Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters
In recent years the topic of “social justice” has been sparking considerable controversy among American evangelicals. A host of specific social issues fall under this rubric. Likewise, various social agendas are being promoted in the Christian world under the banner of social justice.
Developing a comprehensive and nuanced position on this matter is a daunting task, requiring a synthesis of multiple theological, philosophical, historical, and sociological factors. But two points are especially foundational to the social-justice discussion: accurate definitions of terms and sound exegesis of the biblical data. Toward that end, in this post I have the modest goal of dealing briefly with one key text, perhaps the best known.
In Amos 5:21-23 Yahweh rejects the hypocritical worship of Israel. Then in verse 24 he declares:
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The imagery here is clear, potent, and inspiring. What, however, is the point of the imagery? In particular, what does Amos mean by the terms justice and righteousness? Space doesn’t allow a thorough discussion of the underlying and overlapping Hebrew words mishpat and tsedaqah. But the few usages in Amos suffice to point us in the right direction.
Misphat and tsedaqah occur in parallel in two other statements of Amos. Chapter 5 speaks of people who “turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth” (v. 7). Chapter 6 says similarly, “Do horses run on rocks? Does one plow there with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood” (v. 12). The wormwood/poison metaphor indicates that something designed for good has been perverted into something harmful. Yet again one wonders what exactly the imagery is describing.
The context provides the answer, especially 5:11–15:
Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Here we learn what Amos has in mind when he bewails the lack of or perversion of justice/righteousness. He is rebuking the Israelite nobility because they are excessively taxing the poor for personal gain. They are also accepting bribes in order to deny legal claims of the needy in court (“the gate,” v. 15).
Other passages in Amos identify parallel sins that violate justice/righteousness. For instance, in chapter 8 trampling on the needy (v. 4) is explained in terms of false balances that produce illegitimate profits (v. 5), the sale of slaves (v. 6a), and the sale of chaff with wheat (v. 6b).
A Working Definition
What, then, is the justice/righteousness that ought to roll down like waters? It is to give people what they are due in the eyes of God’s law, to honor their divinely given rights, rather than taking advantage of them or oppressing them.
One may wonder whether the standards of justice being violated in Amos’s time are unique to the nation Israel and her covenant with Yahweh. Amos begins, however, with denunciations of six non-Israelite nations. These denunciations center on the oppression of fellow human beings, specifically brutality against military enemies (1:3–2:3). This indicates that God has standards of justice that apply to all people groups. So Amos’s condemnations of injustice bear broad application.
Legitimate and Illegitimate Applications
A number of contemporary concerns parallel the sorts of injustices Amos decries. Consider the following examples:
- The abortion industry and its massacre of the most vulnerable members of society
- Any form of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
- Human trafficking
- Racism and racial discrimination
- Police brutality
- The persecution of various types of minorities
Believers ought to use the opportunities and influence they have to oppose such social ills and eradicate them to whatever degree is possible in a fallen world. We should also treat all human beings as fellow bearers of God’s image and support policies that promote this ideal in society broadly.
Note, however, various points that Amos does not teach:
- Authority or power structures are inherently unjust.
- Wealth and other forms of privilege are also inherently unjust.
- Minority status—especially a combination of minority statuses—automatically establishes one’s moral superiority or weightiness.
- The ideal for society is equity in every respect, so that wealth should be forcibly redistributed.
These popular perspectives derive not from Scripture but from secular ideologies, critical theory in particular. In fact, Amos himself speaks with great authority throughout his oracles—especially toward Amaziah, the priest of Bethel (7:10–17). The prophet also reveals that God often judges the injustices of one nation by raising up another nation to conquer it (e.g., 1:13–15; 6:14).
The Greatest of These Is Love
Even while challenging unbiblical views of justice, however, we dare not miss the dominant emphasis of biblical ethics. It is not justice but love—loving our neighbor as ourselves, and even loving our enemies (Matt 5:43–48; 22:34–40).
Grace-motivated, Spirit-enabled love moves the Christian not to be satisfied with simply not hurting people. Instead, we look for ways to be a positive blessing to others. We voluntarily and generously use our privileges and resources to help those less advantaged make progress in life. More importantly, we proclaim the gospel so that people can enjoy Christ’s satisfaction of God’s justice against sin. We strive to show mercy even as we have so richly received mercy.
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