Biblical prophecy is much more concerned with how God’s people live in the present than with predicting the future. The future is God’s. Those who trust in God can be assured of their security in God’s future. The biblical prophets certainly proclaimed that message. But they were especially interested in getting people to trust in God right now, and to live right now in light of that trust.
Old Testament prophets spoke about how the people lived unfaithfully to the ways of their God, departing from the expectations for life articulated in Torah. The prophets spoke about how God demands that the people change their ways – if not they will suffer consequences. At this point, the prophets did speak of the future. You will, in the future, suffer for your present disregard of God’s ways. The point even then, though, was not predicting as a kind of gift of knowledge about what will inevitably happen. The predictions of future consequences are conditional. This is what will happen if you don’t change. The prophet’s main point is to challenge the people to change.
The basic problem in ancient Israel was that the society had changed in big ways from what the great leaders Moses and Joshua and Samuel had wanted. Their hope had been for a vine and a fig tree for every family. The society as a whole would be most healthy when each family worked its own land, when all the people were prosperous – none too rich, none too poor.
Things changed greatly, though, after Samuel’s time. Some people had become quite rich, and many others were very poor. The poor people were dispossessed and mistreated.
The prophet Amos, the first of the “writing prophets,” entered the scene in the northern kingdom of Israel and expressed a harsh indictment, speaking God’s words critiquing the people: “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned” (2:6-7). Amos charges that Israel’s society is unjust. The main moral trait that describes the society is “injustice.”
What are the dynamics of injustice? One is depersonalization. The problem here is that people with power and wealth treat other people as things. They are not fellow human beings, fellow believers, people to be treated as brothers and sisters, fellow members of the same covenant community, all of whom worship the same God. Rather, the rich treat the poor as having little value. For the rich creditors, money has more value than people. The rich sold the needy into slavery because the poor cannot pay back the small amount needed to pay for a pair of sandals.
Injustice requires depersonalization. We find it much easier to hurt or disregard people we have depersonalized than we might people toward whom we feel empathy and compassion and a sense of connectedness.
A second dynamic is exploitation. Amos speaks out: “They…trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl” (2:7). Exploitation has to do with using someone else to one’s own advantage or to satisfy one’s own desires regardless of the cost to that person. In Amos’s day, that meant economic exploitation. It also meant sexual exploitation – the ages long sad story of men overpowering women.
The third aspect of injustice, in Amos’s eyes, is religiosity. This is the worst of all. Shockingly, he sees depersonalization and exploitation going hand in hand with active religiosity in Israel. The powerful people not only hurt the weak in the name of increased power and wealth, they assumed that God was blessing them. They believed their power and wealth were a sign of God’s blessing.
In the face of this injustice, Amos offers a corrective. His solution is not to turn to religious practices. God says: “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings…, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon” (5:22). The solution to the crisis is not to be found first of all at the temple or through their religious practices.
“Seek me and live;” God says, “but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beer-sheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile and Bethel shall come to nothing” (5:4-5). Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-sheba were three of the main religious centers in Israel. But that is not where God is to be found in this time of crisis. Amos says seeking God there will only make things worse unless the peoples’ social practices change.
Chapter 4, verse 4: “Come to Bethel—and sin; to Gilgal—and multiply your sins”. One of your worst sins is to be faithful in these external forms of religion and to be unfaithful in how you treat each other. When you are unjust, going through the motions of worshiping God only makes it worse. The solution is not to be found in the religious centers.
“Seek the Lord and live,…you that turn justice to [bitter poison]” (5:6). Here we see the key. Begin to live according to God’s will. Turn away from the acts of injustice that happen way too often. “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have [been claiming]. 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 [you]” (5:14-15).
“Establish justice at the gate” is one very concrete, practical way to turn toward God. These were small courts where people who have been exploited could find recourse. But they had been corrupted. The poison of injustice is being expressed at this basic level. “Establish justice at the gate,” give the weaker people a chance to resist their exploitation, treat them honestly and fairly.
Amos makes the solution to Israel’s crisis clear: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24). Amos calls for justice, for righteousness. He challenges an unjust society to turn back to God. That is their only hope of finding life. That is their only hope of escaping the calamity that is on its way.
God’s justice. Let it shape your lives. Let God’s justice determine how you people relate to one another. That is Amos’s solution. What did Amos mean by God’s justice?
Amos speaks many words of judgment, certainly. God is distressed beyond words at his people turning justice into poison, depersonalizing and exploiting while continuing in their religiosity. Most of all, though, God wills salvation for his people and for the entire world. God is not seeking to punish but to work toward healing. It’s just that sometimes God’s people need some hard words, some hard times, to get their attention and to remind them that God’s work of healing creation requires their faithfulness.
The imagery used of “justice” in Amos 5:24 shows that God’s justice is ultimately about healing and salvation. God’s justice is ultimately about life: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).
Amos does not say, “Let justice roll down like thunder.” The Canaanite god, Baal, was the god of thunder. Baal symbolized brute force. That was why Baal was identified with all-powerful kings. Thunder was associated with over-whelming power. But Amos does not say let justice roll down like thunder. Amos does not say, “Let justice roll down like a sword.” Throughout human history, the sword has been associated with justice. The ones who enforce justice do it with the sword, with the power to deal out death. But Amos does not say let justice roll down like a sword.
“Let justice roll down like water.” Justice has to do with water, which is to say, justice has to do with life. The people of ancient Israel were dessert people. They knew droughts. They knew the life-giving power of water. Life is precarious in the dessert. Their lives depend on water, a scarce and extraordinarily valuable resource. “Let justice give us life.”
When Amos calls for justice to roll down like waters, he calls for Israel’s society to enhance life, especially to enhance life for those who are depersonalized and exploited. To do justice is to support life. Amos adds, by way of emphasis, let “righteousness [roll down] like an ever-flowing stream.” For a desert people, an “ever-flowing stream” is an amazing resource, a stream that contains water all the time, which doesn’t dry up. God’s justice, God’s righteousness, is an even more amazing resource. Even in the face of faithlessness by the people, God doesn’t quit. God’s love perseveres, it doesn’t dry up. And God keeps working to make things right. God keeps working to heal brokenness.
God keeps working to heal brokenness because human life is so full of brokenness. Amos’s imagery connecting justice with life is a central part of his understanding of God’s justice. But Amos certainly cannot be accused of minimizing the death-dealing characteristics of human unfaithfulness. Amos shouts out against human sinfulness. God’s justice has everything to do with God’s response to sin. And God does not respond lightly to human sin.
However, and this is crucial, God’s main response to human sin – the main response of God’s prophets to human sin—is not condemnation.
God’s justice is not simply a matter of condemning sin. God’s justice wants to bring healing in the face of sin. God’s justice wants to make right, to make whole, that which has been broken. A necessary step toward that wholeness is the acknowledgment of sin. A necessary step toward that wholeness is repentance.
When Amos shouts to Israel, you are living in sin, he is shouting what they need to hear in order to find healing. The goal of God’s justice is healing. God’s justice has to do with life. Justice is God’s response to brokenness in the world, a response not of condemnation but of grief, a response that doesn’t delight in punishment, but delights only in offering salvation.
Following shortly after Amos’s ministry, the prophet Hosea offers a complementary message, focusing especially on God’s healing love in the context of the people’s injustice and violence. We see this message finding especially powerful expression in Hosea 11.
Here Hosea recites the basic historical realities of ancient Israel’s existence. He starts with the assumption that Israel is God’s child. The parent-child dynamic the parent-child image captures at least something of how God and Israel were connected.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my child” (11:1). We see throughout the Old Testament just how central the exodus was to Israel’s identity and Israel’s understanding of God. God freed the poor, enslaved Hebrews from Egypt. The first move was God’s – and it was a move of mercy. The basic reality was God’s love for Israel.
Israel did not have to prove herself before God would love her. Israel did not have to gain God’s favor in order to know God. God took the first step out of pure mercy – “out of Egypt I called my child.” God did not demand that Israel earn love. But God did ask that they live mercifully themselves, treating each other with the care and respect God had shown them. God did ask that the children of Israel live in relationship to God.
The story tells us, though, that Israel was not able to remain committed to God’s ways. “The more I called them,” God says in Hosea, “the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (11:2).
The prophets warn of judgment to come. Those who told the people simply to come and worship – even while their way of life showed their rejection of God’s will for them – will especially be judged. The basic idea is this: you keep rejecting God’s will for your lives and you will suffer the consequences. Cause and effect.…
Here, however, Hosea presents God saying something more. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?” Ephraim is one of the tribes of Israel. The question God is asking of his people, basically, is, Can I simply let you go, my child, after all that I have done for you? Can I simply write you off?
“How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?” These were two cities, according to Genesis 19, which were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah. Can I simply wipe you out in judgment?
If we were dealing with a God whose primary characteristic was vengeance, the answer would be yes, God, you can wipe us out.
However, that is not what God says here. “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
God says, NO, I will not simply act in anger and vengeance. I will not treat you like Sodom and Gomorrah. What will determine my actions is my compassion, my love for you—not my anger. Why does God do this? Because, “I am God and no mortal.” God does this because of God’s character. Ultimately God is a compassionate God, God is a God who desires healing, not vengeance; a God who desires salvation, not punishment.
I don’t disagree that the Old Testament does at times picture God as being violent, judgmental, fearful. But here in Hosea we see something different. And this is the type of God Jesus taught his followers to call Abba. This is a God who acts with mercy and compassion because it is part of God’s very nature to do so.
Jesus’ message echoes that of Hosea. God loves you. Your unfaithfulness will not destroy that love. God will not treat you like Sodom and Gomorrah, but God continues to offer you healing. God offers salvation. God does not coerce people into salvation. If you choose to live without God as the center of your life, if you choose not to let God’s mercy shape the way you live, you won’t know God’s goodness and mercy. There are consequences to saying no to God. But God continues to leave the way back open.
The message of the prophets, the message of the Old Testament, is ultimately a message about God’s love. Jesus could freely quote the Old Testament when he taught about God’s kingdom, when he taught about salvation, when he taught about God’s love – because like Jesus the Old Testament teaches about God’s love.