Saturday, October 30, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (39)

The territory occupied by the nation of Israel today is not the territory occupied by the Israel of the divided kingdom period. It is not the territory occupied by the nations of Israel and Judah when they were briefly united under the house of David. According to the prophets, it is also not the territory which will be occupied by the Israel of the future.

There is some land in common, of course. Territory has been gained (the Negev and the Gaza Strip, for example). But when Israel lost the Transjordan to Assyria, it never got it back. Moreover, few modern Israelis are descended from the people who occupied the northern kingdom when Amos prophesied against it.

We understand the prophets more accurately when we correctly identify their intended audience. Let me take a stab at that.

Two Errors

This morning I came across a couple of paragraphs from John Oakes concerning the final three verses of Amos, which we are going to look at together today. I quote the relevant portions because they nicely illustrate two errors into which commentators on Amos tend to fall:

“This is a prophecy of God coming to bless his people after he has earlier judged them. Most likely he is referring to sending Judah into exile (Amos preaches to Judah) in Babylon.

What happened when Judah was sent into captivity in Babylon and later a remnant was set free and lived again in the Promised Land foreshadows our own captivity to sin and our being freed from sin by Jesus. We, too, are a blessed remnant of God. So, indirectly, Amos 9 is a prophecy of our being saved as a remnant from slavery to sin, but I believe it is a direct prophecy of the restoration from Babylon.”

Okay, that doesn’t work at all. Doubly even.

Error #1

First, we need to remind ourselves that Amos was a native of Judah sent by God to prophesy to Israel, a sister nation made up of ten tribes who had rebelled against the house of David over 150 years earlier, and who would shortly be taken captive by Assyria in three stages. This is stated plainly in the very first verse of the book (“which he [Amos] saw concerning Israel”). If I may be so bold, Israel is what the book is about. This Assyrian captivity took place roughly 130 years prior to the Babylonian captivity of Judah to which Mr. Oakes is referring. The two are very much distinct.

Amos starts, as you may recall, with two verses of judgment directed at the nation of Judah, along with similarly brief judgments directed at six other nearby nations. But from chapter 2 verse 6 on, virtually everything Amos has to say concerns the northern kingdom ruled at the time by Jeroboam II. If you have browsed even a few of the 38 instalments in this series to date, you will take my point.

Not only was the message given to Amos about Israel, it was also directed to Israel. The prophet plainly states this in chapter 5: “Thus says the Lord to the house of Israel: ‘Seek me and live.’ ” Then in chapter 7, an Israelite priest named Amaziah threatens Amos and tries to persuade him to return to Judah. Obviously he felt personally affronted by the word of the Lord, and his critique confirms that Amos delivered his messages from within the territory of Israel specifically to the people of Israel. He was not lobbing prophetic grenades across the border. Provided we read literally, when we come to chapter 9, verse 14 stands as a prophecy of Israel’s restoration, not Judah’s. The subject of the restoration of Judah is taken up by later prophets.

The word “Israel” is often used to encompass both Israel and Judah elsewhere in scripture, but in Amos it consistently refers to the ten northern tribes. The prophet mentions Israel a full 28 times prior to this, and the careful reader is never in any doubt what he means. For Amos, “Israel” is the land of which Jeroboam II is king, the land of the golden calves of Jeroboam I, and the land where you find the cities of Samaria, Bethel and Gilgal.

It would be exceedingly unlikely and utterly confusing to his original audience for Amos to suddenly change the meaning of “Israel” in the last three verses of his prophecy, either to include Judah or to make “Israel” signify something figurative rather than literal. We can dismiss that idea without further concern.

The real reason Mr. Oakes needs Amos to be talking about the nation of Judah is that we have the Old Testament record describing Judah’s post-exilic return to its own land and to the city of Jerusalem. To date, Israel and Samaria have experienced no such restoration. If these verses are not about Judah’s return, then they must either be about a future Israelite return (which Mr. Oakes rejects), or else about nothing literal at all.

Error #2

So, no, this portion of Amos is not about Judah. Equally, it is not about us. You will not find the church in these last few verses unless you are prepared to allegorize wildly. Matthew Henry does precisely this:

“Verses 13-15 may refer to the early times of Christianity, but will receive a more glorious fulfilment in the events which all the prophets more or less foretold, and may be understood of the happy state when the fulness both of the Jews and the Gentiles come into the church. Let us continue earnest in prayer for the fulfilment of these prophecies, in the peace, purity, and the beauty of the church.”

Prophetic scripture may be fulfilled spiritually or figuratively, but figurative fulfillments are generally in addition to the literal fulfillment. A spiritual fulfillment may eclipse a literal realization of the prophetic word, piling atop it like icing on an exquisitely-constructed cake, but I cannot think of any situation in which it indisputably abrogates a literal fulfillment and utterly cancels it out. If you know of one, please share.

Beautiful and aspirational as this may be, Henry’s is not remotely a literal interpretation, and his view of Amos’s prophecy does nothing for the audience to whom the words were first addressed. In fact, one wonders why Amos would have bothered including it at all. In this view, Amos leaves the ten tribes stranded in Assyria, from which they have since migrated all over the world, bereft of and disconnected from the blessings of God. Further, it grants those blessings to Israel’s sister nation and to a bunch of Gentiles whose relationship with Israel in times past was invariably hostile.

Presumably, large numbers of modern believers feel Israel belongs in exile, and that God has no further use for them. This is not the case. Thankfully, the Lord does not always give us what we deserve. He almost never does.

Amos 9:13-15 — A Nation Restored

“ ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,’ says the Lord your God.”

So just indulge me for one crazy moment. Suppose we take Amos literally: what would he be telling Israel?

What Literal Looks Like

Well, he would be telling them a time is coming many days in the future in which God will bring back the descendants of the Israelite exiles to the land God gave to Abraham. He would be telling them that these distant genetic relatives will erect physical structures to live in on the sites of their former cities, that they will plant real gardens and actual vineyards and enjoy the benefits thereof. He would be telling them that God will bless them to such an unimaginable extent that they will not be able to bring in all the food the land will bring forth before it will be time to be out breaking up the soil for the next growing season. He would be telling them that God will from that moment on protect them and watch over them, and that they will never again forfeit their inheritance and be lost among the nations.

He would be talking, in short, about the restoration of the ten “lost” tribes of Israel to blessing during the millennial reign of Christ on earth.

This is a perfectly logical explanation of the passage. Numerous prophecies of scripture have been fulfilled literally, and numerous more remain to be fulfilled. The only reason to reject the obvious interpretation of the passage is if your theological system excludes it. The words are certainly plain enough.

Other Prophecies of Restoration

Moreover, other prophets speak of this sort of literal, national restoration. Ezekiel 37 has a lengthy passage in which the prophet is instructed to take two sticks and write on one the name of “Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him” (acknowledging that there have been several times in history after the original split when small numbers from other tribes have associated themselves with Judah), and on the other “Joseph, and all the house of Israel associated with him” (distinguishing this first group of Israelites who joined with Judah and returned from Babylonian captivity with them only to be distributed across the world by the Romans in AD70 from a much larger group exiled by Assyria who have yet to return to the land). Ezekiel is told to join the sticks together into one. Then, God says to Ezekiel, “I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land.” Hosea speaks of a time when Israel, having dwelt many days without king or prince, will “return and seek their God, and David their king”.

Then there is Isaiah, who speaks of a time when “the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise a signal for the nations and will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”

What does “a second time” imply? That he has already brought a remnant back once.

Note that Israel and Judah are always distinct in these prophecies. Indeed, they have to be considered separately, or else any prediction of their future union is nonsense.

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