Today, in America, is a day reserved for remembering the great contributions that Martin Luther King, Jr. made to our society. Among the things that get remembered most about MLK is his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, and one of the most well-known lines from that speech is this one:
“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In that section, MLK was quoting from Amos 5:24 and, as usual, he knew what he was doing. Amos prophesied about the “death” of the nation of Israel that was the result of their disobedience of God’s law and their disregard for God’s standards. Since Israel chose to not pursue righteousness and the justice that flows from righteous living, their society was crumbling from the inside and being made more vulnerable to attacks from enemy forces on the outside.
And this was the thrust of MLK’s reference to Amos.
Dr. King was saying that America was destroying itself through its mistreatment of African-Americans, its neglect of the poor, and the inequality that existed in its legal system. Like Israel, America was crumbling from the inside because of its disregard for the righteousness and justice that ought to be evident among a people who claim to honor and worship God.
But for further understanding of this reference, let’s dive deeper into Amos 5:24.
In the context of Amos, “righteousness” refers to those standards for what is “right” by which God has instructed Israel how to live. “Justice” is then the realization of those standards of life. So, righteousness and justice are inextricably linked together – you can’t have one without the other. If it’s justice we desire, then the best way to bring that into existence is to focus our efforts on righteous living. And if we pursue righteousness, we will get justice as a bi-product of that pursuit since justice flows from righteousness.
In Amos 5:7, Amos says that the absence of righteousness and justice produces bitterness. And if one observes the current state of American society, he or she will see how right Amos was in his pronouncement.
For Amos, the justice that righteous living produces is the basis for a healthy society. Like the abundance of water, it blesses and sustains a society. But if a society ignores the righteous standards of God, justice will demand that they be swept away by the ever-flowing stream of God’s righteous judgment.
Theologian Donald Gowen says this about Amos: “Amos has no program for change; it was too late for that. He offers an explanation of what has gone wrong and why it is so wrong that God must intervene in a drastic way. Later generations would see that he was right when he said the end was near, and they would accept his explanation of it as true. For them his words became an imperative to take his advocacy of the law with the utmost seriousness, as they saw what failure to establish justice had done. The exillic and post-exillic Jewish communities set about to make sure their society was such that no prophet like Amos need rise again. As long as we are not convinced it is too late and believe we still have a chance, we also should read the book the way those exiles read Amos – as a challenge not to make the mistake ancient Israel made.”
Yes, MLK knew what he was doing when he quoted Amos. He was warning the country that if we do not change course and start seeking righteousness and justice, as God defines it, then we will go the way of ancient Israel by destroying ourselves.
His message – as well as Amos’ – still rings true.
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).