Question: "Why does Amos keep repeating 'for three sins . . . even for four' in chapters 1-2?"
Answer: The phrase “for three sins . . . even for four” is a common phrase in Amos (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). Used a total of eight times in the book, these words play a special role in the way Amos communicates sin and judgment. “Three sins” represents fullness or completeness; “four” represents an overflow or a sin that is the tipping point for God’s judgment. The word sins or transgressions in Hebrew specifically refers to “rebellions.” The first two chapters of Amos contain eight messages against the nations, including Judah and Israel, condemning them for their rebellion against the Lord.
Interestingly, “for three sins . . . even for four” is not followed by four specific sins. In fact, the typical pattern is to list one or two sins and move on. Therefore, the expression is not meant to imply a specific number of sins but to communicate that there is an excess of sins that have led to God’s judgment.
Each of Amos’s eight messages follows a similar pattern. First, there is the phrase “for three sins . . . even for four.” Second, one or two specific sins are mentioned regarding the nation being addressed. Third, a judgment is given. Amos starts with Israel’s enemies and ends with oracles against Judah and Israel.
Judah (Amos 2:4-5) is accused of three specific sins (rejecting the Law, not keeping its statutes, and lying) and is judged with fire on the nation and Jerusalem. Israel (Amos 2:6-16) is condemned with a complete list of seven sins and receives an extended discussion of its coming judgments.
While God clearly condemned the sins of the surrounding nations, Amos’ message is dominated by judgment against Israel. Yet, even in judgment, there is hope. The conclusion of his prophecy (9:11-15) speaks of a time of future blessing for Israel. The book’s final verse reads, “‘I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,’ says the LORD your God.” Though Israel would be taken from its land (as a result of attacks by Assyria and Babylon), its people would one day return to the land and live in prosperity with their Messiah.