The God of Amos is active when there is an attitude of cruelty that reflects inhumanity of feeling. The City of Damascus was reputed by that generation to be the oldest in the world.[i] Amos turns his attention to the northern neighbors of Israel—the Syrians—whose empire and sphere of influence was symbolized by the capitol city, Damascus. Mohammed was so impressed with it that he said he would not enter the city of Damascus because a man should not enter paradise twice.[ii]
Amos had a different perspective of Damascus in the eighth century (B.C.). He leveled against it a withering indictment in Amos 1:3, Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron . . .”
Gilead was on the borderline between northern Israel and Syria. It was a buffer state, and in every battle, like Poland in modern Europe, it became the scene of battles of other people. It was like Alsace-Lorraine, between France and Germany, a tiny place that was doomed to suffer from the inhumanity and the cruelty of other people.[iii]
Where was the God of the earth when this was happening? Amos says He was there and was vigilant. Note how verse 3 speaks of those from Damascus threshing people with “sledges of iron.” A particularly cruel and atrocious activity is cited in that day as grain was thrashed with boards seven feet long and three feet wide. Armed with jagged stones and piercing knives, these were weighted with stones and pulled by oxen like section harrows in a modern farm. But the Syrians had used these to rake over the writhing bodies of war refugees until they died in the sun of the Syrian Desert.[iv] 2,800 years ago, where was God in all of this? Amos informed that generation that God was not absent, and neither would he be silent.
Amos informs that God will shortly speak. He will begin with a very political leadership that led out into the atrocity. Amos 1:4 says, “So I will send a fire upon the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad.”
These ancient names are significant in that the God of all the earth noted those who are responsible for inhumanity. The fire in this verse pertains to the fire of war and destruction.[v] It would consume the palace of the dynasty founded by Hazael, and now ruled by Ben-hadad III. That judgment that would begin with the leaders of this nation involved in barbarity would continue to its capital city and its defenses.
Amos 1:5a, “I will break the gate-bar of Damascus.” The city of Damascus prided itself on the bronze bar of the gate that guarded the city.[vi] It was considered to be an impenetrable and impregnable defense.[vii] But the living God says that the city that maintains itself by barbarity and inhumanity will be defenseless in the onslaught of the judgment of God worked out in history.
Having passed from the leaders to the capital city, Amos culminates these words by looking at the population itself. Continuing in verse 5, “. . . and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven . . .” “The Valley of Aven” means a plain of wealth or a wealthy suburb of the city of Damascus.[viii] Continuing in verse 5, “. . . and him who holds the scepter from Beth-eden . . .” The very name “Eden” itself means “the house of pleasure.”[ix] Well, the people there will not experience much more pleasure as they, too will be cut off. Those who sat at the breakfast table and read the Damascus News while learning about the incident at Gilead and said, “Isn’t that too bad? What are we going to do to amuse ourselves today?” They, too, will hear a word from the Lord.
Amos informs us that when nations, in their expressions, when governments in their organizations, when people in their corporate activities become barbaric, God intervenes.
The last part of verse 5 is most striking to me. We are told that, according to the Lord, “the people of Syria shall go into exile to Kir.” The city of Kir was in Mesopotamia.[x] What this amounts to is a reversal of their history. The Syrians had come out of that great area between the two rivers, and now because they have become a people of barbarity, God would send them back.
Was Amos a mad man? Was he a pessimist? Did his words fall fruitless? Not in the least. These words spoken in 751 B.C. came to be fulfilled in 732 B.C. when that unusually named Assyrian ruler, Tiglath Pileser, leveled the city of Damascas and carried its inhabitants back from whence they came, and canceled their history.[xi]
What is the application of these ancient words in your life? Such acts of barbarity may seem far-fetched to Americans. The word is that God holds accountable entire nations—Christian or pagan—when they become a people that commit atrocities. We may even feel a comfortable distance from this condemnation, but the eternal principle here reveals that God’s settled disposition in history is that He is against inhumanity and barbarity. He will see that in the processes of history, those who live in barbarity may well also perish.
If we cannot externalize these words, we can internalize them. Our words and our acts can have jagged edges just like those stony, sharp instruments of the ancient Syrians. There is a word to us about our own disposition. There is also a Lord who Amos never knew who taught us in his manifesto, the Sermon on the Mount, that inhumanity and barbarity, not only of action, but of thought, is forbidden by those who live in His kingdom.
Where is the God of Amos? He is right there in the midst of the international scene, and He is working out justice on His own timetable.
[i] Christa Salamandra, A New Old Damascus: Authenticity and Distinction in Urban Syria (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), 27.