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Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters

Martin Luther King

All prophets in the Hebrew Bible exhibit moral outrage, but Amos seems to have been downright hopping mad. Amos lived in the eighth century B.C.E., and though he was from a southern Judean town called Tekoa, he preached his message of judgment and reform to the prosperous populations in northern Israel, especially in Bethel and Samaria.

According to the book that bears his name, Amos did not really consider himself a prophet, instead claiming to be a humble agriculturalist who could not resist speaking the word of God (Amos 7:14, Amos 3:8). Perhaps an astute reader of the signs of the times, he proclaimed a message of total disaster for Israel shortly in advance of the Assyrian destruction of the kingdom in 722 B.C.E. This may explain why his message was preserved and expanded in the decades and centuries to follow. The book of Amos records the sayings of the prophetic figure Amos and those who carried on his tradition.

Why was Amos angry, and why did he speak in oracles and metaphors?

Throughout the text, Amos voices prophetic rage against the injustices of the day. The entire book is given to denouncing the excesses of eighth-century B.C.E. Israelite life and reminding people of their true covenantal obligations. Those who are “at ease in Zion” and “feel secure on Mount Samaria,” who “lie on beds of ivory” and “eat lambs from the flock,” will “be the first to go into exile” (Amos 6:1-7) because they have forgotten the plight of the poor and mistaken religious observance and piety for moral responsibility.

Amos’ sayings are often in the form of judgment oracles (sometimes called “woe oracles”) and messenger speeches (“Thus says the Lord …”). Many of the oracles in Amos 5-6 are likely original to the historical prophet even if they underwent some editorial modification in later centuries. Amos 5-6 includes some of the most striking and poetic imagery in all of the Hebrew Bible. Amos 5 begins as a dirge, a song of death, mourning in advance an Israel “fallen, no more to rise,” and condemning the people who “turn justice to wormwood” (Amos 5:1-2, Amos 5:7).

This kind of poetic, symbolic language characterizes prophetic speech in the Hebrew Bible more generally, and yet in Amos it becomes an unrelenting expression of divine wrath. Amos converts comforting images of home and abundance into devastating instruments of judgment: “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” (Amos 5:11).

And these chapters employ themes from nature to convey what the “day of the Lord”—a future time of reckoning—will be like. Though people may expect it to be a good day, it will instead be like a fire that consumes everything in its path, like fleeing from a lion only to confront a bear or resting at home and being bitten by a snake (Amos 5:6, Amos 5:19). Though other biblical texts depict the “day of the Lord” as a day when the Lord will destroy Israel’s foes, Amos presents it as a day of judgment against Israel.

If Amos were alive today, what might he say?

Perhaps the most famous line from the book is Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” The context of this powerful statement is a prophetic denunciation of the “sacrifices and meal offerings” of a people who have failed to keep the covenant, which is constituted by justice and fairness. Throughout Amos 5-6, the prophet lashes out against those who have become rich at the expense of the poor and against public—but hollow—displays of piety. According to Amos, God says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). Religious devotion is meaningless if it is accompanied by unfair taxes on the poor, backdoor bribes, and working against those in need (Amos 5:11-12).

Because of these sentiments, this passage has become an important source for some observers of contemporary American religious and political culture. I think Amos would disapprove of the concentration of wealth and the corresponding increase in poverty, and he would rage against the displays of self-importance and exceptionalism in some quarters of American life.

According to Amos, a nation is exceptional by the measure of how it cares for the lowest members of society; and a nation of religious hypocrisy and economic injustice is one that will perish. John Winthrop expressed the message of Amos in his famous work “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630); he knew that for the Puritan legacy to be a “light unto the nations” and a “city upon a hill,” the community would have to be based upon principles of justice, fairness, and regard for others, “that every man afford his help to another in every want or distress.” More recently, %%Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the phrase “let justice roll down like water” in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), in which he addresses the moral laxity of his fellow Southern clergymen during the Civil Rights movement.

  • Samuel Thomas

    Samuel Thomas is associate professor of religion at California Lutheran University. He teaches and writes about the Dead Sea Scrolls, Second Temple Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, and religion and ecology.