[A Note from Dr. Finley: Excerpted with some minor editing and a brief addition from my commentary on Joel, Amos, and Obadiah written for Moody Press in 1990, the series Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary. I now am the sole owner of the copyright; Moody relinquished their rights.]

Amos has much to say about oppression and the plight of the poor in Israel, so it is only natural that his book has become a focal point for discussions about social justice.[1] At least three aspects of the issue dealt with by Amos concern the nature of God, the role of the individual, and the role of the social system.

For Amos, justice among people must begin with the Lord himself. That individuals ought to behave in a certain way toward each other cannot be understood apart from a deep awareness of the character of the Lord, who alone can give definition to concepts such as “righteousness” (tsedaka, 5:7, 24; 6:12) and “justice” (mishpat, 5:7, 15, 24; 6:12).

The Lord expects justice first of all because he has created mankind on the earth. He can expect certain standards of conduct to be upheld by all nations (esp. 1:3-2:5) because of his sovereign power. He has appointed each nation to its own sphere (9:7), though he has reserved a place of special honor for his people Israel (3:2). Having formed the nations of the earth, he also has the absolute right to judge them (4:13; 5:8-9; 6:8; 7:1, 4; 9:5-6).

The figure of God as judge dominates the book of Amos, though the Lord is not viewed as a judge without mercy. At the very core of the message, the Lord holds out hope for any who will forsake evil and follow the good he desires (5:4, 6, 14-15). He sends his prophets and his punishments in an effort to stimulate repentance (3:6-8; 4:6-11). He will not destroy “the house of Jacob” completely but will preserve a remnant through much testing (9:9-10). In the end he will restore the former glory of the nation and even magnify it (9:11-15). The justice of God may demand judgment for wrongdoing, but his mercy searches for every conceivable way to bring about a stay of execution.

Then, too, the transgressions that require judgment are nearly entirely comprised of acts of oppression. It is hard to read the book of Amos and not conclude that the Lord is deeply moved when one nation deals cruelly with another, or when the weak and helpless in society are crushed by the powerful. Nowhere in Amos does the Lord ever make reference to poverty as the fault of the poor. Proverbs often teaches about the importance of industry and wisdom in making a man wealthy or poor (e.g., 6:1-11; 10:4-5, 26; 12:24, 27), but Amos and the other prophets do not speak of these issues. This is not a fundamental disagreement between the wisdom and prophetic perspectives on the causes of poverty;[2] it only illustrates two complementary ways of looking at the problem.

Amos desires only to uncover the evil that leads some to impoverish others for their own gain. Why is it evil? The Lord never deals with his creatures in that way; therefore such behavior is offensive to him. If the Lord shows compassion for the widow and the afflicted, he does not expect any less from his own people.

The individual aspects of this social evil can be easily discerned in Amos’s preaching. He presents his listeners with concrete images of those who tamper with scales (8:5), violate the slave girl who should be treated like a member of the family (2:7), or make exorbitant demands that cannot be met (2:6-7; 5:11). The individual merchants and wealthy landowners are dishonest and greedy for more money and power. If they would turn back to the Law of the Lord and meet his requirements, they would be righteous and merciful in imitation of him.

However, one must also keep in mind the social setting in which Amos operated. The Law of Moses was given not merely for individuals to know right from wrong, but also to set up a social structure that would have a potential to express the Lord’s character.[3] Thus, the Ten Commandments combine words about worship of the Lord with those about relating to family, neighbors, and slaves.

Amos was particularly concerned because he could see the social system set up by the Lord disintegrating.  “Joseph” was in ruins, having been thoroughly ransacked (6:6). The land tenure system provided at least a means for each individual to participate in the social process (5:11), but Amos saw instead a rapidly expanding social class of poor people. They were incapable of making enough for even a subsistence, and they were forced to sell themselves into debt slavery (2:6-8). In stark contrast were individuals of wealth and privileged position who were securing greater riches and power by taking advantage of this poor class. As Pleins puts it, “Amos spoke out against existing economic practices which were bleeding the life out of the peasant population. By these business practices and economic structures, the members of the upper classes were guilty of taking property that rightfully belonged to others, be this land, grain, or clothing.”[4]

The courts provide the setting for much of the unjust activity condemned by Amos. The Lord had set up a system of judicial elders during the period of wandering in the wilderness (Ex. 18), which later included the king and various advisors, as well as appointed judges (cf. 2 Sam. 15:3-4; 1 Kings 3:9; 1 Chron. 23:4; 26:29). The fatal disease that Israelite society had contracted becomes evident as Amos speaks of bribery (5:12), false testimony (5:10), inequitable rulings (2:8), and preventing injured parties from finding justice through the courts (2:7; 5:12).

The religious institutions as Amos was familiar with them, should also be examined in relation to social justice. Amos preaches that the Lord provided justice for all Israel when he brought them up from Egypt and gave them the land of the Amorites (2:9-10). He also raised up prophets and Nazirites to turn the people back (2:11-12), yet now the Lord finds himself outside the established institutions of worship. Amos notes an insincerity about the way the people carry on at the various sanctuaries (8:5), in addition to a syncretism that mixes in elements opposed to the Lord’s requirements (5:5, 26; 8:14).

Life is not divided into secular and sacred for Amos: all things stem from the sovereign Lord. The way people behave in the marketplace or how they judge in the gate directly relates to their religious practices. If the Lord demands fair and merciful actions, they must be as much a part of the worship as singing and sacrifice (5:21-24). When the Israelites defraud the poor, they just as surely defraud the Lord himself.

Amos begins with the justice of God, then, and shows how that relates to justice in society. The entire book of Amos shines a powerful light on Israelite society, revealing its dishonesty, corruption, and violence. That being the case, God is perfectly right to bring the overwhelming disaster of which Amos speaks.

Elements of social justice found in Amos can also be viewed from a universal perspective. What does God expect of a just society? Based on my understanding of Amos, I would say that he expects a system that makes it possible for people to thrive in a system free of corruption that would deprive them of what they need to survive and flourish. It should be a system where merchants are honest and judges are incorruptible. And it should be a system where those who have been treated unjustly have free access to relief in court. In the words of Amos, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24, NIV).”



[1] See Thomas Finley, “An Evangelical Response to the Preaching of Amos,” JETS 28 (1985): 411-20; Richard Patterson, “The Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor in the Old Testament and the Extra-Biblical Literature,” BSac 130 (1973): 223-34; J. David Pleins, Biblical Ethics and the Poor: The Language and Structures of Poverty in the Writings of the Hebrew Prophets (diss. for The Univ. of Michigan; Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1986), esp. pp. 163-81; Willy Schottroff, “The Prophet Amos: A Socio-Historical Assessment of His Ministry,” in God of the Lowly; Socio-Historical Interpretations of the Bible, ed. Willy Schottroff and Wolfgang Stegemann, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1984), pp. 27-46; Mark Daniel Carroll, Contexts for Amos: Prophetic Poetics in Latin American Perspective (JSOTSup 132; Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1992).

[2] Contrary to Pleins, Biblical Ethics and the Poor, pp. 275-76.

[3] Leon Epsztein cites the difference between Israelite and Mesopotamian law, where the latter seeks justice “more for the economic and political advantages that it could present” but the former “justice for its own sake,” citing Deut. 16:20; Social Justice in the Ancient Near East and the People of the Bible, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1986), p. 107.

[4] Pleins, Biblical Ethics and the Poor, p. 173.