Amos was a prophet who rose out of “the shepherds of Tekoa,” and he spoke “in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1). His book begins with a series of prophetic judgments against foreign nations, and then offers words against Judah and Israel. The fifth chapter is a lament for Israel’s sin, followed by the prediction that the “day of the LORD” will be a dark day (Amos 5:18). Amos announces that God despises Israel’s festivals and gains no delight from its “solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). Burnt offerings, grain offerings, and offerings of fatted animals are no longer acceptable to God, nor are the “noise of your songs” and “the melody of your harps” (Amos 5:22-23). Instead, says God through the prophet Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
Three times in the book, “Amos utilizes the defining phrase ‘justice and righteousness’ as the core prophetic concern,” says Walter Brueggemann. “A characteristic use of this phrasing is by Martin Luther King, Jr., a familiar cadence of his rhetoric later utilized in his memorial in Montgomery. This phrasing of Amos has become the impetus for prophetic faith and ground for prophetic critique of social systems that disregard and violate this most elemental command of [God].” According to biographer Taylor Branch, the prophet Amos was King’s favorite biblical authority on justice. In his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, which drew 250,000 people, King said, “We will not be satisfied until justice runs down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The crowd responded to the emotion of the prophet Amos, and Branch reports that King could not bring himself to deliver the next line of his prepared speech. Some of the people on the platform urged him on, and the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out as though she were in church, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” Branch says that King began to preach, and his words “went beyond the limitations of language and culture to express something that was neither pure rage nor pure joy, but a universal transport of the kind that makes the blues sweet.” His “Dream” message took him from Amos to Isaiah, and he ended with the words, “I have a dream that one day, every valley shall be exalted.”
Janis Rosheuvel, the executive for racial justice for United Methodist Women, loves the image of justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. “I remember a trip to Niagara Falls with friends, standing in the mist of that thunderous wonder where over six million cubic feet of water falls over the crest line every minute on average. I recall also a trip with my father to our homeland, Guyana, where we stood atop Kaieteur Falls, one of the world’s highest single drop waterfall, and marveled at its majesty. Whenever I am in front of a vast body of water I am shaken by its fierceness. I am made instantly humble and afraid of water’s awesome potential.” Rosheuvel says that she connects the powerful flow of water to the energy needed by people of faith to bring an end to racism and white supremacy. In the face of every injustice, Christians are challenged to let “justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24).
But what exactly does Amos mean by justice? “When we hear the word ‘justice’ we may think of a criminal getting the punishment he deserves,” writes pastor Steve Hollaway. “But the Hebrew word for justice, mishpat, has as its root meaning fairness and equity. When it is applied to criminal cases, justice in the Old Testament means that the judge does not take bribes and does not treat the poor worse than the rich. Most of the time, the word mishpat has to do with justice for those we might call underprivileged: widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor.” If we fail to show fairness to any underprivileged or marginalized people, we are failing to do justice, and the same is true if we defer to privileged or well-connected people. In similar manner, the word righteousness is often misunderstood. “We probably think of righteousness in terms of personal morality: being honest, sexually pure,” says Hollaway. “But the Hebrew word tzadeqah is something very different. … In the Old Testament it means something more like living in a right relationship, treating everyone with fairness, generosity, and equity.” Justice is taking action to make things fair, while righteousness is making an effort to live in right relationship.
Both mishpat and tzadeqah are at the heart of social justice, which is why Amos challenged the people of his day to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). His words continue to push us to make things fair in our society and to live in right relationship with one another, a challenge that stands before us in every time and place and situation. This passage is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because its call to justice and righteousness will continue to thunder in our ears, like the mighty waters of Niagara and Kaieteur Falls.
1. What feelings arise in you when you see rolling, flowing waters?
2. How are you challenged to practice justice in daily life?
3. Where can you improve, in your life, “right relationship” with God and others?
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