Justice and the Fire of “Social Justice” (Amos 5:1-27)
from THE CHURCH UNDER FIRE sermon series . . .
In the late 1800s, a movement called the social gospel became popular. It so emphasized social issues in society, such as poverty and health care, that it moved away from the gospel itself. But the gospel is foremost about Christ meeting the spiritual poverty and bankruptcy of the human soul. As Jesus teaches, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? (Matt.16:26a).
In more recent years, a variation on the social gospel has emerged called social justice. Social justice is a socio-political philosophy that has taken root within many institutions, organizations, governments, businesses, schools, and churches in our country and around the world. Amos 5 is an excellent text for learning what justice is and is not; but it’s also used by all social justice advocates. What are the truths that they are overlooking or perhaps twisting to suit their presuppositions?
Amos was a prophet of God during the reigns of King Jeroboam in Israel and King Uzziah in Judah. He most likely wrote in the 760s B.C. According to 1:1, Amos was from the town of Tekoa in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. He worked as a farmer that tended sheep and sycamore-figs. Though he was from Judah, Amos was sent by God to prophesy to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. His prophecy begins with a declaration of God’s judgment on Israel’s neighbors (1:1-2:3) and then pronounces judgment on Judah (2:4-5). At that point, Israel was surely feeling proud—“See, we really are ‘God’s people.’ ” But in 2:6, God’s judgment against Israel is declared too. And sure enough, God used the nation of Assyria to destroy the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.
Before we dive into Amos 5, let’s begin with a definition of justice, which we’ll get mostly from the Hebrew word mishpat, translated as justice 3 times in Amos 5 (vv.7, 15, 24). Often this word is used along with the related word tzedek, usually translated as righteousness. Therefore, justice involves the judgment made in deciding between what is right and wrong in a case involving one or more persons. Injustice, therefore, is the failure to make lawful judgments in deciding between what is right and wrong.
In Amos 5, he is writing to address the many injustices within Israel (3:14; 4:4-5; 5:4-5, 22-24).
1. The LORD alone is the answer to our sins against His holy justice (vv.1-17). And the first step toward life in God is lamentation and repentance.
Amos 5:1-6—Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel: 2 “Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel; forsaken on her land, with none to raise her up.” 3 For thus says the Lord God: “The city that went out a thousand shall have a hundred left, and that which went out a hundred shall have ten left to the house of Israel.” 4 For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel: “Seek me and live; 5 but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing.” 6 Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,
The word “lament” (qiynah) tells us that Amos’ prophecy is in the form of a funeral song. The symbolism speaks to the spiritual deadness of Israel. This doesn’t mean every Israelite was an unbeliever, but the majority of Israel was lost. This kind of language was offensive to Israel’s pride, especially because at that time they were politically strong and economically prosperous. But from God’s perspective, Israel was as good as “fallen, no more to rise” (v.2a).
These words are typical of prophecies in the Bible. On one hand, destruction is certain for rebels against God (vv.1-3); yet, God promises life to all who turn to Him (vv.4-6). “Seek me and live” (v.4b). “Seek the LORD and live” (v.6a). Notice the Lord says to seek Him, not Bethel or Gilgal or Beersheba (v.5). What does God mean by this? He’s saying, “Don’t put your trust in anything earthly or even religious.” These cities were popular places to “worship,” and they represent how Israel turned God’s blessings into sources of patriotic pride and idolatrous worship. Bethel was the center of pagan worship in the North. And Beersheba in southern Judah was popular too because it’s where Jacob had worshipped (Gen.26:23-25). Many Israelites supposed their religious pilgrimages to such sites were proof of devotion to the LORD, but Amos says it’s proof of hypocrisy.
Hopefully, you can see the application to be made to the Church in America. Too many have easily confused American patriotism for Christianity. But Amos’ prophecy commands us to seek the LORD and live. And the LORD’s call to salvation is mingled with a warning of destruction. “Lest he break out in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel” (v.6b).
2. The unrepentant ignore God’s judgment and continue to pervert justice (vv.7-13). What does a person and a nation of people look like that continues to pervert justice despite God’s clear warnings?
Amos 5:7—O you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth!
Israel has turned the sweetness of justice into bitterness like wormwood by casting down righteousness to the earth. In this context, justice refers to the legal matters of what is right wrong as carried out in official decision-making bodies such as courts. Righteousness refers to the responsibilities that a person has toward others in various relationships. When used together like this, the emphasize is on having a just and right order in society. God has something to say about Israel’s corruption of justice.
Amos 5:8-9—He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name; 9 who makes destruction flash forth against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
God is the Creator of the “Pleiades and Orion.” These are constella-tions. Pleiades is a well-known cluster of six bright stars with many less visible ones that mark the beginning of spring. Orion is in the shape of a great hunter tethered to the sky by his belt that marks the beginning of winter. In Canaan, they believed he was banished to the sky because he asserted himself against God. The point in Amos is that it is God who ushers in the spring and winter agricultural seasons because He is the LORD of all Creation. So, what does Israel think they’re doing worshipping these so-called sky, earth, and sea gods? They have forgotten the basic truth that God is both Creator and Judge (v.9). Amos then gives a sampling of Israel’s many injustices.
Amos 5:10-13—They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth. 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. 13 Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time
There are 4 injustices listed that pervaded the legal system in Israel:
(1) Hatred of those who correct them (v.10; “him who reproves” could refer to a judge in a case but here likely refers to the plaintiff who isn’t seeing the wrongs committed against him made right by the powers that be).
(2) Hatred of truth speakers (v.10; this refers to witnesses who are being ignored or silenced in legal cases).
(3) Trampling on the poor (v.11). Specifically, the unjust have exacted taxes of grain from the poor. This is not a prohibition of all taxing of the poor because that would contradict the Mosaic Law. It is a prohibition against taking too much of the basic staples of life. To make their sin worse, the unjust use their ill-gotten tax money to build homes of “hewn stone” and plant “pleasant vineyards.” But the Lord says, they won’t sleep a wink in those homes or drink a drop of that wine.
(4) Taking bribes and turning away the needy (v.12). The wealthy landowners had manipulated laws and court cases through lies, bribes, and intimidation to secure as much power as possible.
Amos tells us that “he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time” (v.13). The Hebrew language here is difficult. It sounds like Amos is saying that the wise person is to remain silent in such evil times. More likely, it’s a statement of judgment against the wicked because the word “prudent” can also mean “prosperous.” “The prosperous will be silenced on the coming day of judgment.”
3. The repentant heed God’s warnings of judgment and hope in God’s grace (vv.14-27). This summarizes the remainder of the chapter.
Amos 5:14-27—Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. 15 Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. 16 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord: “In all the squares there shall be wailing, and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’ They shall call the farmers to mourning and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation, 17 and in all vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord. 18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, 19 as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. 20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 21 “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 25 “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, 27 and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.
Those who receive God’s gracious forgiveness pursue a life of repent-ance from the injustices they commit and pursue justice every day. This is noted in verse 14 with the command, “Seek good, and not evil” (v.14) and verse 15 with the command, “Hate evil, and love good” (v.15a). The idea here is to turn from your sin and trust in the LORD now because His judgment of the unrighteous is coming (vv.16-17a) and He will pass through their midst (v.17b). This passing through recalls when the angel of death passed through Egypt destroying the firstborn sons where the lamb’s blood was not smeared on the door posts of a home.
As we anticipate the judgment on the “day of the LORD,” no one is to “desire” this judgment because it’s a day of darkness and not light (vv.18, 20), like a man fleeing from a lion to only be mauled by a bear or like leaning his hand against the wall for support only to be bitten by viper (v.19). The unrepentant person assumes they are worthy of being spared God’s wrath, not realizing God hates and despises their idolatry, including their religious feasts (v.21), offerings, (v.22), music (v.23).
In place of their idolatry, God commands repentance. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (v.24). Let justice (right decision-making about right and wrong) roll down like refreshing waters. And let righteousness (right treatment of one another) flow like a life-giving stream.
The most obvious problem with “social justice” is the addition of the adjective “social”. For one, this is completely unnecessary because all true justice applies to all social life. But more serious is the hypocrisy of the social justice movement because it is selective in the issues it chooses to emphasize while ignoring or even promoting other issues of injustice in the world such as abortion, homosexuality, and fatherless homes. This is because social justice is not really about justice but about political power plays. They don’t care about what is right but what will give them power and wealth, which is the very injustice that the social justice movement objects to and Amos is condemning in this text.
Biblical justice is defined by God in His Word and includes four basic components, each of which social justice corrupts through redefinition:
- Compassion is genuine concern and attention given to those who are being mistreated in your community. But in the name of compassion, social justice results in lawlessness through reducing or removing punishment that fit actual crimes because such punishments are deemed “oppressive” to minorities.
- Retribution says that God will judge every person for committing their many injustices. But social justice only pursues punishment and reparations from those designated as “oppressors.”
- Impartiality says that God is no respecter of persons and all are accountable to Him for their actual sins. But social justice shows favoritism for minorities and discriminates against those designated as “oppressors.”
- Redemption is when God releases condemned sinners from enslavement to their sin through the forgiveness of their debt against Him. But social justice demands never ending repay-ments and reparations for the sins of those designated as “oppressors” even if those sins were not literally committed by them.
There is no salvation in the social justice movement because it is a false gospel. It offers no hope for the lost sinner. But mingled with God’s true justice in Amos is the promise of restoration for all those who seek God through repentance and faith (9:11-15). This restoration has come in the Person of Christ and will be fully consummated at His Second Coming (cf. Acts15:12-21). In the meantime, Christians, let’s pursue justice in our daily lives, meaning we pursue obedience to God, right living, and sanctification because we have been justified through faith in the Lord Jesus.