When the book of Amos says, "let justice roll down like a river," it may surprise us. As this book shows, God's idea of justice is different than our own.
Justice is the word of this era. We hear it on the news, social media, in the workplace, in our communities and in our churches. We hear the rallying calls for social justice, we cry for justice for innocent victims of oppression, and we pray for biblical justice against God's enemies. Amos tells us that God requires justice more than sacrifices and offerings. In fact, God says to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24 NIV). Others (most notably Martin Luther King, Jr.) paraphrased the verse as "let justice roll down like a river." This is a powerful image, but how do we live it out? How do we as believers live out biblical justice in our daily lives?
What Is Biblical Justice?
While justice is mentioned nearly 160 times in the Bible, there is no singular definition for our English equivalent. Throughout the Old Testament, justice was mostly retributive (known as lex talionis). God instituted this type of justice, which was to flow as freely and abundantly as a river, to make sure the wrong-doer was punished, but also that the punishment did not surpass their crime. This equal and opposite reaction to the crime helped to stop the never-ending cycle of vengeance.
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The prophet Isaiah stressed the need for מִישֹׁר (mîshôr) which primarily addresses social injustice. In Isaiah 10:1-2, he writes “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” God is calling for the care and protection of the marginalized and oppressed. The Jewish law is based on דּוּן (dīn), justice in a legal and administrative sense. Finally, there is the prophet Amos and his cry for מִשְפָּט (mishpāt), which is rooted in the concepts of fairness and equity.
Who Wrote, "Let Justice Roll Down Like a River"?
The book of Amos was written by an Israelite named Amos. Amos is most likely the earliest of the Old Testament writers. He is unique in that he was not a priest nor a professional prophet. In fact, it would be easy to mistake him as an uneducated farmhand. He is described as “one of the shepherds of Tekoa '' in Amos 1:1, and as “taking care of sycamore-fig trees” in 7:11.
However, a careful look at the original text shows that underestimating Amos's intelligence and education would be a mistake. The Hebrew word נֹקֵד, used for "shepherd" in verse 1:1, is only used one other time in the Old Testament. It is a reference to Mesha, the king of Moab, as a “sheep breeder,” meaning he was a wealthy landowner (2 Kings 3:4).
What Was the History Surrounding Amos 5:24?
Amos’ literary skills and awareness of the international, economic, and political powers of the day suggests he was a very educated man. He lived in a time when Israel was experiencing great prosperity albeit under the wicked king, Jeroboam the Second. This king was a successful military leader but he allowed idol worship of the Canaanite gods and turned a blind eye to injustice and neglect of the poor. This led to national apathy overall and in relation to God.
God called Amos, then living in Southern Judah, to the temple in Northern Israel to proclaim His judgment. Amos had the unenviable task of telling his kinsman that God did not want their half-hearted worship and rote religious practices, especially their mistreatment of the poor and needy, turning a blind eye to human trafficking, and living in open rebellion towards God.
God’s Just Judgment for the Unjust
Since they claimed to be the chosen people of God, Amos pointed out their hypocrisy because they showed no mercy or compassion to others. He was proclaiming judgments over the neighboring countries first. If one were to list them in order on a map, they would form two concurrent circles, with Israel in the middle. It would resemble a target with Israel/Judah as the bullseye.
The repeated use of the phrase “For three transgressions of ____, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” suggested that God had already given multiple warnings and opportunities to repent. The consequence was the same in all eight oracles. God will “send a fire” or אֵ֖שׁ (an outburst of God’s anger), possibly symbolizing war, economic depression or destruction. This would have been devastating news to the wealthy and economically booming countries such as Israel.
The charges in the first six oracles are remarkably similar with a strong focus on the crime of human trafficking and profiting from the slave trade. There was an overall lack of compassion towards God’s people, especially women and children. Edom was chastised “because his anger raged continually and his fury flamed unchecked,” (Amos 1:11 NIV). Anger is not a sin per se but it is against God’s nature to live in a state of continued anger and allow the emotion to control behavior. Micah reminds us “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18 NIV). Several of the oracles also condemned the breaking of “brotherhood” or alliances, which is never acceptable, even in ancient warfare. God takes covenant relationships very seriously.
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What Makes Amos’s Message Unique?
Unlike other Old Testament prophets who pepper morsels of hope and restoration throughout their messages, Amos offers only judgment and consequences until the last four verses (however, even those words are wrapped around the judgment of Edom). This shows how concerned God is with justice (especially social and restorative). He indeed wants justice to flow like a river and expects His people to use what He has blessed them with to alleviate the suffering of others.
Jesus made this very clear in His teachings as well. To understand God’s justice is to reflect on how we treat other people. God expects no one to be excluded or mistreated, and for no lives to be valued more than others simply because of wealth or status. Benevolence and justice are parts of God’s character, and He holds His creation to the same standard. All of the Old Testament prophets stressed the importance of ethical life to true worship, a theme repeated by Jesus and by numerous New Testament authors. Amos, however, spoke from the viewpoint of the victims, showing that whether the action is socially acceptable or not, God sides with the vulnerable and wounded.
Let’s remember today that justice rolls when we follow God to make things right that we know aren’t fair or don’t match what God has required. Our external show of godliness doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t an internal dedication to justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the oppressed. Micah 6:8 tells us “The LORD God has told us what is right and what he demands: ‘See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God’.”
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Kelly Campbell, team manager for Wholly Loved Ministries, survived a massive stroke at 40 and has come through with a passion for prayer and other survivors. She is currently completing her Masters of Divinity in Healthcare Chaplaincy and serves on the board of directors for the Brain Injury Association of Georgia (BIAG). Kelly currently leads the prayer team at her church in Woodstock, GA. She is a single mother of adult sons and has two beautiful daughters-in-law. She leads a number of brain injury support groups around her home state of Georgia and loves to use her testimony to help others.
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