Summary: In Amos' time, justice and righteousness no longer prevailed in Israel; but rather, it had become wormwood. Wormwood is toxic, so Israel was dealing with a toxic justice system - but God was going to bring justice!
In Amos 5:24, we read, “Let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!” This is a verse that probably resonates with us all. We all desire justice! I read some Christian articles that predicted the year 2020 to be “the year of justice,” but I doubt anyone who made these predictions knew what was in store. This is definitely the year of people crying out for justice; but it seems that the notion of justice has taken on a new meaning. We hear about social justice warriors fighting for equality, and we see the means whereby they do battle, such rioting, looting, burning, and killing; and for the politician, lying, suppressing our freedoms, threats of imprisonment, and completely ignoring the law – all in the name of justice. This doesn’t sound like justice to me!
Justice is something we value as Americans. We even have a “justice system.” But the devil has a way of stealing ideas, and even hijacking religious and political movements. He then perverts what is good and distorts it into something that resembles the good, but in reality, is a far cry from it! The prophet Isaiah lived in a time where justice was being perverted, and he declared, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). Since Amos prophesied during the same time period as Isaiah, and since he cried out for justice to rain down, we’re going to take a look at what was happening during Amos’ day and time; and we’re going to see what the Lord has to say about how to truly allow justice to run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!
A Call to Seek the Lord (vv. 6-7)
6 Seek the LORD and live, lest He break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and devour it, with no one to quench it in Bethel – 7 You who turn justice to wormwood, and lay righteousness to rest in the earth!"
I think it best to begin with verse 7, as we catch a glimpse of the problem the Lord was addressing through Amos. The nation of Israel had forsaken God to the point that justice and righteousness no longer prevailed in the land; but rather, it had become wormwood. Wormwood in Hebrew is la’anah, and it is the plant known today as artemisia absinthium. This bitter tasting herb has long been considered a hallucinogen and poison. A reference to its poison is found in Revelation 8:11, which says, “A third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the water, because it was made bitter.” Consuming wormwood in excess is actually toxic and has been linked to seizures and death. So, Israel was dealing with a justice system that was toxic, and the people had put righteousness to death.
The Lord declared that if the people failed to seek Him, that He would break out like fire in the house of Joseph. The Lord was speaking here of judgement. This reminds us of God’s repeated warnings back in Amos chapters 1 and 2, when he said numerous times, “I will send a fire” (1:4, 7, 10, 12, 14; 2:2, 5). So, why the house of Joseph? Well, Joseph was a son of Jacob; and Jacob is regarded as the Patriarch of the Israelites, as his name was later changed to Israel. It was through his son Joseph that the people of Israel were saved from a famine, as they were brought into Egypt. So, the blessing continued because of Joseph rescuing God’s people; and because if this, Israel – a people headed for annihilation – were able to start again; or to be “founded again,” if you will.
God was saying that He would remove His blessing all the way back to the founding of His people, and devour Israel as with fire. He would shake the nation to its foundation. This should be a warning to any nation and any church; that should we forsake the principles upon which we were founded, then we too are headed for judgment. Our nation was founded on godly principles, whether you believe it or not; and since that time, the church has grown lax in its proclamation of truth and justice; and thus, our nation and its lawmakers have followed. Until we, the people of God, get serious about justice and righteousness, we can never expect to see a godly justice system.
Notice that God’s fire could not even be quenched in Bethel. The Hebrew name Bethel, means “house of God.” “In Amos’s day [Bethel] was the site of ‘the king’s chapel’ where Amaziah, the priest, served.”(1) It was the place where the people would make their pilgrimage to hear the law and worship the Lord; though, based on what Amos tells us, their worship was all show and not from the heart.