The prophet Amos proclaimed God’s word against the nations surrounding Israel and Judah. When pronouncing judgment against Tyre and Gaza and Damascus and Edom, etc., those hearing him would have cheered. What person wouldn’t want to hear how angry God is with his enemies? If nothing else, hearing of God’s anger and judgment on those enemies affirms the animosity felt toward those enemies. But then Amos turns his focus onto Judah and Israel, and especially Israel.
“Thus says the LORD: ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted; a man and his father go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge, and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined.’” Amos 2:6–8 ESV
Amos uses the Ancient Near Eastern pattern of ‘not only this, but also that’ to highlight Israel’s sins. We know the ‘for three…and for four’ is idiomatic as he lists seven sins. Each of these seven is an oppression of the weak.
The righteous were sold for silver. By referencing those oppressed as ‘righteous’ Amos is indicating that the issue is money lenders were abusing those who had committed no wrong, but were unable to pay for their loans. The law of Moses regulated how Israel was to care for those in need. Instead of caring for them as people, they were being forced into slavery as a result of being unable to pay their debts. Even those with insignificant debts (‘the needy for a pair of sandals’) were being exploited instead of being given time to pay back what was owed—or better, have their insignificant debts forgiven.
The powerless were being abused and ‘trample[d]…into the dust of the earth’. Those with power, whether social or political, were humiliating those without. We don’t know the exact issue but it’s clear that the power imbalance was being used against the weak. The powerless were being ground into dust.
Those with power would ‘turn aside the way of the afflicted’. In 5:12 Amos uses this phrase to refer to court cases. Those with power easily manipulate and push around those without power, and often use the legal system to do so.
Amos mentions a man and his father going ‘in to the same girl’. Sexual abuse has been rampant throughout human history and female employees are especially at risk. Powerful and wealthy men have often used their resources—which they could easily withhold—to exploit those in particular need. In this case father and son are complicit in their evil exploitation of the weak.
Amos identifies two more ways in which the powerless were being exploited. He says they—the powerful—‘lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge’. The law of Moses required that when the destitute gave their clothing as collateral on a loan, that clothing had to be returned by nightfall as it would be the only thing keeping them warm at night (Exodus 22:25-27). Here the rich were sleeping next to altars on those garments, indicating they had not returned them. They took the garments in pledge and then went to a worship celebration of some sort, as if God would be impressed at their ability to exploit others. This mockery of right worship is further demonstrated as they would ‘drink the wine of those who have been fined’ at these worship festivals. If a civil fine were charged the guilty party could pay the fine with wine. Judges were using their civil power for their own gain, and doing so while worshiping God.
God’s response to these seven ways the powerful were exploiting the powerless was to remind them of what he had done for them all those centuries before.
‘Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorite before them, whose height was like the height of the cedars and who was as strong as the oaks; I destroyed his fruit above and his roots beneath. Also it was I who brought you up out of the land of Egypt and led you forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite.’ Amos 2:9–10 ESV
When Israel was powerless, God took down the powerful. He did this when he brought them out of Egypt and he did it again when he conquered the land of Canaan for them. Just as God had brought down the oppressor and fought for the oppressed, so should they. God’s anger was directed at the injustices perpetrated by the powerful. His anger was compounded by the fact that Israel had forgotten what it was to be oppressed and had become the oppressor. Rather than reflect the character of the God who had fought those who had exploited them in Egypt, they had begun reflecting the character of the very people who had exploited them. The oppressed had become the oppressor.
The simple truth is we must treat others as God has treated us. God has shown us mercy and grace and is patient with us. God seeks our good and desires that we begin to look and act like him. Not all of us are rich and powerful, yet each one of us has been given a measure of influence and social capital. We must use whatever resources God has given us to stand up for the weak and the powerless and to fight oppression. We do not stand against social injustices because it is the cool thing or because it is the current spirit of the age, but because God in Christ has rescued us from our oppression and fought for us when we were completely and utterly powerless. As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans,
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Romans 5:6 ESV
Let us use our influence to fight against injustice. Let us speak up for those being oppressed and harassed by the powerful. Let us care for the poor and protect the vulnerable among us. Let us show the world who our God is and what he is like. Let us fight for justice, for our God has done so for us.”