(16) Therefore, thus says Yahweh, God of hosts, the Lord:
In all the plazas there will be wailing,
In all the streets they will say, “Woe! Woe!”
And they will call the field workers to mourning,
And wailing to those who know lamentation.
(17) And in all the vineyards, wailing.
Because I will cross over into your midst, says Yahweh.
The Sounds of Mourning
The words, “Woe, woe” in Hebrew are literally “Ho ho.” It is unfortunate that this sounds like it ought to be followed by the words, “Merry Christmas!”, because really this is a graphic description of grief that can find no words to express it. What Amos is talking about is the sound you make when you are utterly devastated or experiencing intense pain, physical or emotional. Specifically he is talking about very public and very loud wailing. In our rather stoic and rather British society we don’t really make a place in our grief for public wailing. This is seen, sometimes, as being showy or artificial. Real grief is quiet and private. Stiff upper lip and all that. Jolly good.
But this is actually an imposition of Victorian British (and perhaps specifically Victorian English) values on the primal human emotion of grief, and in practice it doesn’t really adequately express the horror of grieving a lost loved one. Most human societies throughout history have had a place for public expressions of grief, with women very often taking the lead. Generally these expressions of grief are partially conventional and partially improvised. There is a basic pattern to public grief that allows for personalization. But the conventional framework is not understood to diminish the truthfulness of the grief being expressed thereby. Rather, it aids in the productive expression of grief. It seems to me that we in modern American society don’t really know what to do when our hearts tell us that we need to grieve, because we really don’t have a societally agreed upon mode of grief.
But this is kind of beside the point. What I really want to do is help you understand the world of the text. Amos is talking about loud, public mourning throughout Israel, especially the city of Samaria. He is also talking about a phenomenon we call “professional mourners”. This is what “those who know lamentation” refers to. Now, it is very important that we understand what professional mourning is and what it is not. To modern American and British minds, the very idea of professional mourners sounds repulsive. These people are not expressing real grief. It’s all fake, fabricated, mercenary grief. But again, we need to try to get outside of our inherited British sensibilities and social constructs. In many parts of the world, women, especially older women, will participate in the grieving of other families in the community or even in neighboring communities, and they will be remunerated for their time. The money doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t feel the pain. It doesn’t make it insincere.
Even if they don’t feel the pain, they are performing a service for the family who have lost a loved one. For such cultures the horror of death demands noise. It demands some raucous, terrible means of expression. In such cultures, a widow or a mother cannot by herself express the sorrow she is experiencing from losing her husband or son. She needs her friends and neighbors to help her in expressing her grief. This is the service that professional mourners provide. It is found among many people groups throughout the world, and it is a legitimate, even vital, function in their communities. When Amos says, “they will call the field workers” he is saying that there will not be enough professional mourners to deal with all the funerals. They will have to call in those who work in the field, bringing them from their vital work, to supplement the numbers of the professional mourners. So the picture Amos is painting for us is a city whose streets and plazas are all filled with the horrific sounds of grief, and even that sound will not be enough to express the depth of the sorrow.
The final sentence, “I will cross over into your midst”, perhaps recalls the tenth and final Egyptian plague, the death of the firstborn. In other places, God being in the midst of the people is a good thing: a sign of God’s pleasure and a guarantee of his protection. In Amos 5:17, however, it is the opposite. A people who are not living in a way that pleases God do not want God to be in their midst, because his presence is like a fire, both refining what is already pure and at the same time destroying what is impure.