In the time of the prophet Amos, Israel — God’s chosen nation — thought it was doing a pretty good job following God.
The Israelites worshipped God in their holy cities, offered sacrifices, and had great worship music. They celebrated all the religious holidays. They were solemn and devout during religious services.
So when God told Amos to relay to Israel that they had completly rejected God, were doomed for destruction, and needed to seriously change both their personal actions and the structure of their society and courts, the prophet had a bit of a task on his hands.
The Power of Poetry and Art
In Amos 5, the prophet uses jarring and visceral poetry to convict the hearts of a nation that believes it is following God, when in fact, its idolatry and lack of justice make its worship nothing but half-hearted and hollow lip service.
Amos’ poetry illustrates the destruction coming to Israel because it has rejected God. He paints a picture of Israel as a dead maiden (5:2) and God as a devouring fire (verse 6) who controls the forces of nature, destroys strong cities (verse 8), and whose day of judgement will bring darkness and pain (verse 18-20). The narrative impact is that readers feel, in their guts, the pain of God’s coming punishment.
Amos’ narrative also weaves beautiful poetic language together with practical explanation and instruction. When Amos isn’t grabbing his reader’s attention with poetry, most of his other language is practical, not poetic, and focus on three themes: Israel’s wrongdoing, their coming punishment, and instruction for turning back to God.
God’s Blunt Assessment
Israel doesn’t seem to realize it has turned its back on God. The people are doing everything they need to do. They are checking off all the checkboxes on their list, but God says:
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. And the offerings of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (5:21-26)
Clearly, God is not happy with Israel’s appearance of religiosity. On the surface, it may not be immediately clear what they have done wrong.
In verse 7, Amos explains that Israel has turned justice into bitterness, which is more or less trampling on goodness and right behavior.
Verse 10 says of Israel (or possibly the strong among them specifically) “They hate the one who reproves at the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks truth.”
In Israel, court was held at the city gate, so Amos is saying that Israel hates justice and loathes truth and fairness coming from their court system.
In verse 11, he says Israel is trampling the poor by taking too much of their food and income through unfair taxes. They “afflict the righteous,” take bribes, and “push aside” those with need at the gate (verse 12).
Israel’s rejection of legal justice and preference for getting rich off of exploiting the poor is only one part of what makes God so exasperated with them. They are worshipping God, but at the same time, they are worshiping other gods, and crafting idols they can worship, too. They are convinced that their pious prayers, offerings of their crops, and beautiful worship music will be enough.
Like, yeah, they’re totally worshiping a bunch of other gods, too, and letting idolatry capture a great deal of their energy and focus. But they’re not not worshiping God. So what’s really the big deal?
The big deal, God had tasked Amos with making clear, is that their choice to abuse justice and prioritize worldly idols over God is rejecting God. And God will punish them for this blatant rejection of God.
As punishment, God will make their powerful armies embarrassingly weak (verse 3). God will destroy them, and everyone everywhere will wail and mourn in the face of their destruction (verse 16-17).
Repeated throughout the chapter is God’s call that Israel seek God and live. Both Amos and God re-iterate it: if Israel gives up its worldly idols, changes injustice to justice, and focuses wholeheartedly on living for God — they will live.
“Hate evil and love good,” Amos says in verse 15, “establish justice at the gate.”
Another repetition is with “justice and righteousness,” words that are paired together in verses 7 and 24, and appear individually in verses 12 and 15, making these themes present in the chapter’s beginning, middle, and end. Here, Israel is told to stop rejecting justice and righteousness, both personally and systemically.
What does this mean for us today?
In reading Amos 5, I couldn’t help but see God’s appeal to fix corrupt justice systems in today’s context. Personally, I find it so easy to think I’m following God, and not realize how often idols like money and workaholism are they things I actually give the majority of my thought — and in whom I place my hope and gain my sense of value.
As someone who is studying theology for a master’s degree, it would be SO EASY to say, “Of course that’s not me! I’m literally studying Jesus for a living! I couldn’t possibly be paying God mere lip service and orienting my life around other things.”
But I’m well aware of what an idol academia can be. Or how differently people have seen me based solely on what my job was—when I never changed, just my job title or employer. I don’t ever want to fall in the trap of thinking I’m immune from making my Christian faith a list of things to check off before I can get back to the parts of my life that really matter: like excelling in my career, getting top grades in my master’s program, or whatever else society says is actually important and makes us valuable.
I would never intentionally push aside someone in need at the city gate. But where in my life do I see people being pushed aside, or those who are marginalized been taken taking advantage of?
Israel is called out for being unjust as individual Israelites, but also for being a society that is unjust systemically. Its courts have corruption in them. Its justice system is unjust.
– The U.S. criminal justice system, school-to-prison pipeline, everything in Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy
– #metoo and women’s experiences with sexual assault
– any time people do whatever it takes to gain power
In my job, in my (new) city, in my place of study — are there places where I see systemic injustice? Are there places where those who are marginalized in someway are being taken advantage or aren’t being treated as beloved and valued children of God?
What does it mean for you? For your city — your community — and how you participate in our nation at large? How can learning from Israel’s mistakes help us today avoid the trappings of power and money in our world, and better live as representatives of Christ every day?
Amos 5 is a punch in the gut to its readers. It’s a dire poetic warning that for too long, Israel has split its attention between the LORD and other gods, taken advantage of the poor, and ignored God’s call for justice and righteousness.