Biblical Commentary

Amos 5:18-24



The first verse of this book identifies the author as “Amos, who was among the herdsmen of Tekoa” (1:1). Much has been made of the fact that Amos was a shepherd—a man more comfortable among hills and dales than on city streets—a man more comfortable in the company of sheep than of people—an unsophisticated man shocked at urban excess—a shrill man railing against urban lifestyles.

However, it would be a mistake to attribute the harshness of Amos’ prophecy to his lack of sophistication. He became a prophet, not because he found urban lifestyles repulsive, but because the Lord called him. It was Yahweh who took Amos from his flocks. It was Yahweh who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (7:15). Amos frequently prefaces his prophecy by saying, “Thus says Yahweh” (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13, 2:1, etc.).

The first verse of this book also tells us when Amos served as a prophet. It was “in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake” (1:1). Uzziah and Jeroboam ruled in the eighth century B.C., and scholars believe that Amos had a relatively short ministry in the middle of that century—around 760-755 B.C.

At that time, the Jewish people were divided into the ten tribes of the northern kingdom (Israel) and the two tribes of the southern kingdom (Judah). It was the time between the end of Solomon’s reign (c. 930 B.C.) and the fall of the northern kingdom (c. 721 B.C.).

Only a few years after Amos’ prophecies, the Assyrians forced the ten tribes of Israel into exile in Assyria. Unlike the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom (Judah), the ten tribes of Israel never returned to their homeland in any organized way. Instead, they were assimilated and disappeared as a people.

The Jeroboam mentioned above is Jeroboam II, who ruled c. 785-745 B.C. Jeroboam I, the first king of Israel (the northern kingdom), ruled c. 924-903 B.C., and died by the Lord’s hand (2 Chronicles 13:20). Jeroboam II was successful militarily, but “he did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh: he didn’t depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, with which he made Israel to sin” (2 Kings 14:24).

It is worth noting that the first Jeroboam was the first king of Israel, and the second Jeroboam’s son would be the next-to-last king of Israel. In between the two Jeroboams there was a succession of mostly bad kings of Israel.

We tend to think of Amos as a northern prophet, because his prophecy was directed primarily toward the northern kingdom (Israel)—but he was from Tekoa, a few miles south of Jerusalem in the southern kingdom (Judah)—and, as we will see in 6:1, he addressed both “those who are at ease in Zion” (the capital of the southern kingdom) and “those who are secure on the mountain of Samaria” (the capital of the northern kingdom).

Amos spoke against “social injustice and religious arrogance” (Tucker, 419). He warned the people of an upcoming military disaster that would reflect God’s judgment.

Amos highlighted Israel’s two great sins: “ardent worship without a corresponding concern for justice (5:18-27) and opulent indolence without an appropriate awareness of pending calamity (6:14)…. (He predicted) exile (5:27) and invasion (6:14)” (Hubbard, 176).


18 “Woe to you who desire the day of Yahweh!
Why do you long for the day of Yahweh?
It is darkness, and not light.

19 As if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him;
Or he went into the house and leaned his hand on the wall,
and a snake bit him.

20 Won’t the day of Yahweh be darkness, and not light?
Even very dark, and no brightness in it?

“Woe to you who desire the day of Yahweh! Why do you long for the day of Yahweh?” (v. 18a). This is probably the earliest reference to the day of the Lord in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The phrase, the day of the Yahweh (often called simply “that day”), has roots in Israel’s early history, when Israel was able, with Yahweh’s help, to win victories over superior forces. For instance, Yahweh freed Israel from the Egyptians and then won a decisive victory over the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. Yahweh made it possible for Israel to win a series of victories that led to her occupation of the Promised Land. Yahweh made it possible for David to kill Goliath and for Gideon and his little band of warriors to win the battle over the much larger Midianite armies. Israel assumes that Yahweh, who had given it victory over its enemies in the past, will continue to do so in the future.

However, in this verse, Amos attacks that assumption. He pronounces a woe (“Woe”) on those who desire the day of the Lord—a day when they believe that Yahweh will give them another victory. Amos says that the day of the Lord will be quite different than they anticipate. It will be “darkness, and not light”—an emphasis that we also find in prophets who follow Amos (Isaiah 2:11; 13:6, 9; Ezekiel 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1-2, 11, 31; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7-8, 14, 18; 2:2-3; Malachi 4:5).

“It is darkness, and not light” (v. 18b). Light and darkness are used in both testaments as metaphors for good and evil—chaos and order—danger and security—joy and sorrow—truth and untruth—life and death—salvation and condemnation.

These Israelites are right in believing that the day of the Lord will see Yahweh saving the righteous and punishing the unrighteous. However, they are wrong in assuming that they are righteous. Because they have become unrighteous, they are now Yahweh’s enemies. For them, therefore, the day of the Lord will be “darkness, not light.”

“As if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; Or he went into the house and leaned his hand on the wall, and a snake bit him” (v. 19). There is a macabre humor at work here. Let’s look at a couple of modern examples of the same kind of humor.

Charlie Chaplin was once asked how to get a laugh out of a fat lady slipping on a banana peel—a visual joke that had been done many times. Should they show the banana peel first—and then the fat lady approaching—and then she slips. Or should they show her first—and then the banana peel—and then she slips. Chaplin said, “Neither. You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps OVER the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.”

Roadrunner cartoons use the same kind of humor. A scene opens with Wile E. Coyote standing at lip of a cliff, struggling to push a huge boulder to fall on Roadrunner as he comes by on the road below. Then we see Roadrunner running along the road at warp speed and Wile E. Coyote struggling to push the boulder in time to squash him. Roadrunner zips by—beep, beep—before the rock poses any danger, and Wile E. Coyote, in his panic, trips and falls over the cliff. We see Wile E. falling through the air and being squashed flat as he hit the road. He picks himself up and starts to pull himself together—and then he looks up—and there is the rock, right above him—and Wile E. finds himself squashed flat one more time by the rock that he intended for Roadrunner. And then we sees Roadrunner again, still moving at warp speed—beep, beep!

In this verse, the person who runs from a lion runs straight into the arms of a bear. Or he finally reaches home and safety, slams the door against the danger, leans against the wall in sheer relief, and is bitten by a poisonous snake.

The point is, if Yahweh determines to punish you, there is no escape. The Psalmist puts it this way:

“Where could I go from your Spirit?
Or where could I flee from your presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there!”
(Psalms 139:7-8).

That is good news if the Lord is for you. It is bad news if the Lord is against you.

“Won’t the day of Yahweh be darkness, and not light? Even very dark, and no brightness in it?”(v. 20). The answer to this question depends on one’s standing with the Lord. If the Lord is for you, the day of the Lord will be light. If the Lord is against you, however, the day of the Lord will be darkness. Historically, the day of the Lord was light for Israel, but darkness for Egypt—light for David, but darkness for the Goliath—light for Gideon, but darkness for Midian.

But something has changed—and that something is Israel’s unrighteousness. Because Israel has become unrighteous, the day of the Lord will become, for her, darkness and gloom—a day of judgment rather than a day of victory.


21 I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I can’t stand your solemn assemblies.

22 Yes, though you offer me your burnt offerings (Hebrew: ola) and meal offerings,
I will not accept them;
neither will I regard the peace offerings (Hebrew: selamim) of your fat animals.

23 Take away from me the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.

24 But let justice (Hebrew: mis·pat) roll on like rivers,
and righteousness (Hebrew: seda·qa) like a mighty stream

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I can’t stand your solemn assemblies” (v. 21). In the preceding verses, Amos was delivering Yahweh’s words of judgment. Now Yahweh begins speaking for himself.

“Hate” and “despise” are strong words. The phrase translated, “I can’t stand”, is literally “I can’t stand the stench of”.

Earlier, Yahweh accused these people of hating “him who reproves in the gate (and) him who speaks blamelessly” (5:10). Yahweh called them to hate evil instead—to love good instead of evil (5:15). In the earlier verses, Yahweh held out the possibility of salvation (5:4, 6), but now Yahweh expresses only hate for the false religiosity of these people.

Israel’s festivals and solemn assemblies are good, not bad. Torah law specifies in detail the festivals that Israel is to observe and how they are to observe them. The problem is not that Israel is keeping the festivals—or that they are making offerings that fail to meet Torah’s specifications—or that they have become procedurally imprecise. It isn’t the mechanics of these observances that are flawed, but something much deeper—much more important.

As an analogy, consider a husband who persists in infidelity but tries to make up for it by giving his wife expensive gifts. The problem with such a scenario is that a husband’s gifts need be an expression of his love for his wife—but a husband who persists in infidelity has proven over and over again that he doesn’t love his wife. A few wives might enjoy the expensive gifts, but most wives want faithful, loving husbands far more than they want expensive gifts.

“Yes, though you offer me your burnt offerings (ola) and grain offerings, I will not accept them”(v. 22a). Burnt offerings are intended as a gift to God—food for God’s consumption. They are offered twice daily, and are accompanied by grain or cereal offerings.

“neither will I regard the peace offerings (selamim) of your fat animals (v. 22b). Offerings of well-being (selamim)—also known as peace offerings—are intended to be consumed by the people. Therefore, burnt offerings (ola) and peace offerings (selamim) “are routinely paired in biblical ritual (because) the ola was the sacrifice that constituted the basic nourishment for the deity, while the selamimin turn nourished the people (Anderson, “Sacrifices and Offerings,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible).

Once again, we must remember that Yahweh is not suggesting that offerings are inappropriate or that the people of Israel are guilty of flawed mechanics. The problem is with the character of these people.

Since this is the time of the divided kingdom, the Israel mentioned here is the northern kingdom. These people are probably making their offerings in Bethel rather than Jerusalem, where they should be making their sacrifices—but Yahweh makes no mention of that. He has deeper concerns.

“Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps” (v. 23). Music, to include instruments such as the harp, is a staple of Israel’s worship.

Music is a lovely way to express one’s religious devotion. Martin Luther said, “I place (music) next to theology.” Thomas Carlyle called music, “the speech of angels.”

Once again, the problem is not the quality of these people’s music. The problem is much deeper. The next verse will address the problem directly.

“But let justice (mis·pat) roll on like rivers, and righteousness (seda·qa) like a mighty stream” (v. 24). Justice (mis·pat) and righteousness (seda·qa) are related. Justice involves bringing people into a right relationship with Yahweh and each other, and these right relationships produce right behavior—righteousness.

God’s law provides very specific guidance with regard to just behavior. It requires witnesses to be honest and impartial (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8). It requires special consideration for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17).

While Israel is always tempted to define its service to God by the performance of cultic duties (ritual sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc.), the prophets keep reminding them that justice is a basic duty of the faith community (Micah 6:8).

In the first part of this chapter, the prophet outlined the sins in question here—the things that constitute their injustice and unrighteousness.

• They “hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks blamelessly” (5:10). In other words, they hate authorities who prevent them from using unscrupulous means to achieve their evil ends.

• They “trample on the poor, and take taxes from him of wheat” (5:11).

• They “afflict the just (and) take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the courts” (5:12).

Yahweh’s concern, then, has little to do with the quality of their offerings or their music. It has to do with their character—with their hearts. They can do nothing to please Yahweh until they resolve this “heart” issue.

But let justice roll on like rivers, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (v. 24). Those who sit alongside a swift-running river or a mountain stream soon find themselves filled with wonder at the prodigality of the flow. The water just keeps on flowing. It matters not whether they observe it at noontime or dusk or dawn—there is a sameness and an unending quality to its flow. It would be impossible to calculate how much water has passed that spot, and equally impossible to calculate how much more will pass by it in the future. It is almost as if they are getting a glimpse of infinity.

It is that same infinite quality that Yahweh is demanding to see with regard to Israel’s justice and righteousness.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Anderson, Gary A., “Sacrifices and Offerings,” in Allen C. Myers (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)

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Finley, Thomas J., Joel, Amos, Obadiah: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003)

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Hubbard, David Allan, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Joel & Amos, Vol. 22b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989)

Mays, James Luther, The Old Testament Library: Amos (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969)

Niehaus, Jeff, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)

Ogilvie, Lloyd, The Preacher’s Commentary: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)

Simundson, Daniel J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)

Smith, Billy K. and Page, Frank S., The New American Commentary: Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Vol. 19b (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995)

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Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)

Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan