Plumb Lines

Today we’re back to our series, “The Hidden Prophets.” In this series we’re trying to wrap our heads and our hearts around twelve prophetic books in the Old Testament that are often called The Minor Prophets. These books are: Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Obadiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Joel and Malachi. We’re going through these books in chronological order of events versus the order we find them in the Bible. The reason why we’re doing this is because we believe it will help us to better align with the historical context for each book and, thus, have an easier time understanding what is going on. So, as most of you know, we started with Jonah, now we are nearing the end of Amos, and, then, we will move on to Hosea.

Since it’s been a minute since we last looked at Amos. Let me give us a quick refresher. At this time the nation of Israel is split into two countries. The country to the north is called Israel still, or sometimes Samaria, and the country to the south is called Judah, and it’s notable for being home to the city of Jerusalem. Our setting in Amos is the northern kingdom of Israel and the king of Israel at the time is Jeroboam II, and he is presiding over a period of financial prosperity and military might. Jeroboam has expanded the borders of Israel and the rich have gotten richer, but this has been done at the expense of the poor, and the nation has abandoned the laws of Moses and is also worshipping many other gods. Amos is actually a citizen of Judah, but is called by God to go to Israel and declare His word. And, the word he is called to declare is not positive. Rather, Amos is sent to tell the wealthy ruling class of Israel that they have crushed and oppressed the poor, they have abandoned God’s law and that there will be consequences. 

Amos has declared this prophetic word in a couple of different ways thus far. We first saw him present a series of small poems that were seemingly focused on the sin and shortcomings of other nations around Israel. But we eventually learned that Amos was really just trying to lure Israel into his rhetoric by talking about what God was going to do to other nations, only to finally reveal that the laser beam was on Israel and that they were the true focus of Amos’ prophecy. He then went on to declare a series of monologues concerning their sin and the coming wrath of God, which from what we’ve learned thus far will look like destruction and exile. Amos said, “Israel, you think of yourself as the first among nations, but I tell you that you will be the first carried into exile.” 

Now, it’s possible that this has all seemed a bit repetitive to you because Amos has essentially been saying the same things over and over again in different ways. And, one thing I would point out to us is that God is gracious in his repetition. He repeats things to us, as well, because we all tend to be hard of hearing. And, he does to us the exact same things he did to Israel; he gives us chance after chance to listen and to turn to him in repentance. So, we see God’s grace in his repetition. But, also, what we haven’t gotten a sense of thus far is how the people are actually hearing and receiving Amos’ message. Are they angry? Are they repentant? Are they ambivalent? Are they ignoring him? We haven’t gotten any sense of the response…until today. 

Today we move into what we could call part three of this book, and we get a series of prophetic visions, but we also get a glimpse into how the people of Israel are receiving Amos’ words. So, let’s begin with this famous vision Amos has, then we will look at the response. 

Amos 7:7-9: 

This is what he showed me: behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,

“Behold, I am setting a plumb line

    in the midst of my people Israel;

    I will never again pass by them;

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

So, first things first, what in the world is a plumb line? It’s a weight on a string that is used in construction, particularly in wall building. And, the plumb line helps you determine if your wall is “plumb,” which means vertically straight. You want your wall to be perpendicular to the ground. When I was in college I spent a summer in South Africa, and one of the things that we did while we were there was build a church in a remote Zulu village. And this was one of the tools that we used throughout the process because we were laying brick walls on this church, and we wanted to make sure that the walls were straight. Why? Because if you don’t build the wall straight, it might eventually collapse. 

Now, what genre of Biblical literature are we reading today? That’s an incredibly important question whenever you’re reading the Bible because this book is made up of sixty-six different books by at least forty different human authors that are written in a variety of different genres. There is historical narrative; there is law; there is poetry; there is wisdom literature; there are letters; there are biographies. What is the genre of Amos? The genre is prophecy. And, the reason why it’s important that we ask that question is because knowing the genre will tell you what to expect in the book. Biblical prophecy is ​Scripture that recounts visions or specific messages from God about the future. And so one of the things we can expect to find when we’re reading prophecy is metaphorical or symbolic language. In other words, if we’re reading about a dream or a vision, more than likely the contents of the vision will have a metaphorical nature, but will have a literal meaning or interpretation.

So, today, in Amos’ vision, God is the one standing beside a wall holding a plumb line. And, Amos gives us a critical detail about this wall. Not only is God standing beside it with a plumb line, but Amos tells us that the wall was originally built with a plumb line. Which means, when it was built, it was straight. Now, remember, this is a vision. So, God is not literally standing beside a wall. God is not literally holding a plumb line. These images are representative of something else. Jesus did the exact same thing in his teachings. He tells this parable, which is another genre, about a person going out to scatter seed and some fell on rocks and some fell among thorns and some fell on fertile ground. But, Jesus was speaking metaphorically, the seed and the types of soil represented something else. In that case, the seed was the word of God and the soils were different types of people receiving the word of God. So, don’t be thrown off by this, especially if you grew up in a church where you were taught to read the Bible as 100% literal at all times. Most of the time, it’s pretty easy to understand what is being said. This is not meant to be a cryptic code we have to crack; we might just have to think about it a little. 

God says: “Behold, I am setting a plumb line

    in the midst of my people Israel;

    I will never again pass by them;

“Behold,” which means, ‘look at this; see what I’m doing.” I’m setting a plumb line in the midst of my people. So, right there, God tells us the wall is not a wall. It’s the people of God. The people of Israel. Now, this wall was built with a plumb line. It’s like God is saying, “when I built this wall, it was straight.” But, now, let me put the plumb line on it again. Let me measure how straight it is now. And, if you’ve been with us through Amos up to this point, you know how straight the wall is. It’s leaning big time, yet, God is really the only one who sees it for what it is. He says, “I will never again pass by them.” He already did that once at what is known as The Passover. He didn’t pass over the Hebrew people in Egypt because they were sinless. No, he passed over them because they were covered by the blood of a lamb. Lambs were sacrificed and blood was shed to protect them so that they might be saved from God’s wrath that was coming into the land. But, now, God says, “I’m not doing that again.” Instead: 

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

That’s not metaphorical. That is literal. And something like fifty years later it would come to pass. So, this is one of the visions that Amos has seen and declared to the people, and as you can see the meaning is not obscure. It is pretty plain. 

But, how are people receiving this news? Look at verses 10-13:

10 Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,

“‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,

    and Israel must go into exile

    away from his land.’”

12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

14 Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. 15 But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ 16 Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.

“You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,

    and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’

17 Therefore thus says the Lord:

“‘Your wife shall be a prostitute in the city,

    and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be divided up with a measuring line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”

Amaziah, the high priest at Bethel, tells Amos that he’s upsetting everyone and needs to get out of town. “The land is not able to bear all his words.” Now, Bethel was sort of the knockoff Jerusalem of the North. When the kingdom was divided, the first king, also named Jeroboam, chose Bethel as the place of worship. 1 Kings 12 recounts, though, how he selected priests who were not Levites, or priests who were not from the priestly tribe, and how he basically concocted his own high holy days with false Gods. Interestingly, the false god that Jeroboam sets up here was once again a calf, just like the people in the wilderness had done back in Exodus. So, Bethel is a frequent target for Amos. 

What I really want to seize on here is Amos’ response to all of this. What we don’t get is any of Amos’ internal monologue. We don’t know if he is conflicted in any way. If, like Jonah, he has struggled to be obedient. Or if, like Moses, he’s tried to convince God that he is not the man for the job. What we do know, though, is that he is faithful to what God has called him to. He says:

“I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. 15 But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ 16 Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.

I love that. Amos is saying, do you think I just chose of my own volition to come up here and say these things? No, I wasn’t a prophet. I was following sheep around in a field…just like Moses…and then the Lord plucked me up and sent me here. So, hear now the word of the Lord. 

Man, what if your life was that black and white as well? What if you also had that clear of a sense of God’s calling? What if you could speak with that kind of confidence? Here’s a thread, there are many, but here’s a thread that I find in the lives of all those who are truly obedient to God, and I think this is a big part of why a guy like Amos can do what he does. When receiving God’s love and approval becomes my primary desire, I am less inclined to make decisions based on receiving the love and approval of others. Or, put another way, when I truly desire the love and approval of the Father, I am more willing to be disliked by others for his sake. 

I think this is possibly my biggest struggle in life because it is deeper than any surface-level sins that might be present. I’m an enneagram three, which basically means that I’m someone who wants other people to be impressed with me. Deep down, I want your approval and love, and it can be hard for me to keep going if I feel like I don’t have it. And, you may not be just like me, but we all have some of that because it’s like a defense and coping mechanism for living in this world. When we feel loved and approved-of, we feel safe. When we are accepted by the tribe, we aren’t an outsider. We aren’t alone. And, this is one of the ways that the gospel should radically revolutionize our lives. When we truly embrace the gospel in faith, we are embracing the good news that you are eternally loved and accepted by the Father because the righteousness and sinlessness of Christ has been attributed to you. It has been credited to your account as if you did it. And, when the Scripture says that this gospel brings freedom, it doesn’t simply mean freedom from the penalty of sin, it also means freedom from living for the love and approval of other people. I no longer have to try to be good enough or impressive enough for you because the Creator of all things has declared me to be approved. So, ideally, my loyalty has now shifted primarily to him. So, the question is no longer what do you want or what do my parents want or what does my social group expect of me. The question is, “what does God want?” 

For Amos, this seems to be all that mattered. You think I’m here declaring all of these horrible things because I enjoy being disliked? No, I was just following the sheep around, and the Lord told me to do this. And, because doing his will is my primary desire, you will now hear the word of the Lord. So, in closing this morning, let’s enter into a few minutes of personal examination. I want to ask three key questions, that we all need to be able to answer. And, if you feel like you can’t answer some of these, that’s ok. Justin and I would love to sit with you and help you find answers. 

  1. Whose love and approval do you most desire?
  2. Where do you find your sense of safety and security?
  3. How would you articulate the lords call on your life in this season? 

Let’s pray. 

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