Lesson 35: God Reveals His Secrets to His Prophets #BCCSundaySchool2018

This lesson, covering (among other passages) the Book of Amos, is representative of the ways the Sunday school manual treats a topic: it offers us a few verse snippets and asks us to apply them to contemporary Mormon practice through discussion; in this case, Amos 3:7 – “Surely the LORD God will do nothing but he revealeth his secrets to his servants the prophets.”

This of course means something in terms of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today, wherein the word ‘prophet’ implies leader of the church, one who makes policy that Mormons abide by. This meaning is not necessarily antithetical to the meaning of the word in the Hebrew Bible, but taking Amos to be necessarily and completely referring to the Utah inheritors of Joseph Smith forecloses the interesting things that the Book of Amos is doing with the concept of prophecy—and understanding that cannot but enrich what Mormons mean when they say they have a prophet today.

So we should look at the context. What does Amos say that it means to be a prophet? More, what does he say God’s secrets are?  What did God need a prophet to proclaim?

Let’s look at two passages, one highlighted by the manual. First, the verses that immediately precede the Mormon-famous Amos 3:7: Amos 3:1-6.

In first portion of the Book of Amos, roughly chapters 1-2, Amos offers castigation against the various nations of the world. This itself is significant; Amos, like his contemporary Isaiah (we are talking early 700s BCE here) believes God is not just the God of Israel, but has authority to expect obedience from other nations too.

But the next portion of Amos, roughly from the middle of chapter 2 though chapter 7, is of particular relevance for our concerns. Amos 3:7 is part of the opening of this section, which is a transition. God has been castigating the nations for their wickedness, and in Amos 3:1-2 (KJV), God turns his attention to Israel. “Hear this word that the Lord hath spoken against you, O children of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up from the land of Egypt, saying, You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” This is followed by a few metaphors (Amos is big on metaphors), one of which is “Will a lion roar in the forest, when he hath no prey?”

Then we arrive at “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.”

This passage informs us of two things: First, God is frustrated with Israel, as frustrated with them as he is with the nations. Second: God calls prophets when he has “prey.” God calls prophets when he grows frustrated. More precisely: God calls prophets when his people need chastising.

This, of course, matches well with the function of prophets in scripture. Despite contemporary Latter-day Saints using the term as a synonym for “president of the church” (which it is not: the official title of the president of the church is just that, or “presiding high priest of the high priesthood.” Our current use of ‘prophet’ for that job is colloquial.) in both Bible and Book of Mormon prophets are Special Forces types. It’s priests—think Alma the Younger, think Eli, think Jacob—who run the church on a day-to-day basis. Prophets—think Abinadi, think Moses, think Samuel the Lamanite, think Elijah, think Lehi—are called in when the people of God require a special message.

What’s the message Amos is called to give? Again, Amos sounds much like his contemporary Isaiah. The two are prophesying at roughly the same time; while Isaiah is in and around Jerusalem (which was then the center of the southern kingdom of Judah), Amos, he tells us, is called to the northern kingdom of Israel. (The two divided after the death of Solomon.) Like Isaiah (see, for instance, Isaiah 1:11-15, or Isaiah 58:2-8), Amos declares to the people that their ritual observances—their fast days, their offerings, their holy feasts, their hymn singing—have become idolatrous. (See Amos 5:21-27)

Why? Because these rituals have become uncoupled from the practice of righteousness and justice. Indeed, Amos condemns the Israelites’ rituals and follows that condemnation immediately with: “But let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”  He condemns the four “transgressions of Israel”—selling the poor into slavery, mocking the poor, prostituting the poor, and stealing sacred items consecrated to God. (Amos 2:6-8)

This is why Israel needs a prophet—and indeed, perhaps particularly a prophet like Amos, whom we learn more about in the second passage recommended in the manual: Amos 7:10-15. This passage comes in the middle of the final section of the book: a series of five extended visionary, almost hallucinatory metaphors: locusts devouring a field, a high tight wire measuring God’s devotion to Israel, etc.

In the midst of these, we receive an odd third-person description of Amos confronting Amaziah, the priest. Like many priests, Amaziah finds the disruption the prophet preaches dangerous, and condemns him to the king. He tells Amos to go back to the “land of Judah, and there eat bread”—mocking Amos’s outsider status and perhaps his poverty, for indeed, prophets are often both those things. Amos himself is from Tekos, a town south of Jerusalem, and he is preaching far away in the northern kingdom. The Jewish historian Josephus called it a village, and it was on the outskirts of the territory settled by the Israelites.

Amos embraces Amaziah’s scorn. His response is worth reproducing.

“I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was an herdman, and a gatherer of sycamore fruit; And the Lord took me as I followed the flock, and the Lord said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel.” (Amos 7:14-15)

What better a prophet to deliver a message on behalf of the poor than a man like this? What better reminder that the God of the Old Testament is undoubtedly a god of justice, and that the prophets are those who trouble the established powers of their day than Amos? There is some discussion among scholars about whether we might understand Amos to be a simple sheepherder and farmer or something more akin to a rancher or planter. But in either sense, Amos is an outsider to the priestly hierarchy of Amaziah, a nobody to them. And God’s kingdom is a kingdom of nobodies.

The book of Amos is, at last measure, a useful warning against pride. Amaziah scorns Amos because Amos is a hick. He scorns Amos for lacking the prestige and knowledge of insiders – something all of us are capable of doing at times. We all are tempted to despise those whom we deem inferior because they lack whatever sophistication or understanding we believe ourselves to have. Power, respect, money, the trappings of office and education: these things are seductive, and lure us away from what Amos tells us is God’s true focus: the weakest among these. His prophecy, in last measure, is a stern warning that our gospel is no gospel unless it exalts those whom the world scorns.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Great insights to the reading; thanks.

    (People might be interested to know that the word secret in v.7 is the Hebrew word sod, which depending on context means either the Divine Council or the decision or decree of the Divine Council. The prophet would sometimes be brought by vision to witness/participate in the deliberations of the Council, consisting of El/Yahweh and his divine attendants (what later become angels)).

  2. Kristin Brown says:

    Enjoyed your insight and thoughts. Thank you.

  3. Thanks, Matt and Kevin. The old LDS proselyting use/interpretation of Amos 3:7 (I don’t know current usage), had also motivated the quip that, “in that case, God does precious little!” Looking into the Hebrew words translated “justice” and “righteousness” might also be a basis for interesting discussion in SS. Maybe there will be comments to help us with that.

    Was Martin Luther King, Jr. a prophet? Perhaps he was called to and filled the same function as Amos.

    “You know my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by the iron feet of oppression… If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. And if we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

    —Martin Luther King, Jr., Address to the first Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) Mass Meeting, at Holt Street Baptist Church, Dec. 5, 1955

  4. Thanks, Matt. Thought provoking.

  5. Really good stuff, Matt. And thanks Kevin for the insight into the Hebrew. To my thinking it’s valuable for the modern Church to adapt these verses to today’s proselytibg message, but lest we totally fall victim to presentism it’s important to go back in time to explore the original contexts.

  6. Loved this. I love the totality of Amos. I hate the cherry-picking of Amos 3:7 (and especially how it’s been used to promote the exponentially growing Brethren-worship of the past 20 or 25 years).

  7. Yes! I was hoping Barney would be here to bring up sod as entering into the Divine Counsel as a witness.

    An interesting contrast to Elder Oaks recent commentary about what it it means for a prophet to be a “witness of Christ.”

  8. I have always found it interesting that of the four transgressions of Israel, three had to do with caring for the poor. We still haven’t figured out how to care for the poor very well, centuries later, but it seems a primary obligation to try. Nevertheless, when the woman with ointment bathed his feet & criticism was leveled that the ointment could have been sold to meet the needs of the poor, the Savior said the poor would always be with us. I don’t think that means we stop trying to help them.

  9. Thanks to Kevin Barney’s comment on the sod, the Divine Council, I went in search of more information and found a fascinating article about it at the Mormon Interpreter. I wanted to include more about it in my upcoming Sunday School lesson. But it seems that being invited to view the Divine Council is part of the prophetic call. Joseph Smith certainly viewed it, as he wrote down in Section 76 of the D&C. But since then, or at least not in my lifetime, we haven’t heard any church president claim that they saw the Lord and the heavenly host, so where does that leave us to-day? I will probably end up leaving this out of my lesson, but I’d still like to know. Can anybody help?