In this Close Reading series, biblical scholars reflect on a passage in their area of expertise that has been formational in their own discipleship and continues to speak to them today.
My mother was Guatemalan, and she went to great lengths to make sure that our family spoke Spanish and celebrated holidays with a Guatemalan flavor. I spent most of my summers as a boy in Guatemala, spending time with family and getting to know that country that is so dear to my heart.
Years later, I found myself back in Guatemala City as a professor at a seminary. It was a time when the 36-year civil war was at its worst. The war had begun when I was a boy, but I had never processed it. I was used to seeing soldiers around and hearing stories, but the fighting was primarily in the mountains. It seemed so far away.
As an Old Testament professor, I taught students from all over Latin America who would be confronting overwhelming poverty, widespread political corruption, and armed conflict; Guatemala was not the only country experiencing civil war. What could the Old Testament offer them? Could I make the Word of God come alive in relevant ways? Clearly, God cared about these things.
Roman Catholic liberation theologians were speaking into this complicated context and offering their own analysis and theological solutions. At the time, Latin American evangelicals were just beginning to venture into discussions of society and politics. Church services largely avoided these topics, as they were thought to be too worldly, but they drove the conversation in the coffee hour. These were the realities of my everyday life.
What would an evangelical approach to these problems—one deeply grounded in Scripture and our tradition—look like? That is what I and others began to ask. Liberation theology often pointed to the Prophets, and as I was already a student of the Old Testament, that is where I turned for answers. I landed on the Book of Amos.
Amos has a lot to say about justice, but it also hits hard at worship. Like other prophetic books, Amos denounces worship disconnected from justice. Why were the Prophets so concerned? More importantly, why did God reject Israel’s worship? I still ponder these questions.
I reside now in the United States, and I continue to wonder what Amos or Isaiah or Micah might say if they were to walk into the churches I attend.
On Sunday mornings I go to an evangelical Anglican church and in the afternoons a nondenominational (and more lively) Latino church. Each feeds my bicultural soul. But I ask myself: Would the Lord be pleased with the rituals, the preaching, the songs? Can the Prophets’ justice concerns be interwoven into the solemnity of the Anglican service or the exuberance of the Latino church? If so, how? What would that mean?
I make no pretense that what is presented here is the last word on the subject. Worship is the focus of renewed interest in the majority culture at both popular and scholarly levels.
Many factors motivate this concern—declining attendance, attempts to attune churches to cultural trends, the desire to recover historic liturgies, and more. Latino and Latina theologians in this country also are reflecting on the nature of worship, as they try to be authentic to Latino culture and responsive to our community’s particular needs.
What would Amos say to all of this?
One verse jumps off the page: Amos 5:24, an iconic text in justice circles, declares, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Most readers miss that this line is embedded in a section that wrestles with worship.
Amos delivers his message in Israel, the northern kingdom, whose historic sanctuaries were Bethel and Gilgal. Shockingly, early on in Amos 5, the people of God are told not to keep going to either holy site, but to seek God instead (vv. 4–6).
In the ancient world, people went to the sanctuaries to participate in the community’s rituals and seek and encounter their god. Such too would have been the thinking of the Israelites of Amos’s day. So why did God not want them to go to these holy sites? How else—where else—could they worship? Why was God condemning their sanctuaries and worship practices?
The command to not worship at Bethel and Gilgal would have made no sense to Amos’s audience, so the prophet explains what God was looking for.
In the structure of chapter 5, verses 4–6 (about avoiding the sanctuaries) correspond to verses 14–16. This passage defines what it means to seek God.
To seek God is to seek and love the good, to hate evil, and to establish justice at the gates of their towns and cities. The commands to “love” and “hate” tell us that the commitment to justice must be passionate.
The seriousness of the message is clear. Judgment on Israel was inevitable. But if the people would turn to this divine way—and if this found expression in their worship—perhaps God would have mercy on the remnant, those who remained after the coming Day of the Lord.
A somber warning, indeed.
The Lord’s rejection of such religious activities is visceral (vv. 21–23). He begins with “I hate, I despise.” Five more verbs describe God’s rebuff of Israel’s worship.
Some of the power of what God says is lost in English translations. God says he will not smell their assemblies (v. 21; sometimes translated as “accept” or “approve of”); receive their burnt and grain offerings (v. 22); look at the fellowship offerings (v. 22); or listen to their songs, which are just noise to God that they should take away (v. 23).
The dismissal is profound, as it is connected to God’s senses, his very being. The Lord wants nothing to do with Israel’s worship. In the Hebrew, there are seven verbs and seven rejected activities: perfect and total scorn.
It is at this point that 5:24 appears, saying God’s people are to let justice roll on like a river. For justice and righteousness to flow and never dry up meant they were to be constant realities in Israel’s society, and these words are connected to this blistering critique of its worship.
It is not that the Lord does not desire ritual. In fact, God had prescribed these very rituals in the Law! They were integral to his design for Israel’s worship.
The point is not to eliminate ritual; that is the only way that humans can worship. Even so-called nonliturgical churches have routine ceremonies and practices.
Amos leaves no doubt that separating worship and social justice is distasteful to God. Other passages in this prophetic book confirm that truth and reveal the more central issue.
Ironically, in chapter 4, the people are told to go to those same sanctuaries, Bethel and Gilgal … but to sin (4:4)! The prophet mocks their piety, their rituals of thanksgiving and celebration.
Then comes the dagger: “for this is what you love to do” (4:5). Their worship activity ultimately was only about them. They felt good about what they were doing, praising the goodness of the Lord. They did not realize that, in God’s eyes, their worship was sin.
How could that be? Amos 4:6–11 explains. The Lord had brought hunger, drought, crop failure, war, and destruction. There was nothing to thank God for! These blows were meant to turn them back to God, but they had refused. Five times God declares, “You did not return to me.”
Because of this stubbornness, the Lord announces, “Prepare to meet your God” (v. 12). The people would have responded, But we meet you at Bethel and Gilgal! We meet you there in worship!
However, the prophet makes clear that they celebrate a different god, one they might call Yahweh but one who was nevertheless a deity of their own making. It was a god of blessing and goodness, with no rough edges.
Theirs was worship disconnected from reality and the living God.
Theirs also was a faith compromised by national ideology. The people were convinced that God was on their side and would bring Israel victory against its enemies (5:18–20).
What a foolish miscalculation. The Day of the Lord, the prophet says, would not be the light of triumph; it would be the darkness of judgment from which they could not run or hide.
Amos goes to Bethel, the chief sanctuary and the axis of the national religion. There he confronts Amaziah the high priest (7:10–17). The high priest recognizes that the prophet is a threat to the status quo, to the wedding of crown and faith.
Amaziah reports Amos’s uncomfortable message to King Jeroboam II and demands that Amos go back to his home country of Judah (vv. 10–12). What right did he as a foreigner have to criticize Israel’s government and religion? Did he not know that Bethel was the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom (v. 13)?
By these words, Amaziah and Israel’s religion stand condemned. The clergy and the temple have been co-opted by the political regime. Amos announces that the priest will die in exile (v. 17) and decrees that Bethel will be destroyed (3:14; 9:1).
Once again, the idol they called Yahweh had reared its ugly head. This god legitimized the government, the ruling elites, and the social structures that were causing widespread oppression. The high priest would not question the king or the way things were; he had no compulsion to defend the weak and decry the wrong.
This was the way the religions of the nations around Israel functioned, but it was not to be so for God’s people. The Lord will not tolerate the worship of a false Yahweh, worship that ignores injustice and sociopolitical compromise and shouts praises in the midst of so much suffering. Worship, social concerns, and political realities are inescapably woven together.
More importantly, what is at stake in worship is the very person of God. The Lord is involved in every dimension of human existence, and the picture of God presented in worship must reflect this. It must present God as he truly is. Worship must bring prayer, confession, lament, and praise to this God and shape a people to reflect this God.
The prophet Amos incorporated hymns into his oracles that exalt the power of the almighty God whose name is Yahweh (4:13; 5:8–9; 9:5–6). Israel needed a renewed vision of him. This is why the holy sites and the religious leadership are special targets for Amos’s message. It was at the sanctuaries that a twisted view of God was offered and adored.
Amos 5:24 now makes more sense. Letting justice roll down means denouncing religious activities unconcerned about injustice, celebratory rituals oblivious to human needs, and a faith sold out to a political ideology. If worship—however well intentioned—gets God wrong, it will produce a misguided people and be judged.
The Book of Amos begins with the Lord roaring from Jerusalem, from the temple on Zion (1:2). In other words, God was not even present in the sanctuaries of Israel! Their self-serving theology and nationalistic ideology had so distorted worship that the people were unaware of God’s absence. When the Lord would come, there would be no joy, only lament over judgment.
The God of Amos (our God) does not accept worship that fails to engage the challenging realities of life and the sins of society. We need to grasp that the demand for justice is central to the very person of God. The God of mercy and righteousness is the one we worship!
Centuries later, Jesus will pick up these very same themes and condemn the religious leadership and those complicit in unacceptable religion in the synagogues and in the Jerusalem temple.
So, what would a prophet say if he walked into our services on Sunday? I am not a leader of worship or a pastor. I am not a musician or a liturgist. I confess that I cannot offer any specific solutions. What I can say is that there is no formula to bring our worship services into line with God’s demands. Worship will vary across time, cultures, denominations, and faith traditions.
The prophetic word could require rethinking the songs we sing, redirecting the messages we preach, even restructuring church services. Perhaps we might rethink the tone of our worship to realign it more closely with God’s demands. Maybe we could instruct those who lead worship in justice themes, readings, and songs. Should we consider other Christian faith traditions that have a history of social justice engagement? There is much in church history, both here and globally, from which to draw and learn.
Worship, at its core, must be formative, designed to mold and nurture a people of justice, who lift up the God of justice and embody what that means in our lives and in society. That is the worship the Prophets clamored for.
M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas) is Scripture Press Ministries Professor of Biblical Studies and Pedagogy at Wheaton College. He has written a major commentary on Amos and, recently, The Lion Roars: Recovering the Prophetic Voice for Today.
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