Amos prophesied in the eighth century before Christ during the reign of Jeroboam II (II Kings 13:13, 14:16, 23, 27, 28, 29, 15:1, 8; 1 Chronicles 5:17; Hosea 1:1; Amos 1:1, 7:9, 10). One of Amos’ major themes is social justice. Even though he categorizes Israel as being unjust, he readily admits that the people have maintained an outward appearance of worship.
Amos argues against such ritualistic religion. In discussing the Day of the Lord (Amos 5:18-27), Amos informs his audience that God will not accept worship from a community that does not value justice and righteousness (Amos 5:21-23). After stating what God does not want but is receiving, Amos erupts with what God does want but is not receiving:
“But let justice roll down like watersAmos 5:24 has become a well know exhortation. Thomas J. Finley (b. 1945) lauds, “In one masterful stroke Amos summarizes the heart of what God requires (Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah - An Exegetical Commentary, 222).”
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24 NASB)
Amos, a shepherd in his former life (Amos 1:1, 7:14), drew upon imagery he knew well - the importance of water. The prophet often draws upon the calamity of drought to illustrate his points (Amos1:2, 4:7-8, 7:4). While desert streams would often dry up Amos, like Psalms and Ezekiel (Psalms 74:15; Ezekiel 47:1-12), pictures an ever flowing stream.
Amos’s famous claim that God rejects hollow worship is a bold reiteration of Amos 5:14-15 and echoes Isaiah 1:10-17. James Luther Mays (b. 1921) summarizes: “The hatred of Yahweh against the worship of his people–that is the shock of this word. Righteousness in the courts and markets instead of liturgies and offerings in the shrines–that is the Revelation in this word (Mays, Amos: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 106).”
Simply put, God does not want worship from an unjust people. Thomas Edward McComiskey (1928-1996) reminds that God “wants worship in spirit and in truth. True worshipers of the Lord, who do worship in spirit and in truth, will bear the fruit of the Spirit in their private lives and in their public conduct. In their society, justice will flow like healing waters (Ezekiel 47:1-12) and righteousness like a perennial wadi (McComiskey, The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, 432).”
Do you behave differently in church than you do in society? What is the relationship between righteousness and justice? How do your religious beliefs directly help the most poor and needy in your community?
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), a Baptist preacher by trade, alluded to this passage in his legendary “I Have A Dream Speech”. On August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King called for racial equality and an end to discrimination. In the speech’s tenth stanza, King exclaimed, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Did Dr. King use Amos 5:24 properly? What groups now are as deprived of justice as African-Americans were in 1963? How is your religion helping to eliminate that injustice?