Let Justice Roll Down Lesson 3: “Seek the Lord and live” (chapter 5)
This is the third in our series on Amos entitled “Let Justice Roll Down.” To watch the livestream, click here.
In the year 390, a massacre occurred in Thessalonica. After some riots caused the death of a general in the city, the emperor Theodosius lost his temper and ordered the entire city rounded up and murdered. Theodoret, an early church historian writing in around 430, described the event in vivid detail:
The emperor was fired with anger when he heard the news [of the death of the general in Thessalonica], and unable to endure the rush of his passion, did not even check its onset by the curb of reason, but allowed his rage to be the minister of his vengeance. When the imperial passion had received its authority, as though itself an independent prince, it broke the bonds and yoke of reason, unsheathed swords of injustice right and left without distinction, and slew innocent and guilty together. No trial preceded the sentence. No condemnation was passed on the perpetrators of the crimes. Multitudes were mowed down like ears of corn in harvest-tide. It was said that seven thousand perished.
The horror of this tyrannical action shocked the Roman world. Emperors were known for their cruelty, but the hope had been that Theodosius, raised in a Christian household and espousing the faith, would be different. And then, to make matters worse, Theodosius showed up on the steps of the church in Milan (in Northern Italy), hoping to just go to mass as though nothing had happened.
But he was met at the door by the bishop, Ambrose. Ambrose himself, in a letter later to the emperor, describes his perplexing situation: “What, then, could I do? Should I not hear…Should I utter what I heard?…Should I keep silence? But my conscience would be bound, my utterance taken away, which would be the most wretched condition of all.” Ambrose could buckle under the emperor’s “sheen of purple”, or he could stand firm against the injustice committed. In a remarkable example of speaking truth to power, Ambrose chose the latter. “Begone,” he is reported to have said to Theodosius. “You seem, sir, not to know the magnitude of the bloody deed that has been done…how will you stretch forth your hands still dripping with the blood of unjust slaughter?”
Ambrose and Amos were kindred spirits. In the moment of crisis, when speaking out or remaining silent would define them, both men chose to speak out against injustice, no matter how powerful the perpetrators were. Both understood that the calling of God’s people was to seek justice by deliberate action, whether that meant defending the rights of the vulnerable (Amos), or seeking justice for all people (Ambrose). It was, in Amos’s words, to “hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15).
In our study of the book of Amos, we have seen clearly that the cultures and institutions of Israel were rife with injustice. These systems were not neutral, but rather included injustice as a basic part of their recipe. The people as a whole were responsible for this situation as they refused to speak out against it, minimizing the problem in favor of a false theology of God’s favor on their nation. Because of this injustice and oppression, God’s wrath was coming as surely as God’s control of the natural world (Amos 5:6-9).
But, as we talked about last week, God’s pronouncements of wrath are always a warning before a promise. Now, as we reach the center of both the book and the entire message, we see what the people should have been doing all along, and what they must do now if they are to avoid the punishment coming their way. That’s Amos chapter 5.
Seek the Lord by Doing Good
The call to seek the Lord
Amos begins the fifth chapter with a lamentation:
Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel; forsaken on her land, with none to raise her up. (5:2)
This is a vision of the land after all the punishments described in chapters 3-6 have come down upon Israel. The blow has been crushing, and no one is there to help. Cities have dwindled to a tenth of their populations (5:3), the rest taken to exile or slaughtered in the streets. Lament has replaced the feast-songs, and dirges have taken the place of party-tunes. The people? Wiped out. their history? Forgotten. Their hope? Gone forever.
Unless they listened to Amos’ message. If they continued down the path of injustice and oppression, of pride and religious theatrics, then they would end up destroyed. But they had a chance, a hope, summed up in these words: “Seek the Lord and live” (5:4, 6). The first step in Israel’s repentance was simply to stop seeking their own gods and versions of life and happiness, but instead to seek the Lord. The options were clearly laid out: either “seek the Lord” and “live,” or forsake the Lord and be destroyed. Azariah the prophet had delivered a similar message for king Asa: “The Lord is with you while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.” (2 Chron. 15:2). This was the true reality of the people’s covenant with Yahweh: if they sought him, he would draw near to them, but if they forsook him (by forsaking his law and worshipping idols), he would forsake them. As Hill and Walton point out, even God’s covenant with David (and later Solomon) had this stipulation in it, that the Lord would “cut off Israel from the land” and destroy them if the rulers were disobedient (1 Kings 9:6-9).
This is yet another example of how the Israelites had imbibed an understanding of God’s covenant with them that was simply not true. To “seek the Lord” was an imperative to actually be his people, to love him with all of their being and seek to obey his commands (Deut. 6:1-9). Isaiah similarly implored the people of Judah to “seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (Isa 55:6). This meant, in reality, that they would finally pursue justice and righteousness and put wickedness away, as Isaiah explains:
let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isa. 55:7)
To “seek the Lord and live” was to return, to go back to God’s commands, and to follow him. This was always the way that led to life, the grain of the universe that God designed. It was obedience to God’s commands in the garden that led to the tree of life, but disobedience that led to the curse of sin. When God had given them the law, he had told them that before them there were two paths: one that lead to “life and good”, and the other that lead to “death and evil” (Deut. 30:15). If they followed his gracious commands, they would have life and peace, living in the land he had given them and experiencing God’s blessing. But, if they walked the other way, only death, evil, and destruction followed. The admonition? “choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.” (Deut. 30:19b-20).
Jesus had a similar message when he sat down to teach on a Galilean hillside. To him, there were two kinds of people: those who “built their house on a rock” and those who “built their house on the sand” (Matt. 7:24-27). If people listened to him and put his words into practice, they were like those who built their house on a rock: secure and safe regardless of the challenges. Yet if they didn’t, they would fall, and their fall would be legendary. The way of life had a narrow gate and a hard path, but those who found it new where it led. The way of destruction was open wide, and always-easy, but it led only to evil and death (Matt. 7:13-14). In reality Jesus was doing the same thing that Moses had done back at Sinai: laying out the way of life, and imploring people to seek the Lord (Matt. 6:33; 7:7-8).
That is what Amos means when he says, “seek the Lord and live.” In the ancient world, there was always a clamoring of voices as to who was really worthy of worship. The cacophony of gods and kings were all jostling for the praises of people, and their followers argued about which god was good for this problem or that. You seek this god if you need a child, or this other one if your crops won’t grow, or that one if you’d like revenge. The thought was that these gods exercised some level of control, and so to seek them (by sacrifice, even of your own children) would bring control over the constantly vacillating natural world.
But, if the Israelites were truly to be saved, they couldn’t seek the Lord that way. He wasn’t some cosmic slot machine, where you put sacrifices and prayers in and hoped to get blessing out. No, he was Sovereign over all the earth:
He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name; who makes destruction flash forth against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress. (5:8-9).
If the people wanted to avoid destruction, they must seek this God alone, and they must seek him, not by lip-service or sacrifice, but by hating evil, and loving good.
After laying out the sins of the people in verses 10-13, Amos reiterates his call to repentance. This time, instead of telling the people to “seek the Lord,” he says, “seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you.” (v.14). In verse 15 he flips the order and really drives home his point: “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” (5:15).
The fundamental call here is this admonition to pursue tôb, “good” and hate rā, “evil.” They were to seek the Lord by this activity of loving the good and hating the evil, of seeking justice and vehemently fighting against injustice. To do so meant to “establish justice in the gate,” to work toward justice in every relationship, and to call out against injustice whenever it comes up. In other words, this was a call to social action.
This call echoes throughout both testaments, from God’s chastisement of Cain’s murderous intentions (Gen. 4:6-7), to James’ insistence that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26). Isaiah’s path to the people’s repentance was for them to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17). The message is unmistakable: if you want life, you must follow the Lord and seek justice in our world. The common refrain that “you’ll never be able to fix the world” is totally worthless before this divine command, this holy imperative. The witness of the Christian faith must include a cry for justice.
Examples of this in the Bible abound. There is the story of Ruth (as has been mentioned in previous lessons), when Boaz pursued justice by advocating for her in the gate (Ruth 2-4). There is the story of Esther, when she used her privilege to cry out against the unjust slaughter of her people (Esther 4-6). Job witnesses to his own work as an advocate, when he “delivered the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to help him” (Job 29:12). He continues:
I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know. I broke the fangs of the unrighteous and made him drop his prey from his mouth. (Job 29:14-17)
That is the vision of biblical social action. Timothy Keller writes that “when Job says ‘I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and turban’…. he is speaking about a social consciousness that infused his daily life as completely as his clothing covered his body.” There is this recurring theme throughout the Bible that God’s people are advocates, a critical community, calling out for the dignity of all of God’s image-bearers and especially for the vulnerable (Prov. 31:8-9).
A vivid New Testament example of this is the treatment of Hellenistic widows in Acts 6:1-7. In this story, a complaint is raised by “the Hellenists” (a minority group of Greek-speaking Jews) that their widows weren’t receiving the same amount of aid as the others. This problem is seen by the apostles as an oversight, and their reaction is highly unusual for the ancient world. Instead of reacting with defensiveness and suppression, the early church leaders instead devote a contingency of men to focus solely on this problem of administering aid to the needy. In this “first example of affirmative action,” the community selects a contingency of Greek-speaking Jews to minister to the people “in order to avoid even the appearance of favoritism.” The threat of injustice is averted by a quick response on the part of the leadership to ensure the care for the vulnerable.
The substance of Amos’ injunction to “hate evil and love good” is this: God’s people are called to deliberate social action that defends the rights of the vulnerable, advocates for the oppressed, and seeks equality for all people. This social action comes in the form of advocacy, awareness of the systemic nature of sin, and a vehement hatred of all unjust action. As Keller comments, “If you are a Christian, and you refrain from committing adultery or using profanity or missing church, but you don’t do the hard work of thinking through how to do justice in every area of your life—you are failing to live justly and righteously.”
Justice as a vital part of Worship
Amos has made his major point. 5:14-15 form a cohesive unit and are the central verses of the entire book. Everything that comes before these verses in some way points to them, and all that comes after will look back at them for a solution. The fundamental call of Amos is to committed social action for the vulnerable, and only this will avert God’s wrath against an unjust people.
Yet, as we have seen, the people don’t think that way. 5:17-27 reveals clearly how the people soothed their conscience by prophets who puffed up their national pride and prophesied only peace for Israel as “God’s people.” They’d even developed an eschatology (vision of the end times) that excluded them from any punishment (5:18-20). They reduced Yahweh to a pagan deity, performing rituals and expecting blessing in return. Justice went to the wayside, and they followed the path of rā instead.
The path that they were on would end in death, and it revealed a wide gap in the way they thought about worship. Their conception of worship primarily consisted of feasts, sacrifices, and solemn assemblies (5:21-23). They used these devices as bargaining chips, and they probably served a soothing role: it assured them that they were right with God, and that he was on their side. Religious services thrived in their midst, ballooning into shows of piety as they had in Judah (Isaiah 58). One thinks of American slave-owners who also bought entire pews as signs of their piety, or the Roman church building lavish cathedrals off of the backs of the hell-scared poor.
What all these actions signify is a complete misunderstanding of God’s character. This babel instinct, to prove one’s might and by so doing curry God’s favor, is the antithesis of true biblical worship. As the Lord himself says through Amos:
Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:23-24).
This profound statement serves as a continual reminder: the pursuit of justice is a vital part of worship. Paul described “spiritual worship” as presenting our bodies (and by-proxy our entire existences) to God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:2). It consists not of boasting in power or privilege but rather in knowing the Lord “who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth” (Jer. 9:24). All of life is worship and must be done in obedience to God’s commands. As Allen P. Ross wisely reminds us,
Worship cannot remain a private, individual act of devotion. It was designed to be a sacrificial service. To give thanks to God, no matter how sincere, and yet ignore social injustice, poverty, hunger, and abuse is a travesty of worship itself. True communion with God based the love of Christ will inspire the faithful to reach out to people with needs, people for whom Christ also shed his blood.
Such is what Amos means by his call to justice in the place of vain religious sacrifices. The goal is to see all of our activities as holy worship, as walking either the path that leads to life or the one that leads to destruction. As we take the former, we spread life and peace in the world, seeking justice and witnessing to the Just One who took our injustice on himself.
A Critical Community Seeking Justice
The message of Amos is one calling for Christian social action. After our deep dive of chapter five’s commands, there is no “out” for Christians to sit on the sidelines for the cause of the vulnerable in society. Christians look out at all the world and see the need for redemption in all spheres, “far as the curse is found” (as Charles Wesley would say). Cornelius Plantinga points out how Christians, especially those of the Reformed tradition, have sought to be part of God’s redemptive program in the world by seeking reformation in every area of life. As Plantinga writes, “the world isn’t divided into a sacred realm and a secular realm, with redemptive activity confined to the sacred zone. The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, and so the whole world needs to be redeemed—every last person, place, organization, and program.”
In this fallen world, this work of redemption must extend to pursuit of more just communities. As God instructed the Israelites to seek the good of their captor’s cities while in exile (Jer. 29:1-9), so too the Church should seek the good of the communities around it by being a critical community, a group who calls out the powerful (like Ambrose to Theodosius) and seeks justice in our world. This is a vital part of the Church’s role as the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and a city on a hill (Matt. 5:13-16). We show what God is like by our pursuit of justice.
In this pursuit of justice, the Church can engage on many levels. Timothy Keller identifies three such levels of engagement in the pursuit of justice: relief, development, and social reform. These three activities are not mutually exclusive and rely on each other, but they are all part of Christian social action.
First, there is what Keller calls the work of “relief,” described as “direct aid to meet immediate physical, material, and economic needs.” Think of homeless shelters, food banks, and mercy funds. Second, there is the work of “development.” This moves past the immediate needs of an individual or family and works toward the creation of opportunities for the vulnerable or disenfranchised. An example Keller and others use for this kind of work is the releasing of slaves detailed in Deuteronomy 15:13-14, when the people were instructed to set up their recently released slaves with enough resources to flourish.
This work of development also includes going beyond families and individuals and seeks the healing of neighborhoods and communities. It often means things like careful “reneighboring,” when those who desire to help a community make a conscious decision to live as part of the community they want to help. It includes action such as “reweaving” a community, where under resourced areas are given the means by which they can make healthy, beautiful communities. And it means racial reconciliation, where people of different ethnic groups come together by the gospel banner and seek healing in communities where deep racial hurt exists.
Finally, there is social reform. As we have said, Christians do not only seek justice on individual or even community-wide levels, but also in the systems and laws of nations themselves (Job 29:17; Dan. 4:27; Isa. 10:1-4). This is where the Christian community becomes a critical minority, a voice of virtue, decrying any and all policies or ordinances that infringe on the rights of God’s image-bearers (Prov. 31:8-9). This is what Amos meant when he told the people to “establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15).
Social reform can come in many ways, including advocacy for the vulnerable in court, public outrage leading to change of policy, and openly critiquing the policies and practices of those in power. It can include getting involved in government decisions, and the vote is a clear tool in our society. Yet, as the Bible itself and Christian history make clear, if all these methods fail Christians must continue to cry out for justice.
Today we have seen that Christians are people who are called to deliberate social action that defends the rights of the vulnerable, advocates for the oppressed, and seeks equality for all people. They do so through the work of relief, redevelopment, and social reform. This is part-in-parcel of the gospel’s calling on our lives. As we experience redemption, we seek to be part of God’s work of “in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19).
That’s the vision, and the calling for Israel. Next week we will see how they chose, instead, to take the other path.
 Theodoret, The Ecclesiastical History, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Blomfield Jackson, vol. 3, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.), 143.
 Ambrose, Some of the Principal Works of St. Ambrose, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. H. De Romestin, vol. 10, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.), 451.
 Theodoret, The Ecclesiastical History, 143.
 Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 271-72.
 Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 110.
 Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 248, 250.
 Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, 112.
 Francis I. Anderson and David Noel Freedman, Amos, AB 24A (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 506.
 Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 509.
 Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002),95-98.
 Plantinga Jr, 96.
 Keller, Generous Justice, 113.
 Ibid., 113.
 Ibid., 114.
 Ibid., 115-125.