Lesson Focus Israel has been measured against the standard of its covenant with God. They were found to be out of plumb. We are to be measured in the same way.
Lesson Outcomes Through this lesson, students should:
Understand the image of the plumb line as a metaphor for evaluating our faithfulness to God.
Understand that we will be held accountable when we fail to evaluate ourselves in the light of God’s covenant with us.
Be encouraged to examine their lives to see if they are living in faithfulness to God’s covenant with us.
Catch up on the story Amos’ lament over Israel continued by mourning Israel’s arrogance and apathy. Judgment will fall on Israel partly because they have failed to use their affluence to aid those in need around them. Israel is monopolized by their continual consumption and fails to think of anyone else. When Israel is confronted with disaster and those in need, Amos wonders why they are not made sick at the sight of suffering. Because Israel has thought that they were one of the leading nations, they would become the leading nation, which first goes into exile.
This week’s text is a series of four visions interrupted by a conflict narrative with Amos and the priest of Bethel in Israel. The first two visions, verses 1-6, are similar in outcomes. The third and fourth visions, 7:7-9 and 8:1-3, are similar in terms of results, but it contrasts with the first two visions. The conflict narrative found in 7:10-17 serves as a final rejection and indictment against Israel and its religious establishment. The visions surrounding this conflict help bare this out.
Locust, Fire, and Relenting: 7:1-6 To this point in the book, the focus has been on Amos hearing the word of God and proclaiming what he has heard to the people. Now the focus shifts from hearing to seeing. Amos is shown a scene that he will not need any help interpreting. It is the time after the late planting of grain, the final seasonal growth of grain after the late rains, but before the usual half-year drought sets in (Wolff, 297). What Amos sees is a swarm of locusts being formed by God. The swarm moves towards the field and completely devours the tender shoots of grain, leaving nothing behind.
This image would have been a familiar one to Amos’ audience. There were, at the time, large swarms of locust—imagine giant grasshoppers—that migrated throughout the Mediterranean region. These massive swarms often left a land wholly devastated. Amos understands this vision to be about Israel’s destruction.
Amos’ response displays his concern for the people to whom he has ministered. He calls out to God to forgive Israel and not bring about the destruction that God was planning. Amos wonders out loud if this thing happens, how can Israel stand or endure? Israel is just too small! In the light of the previous chapter, where Israel boasts that they are among the greatest nations around, Amos’ plea seems ironic. Yet, Amos’ appeal is heard by God, and God states, “It shall not be.” Israel’s destruction will not come by locust.
The second vision in verses 4-6 moves from locust to fire. Amos describes the fire as devouring the great deep and eating up the land. We all know fire’s destructive capabilities. In Amos’ day, when almost everything was made of stuff that could burn, the uncontrolled fire could roll through the land and destroy everything. This was especially true for the dry season when the danger was even greater. Locust and fire were two of the greatest risks for the ancient world (Birch, 232).
Again, Amos begs the Lord not to destroy Israel in this manner. Israel is too small. Once again, God responds, “This also shall not be.” One commentator believes that rather than being a relenting from punishment on Israel altogether, what God is relenting from is destruction by locust and fire. A natural disaster will not be how Israel goes. God has not changed his mind that Israel will be punished. He has changed his mind on how to go about it (Wolff, 298). This begs the question, why include these visions if they are not going to come to fruition? One answer could be that God desires to display the many ways he could bring about punishment for Israel. Or, perhaps God is allowing Israel to choose their own punishment through Amos.
The Plumb Line: 7:7-9 While beginning similarly to the first two, this third vision is not as clear and requires some explanation on God’s part. As with the other two visions, Amos tells us what God has shown him. What he saw was a wall whose construction had been finished. During the construction of walls, a plumb line is used to check if the wall remains straight and true in its vertical orientation. A plumb line is a string with a weight at its end. The line is lowered from the top of a wall. If the line remains an equal distance away from the wall from top to bottom, the wall is stable and plumb. If the weight at the end of the string is farther away from the base of the wall, then the line is at the top; the wall is not plumb but leaning out in one direction. It must be torn down and rebuilt.
Amos sees the wall and a hand with a plumb line checking to see if the wall is true, but he does not comprehend the meaning of the vision. God goes on to explain: his people are the wall. The phrase “my people Israel” in verse 8 is covenant language. God is not measuring Israel’s faithfulness against some arbitrary measure but against the covenant, they agreed to after the Exodus. The wall is found to be out of plumb, so it must be taken down.
Once God announces his verdict against the out of plumb wall Amos is silent. Unlike the other two visions, Amos does not seek to change God’s mind concerning what will happen. Israel’s dysfunction is evident, and they will be destroyed. Instead of locust and fire, Israel will be laid waste by the sword.
Amos and Amaziah: 7:10-17 A conflict narrative with Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, interrupts Amos’ visions. It is no surprise that Amos’ preaching has attracted the attention of the religious establishment. Amaziah approaches King Jeroboam to register his complaint against the prophet. Amaziah believes that the land cannot bear Amos’ words. He has conspired against the king and their center of worship. Amaziah construes Amos’ preaching to be a personal attack on the king and the country. We do not get a response from Jeroboam, but we can surmise that it would not have been a pleasant one. Although, in comparison to how other prophets had been treated, Amos’ treatment was mild! He is commanded to leave Israel and, if he must prophesy, to go and do so in Judah. Amaziah seems to be more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with hearing the word of the Lord. Indeed, he may be blind to the truth that Amos has spoken.
Amos does not respond directly to Amaziah’s charge to leave the country. Instead, he responds by telling his call story. Here Amos declares that he was no prophet: he was not part of the professional prophet guild, like those associated with Elijah and Elisha (Birch 241). He was merely a watcher of sheep and a tender of sycamore trees. The Lord spoke to him, and he had no choice but to report what he had heard. Here he may have intentionally been contrasting himself with Amaziah, who was a part of a professional line of priests. As far as Amos is concerned, Amaziah derived his authority from his position in the religious establishment, not from the call of the Lord.
Now that Amaziah has rejected God’s word and God’s messenger, he will suffer a horrific fate. His wife will become a prostitute, all his sons and daughters will die by the sword, his land will be sold off, and he will be carried off into exile to an unclean land. While this punishment seems overkill for Amaziah’s crime, it is not different from the sentence Amos has been declaring for Israel. Here, Amos identifies Amaziah as part of the problem. Even though he is a minister in the place of worship, he is not immune to God’s punishment. Instead, he has been complicit with all of Israel’s sins from the beginning. He is being rejected just as Israel has been rejected.
A Basket of Summer Fruit: 8:1-3 This final vision is much like the third vision in that the result is not favorable, and Amos offers no attempt to persuade God to act otherwise. God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit. The NIV renders “summer” as “ripe,” which is probably a better translation. There are two important things concerning this word selection. First, the word for “ripe fruit” and the word for “end” in Hebrew are similar. An implicit connection is made with this wordplay between the nature of ripe fruit and Israel’s end. Second, ripe fruit is fruit that goes bad quickly. Israel is a basket of fruit just a little past its prime and will quickly turn rancid. We have all witnessed a banana turn from perfectly ripe and edible to overly mushy and disgusting.
The image that Amos relates here is quite clear: the end is coming for Israel, and it is coming very quickly. God will not pass by them again. He will not respond again. The result will be that the songs that take place in Israel’s positions of power and worship will not be glad songs as they should be. Instead, they will be songs of lamentation and mourning. The dead will be many, and the only thing that will remain is silence. The end has come.
So What…? This passage is sobering because of its finality. There appears to be no hope. While Amos was able to change the mode of Israel’s destruction, he could not prevent it from happening. Israel’s sins were too great; their rejection of God’s message, represented in Amaziah the priest of Bethel, was final. For Israel, the end has come.
There is hope for us amid this dreadful pronouncement of punishment. We find it in the vision of the plumb line. In that image, Israel is measured against the covenant they had entered with God. Israel had been found wanting in regards to that measure. If we are willing, we can consider ourselves or our church as the wall in that image. As followers of Christ, we have entered into a covenantal relationship with God. We are to be measured against our faithfulness to that covenant relationship.
When things go well, when we are prosperous and fat and comfortable, it is easy to resist the urge to evaluate our faithfulness to God and his covenant. The more we resist the urge to examine the foundation of our wall or the integrity of the mortar holding the bricks together, the more the wall falls into disrepair. We defer maintenance because we think, “We are content! We have all that we need; the wall will stand forever!” All the while, our shifting times and our shifting context begin to cause the wall to lean.
If we are to avoid the fate that Israel received, we must constantly inspect our fidelity to our covenant relationship with God through Christ. This means we must continuously examine like Israel should have, how our lifestyle affects the ability of others in our community to live abundant lives. Are we seeking justice for those who find justice hard to get? Are we upright and honest people? Do we love our neighbor as ourselves?
Specific Discussion Questions Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
What are locusts, and why would they be a threat to bring about Israel’s destruction?
In both the first and second visions, verses 1-6, Amos pleads with God to not destroy Israel in the way described. Why does Amos plead for Israel?
What is God’s response to Amos’ plea? What does it mean that God “relented” (v. 3 and 6)? Does that change Israel’s future?
What is a plumb line, and how is it used? Why would God use a plumb line to measure Israel?
Amos never says this, but Israel is found to be out of plumb. What must be done with a wall that is not plumb?
Is the plumb line image an appropriate image for us? Can we use the image as a way of evaluating our own faithfulness to God? If so, would our “wall” be plumb? What might we need to do to correct the error if it is out of plumb?
Between the first three visions and the fourth is a conflict narrative between Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, and Amos. What does Amaziah accuse Amos of? What does he suggest Amos do? Are you ever tempted to preserve the status quo, as Amaziah did?
The sentence Amos pronounces on Amaziah seems harsh. How is this sentence similar to the one that he has already pronounced on Israel as a whole? Does it matter that Amaziah is a priest? Why or why not?
Works Cited Birch, Bruce C. Hosea, Joel, and Amos, Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.
Wolff, Hans Walter. Joel, and Amos: A Commentary on the Books of the Prophets Joel and Amos. Trans., S. Dean McBride Jr, and Waldemar Janzen. Philadelphia, PA: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1977.