Lesson Focus Worship and justice go hand in hand. Worship without justice lacks substance.
Lesson Outcomes Through this lesson, students should:
Be able to define the biblical concept of justice.
Be able to define the biblical concept of righteousness.
Understand the connection between justice and proper worship.
Seek to examine our church’s worship and seeking of justice.
Catch up on the story Amos has made it abundantly clear that God’s judgment on Israel is coming. It is coming because Israel, among all the people of the world, were God’s chosen and special people. They were God’s covenant people. But they have engaged in oppressive and exploitative behavior so that they might live in prosperity and luxury. It’s not just those who actively engage in those behaviors who will be punished, but also those who benefit from Israel’s ill-gotten prosperity. Even though Israel has been warned, even the clearest warnings have not caused Israel to change their ways.
This week’s text can be split into two large sections, 5:1-17 and 5:18-25. Each section is likely composed of smaller speeches made by the prophet Amos and compiled by Amos or later editors (Wolff, 231).
A Funeral Dirge:5:1-7 Chapter 5 begins in the style of and the poetic meter of a lament for the dead given by mourners. The voice here is that of the prophet. Later on in the passage, the voice will switch to God’s. Here Amos lifts his voice and calls the “house of Israel,” the entire northern nation of Israel, to hear the sad words he is about to speak.
Amos begins his funeral dirge declaring that Israel is fallen. There is no more chance they would raise from the dead than there would be for a virgin maiden who has been tragically struck down. Amos likens Israel to a maiden, an unwed woman who was in the prime of her life with so much ahead of her. Israel is a virgin maiden who has died. It is always sad when a person dies, but it is even more painful when someone so young with so much unfulfilled potential dies. Israel is pictured as a young woman who has collapsed in a desolate land with no hope of help. Since the following images will be that of military defeat, the image of Israel as a maiden is meant to heighten the sense of Israel’s powerlessness and vulnerability in the face of an enemy army (Birch, 212). What may have been equally startling to those who first heard these words was that Amos is not speaking in a future tense. Instead, Amos is mourning as if Israel were already dead.
As we move on to verse three, the image shifts to the aftermath of a battle. A city engaged in conflict with another power has sent out a thousand men to fight the battle. When the battle is over, they will only have a hundred left. It will also be that way for the city that marched out a hundred men; only ten will be left. The image here is of an utter and complete defeat. Only one out of ten men survive. Indeed, it would be tough to go out and fight another day with only one-tenth of your original army. Israel’s defeat is as good as done. They are dead before the battle even begins.
In verse 4, the tone changes from a funeral dirge to a summons to seek God and live. If God has already determined Israel’s fate, why then do we have these words of hope? It may be that Amos is introducing a glimmer of hope, perhaps knowing that Israel will not change their ways. It could also be that Amos is using the phrase “Seek the Lord and live” as a segue into a section that talks of ineffectual ways to seek the Lord. For Israel, to “seek the Lord” was often associated with going to the sanctuary or Temple. This was particularly true in times of trouble. If God is in the Temple, it seems logical that one should go there if one were in trouble. Even now, this is not uncommon. Families or individuals often return to the church in times of crisis, hoping that some good may come of it. Often, when the trouble is over, commitment to church wanes.
Immediately following verse 4 challenging Israel to seek God, not in the ways they have become accustomed to, i.e., engagement in religious services, but in other ways. By the end of the chapter, we will have a clearer understanding of what it truly means to seek the Lord. Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-sheba are all places of religious practice for Israel. They will be destroyed or will go into exile. It is not that Amos, or God for that matter, believes that engagement in regular worship activities has become unimportant; instead, for Israel, these religious engagements have become ends unto themselves. Israel believes that if they engage in worship enough, it will not matter how they live life outside the sanctuary. The next set of verses will display a disconnect between worship and moral and ethical living.
Amos is quite clear at this point. There are two possibilities for Israel. The first is death and destruction at the hand of God. The second is life as a result of doing justice. In verses 7-9, Amos describes why this judgment is coming. Israel has turned justice into “wormwood.” Wormwood is a plant that is well known for its bitterness and has often been used as an image for bitterness and trouble. Because of its oppressive and exploitive ways, Israel has turned justice, something that should be sweet and life-giving, into something bitter. Justice often denotes a right and ordered society. It refers to the “claim of all persons to full and equitable participation in the structures and dealings of the community, and especially to equity in the legal system.” (Birch, 215). In God’s eyes, Israel has ceased to be a right and ordered society. The one who will bring the judgment is the very one who ordered the universe in the first place. The one who made the constellations brings rain upon the mountain and brings day from the dark night. The God of order now brings punishment to people who have brought about disorder.
Verses 10-13 again stress Israel’s sins. The city gate was a place where the town’s elders mediated disputes. However, it has ceased to be a place where justice could be found. Those who speak the truth at the gate of the city are hated. Part of a right and ordered society is that justice could be found for all, especially the poor and powerless. Israel has actively denied justice to those who need it most. What is worse, they have denied justice to the poor and powerless so that they could increase in wealth and power themselves. Consequently, they have built houses of stone, and they have planted vineyards (a crop of the wealthy because of the time investment needed). Because they have unjustly obtained these things, they will no longer live in the houses they have built for themselves.
Once again, in verse 14, Israel is encouraged to seek the good and reject evil. Israel has claimed that God is with them, yet because of their unjust ways, he has not been. But, God proclaims that if Israel rejects the evil and seeks the good, he will be with them. Seeking good here is establishing justice and righteousness in the gate so there might be an honest and equitable court system where the exploited and wronged might seek relief.
The Dark Day of the Lord: 5:18-25 The first section, 5:1-17, mourns the loss of Israel because of their lack of justice and righteousness. While Israel has been encouraged to seek God and reject evil, its fate is all but sealed. The remainder of chapter 5 deals with the Day of the Lord, which for Israel expressed hope and expectation for the day when God would descend and bring judgment on Israel’s enemies. The Day of the Lord was to be a glorious time when Israel would be vindicated, and all would once again be right.
Amos turns this idea of the Day of the Lord on its head. As they had expected, this day will not be a day of light but a day of darkness and fear. Verses 19 and 20 describe the day as going from bad to worse. The Day of the Lord will be like a man who is fleeing from a lion. He narrowly escapes the lion only to be met by a bear. Or, the man escapes the lion by running into a house.
As he rests his hand on the wall to catch his breath, a snake reaches out and bites him! The image is clear; the Day of the Lord will not be a good day, and just when Israel thinks they find safety and respite from danger, they will be confronted with a fatal threat. Trouble will follow trouble, and death will not be far behind. Israel thought they were safe and protected because they were God’s people. Only Israel has forgotten that God’s protection has always been contingent upon faithfulness to the covenant, of which justice and righteousness are the cornerstones.
Verses 21 through 24 forms the climax for this section of Amos, if not the book itself. Here God himself speaks to Israel, declaring that their worship is meaningless because Israel has not paired justice and righteousness with worship. God hates their religious festivals and takes no delight in Israel’s worship gatherings. They offer the right sacrifices at the right time and in the right amount, but God will not accept them. He will not listen to their songs. They are a useless noise. “God has become numbed to Israel’s efforts to draw God’s regard toward them.” (Birch, 219).
Instead, God says, justice should roll down like the water of a waterfall. Justice and righteousness should flow through the land like an unrestrained and unending river. Even in small amounts, water has the power to dramatically shape the landscape. The constant application of water can shape even a tough rock. Even in small quantities, righteousness and justice can radically reshape our world. God clarifies here in chapter 5 that even though Israel engages in proper worship, they have neglected justice and righteousness. Therefore, Israel’s worship has been rejected, and so have they been rejected.
So What…? This passage should give us pause. It forces us to ask ourselves a very crucial set of questions, Are we like Israel? Have we neglected justice and righteousness? Has our material comfort been purchased at the expense of the ability of others to live above poverty? Do we help perpetuate a justice system that is more accessible to the wealthy? Do we place more emphasis on our worship than we do living lives filled with justice and righteousness?
If we answer yes to any of the above questions, then we are in danger of ending up like Israel. As the church, we are called to work for justice and righteousness. Our worship will be pleasing to God when we are challenged to examine the ways in which our consumption of material goods affects the lives of others. Our worship will be acceptable to God when we are sent out from our sanctuary to seek justice and live in righteous and right relationships with our neighbors.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we can go forth like an ever-flowing stream of justice so that the landscape may be dramatically altered!
Specific Discussion Questions Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Why does Amos tell Israel not to go to Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-sheba, all centers of religious activity, to seek God? What is wrong with worship, after all? How do we ensure that our worship is acceptable to God?
What does Amos mean when he says that Israel has turned “justice to wormwood?”
The city or town gate was where the elders would gather to mediate disputes between people. What kind of activity does Amos say is taking place in the gates? What kind of place should the gate be? What is the equivalent of the gate in our society? Is there justice at our “gates”?
What is the Day of the Lord, and why would Israel want that day to come? How does Amos understand what the Day of the Lord will be?
In verse 21, God says to Israel that he hates their festival and solemn assemblies. What has caused God’s hatred? Why has God ultimately rejected their worship?
Instead, God wants justice to roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Why does God use this water imagery to illustrate what justice and righteousness should be like?
Define both justice and righteousness.
In what ways might we be like Israel in this passage? What does it look like to work for justice in our context?
Works Cited Birch, Bruce C. Hosea, Joel, and Amos, Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.
Wolff, Hans Walter. Joel, and Amos: A Commentary on the Books of the Prophets Joel and Amos. Trans., S. Dean McBride Jr, and Waldemar Janzen. Philadelphia, PA: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1977.