Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters, and Righteousness Like a Mighty Stream (Amos 3-6)

Nigel Chapman, 28 Mar 2015

The current study of the Eighth Century Prophets has been one of the highlights of my year. They are among most striking expressions of social justice in Christian Scripture, and Amos, from 765 BCE, is both the earliest of them, and the most evocative. You can find quotes from Amos in most of Rev. Martin Luther King’s best known letters and speeches: “I’ve been to the Mountaintop”, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” “The Power of Nonviolence” — and he liked this one verse most of all:

Martin Luther King, with Amos 5:24

Justice, righteousness and courage are why this book exists, why it judges, and why it inspires. Amos was just a farmer, not a recognized priest or prophet, yet in Amos 7, he is reported to the local King for inciting conspiracy. What was so wrong in Israel that he took his life in his hands to travel up from Judah and condemn it publicly at major shrines and festivals? — “Come to Bethel — and sin!” (4:4). 

When Amos thinks of Israel’s sin, he mainly condemns the oppression of the lower working class in Israel by the prosperous upper class. “Assemble yourselves on Mount Samaria, and see … what oppressions are in its midst. They do not know how to do right, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds” (3:9-10). They “turn justice to wormwood,* and bring righteousness to the ground?” (5:7, cf. 6:12) “They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth,” (5:10) They “trample on the poor, and take from them levies of grain … afflict the righteous, … take a bribe, and push the needy aside in the gate” (5:11-12). This perversion of the courts has a chilling effect: “the prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time.” (5:13). The weak have have no recourse against the strong, and he declares that judgment is waiting. In chapter eight, he will sum up his charges:

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, … skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. (8:4-6)

This oppression of the poor is compounded by the luxury and indifference of the rich, their winter and summer houses, and opulent ivory furniture (3:15). Matriarchs crush their workers, “and say to their husbands, bring us a drink!” (4:1) The wealthy are “at ease in Zion,” (6:1) where they drink and sing, and lounge and strum, but have no grief for “the ruin of Joseph**” (6:5-6). That could refer to a few different things, but the indifference being condemned is clear. There had been military and natural disasters recently (see chapter 1, or 4:6-11), but the well-off were used to prosperity now, and were finding new ways to maintain it.

There was religious hypocrisy, too, and not just the idolatry in 5:25. Amos’s audience LOVED religious festivals (4:4-5). But what were festivals without justice or righteousness? The Lord said — not to put too fine a point on it — “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; … Take away from me the noise of your songs… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:21-24). You can see how that spoke to MLK.

So prepare, the prophet says, to meet your God (4:12). He says it will not be what you expect. “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord?” — What will that mean for the oppressor? — “It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear!” (5:18-19).

What then should they do? “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (5:15).

On casual reading through it can be hard to see the justice for the wall-to-wall judgments in Amos. But once you do, it’s hard to miss their application to a raft of problems in our own society today.

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* Wormwood, a bitter herb, was a byword for bitterness.

** Israel, the Northern Kingdom at this time, is figuratively called Joseph because it included the tribal lands of Mannaseh and Ephraim, the sons of Joseph.

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