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Study Notes for Amos 7:7-17 Who’s Plumb line do you use?

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. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I 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;  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.”  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. For thus Amos has said, “Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’ ” 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.”  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 the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ “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 your 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.’ “ [NRSV]

Amos the Unlikely

The first verse of this book identifies the author as “Amos, who was among the herdsmen of Tekoa” (1:1). Much has been made of the fact that Amos was a shepherd—a man more comfortable among the company of sheep than of people—an unsophisticated fellow, amazed and dazed by urban excess—a redneck, with a desire to tell the truth, even when his life is at risk.

Amos had a humble start, but he was authorized and equipped for the job because the Lord called him. It was Yahweh who took Amos from his flocks. It was Yahweh who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel”.

When and Where?

The first verse of this book also tells us when Amos served as a prophet. It was “in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake” (1:1). Uzziah and Jeroboam ruled in the eighth century B.C., and scholars believe that Amos had a relatively short ministry in the middle of that century—around 760-755 B.C.

At that time, the Jewish people were divided into the tribes of the northern kingdom (Israel) and the two tribes of the southern kingdom (Judah). It was the time between the end of Solomon’s reign (c. 930 B.C.) and the fall of the northern kingdom (c. 721 B.C.). Amos makes a place in our faith history as we read about his faithfulness today.

Only a few years after Amos’ prophecies, the Assyrians forced the ten tribes of Israel into exile in Assyria. Unlike the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom (Judah), the ten tribes of Israel never returned to their homeland in any organized way. Instead, they were assimilated and disappeared as a people.

The Jeroboam mentioned in the text was successful militarily, but “he did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh: he didn’t depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, with which he made Israel to sin” (2 Kings 14:24).

We tend to think of Amos as a northern prophet, because his prophecy was directed primarily toward the northern kingdom (Israel)—but he was from Tekoa, a few miles south of Jerusalem in the southern kingdom (Judah)—and, as we will see in 6:1, he addressed both “those who are at ease in Zion” (the capital of the southern kingdom) and “those who are secure on the mountain of Samaria” (the capital of the northern kingdom).

Amos spoke against misplaced allegiance and religious arrogance. He warned the people of an upcoming military disaster that would reflect God’s judgment.

AMOS 7:7-9. THE PLUMB LINE

“Thus he showed me” (v. 7a). As is clear from verse 6, it is the Lord God who showed Amos a vision. The Plumb Line is the third in a series of five visions:

• The first vision (7:1-3) was a vision of locusts.
• The second vision (7:4-6) was a vision of fire.
• Now we have the third vision, a vision of a plumb line (7:7-9).
• The fourth vision (8:1-3) will be a vision of a basket of summer fruit.
• The fifth vision (9:1-4) will be of thresholds shaking and shattering on the heads of the people—and people being killed by the sword—a vision of inescapable judgment.

“the Lord stood beside a wall made by a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand” (v. 7b). A plumb line is a string with a weight (known as a plumb-bob) attached. When the user holds a plumb line by the string, the plumb-bob at the bottom will point with great exactness to the earth’s center of gravity. People use plumb lines, even today, to determine whether a wall is perfectly straight, i.e., exactly perpendicular to the horizon. In other words, a plumb line enables the user to test the straightness of a wall. A plumb line hung from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa would confirm what our eyes already know. But the plumb line is more for noticing the small errors that lead to big mistakes.

A crooked wall can be difficult to correct. In many cases, an out-of-plumb wall must be torn down and rebuilt if it is ever to be right.

A Test of the Wall? Is sound for its intended purpose?

Now Amos sees Yahweh standing beside a wall with a plumb line in his hand. Yahweh’s purpose is to test the wall to see if it is straight or not—usable or not. We sense, of course, that Yahweh is concerned with something more than a wall. The next verse will make clear the real nature of his concern.

“Yahweh said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold, I will set a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel’” (v. 8a). Now Yahweh explains the meaning of the plumb line metaphor. Israel (the northern kingdom) is the wall that is being tested.

While the next verse will make it clear that Yahweh has pronounced the people of Israel guilty and plans to execute judgment against them—nevertheless, in this verse, he calls them “my people.” God is not pleased with this.. It is a broken-hearted Lord who has tried and tried to bring these people to faithfulness, but who is finally having to admit that it just didn’t work.

“I will not again pass by them any more” (v. 8b). The northern kingdom (Israel) has been in existence for nearly two centuries—since the end of Solomon’s reign and the division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms. With regard to the northern kingdom, there have been ups and downs, but mostly downs. Yahweh has given them opportunity after opportunity to repent and mend their ways, but they have failed to do so. Now Yahweh has decided not to “pass by them” any further—not to shower grace upon grace any longer. The time has come to put an end to their corruption, once and for all.

“The high places of Isaac will be desolate, the sanctuaries of Israel will be laid waste” (v. 9a). The high places were sacred sites dedicated to the worship of pagan gods. Old Testament references to high places are uniformly negative (Leviticus 26:30; Numbers 33:52; 2 Samuel 1:19; 1 Kings 3:2-3; 12:31-32; 13:2, 32-33; 14:23, etc.), because worship at the high places was inconsistent with the worship of Yahweh.

The “high places of Israel” were temples established by Jeroboam I in Bethel (in the far south of Israel, just a few miles north of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah) and Dan (in the far north of Israel). Jeroboam I feared that, if his people were to continue going to Jerusalem to worship, they would soon form loyalties to Judah (where Jerusalem was located) and overthrow Jeroboam in favor of Rehoboam, the king of Judah. “Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold; and he said to them, ‘It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Look and see your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ He set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan. This thing became a sin; for the people went to worship before the one, even to Dan” (1 Kings 12:28-30).

“and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (v. 9b). Yahweh will bring a violent end to the house of Jeroboam. This will come to pass when Shallum, son of Jabesh, conspires against Zechariah, the son of Jeroboam II, strikes him down and assumes the throne (1 Kings 15:8-10).

After the first two visions, Amos begged for mercy (7:2, 5), and in each of those instances, Yahweh relented (7:3, 6). However, in this third vision, Amos makes no such plea and Yahweh shows no signs of relenting. Presumably, Amos has seen the righteousness of Yahweh’s judgment and no longer has the heart to protest Israel’s punishment.

When Others Revile You.. AMOS HAS CONSPIRED AGAINST YOU

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 Amos says, ‘Jeroboam will die by the sword,
and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of his land.’”

“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’” (v. 10). Amaziah is the priest of Bethel—one of the “high places of Israel” established by Jeroboam I (see comments on v. 9a above).

What we heard in verses 7-9 were the words that Yahweh spoke to Amos. We have no record of Amos speaking to the people, but verse 10 makes it clear that Amos has been telling people what Yahweh said—warning them of the judgment to come. Amos would have done so, not out of personal pique, but because Yahweh told him, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (7:15). His purpose would have been to secure the people’s repentance and, perhaps, to stave off the worst of the judgment which Yahweh is about to impose.

The priest, Amaziah, has become aware that Amos has been preaching to the people, and interprets Amos’ words, not as prophecy, but as sedition against Jeroboam. There is an element of self-interest involved in Amaziah’s report to the king, because it was almost certainly Jeroboam who appointed Amaziah to his priestly position (1 Kings 12:31; 13:33).

Amaziah sends word to Jeroboam concerning Amos’ preaching, slanting his report to portray Amos, not as a prophet, but as a traitor. The fact that Amos came from Judah rather than Israel made this a believable charge.

Amaziah’s report reflects his loyalty to Jeroboam, his desire to curry the king’s favor, and a desire to hang onto his comfortable sinecure in Bethel. But above all, Amaziah’s report makes it clear that his first loyalty is to the king rather than to Yahweh.

“For Amos says, ‘Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of his land’” (v. 11). This report is fairly consistent with Yahweh’s words to Amos, but it deviates at two points. First, Yahweh said that it would be the “house of Jeroboam” (7:9) rather than Jeroboam personally who would die by the sword. As noted above, it will be Jeroboam’s son who dies by the sword. Second, this is the first mention of the people going into exile.

Like Scar in the Lion King, Leave and never come back.

YOU SEER, GO, FLEE AWAY!

12 Amaziah also said to Amos, “You seer, go,
flee away into the land of Judah,
and there eat bread, and prophesy there:
13 but don’t prophesy again any more at Bethel;
for it is the king’s sanctuary,
and it is a royal house!”

“Amaziah also said to Amos, “You seer, go, flee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there” (v. 12). The word “seer” is roughly synonymous with “prophet,” although it might have carried a negative connotation.

Amos is from Judah, so Amaziah tells him to go home to Judah and earn his keep there. Amaziah’s assumption that Amos is profiting financially from his prophecy is surely influenced by the fact that Amaziah is profiting from his priesthood. However, Amos isn’t prophesying for profit. He makes his living by serving as “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees” (v. 14).

“but don’t prophesy again any more at Bethel; for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a royal house” (v. 13). There is a turf issue here. Bethel and its sanctuary belong to King Jeroboam—and, by extension, to Amaziah, the king’s priest. If there is religious work to be done here, Amaziah considers it his privilege to do it.

Amos Confirming His words is God’s message to God’s people

14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I was no prophet,
neither was I a prophet’s son;
but I was a herdsman and a farmer of sycamore figs;

15 and Yahweh took me from following the flock,
and Yahweh said to me, ‘Go,
prophesy to my people Israel.’”

“Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son’”  The high priest is trying to make Amos out to be a for-profit, prophet.

“but I was a herdsman, and a farmer of sycamore figs” (v. 14b). Amos goes on to make it clear that he is a simple man who makes his living as a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees.

The Core of a Prophet’s Message: LISTEN TO THE WORD OF YAHWEH!

16 Now therefore listen to the word of Yahweh:
‘You say, Don’t prophesy against Israel,
and don’t preach against the house of Isaac.’

17 Therefore thus says Yahweh:
‘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 by line;
and you yourself shall die in a land that is unclean,
and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of his land.’”

“Now therefore listen to the word of Yahweh: ‘You say, Don’t prophesy against Israel, and don’t preach against the house of Isaac’” (v. 16). Yahweh told Amos to prophesy (v. 15), but the priest Amaziah tells him not to prophesy.

In doing this, Amaziah is attempting to countermand Yahweh’s commandment. He is presenting Amos with a stark choice—obey the priest or obey Yahweh. From the context, we can see that this is not a difficult choice for Amos. Amos will obey Yahweh.

“Therefore thus says Yahweh: ‘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 by line; and you yourself shall die in a land that is unclean, and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of his land’” 

  • Whereas Amaziah the priest has given his first loyalty to the king rather than to Yahweh—
  • and whereas Amaziah the priest has failed to call the people of Israel to faithful service to Yahweh—
  • and whereas Amaziah the priest has attempted to countermand Yahweh’s commandment—
  • therefore, Yahweh has decreed that these five punishments will follow.
  • Amaziah’s wife will become a prostitute. While it is possible that she would suddenly take on a degenerate character, it is more likely that she would become a prostitute once her husband and children were taken from her. Left on her own, she would have few options to support herself. For the wife of a priest to become a prostitute would be a great humiliation for both wife and priest.
  • Amaziah’s sons and daughters will die by the sword. While Amos doesn’t provide further details, we know that the Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser, captured a number of Israelite cities and carried their people into exile (2 Kings 15:29). Then, when Hoshea, the last king of the northern kingdom, rebelled against Assyria, Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, besieged Samaria for three years. The city finally fell in 722 B.C., and many of its people were killed and the rest were taken into exile. Amaziah’s sons and daughters could have been killed in any of these conflicts, but most likely died when Samaria fell
  • Amaziah’s land will be parceled out when he is exiled.
  • Amaziah will die in an unclean land—Assyria.
  • Israel will go into exile in Assyria.

These five punishments, taken together, cut off all possibility of hope for Amaziah. Because he gave his first loyalty to the king and opposed the word of Yahweh, he will lose everything—family, property, status, and finally, his life. Once the Lord executes these judgments, Amaziah will know nothing but slavery, poverty, loneliness, and humiliation.

Today we turn to an 8th century BC prophet named Amos. Amos was a shepherd tending sheep in southern Judah. He was also concerned for the poor in his community and he tended a sycamore tree, which yields an inferior type of fig which was part of the diet of the poorest people at that time. But Amos saw something that disturbed him very much. So he went to Israel with a desire to confront the king.

The Lord gave Amos three visions of what could happen to Israel.

  • In the first vision the Lord was sending locusts, just as their later crops began to sprout. This would devastate their food supply starving the people and destroying the nation. But Amos prayed that the people of Israel would be spared, and the Lord relented.
  • In the second vision Amos saw the Lord covering the land with fire that would evaporate the oceans and devour the land. And again Amos prayed for Israel and the Lord relented.
  • In the third vision Amos saw the Lord judging Israel and sentencing King Jeroboam to death. After this vision of judgment Amos did not pray and the Lord did not relent. Why?

Bethel is a Hebrew word which means “the house of God”. It was a place where God comes close to earth to interact with his people. In other words Bethel was a holy place, a location set aside for God’s use, a sanctuary.

We are told that Bethel was first discovered by the patriarch Jacob. He was fleeing from his brother Esau and one night as the sun was setting he found an ancient shrine and used one of the stones as a pillow. That night he had a remarkable dream that the Lord had come near with a great promise. When Jacob woke up he thought that this place was somehow a gateway to heaven. It was a place where God had come near to his people. So he called it Bethel, the house of God.

Today we are worshiping in a Bethel. This is a sacred place, through worship, we come close to God. That makes this spot holy, set aside for God’s purposes, a sanctuary. 

Centuries later Amos went to the same spot where Jacob had encountered God, the holy place, the sanctuary, called Bethel. And there he delivered to the priest of Bethel the frightening message of God’s judgment. But rather than praying to God in this sacred space the priest, Amaziah, prayed to his king accusing Amos of treason. And then Amaziah told Amos to leave because prophets were not welcome in the King’s sanctuary. So what had been a sacred house of God had been turned into a possession of the King, and this was the reason God had condemned the King and his kingdom to death and destruction.

The sin of Jeroboam and his priest was the sin of idolatry. Rather than worshiping God in God’s house they were worshiping other gods. Of course the priest, Amaziah would deny this. If we could ask him he would argue that the proper worship of the Lord, the God of Israel, was taking place at Bethel. But Amos knew differently. The nation was worshiping not God but the kingdom’s power and prosperity. The people knew the commandments of God to care for the poor and the needy, but they spent their money on ivory furniture imported from Africa, polished stone homes that glistened in the sunlight, and gourmet beef from the cows of Bashan. They knew that their faith should be in the Lord, but they were more confident in the strength of their armies and the alliances they had made with neighboring countries. They put their trust in money and power rather than in the God who had protected them in times past. And they were doing these things, worshiping other gods, worshiping money and power, right there in Bethel, God’s house.

God sent an unlikely person, a poor shepherd from somewhere down south. He had no qualification as a seer or prophet. But he knew the word of God. And he saw the decay that was happening in his society. He realized that the idolatry of money and power would lead to the nation’s destruction. So Amos traveled north to God’s house, Bethel, with a message of judgment. This holy place, set aside for God’s use, would be given over to the enemies of Israel. Their women would be violated, their children killed, and a remnant would be carried into exile, all because they had stopped worshiping God in God’s house.

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