2. Amos: The God of JusticeRelated Media
Words to Anchor your Soul
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 5:24 (ESV)
“Gross injustice demonstrates a basic premise: in our world something is terribly wrong and cries out to be made right,” explains Fleming Rutledge in her masterpiece The Crucifixion.1 We all know this in our hearts, but often we don’t concern ourselves with justice until it affects us personally. Note the scales of justice icon for Amos.
You may have already memorized this week’s verse. I learned it in the King James version which translates the Hebrew word in the first line as judgment. The NET version uses “right actions” for the word righteousness, but Amos is actually using synonyms in these two lines.
Sometimes we think of righteousness as a nebulous characteristic of God that Jesus gives us so that we are forgiven in the court of judgment. But that’s only partly true. Rutledge explains what we who read and speak English miss: “. . . the English words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ sound nothing like each other. However, these two words, ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ not semantically connected in English, are the same word-group in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and in the Greek of the New . . . . God’s justice and God’s righteousness are essentially the same thing.”2
Rutledge explains: “When we read in the Old Testament that God is just and righteous, this doesn’t refer to a threatening abstract quality that God has over against us. It is much more like a verb than a noun, because it refers to the power of God to make right what has been wrong.”3 (emphasis added)
As we read the prophets, we recognize how important justice is to God. It is a quality of who he is and what he does—right actions. On our behalf, he alone makes what is unjust right by Jesus’s death on the cross. He rectifies all wrongs by paying for our injustices. No, we can’t fix another person’s sin as God did, but we are to be just and do what is right as nations, as the church which represents God on earth, and as individuals.
As we move into the prophets’ messages, it’s important to understand that they were overwhelmingly directed at God’s people. Sometimes they included warnings for other nations, but more often they alerted the Jews that God would judge them corporately.
Although a child of God won’t be judged eternally for her sins for which Jesus paid, the church remains responsible as a body and may face judgment on earth (Revelation 2-3). We Americans are very individualistic, and God does see us as individuals, but God also sees us as part of the corporate church. He purifies us as a group because we all bear responsibility for the whole. “For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household. And if judgment begins with us, what terrible fate awaits those who have never obeyed God’s Good News?” (1 Peter 4:17, NLT). The prophets not only call us to repent and return home to God, but they also prepare the church to expect God’s judgment on us first if we ignore their messages as the Jews did.
As we interpret and apply the messages of the prophets, we will read announcements of judgment on God’s people (Judah and Israel) and also the nations that surrounded them who did not worship Yahweh God. In the same way, the church and the nations we inhabit are responsible to God the Creator and face his judgment when we refuse to listen to and apply his warnings. (If you haven’t already done so, read “Applying the Prophets’ Messages” under “Understanding the Prophets” in the Appendix.)
Part One Study
Amos was from Judah (the southern kingdom) and yet preached in the northern kingdom of Israel during the days of the divided kingdom, about 750 B.C. or so. Approximately thirty years later in 722 B.C., the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians and its people were taken captive.
James Montgomery Boice says this: “The Book of Amos is one of the most readable, relevant, and moving portions of the Word of God. But in much of church history (until very recent times) little or no attention has been paid to it. Why? It is because the book speaks powerfully against social injustices and religious formalism . . . .”4 In other words we don’t like hearing it.
Amos prophesied in a time of prosperity in the northern kingdom when the rich were treating the poor callously. Consider parallels in today’s early 21st century as you read.
The first six chapters of Amos are structured as oracles, or “oral messages from God.”5
*** Read more about oracles in the Appendix section “Understanding the Prophets,” and look over the chart “The History of Old Testament Israel.” Note your insights.
Read Amos 1:1-2:16. (1.1-2.3 are oracles for neighboring countries; 2:4-5 is for Judah; and the rest is directed toward Israel.)
Journal as you consider the following:
- Discuss how the oracles for Judah and Israel differ from those to other nations and any significance you see in the differences.
- What do you learn about God from these oracles?
- How is God speaking to you from his Word today?
Dr. Boice finds the order of the oracles here significant: “Chapters 1 and 2 contain eight oracles: one against each of the six nations that surrounded Judah and Israel . . . and one each against Judah and Israel themselves. These are not a random collection. The list is carefully constructed so that the judgment net slowly and inexorably closes around the very people to whom Amos was speaking.”6
One of our purposes is personal application—making sure we determine how we fall short of what God wants and expects from his people (our sins), so we can return home through confession and repentance from where we have drifted (1 John 1:8-10). It’s not about legalism or trying to make God love us. It’s about the heart’s tendency to drift from God to the point where his own people replace love for him with idols which leads to failure to love others. Each week’s work will include at least one application question. (See the last question in the Part One bullets.) Please don’t skip them. Ask God to reveal the things and people to which your heart is really attached and the ways he wants you to change by the power of the Spirit.
Part Two Study
Amos’s message concerning Israel’s judgment (northern kingdom) continues with more details in the oracles in Amos 3:1-6:14. Note that Amos’s primary literary form is satire. (Read the section in the Appendix “Elements of Prophetic Literature.”) His message has been called a “covenant enforcement document” in which God lays out the nature of the Jews’ failure to obey their covenant with God. Don’t feel that you need to understand it all. That would require several weeks of study. Just get a feel for Amos’s message. If there’s something you need to understand in order to answer the questions, do it the easy way with the footnotes in your Bible. If that fails, read from a trustworthy commentary.7
That said, you will notice that Amos mentions the names of a number of places, mainly in the northern kingdom of Israel to which he prophesies. It’s helpful to know that Zion is another name for Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah, and that Samaria is another name for the northern kingdom. Other cities and sites are often interesting to study, but details about them aren’t necessary to grasp the main ideas of the text.
*** Read all of Amos 3:1-6:14 rather than the more limited verses listed below. Particularly note the Israelites’ actions/activities that have upset God.
Read and journal about Amos 3:9-5:27 in light of these questions:
- What actions by the people of Israel have upset God? Focus on one that catches your attention in light of present day Christianity and journal your thoughts.
- Comment on the ways that God has warned his people and their response (4:6-13).
- What is God saying to you about your own life today?
Part Three Study
*** Rather than oracles, the final section of Amos documents visions he received from God. Read the entire passage from Amos 7:1-9:15.
Read Amos 7:1-17; 8:1–9:15.
Journal your insights from these questions:
- Review Amos 1:1 in light of 7:1-17, considering what it meant for Amos to do God’s work.
- What does God reveal about himself and his relationship with his people in this passage?
- What description of God’s judgment strikes you most and why?
- As you look at our world today, what hope does the end of Amos give concerning the time of Restoration? (If needed, refer back to Week One Part One to understand the Restoration.)
I grew up in the Jim Crow South where state laws institutionalized racism toward Blacks. As a child, it seemed to just be the way the world worked. But as I grew I wondered. I wondered when my mother drove home the African-American woman who ironed our many cotton dresses in the back seat of our car when white adults always rode in the front. My heart suggested there was something wrong when Mother boiled all the dishes this woman used. My mother’s actions didn’t line up with the way she treated other people. Something inside me felt uncomfortable. Today I know that it was God’s Spirit.
My schools weren’t integrated until high school although the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education declaring segregation illegal came down years before. When I was a senior our schools began competing in sports with all Black schools, and we were instructed not to wander over to their side of the field because we might be harmed. As a drill team officer, I experienced this instruction quite personally when the school administrators ended our tradition of trading sides with the other school’s cheerleaders and drill team officers in third quarter of the football game—but only for these particular games. It taught me to fear African-Americans. And I wondered about it.
My parents hated Martin Luther King, Jr. because they thought he created trouble in our country by speaking out. Although we watched the news each night, I remember nothing of the Selma March, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, or the murders of civil rights workers. I didn’t hate African-Americans, but I feared them as dangerous and different. I lived in a white bubble with no Black friends or even acquaintances.
But at some point after I left home, God got through to me that such prejudice violated his love and character. It was wrong. It was sin. It was a slow revelation, but eventually I knew. Once I saw it, I believed that I had put my heritage of racist attitudes and actions behind me, and I did all I could to reach out with kindness to African-Americans. I thought that I, along with most of the country, had overcome racism. We were now operating colorblind.
The prophets were my wake-up call that colorblindness isn’t enough. In fact, I continue to be very convicted as I hear the prophets’ calls for justice, generosity to the poor (not leftovers or seconds), and following God’s way instead of trusting the powerful. Colorblindness leaves us unable to support victims of injustice and racism because we become so sure it’s not there.
My belief that social justice was a distraction from the gospel itself was wrong. The prophets, just like Jesus, tell us that social justice is the outflow of a people who love and follow God. We as individuals and as the church are responsible to seek and work for it. The prophets taught me that I can’t be complacent because I am accountable as a teacher and leader to speak out and act. True worship involves justice, generosity, and care for the least of these (Isaiah 58:1-59:19).
It’s only by God’s patience and grace that I now recognize my false assumptions that life works the same for us all. I’m still unsure of what to do or say about it. Right now I prioritize listening and seeing, as well as a white woman can, the injustice that people of color experience, the bias that holds them back, the racism in our institutions, and the lack of compassion that abounds for their problems.
I want to trust God no matter what comes, having faith in him for whatever the future brings. My job is not to fear what may happen if I speak out but to be true to the scriptures. Doing that means speaking up about the responsibility we as the majority have to help bring about change and show love to our neighbors.
A few months ago I went to Big Bend National Park where the Rio Grande is barely more than a trickle. But as I picture that in light of this week’s verse, I imagine a river joined by streams of abundant water traveling as one great waterway down the continent to the ocean. What a blessing it would be to the land, animals, and people who live and visit there! And I think, “What if those streams and river overflowed with justice to all the people in the whole land?”
What a beautiful picture of true worship!
1 Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 122.
2 Rutledge, 133.
3 Rutledge, 134.
4 James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets: Volume 1: An Expositional Commentary Hosea through Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 161.
5 “Introduction to Amos” in The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL; Crossway, 2008), 1656.