“The Lord God showed me this: a basket of summer fruit. He asked me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ I replied, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’ The Lord said to me, ‘The end has come for my people Israel; I will no longer spare them.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
If you really want to learn the nuances of a foreign language, one of the best ways to go about doing that is by learning to read its poetry. Poetry is heavily rooted in imagery and sound play. Because of this, while you can translate the poem in order to understand all the words and maybe even grasp the poet’s point, without knowing the original language, there are elements the poet intended to be understood in certain ways you are nonetheless likely to miss. This all comes into play in these couple of verse from Amos. Let’s talk about how and what it means for us.
In case you are wondering, this was not my sermon from yesterday. I had the day off from preaching as we took the morning to highlight and celebrate our great and godly women. Our speaker was a local missionary, Eva McLean, who is doing marriage and family ministry with her husband, Jason. Her message was terrific and would be worth your timing going to watch here. The message picks up at about the 25-minute mark. Next Sunday we will kick off a brand-new teaching series leading us to Easter called, What We Believe. We’ll be talking about some basic Christian beliefs through the lens of some recent survey results that revealed a shocking number of Christians hold positions on these things that are not at all consistent with what we find in the Scriptures. You won’t want to miss any of that.
For this morning, I want to think a little deeper about something we talked about last week. If you’ll remember all the way back to last Tuesday, we talked about the famous “plumb line” passage from Amos 7. I said then that the better translation is the word “tin.” This more accurate translation makes for a much more difficult interpretive task, especially from a preaching standpoint. But when you take in the text in its original language, that task is actually made somewhat easier. We don’t have to worry about what God might have meant with the imagery of tin because He probably didn’t mean anything by it at all. Instead, He was using an aural play on words such that when Amos said the word “tin,” it rhymed with the next part where God proclaimed judgment on the people. The point of the text was the sound play, not the imagery.
I’ll be honest here and note that I haven’t done enough detailed study of the prophets or the Psalms to know if this kind of sound play in the Hebrew text is terribly common. But as we will talk about in just a second, it does happen here as well. That makes two times in two chapters. And given that Hebrew was a language that formed around its being spoken more than its being written, it should not shock us that there are more than a few places in the original text of various collections of poetry in the Hebrew Scriptures when the sound of the words has as much to do with understanding their meaning as the written words themselves do.
Unfortunately, the sum total of this kind of thing’s happening in the Old Testament means that understanding the Hebrew prophets can be tough. There’s a reason they often get caricatured and ridiculed and modern followers of Jesus don’t have good answers to such criticisms. On the whole, we spend very little time with them because we don’t understand them. Sure, there are a few famous passages that we turn to regularly with delight, but if Paul was really right that every word of the text was breathed out by God for our benefit, then there’s more here for us than just that handful of easy-to-understand passages. The rest of it simply takes a little bit more work.
That being said, it can feel sometimes like the deck is stacked against us. For starters, there is a huge gulf between our culture and theirs. This means those authors could say things without explanation that their audiences immediately understood, but which leave us scratching our heads in confusion. Perhaps an example will help here. Consider the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” My guess is that you have heard that story told somewhere along the lines of your growing up. As a result, when someone talks about “crying wolf,” they don’t have to explain what they mean to their audience. They can just use the phrase and move on. Everyone understands it.
But let’s say there is a group of anthropologists examining our culture in a thousand years, should our Lord tarry. They may debate endlessly about the meaning of that phrase. They’ll offer theories about the times when we cried, and what kind of a place wolves held in our culture, and the like. Someone will write a book about our penchant for dogs as pets, and theorize to great acclaim in academic circles that the phrase obviously is talking about losing a beloved pet. Since – as everyone knows (see what I did there?) – domesticated dogs all came from wolves, our “crying wolf” is about connecting to the ancestral line of our beloved pets to express our grief in solidarity with the broader “wolf” community in the midst of our loss. And serious scholars will nod in sober agreement with this truly groundbreaking idea, and a whole area of scholarship will develop called “crying wolf studies.” There may even be a sports team that picks up the crying wolf as their mascot, because as everyone knows, when the wolf is crying, it is at its most dangerous point.
Perhaps all of that makes you chuckle a bit, but only because you can easily imagine scholars who take themselves and their craft far too seriously today doing the exact same sort of thing. And there could be a convoluted explanation for this or that, but it may also be that there’s some story that was common then, but is lost to history, that makes it plain and simple.
Still, there are more difficulties than that in approaching the Hebrew prophets and other poetic writings in the Scriptures. We could talk about the language itself. Translation necessarily brings with it at least a small loss of meaning from the original phrasing. When you are translating from a dead language that was actively spoken several thousands of years ago, these challenges become enormously magnified. So often the imagery the prophets use is wild and hard to understand. Ezekiel has long been the best example of this for me personally. When I start reading his descriptions of whatever exactly it was he saw in his vision along the river in Babylon, my eyes go cross and I skip to the next chapter. It takes a lot of work to puzzle out things that like, and we would much prefer to give our primary attention to Jesus’ assurance of God’s love for us expressed through sending His Son to die so that everyone who believes in Him can have eternal life. Sweets are always easier to eat than vegetables. But learning to eat the vegetables will make you stronger in the end.
This all brings us back to these verses. Amos is having another vision from the Lord. This time it comes in the form of a basket of summer fruit. Scholars and laypeople alike puzzle over exactly what this means. I suspect not a few interpreters and preachers who have to put something on the page for their sermon in a few days have come up with all kinds of creative things it could mean and drawn applications from this. There is probably a lengthy essay somewhere about what kinds of fruits were commonly ripe in the summers of ancient Israel and what those might have to do with forthcoming judgment. Someone has probably done a study of ancient horticultural practices and concluded that certain fruits could mean certain things. There’s likely a doctoral student who has done a detailed investigation into the timing of this prophecy and whether or not certain atmospheric conditions at the time could have contributed to certain fruits coming ripe sooner than usual giving us a clue as to what God was trying to convey to Amos here through a basket of summer fruit. Maybe it has something to do with the figs Amos tended before accepting God’s call to be a prophet to Israel.
And perhaps you are already chuckling again at all of this. I’ll confess my tongue is sticking a bit into my cheek. But I genuinely don’t mean any of this to mock. Work like this is often done by serious scholars who are sincerely interested in better understanding the text so that they can help others accurately apply it to their lives. This should be applauded. But in this case – and perhaps some number of others – it could be that the explanation is far simpler than this. We don’t have to worry about what God meant by the basket of summer fruit because He didn’t mean anything by it at all. The object itself wasn’t the point. What mattered was the sound the word made. It rhymes with the Hebrew word for “end.” In getting Amos to say, “summer fruit,” God was able to make the rhyme with the word for “end,” giving Him the opportunity to announce judgment (yet again).
Here’s the point to all of this: Sometimes the text of the Scripture is easier to understand than we think…but only when we know the original language. Before you go throwing up your hands in exasperation that if this is the case, you’ll never be able to understand the Bible so why bother, hear me out for just a second. The Scriptures are God’s revealed words. They were inspired just as they are by His Spirit. His Spirit is alive and active in the words. He is the one who gives understanding. And He can give us understanding we need in a given moment in that moment. You can have all the confidence in the world (or rather, in Him) that when you open the Scriptures, if you are willing to invest a few minutes in reading them carefully, He will help you understand what you need from them. But sometimes He doesn’t do that in a given moment because He is inviting us to dig into them more deeply. There’s no end to the depths of meaning we can find there because we are exploring Him and there’s no end to the depths and richness of who He is.
Yet as much as we can read the text all by ourselves and come away with something truly worthwhile, there is worth to be found in reading them more deeply than that. It is worth your time to engage in real Bible study on a regular basis. You’re probably like me and don’t have anything like the time to do this every day (never mind the fact that I’m a preacher who literally has all day to study the Scriptures, I’m talking about personal devotional times which are as much a time struggle for me as they are for you), my guess is that you probably could budget some time to do this, say, once for thirty minutes during an average week. When you do this, if you really want to get the most out of the text, do it with some sort of original language tool handy. There are obviously books that give plenty of this, but you probably don’t have access to those (unless you live in my community in which case you are welcome to borrow mine). There are programs you can purchase to use to this end like Logos software. There are free resources online. There are also apps for this like the NetBible App which to my knowledge is the single most accessible one out there. Time spent in Bible study won’t ever be wasted, especially when you do it with the right tools at your side to make it more fruitful than you will be entirely on your own. Kickstart your study rhythm today.