If they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them;
if they climb up to heaven, from there will I bring them down. […]
if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them.
And if they go into captivity before their enemies, there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them;
and I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.

Amos 9:2-4

Over the centuries, Christians and unbelievers alike have read passages like Amos chapter 9 and struggled with or chafed at all the talk of judgment. Especially in the modern era, we are happy to speak out against corporate fraud, human trafficking, and predatory lending, we still seem to feel that the God in the Old Testament was unduly harsh and was interested only in punishing.

As I’ve read some of these passages lately, though, I’ve been struck with God’s explanations for his anger:

 Thus says the LORD:
[…] they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
a man and his father go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge,
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined.
(Amos 2:6-8 ESV)

Why then all the destruction? A society rife with exploitation of the poor, humiliating sexual abuse, oppressive loan practices (compare v.8 with Ex. 22:26), religious hypocrisy, and misuse of the legal system for personal gain. This same kind of stuff fills our newspapers and makes our blood boil. I actually remember, as a boy, hearing a news story in Baltimore about a kid getting shot for his name brand shoes. This text is describing real life.

Here’s my point: just as Amos 2 is describing the gritty injustices of life on our planet, Amos 9 is describing the very real righteous anger of a real Creator. Because God has hardwired some sense of justice into every one of us (Rom. 2:14-16), the reason we’re outraged at injustice is precisely because God was outraged first. From God’s perspective, he takes these offenses personally (“my holy name is profaned”).  God is angry, as he should be, and we’re the ones who are naive to think he should “calm down.” He occupies the highest moral ground and does not need our input (Rom. 11:34-36). Furthermore, when it’s your family member being crushed for a pair of shoes, judgment hardly seems fickle or vindictive.

Perhaps part of our problem is that we’re not really reading. If you’re like me, you’ve read Psalm 58:6-9 and thought, “Whew, that’s rough. Break their teeth? Make them like stillborn children? Really?” If we read the first six verses and interpret them merely as dramatic effect, then we’ve already missed subject of the text (government rulers who dish out violence without remorse) and failed to connect it with concrete examples from our own time. Breaking Stalin’s teeth (or removing his fangs, i.e., capacity for inflicting harm) hardly seems over-the-top. When we stop to consider what the text is actually saying, it not only becomes sensible, but actually reassures us that God is just and trustworthy and sovereign.

Douglas O’Donnell, in God’s Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship through Old Testament Song, makes the point that as churches we’ve censored God’s anger from not only our minds, but consequently our hymns–a practice quite out of line with the handful of inspired songs we have recorded in Scripture. That’s because even we Christians sometimes struggle with  God’s wrath–it makes us uncomfortable, either because we know we deserve it, too, or because we’re not really convinced that we do derserve it. But ultimately, if we want a God we can trust, we need him to be a just judge. We need to rejoice in–sometimes even sing about–his judgment.

As a society, we’ve decided that fair trade coffee is a great way to promote justice in the agricultural communities that support us. I agree–in that it allows us to encourage honest business practices via financial incentive. But, unfortunately, we can’t execute real justice with positive reinforcement alone. We know intuitively that sometimes the hammer’s got to fall–not just in eternity, but right now–and when those moments come, fair trade coffee just can’t do the job.