« Prev 1. The Man and His Discipline. Next »

1. The Man and His Discipline.

Amos i. 1; iii. 3-8; vii. 14, 15.

When charged at the crisis of his career with being but a hireling-prophet, Amos disclaimed the official74 name and took his stand upon his work as a man: No prophet I, nor prophet's son, but a herdsman and a dresser of sycomores. Jehovah took me from behind the flock.131131   Amos vii. 14. See further pp. 76 f. We shall enhance our appreciation of this manhood, and of the new order of prophecy which it asserted, if we look for a little at the soil on which it was so bravely nourished.

Six miles south from Bethlehem, as Bethlehem is six from Jerusalem, there rises on the edge of the Judæan plateau, towards the desert, a commanding hill, the ruins on which are still known by the name of Teḳôa'.132132   Khurbet Taḳûa', Hebrew Teḳôa', תְּקֹוע, from תקע, to blow a trumpet (cf. Jer. vi. 1, Blow the trumpet in Tekoa) or to pitch a tent. The latter seems the more probable derivation of the name, and suggests a nomadic origin, which agrees with the position of Tekoa on the borders of the desert. Tekoa does not occur in the list of the towns taken by Joshua. There are really no reasons for supposing that some other Tekoa is meant. The two that have been alleged are (1) that Amos exclusively refers to the Northern Kingdom, (2) that sycomores do not grow at such levels as Tekoa. These are dealt with on pp. 79 and 77 respectively.

In the time of Amos Tekoa was a place without sanctity and almost without tradition. The name suggests that the site may at first have been that of a camp. Its fortification by Rehoboam, and the mission of its wise woman to David, are its only previous appearances in history. Nor had nature been less grudging to it than fame. The men of Tekoa looked out upon a desolate and haggard world. South, west and north the view is barred by a range of limestone hills, on one of which directly north the grey towers of Jerusalem are hardly to be discerned from the grey mountain lines. Eastward the prospect is still more desolate, but it is open; the land slopes away for nearly eighteen75 miles to a depth of four thousand feet. Of this long descent, the first step, lying immediately below the hill of Tekoa, is a shelf of stony moorland with the ruins of vineyards. It is the lowest ledge of the settled life of Judæa. The eastern edge drops suddenly by broken rocks to slopes spotted with bushes of "retem," the broom of the desert, and with patches of poor wheat. From the foot of the slopes the land rolls away in a maze of low hills and shallow dales, that flush green in spring, but for the rest of the year are brown with withered grass and scrub. This is the Wilderness or Pastureland of Tekoa,133133   2 Chron. xx. 20. across which by night the wild beasts howl, and by day the blackened sites of deserted camps, with the loose cairns that mark the nomads' graves, reveal a human life almost as vagabond and nameless as that of the beasts. Beyond the rolling land is Jeshimon, or Devastation—a chaos of hills, none of whose ragged crests are tossed as high as the shelf of Tekoa, while their flanks shudder down some further thousands of feet, by crumbling precipices and corries choked with debris, to the coast of the Dead Sea. The northern half of this is visible, bright blue against the red wall of Moab, and the level top of the wall, broken only by the valley of the Arnon, constitutes the horizon. Except for the blue water—which shines in its gap between the torn hills like a bit of sky through rifted clouds—it is a very dreary world. Yet the sun breaks over it, perhaps all the more gloriously; mists, rising from the sea simmering in its great vat, drape the nakedness of the desert noon; and through the dry desert night the planets ride with a majesty they cannot assume in our more troubled atmospheres.76 It is also a very empty and a very silent world, yet every stir of life upon it excites, therefore, the greater vigilance, and man's faculties, relieved from the rush and confusion of events, form the instinct of marking, and reflecting upon, every single phenomenon. And it is a very savage world. Across it all, the towers of Jerusalem give the only signal of the spirit, the one token that man has a history.

Upon this unmitigated wilderness, 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 and the sunrise in his face, but above all with Jerusalem so near,—Amos did the work which made him a man, heard the voice of God calling him to be a prophet, and gathered those symbols and figures in which his prophet's message still reaches us with so fresh and so austere an air.

Amos was among the shepherds of Tekoa. The word for shepherd is unusual, and means the herdsman of a peculiar breed of desert sheep, still under the same name prized in Arabia for the excellence of their wool.134134   נֹקֵד, nôḳêd, is doubtless the same as the Arabic "naḳḳâd," or keeper of the "naḳad," defined by Freytag as a short-legged and deformed race of sheep in the Bahrein province of Arabia, from which comes the proverb "viler than a naḳad"; yet the wool is very fine. The king of Moab is called נוֹקֵד in 2 Kings iii. 4 (A.V. sheep-master). In vii. 14 Amos calls himself בּוֹקֵר, cattleman, which there is no reason to alter, as some do, to נֹוקֵד. And he was a dresser of sycomores. The tree, which is not our sycamore, is very easily grown in sandy soil with a little water. It reaches a great height and mass of foliage. The fruit is like a small fig, with a sweet but watery taste, and is eaten only by the poor.77 Born not of the fresh twigs, but of the trunk and older branches, the sluggish lumps are provoked to ripen by pinching or bruising, which seems to be the literal meaning of the term that Amos uses of himself—a pincher of sycomores.135135   בֹּולֵס, bôlês, probably from a root (found in Æthiopic) balas, a fig; hence one who had to do with figs, handled them, ripened them. The sycomore does not grow at so high a level as Tekoa;136136   The Egyptian sycomore, Ficus sycomorus, is not found in Syria above one thousand feet above the sea, while Tekoa is more than twice as high as that. Cf. 1 Kings x. 27, the sycomores that are in the vale or valley land, עֵמֶק; 1 Chron. xxvii. 28, the sycomores that are in the low plains. "The sycamore grows in sand on the edge of the desert as vigorously as in the midst of a well-watered country. Its roots go deep in search of water, which infiltrates as far as the gorges of the hills, and they absorb it freely even where drought seems to reign supreme" (Maspero on the Egyptian sycomore; The Dawn of Civilization, translated by McClure, p. 26). "Everywhere on the confines of cultivated ground, and even at some distance from the valley, are fine single sycamores flourishing as though by miracle amid the sand.... They drink from water, which has infiltrated from the Nile, and whose existence is nowise betrayed upon the surface of the soil" (ib., 121). Always and still reverenced by Moslem and Christian. and this fact, taken along with the limitation of the ministry of Amos to the Northern Kingdom, has been held to prove that he was originally an Ephraimite, a sycomore-dresser, who had migrated and settled down, as the peculiar phrase of the title says, among the shepherds of Tekoa.137137   So practically Oort (Th. Tjidsch., 1891, 121 ff.), when compelled to abandon his previous conclusion (ib., 1880, 122 ff.) that the Tekoa of Amos lay in Northern Israel. We shall presently see, however, that his familiarity with life in Northern Israel may easily have been won in other ways than through citizenship in that kingdom; while the very general nature of the definition, among the shepherds of Tekoa, does not oblige us to place78 either him or his sycomores so high as the village itself. The most easterly township of Judæa, Tekoa commanded the whole of the wilderness beyond, to which indeed it gave its name, the wilderness of Tekoa. The shepherds of Tekoa were therefore, in all probability, scattered across the whole region down to the oases on the coast of the Dead Sea, which have generally been owned by one or other of the settled communities in the hill-country above, and may at that time have belonged to Tekoa, just as in Crusading times they belonged to the monks of Hebron, or are to-day cultivated by the Rushaideh Arabs, who pitch their camps not far from Tekoa itself. As you will still find everywhere on the borders of the Syrian desert shepherds nourishing a few fruit-trees round the chief well of their pasture, in order to vary their milk diet, so in some low oasis in the wilderness of Judæa Amos cultivated the poorest, but the most easily grown of fruits, the sycomore.138138   In 1891 we met the Rushaideh, who cultivate Engedi, encamped just below Tekoa. But at other parts of the borders between the hill-country of Judæa and the desert, and between Moab and the desert, we found round most of the herdsmen's central wells a few fig-trees or pomegranates, or even apricots occasionally. All this pushes Amos and his dwarf sheep deeper into the desert, and emphasises what has been said above, and still remains to be illustrated, of the desert's influence on his discipline as a man and on his speech as a prophet. We ought to remember that in the same desert another prophet was bred, who was also the pioneer of a new dispensation, and whose ministry, both in its strength and its limitations, is much recalled by the ministry of Amos. John the son of Zacharias grew79 and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.139139   Luke i. 80. Here, too, our Lord was with the wild beasts.140140   Mark i. 18. How much Amos had been with them may be seen from many of his metaphors. The lion roareth, who shall not fear?... As when the shepherd rescueth from the mouth of the lion two shin-bones or a bit of an ear.... It shall be as when one is fleeing from a lion, and a bear cometh upon him; and he entereth a house, and leaneth his hand on the wall, and a serpent biteth him.

As a wool-grower, however, Amos must have had his yearly journeys among the markets of the land; and to such were probably due his opportunities of familiarity with Northern Israel, the originals of his vivid pictures of her town-life, her commerce and the worship at her great sanctuaries. One hour westward from Tekoa would bring him to the high-road between Hebron and the North, with its troops of pilgrims passing to Beersheba.141141   v. 5; viii. 14. It was but half-an-hour more to the watershed and an open view of the Philistine plain. Bethlehem was only six, Jerusalem twelve miles from Tekoa. Ten miles farther, across the border of Israel, lay Bethel with its temple, seven miles farther Gilgal, and twenty miles farther still Samaria the capital, in all but two days' journey from Tekoa. These had markets as well as shrines;142142   See p. 36. their annual festivals would be also great fairs. It is certain that Amos visited them; it is even possible that he went to Damascus, in which the Israelites had at the time their own quarters for trading. By road and market he would meet with men of other lands. Phœnician pedlars, or Canaanites as they were called,80 came up to buy the homespun for which the housewives of Israel were famed143143   Prov. xxxi. 24.—hard-faced men who were also willing to purchase slaves, and haunted even the battle-fields of their neighbours for this sinister purpose. Men of Moab, at the time subject to Israel; Aramean hostages; Philistines who held the export trade to Egypt,—these Amos must have met and may have talked with; their dialects scarcely differed from his own. It is no distant, desert echo of life which we hear in his pages, but the thick and noisy rumour of caravan and market-place: how the plague was marching up from Egypt;144144   vi. 10. ugly stories of the Phœnician slave-trade;145145   i. 9. rumours of the advance of the awful Power, which men were hardly yet accustomed to name, but which had already twice broken from the North upon Damascus. Or it was the progress of some national mourning—how lamentation sprang up in the capital, rolled along the highways, and was re-echoed from the husbandmen and vinedressers on the hillsides.146146   v. 16. Or, at closer quarters, we see and hear the bustle of the great festivals and fairs—the solemn assemblies, the reeking holocausts, the noise of songs and viols;147147   v. 21 ff. the brutish religious zeal kindling into drunkenness and lust on the very steps of the altar;148148   li. 7, 8. the embezzlement of pledges by the priests, the covetous restlessness of the traders, their false measures, their entanglement of the poor in debt;149149   viii. 4 ff. the careless luxury of the rich, their banquets, buckets of wine, ivory couches, pretentious, preposterous music.150150   vi. 1, 4-7. These things are described as by an eyewitness. Amos was not a citizen of the Northern Kingdom, to which he almost81 exclusively refers; but it was because he went up and down in it, using those eyes which the desert air had sharpened, that he so thoroughly learned the wickedness of its people, the corruption of Israel's life in every rank and class of society.151151   See pp. 136 f.

But the convictions which he applied to this life Amos learned at home. They came to him over the desert, and without further material signal than was flashed to Tekoa from the towers of Jerusalem. This is placed beyond doubt by the figures in which he describes his call from Jehovah. Contrast his story, so far as he reveals it, with that of another. Some twenty years later, Isaiah of Jerusalem saw the Lord in the Temple, high and lifted up, and all the inaugural vision of this greatest of the prophets was conceived in the figures of the Temple—the altar, the smoke, the burning coals. But to his predecessor among the shepherds of Tekoa, although revelation also starts from Jerusalem, it reaches him, not in the sacraments of her sanctuary, but across the bare pastures, and as it were in the roar of a lion. Jehovah from Zion roareth, and uttereth His voice from Jerusalem.152152   i. 2. We read of no formal process of consecration for this first of the prophets. Through his clear desert air, the word of God breaks upon him without medium or sacrament. And the native vigilance of the man is startled, is convinced by it, beyond all argument or question. The lion hath roared, who shall not fear? Jehovah hath spoken, who can but prophesy?

These words are taken from a passage in which Amos illustrates prophecy from other instances of his shepherd life. We have seen what a school of82 vigilance the desert is. Upon the bare surface all that stirs is ominous. Every shadow, every noise—the shepherd must know what is behind and be warned. Such a vigilance Amos would have Israel apply to his own message, and to the events of their history. Both of these he compares to certain facts of desert life, behind which his shepherdly instincts have taught him to feel an ominous cause. Do two men walk together except they have trysted?—except they have made an appointment. Hardly in the desert, for there men meet and take the same road by chance as seldom as ships at sea. Doth a lion roar in the jungle and have no prey, or a young lion let out his voice in his den except he be taking something? The hunting lion is silent till his quarry be in sight; when the lonely shepherd hears the roar across the desert, he knows the lion leaps upon his prey, and he shudders as Israel ought to do when they hear God's voice by the prophet, for this also is never loosened but for some grim fact, some leap of doom. Or doth a little bird fall on the snare earthwards and there be no noose upon her? The reading may be doubtful, but the meaning is obvious: no one ever saw a bird pulled roughly down to earth when it tried to fly away without knowing there was the loop of a snare about her. Or does the snare itself rise up from the ground, except indeed it be capturing something?—except there be in the trap or net something to flutter, struggle and so lift it up. Traps do not move without life in them. Or is the alarum trumpet153153   שׁופר, as has been pointed out, means in early Israel always the trumpet blown as a summons to war; only in later Israel was the name given to the temple trumpet. blown in a city—for instance, in high Tekoa up there, when some Arab raid sweeps from the desert83 on to the fields—and do the people not tremble? Or shall calamity happen in a city and Jehovah not have done it? Yea, the Lord Jehovah doeth nothing but He has revealed His purpose to His servants the prophets. My voice of warning and these events of evil in your midst have the same cause—Jehovah—behind them. The lion hath roared, who shall not fear? Jehovah hath spoken, who can but prophesy?154154   See further on this important passage pp. 89 ff.

We cannot miss the personal note which rings through this triumph in the reality of things unseen. Not only does it proclaim a man of sincerity and conviction: it is resonant with the discipline by which that conviction was won—were won, too, the freedom from illusion and the power of looking at facts in the face, which Amos alone of his contemporaries possessed.

St. Bernard has described the first stage of the Vision of God as the Vision Distributive, in which the eager mind distributes her attention upon common things and common duties in themselves. It was in this elementary school that the earliest of the new prophets passed his apprenticeship and received his gifts. Others excel Amos in the powers of the imagination and the intellect. But by the incorrupt habits of his shepherd's life, by daily wakefulness to its alarms and daily faithfulness to its opportunities, he was trained in that simple power of appreciating facts and causes, which, applied to the great phenomena of the spirit and of history, forms his distinction among his peers. In this we find perhaps the reason why he records of himself no solemn hour of cleansing and initiation. Jehovah took me from following the flock,84 and Jehovah said unto me, Go, prophesy unto My people Israel. Amos was of them of whom it is written, "Blessed are those servants whom the Lord when He cometh shall find watching." Through all his hard life, this shepherd had kept his mind open and his conscience quick, so that when the word of God came to him he knew it, as fast as he knew the roar of the lion across the moor. Certainly there is no habit, which, so much as this of watching facts with a single eye and a responsible mind, is indispensable alike in the humblest duties and in the highest speculations of life. When Amos gives those naïve illustrations of how real the voice of God is to him, we receive them as the tokens of a man, honest and awake. Little wonder that he refuses to be reckoned among the professional prophets of his day, who found their inspiration in excitement and trance. Upon him the impulses of the Deity come in no artificial and morbid ecstasy, removed as far as possible from real life. They come upon him, as it were, in the open air. They appeal to the senses of his healthy and expert manhood. They convince him of their reality with the same force as do the most startling events of his lonely shepherd watches. The lion hath roared, who shall not fear? Jehovah hath spoken, who can but prophesy?

The influence of the same discipline is still visible when Amos passes from the facts of his own consciousness to the facts of his people's life. His day in Israel sweltered with optimism. The glare of wealth, the fulsome love of country, the rank incense of a religion that was without morality—these thickened all the air, and neither the people nor their rulers had any vision. But Amos carried with him his clear desert atmosphere and his desert eyes. He saw the85 raw facts: the poverty, the cruel negligence of the rich, the injustice of the rulers, the immorality of the priests. The meaning of these things he questioned with as much persistence as he questioned every suspicious sound or sight upon those pastures of Tekoa. He had no illusions: he knew a mirage when he saw one. Neither the military pride of the people, fostered by recent successes over Syria, nor the dogmas of their religion, which asserted Jehovah's swift triumph upon the heathen, could prevent him from knowing that the immorality of Israel meant Israel's political downfall. He was one of those recruits from common life, by whom religion and the state have at all times been reformed. Springing from the laity and very often from among the working classes, their freedom from dogmas and routine, as well as from the compromising interests of wealth, rank and party, renders them experts in life to a degree that almost no professional priest, statesman or journalist, however honest or sympathetic, can hope to rival. Into politics they bring facts, but into religion they bring vision.

It is of the utmost significance that this reformer, this founder of the highest order of prophecy in Israel, should not only thus begin with facts, but to the very end be occupied with almost nothing else, than the vision and record of them. In Amos there is but one prospect of the Ideal. It does not break till the close of his book, and then in such contrast to the plain and final indictments, which constitute nearly all the rest of his prophesying, that many have not unnaturally denied to him the verses which contain it. Throughout the other chapters we have but the exposure of present facts, material and moral, nor the sight of any future more distant than to-morrow and86 the immediate consequences of to-day's deeds. Let us mark this. The new prophecy which Amos started in Israel reached Divine heights of hope, unfolded infinite powers of moral and political regeneration—dared to blot out all the past, dared to believe all things possible in the future. But it started from the truth about the moral situation of the present. Its first prophet not only denied every popular dogma and ideal, but appears not to have substituted for them any others. He spent his gifts of vision on the discovery and appreciation of facts. Now this is necessary, not only in great reformations of religion, but at almost every stage in her development. We are constantly disposed to abuse even the most just and necessary of religious ideals as substitutes for experience or as escapes from duty, and to boast about the future before we have understood or mastered the present. Hence the need of realists like Amos. Though they are destitute of dogma, of comfort, of hope, of the ideal, let us not doubt that they also stand in the succession of the prophets of the Lord.

Nay, this is a stage of prophecy on which may be fulfilled the prayer of Moses: Would to God that all the Lord's people were prophets! To see the truth and tell it, to be accurate and brave about the moral facts of our day—to this extent the Vision and the Voice are possible for every one of us. Never for us may the doors of heaven open, as they did for him who stood on the threshold of the earthly temple, and he saw the Lord enthroned, while the Seraphim of the Presence sang the glory. Never for us may the skies fill with that tempest of life which Ezekiel beheld from Shinar, and above it the sapphire throne, and on the throne the likeness of a man, the likeness87 of the glory of the Lord. Yet let us remember that to see facts as they are and to tell the truth about them—this also is prophecy. We may inhabit a sphere which does not prompt the imagination, but is as destitute of the historic and traditional as was the wilderness of Tekoa. All the more may our unglamoured eyes be true to the facts about us. Every common day leads forth her duties as shining as every night leads forth her stars. The deeds and the fortunes of men are in our sight, and spell, to all who will honestly read, the very Word of the Lord. If only we be loyal, then by him who made the rude sounds and sights of the desert his sacraments, and whose vigilance of things seen and temporal became the vision of things unseen and eternal, we also shall see God, and be sure of His ways with men.

Before we pass from the desert discipline of the prophet, we must notice one of its effects, which, while it greatly enhanced the clearness of his vision, undoubtedly disabled Amos for the highest prophetic rank. He who lives in the desert lives without patriotism—detached and aloof. He may see the throng of men more clearly than those who move among it. He cannot possibly so much feel for them. Unlike Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos was not a citizen of the kingdom against which he prophesied, and indeed no proper citizen of any kingdom, but a nomad herdsman, hovering on the desert borders of Judæa. He saw Israel from the outside. His message to her is achieved with scarcely one sob in his voice. For the sake of the poor and the oppressed among the people he is indignant. But with the erring, staggering nation as a whole he has no real sympathy. His pity for her is exhausted in one elegy and two88 brief intercessions; hardly more than once does he even call her to repentance. His sense of justice, in fact, had almost never to contend with his love. This made Amos the better witness, but the worse prophet. He did not rise so high as his great successors, because he did not so feel himself one with the people whom he was forced to condemn, because he did not bear their fate as his own nor travail for their new birth. "Ihm fehlt die Liebe." Love is the element lacking in his prophecy; and therefore the words are true of him, which were uttered of his great follower across this same wilderness of Judæa, that mighty as were his voice and his message to prepare the way of the Lord, yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.

« Prev 1. The Man and His Discipline. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection