To estimate the prophets’ message we must consider something of the times in which they lived and the circumstances under which they spoke. Let us do so in the case of the prophet Amos, from whose writings our lessons for to-day are taken. You will notice as you study the prophetical Books of the Old Testament that in almost every case the writing opens with a short description of the writer and precise mention of the time during which his witness was given.
I. The prophet Amos.—The Book of Amos opens with these words: ‘The words of Amos, who was among the herdmen of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah King of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash King of Israel, two years before the earthquake.’ We learn here one or two interesting particulars. In the first place, Amos was of humble origin. He had not been brought up in the stir and bustle of town life, but away on the open downs and pastures which stretch to the south of Jerusalem, where he had tended his flocks and pruned his sycamore trees, far from the haunts of men, his experience of towns confined probably to the yearly journey to one of the markets of the land to sell his wool and dispose of his fruit; and so there he appeared, a mere yokel, in the midst of the festival of Bethel, and was roughly bidden by Amaziah to go about his business. God has His own way of preparing His servants for their work, and Amos is not the only prophet who was in the deserts until the day of his showing unto Israel. There, in the unmitigated wilderness, as a graphic writer calls it, where life is reduced to poverty and danger, where Nature starves the imagination but excites the faculties of perception and curiosity, with the mountain tops, the sunrise, in his face, but, above all, with Jerusalem so near, Amos heard the Voice calling him to be a prophet, and gathered those symbols and figures in which his prophet’s message reaches us with so fresh and so austere an air. The time of his message was the latter part, probably, of the reign of the namesake of the founder of the kingdom, Jeroboam, the second of whom it is said that ‘he departed not from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin.’ In Amos, therefore, as most critics agree, we have the earliest recorded voice of prophecy.
II. To whom he spoke.—Now let us try for a moment to estimate the state of society in Israel in the reign of Jeroboam II. The record of his time is in the fourteenth chapter of the second Book of Kings. It was a time of singular prosperity. But prosperity and security brought, as is too often the case, grave evils in their train, and the pages of the prophet disclose a state of society very different from the old. The primitive simplicity had disappeared, and luxury, oppression, and vice were abounding. Partly for defence and partly for pleasure, society was congregating in the towns. Agriculture was being displaced by commerce, and rural simplicity was giving way to the dangers and conventionalities of city life. The rich were conspicuous for their luxury. Public and private virtues alike had decayed, and, engrossed with their own pleasures, the individuals showed a callous indifference to the moral ruin of their country. ‘They are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph,’ says the prophet. If the outward ordinances of religion were scrupulously observed, there was no heart worship. They sought evil and not good. Now into such a state of society Amos comes, an unwelcome intruder doubtless, even a despised personality, whose countrified aspect would provoke a smile, but burdened with a message from Jehovah, which he is bold to deliver. In the first place, he rudely dispels the fond idea which Israel hugged in its national pride that to the favoured nation of Jehovah no harm could happen. ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities.’ Such is his startling and almost paradoxical message, and then, in a series of simple figures, drawn from his desert life and shepherd experience, he strives to gain the ear of the people for himself. Having rebuked their self-delusion, he goes on to predict the coming judgment, and in clear terms he lays down what God requires of them.
III. The message and our own times.—The writings of the prophets have a function to discharge and a moral to convey to the twentieth century. Recognise, it has been said, that the fundamental meaning of the prophecies must be that which they bore to the living generation to whom they were first addressed, and you are at once inspired by their message to the men of your own time. Yes, and how history repeats itself in the circumstances of our time! The dangers and temptations of city life, as agriculture gives place to commerce, the snare of luxury, the deadening influence of a mere pleasure-seeking existence, the falling away from the simple life, the pride of national prosperity, the bitter cry of the poor, the delusion of a worship which is merely ceremonial, are not all these things with us to-day, and do they not form a menace not only to national righteousness and justice and purity, but also to that real personal religion, to that seeking the Lord through Him Who is the Light and to Whom the Old Testament witnesses, and Whom the New Testament reveals? Are there none here who feel anxious, sometimes, as to the future of their country, none who have ever grieved over the sins of our age in the great cities of the world, the insensate luxury, the commercial immorality, the unchastity, the callousness; dark stains on her nominal Christianity? Are there none who fear lest God might say, ‘Shall I not visit for these things, shall not My soul be avenged on such a nation as this?’ We need a prophet’s voice, backed by a prophet’s power. ‘Seek the Lord and ye shall live. Seek good and not evil. Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.’ We need the power which came in another, a much later prophet’s vision, when upon the dry bones lying white and bare in the valley the quickening breath of God came, vivifying them into life and activity.