When it comes to the preaching of prophetic books in 21st century American churches, there is typically a lot of absence and misunderstanding. In our culture, the tendency is to only preach on certain topics or to exposit only certain books of the Bible. These books that are most often preached, at least in many evangelical circles tend to be the four gospels and Paul’s letters. In fact, the Old Testament is mostly ignored in many pulpits today, but if any books are avoided, typically the prophets will be avoided. This is the result of a couple of things.
Firstly, the prophetic books contain messages of judgment that do not sit well with many 21st century Americans and even modern-day Christians cringe at the judgment of God on Israel and the nations. Often the accounts of God’s dealings with Israel and the nations do not end as a happy story for most of the people, so we do not know how to handle these countless oracles of destruction.
Secondly, many Christians struggle to understand the prophetic word and its relevance for modern-day Christians. In other words, we often ask ourselves if these oracles that are difficult to understand anyway are really that important for us. Therefore, many pastors do not preach on prophetic books like Amos because the congregation will not see the relevancy of the message of this prophet.
Despite these two unfortunate realities concerning the preaching of the prophetic word, author T.J. Betts has provided a work that shatters these barriers when it comes to one particular prophet. A distinguished professor of Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Betts gives a verse by verse commentary that addresses the historical significance of the message of Amos through a Christological lens with a sensitivity to modern-day application and relevancy. Though worthy commentaries are typically guilty of being boring or dry, Betts’ commentary on the book of Amos is rich with content, theological value, and practical application.
T.J. Betts has written his commentary in a familiar fashion, as most commentaries are divided in the way his is. The chapters in this book hit on each verse in the book of Amos and discuss a major theme of the book. It seems that the book is divided into fourteen mini-sermons. Instead of the book being divided into sections, each chapter divides the book of Amos. Chapter one focuses on the first two verses of the book and Amos the man as an every day, ordinary man who led a humble life in Judah as a shepherd called by God to proclaim a message of judgment and hope upon Israel. Chapter two (Amos 1:3-2:5) moves on to the judgments pronounced on the nations surrounding Israel, a message they were eager to hear. In chapter three (Amos 2:6-16), Betts discusses Israel’s error in taking God’s past grace for granted as they relied on God’s past grace while living in sin. Chapter four plays off of the previous chapter and goes further into how the privileged nature Israel found herself was no reason to boast and then live in sin, but responsibility to live in obedience to the covenant. This faithful exposition of the biblical text is continued through chapter fourteen as the reasons for Israel’s judgment is explained (chapters 5-9) and the just and righteous judgment of God is expressed (chapters 10-13) with a closing message of hope (chapter 14).
In all of this faithful exegesis with splashes of historical data seen here and there, Betts gives countless helpful practical applications for the modern reader without falling into the trap of moralism. Each chapter is introduced typically with an illustration or prefatory word and then followed by a section of historical context to set the stage for the biblical exegesis of the passage at hand. From this point, Betts includes vital practical applications. In a sense, he goes above and beyond the call of duty of a commentator. However, this pattern is not followed in every chapter. Some of the chapters go from historical perspective to biblical verse-by-verse exegesis with practical applications sprinkled throughout the chapter. Nevertheless, these three aspects are consistent throughout this work on the book of Amos: historical context, biblical exegesis, and practical application. Therefore, the purpose of this book seems to be two-fold:
- To increase understanding of the book of Amos by exegeting the text and being faithful to the text without going beyond the text.
- To accurately show the relevance of the book of Amos for modern-day Christians.
From beginning to end, Betts gracefully intertwines the significance of the text for the readers in Amos’ day with the significance of the text for modern-day readers. He does this by not going further than the text allows. He draws countless implications, but they are all the result of faithful exegesis. While many reliable commentaries typically follow traditional hermeneutical patterns and hard-working exegesis, what separates this commentary from the rest of the pack is its richness in practical application. Because of Betts’ emphasis on historical context, biblical exegesis, and practical application, he gives us a scholarly commentary that many lay people would actually enjoy reading.
This balance can be noted throughout Amos and Betts does not seem to employ a distinctive pattern to which he follows. Some chapters involve more historical context than others while others more heavily emphasize strict biblical exegesis. It is also worth noting that Betts gives a sermon-like vibe in each chapter. The historical context of the verses at hand is explained. Betts then basically outlines the text (does expository writing) and then describes the importance and implications of what the text is saying through illustrations and practical applications. For a pastor, this makes this work an invaluable resource as the reading of this book could make sermon prep less strenuous. The natural flow of each chapter from one set of verses to the next with a healthy mix of exegesis and application is this book’s greatest strength.
Betts’ writing style as evidenced above is extremely edifying and although he gives us helpful practical applications, he does not sacrifice the importance of proper exegesis in the process. This balance marks the book and makes the message of Amos both clear in understanding and relevant in application for the church today and tomorrow.
In closing, T.J. Betts has produced a unique commentary on the book of Amos. This work is scholarly enough for serious biblical and theological study and practical enough for the layperson and for the pastor to use closely in sermon writing. This commentary goes to the heart of Amos’ message as Betts drags out his message of judgment against Israel while highlighting the hope of God’s grace in his salvation of a remnant of Israel. This author takes this message of judgment and hope and relays it to the church in the 21st century through a healthy balance of historical perspective, biblical exegesis, and practical applications. The message of Amos is made clear and is proven relevant for the church for all time.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY. with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.