This passage is often taken as just verse 24: ‘let justice roll on like rivers, and righteousness like a mighty stream’, without the context. This weakens its potency. Or verses 21 and 22 are included, about God rejecting ‘empty’ religious feasts and sacrifices, so we pat ourselves on the back, satisfied that we don’t indulge in such ‘religion’. This deflects its cutting edge. Focusing our reflections on verses 23-24 assists potent application to our contemporary situation.
Amos was addressing people who thought they were ‘in with God’ and on the way to glory, described as those who, ‘“desire the day of Yahweh… long for the day of Yahweh”’(Amos 5:18). Presumably they desired and longed for it because they were expecting to fare well that day, as God’s chosen people. Generally life was going well for them, which perhaps they interpreted as God’s approval. Anyway, they were pleased to bring ‘“tithes… thanksgiving… free will offerings”’(Amos 4:4-5) etc. to their services, which they found pleasing, albeit partly because they could ‘“brag”’(Amos 4:5).
Yet their faith was hybridised with the world and sorely lacking in social justice. Whilst some were enjoying wealth in ‘“houses of cut stone”’(Amos 5:11), in ‘“pleasant”’(Amos 5:11) surroundings, prone to ‘stretch themselves on their couches… eat… strum on the strings… drink wine… anoint themselves with the best oils’(Amos 6:4-6), their society allowed ‘the poor of the land to fail’(Amos 8:4), and would indifferently ‘“turn aside the needy”’(Amos 5:12). And if truth be told about the services they apparently enjoyed, whilst going through the motions, their minds worshiped elsewhere. They were longing to ‘“‘market wheat’”’(Amos 8:5), or whatever equivalents would boost their pockets or status, even if it involved ‘“‘deceit’”’(Amos 8:5) or other dubious methods.
God’s word to them through the straight talking Amos, who before this wasn’t a ‘“prophet,… but… a herdsman, and a farmer”’(Amos 7:14), was stark to say the least: ‘“The songs of the temple will be wailings in that day,” says the Lord Yahweh. “The dead bodies will be many. In every place they will throw them out with silence”’(Amos 8:3). Stunned silence. ‘“that day”’ i.e. the day of the Lord, would not turn out as they were expecting. This stark language might shock us. It’s meant to. God’s deadly serious about this. We need to take these issues to heart, and examine our own lives, before gathering to sing worship songs. He wants our lives to sing His praise first, just like the more often mentioned ‘living’(Romans 12:1) sacrifices. We should be living songs too, sweet music from heaven sung into the lives of those God would have us bless, which is music not only to their ears but God’s as well.
What does this involve? Amos tells us straight: ‘“love good, and establish justice”’(Amos 5:15), i.e. ‘let justice roll on like rivers, and righteousness like a mighty stream’. The similarly straight talking and practical James in the New Testament spells it out more: ‘religion… is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world’(James 1:27), i.e. the oft said phrase ‘in the world but not of the world’. It’s blessing the world with love, kindness and care, especially the vulnerable, without compromising on holiness. In a sense it’s obvious what we’re to do, as John put it, the one ‘who does righteousness is righteous’(1 John 3:7). However, the practical reality of involving ourselves with ‘good works’(Ephesians 2:10) in a corrupt world, without compromise, can be quite difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, we have the perfect example of how it’s possible in ‘Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith’(Hebrews 12:2) who ‘“went about doing good”’(Acts 10:38) in this world ‘yet without sin’(Hebrews 4:15). We only need to read the gospels to see what that looks like at least.
God had nothing against religious sacrifices, He prescribed them until ‘the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’(Hebrews 10:10). Obviously He has nothing against religious ‘songs’ and ‘music’ either, which delight Him (and will be a major feature of eternity). It’s empty religion, including singing accompanied by careless hearts and lives, which makes God call for SILENCE! Such ‘worship’, however good it might sound to us, is an ugly discordant ‘noise’ to God. He wants hearts and lives in tune with His as parts in the score. So we must proactively balance our lives with a good measure of justice and righteousness before we open our mouths to sing.