Sometimes we end up getting more than we bargained for. And for both the prophet and the recipients of the prophecy in the book of Amos, that possibility proved far too real. Amos was a farmer and led a simple life. Apart from herding animals, he also filled his time by piercing the figs of sycamore trees—a process that allowed them to ripen quicker and more fully (amos 7:14–15). It wasn’t a glamorous lifestyle, and the man certainly didn’t anticipate a future where God would call him to condemn his brothers and sisters in Israel.
It started off easy enough. The opening chapters of Amos contain words of condemnation that surely tasted sweet in the ears of Amos’s original hearers. The people of the northern tribes had suffered at the whims of surrounding nations and built up quite the animosity against them. And reading through chapters one and two of Amos, it’s easy to see why.
In a repeated refrain (“I will not relent from punishing . . . for three crimes, even four”), Yahweh, the God of Israel and commander of heaven’s armies declares judgment against the surrounding nations. The word translated “crimes” or “trespasses” is far more serious than a simple speeding ticket, for instance. Instead, it pulls in the weight of horrific atrocities dealt against humanity.
The Israelites despised their neighbors, and it’s not hard to see why. The Syrians (represented in Amos 1:3–5 as Damascus) had brutally conquered the territories of the three northern tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh that sat on the far side of the Jordan River (2 kings 10:32–33). It was a beating of national proportions, as the Syrians sold the displaced Israelites into slavery with the help of the Philistines, the city-state of Tyre, the Ammonites, and the Edomites.
It left Israel smarting and furious. So, when Amos the fig-nipping shepherd stood up in front of the people and announced the roaring voice of Yahweh against those nations, everyone’s ears perked up. Of course they wanted to hear what the God of Jacob was about to do to those nations. They wanted justice for the violence done to their people.
And it was violence. The deeds of Damascus, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, and Ammon against the citizens of the northern tribes were horrific. From the pulverization of the tribes in Gilead by the Syrians to the enslavement of Israelites by the Philistines and Tyre and the murder of pregnant women and their infants by the Ammonites, it’s easy to sympathize with Israel’s desire to see justice done.
Amos’s listeners looked on the deeds of pagan people and condemned them for violating human dignity, disregarding human life, and inflicting suffering on the people of God. It’s not a far cry from what Christians see in the world today. We don’t have to look hard to find what appear to be giant targets on the backs of Christians all around the globe.
And so we find a bit of camaraderie with Amos’s original audience. The God who crushed Egypt doesn’t seem to take lightly the horrific actions of the unbelieving world when they’re leveled against the people of God. There’s a kind of sweet satisfaction in knowing that God himself will stamp out the injustices the people of God have suffered.
But Amos doesn’t stop there. His prophetic message circles closer to home in the second chapter. There, he addresses Moab—which was a sister-nation to Israel—condemning her for violating the dead of Edom (amos 2:1–3). Then Amos turns to Judah—Israel’s literal other half—in the south. Suddenly, the type of grievances shifts:
“I will not relent from punishing Judah
for three crimes, even four,
because they have rejected the instruction of the Lord
and have not kept his statutes.
The lies that their ancestors followed
have led them astray.
Therefore, I will send fire against Judah,
and it will consume the citadels of Jerusalem” (amos 2:4–5 csb).
Gone are the accusations of inhumane treatment. Gone are the atrocities of murder and violence. Instead, Amos condemns Judah for having failed to maintain her covenant commitments to God. Still, Israel rejoiced. Sure, it was a little closer to home than they might have liked, but at least the majority of those living in the northern tribes were still honoring the requirements of the law—offering sacrifices and bringing in the tithes. Surely they were better than Judah. Surely.
Again, we find something we can relate to with Israel. The news brings stories every day of some church or denomination or celebrity Christian embroiled in scandal. It’s not hard to put ourselves in Israel’s shoes, tsk-tsk-ing our Christian neighbors for their failure to remain true to God. But in doing so we stray too close to the fire.
Like a master storyteller, Amos flips the sword of judgment back on his listeners in the second half of chapter two. Each of the nations he’s condemned so far moved the pointed finger of God’s judgment progressively closer to home, and now he’s turned his attention to Israel. But like Judah, he doesn’t condemn Israel for violence or slavery or murder. He condemns them for how they treat the poor.
It’s a huge shift in tone, and we’d be forgiven for picturing a baffled audience. That’s his complaint against Israel? All the surrounding nations are guilty of murder and enslavement and God picks a fight with Israel over how they treat the poor? But it’s more than just that. In each of God’s accusations, Israel lies guilty of abusing the poor and helpless in pursuit of their own self-indulgence. And in doing so, they violate their very relationship with him.
Amos 2:6–8 outlines it well: They’d sell out a poor person for a few pieces of silver or a pair of sandals. They’d abuse a girl for the perverse delights of both a father and a son. They’d visit pagan temple prostitutes, lying on the clothes they took from an impoverished person in a lopsided deal. They’d leverage the legal system to get themselves drunk, and do it in the presence of God in his temple.
Throughout chapters three and four, Amos lays out God’s case against Israel. Yahweh delivered Israel from Egypt and conquered the pagan nations of Canaan before them. And because of their refusal to love him for his kindness, he warned them with prophets and calamities. He gave them the law. He had sent the very nations the Israelites rejoiced to hear condemned to wake the people up.
Instead of repenting, Israel exploited the poor and the needy and the underprivileged among them to acquire wealth, build expensive vacation homes, and fatten themselves up with the choicest foods (amos 3:15; 4:1; 5:11). The people of Israel thought themselves safe; they were “okay” with God because they still did all the right things associated with “worship.” They brought freewill offerings, tithes, thanksgiving offerings, and sacrifices to God at the temple, while at home they exploited the needy for their own gain.
And for that injustice, Israel would suffer the wrath of God. The people of Israel had longed for the God’s judgment because they thought it would mean an end to their political enemies and to the atrocities of the pagan world. But the truth of the matter is it would bring their own destruction too.
In chapter five, we have one of the most-quoted and memorable lines of the entire book, one that Martin Luther King Jr. highlighted as the words of an ardent pursuer of justice (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”). After throwing out Israel’s worshipfulness, Yahweh demands through Amos: “But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream” (amos 5:24).
Isolated from the context of the book, the words read poetically—almost like a salve to paste over the hurts we see in the world. But the context of Amos makes clear that God’s demands for justice are far from a babbling brook. In chapter five, Yahweh rejects all of Israel’s worship. All of their services, their offerings, and their music (vv. 21–23). He wants none of it, because the people who brought it to his temple turned around and rejected justice for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the underprivileged.
We have to understand that justice as Israel defined it meant vengeance against the pagan world for violating humanity. But justice as God defines it meant bringing Israel back into alignment with his covenantal expectations. And at the center of that realignment was how Israel viewed her own poor.
Like Israel, we have good reason to want God to do something about the evil that we see in the world.
But the warnings of Amos come with a far more nuanced picture of justice than we might think or even want. God’s contention with Israel revolved around the people’s failure to maintain faithfulness in their covenant relationship with him. His issue wasn’t with their worship—they maintained the demands of the temple well, bringing tithes, sacrifices, and worship near-daily. His issue was with the second part of the great commandment—loving their neighbor (leviticus 19:18).
As God’s people, we’re called into a relationship with God that carries two demands: love for him and love for each other.Jesus remarked to his disciples that the world would recognize his followers not for their religiosity or even their advocacy, but for their love for fellow believers (john 13:35).
If we’re failing in the church to care for the needs of our fellow brothers and sisters, if we’re failing to obtain justice for them based on their skin color, yearly income, or political affiliation, if we’re overlooking the suffering of other Christians to “just preach the gospel,” if we’re propping up celebrities to “save face” even though they abused their power to molest women, we run afoul of Amos’s condemnation.
We cannot have a right relationship with God if we’re simultaneously oppressing, ignoring, or silencing our sisters and brothers who deserve justice. And when the justice of God does indeed roll down like water, we’ll find ourselves not safe on the shore, but in the midst of the torrent.