughout his prophetic ministry. However, what is important in relation to Amaziah is not so much what he says but what he does not say. By way of example, he does not state that these oracles are ‘the word of the Lord’ but that they are the words of Amos. Nor does he give the reasons behind the threats, that is the assertion by Amos that the judgment is coming because of the sins of the people and their religious leaders. In other words, this religious leader is not concerned with the religious basis of the prophecies of Amos. Moreover, he makes no mention of the threats that Amos has made against the ‘high places’ and ‘sanctuaries’. Amaziah has therefore effectively omitted all that would be of direct concern to himself and his obligations and has instead solely focussed on the political realm. His self representation is therefore as one with no vested interests, which amounts to a concealing of his own personal motives.

There is no indication within the story as to whether Amaziah was acting on behalf of the king when instructing Amos to leave, go home, and stop prophesying but demands amount to a request that Amos no longer bring the word of God to the north. At a number of levels he is therefore no longer representing God or the best interests of his people and God’s response to his dereliction of duty is outlined in five promises in verse 17. First, his wife will become a prostitute. In other words, she will be shamed and disgraced into plying the profession of a prostitute in order to make a living, and she will do this publicly or ‘in the city’. The irony here is that the law specifically prohibits priests from marrying prostitutes in Leviticus 21:7. Second his sons and daughters will fall by the sword, that is, his line will end. Third, his land shall be divided up with a measuring line, which means that not only will his heirs be exterminated but his heritage will also be obliterated. Fourth, he will die in an ‘unclean’ land, which means any foreign soil where the Lord is not present (cf. Deuteronomy 4:28; 1 Samuel 26:19; Jeremiah 16:13; Psalm 137:4). This man who was meant to be set apart and holy will therefore become contaminated and polluted. He who sought to hinder Amos from fulfilling his calling from God will himself be deprived of his own calling. Finally, the people to whom he should minister and for whom he should care will go into exile.

As a reader who has experienced God great grace in Christ, such a punishment does seem harsh. However, we need to hear it in its context both in the Old Testament and within the canon. After all, both Testaments are clear that God values his people and their life. Moreover, God considers that central to that life is their sustenance by his word (Deut 8:3). It is this same God who has sent his prophet to speak a word of both judgment and salvation to his people and yet this word has been misrepresented by the very person who had an obligation to ensure that it was heard. Amaziah had a very high calling before God and has failed to live up to his obligations. Such failure could very well results in serious consequences and repercussions for God’s people and therefore God’s judgment will be with greater strictness (cf. 1 Cor 3:1–17; James 3:1).

Such a principle is sobering for those of us engaged in any form of leadership over the people of God. God loves his children and will judge very harshly those who do not take their task seriously or who do not perform it with utmost diligence. We represent him among his people and are called upon to be shepherds even as he is the ultimate Good Shepherd. It is for this reason that Jesus and the New Testament authors speak about those who misuse their authority over God’s people. For example, Jesus says that those who cause his little ones to stumble will suffer a punishment worse than having a millstone around their necks and being thrown into the deepest part of the sea (Matt 18:7).

However, this passage does not simply speak to those who exercise leadership and authority. It also speaks to all of us who hear the word of God. Amaziah heard God’s word but did not take it to heart or see its relevance for him. Rather, he sought to shirk his responsibility and ignore its cutting edge. His attitude thereby stands as an example to us, that we might not act as he did and thereby incur judgment. We who hear the word of God will equally be called to account for our response to it. More than this, if we have been richly blessed with his word then he will demand even more from us (Matt 4:22–24; Luke 12:41–48).

Against such a sobering background, it is helpful to look at the other side of the equation, represented by Amos. There is not a great deal of personal information about Amos in his book, with biographical data only supplied here and in the opening two verses of chapter 1. The general thrust here is that Amos is not a professional prophet and that he does not make a living out of prophesying. He is a prophet because of God’s selection and command. He is therefore under a higher authority than that represented by the priesthood of Amaziah. His point, like that of the apostles in Acts 5:29, is that if God commands him to preach and a human commands him to stop, there is no real option but to obey God.

As Amos faces Amaziah he finds someone who in many ways represents where the people are. Like the people he is complacent and comfortable and disobedient to God. He is interested in preserving his own situation and not in fulfilling his obligations toward God and as the head of the religious life of the nation he is culpable. It is therefore appropriate that he suffers judgment first and Amos is resolute in proclaiming it despite its aweful ramifications. He urges Amaziah to hear the word of the Lord (16) and promises the tough judgment of God both on him and the equally culpable people he represents.

As we did with Amaziah, it is well for us to note the points of contact between this part of the passage and us. Just as Amos and Amaziah were related to God, so are we. As 1 Peter 2:9–12 indicates using the language of Exodus 19, we are the new people of God, called by him to declare the praises or great deeds of him who has called us out of darkness and into his wonderful light. As God’s ancient people were a holy priesthood, so are we and as God’s priests, one of our roles is to declare to the world what great things God has done for us in Jesus Christ. One of our roles in the world is therefore declarative. However, 1 Peter 2:11–12 spells out another role, that of living consecrated lives that are constituted by abstinence from sinful desires and good conduct among those who do not know God. Both these activities—declaration and godly living—have an outward focus, that others might come to hear of, recognise, and glorify God.

Having said this, we should note that when the New Testament authors talk of making Christ known to the world they are often somewhat cautious about stressing obligation as the primary motivation. This can be seen with Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 and in Acts 5:19–20 where the implication is that even without obligation the apostles would make Christ known, for they cannot but help speaking of what they have seen and heard.

The point of all of this is that we are God’s people, called by God to be his people and to proclaim his word in both word and deed. Like the prophecy of Amos, our message from God is filled with words of comfort as well as judgment and we should be like Amos in its presentation. We do not have a glimpse into the heart of Amos as he presents his message but we do have a glimpse from the New Testament and these glimpses urge us to do it from willing hearts, knowing the greatness of the news that we bring. We are not responsible for how people react. However, we are responsible for its proclamation in word and deed, for this is our calling between the two comings of his Son.

Andrew Reid is Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hermeneutics at Ridley Melbourne.