Not too many years before Amos’ vision, Israel had gone through a building project and a split – two terms our local churches are far too familiar with. When the Kingdom of Israel and Judah was united under King Solomon, it was more prosperous than any other kingdom the world has ever seen. Because of his wisdom (and his shrewd political savvy) Solomon makes good buds with Hiram King of Tyre and he marries the daughter of Egypt’s Pharaoh. These strategic alliances help him bring in all of the finest materials construct the Temple of the LORD and his own palace.
On the day the Temple is dedicated, God’s presence rests on it and the cloud is so think the priests cannot perform their duties. They then have a beautiful ceremony and make covenant promises to God. God has joined Godself to a people. The presence of God rests with them. This is more than God taking up residence in a building; this is a sign of God taking up residence amongst a people called Israel.
Of course, as they always do, things fall apart in Israel. Solomon chases the gods of the wives whom he has joined himself to for his political and sexual desires. He sets up high places for these gods and leads his people Israel astray. Fallout ensues. Jeroboam, whom Amos is later sent to speak against, rebels against Solomon’s house. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, doubles down on the labor his father forces onto their Israelite subjects: “My little finger is thinker than my father’s waist!” (1 Kings 12:10). As a result, the kingdom splits—ten tribes in the north go with Jeroboam and two in the south with Rehoboam.
A split of the kingdom demands another construction project: a place of worship in the north so the people of northern kingdom need not go south to worship God. Historically, this is an important place. It is a certain place Jacob named the house of God or Bethl-El. Jacob stood and proclaimed, “How awesome is this place! (See Gen 28). Establishing Bethel as a high place isn’t a matter of reverence and convenience; this is a matter of control and power. If Jeroboam allows people to make pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, they might rise again him. This is a political maneuver. As Amos confronts the high priest of Bethel Amaziah in this text, the reader can immediately see Amaziah’s political interests. Amos pronounces judgment and Amaziah fails in his priestly duties. He does not turn to the God he is supposed to serve at Bethel—the God who stood next to Jacob and said “I will be with you wherever you go.” Instead, he goes straight to the one who he deems to be the true sovereign, Jeroboam.
In a peculiar oracle revealed to Amos, God is standing on a wall, high and lofty, holding a plumb line in hand. A plumb line is surely useful in a construction project. In fact, it is vital. For a wall to be plumb is to ensure adjacent walls are square to one another. The soundness of the structure depends on plumb walls and squared corners. The wall on which the Lord stands is perfectly plumb! At first gaze one might think this to be the measure of the great structures Israel had built: first Solomon’s temple, then his palace, and now the high place at Bethel. But God is taking measure of something else; God is setting the plumb line amongst the people of Israel who God had joined Godself to. Judgment is coming on them because they are not true to plumb. They’re out of whack. They have not been faithful. They have been seduced by other gods. They have not loved God with their whole hearts. They have not loved their neighbor as themselves. The high places of the north are but lip service to this God and do not demand true worship. And God calls this part time shepherd/part time arborist out of Judah into Israel to proclaim this word to Jeroboam, who has led Israel astray.
What a frightening task it would have been for Amos! God calls him to go straight to the seat of power to give a prophetic word, and immediately he is met with opposition from Jeroboam’ press secretary disguised as a priest of Bethel, Amaziah: “This man is conspiring against you, King!” “Go home seer! Prophesy there. Nobody cares about you here.” Propaganda and political spin have been used as long as power has been at stake. Amos, of lowly position, stands firm: “The LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Amos has no laurels to rest on. He’s of no prestigious line of prophets. When God gives him a word, he is compelled to speak the truth to power, even when it is dangerous.
What this text reminds us of is that our names, our connections, the way we’ve navigated church politics mean very little. All that matters is the word God gives us. What is at stake is calling people to faithfulness in the face of seductive power. When we’re charged to be priests of places of worship we are to turn to God in prayer before we turn to the powers that be. If we believe that Christ is plumbing our hearts, then we must rely only one the word that God has given to preach: repent! Turn from your evil ways. Care for the orphan, widow, stranger, and refugee. Love your neighbor as yourself.
May this passage give us courage and boldness to preach in a way that continually calls our congregations to faithfulness in Christ. May we be reminded that we operate by a different metric than chasing attendance, buildings, cash and our own fame. We’re called to speak prophetically to power and urge those in power to repent so they may be plumb in faithfulness to God. Speaking to power can often lead to our ridicule and our ostracism by those whom we’d desire to see us, but it is our calling as ministers of the gospel.