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What Does the Bible Mean When it Says "Let Justice Roll Down Like a River?"

  • Whitney Hopler Contributing Writer
  • Updated May 19, 2021
What Does the Bible Mean When it Says "Let Justice Roll Down Like a River?"

Injustice happens all too often in our fallen world. But the Bible says that we can let justice roll down like a river. That powerful image gives us hope. What exactly does it mean to do so in our daily lives?

What Does "Let Justice Roll Down Like a River" Mean?

The phrase “Let justice roll down like a river” means that we should cooperate with God so that his justice will roll down from his Spirit into us and out into the world through our lives. In this biblical passage, God is saying that he doesn’t want us to worship him through empty religious rituals, but instead to worship him through living lifestyles that are characterized by justice. God wants our moral character to align with his commitment to justice. God is upset when he sees us going through the motions of worship without truly working for justice. When do perform acts of justice, however, our just God considers those to be acts of worship.

When God led the prophet Amos to write these verses, people in Israel were observing many different religious activities, yet their lifestyles perpetuated injustice in their society. They met for worship faithfully, read scriptures, sang worship songs, gave offerings, etc. However, their daily lives revealed that they neglected to live with honesty and help people in need, such as the poor. They made a show of being faithful through religious rituals, yet were actually unfaithful in how they lived from day to day. God wanted to send justice down into the world through their lives, yet they weren’t open to participating in that.

Today, just like then, God is looking for people who are willing to cooperate with his work of bringing justice to our world. Those who do so will see God’s justice flow powerfully through their lives like the mighty current of a river rolling.

Where in the Bible Does it Say, “Let Justice Roll Down Like a River?”

The fifth chapter of the Book of Amos proclaims that famous phrase: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24, NIV). The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased the King James Version of Amos 5:24 (“But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”) when he wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” civil rights letter: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

In context, this verse is part of a striking message God gives us through the prophet Amos in Amos 5:21-24, NIV: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” The Message version uses modern language to present God’s message: “I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religious projects, your pretentious slogans, and your goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations, and your image-making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

How Do We Apply This Verse to Our Daily Lives?

We can apply Amos 5:24 to our daily lives by letting God’s justice flow through us day by day. Rather than just going through religious activities – such as praying, reading the Bible, going to church, and singing worship songs – without trying to change the corruption around us, we should do something about the injustices we encounter. Whenever we encounter a situation that is unjust, we should listen to God speaking to us through our conscience. God wants us to agree with him that unjust situations are wrong, to feel his pain about them, and to do what we can to make those situations right by relying on his Spirit’s power flowing through us as we work.

God’s wonders don’t happen by magic. They happen when we cooperate with God by acting in faith and do what God calls us to do. We need to stop passively lamenting injustice. Instead, we must faithfully act to make justice happen. Justice will happen when we invite God to send his love and wisdom flowing through us and out into the world.

In my book Wake Up to Wonder, I describe how Willie, a man I interviewed for an article on overcoming drug addiction, taught me a powerful lesson about justice. Willie suffered the injustice of being permanently injured during an argument in jail. Some of his fellow inmates threw gasoline on his face and lit it on fire. After that, Willie’s face and hands were deeply scarred, and the scars of his anger ran even deeper. Willie had a crucial choice to make: He could either let anger flow through him, or he could let the Holy Spirit flow through him. Willie chose the latter option. After Willie welcomed God’s Spirit to help him, a stream of good flowed through his life: He forgave the inmates who hurt him, he completed his jail sentence, he broke free of his addictions to heroin and alcohol, and he began volunteering to help other people break free of their own addictions. Willie was able to turn injustice into justice, with God’s help. Since justice rolled on like a river in Willie’s life, the injustice he had gone through fueled new compassion in his life, inspiring him to do whatever he could to help other suffering people experience justice. I watched Willie courageously light a candle at a worship service – the first time he had been near fire since being burned during the argument more than a year earlier. His radiant smile revealed the light of hope that God had shone into his life. Willie’s choice to let God’s justice roll through his life made me think of Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

How We Can Actively Choose Justice

God is calling all of us to choose to work for good when we’re confronted by evil. Jesus tells us in John 4:23-24 that our heavenly Father is seeking worshippers who will faithfully connect to God’s Spirit and follow the truth of what God leads them to do. “… the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

However, it’s not enough simply to have the right beliefs; we also must have the right actions. As Micah 6:8 declares: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Justice and righteousness go together. Amos 5:24 pairs the two, and Psalm 33:5 tells us that, “The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” Justice involves righting wrongs in society, while righteousness is doing right by people in need. As justice rolls down through our lives and out into the world, we act on what God calls us to do at both a societal level (such as by donating to, and volunteering for, social justice organizations) and an individual level (being kind and generous with the people in our lives). There is a myriad of possibilities to contribute our time, talents, and treasure to a cause, as well as to personally help marginalized people we know.

A simple way to check how faithful we are to this call day by day is by reminding ourselves to follow Jesus’ advice about seeking God’s kingdom: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [whatever you need] will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). When we’re seeking God’s kingdom, we’re caring about what God cares about and doing the work God calls us to do.

Rather than trying to please God through religious rituals alone, we should pursue justice and righteousness, because that’s what God says matters most to him. God tells us in Jeremiah 9:24: “‘… let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord.”

As we let justice roll down like a river through our lives, the result will be a constant stream of blessings from God. Our lives will become powerful conduits for God’s Spirit to flow through, bringing justice to unjust situations, and blessing us and others in a ripple effect of mighty, never-failing power!

Further Reading

Why Does God Want Justice to Roll Down Like a River?

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/FCerez

headshot of author Whitney HoplerWhitney Hopler is the author of the Wake Up to Wonder book and the Wake Up to Wonder blog, which help people thrive through experiencing awe. She leads the communications work at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Whitney has served as a writer, editor, and website developer for leading media organizations, including, The Salvation Army USA’s national publications, and (where she produced a popular channel on angels and miracles). She has also written the young adult novel Dream Factory. Connect with Whitney on X/Twitter and on Facebook