The book starts out prophesying judgement on eight nations with a repeating formula: “For three transgressions of _______, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they have…” The first six are Damascus, Gaza (Philistines), Tyre, Edom, Ammonites, and Moab. Then Judah and Israel are placed into the exact same formula as those other nations. So the structure of this prophesy emphasizes that Judah and Israel, supposedly God’s people, were doing no better than the other nations.
Later in the book some of what was supposed to distinguish them is called out specifically:
Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat?”
There are three main parts to this. First, they were supposed to take a break from work for new moon festivals and the Sabbath. But in their craving for more money they cannot accept the blessing that rest from work brings. Second, they don’t just long for honest work, they want to cheat in their business. Sell a small amount of grain for a lot of money by using rigged scales. Mix the worthless chaff with the good part of the wheat to inflate its value. Finally, while Sabbath was supposed to be a rest for the poor, they want to take the extra money from all this cheating and use it to further oppress the poor and needy.
The best that could be said about the attitude of this passage is that at least they are hard working right? Isn’t that a virtue? Yet elsewhere in Amos there is an almost opposite rebuke:
Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
and stretch themselves out on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock
and calves from the midst of the stall,
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
who drink wine in bowls
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”
Maybe these are a different group of people than the first? First the workaholics, now the alcoholics? Possible. Or they could be the exact same people. They spend all their days living in luxury, but don’t give their servants a break even one day out of seven.
Whichever it is, I don’t think Amos’s point is that hard work or leisure is bad. The first rebuke was not against hard work per se, but against never ending work motivated by a craving for wealth. The second rebuke was not against leisure per se. It even compares the revelers to David, the man after God’s own heart. The second rebuke is against leisure that is totally unreflective. No thought is given to the state of God’s people (Joseph figuratively used to mean all Israel), probably specifically their spiritual ruin which will soon be mirrored in the physical ruin of exile. David, Daniel, and others certainly had time for leisure and even luxury, but their hearts were not hardened by it. They could still mourn, fast, and pray when they recognized the broken state of God’s people.
Scripture quotations from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV®. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles. (I’m hand typing these from the ESV Reader’s Bible that’s why no chapter or verse numbers. Also I can’t find an easy way to get the right line indentations in poetry with this new Gutenberg wordpress editor…)