Commentary on Amos 5:18-24
This text begins and continues with the theme of lament and grief (“Alas”; also Amos 6:1, 4).
Israel was expecting/desiring “the day of the Lord,” a phrase commonly used to refer to a glorious future in which Israel’s enemies would be vanquished. But the prophet cuts into this hope with a sharp question: why would “you” (direct address) desire the day of the Lord?! That “day” will not be the kind of day for which you hoped (cf. Joel 1:15; 2:1-2, 11).
It will not be a day of deliverance, but disaster, not a day of light and brightness, but darkness and gloom. In other words, you are the enemies that God will vanquish. These words are a remarkable reversal of expectation, and they would certainly place the prophet at odds with his audience! The prophet uses an everyday image to drive the point home and disabuse the people of their sense of security: they will flee from one wild animal only to meet another; they will seek refuge in their homes — usually the safest of places — only to be bitten by poisonous snakes — a fatal event. Darkness and gloom is the only shape of their future. There is no escape!
In 5:21-24, God states the reason they face such a future, voicing indictments and announcements of judgment. God returns to the themes of 4:4-5, where it is made clear that the people “love” to worship. They do all the right things in their worship: festivals, solemn assemblies, offerings of various sorts, hymn-singing with musical accompaniment.
God’s response to these worship practices, delivered in the first person, is remarkably sharp: I hate; I despise; I take no delight in (literally, smell); I do not accept; I do not look upon them with favor; I do not listen to the “noise” of your hymnody. To “hate” is to stand fully over against something; to “despise” is to reject as repulsive. Every dimension of Israel’s worship life is condemned (see Isaiah 1:10-17, adding prayer; 58:1-9; Matthew 7:21; 23:23).
The depth and breadth of God’s rejection of Israel’s worship is conveyed in ways that are emotional (hate, despise), volitional (no acceptance), and sensory (smell, touch, sight, hearing). God holds his nose, shuts his eyes, and plugs his ears! Interestingly, the text does not state that God’s rejection relates to idolatry or insincerity (see 4:4-5). As 5:24 makes clear, the issue is the disjunction between worship and life. The people do all of the right things in worship, but their daily lives are not characterized by justice and righteousness. The lack of the latter results in God’s rejection of the former!
Two interpretations of 5:24 have been suggested. One, justice has reference to God’s judgment. If so, then God is calling for judgment to roll over Israel like flooding waters. Another interpretation is more likely, for Amos uses the word “justice” exclusively for human beings (5:7, 15; 6:12). So, the language of 5:24 constitutes a call for the people to exercise justice and righteousness. Indeed, they are to flood the community with acts of justice and righteousness, like a stream that never stops flowing.
Is Amos presenting an either/or here: either worship or justice/righteousness? Not likely. Are Israel’s practices of worship inappropriate or idolatrous? That is not the issue addressed. Rather, the disjunction of worship and daily life has become deeply problematic.
God condemns an understanding that worship, even sincere worship, is somehow sufficient for a proper relationship with God. The problem is that the people’s daily life had not been showing forth justice and righteousness, particularly in their treatment of the less fortunate. Worship and life must be of one piece, not separated or compartmentalized.
Amos’s word could be offensive to some: Unless you practice justice on behalf of the less fortunate, your worship is, well… wasted! Even more sharply, God “hates” your worship. For God to “hate” is for God to focus the divine energies against something. A possible translation of “despise”: I consider your worship trash! The more literal sense of “take no delight” is “I will not smell” or, in our idiom, I will hold my nose at all your worship services.
God continues in 5:22: I will not “look upon” your offerings. Given the use of sacrifices as a means through which God bestowed forgiveness, the contemporary force of this text could be something like this: even though you properly celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I will no longer consider it a means of grace for you.
God continues: they should “take away” their music. Think of the singing of hymns, the finest of your pipe organ music, and even the best choirs singing Bach. God will not listen. God not only closes his eyes; God has his hands over his ears, too.
The prophets manage to indict every form of worship imaginable. Recall that Israel’s worship in these texts is not condemned because it is idolatrous or insincere (at other times and places, certainly). The problem was a disjunction between their worship and their treatment of the less fortunate.
If there is no social justice, there is no acceptable worship to God. God will not tolerate comfortable worship and social and political isolation. God will not tolerate a full church and a vacuum of justice. If you don’t take care of the less fortunate, God does not want your praises and prayers. There is no form of worship, however devout or rightly observed or full of praise and prayer, that is invulnerable to the judgment of God.
Even God’s elect could suffer great destruction (see 3:2). Worship will be evaluated at least as much by what happens outside the sanctuary as by what happens within. If worship fosters a disunity of faith and responsibilities toward the neighbor or considers that relationship immaterial, it deserves the prophetic critique.
The objects of the prophetic indictments are not simply isolated individuals, but the religious communities and institutions of their day. Neither the prophets nor the Bible generally prescribe a specific social plan or economic system. But whatever strategy we do pursue, we will be judged by this basic criterion: how well are the less fortunate members of your society being cared for? Think about it: how well are they being cared for? And what about the children?