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"The Plumb Line"
Amos 7:7-17

Our Bible comes to us rather neatly packaged. Books of a kind are clustered together, so that we can find the major prophets all in one place. We can find the minor prophets all gathered together. We can find the gospels side by side.

But this apparent neat pattern of organization can hide some things. For example, your Bible has the books of twelve minor prophets all gathered together, from Hosea to Malachi. But the book of Amos is number three in that group.

Yet, scholars are almost unanimous in agreeing that this book is the earliest of the prophet books. And it is also considered the Old Testament’s classic statement concerning social justice.

My favorite verse identifying that concern is the twenty-fourth verse of the fifth chapter: “...let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

But this morning I would turn your attention to the seventh chapter. In it we find Amos experiencing three visions and the implications of those visions.

We read, at the opening:

“This is what the Lord God showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings).”

The latter growth would probably have been the crops sown in the spring, such as vegetables.

“When they had finished eating the grass of the land I said, “O Lord God, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”

Now, a couple of things need to be explained here. Amos is not referring to a person when he speaks of Jacob. He is speaking of the entire nation of Israel. And the smallness of Jacob is not the stature of a person, but the size and strength of a nation.

Amos is assuming that this locust plague is God’s judgment for the sins of Israel. And he takes it upon himself to intercede for them, asking God to forgive them. But notice that he is not appealing to repentance on the part of the people.

The only quality of Israel that Amos can present is “He is so small.”

But, “The Lord relented concerning this; “It shall not be,” said the Lord.”

And God changed God’s mind. But this isn’t the first time this has happened. In the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, when Abraham learns of God’s plans to destroy Sodom, he talks him into saving the city if he can find fifty righteous persons in it. And then, he proceeds to talk him down to ten. Will he not destroy the city if he can find even ten righteous persons? And God agrees.

But in the case of Amos, maybe that single statement, “He is so small,” does carry weight with God. After all, God was concerned for the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt.

Amos continues:

“This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord God was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land.”

It might almost be considered a supernatural phenomenon. The “great deep” would be the oceans. And this is apparently a fire that is all-consuming. We might place it in the same category as the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, when “the Lord rained...sulfur and fire from...out of heaven.”

This is a divine fire, of which Amos spoke often in the first two chapters. He passes along the word of the Lord: “I will send a fire on the house of Hazael.... I will send a fire on the wall of Gaza.... I will send a fire on the wall of Tyre....

“I will send a fire on Teman.... I will kindle a fire against the wall of Rabah.... and I will send a fire on Moab.”

“Then Amos said, “O Lord God, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small.”

In the first vision, Amos asked God to forgive Israel, and God relented. But in this case, Amos is just asking God to stop what God is doing. Yet, the only argument, the only defense, he can offer for Israel is “He is so small.”

Now this should raise some interesting issues for us. Has Amos provided a good reason for God to stop? He hasn’t even asked for Israel’s forgiveness!

Yet, “The Lord relented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord God.”

And for a second time, God has changed God’s mind.

But like I said, this raises some interesting issues for us. Which comes first: repentance or forgiveness? Are we forgiven because we repent? Or do we repent because we are forgiven? Do we make the first move, or does God?

Recall the words of the liturgy of holy communion which we observe each month: “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”

Amos continues by telling us of a third vision:

“This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.”

A plumb line is a line, or a cord, that has at one end a weight, a plumb bob, and is used to determine vertical alignment, just as a level is used to determine horizontal alignment.

But a strange thing happened between the original manuscripts and the contemporary translations. Contemporary scholars are almost certain that the original word in the original manuscripts does not mean “plumb line.”

Instead, it means “tin.” “Plumb line” was a guess made by translators in the middle ages, and we’ve held on to it. Anyway, let’s stick with it and get back to Amos.

“And the Lord said to Amos, “Amos, what do you see?” And Amos said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.”

When God says, “I will never again pass them by,” we need to be careful how we read that. God is NOT saying that God will never again “ignore” or “overlook” his people.

Indeed, it might be accurate to interpret God as saying, “I will never again let them off the hook.” He did so twice in the two previous visions of Amos.

But God is not capricious. God’s judgments are not random. And this is why I like the image of the plumb line, even if some scholars want to be rid of it. When I hear God saying, “I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel,” I hear him saying that there are standards by which he governs and judges his people.

They are unwavering, righteous standards; and in the future he will not forget them just because Amos pleads, regarding Israel, “He is so small!”

And God passes along a warning to Amos:

“the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

“Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.”

Tattle-tale. Isn’t it amazing that a priest should get bent out of shape over someone’s religious experience? Well, maybe not. Folks who represent establishment positions are always getting bent about people holding radical views. Which is why Jesus was crucified.

But if Amos is conspiring, with whom or what is Amos conspiring? with God? And why should the king fear the mere words of Amos? Amos has no army; he only speaks of his experiences.

Amaziah goes on to say, “For thus Amos has said, “Jereboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.”

But a close comparison of verses nine and eleven would find that Amaziah is stretching things a bit.

God said that he would rise against the house of Jereboam with the sword, but Amaziah is telling the king that he, personally, will die by the sword.

God said that the high places and the sanctuaries--places of worship--would be made desolate and laid waste; but Amaziah tells the king that Israel must go into exile.

“And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

There are a variety of levels on which we can read this. One one level, Amaziah is begging Amos to get out of town and leave him alone and not cause him any trouble. Prophesy anywhere but here.

On another level, this might be perceived as friendly advice. It might be a good idea if you left town. Because if you stay here, you might get into trouble.

And on yet another level, Amaziah may be acting as the official authority in control at Bethel. Authorized by the king to evict anyone who might be a problem for the community.

But I think Amaziah is genuinely afraid. When he addresses Amos as “seer,” I think he believes in what Amos has seen.

And when he tells him to flee to the land of Judah, we are reminded that the united monarchy of Saul and David and Solomon is no more. The original kingdom is divided with Israel in the north and Judah in the South.

We might wonder why Amaziah didn’t settle for telling Amos to just get out of town; but in fact, Bethel was just at the border of the two kingdoms.

And finally, Amaziah’s motivations become abundantly clear when he notes that Bethel is the king’s sanctuary, the temple of the kingdom. Amaziah fears for, and is trying to protect, himself.

“Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.”

And Amos seems to be telling Amaziah, hey, I’m nothing special. I didn’t set out to be a prophet, and I don’t proclaim myself to be a prophet. This is not something that runs in the family. (And in those days, children usually took up the livelihoods of their parents.)

And scholars seem to believe that Amos’s claim of being a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees is evidence that he was probably nomadic. He probably moved around a lot.

But he goes on to say, “and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

And Amos becomes very pointed with Amaziah:

“Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, “Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.”

“Therefore thus says the Lord: “Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.”

In the eighth century before Christ the people of Israel still thought in terms of corporate responsibility: Amaziah’s whole family would suffer because of his guilt. But it was another sixty years before the northern kingdom of Israel fell. So, his family may not have suffered this exact fate, but this is an accurate description of what did happen to families at that time.

“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people.”

I think that for each of us, there are plumb lines in our lives. There are straight and narrow courses that we choose to follow or ignore.

I think the marvel of this Bible story is that we witness two dimensions of God. On the one hand, God often forgives us when we aren’t the least bit deserving. But on the other hand, God DOES have God’s laws and God’s standards: a plumb line in the midst of our lives.

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