Let [God’s] Justice Roll

18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
    Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
19     as if a man fled from a lion,
    and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
    and a serpent bit him.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
    and gloom with no brightness in it?

21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
    I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

25 “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, 27 and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts. Amos 5:18-27 ESV

Let justice roll down.

When considered alongside our current cultural milieu, those four simple words carry more weight than they usually might. But before we put them on a banner or add them as a tagline to our next social media post, we need to understand their context. With all the current emphasis on social justice and equality, it would be easy to use this section of Amos as a proof text for promoting radical reform – especially among the people of God. And there is little doubt that God had serious problems with the injustice being practiced by the Israelites. He accused them of turning “justice to wormwood” (Amos 5:7 ESV). The laws that God had given them were meant to improve their relationships with one another, but their refusal to obey those laws had resulted in bitterness, not joy.

God pulled no punches when He addressed their unrighteous and unjust behavior toward one another. But He made it clear that it all began with their lack of love for His ways.

“How you hate honest judges!
    How you despise people who tell the truth!
You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.” – Amos 5:10-11 NLT

They had long ago stopped hearing from God. They refused to listen to His prophets and rejected His calls to repentance. Their horizontal behavior was a byproduct of their vertical relationship with Him. Without a proper love and reverence for God, they were ill-equipped to show love to one another. And that is the real point of this passage.

The reason they regularly turned aside the needy in the gate (Amos 5:12) was because they had turned away from the worship of Yahweh. And the answer to their problem was not that they do a better job of justice-keeping. It was that they begin to make the worship of God a high priority in their lives. That’s why He told them to “Seek the Lord and live…” (Amos 5:6 ESV).

It all began with a return to Him. Their ability to do what was just and right was directly tied to a faithful relationship with Him. That is why God repeatedly states, “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4 ESV), and then adds, “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live” (Amos 5:14 ESV). They couldn’t do one without the other. It all had to begin with a sincere seeking of God. Attempting to do good without a healthy and vibrant relationship with God would prove ineffective and non-productive.

God’s command that they “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15 ESV), would be impossible if they failed to seek and serve Him alone.  The only way they could know the difference between good and evil was through a knowledge of God’s holy law. They weren’t free to establish their own definition of righteousness or to determine what they believed to be just and right behavior. God had already done that through the giving of the law.

When God had given the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, He had laid out in black and white terms exactly what He expected of His people. The law was meant to define and regulate every area of their behavior. It provided non-negotiable requirements for their conduct, not suggested guidelines that could be accepted or ignored.

And, according to Jesus, the entire Mosaic law could be summed up in two very specific and interrelated laws:

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40 NLT

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that a love for God and a love for others went hand in hand. They were inseparable. In fact, the apostle John would expand on this thought when he wrote, “We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19 NLT). And John didn’t stop there. He went on to add a further clarification that reveals that God’s love for us was never intended to dead-end on us. It was meant to shared.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:19-21 NLT

So, let’s go back to our verses for today. Amos warns the people of Israel about the danger of longing for “the day of the Lord”  (Amos 5:18 ESV). That phrase was a popular one among the people of God because it was thought to refer to a future period of time when God’s blessings would fall on Israel. It was believed to be a time when God would mete out His well-deserved judgment upon the nations of the earth, while fulfilling every promise of blessing upon His chosen people: the nation of Israel. And they had plenty of Old Testament passages to support their view.

For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
    your deeds shall return on your own head. – Obadiah 15 ESV

Then the Lord will pity his people
    and jealously guard the honor of his land.
The Lord will reply,
“Look! I am sending you grain and new wine and olive oil,
    enough to satisfy your needs.
You will no longer be an object of mockery
    among the surrounding nations.” – Joel 2:18-19 NLT

The truth is, the people of Israel tended to hear what they wanted to hear. As a result, their view of the coming day of the Lord was a bit skewed. It was going to be all good news for them and bad news for their enemies. Yet, Amos reveals that there mighty be cause for them to rethink their rather rosy perspective.

What sorrow awaits you who say,
    “If only the day of the Lord were here!”
You have no idea what you are wishing for.
    That day will bring darkness, not light. – Amos 5:18 NLT

When that day finally arrived, it was going to deliver an outcome that was dramatically different than the one they were expecting.

Yes, the day of the Lord will be dark and hopeless,
    without a ray of joy or hope. – Amost 5:20 NLT

While they were expecting deliverance, they would end up experiencing nothing but  disaster and harsh discipline from the hand of God. And just so they understood why the day of the Lord would fail to deliver what they were expecting, God explained the root cause of His dissatisfaction with them.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. – Amos 5:21 NLT

Everything they did was a sham, a highly orchestrated religious show meant to impress their friends and neighbors. It was nothing more than fake piety and religious play-acting. But God had not been fooled. And not only that, He was sick of the whole thing and no longer willing to put up with their little charade. And He told them so.

“I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.” – Amos 5:22-23 NLT

God was going to put an end to their hypocrisy. He would no longer allow them to go through the motions, pretending to be something they were not. Which brings us back to the topic of justice. God was looking for proof that they really did love Him and knew what He expected from them. And just to make sure they understood what kind of proof He was looking for, He told them.

“I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
    an endless river of righteous living.” – Amos 5:24 NLT

Now, here’s what we need to understand about this passage. God knew full well that His people would never deliver that for which He was looking. In other words, they would never produce a mighty flood of justice. They would never create an endless river of righteous living. But He would. God Almighty was going to make sure that His brand of justice was meted out, regardless of whether the recipient was a member of the chosen people of God or an idol-worshiping pagan. God would deliver His brand of justice to any and all. And through the gift of His Son, He would make possible “an endless river of righteous living” for all those who place their faith in Him.

And the apostle Paul would later tell the Gentile believers living in Ephesus some great news:

Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. – Ephesians 2:11-13 NLT

The people of Israel were without excuse. They had been chosen by God. They had been given the holy and righteous law of God to guide their lives. He had graciously and miraculously delivered them from their captivity in Egypt. And they had repaid the favor by worship false gods, even as He led them to the land of Promise.

So, God delivers some very bad but well-deserved news.

“So I will send you into exile, to a land east of Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of Heaven’s Armies. – Amos 5:27 NLT

God would deliver justice. But, as a result of His decision to mete out divine judgment upon His chosen people, the long-term consequences would produce an endless river of righteous living. God would punish His people for their sin and rebellion. But the day would come when He would rescue them and restore them to the land of Canaan. And centuries later, He would send His Son into the world, the seed of Abraham, the son of David, and the Savior of the world.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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