(8) Will the land not tremble because of this? And everyone living in it will mourn. All of it will go up like the Nile, and it will surge, and it will sink like the Nile of Egypt.
(9) And it will be in that day, Says the Lord Yahweh, I will cause the sun to set at noon, and I will darken the land at midday.
(10) I will turn your festivals into mourning and all your songs into dirges. I will put on every body sackcloth and on every head baldness. I will make it like the mourning over one’s only child and after it like a day of bitterness.
The second half of Amos chapter 8 again predicts terrible things for Israel, but don’t think that this is simply more of the same or that this passage is of purely historical importance. In fact, what this passage says about life and creation and their relationship to the Creator God are remarkably relevant to our own lives in our own time. Amos 8:8-14 tells us that joy, life, and existence itself are impossible without God, that trying to live without God will produce only suffering and disaster, because God is not simply the Creator but the sustainer of all that is. Without him, everything falls apart. But with him, the joy and life for which we were created are not only possible but inevitable.
This passage divides into three parts. The first, verses 8-10, describes an earthquake, cosmic disturbances in the form of the darkening of the sun, and the changing of Israel’s celebrations into bitter mourning. The second, verses 11-13, describes a famine not of food or drink but of hearing the words of Yahweh. The third part, verse 14, pronounces judgment on all those who participate in the religious apostasy that is connected to Samaria, Dan, and Beer-Sheba.
Verse 8 describes what appears to be an earthquake that causes an upheaval in the land similar in magnitude to the rise and fall of the Nile river. The Nile river famously floods yearly as a result of monsoon rains thousands of miles away at the Nile’s source in the Ethiopian highlands. This flooding was absolutely vital for ancient Egypt’s agriculture. It doesn’t rain hardly at all in Egypt, so the Egyptians would use the annual flooding to water their fields by constructing an elaborate set of dams, levees, and canals, to capture and manage the flood water. The flooding also brought nutrients from up river and deposited them in the soil on the banks of the Nile. This made the Egyptian soil extremely fertile, and even in Roman times Egypt was known for its soil’s fertility, being known as the breadbasket of Roman Empire. But this flood, as important as it was for Egypt, could be devastating, as well, as the magnitude of the flood could vary, and if it were too high, it could damage both the irrigation structures and even the villages that were built nearby. In northern Egypt, closer to the Nile Delta, flooding could reach up to around 25 feet. Further up the river to the south, the flooding could reach nearly 50 feet. Nowadays the effects of this yearly flood are managed by a series of dams and reservoirs which not only keep the flooding in moderation but also store water for irrigation in case of drought. But in the ancient world, the flooding of the Nile was practically a wonder of the world, and the image here in Amos, of all the earth being tossed up and down, whether physically or metaphorically, is a dramatic depiction of unimaginable disaster.
Verse 9 uses imagery which is relatively common in prophetic literature and in Revelation. The sun is darkened. Elsewhere in prophetic literature this image is often accompanied by others, such as the earthquake here, the moon turning blood red, fire from heaven, the stars falling from the sky, bodies of water turning to blood, etc. What immediately comes to mind is Joel 2:30-31, which is quoted again in Acts 2:19-20:
(30) I will produce wonders in the heavens and on the earth: blood and fire and pillars of smoke! (31) The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon to blood before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.
But if you look at the context in Joel, what is happening? God is protecting his people Israel. On the other hand, in Amos God is punishing Israel. This kind of thing happens more than once, where Joel uses an image or a phrase in the context of God’s provision and protection for his people against their enemies, whereas Amos uses almost the exact same image or phrase speaking against Israel. In fact, Amos is the odd one here, because generally when cosmic disturbance imagery appears, it is when God judges the nations and defends Israel. I guess ultimately that is what is so shocking about Amos – he is speaking concerning and against Israel the way it is more typical for the Bible to speak concerning and against the enemies of Israel. For example, Micah 3:6 speaks of the sun darkening as a way of punishing and humiliating the false prophets who had misled the Israelites. Isaiah 13:10 speaks of it in the context of the fall of Babylon, and Ezekiel 32:7 in the context of the destruction of Egypt. At least three times in Revelation the sun is darkened and the moon either darkened or turned to blood, but it is always in the context of God’s judgment on sinful humanity and the enemies of his people. So Amos’ use of this image is not typical in that he is speaking of the destruction of Israel.
Now, we could interpret the darkening of the sun in a naturalistic way as the darkening of the sky by the smoke produced by massive fires, presumably fires that are consuming Samaria and Israel’s other cities. As a picture of a city that has been taken in a siege, this image is pretty terrifying. But even if the darkening of the sky by clouds of smoke from burning buildings is a way that this image could be realized, it seems better to me to let the image have its full, almost hyperbolic power, and see in it the more cosmic level destruction being wrought by a judging God. And when we do that, what this kind of cosmic destruction really amounts to is the un-creation of the world – the reversal of creation. In Genesis 1, God creates light and then the sun, moon, and stars as containers or producers of light. On the other hand, when the sun is darkened that primary element of creation is undone.
In a sense, it says to people who are trying to live without the creator God, “You might as well try to live without the sun and moon, without the sky above you and the earth beneath you.” When you try to live without God, everything falls apart. You cannot have the sun and moon without the Creator, because he is not simply the one who creates all things. He is the one who sustains all things. All things that exist exist because he continues to support them with this will and his very existence. The sun being darkened isn’t a matter of God giving us things and then spitefully stripping them away simply because we aren’t playing by his rules.
It’s like the story of the scientists who came to God and said, “We’ve finally figured out how to make living creatures from dirt. Just like you did, we can take some dirt, form it into the shape of a creature, and then make that lump of dirt come alive. So, bottom line, we don’t really need you anymore.” God replied, “Oh, you don’t, do you? Okay. Well, I want to see this. Show me how you make a living creature completely without my help.” So the scientists stooped down and start scooping dirt into a pile. But God said, “Uh uh uh. Make your own dirt.” The point is this: existence itself is predicated upon the will and existence of the Creator God. Get rid of God, and the universe falls apart.
Verse 10 is actually saying the same thing but on a less cosmic level. What we see here is kind of the opposite of things we see in Isaiah 61:1-34:
The Spirit of the Lord Yahweh is on me, because Yahweh has anointed me. He has sent me to proclaim good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to those who are imprisoned, “The door is wide open”; to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn; to set up those who mourn in Zion, to give to them a turban in place of ashes, oil of gladness in place of mourning, a garment of praise in place of a faint spirit, and it will be said of them, “Oaks of righteousness, a planting of Yahweh so that he may glorify himself.”
A beautiful passage of restoration proclaimed to a broken world by the Holy Spirit. But what do we see in Amos? In place of festivals, mourning. In place of songs of joy, dirges. He will cover them in sackcloth – the garments of mourning. He will make sure every head is shaved in mourning. If the restoration of Isaiah 61 is, in a sense, God re-creating Israel spiritually, Amos shows us Israel’s un-creation. Again, this is simply the natural result of Israel trying to live joyfully without worshiping their God as God.
Humanity were created for joy. God created us to be joyful beings who were joyful in him. But when we try to do things without God at the center of it all, all our attempts at being joyful don’t result in joy, but in sorrow. We cannot live the lives we were created to live unless we live as created beings in joyful submission to our creator. God must be God. Jesus must be Lord. When the joy we were created to exist in is taken away because of our sin, it isn’t really a matter of God taking away something which we could still possess without him. When we reject God, when we displace him from the throne of our life, joy goes with him. It can be no other way, because he alone is the source of all joy.