Righteousness Like a Never-Failing Stream – Amos 5:21-24
By: Northern Seminary
It may feel uncomfortable, but Wikipedia has a whole section devoted to bridge disasters. It is sobering to see how many bridge disasters have happened through the centuries.
The list begins with Stirling Bridge in Scotland in 1297, when English attackers crowded on to the bridge but were drowned when the bridge collapsed under their weight and they fell into the river. One of the greatest ever losses of life happened in Japan in 1807 when a wooden beam bridge was overwhelmed by the massive number celebrating a festival and somewhere between five hundred and fifteen hundred died. In England in 1845 a large crowd of people gathered on a bridge to watch a clown go down the river beneath them in a barrel. As he passed below, they quickly shifted to the other side of the bridge, the chains of the suspension bridge snapped and seventy nine drowned, mainly children.
In 1904, in Eden, Colorado, a sudden washout wiped away a bridge and one hundred and eleven died. In 1907 a Quebec bridge failed during construction as it couldn’t bear even its own weight, and seventy five died. One of the most famous bridge collapses ever had almost no casualties. It happened in 1940 with the suspension bridge at Tacoma, Washington, as it twisted from side to side because of aeroelastic flutter, and then completely collapsed into the river below. But engineers had recognized that disaster was coming, and the only known casualty was one dog. A much higher casualty count came from the collapse of an internal bridge in a Kansas City, Missouri hotel in 1981. It was overloaded with people, and one hundred and fourteen died.
So the list runs on. It is fascinating but grim reading. Perhaps the most disturbing feature of almost every account is that everyone thought these bridges were fine. They walked or drove over them with no thought of danger. They seemed safe. But they weren’t fine and they weren’t safe, and the day came when they collapsed.
Back in the days of the prophet Amos, most people thought their relationship with God was just fine. They belonged to the people of Israel. They were among the chosen people. They had no sense that anything was wrong. But they were spiritually arrogant, religiously idolatrous, and ethically careless. Disaster lay just ahead. Amos is unsparing in the words he brings from God to these people.
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Amos warns these people of three critical truths about God.
With God second best is not acceptable.
Between the ages of about eight and sixteen, the reports my parents got about me from school teachers might be summed up in the phrase: “Could try harder!” I was doing okay in school, and they all acknowledged I was bright and intelligent, but I could try harder.
Looking back, what is slightly worrying is that my parents just accepted that. Maybe their boy could have done more, but he was doing okay. What is seriously worrying is that I accepted that. I’d done well enough. It wasn’t my best, but I could get through school with second best and somehow that seemed enough.
Amos’ message to the Israelites is that second best is never enough for God. He will not accept less than our best: our best devotion, our best service, our best standards. What is unacceptable is that we could have tried harder, but we didn’t care enough to do it.
The Israelites thought they were doing enough if they observed their religious festivals and assemblies. They made burnt offerings, grain offerings, and fellowship offerings. And they sang songs of praise and made beautiful music. Surely that would do?
It would not do. God resolutely refused to accept any of it, and God’s language of rejection is very strong (vs. 21-23):
- I hate,I despise your religious festivals.
- Your assembliesare a stench to me.
- Even though you bring me burnt offeringsand grain offerings, I will not accept them.
- Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,I will have no regard for them.
- Away with the noise of your songs!I will not listen to the music of your harps.
They’d thought that observing the festivals and giving their offerings was enough. Their religious acts were the bridge they’d relied on. Suddenly, right beneath their feet, that bridge was collapsing.
In their minds God was a soft touch, someone who’d put up with whatever they did, someone who’d turn a blind eye to any shortcomings. Weren’t they his people? Wasn’t he a gracious God? Weren’t their religious practices enough?
They were not enough, and God’s refusal of every festival and every offering was with deep feeling and words like “hate,” “despise,” and “stench.” They owed him everything, their whole existence, and yet they thought they could satisfy him with nothing more than services and offerings. And God threw their cheap gifts in the trash.
God demands from us the most we have. None of us dare offer him the least we’re willing to share. He will never accept second best.
With God religious observance is no substitute for righteous living.
Honestly, I don’t understand the rules of card games, but I know that a trump card is one that outranks others on the table. No matter the value of the other cards being played, the trump card has a higher value and sweeps the board.
The Israelites of Amos’ day valued their religious ceremonies. But the value those events might have held was trumped by their unrighteous living. Their unholiness negated everything else they did.
They worshipped the Lord – but also made offerings to false gods.
They proclaimed God’s holiness – but also exploited the poor or weak.
They rejoiced in God’s blessings on them – but were also selfish and cruel to others.
Several times throughout his prophecy, Amos highlights failings like these.
They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
and so profane my holy name.
They lie down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
they drink wine taken as fines. (Amos 2:6-8)
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. (Amos 5:12)
Hear this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the land,
“When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
boosting the price
and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat. (Amos 8:4-6)
What Amos describes is an outrageous list of wrongs. They were guilty of sexual immorality, false spirituality, dishonesty, oppression, injustice, illegalities in business dealings, and idolatry.
And yet they brought offerings to God and thought he would accept them. He would not. God was far more than unimpressed, he was scandalized by their flagrant denial of his law. They lived polluted lives but somehow thought God would accept their gifts as clean. They weren’t, and God would not take them.
Two additional points are worth noting.
First, they knew what they were doing. Every Israelite knew the first commandment, that God and God alone should be worshipped. “You shall have no other gods before me,” God had told Moses (Ex. 20:3). And they knew God cared about the poor and those who could not defend themselves. And they were well aware that God demanded honesty in all areas of life. These people hadn’t misunderstood anything, nor had they simply made mistakes. They had chosen a sinful path because it seemed to their advantage, and they had dismissed God as either unseeing or uncaring about how they lived. How wrong they were.
Second, no one can presume on God’s grace. There are two errors that people have fallen into down through the ages. One is assuming that there are no moral laws for people of faith – that they are freed from any obligation to live righteously because the only thing that matters is salvation by faith. The other error sounds similar, that though sin is sin God’s grace is enough to cover every failing and so sin will have no penalty.
The first of these errors came to be called antinomianism. Though that term was used only after the Reformation, the ideas are ancient. The First Letter of John in the New Testament counters that kind of thought.
The second error is exactly the one the Apostle Paul faced head on when writing to the Romans where he tells them this:
“But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 5:20 – 6:2)
Paul’s message is simple. If God has set you free from your sin – you have “died to sin” – how could you possibly still wallow in that sin? If it’s no longer part of you, then it’s no longer part of you! So if you are still alive to sin then you are a stranger to God’s grace.
Amos would not have worded it like that, but his message has the same bottom line: you can’t claim to belong to God and yet live against him. Either you are his, or you serve yourself or someone else. If you are his, your life will honor your Lord.
With God, living rightly matters every day and in every way.
Having denounced the people’s hypocrisy in the strongest terms, Amos is equally expressive in describing what God wants from his people:
“But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (v. 24)
As a child I was fortunate to live in a home with a small river flowing just behind our land. I swam in that river, fished in that river, fell in that river, and watched wildlife get everything it needed from that river and from the plants that grew beside that river.
Most of the time the river level was constant, but occasionally the rains would be so heavy it would flood and water would spill out across neighboring fields. Even more occasionally there wasn’t much rainfall, and the river level would drop. But that river still flowed. And it does today just the same as it did when I was young. It was Scotland, and rivers there don’t dry up!
Through Amos, God calls for justice and righteousness to flow on and on like that river. As God pours his life into his people, so his love, his goodness, and his purity should flow out of them day after day.
The metaphor of “a never-failing stream” suggests two particular aspects of how God’s people will live rightly.
First, everything in our lives will be changed. In the river by which I grew up were plants, weed, fish, and ducks. Those are very different things, but all of them had one thing in common: they were all wet. You can’t be in a river and not get wet!
Likewise, when God floods our lives with his righteousness, every part of us is drenched. No one can belong to the Lord without every aspect of their lives being baptized in his goodness. We are his children (1 John 3:1), and his Spirit lives in us, so everything we think and do is changed because of his power in us. In other words, we will be like what God is like. We won’t show that perfectly, for we fail, but his children will never be those who set their faces against him and his ways.
Second, everything in our lives is changed permanently. If God’s righteousness in our lives is like a never-failing stream, it’ll be a constant in our lives. That means it won’t dry up soon after it starts, and its flow won’t be switched on and off to suit our whims. In other words, our relationship with God and our new way of life won’t be just a one-time memory from some day in our past. Nor will it be intermittent, as if we can observe it on a Sunday but leave it aside Monday through Saturday when living for God is inconvenient. God’s goodness is twenty four hours a day and seven days a week for the whole of our lives. It never stops flowing. It never lets up.
Through history people have died because they thought the bridge on which they stood or walked was safe, built with the best of materials and most solid of foundations. But sometimes those foundations were never secure or they’d eroded, and the bridge fell carrying them to their deaths.
There were people in Amos’ day without a good foundation for their lives. Sure, they had plenty of religious observance but they failed miserably with right living for God. As one commentator puts it: “They were inundating him with rivers of religiosity when he wanted rivers of righteousness and justice.”
Bridges are safe when built and maintained well. Amos’ words of warning sound down the years for everyone to ensure their way of living reflects a well built and well maintained relationship with the righteous God.
 It can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bridge_failures
 B.K. Smith & F.S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 111.