In August 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC. In that speech, he made this powerful statement: “We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
You may be surprised to learn that those words did not originate with Dr. King, but they actually come from the Bible, the book of Amos, specifically Amos 5:24. But it’s very possible, perhaps even likely, that for all the years you’ve spent in church, you’ve never heard those words quoted from scripture: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
There’s a Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. This memorial contains a fountain with a thin layer of water that constantly flows over the names of 41 people who lost their lives between 1954 and 1968, during the long fight against segregation.
And overlooking this fountain is a wall with that phrase: “Until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Only you’ll notice that it doesn’t say that these words come from the book of Amos. Rather, this memorial attributes those words to Martin Luther King, Jr. But those words actually come from God.
Maybe you, too, are familiar with those words from Dr. King’s speech, but you’ve never heard them talked about in church. Or maybe you didn’t even know they came from the Bible. Or maybe you’ve only just heard these words for the very first time today. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Perhaps you’re not quite sure what those words mean, but you can tell that they express some unfulfilled longing. They express a hunger and a thirst for something that remains unsatisfied. There is a hope, a desire for something better. Perhaps you can even begin to feel that hope stirring within you.
My desire this morning is that, as we explore what this verse is all about, that you’ll begin to feel that hope within you. A hope for something that you will hunger for, that you will lean into, that you will work for. And my prayer is that this hope will begin to define your vision, your purpose for life.
To do that, we’ll need to know what the Bible means when it talks about justice and righteousness. We’ll need to know why God wants justice and righteousness to flow down like a mighty stream. And, most of all, we’ll need to know what we can do to help make that happen. And what a difference it will make when we do.
Or maybe you’re here this morning and you’re wondering why you should even care about any of this. You would much rather I talk about something more relevant than justice and righteousness. Things like relationships or worship or the plan of salvation.
But it’s important that you see that justice and righteousness aren’t just concepts that are on the obscure edges of the Bible. They’re core concepts. These are words that describe the very heart of God. And they tell us who we need to be if we’re going to be a people who follow after God’s own heart.
Here’s how central these concepts are in the Bible. The words just or justice appear over 300 times in the Bible. The words righteous or righteousness appear more than 500 times. So, altogether, justice and righteousness are mentioned more than 800 times in the Bible.
It seems to me that if God talks about something 800 times, then it must be pretty important. Especially when you compare that with some of the other great Bible themes.
The Bible talks about love 684 times.
The Bible talks about faith 475 times.
The Bible talks about grace 128 times.
The Bible talks about prayer 316 times.
The Bible talks about baptism 82 times.
But it talks about justice and righteousness over 800 times. So, it seems to me that it’s probably a pretty good idea for us to devote at least one Sunday to the topic of justice and righteousness.
Before we continue, let’s take a look at this overview of the book of Amos, and then I’ll be back to talk some more about justice and righteousness.
If we’re going to talk about justice and righteousness, then the first thing we need to do is to understand what those two words mean. And here’s the first thing that you need to know about those two words. In the Bible, justice and righteousness are pretty much synonyms. They basically mean the same thing. There’s really only a shade of difference in meaning between them.
In fact, you’ll often find them used side-by-side, like we do here in Amos. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Amos was saying the same thing, but he was putting it two different ways. Both justice and righteousness should flow from and among and out of God’s people like a mighty rushing stream.
We see this elsewhere in scripture. For example, in Genesis 18:19, God said of Abraham, “I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.”
In I Kings 10:9, the Queen of Sheba said to Solomon, “Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.”
In Psalm 72:2, Solomon says, “May [your king] judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice!”
In Psalm 89:14, the Psalmist says to God, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne.”
Altogether, there are 25 different passages that connect those two ideas of righteousness and justice.
So, what exactly do these two words mean in the Bible? Most of the time, when we talk about someone being righteous, we mean that they’re a good person who does what is right and lives the way that God wants them to live. And that’s certainly part of what the Bible means by righteousness, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Sometimes in the Bible, righteousness refers to a person’s integrity. A righteous person is someone who tells the truth, they don’t take bribes, they don’t steal, they keep their promises.
Other times, the idea of righteousness has to do with fairness and equality before the law. We see this in Deuteronomy 16 where God said to the Jews, “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous.” (Deuteronomy 16:19). God says that the righteous are concerned about justice, and when you pervert justice and you don’t treat people fairly in the courtroom, then you subvert the cause of the righteous.
But the deepest and most common idea of a righteous person in the Bible isn’t just a decent person who doesn’t lie, steal, or take bribes. It’s a person who actively goes out of their way to stand up for the needy and the vulnerable and to make sure that they are taken care of.
We see this in Job 26. There, Job says that righteousness covered him like a robe, and he wore justice like a turban. And here’s the evidence he gave for being a righteous man:
“I assisted the poor in their need and the orphans who required help.
I helped those without hope…and I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy.
I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame.
I was a father to the poor and assisted strangers who needed help.
I broke the jaws of godless oppressors and plucked their victims from their teeth.”
Job said that he was righteous because he stood with those who were in need — the widows and the orphans and those who were poor and oppressed. And he was righteous because he stood up against anybody who messed with them. And that’s what the Bible means when it talks about righteousness.
And then there’s this word justice. We normally think of justice in terms of “punitive” justice, which focuses on inflicting punishment for breaking laws. And we all want justice when someone hurts us, don’t we? If a bad guy gets what’s coming to him and he’s thrown into jail, we call that justice. That’s why we refer to our courts as a Justice System. And that’s part of what the Bible means when it talks about justice, but there’s much more.
Justice isn’t just something you do to clean up the mess after something bad has happened. It’s actively working to correct situations that hurt and humiliate people, and to promote situations where people aren’t hurt and humiliated. It’s making sure that anyone who’s been mistreated is taken care of. It’s helping those who are in need.
All of that is to say that justice in the Bible isn’t just a “punitive” justice that punishes the wicked. More often, it is a “restorative” justice that works on behalf of those less fortunate to restore worth, dignity, and productivity to the life of the community.
We see this in Isaiah 1:17 (NLT), “Seek justice. Help the oppressed; defend the cause of orphan; fight for the rights of widows.”
Psalm 82says, “Give justice to the lowly and the orphan; maintain the right of the poor and the destitute! Rescue the lowly and the needy. Deliver them from the power of the wicked!” (Psalm 82:3-4).
And Psalm 146 says that our God is a God“who gives justice to people who are oppressed…gives bread to people who are starving…protects immigrants…helps orphans and widows.” (Psalm 146:7,9).
So, when the Bible talks about righteousness and justice, it doesn’t just mean being a nice person and putting bad guys in jail. It means God’s people are out in the world actively promoting good and helping the needy and the vulnerable. The Old Testament specifically mentions the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the immigrants. But I’m sure there are a lot more categories of people we could think of who need for us to stand with them and to stand up for them.
God expects all people to do those things, but especially his people. That’s what Micah 6:8 is saying: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave a blessing to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6). In light of what we’ve just learned, I don’t think Jesus meant that we’re supposed to have a deep desire to want to be to be nicer people. He was talking about having a deep desire to truly be righteous people — people who want to see wrongs righted, the hungry fed, and the abused protected.
Also, in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:33, Jesus said to “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Our primary focus should be to promote God’s kingdom and his righteousness. The kingdom of God is what God is doing through us—through you and me as individuals, and through the church as a group—to bring healing and hope and peace to the world.
When our first desire is God’s kingdom, then our hearts will want the same things that God’s heart desires: which is to see the wandering find their way home, to see the neglected taken care of, and to see broken hearts healed. And when we do that, we will open our hearts and lives and maybe even our tables and our wallets to let God do those things through us.
Because that’s what God wants from us — justice and righteousness. And he wants justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. As God’s people, we are called to let God work through us. It begins when our hearts long for the same healing and wholeness that God longs for. When that happens, then we will yield our lives for God to let justice and righteousness flow through us.
But, far too often, the church has cared deeply over what goes on inside these walls, but hasn’t cared nearly enough about what’s happening outside these walls — in our neighborhoods, in our cities, in the world around us. Over the years, we have fought battles over worship styles and how to take the Lord’s Supper and whether we can raise hands or clap. In fact, most of our battles in the church have all been about getting our worship right.
And I would suggest that we need to get our worship right. But I want you to see that here in Amos, these people were worshipping just fine. They had all the details of worships down pat. They were presenting all the right sacrifices, and they were praising God week after week with beautiful words of praise. But God said through Amos,
“I hate, I despise your feasts, 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 peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” (Amos 5:21-23)
These people in Israel were doing all the right things in their worship. They were following the law of Moses and they were worshipping God exactly the way he told them to worship. They were observing all the feast days, they were bringing their offerings, and they were making beautiful music. Then, suddenly this farmer from down south walks into their worship service and he says, “God hates this. God despises everything you’re doing.”
And I’m sure their initial reaction was to ask, What is God’s problem? Doesn’t God want people to worship him? Isn’t that what the church is supposed to do? But this is where verse 24 appears. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In Amos’ time, the songs and the prayers of God’s people all sounded off-key in God’s ears. Because they poured out a flood of prayers and offerings and songs of praise to God; but justice and righteousness didn’t fill their lives and flow out of them like a mighty stream.
In other words, God was telling Israel that if you’re not going to spend your lives working to help those who are in need and standing up for those who are being abused, then don’t expect me to be impressed with your beautiful worship when you come together on the Sabbath.
The problem was their worship had become inwardly focused. Maybe their primary goal was just getting their worship right—checking off the boxes. Or maybe they got tunnel vision. They used worship as a time to forget all about their sins, forget their problems, forget their struggles. But when they did that, they also forgot about the suffering world outside their assembly.
And it makes me wonder. Wonder if there are times when God wants to say to Christians gathered in church buildings on Sunday mornings, “I hate what you’re doing. Even though you take the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, I will not accept it. I will not pay attention to any of your prayers, or the songs that you sing. I hate it all. Because you’re so concerned about getting your worship right, but then you leave in your fancy cars and you go home to your fancy homes, and you don’t give any thought to those who are in need around you. And you don’t stand up for people who are being oppressed. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Whenever God’s people lose their focus on the needs of the world, the Word of God always calls us to pursue justice and righteousness. One way to understand what God’s Word means by that is this: Justice means not just us.
God called his people to look outside their comfortable group, to the needs of the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants. Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream, means we understand that God has put his church in this world so that he can bring peace and healing and restoration to others through us. It’s not about us; or at least—it’s not just about us.
So, what difference would it make if we truly were hungry and thirsty for justice and righteousness? Maybe we would begin to pursue those things first and foremost. Maybe it would add some depth to our prayers, and energize our worship. Because we’d understand that what happens inside this building on Sunday mornings isn’t the main thing. We’d know that our times of worship are really meant to nourish us, encourage us, and transform us. So that we can go out to be people that God can work through to bless and heal and restore our neighborhoods, our nation, and our world.
Maybe, like Martin Luther King, Jr., we would have a dream. Maybe we’d have lots of dreams, stirred up by God’s Spirit working within us and among us.
And we would work to help heal the wounded, to put food in people’s bellies. To provide safe space to those who are abused and comfort to those who are suffering. To extend friendship to the forgotten. We’d be on the lookout for those who’ve been left behind. We wouldn’tput up with bullies and abusers.
And we’d never make peace with anyone or any circumstance that takes food out of people’s mouths, or hurts them instead of healing them, or forgets about people and leaves them behind. Then, and only then, will justice would flow from us like waters, and righteousness like a healing stream. God has spoken, calling for justice and righteousness to pour forth from us. But we don’t do it alone. God is with us, as we go out into the world as God’s answer to their prayers and their cries. As we do so, may God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.