For three, and for four

OK, here is what I've got on Amos' use of numbers in the first two chapters of his book.


First, the structure has been carefully chosen to be very close to the tetrad forms of the kind found in Proverbs 30.

Three things are never satisfied; four never say, "Enough" (v15)
Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand (v18)
Under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up (v21)
Three things are stately in their tread; four are stately in their stride (v29)

These tetrad forms were apparently a popular Jewish teaching device of the time. The introduction of the elements as three, and then four, was to give emphasis to the fourth item. I guess they are an ultra-micro version of a three-point sermon with a conclusion — no wonder they were popular! ;-) The fact that Amos chose to use a form (very similar) to these tetrads, perhaps implies that he was a prophet who also had a teaching ministry, or maybe a prophetic teacher — I like that! This might also explain his reticence to include himself among the mainstream prophets of his day. (pure speculation of course!)

But I stressed, that his words are very close to this kind of tetrad, because although they are crafted to have the same form as this device, Amos' words are not tetrads! If they had been they would have been subtly different. If Amos had said:

"For three sins of Damascus I will not revoke the punishment; for four my wrath will not be turned away."

This would have been a true tetrad. But he didn't; the structure of the sentence is very close, but subtly and deliberately different. Also note that unlike the tetrads in proverbs, no list of four sins or transgressions is listed - just one! What Amos is actually saying is "For three sins and for four", in other words in a roundabout way he is saying: "For seven sins of Damascus...."


This leads on to the second point. The symbolic use of the number seven in scripture is clear and unambiguous. It represents fullness or completeness, because on the seventh day God rested from all his work of creation. Seven transgressions would thus correspond to a full measure of sinfulness.

Compare this with the following scriptures:

In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure. (Ge 15:16)

In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last. (1Th 2:16)

God is the creator of emotions, and he is an emotional God. He feels anger, love, zeal, even hatred and jealousy. But unlike human emotions, the emotions of God are never from wrong motives or out of control. God is never in an out of control rage, but he does decide to get angry. In his mercy and his forbearance he does not respond immediately to sin, but allows time for repentance and restoration, but there comes a point when sinfulness reaches its limit, and God decides, enough is enough; I'm going to get angry now.

Amos was prophesying that the sins of the neighbouring nations, and of Judah and Israel themselves, had reached that limit; God's judgement was imminent.

And something else I can't quite put my finger on....

The third layer of symbolism is one that I have not quite pinned down yet! I just have a gut instinct that there must be more here. I'm not trying to force the scriptures to say anything that is contrary to the plain reading of the text; I'm not looking for any "hidden coded messages". I believe, despite what some may think after reading the latter part of Daniel, that the purpose of prophetic symbolism, and all prophetic communication for that matter, is always to illuminate never to obfuscate! And it is for this reason that I feel there is more here.

The main message of Amos is clearest understood as "For seven sins of....", so why would he split it into 3 / 4 unless there was some more significant symbolism to be communicated by doing so. Although the tetrad device is clever, I do not for one minute think that the prophet communicated this way just to show off how clever or educated he was. "I may be a farm boy, but get a load of this..." No, just doesn't sit right. The prophet is bringing the symbolism of the number 3 and/or the number 4 into play.

My first reaction was to link this and contrast it with the three righteous men mentioned by Ezekiel in his judgements of the nations: Noah, Daniel and Job could save only themselves if they were present (Eze 14:16,18). But on closer inspection it didn't seem to stick.

Something to chew over, and come back to another day, I think. My good friend Matthew has already suggested a possible significance of the 3 / 4 split in a comment on my previous post, that I think has some mileage.

1 comment:

Chris HH said...

A couple of 3-4s that have come to my attention as I have been re-reading Daniel:

Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, "Weren't there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?" They replied, "Certainly, O king." He said, "Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods." (Da 3:24-25)

Three more kings will appear in Persia, and then a fourth, who will be far richer than all the others. (Da 11:2)