Seven Passages on Social Justice (5)

Slowly but surely I’ll make it through this intermittent series on social justice. Today we come to Amos 5.

The fifth chapter of Amos contains some of the most striking and most famous justice language in the Bible. The Lord rebukes his people for turning “justice into wormwood” (7), for hating the one who speaks the truth (10), for trampling on the poor (11; cf. 4:1), for turning aside the needy in the gate (12). Because of their sin, the Lord despises Israel’s feasts and assemblies (21) and threatens to visit the land with darkness and not light (18-20). The only hope for God’s people is that they “seek good, and not evil,” that they establish justice in the gate (14-15). Or, to quote the concluding exhortation made famous by Martin Luther King Jr., Israel must “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Clearly, God cares about justice and the poor. Conversely, his wrath burns against those who commit injustice and trample the poor. So what are the specific sins condemned by Amos?

1. Kicking the poor when they are down instead of giving them a hand up. It seems the wealthy were selling the poor into slavery even when the poor owed as little as a pair of sandals (2:6-7). This is cruelty instead of mercy.

2. Doing “justice” for the highest bidder. In ancient Israel the leading men of the town would gather at the city gate to decide the cases that came to them. Instead of making fair judgment based on the truth, the men of Amos’ day accepted bribes and paid no attention to the righteous plea of the poor  (5:10, 12).

3. Arbitrary, excessive taxation on the poor to benefit the rich (5:11).

4. A smug assurance on the part of the rich who live in the lap of luxury on the backs of the poor. The wealthy in Amos’ day, like some in ours, were proud of their wealth. They reveled in it (4:1; 6:4-7). They felt secure in it (6:1). To make matters worse, their getting richer had been made possible by the poor getting poorer. They had cheated, perverted justice, and, according to one commentator, made their money by “outrageous seizure” and illegal “land grabbing” (cf. Isa. 5:8).

Amos 5 reaffirms what we’ve seen in the previous Old Testament passages. God hates injustice. But injustice must be defined on the Bible’s terms, not ours. Injustice implies a corrupted judicial system, an arbitrary legal code, and outright cruelty to the poor.