The justice of God

In my devotions I’ve been reading through the not-at-all-happy book of Amos. Can’t say that I’ve ever really delved deeply into Amos before; the prophets are easy to skip over, especially if you think that you’ve covered the “essentials” like Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. But Amos has really made me think about the depth of how God detests sins that we perform against him and against each other.

Amos is delivering God’s news of impending judgment on Israel for its sins, and there is just about nothing good in store for these people. At first it appears that God is being unduly harsh (which is an arrogant position — we like to judge the Judge from a sinful viewpoint), perhaps overreacting in that “Old Testament style.” But the more that Amos talks about Israel, the more their actions boil my blood too.

Their sins include:

  • Selling out the innocent for money (2:6)
  • Stepping all over poor people in a desire to get ahead (2:7)
  • Denying justice to the oppressed (2:7)
  • Sexual sins among family members (2:7)
  • Getting drunk and worshiping other gods (2:8)
  • Ignoring those in need while reveling in luxury (4:1)
  • An unrepentant lifestyle that’s punctuated by sacrifices done for the sole purpose of bragging (4:4-5)
  • Hating those who uphold justice and tell the truth (5:10)
  • Taking bribes (5:12)
  • Being prideful (6:8)

When we read lists like this or make our own from the world around us, our hearts cry out for someone to set things right. “Setting all things right” is what a perfect judge does. A perfect judge does not let evil run amok, does not let injustice stand, and does not overlook crimes. And God is that perfect judge, the only one who is without guilt, who is perfectly wise, who is morally absolute, and who has the authority to set all things right.

This is great news when it comes to the world, because like Israel, the world is broken. It is corrupt and it is full of these sins that Amos declares and so much more. We still trample on the poor, we still overlook justice, and we still put our comfort in front of those in need. All of the sins here have a common root, which is an attitude of “I want to do what I want, what makes me happy, what benefits myself, me me me.” And God is over here saying, “Look at the pain you are causing others! Look at the disrespect and hate you are giving to me! I cannot abide it. I must judge.”

So this is bad news when it comes to us, because we are subject to that very judgment as guilty sinners. Amos has made me think a lot about how my nature is to “turtle” inside my life, to put my head down and try to get through my life without making waves or getting into trouble. Staying out of trouble is good, but isolationism and materialism is harmful to the soul. We’re meant to “go and make disciples,” to go and seek justice, not to sit around and hope that someone else does it.

After looking down my list of sins, I am relieved that God incorporates mercy into his rulings as well. It’s a common refrain in Amos that God is and has been calling his people back to him. He’s been holding off on punishing Israel for these sins because he wants them to “seek me and live” (5:4), to repent and return to him (4:6).

“Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.” (Amos 5:14-15)

The book of Amos is a warning, a judgment, and a hope. God speaks through his prophet to remind the people of his faithfulness and how he has chosen Israel to be his people. He points out their sins and indicates that if they were to but repent, the perfect judge would show mercy. Yet he also warns of the death, exile, and devastation to come as a consequence for their sins if they do not turn from their crimes.

It is, really, the core message of the Bible. The Bible tells of God’s continuing faithfulness to us. The Bible informs us to the depth and depravity of our sins and our guilt. The Bible spells out the nature of our coming destruction. And the Bible offers us a chance at grasping the mercy of God’s grace, given as Jesus took the punishment in our place.

God has a heart for us that is abounding in love, and Amos gives me just a small insight into his perspective as a patient, loving father who goes far above and beyond in withholding judgment in order to give his people a chance to come back home. But the truth is that this judgment must come, sooner or later. All must be set right. And we can take Israel’s path of willfully ignoring the call home or we can take the mercy offered.

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