Commentary on Amos 5:18-24
It doesn’t go well for the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Unlike Judah her neighbor to the South, Israel never had a king who did what was right in the eyes of Yahweh. Jeroboam II, son of Joash, occupied Israel’s throne in Samaria (788-748 B.C.). During the early years of his reign, the nation was in a period of economic growth and expansion. Israel’s boarders once encroached upon, were establish to their original dimensions (2 Kings 14:23-29). The lean years had turned fat again.
The second half of Jeroboam’s reign was not as fruitful. Decline and recession were the order of the day. Israel was threatened on every side. The leaders of Israel illustrated the atrocities of the political elite in the face of their people’s suffering. After the reign of Jeroboam, Israel slid quickly and irretrievably to her demise in 722 B.C.
This is the context of Amos’s (and Hosea’s) prophetic ministry. He was a shepherd, not a professional prophet or priest like Jeremiah. “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophecy to my people Israel'” (Amos 7:14). Amos was not even from the Northern Kingdom. He was from the town Tekoa which is in the Judean hill country south of Jerusalem.
But God had called him to prophecy against the nations surrounding Israel and, more specifically, against Israel herself. After six oracles against the nations, the seventh oracle in Amos 2 turns to Judah and Israel and remains there for the remainder of the book. Amos 3:1 states the severity of the situation, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” Special attention is directed at Yahweh’s covenant people, Israel. They are his; they are the recipients of election’s blessings. Yet they have not followed the ways of their God.
Amos 5:18 begins a woe oracle against Israel. “Alas (hoy) for you who desire the day of the Lord.” The day of the Lord was most likely a hopeful concept for Israel during the days of Amos. On this great day, Yahweh would appear in his salvific glory and might to destroy the nations on their behalf. The Israelites of the eighth century were inspired by this coming day.
Amos in an act of connotative jujitsu warns the people against their mistaken notions. It will not be light for you, it will be darkness. The day of the Lord’s appearing should not inspire hope in you but dread. If you think the day of the Lord will bring refuge, then you will be like someone who runs from a lion only to be met by a bear. You will be like someone who enters a house for refuge, only to be bitten by a snake. For not only will the nations come under judgment, you will come under the judging hand of Yahweh.
Amos’s invective against the false confidences of Israel turns into a sharp tirade against their hollow worshipping practices. “I hate, I despise your festivals” (5:21). The old King James Version says, “And I will not smell in your solemn assemblies” (5:21). To smell is idiomatic here for delighting in or finding acceptable the aromas from the sacrificial altar. God will have none of them (5:22). The music of the assembly is a clanging noise in the ears of Yahweh. He will not listen (5:23). All of the religious practices of his people are rejected because they are not attached to matters of justice and righteous requisite for God’s people. To put the matter bluntly, Yahweh tells Israel to keep their religion. He’ll have none of it.
The problem, as we know, was not Israel’s religious practices per se. The problem was Israel’s divorcing of her religious practices from matters of justice and righteousness in their dealings with each other, especially the marginalized and poor.
It is difficult to read Amos 5:24 without hearing Martin Luther King’s prophetic voice. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24). Religious activities without justice and righteousness are abhorrent to Yahweh. Moreover, the righteous and justice acts he demands are not the intermittent kind showing up here or there. But the constant kind that rolls down like waters and is an ever-flowing stream.
It is a leitmotif within all the prophets: God resists religious expressions that separate orthodoxy (right beliefs) from orthopraxy (right actions). Isaiah complains about Sabbath observances disconnected from care for the needy (Isaiah 58). Joel calls for God’s people to rend their hearts, not their garments (Joel 2:13). Micah reminds us of what God’s final requirements are: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). These prophetic calls in no way diminish creed and liturgy in the life of the church: those rubrics which give us the very grammar we need to worship God. But it does demand that creed, liturgy and practice all be brought together in an inexorable bond under the umbrella of our ecclesial head, Jesus Christ.
Justice and mercy and faith are “weightier matters of the Law” for Jesus (Matthew 23:23). He chides the Pharisees’ tone-deafness when hearing God’s law. None of the law should be neglected, says Jesus. But justice and mercy and faith deserve special attention. They provide the Christological lens by which the whole of the law should be read and lived.
As Ralph Wood articulates, “I will argue, in fact, that Scripture and Tradition provide the church with a distinctive kind of existence — with unique ways of birthing and dying, of becoming youthful and growing old, of marrying and remaining single, of celebrating and sacrificing, of thinking and imagining, of worshipping the true God and protesting against false gods — and that these distinctive beliefs and practices constitute the church’s own culture.”1 Beliefs and practices together constitute the life of the church in its cultural particularity. When they are brought together they witness powerfully to the sufficiency and supremacy of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
1Ralph Wood, Contending for the Faith: The Church’s Engagement with Culture (Baylor: Baylor University Press, 2003), 1-2.