Amos, Bite-Sized Exegesis, Close Reading, Old Testament, Studying the Bible

The Lord GOD Has Spoken – Who Will Not Prophesy: Amos 3:3-8

Amos 3:3-8

(3) Will two walk together unless they have met by appointment?
(4) Will a lion roar in the forest if he has no prey?
Will a young lion make his voice heard from his den except he has captured something?
(5) Will a bird fall to a snare of the ground if there is no lure for it?
Will a snare spring up from the ground if it is not certainly capturing something?
(6) If a shofar is blown in the city will the people not tremble?
If there is calamity in the city, has the LORD not done it?
(7) For the Lord GOD will not do a thing unless he has revealed his counsel to his servants the prophets.
(8) The lion has roared – who will not be afraid?
The Lord GOD has spoken – who will not prophesy?

I’ve always found the rhetoric of these six verses difficult to follow, which also means I’ve had difficulty connecting them with the surrounding oracles. The first two verses of chapter 3 make a lot of sense: the reason God is paying special attention to Israel’s sins is because he has chosen them as his special possession and so has higher standards for them. They are his children to chastise, and he does so because he loves them. Similarly, the last six verses of chapter 3 (vv. 9-15) are pretty transparent in their meaning: disaster is coming on Samaria and Bethel for which wealth is no solution or refuge. But what do verses 3-8 add to Amos’ larger oracle against Israel?

A Bunch of Rhetorical Questions

First, as a whole the passage is made up almost entirely of rhetorical questions whose expected answer is “no”, or in the last verse, “no one.” At least in the southern United States (and this may extend beyond), it is not uncommon to answer a question with another, sometimes completely unrelated, question with an obvious answer (usually a “yes” answer). The implication is “of course” and often “the prospect excites me”. The answering question, more often than not, has something to do with agriculture and is an occasion for earthy humor.

Q: “Do you want some brisket?”
A: “Is water wet?”, “Does a hog love mud?”, etc.

The answer-question can be related to the original question in its subject matter, but really all that’s required in these situations is that the implied answer of the answer-question is the same (again, usually “yes”) as that of the original question.

What I have described as a feature of southern American conversation demonstrates the use of rhetorical questions to answer other questions, but it contrasts with Amos 3:3-8 in a couple of important ways. First, the implied answer of Amos’ questions is “no” rather than “yes.” Second, the subject matter of the rhetorical questions ends up being related to Amos’ larger message in this passage. He isn’t simply asking random questions with an obvious “no” answer.

Will two walk together unless they have met by appointment?

We might be tempted to just take this question as a rhetorical “no” and move on, but if we stop and listen to the question, what is the reality behind its scenario? We see two people walking together, and we presume that this didn’t happen by accident. Perhaps “travel” might be better here than “walk”. Certainly, it is possible that a person might be in the park or at the market, see a friend, and for a while the two walk together. But the scenario in this question is about two people traveling to a destination together intentionally. And such a thing does not happen unless there has been communication behind the scenes. That brings us to the main observation I want to make: these questions are all about hidden realities behind observable phenomena. Something observable always has some kind of unobserved communication or motivation behind it.

Will a lion roar in the forest if he has no prey? Will a young lion make his voice heard from his den except he has captured something?

Each sentence in the series is about a cause and effect. In verse 4, we have two sentences about lions roaring, something you might hear in the distance (up to 5 miles away) without seeing the lion itself (indeed, that is about as close as one would hope to come to a lion in the wild). Lions no longer inhabit the Middle East, but thousands of years ago, a cousin of the African lion, the Asiatic lion (of which there are only a few hundred left in the world in zoos and in India) populated the wild places of Israel, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Persia, and even up in Eastern Europe.

You’ll find a lot of different information online about exactly when and why lions roar. Apparently, the idea that lions roar as a part of the hunt is not commonly accepted by modern zoologists. However, it is undeniable that traditional ideas about the lion, going back thousands of years, is that a male lion uses his roar to incite panic in a herd and drive them into a trap set by the lionesses of the pride or even to paralyze the prey with fear. I suspect there is a great deal of truth to this depiction, even though it has been observed that African lions roar primarily to mark territory and communicate to other lions. Roaring as a part of hunting is certainly what Amos has in mind, at least in the first sentence. When a lion roared, it was thought, he had done so because he had prey certainly within his grasp. The second sentence may have more to do with the territoriality of the lion: he might roar from his den to warn off other lions especially when he had a fresh kill.

These two different scenarios actually can affect the relationship between the first and second clauses in each sentence. While the second can be paraphrased, “Will a young lion roar from his den for no reason?”, the first could be paraphrased, “Will a lion roar to no effect?”. In other words, understood this way cause and effect swap places. In the first sentence, cause and effect are: “If a lion has roared, it will capture prey.” But in the second sentence, cause and effect are: “If a lion has a fresh kill in his den, it will roar.”

Regardless of the possible transposition of cause and effect, the point of the sentences is this: when you hear a lion roar, there is a hidden reality behind this observable phenomenon (the same significance as verse 3). Secondly, though, verse 4 introduces the image of predator and prey, which we need to take with us into the following verses. And we might already suspect that God is being compared to a lion, since Amos opens up in 1:2 “The LORD from Zion roars, and from Jerusalem he makes his voice heard” – the same verbs as what he have in 3:4.

Will a bird fall to a snare of the ground if there is no lure for it? Will a snare spring up from the ground if it is not certainly capturing something?

Again we have a predator/prey image, but one that focuses this time on the prey. A bird falls into a ground-based net trap because it has been attracted by bait. A trap springs up when something is present to trigger the trap. Again, a hidden reality (bait, the bird) exists behind an observable phenomenon (a bird falling into a trap, a trap springing up).

It is possible in verse 5, as in verse 4, that the cause and effect transpose from sentence to sentence. “Will a bird be caught in a ground-based trap for no reason?”, but “Will a trap spring up to no effect?” If we understand the second sentence in this way, the idea is that if a trap springs up, you know that it will catch something. I think this is the best understanding of the last clause based on the sentence structure: wəlākôd lōʾ yilkôd. Literally, it means “and capturing it will not capture/is not capturing”. But this is a negated rendition of a common emphatic structure with a nuance that Joüon and Muraoka call “Affirmation” – infinitive construct followed by a finite verb. A smoother English translation in the interrogative mood would be “will it not certainly capture” or “is it not certainly capturing?” And translating in the present progressive or future tense seems most appropriate since the finite verb here is in the prefix conjugation (or Imperfect). Bottom line, the hidden reality (the bird being present in the trap) lies behind the observable phenomenon (the trap springing), either as the cause or as the inescapable effect.

If a shofar is blown in the city will the people not tremble? If there is calamity in the city, has the LORD not done it?

If we bring the predator/prey and bird trapper imagery into this verse, suddenly things begin to come together. The shofar is like the roar of a lion, paralyzing his prey. It is the observable manifestation of the springing of a trap, when no hope remains for the caught bird. And it is for this reason that the people tremble in fear. The second sentence makes explicit the identification of the LORD as the predator: if calamity comes on a city (the observable phenomenon), the LORD is the one who has done it (hidden reality). Again here, as in the previous two verses, there is a transposition of cause and effect: “Will a shofar be blown to no effect?” “Will calamity come on a city for no reason?”

So far, the message is that the people of Israel are like the stray sheep that hears the roar of a lion and is paralyzed in fear, because once you hear the roar of the lion it is too late. The calamity that is coming on Samaria is like the trap that springs up when it has a bird in its grip, and there is no escape from this trap. Why? Because it is the LORD who has sprung it. The images all come together as an affirmation of the absolute sovereignty of God and the inescapability of his judgment.

The Nature and Purpose of Prophecy

For the Lord GOD will not do a thing unless he has revealed his counsel to his servants the prophets.

Verse 7 is a hinge verse, and it imbues this passage with a new potential for meaning. Hitherto, the passage has been only about the inescapability of God’s judgment. Now, however, the passage becomes a window into the prophet’s own understanding of himself as a prophet and of the place of prophecy in God’s plan. We are still dealing with observable phenomena and hidden realities or communications. At first it would appear that the observable phenomena are the coming judgments. The hidden reality, God’s working behind the scenes to set the trap and spring it, are what the prophet sees that most people do not see, the appointment that enables two people to meet together in order to travel together. To prophecy, then, is to be privy to the hidden counsel of God. If this is the case, the prophet’s message is a message of warning: don’t wait until it is too late to repent, because the lion is approaching, the trap is being set and is about to spring up. But the last verse adds a new nuance and ambiguity.

The lion has roared – who will not be afraid? The Lord GOD has spoken – who will not prophesy?

Whereas in the preceding verse, the counsel of God is the hidden reality that the prophet has some insight into, now God’s articulation of his plans, which produces prophecy, are compared to the observable phenomenon part of the preceding comparisons: the roar of the lion, which produces paralyzing terror. In preceding imagery, once the observable phenomena have occurred – the lion’s roar, the springing up of the trap, the sounding of the shofar – it is too late to avoid the hidden reality. Taken together, the two last verses of this passage set up a tension. We are left asking: is it too late for Israel, or not? Is Amos’ prophecy a warning or is it an announcement of a coming calamity that is now inescapable.

The passage as a whole tells us about the nature of prophecy and its relationship to the activity of God. God makes his mind and will known to humanity through his prophets. They are the voice by which humanity hear God’s warnings and instructions. They do not make things happen, they merely report what the LORD has already decreed. And, as far as Amos is concerned, to prophesy in response to God’s roar is practically involuntary. It reminds me of Jeremiah 20:9:

If I say, I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

Jeremiah’s confession is this: what the LORD’s prophets speak, they speak from the abundance of the Holy Spirit, not from their own mind or wrath or righteous indignation or ambition. Jeremiah would be silent if he could, but he cannot. While Amos does not say it in so many words, you get the impression that this is the way he feels, as well. He does not identify with a school of prophets, but he feels irresistibly called to speak the mind of God. When the priest Amaziah tells him to go prophecy somewhere else, Amos says in 7:14-15:

I am not a prophet, and I am not the son of a prophet, for I am a herdsman and a tender of Sycamore figs. But the LORD took me from following the sheep, and the LORD said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people, Israel.”

As with Jeremiah, there is at least a pretense of irresistible spiritual compulsion. In other words, in Amos 3:8, Amos is saying, “I don’t take any great pleasure in declaring these terrible things over you, Israel. But the LORD has spoken, and I cannot help but prophesy to you.” So Amos tells us that prophecy is not an unintended by-product of God’s actions – God specifically raises up and sends prophets who, in a sense, cannot help but prophesy even if they wanted to resist.

So we return to the question of whether Amos’ oracle is a warning or a proclamation of inescapable disaster. Because of God’s activity and intentionality in raising up and sending prophets, the fact that God speaks at all implies that God wants his will to be known. God could simply bring about judgment without telling anyone about it. There is no rule of the universe that compels God to send prophets. So why might he want his will to be known? The obvious answer is to bring about repentance so that he might change his mind and save the people. If God didn’t want to save the people, he wouldn’t send prophets. Even when the prophets don’t explicitly deliver a message of mercy, there is an implied message of mercy.

The story of Jonah is instructive here. Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh says nothing of repentance. He simply says, “40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Then the citizens of Nineveh repent, and God relents from his punishment. So even though he says in Amos 1-2 “for three crimes of X and for four I will not turn back the punishment”, this really is hyperbole. If God were not interested in repentance, he wouldn’t have this strategy of speaking to his prophets. Here’s the bottom line: according to Amos: the purpose of prophecy is to bring about repentance, reconciliation, and righteousness, to prevent the wrath of God. It is not to bring about the wrath of God. So the reason for the tension set up by the last two verses – is the coming calamity inescapable or isn’t it – is this: judgment has been decreed and it is inescapable, but if Israel were to repent God might change his mind. In a way, then, Amos’ prophecy is like the invitation to walk together that must have preceded the observable phenomenon in verse three. Though this comparison is not explicitly stated in the passage, it seems to me a natural way to bring all the rhetorical questions of Amos 3:3-8 together into a coherent message of both judgment and mercy.

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The Lord GOD Has Spoken – Who Will Not Prophesy: Amos 3:3-8
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The Lord GOD Has Spoken – Who Will Not Prophesy: Amos 3:3-8
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In Amos 3:3-8, the prophet uses a series of rhetorical questions to deliver a warning to Israel about the inescapability of God's coming judgment. But he also tells us about prophecy itself - that it carries with it an implied invitation to repent and be saved from the otherwise inescapable judgment.
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Bite-Sized Exegesis
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