A Targeted Judgment
(9:1) I saw the Lord stationing himself at the altar, and he said, “Strike the [column’s] capital, and let the thresholds shake, and break them off on the heads of all of them, and those who are left I will kill with the sword. No fugitive among them shall [be able to] flee, and no escapee among them shall escape.
Here now is one final vision in the book of Amos: Amos sees God himself taking a stand at the altar of some cult site. He declares the destruction of the entrance of a temple. “Strike the capital”, he says, meaning the capital or uppermost segment of a column. The entrances to the holy place of Israelite temples, like Solomon’s temple and the Second Temple later on, were probably marked by two monumental columns, one on either side of the entrance. Similarly, the boundary between the common area and the holy place in Egyptian temples were marked by a monumental entrance between two towers.
It seems to me that this is another prophecy about the earthquake that we know occurred not long after Amos’ prophetic activity. I read Amos 8:8 as itself also a reference to this earthquake: “Will not the whole earth tremble because of this?” But here the focus is more specifically on Israel, and, in the context of 8:14, on the cult centers of Israel. The Lord stations himself at the altars of Samaria, Dan, and Beer-Sheba (probably also including, by implication, Bethel, Gilgal, and Shiloh) and then declares destruction will come upon local temple structures. The capitals of their columns will break off and fall on the heads of the priests and worshipers, presumably as a result of the coming earthquake. God then says that any who survive the earthquake’s destruction he will kill by the sword. There will be no lasting escape from the judgment of God.
I see here a continuation of the idea we encountered in chapter 7, that God’s judgment would be a targeted judgment rather than an indiscriminate one that would punish all people equally. By bringing judgment on the cult centers of Israel, God targets those who are worshiping foreign deities. That this judgment is targeted specifically at the rebellious Israelites is explicitly verified further down in verse 8.
Notice that God says, “those who are left I will kill with the sword.” There is no attempt to dance around God’s sovereignty or direct responsibility in the deaths of rebellious Israelites. I suspect we would be more comfortable with a passive voice here: “Those who are left will be killed with the sword.” By leaving the subject undeclared, we would leave room for us to try to wriggle out, on God’s behalf, of God’s direct responsibility in bringing about the deaths of human beings. “God didn’t really do it. He just allowed it to happen.” But that’s not what the text says. God says, “I will kill with the sword,” so it’s clear that God isn’t as squeamish as we are about him bearing the responsibility for the deaths of the Israelites.
Some Things Are Worse Than Death
(2) If they dig down to Sheol, from there my hand shall take them. And if they ascend to the heavens, from there I will bring them down.
Several times in this series on Amos I have detected hints of Deuteronomy, especially the later chapters. Amos 9:2 calls to mind, yet again, Deuteronomy 30:11-14, except, as in Romans 10:7, the horizontal direction (going across the sea) is replaced with a vertical direction (descending). This change of direction is also found in Targum Neofiti’s version of Deuteronomy 30:11-14, where “Who will go across the sea?” is changed into “Who will descend into the depths of the Great Sea?” In Amos, however, instead of seeking (unnecessarily) for further revelation, here they are trying to escape the revelation of God in his wrath.
Amos 9:2 also brings to mind Psalm 139:8 (“If I ascend into the heavens, there you are; and if I lie down in Sheol, behold you are there.”), where the subject is the futility of trying to flee from Yahweh, but the larger context is a worshipful reflection on God’s omniscience and omnipresence. In other words, God is not the enemy in Psalm 139. In Amos 9:2, however, the vertical movements, to the heavens and to Sheol, are performed in a vain attempt to escape from the wrath of God. Unlike Psalm 139, in Amos God is the enemy.
What does it mean to “dig down to Sheol” as a means of trying to escape God’s wrath? Sheol is not so much a physical place as a spiritual one. As a physical place, it means “the grave”, meaning it is a physical place exclusively for the dead. In Psalm 139:8, to “lie down in Sheol” probably means to die and be buried. If the living dig down into the earth, it wouldn’t usually be called Sheol. It might be called the depths of the earth, or beneath the earth, but “Sheol” sounds odd.
Now, certainly, in Greek legends heroes were known to descend into Hades while still alive. Hades was a physical place to which one could go, at least in legends and stories. So maybe Sheol is being envisioned as a physical place, like Hades, to which one could theoretically go but only under extraordinary circumstances, so that this ends up being hyperbolic. “If it were possible to go down to Sheol while alive, even there you could not escape me. I would find you and bring you back up.”
However, it seems to me that this idea of digging down to Sheol to escape God might be a way of talking about trying to escape God’s wrath in death. What would that mean? Why would someone try to escape God’s wrath by dying? The biblical answer is that there are things that are worse than death. When a biblical character commits suicide, such as Ahithophel in 2 Samuel 17:23, or requests someone else to kill them, such as Saul in 1 Samuel 31:4, Abimelech in Judges 9:54, or even Samson in Judges 16:30, it is because they deem death to be superior to continuing to live under the circumstances that have come about. The death of Josiah at the hand of Pharaoh Necco in 2 Kings 23:29 might seem to be a terrible and shameful end – certainly not a peaceful death – but a chapter earlier in 2 Kings 22:20 the prophetess Huldah tells Josiah that because of his humility and faithfulness Yahweh will allow him to die and be buried in peace and not have to witness the terrible judgment that God was going to bring on Judah. Huldah has not given a false prophecy. Given that judgment was definitely coming on Judah regardless of Josiah’s faithfulness, to live much longer would have been worse than a needless death in battle. Had he lived a few more years, he would have had to witness the destruction of the Temple, the Babylonians taking into captivity much of his people, perhaps even the death of his sons in front of his very eyes, as was the fate of the last king of Judah, Zedekiah. I think Zedekiah would much rather have died – he would rather have escaped to Sheol – than to suffer the judgment of God.
Other texts speak of preferring death to a life of suffering. In Job 3:20-21, Job says, “Why does he give light to the sufferer, and life to one who is bitter of soul, those waiting to die and it does not come, and those digging for it more than they do for hidden treasures?” In fact, Job’s desire to die rather than live with the suffering he has endured, also expressed as a wish that he had never been born, is the original point of contention between Job and his friends. His friends scold Job for saying he wishes he could die, because this wish calls God’s righteousness into question. But Job doesn’t back down. Instead he doubles down. “Oh that you would hide me in Sheol!”, Job says in Job 14:13, a place where Job seems to speculate about the possibility of a resurrection but ultimately seems to dismiss the idea as vain fantasy. Job cannot bring himself to end his own life. Apparently there is a stigma attached to such an act. Perhaps it is felt to be sinfully presumptuous – only God has the authority to end a human life. So he is left merely wishing that God would go ahead and end him rather than forcing him to live through so much suffering for reasons he cannot understand. Job was living through something he felt was worse than death.
Revelation 9:6 likewise says, “In those days men will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die and death will flee from them.” The context is the judgment of God that comes with the fifth trumpet. The abyss is opened up and from it comes smoke and locusts who attack the people of the earth and sting them like scorpions. I think this image is figurative rather than literal, but the idea of widespread suffering rather than enduring which one would prefer to die is the point of contact between the literary figure and reality, and it ties Revelation 9 and Amos 9 together thematically.
The other side of this verse, “if they ascend to the heavens”, has to do possibly with escaping through exaltation, through one’s wealth and power. That’s what the Tower of Babel is all about: accruing wealth and power and, through them, security independent of any reliance on God. To ascend to the heavens in an effort to escape the judgment of God is to try to hunker down in the mighty fortress of your own wealth and power. But God says no matter how wealthy or powerful you think you are, there will be no escape from his judgment.
A Recapitulation and an Intensification
(3) And if they hide at the top of Carmel, from there I will seek them out and take them. And if they conceal themselves from sight on the floor of the sea, from there I will bring out the serpent and he will bite them.
The theme continues with more earthly sites, again with a vertical contrast. This chapter has a lot of points of contact with earlier portions of Amos. We could describe Amos 9 as a “recapitulation”, because I think there is a particularly high concentration of similarities with earlier passages for the point of bringing the book to a climax and of tying the whole book’s message together into a compact form. The mention of Carmel recalls Amos 1:2 – “Yahweh from Zion roars, and from Jerusalem he makes his voice heard. The fields of the shepherds mourn, and the top of Carmel withers.” When the Lord roars in judgment, you cannot escape the coming judgment by hiding at on top of Mount Carmel, because even the top of Carmel withers at the sound of his voice.
Nor can you hide on the floor of the sea, because while you may escape one threat, God will bring another one to strike you down. Whatever you successfully hide from won’t exhaust all of God’s resources. This recapitulates the idea from Amos 5:19, where Amos describes the coming destruction as being like running from a lion only to encounter a bear, then escaping into a house only to be bitten by a snake, a nahash. Both the words for “snake” and for “bite” in 5:19 are the same as those here in 9:3. If you were able to hide at the bottom of the sea, you wouldn’t be safe, because God would bring out a serpent who would bite you. Perhaps this serpent is a primordial sea serpent, a kind of being ancients may have thought actually existed in the depths of the sea and over which God claims authority in the famous Leviathan passage of Job 41. Otherwise it could simply be a poisonous snake imagined to live in the depths of the earth or even a Mediterranean Moray Eel, whose bite can be dangerous for humans because of their slimy skin, which is mildly toxic.
(4) And if they go into exile before their enemies, from there I will bring out the sword and it will kill them. I will put my eye on them for evil and not for good.
They cannot escape even by peacefully going with their enemies into captivity. Now this is talking about the people of the northern kingdom of Israel, and specifically the wealthy and powerful elite of the northern kingdom. One hundred thirty years later, God actually allowed some of the leading citizens of the southern kingdom of Judah to go into exile in Babylon peacefully. First, he told them that they could either die by resisting the Babylonians or submit to their yoke of bondage and survive. Then, a little later, Jeremiah specifically advocates enduring exile peacefully in Jeremiah 29. In a letter to those who were taken into exile before the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah says:
Thus says Yahweh Tsebaoth, God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Build houses and live in them. Plants gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, and let them have sons and daughters there. Become numerous and do not dwindle. Seek the well being of the city where I have exiled you. Pray on its behalf to Yahweh, for in its well being will be your well being, as well. For thus says Yahweh Tsebaoth, God of Israel: do not let the prophets among you or those who practice divination deceive you. Do not listen to your dreams which you yourselves are causing to be dreamed. For it is in deception that they are prophesying to you in my name. I did not send them, says Yahweh. For thus says Yahweh, when the seventy years for Babylon have been fulfilled, I will visit you and I will fulfill over you my good word to return you to this place [meaning Jerusalem – God is speaking, in a sense, from Jerusalem]. For I know the plans which I have planned over you, says Yahweh, plans of well being and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
The Judahites who rebelled against Babylon, led by king Zedekiah, suffered greatly and were slaughtered by the Babylonians. On the other hand, the Judahites who went into captivity ended up living lives in Babylon that were so blessed that many chose not to return to the land of Israel when they had the opportunity to do so. But this was not an option for the sinful inhabitants of Israel. For them, there was no technicality that would preserve them from destruction. Death and destruction would come upon them wherever they went.
This is a development from passages from earlier in the book of Amos where the prophet says that the Israelites will go into exile. Amos 4:2-3; 5:5, 26-27; 6:7; and 7:17 all talk about Israelites going into exile. Now God is saying, “You won’t even be able to go into captivity peacefully. Destruction will find you even then.”