The Damascus Oracle
Amos 1:2 introduces his message to Israel, saying,
2 And he said, “The Lord [Yahweh] roars from Zion, and from Jerusalem He utters His voice; and the shepherds’ pasture grounds mourn, and the summit of Carmel dries up.”
This establishes that Yahweh is the source of his revelation. In this case it is the voice of divine judgment coming “from Zion and from Jerusalem,” the place where He had placed His name at that time. The roaring depicts Yahweh as a lion.
It is known that when lions roar, it is too late to get out of their way. Lions roar as they leap upon their prey. As a shepherd, Amos well understood the roar of a lion.
The Hebrew verb sha’ag describes the roar of a lion as he leaps upon his prey. It expresses the immediacy of the judgment; for when the shepherd hears the roar, he knows that the attack is already taking place, and it is too late to save the sheep. (The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 830).
It appears that Amos was writing his book after he had been forced to leave Israel—after Israel had rejected his message. The judgment, therefore, had been set in the divine court, because the people and priests had refused to repent. Judgment would soon begin with the great earthquake and soon continue with the Assyrian invasion.
Amos knew how pastures would “mourn” in times of drought. Droughts often brought famine. There are thirteen famines mentioned in Scripture. Most, if not all, are prophetic in some way, the most notable, perhaps, being the famine that occurred in the days of Elijah.
The prophet also says that “the summit of Carmel dries up.” Carmel means “garden land.” The gardens were to dry up, as it were. Mount Carmel is best known as the location of Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:19) after the 3½ year drought. That showdown took place about a century before Amos prophesied.
There is little doubt that Amos was familiar with Elijah’s ministry. In writing about drought in his introduction, he suggests that divine judgment upon Israel, which had been avoided earlier (through repentance), was now about to devastate the unrepentant nation of Israel—and affect Judah as well.
This prophecy was certainly fulfilled a short time later, when “the king of Assyria carried Israel away into exile to Assyria” (2 Kings 18:11). Yet there is a timeless aspect to this prophecy as well, for toward the end of his book, Amos speaks of a spiritual drought that was to cause a famine of hearing the word of God (Amos 8:11, 12). This famine has persisted to the present day.
The famine in the days of Elijah essentially prophesied of this famine of hearing the word. This suggests that another Mount Carmel showdown was to occur in the future, ending the long-term spiritual drought. The final words of Amos set forth this great hope of restoration in the end.
However, in Amos’ own time, such restoration was for a future generation. The immediate danger was the pouncing lion, the mourning pastures, and the dried-up garden land of Mount Carmel.
Amos then began to prophesy about the nations in that part of the world.
Legal Cause for Judgment
Amos 1:3 begins with a prophecy about Damascus.
3 Thus says the Lord [Yahweh], “For three transgressions [pehsha, “rebellions, revolts”] and for four I will not revoke its punishment, because they threshed Gilead with implements of sharp iron.
The expression “for three transgressions and for four” is a Hebrew idiom that refers to numerous times Damascus had revolted against God’s rule and violated His laws. But since Damascus (or Syria in general) had not been with Israel when the laws were given through Moses, one may wonder why and how God could judge them for violating the law. What would make them accountable to the law?
The answer is that since the time of Adam all the nations originally possessed a general knowledge of the laws of God, if you trace their history back far enough. Paul says in Rom. 1:19, “that which is known about God is evident within them.” He goes on to explain that “they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
They may not have had a complete revelation of the law, but they were accountable for that which they ought to have known and remembered. Their problem was not that they were without the law, but that they forgot it. In other words, their problem was the same as with Israel, who received the law, but soon forgot it.
Syria was founded by Terah, Abraham’s father, and settled by Haran, Abraham’s half-brother. It was from the land of Haran that Abraham himself was called to immigrate to the land of Canaan. Isaac and Jacob both got their wives from the land of Haran, later called Aram, or Syria. So there was always a close family connection between Syria and Israel.
From a spiritual perspective, Terah and Haran were willing to leave Ur of the Chaldees, but they were not willing to go all the way to the Promised Land with Abraham. One might say they were partial or lukewarm believers, and for this reason, they strayed from the truth of the word as time passed.
God also told Elijah to anoint Hazael king over Aram (1 Kings 19:15) shortly toward the end of the prophet’s ministry. To receive such an anointing did not endorse Hazael’s subsequent actions; rather, it showed that Hazael was under God’s authority. He was supposed to be obedient to God’s laws and instructions.
But when Elisha told Hazael in 2 Kings 8:13, “God has shown me that you will be king over Aram,” the prophet wept, knowing that Hazael would misuse that God-given authority to make war on Israel (2 Kings 8:12). Their repeated wars against Gilead became the stated reason for divine judgment in Amos’ prophecy against Damascus.
Hazael means “one who sees God.” With a name like that, he made the claim of seeing God and thereby claimed to know His will. If he had seen God in some manner, he was disobedient to his revelation; however, we should probably view this as a false claim of revelation.
Hazael’s dynasty continued into the next century when Amos gave the word of God to Damascus, the capital of Aram/Syria. So it is clear that God was holding Damascus accountable for its rebellion against God and for not implementing the laws of God which they should have known or at least remembered.
In the next generation after Amos, the prophet Isaiah also prophesied about Damascus. Isaiah 17:1 says,
1 The oracle concerning Damascus. “Behold, Damascus is about to be removed from being a city, and it will become a fallen ruin.”
The reason given is found in Isaiah 17:10, “For you have forgotten the God of your salvation and have not remembered the rock of your refuge.”
Again, this prophecy implies that Syria originally knew the revelation of God but that the nation had “not remembered the rock of your refuge.” There is no hint that the Syrians were exempt from judgment on the grounds that the law of God had not been given to them. They did have some revelation, and God held them accountable.
These prophecies of destruction were fulfilled only partially over the years. Even today, Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world. In the first century, shortly after the ministry of Christ, King Abgar V of Edessa (in Syria) became the first of a long line of Christian believers. He had written a letter to Jesus, inviting him to Edessa, where He could be protected from His enemies in Jerusalem.
Jesus declined, but told him that when His work was finished, He would send a disciple in His place. Hence, Thaddeus was sent to Edessa, first to heal Abgar’s disease and then to preach the gospel to the king and the entire city. The city was converted, and Edessa later became known as the place where the “Shroud of Turin” was stored. This was reputed to be Jesus’ burial cloth, having the image of a man burned into it.
The exchange of letters between Abgar and Jesus was mentioned by Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea in the early fourth century (Eccl. Hist., I, xiii). Apparently, the original letters that Eusebius quoted were available to him in his day but are now lost. I reproduced them in Appendix 3 of my book, Lessons from Church History, Vol. 1.
The Syrian church is one of the oldest in the world, predating the Roman church and perhaps even the British church.
Centuries later, Damascus was overrun by the Muslims, who made it their cultural capital for many years. Today, it has come to near ruin with the recent war. Whether or not there is more “ruin” to occur in Damascus remains to be seen. What is apparent is that Amos’ prophecy, as well as Isaiah’s oracle, applies to present-day Damascus.
Hazael and Ben-hadad
Amos 1:4 says,
4 So I will send fire upon the house of Hazael, and it will consume the citadels of Ben-hadad.
In the days of Elijah, Hazael responded to the word of the Lord by killing Ben-hadad, the king of Syria, and taking his place as king (2 Kings 8:15). Hazael’s son was named Ben-hadad, probably in honor of the king that he had been serving. It is likely that young Ben-hadad had been born and named while his father was still the king’s steward.
So there is more than one Ben-hadad, but in Amos 1:4, “the citadels of Ben-hadad” were the castles or palaces built by Ben-hadad, son of Hazael.
Amos 1:4 tells us that the house of Hazael (that is, his family line or dynasty) was to be judged. God was to “send fire upon the house of Hazael.” Perhaps the prophetic metaphor could be viewed in terms of God sending a fire upon the house of one who sees God. God Himself is said to be a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24), so it is as if Hazael was consumed by the God he claimed to see and serve.
It is also important to note that since the dynasty of Hazael had begun with a prophetic anointing from Elisha, it is clear that this dynasty had failed to serve the God who had called them to rule. Anyone claiming to have an anointing from God is equally responsible to be God’s servant or steward. No such king owns his throne.
Amos continues his prophecy, saying in Amos 1:5,
5 “I will also break the gate bar of Damascus, and cut off the inhabitant from the valley [bika] of Aven, and him who holds the scepter, from Beth-eden; so the people of Aram [Syria] will go exiled to Kir,” says the Lord.
The gates of walled cities in ancient times were closed and barred at night and during times of siege. So “the gate bar of Damascus” is a metaphor for the city’s defenses. A broken bar was of little use in keeping enemies from storming the gate.
The valley (or plain) of Aven was a four-hour journey west from Damascus, but north of Israel. Today it is known as the Beka’a valley in Lebanon. Amos calls it the Bika Aven. Bika means “a split, divide, tear, or cleave.” This valley is part of the fault line (rift) extending from Turkey south through the Jordan Valley, and the arabah to the Gulf of Aqaba. It is the same fault line where the great earthquake occurred.
Aven itself means “vanity, empty (words), lies.” So Amos uses this term to add to the meaning of the prophecy. Those who inhabit the Valley of Aven will be cut off from “him who holds the scepter” (i.e., the king in Damascus), but also they will be cut off from truth. In other words, they will be left in their vanity to believe the lies of false gods.
The king holding the scepter had a summer residence not far from Damascus in a place known as Eden. This is the “Beth-eden” in Amos 1:5. This is not the Eden of Gen. 2:8 yet no doubt it was named for the original paradise. Eden means “pleasure, delight, luxury.” Beth-eden was the Syrian’ king’s luxurious summer residence.
The Syrian king pretended to be in Eden, as if he could get past the cherubim guarding the way to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:24).
This irony was not lost on Amos. Just as Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden and were prevented from returning to the Garden by the flaming sword of the cherubim, so also will the people of Vanity Valley be cut off and be sent into exile to Kir.
The precise location of Kir is unknown at the present time, but we know that eventually, the Assyrians took Damascus and exiled the people to Kir. 2 Kings 16:9 tells us,
9 … and the king of Assyria went up against Damascus and captured it, and carried the people of it away into exile to Kir, and put Rezin [the king] to death.
In fact, Amos 9:7 seems to say that the Syrians (or Arameans) had come originally from Kir.
7 … Have I not brought up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?
If we may identify the original Arameans with Terah and Haran, then perhaps Kir is really Ur in the land of the Chaldees south of Babylon. Ur is called Urumma, Urima, or Uru in the inscriptions. It is far to the south of Babylon along the lower Euphrates River.
The Syrian city of Edessa, which I mentioned earlier, was the Greek name for Urfa, or Oorfa, before the Greeks renamed it. It seems feasible that when Terah and Haran moved from Ur in Chaldea, they eventually founded a city named Urfa (New Ur?), as men have often done in history.
Knowing this history, the Assyrians repatriated the people of Damascus to Kir, the southern city of Ur, from whence Terah, Haran, and Abram had immigrated many centuries earlier.
If so, we might derive from this the lesson that those who had followed the command of God in a partial manner (Terah and Haran) ended up returning to their place of origin. The same lesson can be seen in the story of the exodus, for many Israelites complained and wanted to return to Egypt. Only those who truly had a heart for God and who endured to the end would enjoy the blessing of God.