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Justice and God?

s Impending Wrath: A Reading of Amos 5:14-24 The 14th through


the 24th verses in the 5th chapter of Amos may be a relatively short work of prose,
but?as one can usually expect from a sacred text?those few verses are saturated
with meaning. The text itself seems simple enough: this passage is a particularly
vivid description of a God angry with his people. But appearances can be deceiving,
even and especially in religious texts. This essay will be a two part analysis of Amos
5:14-24. The first part will directly examine the text, offering a thorough analysis of
its key points, its literary elements, and the social contexts which surrounded the
text from its inception. The second half of this essay will more closely examine the
theological debates surrounding this passage and the history of its interpretation,
closing with some comments on the way this passage can and does relate to my
life, and to the lives and experiences of people in the present. Part 1: Textual
Analysis Narrated by the prophet in both the first and the second person, the
opening of this segment passes from a series of commands from God seemingly
clich? to modern ears??Seek good, not evil...hate evil, love good; maintain justice in
the courts??to a less than hopeful statement by the prophet of the possibility of
redemption??perhaps the Lord God will have mercy.? To modern readers, the
commands that open this section sound suspiciously formulaic: Sunday-school
simple, at the least, and oddly ecumenical considering the condemnation of the
people that quickly follows after them. The listeners contemporary to Amos?
ministry, however, would have attached far more meaning and consequence to
these words: ??good? was used in ancient near eastern texts and in the Old
Testament with political connotations.? (Hayes, 166) Rather than meaning the kind
of moral or religious ?good? we might be inclined to hear in these words, ?the good?
here might most closely resemble the command of a modern mother or father for

children to ?be good??not an esoteric kind of good, but a behave-yourselvesproperly-don?t-hit-your-brother-and-stop-embarassing-me kind of good. Very
practical, and very specific even though the statement ?be good? can itself be a
little vague. Most scholars place Amos? work in the first half of the eighth century
BC, somewhere from the middle to the end of Jeroboam II?s reign. This was a crucial
point in the history of Israel, the third and last leg of prosperity the nation was to
experience before a series of foreign invasions and exiles. Though prosperity
marked this period of Israel?s history, with that (and any) prosperity comes division
between the fortunate and the less-so. The domestic political situation must have
been at least somewhat uneasy: and a people in the midst of peace and prosperity
would not want to hear admonitions to behave properly, to ?seek good?. Coupled
with threats that God would not be with them otherwise, and without even the
promise that God would save them if they sought good?the only promise in this
section is that if they seek good, they may live; not that they will thrive, and
certainly no guarantee they would be happy?this opening would have seemed to its
contemporaries, at the very least, insulting. ?To their short-sighted view, the country
was still at the height of its power.? (McKeating, 43) From this opening section
where the prophet reports to the people of Israel what the Lord God Almighty has
commanded, the work transitions to direct addressing of the people by the Lord God
himself. And the words of God as he speaks for himself are not comforting: the
scene described is one of misery, of ?wailing? and ?anguish?. The actions described
in verses 16 and 17 would have been typical of a funeral of that period in history.
The suffering being prophesized is like a kind of death, a public display of distress.
The public nature of the sorrow, and the effect it will have on all people is
emphasized by the settings described?the scene of suffering transitions from the

streets to the square to the vineyards, from the cities to the surrounding
countryside. The desolation endured as God passes through their midst without
stopping will affect everyone. ?Darkness? and suffering will not be avoided on the
Day of the Lord. Modern readers would not associate the word ?Woe? in verse 18 as
anything particularly remarkable, but the listeners of the eighth century would have
specifically heard ?woe? to be associated with funerals and death. Likewise, the Day
of the Lord holds little specific significance for modern readers?the day of the Lord is
often used simply as a phrase indicating the coming of the Lord?s vengeance, or
righteousness, or some other ultimate culmination associated with God: the phrase
itself does not indicate to modern readers any specific day. The ?day of the Lord?
could apply to many days, both past and possibly future. And what could be the
cause of God?s dissatisfaction with Israel? What grievance does God have with his
people that would invoke God?s anger to the extent that he would ?walk through?
his people and cause suffering like death? God has stood by his people again and
again, as highlighted by the nightmarish prose in verse 19. The scenario described
is vivid and frightening. Unlike much of the text, which is hard for the modern
reader to fully understand, the sense of out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire
described here is easily comprehended. The theme of death runs through verse 18
from the previous verses: only this time, death is expanded to be a death avoided in
the past (as Israel was repeatedly saved by the Lord God) only to be inflicted in the
final moment. The Lord God speaks here: the ?life? of Israel has been extended in
the past due to his interventions, but that time is coming to an end. He will leave
them in ?darkness...without a ray of brightness.? (v.20) The cause of God?s anger is
made clear in verse 21. ?I hate, I despise your feasts.? The word ?feasts? is
misleading to the modern reader, though not to the listeners of Amos? time: ?the

term [translated as feast in the NIV translation] is the plural of the Hebrew hag.
When hag appears without further definition, it refers to the great fall pilgrimage
festival. (see 1 Samuel 3:1, 7:21). It was also the festival connected with royal
coronations and thus the royal festival par excellence.? (Hayes, 172) So God is
making his dissatisfaction with a particular set of feasts known. Notice also that the
word here is feasts, plural. In Amos? time, two competing fall pilgrimage festivals
took place each year: one in Bethel and one in Gilgal. (Bethel and Gilgal are
mentioned specifically as places of sin in the preceding chapter of Amos, in verse 4:
they are also mentioned a few verses prior to the selected ones in chapter five: the
Lord says not to seek these places in verse 5?a command corollary to the one to
seek good which opens this reading). A person?s choice in which festival to attend
would have been affected by his or her political loyalties and socio-economic
connections. (Wolff, 257) The social and political distress God commands Israel to
address in the opening of this section is delineated further into these verses, where
God describes his loathing for the competing festivals. The state of political
disparity in Israel is interfering with the ability of God?s people to worship properly.
And it is God?s regard for his people, as indicated by the repeated deliverance
described in verse 19, that makes his anger at their inability to ?seek good? among
one another so explicable. It is because of their disregard for one another and the
fact that this is interfering with their worship, that God will no longer accept their
offerings. The people may be prosperous, and many of them do not believe God is
angry with them because of it: so it is here that God makes it clear that, even with
their ?choice? (v. 22) offerings, he is not accepting of their empty worship. The
quality of their offerings has less to do with the economic state of the people
(which, at this time in their history, is pretty good) than with the quality of the

relationships the people of Israel have with each other (which, on Amos/God?s
account, is pretty bad). The anger God expresses is so severe that he will not only
refuse their offerings, but explicitly command that their songs cease. (v. 23) There is
nothing Israel can do to save itself from suffering, and their distracted attempts at
worship and celebration are making God angrier. The final verse in this selection
seems to be the most frequently cited. The rest of these verses are specific to a
particular time, a particular set of incidents: ?let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!? (v. 20) is self-contained in a way the rest
of the verses are not. The ambiguous and almost pleasant nature of this verse,
coupled with the harshness of the rest of the passage, makes this verse more
palatable and thus, more accessible than the previous verses. This is not to say that
this verse is unrelated to the preceding ones: water, as the source of the harvest,
would have been a central element of the celebration of the fall pilgrimage festivals
specifically in question in this selection. (Butterick et al., 775) The symbolic
elements of the preceding verses?death, destruction, and darkness?are implied
here, but not overtly. A rolling river can flood, destroying the land; a person can
drown in its waters. But a river is also a source of life, of renewal. The image of a
river in the desert would in some small way come across as a source of comfort to
listeners of the eighth century, in a way that a more destructive metaphoric device
like fire would not. Amos? choice in words here is interesting, and sheds further light
on the conflict of this passage: the word translated as ?river? in this verse,
weyiggal, is not found anywhere else in scripture (Hayes): and ?Amos? audience
here surely would have heard a pun on Gilgal [one of the sites of the competing
festivals] in weyiggal.? (Hayes, 175) Puns were frequently used as literary devices in
Hebrew poetry (though, strictly speaking, none of this selection is poetry so much

as it is a very direct prose). The original listeners of this work would have been well
aware of this, and would have taken the pun into consideration, understanding that
this passage is a direct response to the actions of their day. Part Two: Interpretation
and History I should make it clear that the interpretation of the text I am offering
here varies slightly from the way this text has traditionally been interpreted. That is
not to say, of course, that previous interpretations have been wrong: but it is only a
fairly recent trend to examine a sacred text as simply literature, or with a secular
and not religious investment. The day-to-day dramas of worship in ancient Judah are
surely important to an understanding of the context this piece had to its
contemporary listeners, but that information is not usually provided to readers who
approach this text today solely as the divinely-inspired word of God. A more
traditional reading of this section?and the one that has historically been offered?is
to read these verses in Amos as confronting the issues of righteousness, and
injustice. The rejection of the sacrifices by God due to the people?s lack of
righteousness was the central focus of readings many years ago. In 1712, Matthew
Henry sums up chapter five of Amos as the place where God addresses his people
and ?calls them to repentance?, with no further discussion of the matter, choosing
to focus his efforts on the Messianic nature of the final chapters of Amos. Later
theologians Jamieson, Fausset and Brown wrote more specifically on the passage
selected for this essay in 1871: they focus their commentary on this section as
mainly concerned with the nature of true righteousness. Glossing over the specifics
of the Day of the Lord, they sum up this reading as follows: ?Without the desire to
fulfill righteousness in the offerer, the sacrifice is hateful to God?. John Calvin?s
comments on this passage focus more specifically on the injustice prevalent in the
land, and on the effects living in unjust times would have on the faithful. His words

provide a powerful message to the faithful of his own day: A deluge of iniquity had
so inundated the land, that in the very courts of justice, and in the passing of
judgments, there was no longer any equity, any justice. Since then corruption had
taken possession of the very gates, the Prophet exhorts them to set up judgment in
the gate; it may be, he says, that God will show mercy to the remnants of Joseph.
The Prophet shows here that it was hardly possible that the people should continue
safe; nay, that this was altogether hopeless. But as the common degeneracy, like a
violent tempest, carried away the good along with it, the Prophet here admonishes
the faithful not to despond, though they were few in number, but to retake
themselves to God, to suffer others to fall away and to run headlong to ruin, and at
the same time to provide for their own safety, as those who flee away from the
burning. Keeping in mind the persecution that the Calvinists experienced, it is no
wonder that justice would be the focus of Calvin?s analysis here. The comfort taken
by Calvin and his followers in the possibility of being right, despite their sufferings,
and the joy of a world unlike this one is well known. And the severity with which the
Calvinists expected God to met out punishment to the hypocritical and nonbelieving is in some ways unmatched in the contemporary world?though the
influence Calvin had on Protestant Christianity and particularly evangelical and
other right-leanings groups is well-established. This passage by Amos lends itself
nicely to that way of thinking, and is a fine example of how a particular biblical
passage is used to explain and justify a world view in a religious context. Calvin?s
commentaries on biblical passages are, of course, quite extensive: but his extended
dealings with this particular passage allow for the place of this particular passage in
the Canon to be established and secured. It is difficult to pin down the place of
works like this one?a small segment of one chapter in a book by one of the minor

prophets: we are tempted to spend our efforts considering instead some of the
more lively or at least, more easily accessible sacred texts, like the Gospels or the
narrative sections of the Pentateuch. But as I mentioned in the opening of this
essay, sacred texts are such precisely because meaning can be derived and
amplified even from the smallest portion. In considering the importance due to this
passage in the overall Canon of Judaic and Christian studies of the Bible, it is
important to keep that fact in perspective: these may not be the most important ten
verses of the scriptures. They may not even be close to being the most interesting.
But given the chance to examine them carefully, they like many other verses are
capable of affect, of imparting wisdom and clarity to their readers. In the first half of
this essay, I repeated several times the idea that the meaning these verses had for
their contemporary listeners is frequently lost on modern listeners. In this half of the
essay?writing about the impact these verses have had and can have?I would like to
ask my reader to be mindful that one does not necessarily need to understand the
original meaning of a text in order to grasp some bit of meaning from the words.
Understanding the history of these verses is worthwhile, and does help illuminate
the text: but the fact that original meanings have been lost and new ones superimposed does not diminish the power of these verses in any way. Declared holy
verses by historical reckoning and Church doctrine, the status of these verses as
scripture alone makes possible numerous interpretations and profound effects on
the reader. In these last few pages, I will try to delineate some of the effects these
verses have had on me, and how I suspect others may be affected by them as well.
Though it can be argued that Amos did not intend it to be so broad, the opening
sequence of evil/good dichotomies rings true to every faith, to every system of
social ordering on the planet. It is not just that we should do good: it is that we

should love good, because therein lies balance and righteousness. It is true that ?
loving good? may not bring us happiness, or even safety?but it will bring with it
some degree of understanding. Those familiar with a concept of God?and most
human beings, (arguably all human beings) on the planet are?have felt that God has
rejected them at some point or another. The anecdote in verse 19 resonates on a
profound and deeply rooted level: the dream-like state of running from one danger
only to be met with another, the inescapable nature of death...I am convinced this
feeling is universally felt by every human being at one time or another. The verses
immediately before this one, detailing the wailing in the streets, the complete and
total devastation of a people in the wake of God?s wrath is also powerful: but while
the imagery is understandable, the correlation of public wailing thousands of years
ago to my own life is a bit more difficult to reconcile. The tragic natural disasters of
this past summer, and the violent conflict witnessed the world over these past
years; these come to mind when trying to grasp what Amos is saying about his own
times and the suffering his people will endure. But it is the dream-like imagery that
follows the description of public mourning which makes the point to me. In Amos?
day, sorrow was an affair for a group. In modern Western cultures, sadness and
suffering are largely private affairs. I can imagine what it would be to be caught up
in mourning so publicly, in literally wailing in the streets: but I can actually
remember feeling scared, feeling as if I had outrun one danger only to meet
another. Though the words are thousands of years old transcribed from a speaker
and translated from his original tongue, the power of these words is remarkable. I
have the same feeling of being unable to fully grasp the meaning, or at least, the
emotional impact of the verses on sacrifices unacceptable to God. My own religious
practice does has never dictated specific sacrifices, nor do those religious practices

I have observed first hand. But the sensation of feeling as though my petitions to
the beyond go unanswered, that somehow they are not good enough or powerful
enough is not totally lost on me. And I have had the experience, on a less spiritual
plane, of having my work be rejected by those with the authority to do so, despite
my best efforts to make it acceptable. It really is a terrible and lonely feeling,
knowing that one?s efforts have not paid off in the slightest, that one?s petitions will
be unheeded. It is especially terrible when the reason for the rejection has to do
with one?s own lack of character, with somehow being unfit to be granted the
request one so desperately makes. I can only imagine the way that feeling would be
magnified if the rejection were not a solitary one, but rather a rejection of a whole
group to which I belonged: if not just I were unworthy, but we all were. If not just my
moral fiber were not strong enough, but no one else?s was either. But in the final
verse of this passage, the tone shifts from one of issuing of condemnation to a
statement of lasting truth. It is that final verse, I think, which has the strongest
impact on me personally, the one I can most comfortably say I will carry with me for
some time to come. Whereas the other verses of this passage are specific to a
place, a time, a series of events, and the relationship the Lord God has with a
particular people, the final verse is a statement for the ages. And it is one of hope:
justice will flow like a never-ending stream. If I can not count myself among those
addressed in the previous verses, or do not wish to dwell on past failings, this final
verse is a comfort. The idea that the good will prevail and the image of its
prevalence as natural, as a part of the landscape; and at the same time, as a kind of
good fortune one should not take for granted, but that is there even if one
does...that message is very powerful. Amos is a skilled wordsmith, and I am very
pleased to have those words to take away from this passage.

Appendix A Amos 5:14-24 New International Version 14 Seek good, not evil, that
you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. 15
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God will have
mercy on the remnant of Joseph. 16 Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord
Almighty says: ?There will be wailing in all the streets and cries of anguish in every
public square. The farmers will be summoned to wail. 17 There will be wailing in all
the vineyards, for I will pass through your midst,? says the Lord. 18 Woe to you who
long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will
be darkness, not light. 19 It will be as though a man fled from a lion, only to meet a
bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a
snake bite him. 20 Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light? pitch-dark,
without a ray of brightness? 21 ?I hate, I despise your feasts; I cannot stand your
assemblies. 22 Even though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no
regard for them, 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music
of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing
stream!

Works Cited Butterick, George Arthur et. al. The Interpreter?s Bible. Vol. 6. Abingdon
Press, New York. 1956. Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets.
Translated from the original Latin, by the Rev. John Owen, vicar of Thrussington,
Leicestershire. Volume 2: Joel, Amos, Obadiah. Wm. B. Eerdsmans Publishing
Company, Grand Rapids, 1950, Michigan. Lecture 59. Available online:
http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/m.sion/cvams-11.htm Hayes, John H.
Amos?The Eighth Century Prophet: His Times and His Preaching. Parthenon Press,
Nashville. 1998. Henry, Matthew. Commentary on the Whole Bible. With Practical
Observations of the Book of the Prophet Amos. 1712. Available online:
http://www.ccel.org/h/henry/mhc2/MHC30000.HTM Jamieson, Robert and A. R.
Fausset and David Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible,
Amos. 1871. available online: http://www.ccel.org/j/jfb/jfb/JFB30.htm McKeating,
Henry. The Cambridge Bible Commentary: The Books of Amos, Hosea, and Michah.
Cambridge University Press, London. 1984 reprint. Scoffield, C.I. (ed.) The New
Scoffield Study Bible New International Version. Oxford University Press, New York,
NY. 1967, 1984. Wolff, Hans Walter. Joel and Amos: A Commentary on the Books of
the Prophets Joel and Amos. trans. by Waldemer Janzen, S. Dean McBride Jr., and
Charles Muenchow. Fortress Press, Philadelphia. 1977.