Social Justice and the Prophets
by Walter J. Houston
“Let justice roll down like waters!” (Amos 5:24). Magnificent words, but what do they mean? What the prophet Amos means by them you can work out from the injustices that he attacks. The people he denounces take their own cut from the hard work of poor people (Amos 5:11), treat them with contempt, and take bribes. When they sell wheat, they rig the scales and the currency (Amos 8:5). It is always poor people who are their victims. These ruthless exploiters are nameless, but they plainly have wealth and power. Their home is Samaria, the capital of the eighth-century B.C.E. kingdom of Israel (Amos 3:9, Amos 4:1, Amos 6:1). Amos shows God demanding justice from them rather than worship: “I hate, I despise your festivals…But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
Other prophets, working in the sister kingdom of Judah, are indignant about similar things. Micah attacks the “chiefs of the house of Israel” “who eat the flesh of my people” and “build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong,” probably referring to building done with forced labor (Mic 3:9, Mic 3:3, Mic 3:10). Isaiah presents God as denouncing “the elders and princes of his people,” saying “the spoil of the poor is in your houses” (Isa 3:14). Judgment awaits those who extend their land holdings at the expense of others (Isa 5:8).
So this is injustice: the powerful treat poor people—who are most of their fellow citizens—as sources of wealth and unpaid labor, using coercion, bribery, dishonesty, legal technicalities, and even violence. And justice means the opposite: those with power behaving honestly, generously, and respectfully to the poor (Ezek 18:5-9). The prophets do not question inequality as such. It is the way the powerful behave that brings God’s judgment down on them.
But the books of the prophets also contain visions of society without injustice. “The tyrant shall be no more…all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—those who…deny justice to the one in the right” (Isa 29:20-21). Jeremiah praises King Josiah because he did “justice and righteousness” and “judged the cause of the poor and needy” (Jer 22:15-16). Instead of exploiting the poor himself, Josiah used his power to protect them from being exploited by other powerful people. That idea of the just king becomes a vision of the future in Isa 11:1-9: “with righteousness he shall judge the poor”—that means he will give them their rights when they appeal to him. Look at the picture in Isa 11:6-9 of fierce animals like wolves and leopards living peacefully with their usual prey. All that ruthless greed will be at an end: “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” For to know God is to do justice, and to give the poor their rights (Jer 22:16).
Can there realistically be power without oppression? Perhaps not. But the prophets are relevant not because they are realistic but because they taught that the test of justice in a nation is how the weakest are treated. This teaching repeatedly emerges in Jewish and Christian writing ever since. The rabbis could not think of a worse sin for the people of Sodom than to issue a decree that no one was to help the poor. In one of Jesus’ parables, the rich man goes to hell for ignoring the poor beggar at his gate (Luke 16:19-31). He did not “listen to Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:31). And James’s words against the rich could have come straight out of the prophets (Jas 5:1-6).
Walter J. Houston has retired after many years of teaching Hebrew Bible in seminaries and universities in England, and he now holds an honorary research fellowship at the University of Manchester. He helps maintain the Society for Old Testament Study wiki.
24But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
11Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have pl ... View more
5saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the s ... View more
9Proclaim to the strongholds in Ashdod,
and to the strongholds in the land of Egypt,
and say, “Assemble yourselves on Mount Samaria,
and see what great tumults ... View more
1Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”
Complacent Self-Indulgence Will Be Punished
1Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
the notables of the first o ... View more
21I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will ... View more
9Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
and pervert all equity,
3who eat the flesh of my people,
flay their skin off them,
break their bones in pieces,
and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
like flesh in a caldron.
10who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with wrong!
14The Lord enters into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard;
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
Social Injustice Denounced
8Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in t ... View more
5If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right—
6if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does no ... View more
20For the tyrant shall be no more,
and the scoffer shall cease to be;
all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
21those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
15Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
16He judged the cau ... View more
The Peaceful Kingdom
1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the sp ... View more
6The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
16He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
20And at his gate lay a poor man ... View more
31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
Warning to Rich Oppressors
1Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.
2Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth ... View more