Summary: The worst famines are artificially made ones.
Famine in a Time of Plenty
Amos 8:11: “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.”
Times were relatively good in both Israel and Judah in the time of the Prophet Amos, at least if one was rich. Jeroboam II reigned for forty years in Israel and Uzziah for fifty-two years in Jerusalem. This shows that both nations were relatively stable. But within the span of a few years, Israel would be led into captivity in Assyria and Judah would only be saved by the miraculous intervention of Yahweh. Assyria was the elephant in the room. The well-being of the lesser nations was dependent upon good relations with Assyria. This means that these nations had to pay Assyria tribute money to maintain their status. This is the reality when a nation forgets the mighty acts of Yahweh’s deliverance for Israel and is left to the world’s devices.
Beneath the ivory palaces, things were different. The rich were getting richer at the expense of the poor. For example, Amos says: “ Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail, Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit? That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat? (Amos 8:4-6) The rich always seem to make others pay the tribute. They make a show of paying high taxes, but for them it is more of an investment which will reap great dividends. Everyone else gets impoverished. The situation was the same in Judah as well. There the Prophet Isaiah says: “How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers. Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water: Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them. (Isaiah 1:21-23)
The common people of Israel were suffering from famine and oppression in a time of plenty. Instead of the rich sharing their bounty to help their fellow Israelite, they were only interested in making their own families rich. This famine of bread among the common Israelites was entirely the result of another worse famine. There was a famine for hearing the Word of God. It’s not that God had not raised up prophets. Amos says so in Amos 2:11 and other places. But instead of listening, they instead corrupted the prophets and the Nazarites. How many reformers end up getting ensnared in the system! God’s word was available, but the people shut their ears to them, just as they shut their ears to Amos. Israel had been so wicked for a long time since they broke off from Judah to form their own nation. There the first Jeroboam set up two calves as idols in Beersheba and Dan. We think of Ahab and Jezebel. In spite of their rebellion, we can think of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha whom God sent to warn the leadership and the people to repentance.
The famine of the Word of God, then, was not a failure on God’s part to look after Israel. God remained faithful to His covenant despite their unfaithfulness. This was entirely a manufactured famine. It was not necessary. But the leaders of Israel wanted to replace the reign of Yahweh with their own reign. Everyone in this fallen world seeks the opportunity to replace God with themselves. They want to boast of their own autonomy. The word itself means to be a law unto one’s self. We in our fallen nature do not want anyone else to tell us what to do. This behavior can only be overcome by force. This is why when God is shut out of the picture that rulers become tyrants. The rich are never satisfied with their riches. They want even more. So would we all if given the opportunity. The leaders impose their “free wills” over the people. When you take free will away from God who is the only one who can exercise it properly, it always leads to the situation we find in Amos’ day.
God pronounces severe judgment upon Israel. He starts in Amos by pronouncing judgment upon the surrounding nations. So far, so good. The natural man always wants grace for one’s self and judgment upon rivals and enemies. But then the judgment is prophesied against Israel’s sister Judah. Finally, it is pronounced against Israel itself. The judgment is going to be severe. The nation is going to go into cruel captivity. Israel will be wiped off the face of the earth by Assyria. But Assyria is only the means by which Yahweh will judge them. Israel was going to perish in a spiritual famine. Israel’s identity was tied up in its relation to Yahweh who had delivered them out of Egypt. It was based upon a covenant the LORD had made with them. Without this, they were no different from all the other nations. A nation perishes when it forgets its identity. It destroys its history and, therefore, herself. Destroying history is an artificial famine with devastating effect. Many individuals in Israel would live to be carried off naked as captives in Assyria. But they were no longer Israelites. They were identified in relation to some other god and to some other king.