Let Justice Roll Down
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.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Am 5:18–24). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
5:21–24 / The purpose of worship is to nurture the relationship with God by means of praise and prayer, offering and intercession and petition. Israel in Amos’s time apparently felt that its lavish cult ensured its peaceful relation with its deity, just as modern worshipers sometimes believe that going to church always puts them right with God.
Judging from the cultic practices described in this passage, the northern kingdom was not neglecting its worship life. The feasts referred to in verse 21 were the three great festivals—Tabernacles, Passover or Unleavened Bread, and Weeks (Exod. 23:14–17; 34:22, 25; Deut. 16:1–16)—which Israelites celebrated with pilgrimages, probably to Bethel or Gilgal (see the comment on 4:4). “Solemn assemblies” (rsv) were feast days celebrating sabbaths, new moons, and other less important occasions, when all work ceased and the people gathered together to worship and sometimes to eat (cf. 8:5; Lev. 23:36; Num. 29:35; 2 Kgs. 10:20; Isa. 1:13; Joel 1:14).
The listing of sacrifices is quite comprehensive, verse 22. Burnt offerings were those entirely consumed by fire and sent up in smoke to the deity (Lev. 1:3–17). Minḥâ, which the niv translates as grain offerings, could refer to any type of sacrifice (Lev. 2). “Peace offerings” (supplied in the niv margin as an alternative to fellowship offerings) were only partially consumed by fire, the remainder being eaten at a communion meal (Lev. 3). And the latter could include singing, accompanied by the lute, which had an angular yoke and a bulging resonance chamber and was the oldest musical instrument known in Israel (Wolff, Joel and Amos, p. 264).
Amos details Israel’s worship life only to announce that God rejects it all. The three verbs that the prophet employs in verses 22b–23b are significant. God will not accept the burnt offerings; literally, the verb means “savor” or “smell,” as in Genesis 8:21, so God closes his nostrils to Israel’s offering. God will have no regard for the grain offerings; that is, God will not “look upon” them, so he closes his eyes. And God will not listen to the singing and playing on lutes, so he closes his ears. Indeed, the festal songs are nothing but noise. Of the worship that Israel believes wins favor in God’s sight, God says, I hate, I despise them, verse 21, and he closes himself off from it all (cf. Isa 1:10–15).
As long as Israel will not practice justice and righteousness in its courts and commerce, fulfilling its covenant obligations toward the poor and oppressed, its worship is not acceptable to its God. The Lord wants mišpāṭ (justice) and ṣedāqâ (righteousness) literally to “cascade” through Israel’s daily life like a mighty river; God does not expect them to dry up like some desert wadi that runs full only during the rainy season, verse 24.
In short, what we do in our relations with our fellow human beings always affects our relations with God, and we cannot love God if we do not also love our neighbor: the first and the second great commandments are inextricably joined (Mark 12:28–31 and parallel), and from beginning to end, the Scriptures affirm that joining. (See, e.g., Mal. 2:13–16 or Matt. 5:23–24 or James.)
23 Yahweh has already rejected the cult’s feasts and its sacrifices. Here he rejects even its praise. Vocal and instrumental music were integral to worship in OT time (Ps 150; Ezra 2:65; 1 Chr 15:16–24; 2 Chr 5:13; 23:13; Isa 5:12; Dan 3:5–15). But now Israel’s God will neither look at (נבט, hiphil, v 22) or listen to (שמע) his people’s worship (cf. Deut. 31:17, 18; 32:20).
24 Israel’s God requires regular, consistent keeping of the covenant. Sacrifices and other elements of worship (vv 22, 23) constituted occasional, intermittent righteousness and were rejected because they were not complemented by proper living in general. A society truly in harmony with Yahweh’s will must practice justice (משפט) and righteousness (צדקה; on this standard combination, cf. 5:7; 6:12) routinely: always and everywhere. It is in the nature of a covenant that it cannot be kept merely now and again. For example, no one can say, “I keep my marriage covenant; I commit adultery only every few days and the rest of the time am completely faithful to my spouse.” Likewise the Israelite’s implicit argument was ludicrous: “I keep Yahweh’s covenant. I misuse and abuse others only some of the time and otherwise faithfully worship Yahweh.”
Canaanite cultic religion allowed people to be personally immoral and unethical; they could still be right with the gods if they merely supported the cult enthusiastically. Yahweh’s covenant denied his people any such option (cf. Matt 7:21–23). Justice and righteousness cannot stop and start like a wilderness wadi that flows with water only during the rainy seasons and otherwise is just a dry stream bed. They must instead continue night and day, all year, like the נחל איתן (lit., “strong stream”) that never goes dry.
5:23–24. In contrast to vv. 21–22 (which use plural pronouns), vv. 23 and 24 use a singular pronoun your, indicating a call for individuals to repent. Negatively, their celebrations in songs must cease as so much noise in God’s ears. He would not listen, shutting His ears as well as His nostrils. Positively, the Lord wanted justice and righteousness (cf. Mc 6:8) rather than religiosity and external rituals. Token practices of justice and righteousness do not honor God.
call for individual repentance (5:23–24)
In verses 23–24 the verbs “away” and “let … roll” are singular, whereas in verses 21–22 the pronouns “your” and “you” are plural. This indicates a shift from national accusation (vv. 21–22) to individual invitation (vv. 23–24).
5:23. God appealed to individuals to take away the burdensome noise of their praise songs. He would not listen to the accompanying music of their harps. Having shut His nostrils (as noted in v. 21b, “stand” means “smell”), He would also stop His ears.
5:24. Instead of ritual and performance, God wanted a relentless commitment to justice and righteousness (see comments on v. 7). He wanted a passionate concern for the rights of the poor, a concern that would roll on like an ever-flowing river … like a never-failing stream that did not run dry. God wanted a day-to-day life of surging integrity and goodness. Only this outer evidence of inner righteousness could offer the Israelites the possibility of survival in the day of the Lord (cf. vv. 6, 14–15).
5:21–23 God had promised that if the Israelites honored Him with their lives, He would savor, accept, and regard Israel’s sacrifices and hear their words. By stating He would no longer accept Israel’s sacrifices or listen to them, God was rejecting Israel’s worship as hypocritical, dishonest, and meaningless. Feast days and sacred assemblies refers, in general, to all of Israel’s worship of God. burnt offerings … grain offerings … peace offerings: For more details on the sacrificial system, see Lev. 1–3.
5:24 After dismissing Israel’s empty worship as noisy and tumultuous, God called for the honest tumult of the rolling waters of justice and the perennial stream of righteousness, the only foundation for true praise and worship of the Lord.
5:24 — “But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
God intends for our personal righteousness to prompt us to actions of community justice. “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is liar,” John said (1 John 4:20).
5:21–24 When performed with a corrupt heart, even the savored festivals and offerings were despised by the Lord (cf. Lv 26:27, 31; Ps 51:16, 17, 19).
5:18–24 Amos says that the “Day of the Lord,” for which the people longed, would not be a day of gladness and “light” but of treacherous “darkness” and “gloom” (v. 20). The people’s desire for the Day and the context, which refers to feasts and worship assemblies (vv. 21–22), suggest that the prophet was referring not only to the final day of judgment but also to a popular festival observance. Scholars have suggested that the “Day of the Lord,” or “Yahweh’s Day,” may have been the annual festival of the new year, which, because it celebrated the kingship of the Lord, was associated with His role as Judge of the people. (Commentators who hold this view find extensive evidence for it in the psalms.)
If a particular worship festival was not in view, it is difficult to see why the prophet would move immediately from a terrifying description of the Day to an indictment of the community’s hypocritical worship. Amos preached during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam II of Israel, but the national prosperity was limited to the wealthier families and came at the expense of the poor who were victims of injustice (5:10–13). It was this inequity that rendered the people’s worship repulsive to the Lord, for it violated His covenant in which justice and fairness for all were supposed to prevail.
 Achtemeier, E. (2012). Minor Prophets I. (W. W. Gasque, R. L. Hubbard Jr., & R. K. Johnston, Eds.) (pp. 210–212). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Stuart, D. (2002). Hosea–Jonah (Vol. 31, pp. 354–355). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
 Jelinek, J. A. (2014). Amos. In The moody bible commentary (p. 1351). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Sunukjian, D. R. (1985). Amos. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, pp. 1441–1442). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
 Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1054). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
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 Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J. P., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (p. 1328). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.