Amos was the first of four prophets who prophesied during the eighth century BC, the others being Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. This was the time of the divided Israelite kingdom, and each of the writers carefully dated his writings according to the kings of Israel and Judah in whose reigns he prophesied. This helps the present-day reader to build up a picture of the circumstances surrounding each prophet’s ministry.
The background notes to Hosea provide a summary of social, religious and political conditions in Israel and Judah during the time of the earlier eighth century prophets. A reading of those notes will provide a useful introduction to the notes on Amos below. Maps showing the divided kingdom and the neighbours of Israel-Judah are also located in the notes on Hosea.
Increased prosperity brings social evils
At the time Amos began his preaching, Jeroboam II reigned in the northern kingdom Israel, and Uzziah (also known as Azariah) reigned in the southern kingdom Judah. Under these kings, both nations enjoyed prosperity, but with the prosperity came changes that religiously, socially and morally were for the worse.
The rise of the merchant class, which began two hundred years earlier during the reign of Solomon, reached its peak during the time of Jeroboam II and Uzziah. No longer was society built around the simple agricultural life. With the rapid growth of commerce and trade, city life developed, and this brought social evils on a scale that neither Israel nor Judah had known before. Rapid prosperity for some meant increased poverty for others. As the upper classes grew in wealth and power they exploited the lower classes. Bribery and corruption flourished, even in the law courts, leaving the poor with no means of obtaining justice.
The fiery preaching of Amos
Amos, with bold attacks on the rich merchants and unjust rulers of Israel, was the first of the prophets to come to the defence of the poor. He was a shepherd-farmer who lived in a lonely village in the north of Judah, but most of his attacks are directed at Israel. This is probably because when he took his fruit and wool across the border to sell in the markets of Bethel and other towns, he saw the corruption of Israel’s city life. He had first-hand knowledge of the situation, because he himself had to deal with the ruthless merchants and corrupt officials.
In his fiery sermons Amos condemned the disgusting greed and extravagant luxury of the rich, for he knew that they had gained their wealth by cheating, oppression and injustice (Amos 2:6-7; 3:10,15; 5:10- 12; 6:4-6; 8:4-6). They kept the religious festivals with much enthusiasm, paid their tithes and offered elaborate sacrifices, but all these things were worthless in God’s sight so long as the worshippers persisted in their social injustice (Amos 5:21-24; 8:3,10). Amos clearly saw what Israel’s upper classes did not see, namely, that the nation was heading for a terrible divine judgment (Amos 7:11).