(Calvin, Commentary on Amos, part 18)

Lecture Sixty-sixth.

    In my last Lecture I was under the necessity of breaking off
the subject: the sixth verse, with the two preceding ones, must be
connected together. The Prophet says

Amos 8:6
That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of
shoes; [yea], and sell the refuse of the wheat?
    Here still he speaks of the avarice of the rich, who in time of
scarcity held the poor subject to themselves and reduced them to
slavery. He had spoken before of the Sabbaths, and he had spoken of
deceitful balances; he now adds another kind of fraud, - that by
selling the refuse of wheat, they bought for themselves the poor. We
indeed know what is the influence of poverty and pressing want, when
men are oppressed with famine; they would rather a hundred times
sell their life, than not to rescue themselves even by an invaluable
price: for what else is food but the support of life? Men therefore
will ever value their life more than all other things. Hence the
Prophet condemns this iniquity - that the rich gaped for such an
opportunity. They saw that corn was high in price; "Now is the time
for the poor to come into our possession, for we hold them as though
they were ensnared; so then we can buy them for a pair of shoes."
But the other circumstance increases this iniquity, - that they sold
the refuse of the wheat; and when they reduced to bondage the poor,
they did not feed them; they mingled filth and offscourings with the
wheat, as it is wont to be done; for we know that such robbers
usually do this, when want presses upon the common people; they sell
barley for wheat, and for barley they sell chaff and refuse. This
kind of wrong is not new or unusual, as we learn from this passage.
Now follows a denunciation of punishment -

Amos 8:7
The LORD hath sworn by the excellency of Jacob, Surely I will never
forget any of their works.
    God, having made known the vices of the rich, now shows that he
would be their judge and avenger: for were they only reproved, they
would not have cared much, like the usurer mentioned by Horace, who
said, "The people may hiss me, but I felicitate myself." So also
these robbers were wont to do, when they were filled: though the
whole people exclaimed against them, though God thundered from
heaven, they laughed everything to scorn; for they were utterly
destitute of every shame; and they were also become hardened; and
insatiable cupidity had so blinded and demented them, that they had
cast aside every care for what was right and becoming. Since it was
so, God now declares that they could not escape punishment; and that
this threatening might more effectually penetrate into their hearts,
the Prophet makes use of an oath in the name of God, "Jehovah, he
says, has sworn by the excellency of Jacob".
    An old interpreter has rendered the words, "He has sworn
against the pride of Jacob:" but he did not sufficiently consider
the design of the Prophet; for he speaks not here of vice, but of
that dignity which the Lord had conferred on the posterity of
Abraham; for we have before seen this expression, 'I abhor the
excellency of Jacob.' Some give this rendering, "I abhor the pride
of Jacob," as though God were speaking there of perverse
haughtiness. But he, on the contrary, means, that the Israelites
were deceived, for they thought themselves safe and secure, because
they were introduced into great favor by a singular privilege.
"This," the Lord says, "will profit them nothing: I have hitherto
been kind and bountiful to the children of Abraham; but I now abhor
this whole dignity." So also he says now in this place, Jehovah has
sworn by the excellency of Jacob. They were proud of their dignity
which yet was the free gift of God. hence God interposes a form of
oath, the fittest to reprove their presumption. Some at the same
time give this translation, "By myself, (at least they give this
explanation,) by myself have I sworn:" for God was the glory of
Jacob. Others think that by this word, "ga'on" is designated the
sanctuary; for this was the excellency of Jacob, because God had
chosen it as a habitation for himself in the midst of his people:
hence, also, He is often said to dwell between the cherubim; not
that he was inclosed in the sanctuary, but because the people
perceived there his presence, his favor, and his power. But I rather
understand by the term, excellency, in this place, the adoption, by
which God had separated for himself that people from the rest of the
world. Sworn then has Jehovah. How? By the excellency of Jacob: and
thus he glances in a severe manner at the ingratitude of the people,
as they did not own themselves to be in every respect bound to God;
for they had been peculiarly chosen, when yet other nations in many
things excelled them. It was doubtless an invaluable favor for that
ignoble people to have been chosen to be God's peculiar possession
and heritage. Hence the Prophet now rightly introduces God as being
angry; and the form of the oath is suited to set forth the people's
ingratitude: "What! do ye now rise up against me, and elevate your
horns? By what right? Under what pretext? Who are ye? I chose you,
and ye truly repay me with this reward, - that though ye owe me all
things, ye seek to defraud me of my right. I therefore swear by the
excellency of Jacob, - I swear by the benefits which I conferred on
you, - that I will not allow that which is justly precious in my
sight to be disgracefully profaned. Whatever then I have hitherto
bestowed on you, I will return on your own heads, and, as ye
deserve, ye shall miserably perish." This is the meaning.
    We hence see that the oath which the Prophet uses, ought to be
applied to the present case. He says, "I shall never forget all your
works", that is, none of your works shall be passed by unpunished.
For though conscience sometimes disturbs hypocrites yet they think
that many things may be concealed; and if the hundredth part, or at
farthest the tenth, must be accounted for, they think this to be
quite enough: "Why! God may perhaps observe this or that, but many
faults will escape him." Since then hypocrites thus heedlessly
deceive themselves, the Prophet says, "Nothing can ever be hid from
my sight; nay, as I now know all their works, I will show that all
their sins are recorded in my books, in my memory, so that all
things shall at last be called to an account." It now follows -

Amos 8:8
Shall not the land tremble for this, and every one mourn that
dwelleth therein? and it shall rise up wholly as a flood; and it
shall be cast out and drowned, as [by] the flood of Egypt.
    He confirms what the last verse contains in other words: and
the question is emphatical, for it is a double affirmation. A
question, we know, is usually put, when there is no measure of doubt
on the subject. God then asks here as of a thing certain, how they
could remain in safety, who had so perverted every thing right and
just, who had violated all equity, who were influenced by no
feelings of humanity, - how could such continue safe? It was
impossible. We hence see why the Prophet here uses a question; it
was, that he might more fully confirm what he declares.
    "Shall not the land, he says, make a tumult?" when these
disturb all order, when they mingle, as the proverb is, heaven and
earth together, can the earth remain quiet under such a violent
confusion? when all reason and equity is confounded, how, he says,
can the land do otherwise than make a tumult? And though the Prophet
ascribes not here either clamour or speech to the land; it is yet a
sort of personification, when he says that the earth must
necessarily make a tumult, while it sustains such inhabitants; for
between them there was no agreement. Since then their way of living
was extremely turbulent, the land itself must necessarily be
    He afterwards adds, "And mourn shall every one who dwells in
it". He now shows that the inhabitants of the earth shall feel that
commotion of which he predicts: for the earth, ceasing to fulfill
its offices, constrains its inhabitants to lament and mourn. And
then there is another metaphor which sets forth the moving of the
earth, that it will rise as a river to destroy men with a deluge.
Many render what follows, "It shall be driven away and closed up
like the river of Egypt." But after the Prophet has spoken of
inundation of the earth, he turns his discourse to the men whom this
inundation would drown and swallow up. Hence, the real sense is,
that their habitations would be destroyed, as by a deep gulf, in a
way similar to the Nile, which, by overflowing the whole country,
seems to make a sea of what had been inhabited. As the Prophet's
words lead us as by the hand, I wonder how those skillful in the
Hebrew language could have blended things so different, for they
give this explanation, "The land shall be raised up, as a river, and
then it shall be destroyed and driven away;" and they refer this to
the land; and then, "it shall be sunk down:" this also they apply to
the land; except that some give this rendering, "It shall discharge
itself like the river of Egypt." But I translate otherwise, "It
shall heave up whole as a river, and shall be driven away, and shall
be immersed as by the river of Egypt." It shall heave up, he says,
that is, the land as a river; so that there will be no habitation
for men: "I have given this land to my people that they might live
in it; but the land itself shall heave up as a river; there shall be
an inundation of the whole land." And then when he says, It shall be
driven away and sunk, this ought not to be referred to the land
itself, but to the inhabitants or to the people.
    He had said before, "ka'or", as a river; but now he says,
"kiy'or", which I explain as meanings as by the river of Egypt. The
Nile, we know, overflows annually and covers the whole plain of
Egypt. The Prophet therefore borrowed a similitude from the Nile;
and he says, that such would be God's vengeance, that the land would
be like a river, and its dwellings would be immersed and carried
away, or annihilated: for when there is no surface of land, it seems
to have been cleared away. So then be says now, It shall be driven
away, It shall be sunk. This is the simple explanation; and "ayin"
is to be understood; for "shaka'" is to sink or to cover. Here, "he"
is only put, but "ayin" is to be understood, and there is also a
double reading pointed out. We now then perceive the Prophet's
meaning. But it follows -

Amos 8:9
And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord GOD, that I
will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth
in the clear day:
    The Prophet speaks here metaphorically of the punishments which
were then to the people nigh at hand: and as prosperity and success
deceived the Israelites, the Prophet makes use of this significative
mode of speaking: "Ye congratulate yourselves on account of your
wealth and other things which delight you, as though God could not
turn light into darkness; and as God spares you, ye think that it
will ever be the same with you; but God can, he says, turn light
into darkness: a dark night therefore will overtake you even at
mid-day." We now understand why the Prophet employed this figurative
expression, - that God would obscure the sun, or cause it to go
down, and would on a clear day send darkness to obscure the earth.
It was not, it is certain, the eclipse of the sun; and the Prophet
did not mean this. But these figurative expressions must be first
noticed, and then we must see what they import.
    Were any one disposed to lay-hold on what is literal and to
cleave to it, his notions would be gross and insipid, not only with
regard to the writings of the Prophets, but also with regard to all
other writings; for there is no language which has not its
figurative expressions. There is then in this passage a remarkably
significative mode of speaking, - that God would make the sun to go
down or to become cloudy at mid-day. But we must especially notice
the design of the Prophet, which was to show, that the Israelites
trusting in their prosperity, thought themselves to be beyond the
reach of danger; hence their security and hence their torpor, and at
length their perverseness and their contempt of God: since then the
Prophet saw that they abused the benefits of God, he says, "What!
the Lord indeed has caused your sun to rise; but cannot he make it
to set, yea, even at mid-day? Ye now exult in its light; but God
will suddenly and unexpectedly send darkness to cover your heads."
There is then no reason for hypocrites to flatter themselves, when
God smiles on them and treats them indulgently; for in this manner
he invites them to repentance by the sweetness of his goodness, as
Paul says in the second chapter to the Romans. But when he sees them
stubbornly wanton, then he turns his benefits into punishments. This
then is what the Prophet means: "God," he says, "will make the sun
to set at mid-day, and will darken the clear day." Let us go on -

Amos 8:10
And I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into
lamentation; and I will bring up sackcloth upon all loins, and
baldness upon every head; and I will make it as the mourning of an
only [son], and the end thereof as a bitter day.
    The Prophet pursues the same subject; but he omits the
figurative mode which he had before adopted. He therefore denounces
vengeance more openly, - that God would turn their festal-days into
mourning, and their songs into lamentation. This was designedly
mentioned; for the Israelites, we know, flattered themselves on
account of their ceremonies by which at the same time they more and
more provoked God's displeasure: for the worship of God, which they
pretended to perform, was mere superstition, and was therefore a
profanation of true religion. Though then they thus brought on
themselves God's judgment by their wicked ceremonies, they yet
thought that they were sufficiently disguised; for as Jeremiah says,
ceremonies are to hypocrites the dens of robbers, (Jer. 7.) So here
the Prophet speaks expressly of festal-days and of songs, - "Think
ye that I am pacified on your feast-days, when ye offer sacrifices
to me, or rather to idols under my name; and think ye that I am
delighted with your songs? these things are so regarded by me, that
they the more excite my wrath. Your festal-days then will I turn to
mourning, and your songs to lamentation." At the same time, the
Prophet threatens generally what we have before noticed, - that
there would be mourning among the whole people for having too long
abused the forbearance of God; I will then turn your joy into
mourning. This is the sum of the whole. We have already shown why he
names feast-days and songs, and that is, because they thought them
to be expiations to turn aside God's vengeance, when yet they were
fans by which they kindled more and more the fire of his
    He afterwards adds, "I will make to come up on all backs the
sackcloth, and on every head baldness". These are various modes of
speaking, which refer to the same thing: for they were wont to put
on sackcloth and they were wont to shave their heads when in grief
and mourning. The Prophet then means, that there would be extreme
sorrow among the people, that having cast away all delights, they
would be constrained to give up themselves entirely to weeping,
lamentation, and grief. I will then make to come up on all loins the
sackcloth, that is, I will make each one to put off all valuable and
soft clothing and to put on sackcloth; and also to shave their
heads, and even to tear off their hair, as they were wont to do. We
indeed know that the orientals were more disposed to adopt external
tokens of sorrow than we are. It was in truth the levity of that
country that accounts for their playing the part of actors in
mourning; and from this practice of mourning our Prophet borrowed
his mode of speaking.
    He afterwards subjoins, "I will set her" (he speaks of the
Israelites under the name of land) "in mourning as for an only
begotten". This similitude occurs also in another place, 'They shall
mourn as for an only-begotten,' says Zechariah in the twelfth
chapter; so also in other places; so that there is no need of a long
explanation. For when one has many children and one dies, he
patiently bears his death; but when any one is bereaved of an
only-begotten, there is no end nor moderation to his grief; for
there is no comfort remaining. This is the reason why the Prophet
says, that there would be grief, such as that which is felt for an
    And he shows that these calamities would not be for a short
time only, "Her posterity, he says, shall be as in the day of
bitterness". For hypocrites drive away, or at least moderate, their
fear of punishment by imagining that God will not be so severe and
rigid but for a short time, - "O! it cannot be God will for long
punish our sins; but it will be like mist which soon passes away."
Thus hypocrites felicitate themselves. Then the Prophet does not
without reason subjoin this second clause, that their posterity
shall be as in the day of bitterness. Hence when they shall think
themselves freed from all evils, then new ones shall succeed, so
that their posterity shall even doubly grieve; for they shall feel
more bitterness than their fathers. It now follows -

Amos 8:11,12
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine
in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of
hearing the words of the LORD:
And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to
the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the LORD,
and shall not find [it].

    Here now the Prophet fulminates, for he denounces not temporal
punishments, but final destruction, and what proves to be an
evidence of reprobation, and that is, that God would deprive the
Israelites of every light of truth, so that they would wander as the
blind in the dark. It is indeed certain, that they had been before
this time bereaved of sound doctrine; for falsehoods and
superstitions prevailed among them; and we have seen that in the
land of Israel the true and faithful servants of God suffered cruel
tyranny. But yet God restrained the people, as it were, against
their will; when they fled away from him, and withdrew themselves
from under his government, he still goaded them, and tried as by
force to restore them to the way of safety. God thus contended with
the wickedness of the people for many years, to the time of our
Prophet, yea, until the ten tribes were banished; for these, we
know, were led to exile first, and at length the kingdom of Israel
was abolished; but the Lord ceased not to stretch forth his hand.
Now when he saw that the labour of his servants was vain and
useless, when he saw that no fruit proceeded from his word, when he
saw that his name was profaned and his kindness trodden under foot,
he denounced final vengeance, as though he said, "I am now broken
down with weariness, I have hitherto borne with your cries, and
though by many kinds of punishment I have endeavored to restore you,
I have yet observed a moderate course, that there might not be
wanting some remedy for you. It has not, therefore, been my fault
that your diseases have not been healed; for I have often sent
Prophets to draw you to repentance, but without any success. I will
now then take away my word from you." But as celestial doctrine is
the spiritual food of the soul, the Prophet rightly adopts this
metaphor, that the Lord would send a famine. This figure, then is
borrowed from the efficacy and nature of God's word: for to what
purpose does God send to us Prophets and teachers, but to feed us
with spiritual food? As he sustains our bodies by bread and water,
or wine, and other aliments, so also he nourishes our souls and
sustains our spiritual life by his word. Since, then, spiritual
doctrine is our spiritual aliment, the Prophet very properly says,
that there would come a famine.
    "I will then send a famine, not of bread or of water, but of
hearing the word of God". The antithesis amplifies or exaggerates
the severity of the punishment, as though he had said, that it would
be endurable to wander in hunger and thirst, and to seek roots on
mountains, and to seek water in distant rivers: but a bodily famine,
he says, is not what shall be grievous to them, - what then? They
shall be in hunger and thirst, and shall seek the word of God, and
nowhere find it. But that we may better understand the meaning of
the Prophet, we must notice what Paul says, - that we are fed by the
Lord as by the head of a family, when the word is offered to us,
(Tit. 1: 3;) for teachers go not forth of themselves, but when they
are sent from above. As then the head of a family provides meat and
sustenance for his children and servants, so also the Lord supplies
us daily with spiritual food by true and faithful teachers, for they
are as it were his hands. Whenever then pure doctrine is offered to
us, let us know that the teachers who speak and instruct us by their
ministrations are, as it were, the hand of God, who sets food before
us, as the head of a family is wont to do to his children: this is
one thing. And certainly since the Lord cares for our bodies, we
must also know that our souls are not neglected by him: and further,
since the earth produces not corn and other things of itself, but
God's blessing is the source of all fruitfulness and abundance, is
not his word a much more precious food? Shall we then say that it
comes to us by chance? It is hence no wonder that the Prophet sets
here the deprivation of sound doctrine among God's judgments; as
though he said, "Whenever men are faithfully taught, it is a proof
of God's singular kindness, and a testimony of his paternal care. As
God then has hitherto discharged towards you the office of the
kindest father of a family, so now he will deprive you of meat and
drink, that is, those which are spiritual." Now, in the second
place, we must observe, that when we abuse God's bounty, our
ingratitude deserves this recompense, that want should teach us that
God ought not to have been despised in his benefits. This is
generally true: for when we intemperately indulge in luxury when God
gives us abundance of bread and wine, we fully deserve that this
intemperance and excess should be cured by famine and want. But
bread and wine are of no great value, and soon pass away: when
therefore we abuse celestial doctrine, which is far more precious
than all earthly things, what punishment does not such willfulness
deserve? It is therefore no wonder that God should take away his
word from all ungrateful and profane men, when he sees it treated
with mockery or disdain: and this truth ought to be carefully
considered by us at this day; for we see with how little reverence
the greater part of men receive the celestial doctrine, which at
this time is so bountifully offered to us. God has indeed in our age
opened the wonderful treasures of his paternal bounty in restoring
to us the light of truth. What fear there is now? What religion?
Some scoff, some disdain, some indeed profess to receive what is
said, but they pass it by negligently, being occupied with the cares
and concerns of this world, and some furiously oppose, as the
Papists do. Since then the perverseness or the wickedness, or the
carelessness of the world, is so great, what can we expect, but that
the Lord will send a much thicker darkness than that in which we
have been before immersed, and suffer us to go astray and wander
here and there in hunger and thirst? If then we fear God, this
punishment, or rather the denunciation of this punishment, ought
ever to be before our eyes. And the antithesis also, as it is very
important should be carefully considered; for the Prophet by the
comparison increases the punishment: it shall not, he says, be the
want of meat and drink, for such a divine visitation would be more
tolerable; but it shall be a spiritual famine. Inasmuch then as we
are too much entangled by our flesh, these words ought to arouse us,
that we may more attentively reflect on this dreadful punishment,
and learn to fear the famine or want of the soul more than that of
our bodies. When the sterility of the land threatens us with famine,
we are all anxiety, and no day passes, in which this anxious
question does not ten times occur to us, - "What will become of us?
We now suffer from famine and want, and we are, as yet, distant from
the harvest three or four months." All feel anxious, and in the
meantime we are not touched by any concern when the Lord threatens
us with spiritual want. Since then we are so disposed to be
overanxious for this frail life, it is the more necessary for us to
take notice at the comparison mentioned by our Prophet.
    But it may be here asked, Why does he say that they should be
so famished as to "run here and there, and wander from sea to sea,
from the south even to the east", since this ought to be counted as
one of God's favors; for what more grievous thing can happen to us,
than that the Lord should render us stupid and unconcerned? But when
we are touched with some desire for sound doctrine, it evidently
appears that there is some religion in us; we are not destitute of
the Spirit of God, though destitute of the outward medium: and then
comes what Christ says, 'Knock, and it shall be opened to you; seek,
and ye shall find,' (Matth. 7: 7.) Therefore this denunciation of
the Prophet seems not, it is said, so severe and dreadful. But we
must observe, that the Prophet does not speak here strictly of
famine, as though he said, that the Israelites would feel the want
of God's word, that they would really look for it, that they would
sincerely seek it, but that they would perceive by the punishment
itself, that nothing is more to be dreaded than to be deprived of
the spiritual food of the soul. An example of this is found in Esau:
when he saw that he had lost his birth-right, he cried and howled.
He did not do this either from a right feeling, or because he had
returned to a sound mind; but he was urged on by despair only: and
then he sent forth lamentations and howlings, as though he were a
wild beast. An anxiety like this is what the Prophet describes here.
We hence learn, that the reprobate, when they see themselves
deprived of God's favors, are not really moved, so that they repent,
but only feel strong agonies, so that they torment themselves
without any benefit, and do not turn themselves to God.
    What then is this to seek? We must notice what he said before -
that they shall wander from sea to sea, and then, that they shall
run here and there. When the faithful perceive any token of God's
wrath, they immediately conclude and clearly see, that there is no
remedy but to retake themselves directly to God: 'but the ungodly,
what do they do? They disquiet themselves, and make a great noise.
It is then this empty and false feeling of which the Prophet speaks.
Now then the question is answered. But we must at the same time
observe, what the best way is to recover the favor of God, when we
are deprived of it; and it is this, - to consider our elate, and to
return to him under a due consciousness of God's judgment, and to
seek to be reconciled to him. Thus will he restore what he has taken
away. But if our obstinacy be like that of the Israelites, God will
deprive us of his benefits, and not only those which are necessary
to support our present life, but also of the spiritual food of the
soul: then in vain will our howlings rend the air, for he will not
give us an upright spirit to return to him; but we shall in vain
bite the bridle, we shall in vain torment ourselves: for he will not
suffer us to come where we ought, that is, he will not lead us to
true repentance nor to a genuine calling on him, but we shall pine
away in our evils without any remedy.
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou continues to recall us to thyself,
and though thou sees us to be alienated from thee, thou yet dost
extend thy hand to us, and often exhort and stimulate us by holy
admonitions, and even frighten us by punishments, that we may not
run headlong to our own ruin, - 0 grant, that we may not be deaf to
admonitions so holy and gracious, nor be hardened against thy
threatening, but that we may become instantly submissive, and also
return to the right way and constantly proceed in it, and follow one
vocation through our whole life, as long as thou continues it to us,
until we at length reach the mark which is set before us, even until
we be gathered into thy celestial kingdom, through Jesus Christ our
Lord. Amen.

Calvin, Commentary on Amos
(continued in part 19...)

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