All that we know about Amos is what is written in the book named for him. Amos received God’s message for Israel in a ‘vision’ while he was among the shepherds of Tekoa then he declared that message like a roaring lion (1:2). Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, reported to king Jeroboam II, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words” (7:10). Amaziah warned Amos, “O seer, go, flee to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (7:12-13). Amaziah never acknowledged Amos as a colleague or a minister. “You are a clown from a country village of Judah. How dare you preach in Samaria, the capital of Empire! Return to your home town and support yourself through preaching (“eat bread there and prophesy there”). After all, are you not preaching for money?
Amos’ reply was simple. “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ Now therefore hear the word of the Lord” (7:14-16a). What was he saying? He was claiming that he was not a professional preacher who graduated from a theological seminary (‘a prophet’s son’). His preaching ministry was not based on theological education or on the temptation for monetary gain. He proclaimed God’s word only because God’s word came upon him. Thus Amos challenged Amaziah with these words, “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord” rather than “Listen to my words.” In order to claim that the authority of their preaching was not in their own research, those whom God called to proclaim His message often introduced their messages with, “Thus says the Lord” (Exod. 4:22; Josh. 7:12; Judg. 6:9; 1Sam. 2;27; 2Sam. 7:8; 1King. 11:31; 2King. 1:16; 1Chron. 17:4; 2Chron. 12:5; Isa. 7:7; and multiple other places). The authority of their preaching was grounded in the fact that the word of God came upon them.
Which is more important – the message or the messenger? By far, it is the message. If there is no message, then the messenger will be meaningless, but let’s not be too quick to jump to conclusions. Instead, let us dig a little deeper to discover something interesting. As Moses spoke to God about how inadequate he was to carry out the mission God assigned him, God said, “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Exod. 4:12). This doesn’t mean that Moses simply waited for God’s word to be automatically uploaded to his lips for speaking. God truly teaches His words to His messenger. Nevertheless, unless the messenger does not make an intentional effort to learn what the Lord is teaching him or her, God’s word will not go out of the messenger’s lips like a round of ammunition fired from an automatic machine gun. The only bullets that will be fired automatically are void words without any nugget of truth.
According to Amos, wealthy womens’ sinful desire for vanity was one cause of the moral decline of Israel throughout the 8th century BC. These wealthy women oppressed poor people in order to accumulate their own wealth and they constantly nagged their husbands for more pleasure. “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’ ” (4:1b). The metaphor Amos used in reference to these wealthy women makes his readers gasp. “You cows of Bashan on the mountain of Samaria!” (4:1a). Imagine the greedy fat cows, idly grazing the grass on the hills of Bashan. Since their stomachs are so full, they do not care about other people’s starvation. Amos could craft such a suitable metaphor because he had learned so much about cattle from working as a shepherd.
What about Hosea who was contemporary of Amos? Unlike Amos, Hosea did not mention his job before he was called to prophesy. Scholars, however, assume that he was in the upper rungs of society. Hosea’s message shows his extraordinary ability to analyze the international affairs of his time. He also displays a thorough knowledge of Israel’s history. All these are wrapped up in superb literary expressions.
Some call the book of Isaiah “the Romans of the Old Testament.” They are saying that Isaiah was the most brilliant writer-theologian of the Old Testament just as Paul was of the New Testament. The Talmud testifies that Isaiah was a nephew of king Amaziah and thus a cousin of Uzziah, an important part of the royal family. In light of the fact that Isaiah had easy access to king Ahaz (Isa. 7:4) and Uriah the priest (8:2), we cannot ignore the Talmud’s witness regarding Isaiah’s social class. If that is so, it is not too much to say that Isaiah’s superb messages were based on the high-level education he received from the palace and his broad exposure to world events.
The prophet Hananiah opposed Jeremiah’s message with his counter prophecy. “I will also bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, declares the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon” (Jer. 28:4). Contrary to Jeremiah who declared the utter destruction of Judah, Hananiah prophesied that the Judean captives would return to Judah along with the royal family and that the fate of Judah would soon be restored. However, Hananiah’s prophecy did not come true. God unfolded history as Jeremiah prophesied, so to speak. Hananiah was revealed as a false prophet. Did he know that he was declaring a false message and did he knowingly preach that false message for popularity? Or did Hananiah deliver that message out of his trust in God’s goodness? Whatever the reason the destruction of Judah was a shock to Hananiah.
The stipulations of the Sinaic Covenant given to Israel through Moses were conditional. “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all people . . . and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6). The theology of Deuteronomy in which the Moab Covenant, a sequel to the Sinaic Covenant, unfolds is simple. “If you obey, you will be blessed. If you disobey, you will be cursed.” On the contrary, the stipulations of the Davidic Covenant given through the prophet Nathan were unconditional. David’s throne would remain forever without any conditional clause (2Sam. 7:11b-17). It appears that Jeremiah and Hananiah based their claims on different covenants: Jeremiah based his proclamation on the theology of the Sinaic Covenant while Hananiah based his declaration on the theology of the Davidic Covenant. Both are legitimate messages of God with orthodox theology. The difference lay in the ability of these two prophets to discern the time. Jeremiah discerned that his was a time when a message based on the Sinaic Covenant had to be proclaimed whereas Hananiah believed that the message based on the Davidic Covenant was appropriate for his time. Hananiah read the time incorrectly and the outcome was miserable. He ended up becoming a false prophet.
How does a messenger develop proper discernment? The answer is simple. The messenger must develop his or her perspective though prayer, research, reading, writing, etc. If that is so, which is more important – the message or the messenger? Apart from a message, the messenger bears no meaning. Yet, depending on the quality of the messenger, the message can be either magnified or buried. The biblical messages are already given and fixed, but the age in which these messages are proclaimed will constantly change. If a messenger lacks the insight to read the time in which he or she lives, the messenger will fail to clearly expose the word of God to the people of his time. In fact, so many people are reluctant to receive God’s message because they are sick and tired of the messenger. Is it the message or the messenger? Theoretically speaking, the message is more important than its messenger. In reality, however, the message will not be understood and received apart from the messenger’s ability to communicate the message in the most powerful way. Pastors often ask me, a seminary professor, for the best Bible study material or the best discipleship training material. As I give my recommendation I think to myself, “Using that study material will not develop your church people as disciples because without developing the messenger first, using the right study material will not accomplish anything.”