Summary: The danger of worship without mercy.
JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS BETTER THAN RITUALS.
Historically, Israel had split into two kingdoms shortly after the death of king David’s son, king Solomon. The ten tribes of the north rejected both the dynasty of David, and the worship of the Jerusalem temple, and set up their own places of worship in various historic sites of Israel (Amos 5:5). Amos was a farmer from the southern kingdom of Judah who had been called away from his trade, and his home, to minister mainly in the northern kingdom of Israel (Amos 1:1).
‘The LORD roars’ began the overture to this ministry (Amos 1:2). The emphasis immediately falls upon the LORD. If Amos is doing any roaring it is only as the mouthpiece of the LORD.
Our present chapter is introduced as ‘a lamentation’ against ‘the house of Israel' (Amos 5:1). Hence the word “woe” at the commencement of today’s reading (Amos 5:18). Amos tells it as it is, and warns Israel against presuming that they can look forward to the day of the LORD as if all was well between them and God - on the contrary, for them “the day of the LORD is darkness and not light.”
Like many people before and since, were they perhaps only going through the motions of worship? Did they really ‘seek good and not evil’ in order that the LORD should be with them (Amos 5:14)? Did they ‘hate the evil and love the good and establish justice in the gate’ in order that the LORD might be gracious to them (Amos 5:15)?
Perhaps they felt that their religious exercises were enough, without a corresponding lifestyle. There was no room for complacency, because even their worship was coming under scrutiny. ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honour me with their lips,’ says Jesus, ‘but their heart is far from me’ (Matthew 15:8).
If it was not so serious, we might detect some humour in the illustration in Amos 5:19. This is one illustration, not two: in the Hebrew the word “or” is not there, but rather the word “and.” So, we have a man running from a lion only to be confronted by a bear, and as he sought refuge in the house he leaned his hand on the wall (with a sigh of relief, perhaps) only to be bitten by a serpent!
I am painfully aware that it is the LORD who roars like a lion (Amos 1:2). And there will be no escape for the ungodly when the LORD passes through (Amos 5:17). The presence of the LORD is a wonderful thing when we are right with Him but, just as the same pillar of fire which gave light to the Israelites gave darkness to the Egyptians (Exodus 14:20), so “the day of the LORD” shall be “darkness and not light - even very dark, and no brightness (not a glimmer) in it” (Amos 5:20) to those who are not right with God.
Why? because ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’ (1 Samuel 15:22). So, shockingly, the LORD here announces His total repugnance at the feast days of the Israelites (Amos 5:21). He will not accept their burnt offerings and their meat offerings, neither will He regard their peace offerings (Amos 5:22). (Interestingly, there is no mention of sin offerings).
“Take away the noise of your songs (literally, psalms); for I will not hear the melody of your viols” (Amos 5:23). Worship is reduced to mere noise to the LORD when our hearts are not right, and our lives do not line up with His will. So what does God require? “Rather let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).
The idea of justice “running” or “rolling” down is a play on words with the name of one of the shrines. Gilgal is mentioned in Amos 5:5, and was so named by Joshua when the post-wilderness generation of Israelites had ‘rolled away the reproaches of Egypt’ by circumcision (Joshua 5:9).
When “justice rolls down as waters,” it is for the benefit of all (cf. Isaiah 1:17). “Righteousness” probably refers here to right relationships, with God and man. “Righteousness as a mighty stream” must prevail in the land, even in barren times.