Amos 5 – Let Justice Roll (Op Ed)

4 For the Lord says to the house of Israel:
Seek Me and live!
5 Do not seek Bethel
or go to Gilgal
or journey to Beer-sheba,
for Gilgal will certainly go into exile,
and Bethel will come to nothing.

Seek Yahweh and live,
or He will spread like fire
throughout the house of Joseph;
it will consume everything,
with no one at Bethel to extinguish it.

Those who turn justice into wormwood
throw righteousness to the ground.

The One who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns darkness into dawn
and darkens day into night,

who summons the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the face of the earth —
Yahweh is His name.

He brings destruction on the strong,
and it falls on the stronghold.

10 They hate the one who convicts the guilty
at the city gate

and despise the one who speaks with integrity.
11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and exact a grain tax from him,
you will never live in the houses of cut stone
you have built;
you will never drink the wine
from the lush vineyards
you have planted.

12 For I know your crimes are many
and your sins innumerable.

They oppress the righteous, take a bribe,
and deprive the poor of justice at the gates.
13 Therefore, the wise person will keep silent
at such a time,
for the days are evil.

14 Seek good and not evil
so that you may live,

and the Lord, the God of Hosts,
will be with you,
as you have claimed.

15 Hate evil and love good;
establish justice in the gate.
Perhaps the Lord, the God of Hosts, will be gracious
to the remnant of Joseph.

Social Justice & The Gospel

There is a lot of uneasiness within evangelicalism concerning Social Justice and the Gospel.  If you do not know what I’m referencing, you’ll have to take my word for it and Google it later. Part of this uneasiness is precisely because secularism has a different standard(s) for justice than Christianity. 

I’ve been working through the book of Amos since the start of the Corona Virus pandemic. With the recent killings of Ahmad Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, I wanted to say a few things concerning how important to the Lord of Armies social justice is. 

In fact, a desire for biblical social justice is precisely the fruit that is expected if you are indeed in Christ.  The deaths of image-bearing African Americans brought to mind the verse in Amos 5 used by Dr. King: “But let Justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.”

To my shame, I haven’t before considered this passage in light of Dr. Kings (rightful) appropriation of it.  Dr. King’s genius chose this text because it was completely relevant. And it wasn’t just “relevant” via liberation theology. It is exegetically relevant. 

Justice in Amos

The “righteousness” and “Justice” in Amos is not in reference to our standing before God in terms of imputation/justification/salvation.  Within Amos, this is specifically social.  God’s accusation against the Israelites was that since this Justice and Righteousness is missing from the community, then it is manifest that those Israelites do not know Yahweh.

In Amos 5, seeking Yahweh and seeking justice—specifically within the legal system of a community—are set in parallel.  You cannot covenantally seek Yahweh if you do not seek Justice.  You cannot seek Justice if you do not seek Yahweh.  While Social Justice “is not the Gospel,” they are so linked that a person missing one of these proves he/she does not have either.  In Amos 5:4-15, Amos structures his text with an Inclusio: “Seek ____ and live!”   The first imperatives say “Seek Yahweh and live” but the concluding command ends with “Seek good and not evil that you may live.”  How is this done?  Well Amos tells us.  Establish justice in the gate.

Israel’s Sin & America

Amos has accused Israel of extorting the poor and afflicted while also perverting the religion of Yahweh into a defiled structure that allows for this type of extortion.  One of these abuses were selling the poor (who couldn’t pay back loans) into some type of slavery for as little as a “pair of sandals.”  The idea of “city gates” here is that this transaction takes place in the ancient civilization’s legal setting at the gates of the city.  The legal system in Israel at this time was unbalanced.  It favored the rich and wealthy and crushed the poor and needy.  What’s worse is that Israel made this schema fit into their religion.

Brothers and sisters, we cannot do the same.  And remember that one of Dr. King’s greatest disappointments was with the white Christian moderates of his time.  It was easier to keep the status quo than to change.  It was easier to pick at Dr. King’s more theological liberal ideas and economic outlook. 

The God of Change

But change is exactly God’s plan in Amos chapter 5.  While Israel “changed justice into bitterness” and cast righteousness to the ground, God, who changes darkness into dawn, was bringing about a complete exile of the Israelites and destruction by fire.  Earlier in chapter 5 Israel is pictured as cast to the ground (never to rise again).  In fact, Amos sings a dirge and a funeral song commemorating her (future) death.

Social Justice is important to Yahweh.  Amos mentions the city “gates” three times in Amos 5:4-15 precisely because the social justice norms given by God through Moses were being ignored.  Israel hated those who convicted the guilty and spoke with integrity (Amos says that this is why a wise person will keep quiet—because his neighbors hated speech concerned with justice).  The people, Amos says, are deprived of justice.  The afflicted people had justice delayed and the privileged class escaped. 

Believe Your Brother

At this point, I think it is wise for us to call upon one another to believe our African American brothers and sisters when they are telling us they are being deprived of justice.  I wholeheartedly believe the brothers and sisters who have stated this.  My disposition is to trust my fellow Christians, but I also believe the numbers themselves bear this out. 

The injustices that parts of our legal system have enacted on African Americans have affected their community disproportionately.  Inequalities in convictions for drug use, inequalities of harsher sentences for the similar crimes, inequalities in death by the hands of authorities based on population percentages, and inequalities that are the result of a system of government that treated African Americans as less than human from its inception.  We should not be surprised to find that this system is not thoroughly fair. It wasn’t from the beginning and by its very nature as a product of men, it lends itself to potential injustice.

Black lives matter.  We do not need to qualify that  by saying other lives matter.  When we grieve over the deaths of loved ones, we do not need people to tell us that “all deaths matter.”  George Floyd was crying out for his dead mother in his last moments.  George’s life matters.

We are PROTESTants

We who are Protestants should recognize that some times biblical principles and ideas are worthy of protest.   We have believed that the recovery of salvation by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, by Christ Alone, according to Scripture Alone to the Glory of God alone is worthy of protest.  What then of social justice?  The Gospel enters us into a new Kingdom and that Kingdom is to be marked by social justice; part of Christianity’s historic appeal is that her community foreshadowed perfect justice (though always imperfectly).  Amos seems to be telling us that social justice is of first importance.

Be Wary

Justice and righteousness are central to the Kingdom.  Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:8ff (drawing off Amos) that at one time we were in darkness, but now are in the light.  He specifies that the fruit of being in the light is found in all that is good and right and true.  We are then encouraged to expose the works of darkness.  Be wary. Winking at injustice will hinder your worship.  This was part of Dr. King’s point to the white moderates who worshipped God in peace without fear of a bomb going off.  God is not pleased with worship when the community does not seek justice.

Amos 5:23–24 (HCSB): Take away from Me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.
An Outline of Amos’ Argument

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