Excerpt from Streams of Living Water

On numer­ous occa­sions Amos took aim at the litur­gi­cal life of Israel, but no out­burst was more scathing than this first-per­son dia­tribe against their vain worship:

I hate, I despise your festivals,  and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offer­ings and grain offerings,  I will not accept them;  and the offer­ings of well-being of your fat­ted ani­mals I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs;  I will not lis­ten to the melody of your harps.  But let jus­tice roll down like waters, and right­eous­ness like an ever­flow­ing stream.  —Amos 5: 21 – 24 

The inten­si­ty and pas­sion of this pas­sage is breath­tak­ing! God is the speak­er now, and in pow­er­ful par­al­lelisms he scorns the emp­ty wor­ship of the peo­ple and demands that they give a cease­less exhi­bi­tion of jus­tice. All three ele­ments of Israel’s litur­gi­cal wor­ship come under review here, and all three are sound­ly rejected. 

Israel glo­ried in her joy­ous fes­ti­vals and solemn assem­blies. (Actu­al­ly, the word solemn is not the best trans­la­tion of the adjec­tive here; cer­e­mo­ni­al would catch the sense bet­ter.) These events were exu­ber­ant, noisy cel­e­bra­tions filled with col­or and pageantry. But God’s rejec­tion of these fes­tive events is stat­ed in the strongest lan­guage pos­si­ble: I hate, I despise … I take no delight.” Why would God so utter­ly repu­di­ate these great fes­ti­val events in his honor? 

The reli­gious rit­u­als of the sac­ri­fices and the offer­ings are like­wise reject­ed. The burnt offer­ing, in which the ani­mal sac­ri­fice was com­plete­ly con­sumed on the altar, rep­re­sent­ed a total giv­ing of the per­son to God. The grain offer­ing, in which trib­ute from the har­vest was paid to God, rep­re­sent­ed the giv­ing of life and resources to God. The peace offer­ing, in which part of the ani­mal sac­ri­fice was burnt and part was shared as a meal between the priests and the wor­shipers, rep­re­sent­ed devo­tion to God and com­mu­nion with each oth­er. But God will not accept them, will not even look upon them, declares Amos. Why would God so com­plete­ly reject these offer­ings made in his name? 

Final­ly, God declares his dis­plea­sure with the community’s songs of wor­ship. What a con­trast that denun­ci­a­tion of song is to the call to wor­ship issued by the Psalmist: 

Praise the LORD with the lyre;  make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.  Sing to him a new song;  play skill­ful­ly on the strings, with loud shouts.  —Ps. 33: 2 – 3 

Why would God turn a deaf ear to the wor­ship music of his people? 

The cir­cle has been com­plet­ed. Each major area of Israel’s litur­gi­cal wor­ship — fes­ti­vals, sac­ri­fices, music — has been eval­u­at­ed and sound­ly con­demned. But why? Why would these acts of devo­tion be so utter­ly spurned? Was it because of rit­u­al impu­ri­ty? Was it because of com­pro­mise with Canaan­ite reli­gious prac­tices? Was it because of a lack of zeal in reli­gious exer­cis­es? No, no, and no. One rea­son, and one rea­son alone, account­ed for God’s forth­right rejec­tion of their reli­gious devo­tion: all of the fes­ti­vals, all of the sac­ri­fices, all of the instru­ments and music of wor­ship failed because they were not accom­pa­nied by acts of jus­tice and right­eous­ness. And so the word of the Lord thun­ders forth: 

Let jus­tice roll down like waters,  and right­eous­ness like an ever­flow­ing stream. 

For Israelites this was graph­ic imagery. Liv­ing in the desert, they knew well the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the wadi, the streambed. Much of the year the wadi is bone-dry and of no ben­e­fit to any­one, but when the rains come, the first rush­ing wall of water flows with such force that any­one caught in the wadi will sure­ly be swept away and drowned. And so Amos calls for jus­tice (mish­pat) to roll down like the rag­ing tor­rent in a fresh­ly fed wadi. Yet unlike that water in the wadi, which often dwin­dles to noth­ing, this right­eous­ness is to be an ever­flow­ing stream, flow­ing day after day, year in and year out, under good cir­cum­stances and bad: 

Let jus­tice roll down like waters,  and right­eous­ness like an ever­flow­ing stream. 

God, you see, demands some­thing more rev­o­lu­tion­ary than fes­ti­vals and sac­ri­fices and wor­ship songs. And that some­thing more” is social right­eous­ness: impar­tial­i­ty in judi­cial deci­sions, equi­ty in busi­ness deal­ings, jus­tice for the poor and the oppressed. Because social right­eous­ness is a divine man­date, litur­gi­cal life can nev­er be divorced from it. 

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Fos­ter, Richard J.. Streams of Liv­ing Water: Cel­e­brat­ing the Great Tra­di­tions of Christ (pp. 149 – 151). Harper­Collins. Kin­dle Edition.

Pho­to by Tim­o­thy Eber­ly on Unsplash