Contrary to the notion that the advent message of Christ’s soon return, sets aside proclaiming and living out God’s justice in the world, the prophets actually proclaim the latter in light of the former. The moral impetus for transformative living in the here and now is because it is in line with the type of character that is needed for the end of the world to come.
Though we are looking specifically at two contemporaries of the 8th century, Amos and Hosea, the prophet Zephaniah makes this point with such clarity it’s amazing that we are not shouting this from the rooftops. Moral life in the social sphere is so integrated into future expectation in the prophets that its easy to understand the current use of the prophets in many modern religious notions of social justice who subscribe to some idea of a final judgment.
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Amos and the Day of the LORD
Amos 5:24 is the favorite passage utilized by religious people who speak in the public square about equity and equality. It states,
But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Unfortunately, the context for this amazing imperative to godly living and expectation is routinely left out. Rightly understood, such an essential command situates life in a setting that can never be hamstrung by political chicanery or the bland moralism of social expediency. Let’s take a look at a few contextual points that give clarity on how this passage paints a beautiful picture of God’s redemptive work of social justice.
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The Covenantal Setting
As I mentioned in our foundational article, biblical social justice has a covenant setting. What that means is that definitions of words cannot be taken out of their historical and theological situation and put into our modern political setting. Thus, before we seek for a modern application, we need to hear what Amos’s immediate audience would have heard when he made this statement.
In Israel’s covenant life, God had two principles by which His people were to live by:
In fact, they are so representative of God’s character that they often appear together in combination, evoking certain notions of God’s rule in covenantal settings when moral life in the social sphere is in view. Let’s look at a few instances of the contexts that are in view when these words occur together.
- Israel’s kingship – 1 Samuel 8:15; 1 Kings 10:9; 1 Chronicles 18:14
- God’s present rule – Psalm 99:4
- God’s eschatological rule – Isaiah 33:5
- Expression of God’s character – Jeremiah 9:23
- Covenantal living – Jeremiah 22:3, 15; Ezekiel 18:5, 19, 21, 27; 33:14, 16, 19
- Messianic rule – Jeremiah 23:5
If we read the whole chapter, we can easily see that in its immediate context in Amos justice and righteousness are used to indicate restoring the true heart of worshipping God our King, revealing His character in covenantal living as the Day of Yahweh approaches. Why is this important?
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I suggest a major reason that crosses through all the prophets, into the NT and up to our present day: justice without the Lordship of God carries no force of responsibility that has eternal consequences. All Bible writers express a notion of divine retribution against injustice. I often notice that when the Lordship of God is not in view, people often try to use shame, guilt, or some other emotional reasoning to get people to “act justly.”
Frankly, it will never work because one sinner has no leverage over another sinner in terms of a moral imperative. But as Amos makes clear, by living justly God will be with you, and then we can have the right view of what it means to “establish justice in the gate,” which includes but is more than legal equity—it refers to the entire scope of God’s Lordship in this world and His promise of a better world to come. Thus, to simply speak about social justice in terms of this life based on some emotive or even practical impetus misses what the prophets understood as social justice.
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The Messiah and Social Justice
The last context I mentioned (#6 Messianic Rule) radically shifted how I understand the whole notion of justice. Justice and righteousness were the criteria by which the kings of Israel were judged because as God’s representatives they were to reflect His kingship,. Interestingly even the Queen of Sheba understood this after speaking with Solomon. All the Messianic promises fall in this vein. When John doubted if Jesus was the Messiah, what did Jesus say? He did the only thing a faithful king of Israel could do to verify the claim that his kingship was of God; point to his works as evidence:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me (Matthew 11:4–6).
Why is this description of Jesus pertinent? Because Amos’ prophecy of the Day of the Lord was grounded in the coming King, the Davidic Messiah! It is even more important when we recognize that at this time Judah had a king on the throne, so Amos was pointing to a king who would truly
repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old (Amos 9:11).
No wonder this is quoted in James decision in the church council in the book of Acts 15:16–17. The first coming of the king led to freedom from the bondage of sin. Now, this is not some Pollyanna (excessively cheerful or optimistic) type of liberty. The people of God are freed to reflect His character of righteousness and justice, just as Amos said.
It impacted the mission and social relations of the Messianic community. Note, the coming of the Messiah led to clear social equity among His followers. I find it strange when I hear people defending political ideologies rather than the example of those who walked with Jesus and more importantly Jesus’ own word.
Note His word of His second coming (Day of the LORD)
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…. And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:31–46).
When Jesus comes back, He is not going to ask me about my political ideology or ideas about social policy. He will ask me if I reflected His reign of justice and righteousness in the social world, as He, the professed King in my daily life commanded.
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Hosea and the Day of the LORD
The prophet Amos preaches what could almost be construed as a tame message on injustice when compared with his contemporary Hosea. While Hosea does not use the technical phrase “Day of the LORD,” he does use several other technical prophetic phrases to indicate he has this in mind.
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After a severe indictment of Israel’s idolatrous ways, God twice points to a state of affairs (“In that day”) filled with the renewal of covenant commitment and replenishing of Israel’s covenant blessings that they had misused (grain, wine, oil). It’s difficult for the modern Christian to think of the divine punishment for unfaithfulness in economic terms, but God is clear that when His people misuse His blessings for selfish purposes, He will take them away.
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Another reference, “On that day,” again refers to a time of covenant renewal but also includes a reference about war stating:
And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety (Hosea 2:18).
In other words, God will bring about a state of affairs of peace that will allow for economic blessings without the inhibiting stockades of power structures. This is key to understanding the wonderful blessing this ‘day’ entails for the righteous. The powerful in Israel were misusing the economic and judicial system to enrich themselves. They benefited from non-covenantal power structures and used the byproducts of that ungodly power to defraud God’s covenant people. The Message Bible gets well at the imagery of the text,
The businessmen engage in wholesale fraud. They love to rip people off! Ephraim boasted, “Look, I’m rich! I’ve made it big! And look how well I’ve covered my tracks: not a hint of fraud, not a sign of sin! (Hosea 12:7–8).
Another phrase, the “latter days” points to a time that addresses one of the three major issues in the prophets, the crisis of leadership, stating,
Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness (Hosea 3:5).
Again, while poverty in and of itself did not make a person innocent, as a class of people, the rich are typically indicted and the poor vindicated because the wealthy did not follow God’s plan of benevolence. All too often, the wealthy used the logic and practices of the surrounding non-covenantal nations to justify their disregard and disrespect for God’s commands that reflected His character and tried to use religiosity to cover up their indifference to those suffering all around them.
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The last few phrases, “Day of Punishment/day of recompense” are used in two instructive ways. First, when describing the punishment coming to the rebellious, God depicts their crimes in economic terms stating,
Ephraim shall become a desolation in the day of punishment; among the tribes of Israel I make known what is sure. The princes of Judah have become like those who move the landmark (Hosea 5:9–10).
God’s law forbad moving a boundary stone to steal property, which would bring God’s covenant curse. So, Judah’s aggression towards his brother Israel was analogous to theft. The only remedy to this type of infraction was an honest confession, sincere repentance, and seeking the Lord before the day of judgment.
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The last use of the concept of God’s retributive justice on the unjust among His people was at the level of prophecy, which in Israel was part of a larger system of divinely chosen covenant personnel (prophet, priest, king). Alongside prediction, they proclaimed God’s present will for His people. But the use of prophecy was corrupted because the messages were motivated by human selfishness. It got so bad that later the prophet Micah held nothing back and exposed the true motives of their hearts and their attempt to silence the true prophetic message.
‘Do not preach’—thus they preach—one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us (Micah 2:6).
The prophets hold nothing back against human indifference to the less fortunate. Sadly, at least in this country (the United States), high sounding platitudes and moralisms are being used to give cover to indifference to human suffering. Hosea made it clear, God is a God of mercy, grace, and benevolence and when His people reject His character and take up the spirit of the world to maintain their status or economic benefit, He will not hold them guiltless.
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The good news is that for those who express His character in everyday life in the social sphere there are wonderful promises of blessings in this life and more so in the life to come. May God help us to develop His character in our hearts so that we may be children of our Father who is in heaven!
 Zephaniah 3:1–20.
 Amos 5:6–7, 14–15—Seek and Live!
 Amos 5:18–20.
 Amos 5:14.
 2 Samuel 8:15; Psalm 72:1; 1 Kings 3:28; cf. Psalm 33:5; 37:6; 89:14.
 The statement in 2 Samuel 8:15 is crucial for understanding why David is constantly used as the criterion for the kings of Israel and Judah (1 Kgs 14:8; 15:3, 11; 2 Kgs 14:3). It’s not because he was morally perfect, far from it. It was because he upheld the two main pillars of God’s kingship; justice and righteousness.
 1 Kings 1:9.
 Amos 9:11–15.
 Luke 4:18–19.
 Acts 2:42–47.
 That does not mean that they experienced this in the wider Greco-Roman world. I strongly urge as all to prayerfully read Testimonies Volume 4 “Duty to the Poor.” It sets forth how God wants his people to implement these principles in actual practice.
 Hosea 2:16, 21.
 Hosea 2:18.
 Hosea 12:1.
 Leviticus 19:9–18.
 Hosea 7:5–16; 8:12.
 Hosea 6:6.
 i. e. punishment; Deuteronomy 19:14; 27:17.
 Hosea 5:15.
 Hosea 9:6–9.