(Calvin, Commentary on Amos, part 10)

Lecture fifty-eighth.

    "Ye who convert judgment into wormwood, and leave righteousness
on the ground". We stated yesterday why the Prophet added this
sentence: he wished in every way to prove the Israelites guilty.
Having inveighed against their superstitions, he now adds, that they
acted also falsely and iniquitously towards men. And he attacks the
chiefs who ruled the people, not because they were alone culpable,
but because they drew with them the whole community. We know that
diseases descend from the head to the whole body: and this is the
reason why the Prophet directs his address especially to the rulers.
He says that they turned judgment to wormwood. This similitude often
occurs. Nothing, we know, is sweeter than justice, when every one
gains his own right; for this serves much to preserve peace. Hence
nothing can be more gratifying to us, than when uprightness and
equity prevail. This is the reason why the Prophet calls that
iniquitous state of things bitterness, when no regard is had for
justice and rectitude. He says also that righteousness was cast down
on the ground, or thrown to the ground. Now the judges ought to have
defended what was right among the people: for this, we know, is the
duty enjoined them: and the Prophet now lays this to their charge
that they left justice on the ground - that they suffered it to lie
prostrate. We now perceive the Prophet's design. It follows -

Amos 5:8
[Seek him] that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the
shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with
night: that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out
upon the face of the earth: The LORD [is] his name:
    Some interpreters connect this verse with the former, and think
that what the Prophet had said before is here explained; but they
are greatly mistaken, and misrepresent the meaning of the Prophet.
We have indeed said, that the Prophet shows in that verse that the
Israelites were not only perfidious and covenant-breakers with
regard to God, having fallen away from his pure worship, but that
they also acted iniquitously and dishonestly towards men: but these
interpreters think that God is, by a metaphor, called righteousness
and that religion is called judgment. This is in no way the mind of
the Prophet; nay, it is, as I have already said, wholly different.
    What, then, does the Prophet mean? I take this verse by itself;
but yet we must see why the Prophet proclaims to us, in such sublime
terms, the power of God. We know how heedlessly hypocrites trifle
with Gods as though they had to do with a child: for they imagine a
god according to their own fancy; yea, they transform him whenever
they please, and think him to be delighted with frivolous trifles.
Hence it is, that the way of pacifying God is with them so easy.
When in various ways they provoke God's wrath, there is in readiness
some little expiation, and they think that it is a satisfaction to
God. As then hypocrites imagine that God is similar to a dead idol,
this is the reason why the Prophet, in order to banish these
delusions, shows that the nature of God is far different. "What sort
of being," he says, "do you think God to be? for ye bring your
worthless and frivolous expiations as though God would be satisfied
with these trifles, as though he were a child or some silly woman:
but God is He 'who makes the Pleiades and Orion, who turns darkness
into morning, who changes day into night, who pours forth on the
earth the waters of the sea'. Go to now, and set forth your
play-things, as though access to God were open to you, when ye
labour to pacify him with your trifles." We now perceive the
Prophet's object: we see how this verse ought to be taken
separately, and yet to be connected with the main discourse of the
Prophet; for after having inveighed against the gross vices of the
people, seeing he had to contend with the headstrong, yea, with the
mockers of God, he grows angry and sharply exclaims, "What do ye
think or feign God to be?" Then the Prophet sets forth the character
of God as being far different from what hypocrites imagine him to be
in their own fancies. "What are your notions of him?" he says. "You
indeed make God to be like a child; but he made the Pleiades and
    Some translate "kimah" Arcturus. There is no need of laboring
much about such names; for the Jews, ignorant of the liberal
sciences, cannot at this day certainly determine what stars are
meant; and they show also their complete ignorance as to herbs. They
are indeed bold enough; they define what every word means; but yet
they betray, as I have said, their own want of knowledge. And our
Prophet was a shepherd, and had never learnt astronomy in his youth,
or in his manhood. He therefore speaks of the stars according to the
common notions of his age: but he, no doubt, selected two stars of
an opposite influence. The Pleiades (which are also called the seven
Stars) are, we know, mild; for when they rise, they moderate the
rigor of the cold, and also bring with them the vernal rain. But
Orion is a fiercer star, and ever excites grievous and turbulent
commotions both at its rising and setting. This being the case, the
Prophet names here those stars most commonly known. He says "Since
the Lord changes the seasons, so that the mildness of the spring
follows the rigor of winter, and since days succeed nights, and
darkness comes after the light, and since it is God who renders a
serene heaven suddenly cloudy by raising vapors from the veins of
the earth, or from the sea, since all these changes manifest to us
the wonderful power of God, how is it that men so presumptuously
trifle with him? Whence is this so great a stupidity, unless they
wholly overlook the works of God, and leave him a name only, and see
not what is before their eyes?" We hence see how beautifully and how
strikingly the Prophet does here set forth the power of God, and how
opportunely he speaks of it. He then "maketh the Pleiades and
    And he adds, "He changeth darkness into the morning, he maketh
the day to grow dark into night". Here he brings before us the
various changes of times. The night turns not into day by chance,
nor does darkness come over the earth by chance when the sun has
ceased to shine. Since then this variety ought to awaken even the
unwilling, and to constrain them to adore God, how is it that his
majesty is treated by men with such mockery, that they bring their
frivolous expiations, and think him to be no more angry with them
when they present to him what is worthless and childish, as when a
nurse by a pleasing sound soothes an infant? I say again, whence is
this so great a stupor, except that men willfully close their eyes
to so bright a display, by which God shows himself to us, that he
might constrain us all to adore his name? We now see why the Prophet
describes the various changes which daily take place.
    He speaks also of the waters of the sea, "Who calleth, he says,
the waters of the sea, and poureth them on the surface of the
earth". Some explain this of fountains; for they think that all
waters proceed from the sea, and that fountains are nothing else but
as it were the eyes of the sea: but this passage ought rather to be
viewed as referring to rains; for the power of God is not so
conspicuous in the waters which come from the earth, as when he
suddenly darkens the heavens with vapors. For whence is it, that the
heavens, a while ago clear, is now cloudy? We see clouds rising, -
but at whose command? Philosophers indeed assign some natural
causes; they say that vapors are drawn up both from the earth and
the sea by the heat of the sun: but why is this done to-day rather
than yesterday? Whence is this diversity, except that God shows that
the element of water is under his control, and also the air itself,
as veil as the vapors, which are formed as it were out of nothing?
For what is vapor but gross air, or air condensed? and yet vapors
arise from the hollow places of the earth as well as from the sea.
Certainly the water could not of itself produce a new element: it is
ponderous, and vapors rise up on high: how is it that water thus
loses its own nature? But vapors are in a middle state between air
and water, and yet they ascend above the air, and arise from the
earth to the heavens. The Prophet therefore does not without reason
say, that waters are called, that is, that these vapors are called,
from the sea, and are afterwards poured on the surface of the earth.
This may be understood of the clouds as well as of rain; for clouds
extend over the earth and surround us; and rain is poured on the
earth. This is doubtless the wonderful work of God.
    Hence the Prophet concludes, "Jehovah is his name." It is not
the idol which you have devised for yourselves; for your expiations
might indeed draw a smile from a child but they cannot satisfy the
judgment of God. Then think that you have to do with God himself,
and let these fallacious delusions deceive you no longer." It
follows -

Amos 5:9
That strengtheneth the spoiled against the strong, so that the
spoiled shall come against the fortress.
    The Prophet speaks not now of the ordinary works of God, in
which his majesty, inspiring the highest reverence, as well as his
dread power, shines forth; but he more closely urges the Israelites,
who had become so hardened in their vices, that they were wholly
inflexible. Here then the Prophet charges them with contumacy and
says, "What, think you, will take place? Ye are strong; but God will
stir up robbers against you, who will prevail, and beat down and
chatter in pieces that obduracy, through which you now resist God."
Thus after having filled them with dread by setting before them the
course of nature, he now holds forth this threats that they would
themselves have to feel the power of God: for however callous they
were, and though in their ferocity they dared to rise up against
God, he declares that it would avail them nothing; inasmuch as there
was in God's hand a waster, who would prevail against their
    "And a waster, he says, shall ascend on the very fortresses",
or shall enter the fortresses. The Prophet here, in an indirect way,
laughs to scorn the vain confidence which filled the Israelites, on
observing that they were inclosed in fortified cities and had
defenses and a powerful army. All this, he says, will be wholly
useless to them when God will raise up strong depredators, who will
penetrate through well fortified gates, and leap over walls, and
enter strongly defended cities. We now apprehend what the Prophet
had in view in these words.
    It will now be easy to apply this doctrine to our own
instruction: Whenever we are not suitably moved, either by the
truth, or by warnings, or by threatenings, let this come to our
minds which the Prophet teaches here, namely, that God cannot be
mocked, and that hypocrites gain nothing by their delusive
ceremonies, when they sacrifice and present their expiations, which
by no means please God, - how so? We may indeed easily learn the
reason from the nature of God himself. Hence, that we may not
transform God, let us learn to raise up our eyes to behold him, and
also to look on all things around us; and this will constrain us to
adore and fear his great power. It follows -

Amos 5:10
They hate him that rebuketh in the gate, and they abhor him that
speaketh uprightly.
    It is probable that in this verse also, the judges are reproved
by the Prophet, though what is here said may be extended to the
whole people: but as nearly the whole discourse is leveled against
the judges, I readily subscribe to the opinion, that the Prophet now
accuses the judges on this account, - because they could not bear to
be reproved for the great license they allowed themselves, but, on
the contrary, abhorred all those who reproved them. What then he
says as to the reprover being hated in the gate, is to be thus
explained: When judges sat in the gate and perverted justice and
right, and when any one reminded them of their duty, they haughtily
rejected all admonitions, and even hated them. In the gate then,
that is, They who ought to rule others, and to correct whatever vice
there may be among the people, cannot themselves bear any reprover,
when their own vices require strong remedies.
    And well would it be, if this disease were healed at this day.
We indeed see that kings, and those in authority, wish to be deemed
sacred, and they will allow no reproof. Instantly the majesty of God
is violated in their person; for they complain and cry out, whenever
teachers and God's servants dare to denude their wicked conduct.
This vice then, which the Prophet condemns, is not the vice of one
time; for, even in the present day, those who occupy the seats of
judgment wish to be exempt from all reproofs, and would claim for
themselves a free liberty in sinning, inasmuch as they think not
that they belong to the common class of men, and imagine themselves
exempt from all reprehension; in short, they wish to rule without
any equity, for power with them is nothing but unbridled
licentiousness. We now understand the Prophet's meaning. It now
follows -

Amos 5:11
Forasmuch therefore as your treading [is] upon the poor, and ye take
from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but
ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but
ye shall not drink wine of them.
    The Prophet here declares, that though the judges enriched
themselves by plunder, yet God would not allow them to enjoy their
booty, but that he would deprive them of the great wealth they had
accumulated. This is the import of the whole. We hence see that the
Prophet contends not here with the common people, but professedly
attacks the chief men, inasmuch as from them did proceed all the
prevailing evil.
    The first thing is, "they imposed burdens on the poor", and
then, "they took away corn from them". He says first, "A burden have
you laid", or, "ye have trodden on the poor;" for the verb may be
taken in either sense, and it matters not which as to the import of
the passage. It is not indeed often that we meet with a verb of four
letters; but interpreters explain this as meaning to tread under
foot or to lay a burden. The Prophet, I doubt not, accuses here the
judges of not sparing miserable men, but of burdening them with
tributes and exactions; for this is to burden the poor. Then he
adds, "Ye have taken a load of corn". The Prophet had doubtless
fixed here on a species of cruelty in robbing others, the most
detestable. When judges take money, or any other gift, it is less
odious than when the poor are compelled to carry corn to them on
their shoulders. It was the same as though they surrendered their
very life to their plunderers; for when judges constrained loads of
corn to be brought to them, it was as though they strangled the
poor, or drew blood from their veins, inasmuch as they robbed them
of their food and support. We now perceive what the Prophet meant:
"You have, he says, oppressed the poor, and taken from them a load
of corn". Some render "bar" chosen, but improperly.
    "Ye shall therefore build", &c. He declares here that they
would not realize their hope, though they plundered on all sides to
build palaces, and though they got great possessions to enrich
themselves and their heirs: "This self-love," he says, "will deceive
you; defraud, rob, plunder; but the Lord will at length strip you of
all your robberies: for after having been venal, and prostituted not
only your souls but your shame for gain, and after having spent much
labour and expense in building, ye shall not dwell in your palaces;
and when ye shall have planted vineyards with great expense and
care, ye shall not drink their wine." Isaiah also speaks in the same
strain, 'O plunderer, thou shalt be exposed to plunders' (Isa. 33:
1.) Experience also teaches the same thing; for we see how the Lord
transfers from one to another the possessions of this world: he who
seems to provide riches after his death for his heirs for ever,
passes his whole life, as we see, without enjoying his own property;
for he is hungry in the midst of the greatest abundance, and even
famishes himself. This is very frequently the case. And then when
his abundance comes to his heirs, it falls into the hands of
prodigals, who soon dissipate the whole. And sometimes the Lord
allows not that such vast wealth should have heirs, and it is
scattered here and there, and the very name is extinguished, though
the name to such haughty and wealthy men is a great object, as they
commonly wish it to be eminent in the world for some hundred ages
after their death.
    This passage of the Prophet ought therefore to be especially
noticed. He tells us that unjust gains were laid up by these robbers
and wicked plunderers, in order to amass great riches; but he adds,
"The Lord will spoil them, and will not suffer them to enjoy their
abundance, however anxiously they had collected it from all
quarters." Let us now proceed -

Amos 5:12
For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they
afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in
the gate [from their right].
    The Prophet introduces God here as the speaker, that the
threatening might be more authoritative: for we know, at it has been
before stated, that the Prophets were despised by haughty men; but
when God himself appeared as it were before them, it was strange if
no fear laid hold on them; they had at least no excuse for their
presumption, if God's name did not touch their hearts and humble
    "I know, he says, your iniquities"; as though he said, "Ye do
not think yourselves bound to render an account to men, as probably
no such account; will be rendered by you; but how will you be able,
think you, to escape my tribunal? for I am your judge, and mine is
the government: however ferociously ye now tread on the poor, and
evasively contend with me, your crimes must necessarily be judged by
me; I know your crimes." And as the rich by their splendor covered
every wickedness, particularly the magistrates, who were adorned
with a public character, God says that their turpitude was fully
known to him: as though he said "Contend as much as you please,
still your iniquities are sufficiently apparent to me; ye will gain
nothing by your subtle evasions." Moreover, he reprehends them not
merely for slight offenses, but says that they were wholly past
being borne with. When something is done amiss by the highest power,
indulgence is commonly granted; for nothing is more difficult than
for one who sustains so great and heavy a burden, to retain so much
integrity as to be free from every blame: but the Lord shows here
that they were not lightly culpable, but that their crimes were so
grievous and flagrant that they could not be endured. We now then
understand what was the object of the Prophet.
    When therefore their own greatness dazzles the eyes of proud
men, let us know that they cannot deprive God of his right; for
though he may not judge them to-day, he will yet shortly ascend his
tribunal: and he reminds them, that those pompous displays by which
they cover their many crimes, are only shadows which will vanish.
This is what the Prophet means.
    Then he calls them, "The oppressors of the just". He enumerates
here some particulars, with regard to which, the iniquity of the
judges whom he now addresses might be, as it were, felt to be gross
and abominable. Ye oppress he says, the just; this was one thing:
then follows another, They take "kofer", expiation, or, the price of
redemption. The Prophet, I have no doubt, meant to point out here
something different from the former crime. Though interpreters blend
these two things, I yet think them to be wholly different; for these
mercenary judges made an agreement with the wicked, whenever any
homicide or other violence was perpetrated; in short, whenever any
one implicated himself in any grievous sin, they saw that there was
a prey taken, and anxiously gaped for it: they wished murders to be
committed daily, that they might acquire gain. Since, then, these
judges were thus intent on bribery, the Prophet accuses them as
being takers of ransom. They ought to have punished crimes; this
they did not; but they let go the wicked unpunished; they spared
murderers, and adulterers, and robbers, and sorcerers not indeed
without rewards, for they brought the price of redemption, and
departed as if they were innocent.
    We now perceive what the Prophet means here; and well would it
be were this crime not so common: but at this day, the cruelty of
many judges appears especially in this - that they hunt for crimes
for the sake of gain, which seems to be as it were a ransom; for
this is the proper meaning of the word "kofer". As then this evil
commonly prevails it is no wonder that the Prophet, while
reprehending the corruptions of his time, says, that judges took a
    Then he adds, "The poor they turn aside from judgment in the
gate". This is the third crime: the Prophet complains, that they
deprived miserable men of their right, because they could not bring
so large a bribe as the rich; though relying on the goodness of
their cause, they thought themselves sure of victory. The Prophet
complains, that they were disappointed of their hope, and their
right was denied them in the gate, that is, in the court of justice;
for we know that it was an ancient custom for judges to sit in the
gates, and there to administer justice; And hence Amos mentions here
gate twice: and what he complains of was the more disgraceful,
inasmuch as the judicial court was, as it were, a sacred asylum, to
which injured men resorted, that they might have their wrongs
redressed. When this became the den of robbers, what any more
remained for them? We now then see that the Prophet speaks not here
of the common people, but that he mainly levels his reproofs against
the rulers. Let us go on -

Amos 5:13
Therefore the prudent shall keep silence in that time; for it [is]
an evil time.
    Some interpreters think that a punishment is here denounced on
the people of Israel, and that is, that the Lord would deprive them
of Prophets and teachers. We indeed know that nothing is more to be
dreaded, than that the Lord should extinguish the light of sound
doctrine, and suffer us to go astray in darkness, yea, to stumble,
and to rush headlong to ruin, as they do who are destitute of
wholesome counsels. But I think that the meaning is quite different.
Another exposition may be deemed probable, which is this, that the
prudent dared not to speak on account of the prevailing tyranny; for
Amos had said before that the judges, who then ruled, would not bear
reproof. Hence, the prudent were forced "to be silent at that time,
for that time was evil"; and every liberty of teaching was taken
away. And this meaning opens still wider; for the silent would have
to bear the wrongs done to them, and to devour inwardly their own
groans, for they dared not to complain; nay, the very teachers did
not oppose the torrent, for they saw that it was not the time to
resist haughty and violent men. But this view may be also fitly
applied to God's judgment, that the prudent would be silent, being
put in fear: for silence is often connected with fear: and it is a
dreadful judgment of God, when the prudent closes his mouth, or puts
his hand, as it is said elsewhere, on his mouth.
    As to the first exposition, I have already rejected it, and it
has certainly nothing in its favor: but the second may be
accommodated to the general meaning of the Prophet, that is, "the
prudent shall be silent at that time", because all liberty shall be
taken away. I am, at the same time, unwilling thus to restrict it,
as they do; for it became not a wise man to pass by in silence sins
so grievous: though tyrants threatened hundred deaths, yet those on
whom was laid the necessity of teaching ought not to have been
silent. But the Prophet here speaks not of what the prudent would do
or omit to do; on the contrary, he intimates, that whenever they
began to speak, the arrogance of the judges would be so great as to
repel all reproofs. The prudent then shall be silent, not willingly;
for that, as I have said, would have been unworthy of wise men. And
the Prophet here, by way of honor, calls those prudent who rightly
discern things, who are not led away by corruptions, but remain
upright; who, though they see the whole order of things collapsing,
and though they see heaven and earth, As it were, mingled together,
yet retain a sound judgment. Since the Prophet speaks of such men,
he certainly does not mean that they would be willingly silent; for
it would have been a base indolence in them thus to betray the truth
and a good cause. What then does he mean? Even this - that the
wickedness of tyrants would be so great, as not to allow one word to
be declared by the prudent; when any one came forth to reprove their
vices, he was not suffered.
    When therefore he says, that the time would be evil, he means,
that such audacity would prevail, that all liberty would be denied
to wise men. They would then be forced to be silent, for they could
effect nothing by speaking, nay, they would have no freedom of
speech allowed them: and though they attempted to discharge their
office, yet tyrannical violence would instantly impose silence on
them. Similar was the case with Lot, of whom it is said that he
groaned and vexed his own heart, (Gen. 16.) He was constrained, I
have no doubt, to be silent after having often used free reproofs;
nay, he doubtless exposed himself to many dangers by his attempts to
reprove the Sodomites. Such seems to me to be the meaning of the
Prophet, when he says, that the prudent would be silent, because
these tyrants would impose silence on all teachers, - now throwing
them into prisons, then banishing them, - now denouncing death on
them, then visiting them with some punishment, or loading them with
reproaches, or treating them with ridicule as persons worthy of
contempt. We now understand the Prophet's, design. We may further
observe, that men have then advanced to the extremity of evil, when
reception is no more given to sound doctrine and salutary counsels,
and when all liberty is sternly suppressed, so that prudent men dare
not to reprove vices, however rampant they may be, which even
children observe, and the blind feel. When licentiousness has
arrived to this pitch, it is certain that the state of things is
past recovery and that there is no hope of repentance or of a better
condition: and this was the meaning of the Prophet.
Grant, Almighty God, that as we cannot see with our eyes thy
infinite and incomprehensible glory, which is hid from us, we may
learn at least by thy works, what thy great power is, so as to be
humbled under thy mighty hand, and never trifle with thee as
hypocrites are wont to do; but to bring a heart really sincere, and
also pure hands, that our whole life may testify that a true fear of
thy name prevails, in our hearts: and grant, that whilst we devote
ourselves wholly to thy service, we may courageously and with
invincible hearts, fight against all these corruptions, by which we
are on every side beset, until, having finished our warfare, we
attain to that celestial rest, which has been prepared for us by
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Calvin, Commentary on Amos
(continued in part 11...)

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