Wallie Amos Criswell was born on December 19, 1909, in a small Oklahoma town called Eldorado. W.A., as friends called him, grew up in the Texas Panhandle, where his father, a barber, moved the family in 1915. His humble beginnings gave no hint about how God would use him during his lifetime.
At the age of ten, W.A. professed faith in Jesus Christ during a revival meeting held by an evangelist named John Hicks. Two years later, Criswell made a public commitment to serve God in gospel ministry. Later, some people encouraged him to pursue a career in law since he was a good debater in high school, but the call of God was stronger in his heart.
During his college, graduate, and post-graduate studies, W.A. served churches in out-of-the-way Texas towns like Marlow, White Mound, and Pecan Grove. Years later, in 1944, the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas called Dr. W.A. Criswell to serve as their pastor, and he did so faithfully for the next fifty years. He preached more than four thousand expository sermons, was twice elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, founded a college, and wrote fifty-four books. Not bad for a boy from Eldorado, Oklahoma.
I could tell a similar story about a young boy who grew up on a dairy farm in North Carolina and later became one of the greatest evangelists of the twentieth century. Perhaps nobody but God saw the ministry potential in Billy Graham while he was milking his father’s cows.
Nearly three thousand years ago, a prophet named Amos described himself by saying, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs” (7:14). One of twelve Minor Prophets in the Old Testament, Amos was not a product of the professional schools that trained prophets. Nor was he born into a family of priests like Jeremiah and Ezekiel; ministry was not the family business. On the other hand, Amos took care of sheep and farmed fig trees. And yet, God chose this fig picker from Tekoa—a small village about ten miles south of Jerusalem—to deliver divine messages to the Northern Kingdom.
Amos took aim at the center of idol worship built by Jeroboam in Bethel. His messages were so stern that Amaziah, the high priest, told Jeroboam that Amos had conspired against the king and nation. He then said to the prophet, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (7:12-13). Amos responded with a prophecy against Amaziah, saying that his wife would wander into prostitution, and his sons and daughters would die before Israel went into exile (7:16-17).
Amos ministered “in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel” (1:1).[i] These were politically and economically prosperous times for the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. However, the divided nation was rotting spiritually from the inside out, and the poor were suffering. God sent Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, Joel, Amos, and Jonah to the Northern Kingdom with stern, prophetic words. But Israel did not listen. After Amaziah rebuked Amos, the prophet returned to Judah, where he wrote down eight burdens, three sermons, and five visions he received from the Lord about Israel. Let’s take a closer look.
“For Three Transgressions, and for Four”
Amos means “burden or burden bearer.” He carried the heavy burden of God’s message to six nations plus Israel and Judah and recorded them in chapters 1-2. After comparing God’s word to the roar of a lion (1:2), Amos introduces each burden with poetic flare. To Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, the Amorites, and Moab, he writes, “For three transgressions, and for four.” It was the Lord’s way of saying,
- “Your sins are numerous.”
- “You have crossed a line with Me.”
- "Enough is enough!”
- “This is the last straw!”
The Lord judged these nations for their violence and cruelty, especially toward the weak and poor that they sold into slavery. Each nation heard the Lord say, “I will send fire” (1:4, 7, 10, 12, 14, 2:2, 5), a symbol of judgment. The Israelites would have shouted a hearty, “Amen!” and “Praise God!” when they heard the Lord’s prophecies against their enemies. However, the Lord’s attention quickly turned to the injustices of Israel and Judah.
God held His people accountable for their sins. Using the exact same literary phrase about three and four transgressions, Amos made it clear that Israel was no better than the foreign, pagan nations. Judah, the Southern Kingdom, had rejected God’s laws and did not keep His holy statutes (2:4-5). Amos delivered a much longer pronouncement against Israel, the Northern Kingdom (2:6-16).
Israel’s list of grievances included social injustices, sexual immorality, and idolatry. Specifically, they sold the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, trampled the head of the poor, and profaned the Lord’s name through gross sexual behavior. Clearly, God grieved when His people cared little for the poor and disregarded His holy statutes. Poetic justice always belongs to the Lord.
“Hear This Word”
In chapters 3-6, Amos records three sermons he delivered to Israel, each beginning with the phrase “Hear this word.” It reminds me of the times Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15), or when the Bible says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Furthermore, it reminds me of when the highway trucker asks his fellow trucker, “Do you have your ears on?” or when a wife says to her husband, “Are you listening to me?”
The first sermon (3:1-15) is a general pronouncement against Israel for her sins. In case God’s people had any doubts about the Lord’s intention to punish her, Amos records seven sarcastic questions, the answers of which are obviously yes. For example, “Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet?” and “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid?” In other words, “Do birds have feathers?” Of course, the Lord will hold you accountable for your sins if you do not repent.
Amos begins the second sermon (4:1-13) with words that were probably not received well by the people. His scathing sarcasm continued when the fig-picker from Tekoa called the wealthy women of Samaria “cows of Bashan” because they oppressed the poor and crushed the needy. These “fat cows” were only concerned about what their husbands would bring them to drink. Coming from a southern rustic like Amos, these words landed like a Don Rickles insult in the hearts of the upper-class. However, Amos warns them of a coming day when the Lord will carry them away with fishhooks.
The Lord goes on to review all the times He tried to persuade Israel to return to Him. For example, “I also withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest” (4:7-8). In other words, the Lord hurt their agricultural economy to urge them to repent. Does God do such things? Will He mess with my personal economy until I get right with Him? Do birds have feathers? Is the sky blue? Please forgive my sarcasm.
All in all, the Lord recalls five specific times the people “did not return to me” after He laid heavy burdens on them like drought, food scarcity, and pestilence (4:6-11). Israel’s stubbornness makes me wonder if America will return to God after the current global pandemic. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, or after Hurricane Katrina, did America return to God? I pray the Lord never says to us, “After all I did to get your attention, you did not return to me!”
The third sermon (5:1-6:14) highlights more sins of the house of Israel. It begins with a funeral lament that predicts Israel will fall, and only ten percent of the people will survive—that’s a ninety percent causality rate! In the middle of this sermon, the Lord pleads to Israel, “Seek me and live!” (5:4-5), which is the major theme of the book. Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba had become places where people sought pleasure, prosperity, and the pagan gods of foreign nations. The Lord repeats, “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said” (5:14).
Amos 5:14 is not the first time in our study of the prophets that we have come across Yahweh’s invitation to seek Him. For example, the Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:13-14). The word “seek” speaks of someone who is on a quest. Are you on a quest for God?
Verse 18 begins two “woes” or warnings that Amos delivers to Israel, one having to do with those who “desire the day of the Lord” (5:18-27) and the other with those who enjoy such ease in Zion that they lie on beds of ivory, sing idle songs, and drink wine from bowls, while the poor and needy suffer (6:1-14). Israel failed the test of prosperity and drifted into idolatry. The Lord declared how much He despised their empty religious rituals (5:21-27) and hated the pride of Jacob (6:8).
“What God Showed Me”
A picture is worth a thousand words, and so is a series of visions from the Lord of the coming judgment upon the Northern Kingdom, which follows Amos’s five sermons (7:1-9:10). Amos averted the first two disasters, locusts and fire, by interceding on behalf of Israel, providing us with a compelling lesson in the power of prayer.
The Lord showed Amos a plumb line in the third vision and compared it to Israel, which was clearly crooked (7:7-9). In the fourth vision (8:1-3), the Lord pictured Israel as a basket of summer fruit, suggesting she was ripe for judgment. Finally, Amos saw the Lord standing next to the altar, indicting Israel for her dishonesty and despicable treatment of the poor (9:1-10). Is there any hope for Israel?
Unlike other prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, who weave prophetic promises throughout their writings, Amos waits until the very end of his book to offer Israel a future and a hope, beginning in 9:8 when the Lord says, “I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob.” Yahweh continues by saying, “‘In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,’ declares the Lord who does this” (9:11-12).
Circle the words “repair,” “raise up,” and “rebuild.” They point to a time when the Lord will restore Israel under the rule of a Davidic king in fulfillment of the covenant He made with David (9:11). Restoration will happen despite the ten tribes of Israel who broke away from the Davidic dynasty nearly a century earlier to form the Northern Kingdom under Jeroboam’s evil rule and despite the Assyrians who would take Israel captive in the years to come.
This future reunification will happen when Jesus Messiah returns and establishes His Millennial Kingdom. At that time, the Lord will restore the fortunes of Israel and plant them on their land, never to be uprooted again. On that glorious day, “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it” (9:11-15).
God can and does use unlikely people from out-of-the-way places to accomplish His work. Wallie Amos Criswell from Eldorado, Oklahoma was an example of this. Amos, the fig-picker from Tekoa, was too. Both men spent their lives pleading with people to seek God and live.
This blog submission is from Route 66: The Ultimate Road Trip Through the Bible, an eBook written by Dr. Ron Jones. Download the complete eBook based on Road Trip 5, the Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi) in our Store.
[i] Kings Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam of Israel reigned from 783-742 B.C. and 786-746 B.C., respectively.