On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” During the middle of the civil rights movement, this speech emphasized the optimism and hope that many activists held for the future. There is, however, one exception. King quoted Amos 5:24 in this context:
No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’
Now most of us probably think King means something like this: “We cannot be satisfied until there is fairness for the negro, and all in the nation behave rightly towards their neighbors, independent of prejudice against color.” This is what we think based on the context of the speech. Now I mean no disrespect to Dr. King and the great good done by his actions and this speech, but unfortunately, that’s not what the verse means, because the verse has to be interpreted in the context of its chapter.
Amos, though from the southern kingdom of Judah, primarily ministered in the northern kingdom of Israel. As a rule, Israel was usually in sin. After all, Israel did not worship God at Jerusalem in the temple as they had been commanded, but worshipped calves at Bethel and Dan, and often fell into worship of Baal and other idols. Amos was sent to rebuke Israel for their idolatry and command them to turn back to true worship of YHWH. The book opens with pronouncements of judgments upon many near eastern countries, ending finally with Israel. The sins God mentions are a love of money that caused Israelites to sell each other into slavery over tiny debts and sexual sin, but the reason God judges them is that they did this “in order to profane My holy name.” (Amos 1:7) After these sins, they would immediately turn to worship:
“On garments taken as pledges they stretch out beside every altar,
And in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined.
“Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorite before them,
Though his height was like the height of cedars
And he was strong as the oaks;
I even destroyed his fruit above and his root below.
It was I who brought you up from the land of Egypt,
And I led you in the wilderness forty years
That you might take possession of the land of the Amorite.
Then I raised up some of your sons to be prophets
And some of your young men to be Nazirites.
Is this not so, O sons of Israel?” declares the Lord.
“But you made the Nazirites drink wine,
And you commanded the prophets saying, ‘You shall not prophesy!’ ”
God’s indictment of Israel ultimately boils down to this: they scorned their relationship with God, they despised His name, they rejected His messengers and gifts, they forgot how God had provided for them. This broke down their worship and led into idolatry. Thus God was going to judge them.
It is for this sin that we read in chapter 5:
I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
God hates false worship. God judges false worship. In context, Amos 5:24 is a pronouncement of judgment. To paraphrase, “Let judgment fall upon them and wash away their sin. Let righteousness come down and purify them.” To quote Geerhardus Vos on this passage:
This should not be interpreted as a demand for uprightness from Israel. Israel, being so degraded and corrupt as the prophet represents it to be, it would have been strange to ask for uprightness of such sudden and copious production as the figure implies. The idea is rather, that, the time for reasoning and expostulation having gone by, nothing remains but the divine judgment rushing down and sweeping away the sinners.
Look at what we can learn from context! Amos gave us a beautiful figure of God’s wrath and judgment to contemplate. However, this causes a problem for King’s speech.
If we interpret King’s reference to Amos 5:24 according to the passages actual meaning, we would read something like (and I am being somewhat facetious), “We cannot be satisfied until God purges the sin of racism from this earth by washing away the races. Down with the southerners! Down with the politicians of Jim Crow!” I am quite confident this is not what he meant. It sounds more like Malcolm X than Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately this means that Dr. King misinterpreted Amos 5:24. This makes me sad. Why are misinterpretations of Scripture so common in our culture? Why is it so hard to read the context of the verses we quote?
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in Christian ambition.
I have a dream that one day the church will rise up and consistently live out its creed: “Sola Scriptura.”
I have a dream that one day at the artisanal wooden tables of some coffee shop somewhere, the sons of baptists and the sons of presbyterians will be able to sit down together and share the same interpretation of Scripture.
I have a dream that one day even the mainline denominations, churches sweltering and thirsting for lack of Scripture, sweltering under the heat of unbiblical practice, will be transformed into an oasis for the soul providing the living water of salvation found in God’s Word.
I have a dream that my children will one day live in a world that interprets Scripture, not judging by surface level reading, but by the context of the passage.
I have a dream today!