Three and four
The prophet Amos records the phrase “three transgressions” eight times in his book. He says, “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment” (1:3). Then, he repeats it in chapter 1: 6, 9, 11, 13 and chapter 2:1, 4, 6.
This phrase is not meant to point to a specific number of sins but to say that there are a great number of sins that have demanded God’s judgment. Therefore, the numbers should not be understood literally, as referring to a specific number. Three is used to represent a great number. And four is added to give the reader the idea of a good measure. Some other Bible examples are:
The style of enumeration was an old poetic tool found also in the Canaanite literature of Ugarit. The following is an example from Ugaritic: “Baal hates two sacrifices, yea three, the rider of the clouds, the sacrifice of shame and the sacrifice of baseness, and the sacrifice of the abuse of handmaids.”
Apparently, “three transgressions” were enough to show deliberate and incurable wrongdoing. But the nations mentioned in chapters 1 and 2 had all exceeded even this limit. They continued in transgression which resulted in piling its guilt. Although the Lord is patient with the sinners, if they persist in their evil ways, they can cross the limit of His forbearance.
The chief goal of Amos was to point to the transgressions of God’s people, that they may repent. The prophet rebuked the sins that sprang from material prosperity, luxury, idolatry and oppression to the poor through bribery. God called him to warn Israel, Judah, and the surrounding nations of the divine judgments that were sure to come upon them if they continue in sin. The prophet first starts with Israel’s foes and ends with judgement against Judah and Israel. Judah is charged of three sins: rejecting the Law, not keeping its statutes, and lying (Amos 2:4-5). Therefore, it is judged with fire. Israel is judged with seven sins and receives more judgments (Amos 2:6-16).
A message of hope
However, Amos ends his book with a hopeful picture of the ultimate victory of righteousness over iniquity. ”I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; they shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them” (Amos 9:14).
The main fulfillment of this verse was when the Jews’ returned from captivity at the close of the 70 years’ (2 Chronicles 36:22, 23; Jeremiah 29:10–14). However, this will be completely fulfilled at the end of the great battle between good and evil, when the “captives” saved from this earth will dwell in the eternal kingdom of glory (Isaiah 65:21, 22).
In His service,