Commentary on Amos 7:7-17
Far from wishy washy is the judgment of the Lord that comes from the mouth of Amos. Rather, it is clear, to the point, biting…and surprising as it comes to Israel, the Northern Kingdom, in a time of peace and prosperity.
In the midst of five visions,1 today’s pericope begins with Amos’ third vision.
The Lord, the Divine Builder, stands beside a wall with a plumb line. As this vision leads to the confrontation between Amos and Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, it may well be necessary to engage one’s imagination about the plumb line to get a fuller sense of the vision and its capacity to irritate.
An ancient bit of construction technology, the plumb bob is a heavy piece of lead2 in the shape of an inverted raindrop. The point of the plumb bob, necessarily in perfect line with the plumb line above, marks a perfect vertical drop between whence the line begins above and the ground below. Used by stonemasons and builders for centuries, the plumb bob in concert with the basic force of gravity provides a measure for a perfectly straight wall. From this comes the converse, when something is “out of plumb” it is crooked, imperfect, unsightly, and potentially dangerous.
Amos’ vision is of the Lord standing beside a wall that is in plumb. If it is the Lord who has built it, of course it is “in plumb.” Grabbing the attention of Amos, the Lord directs him to this instrument — the divine plumb line by which the Lord will measure how plumb the Lord’s people are. The result of the Lord’s measurement is that it is Israel that is out of plumb and therefore needs to be razed. Its high places abandoned, sanctuaries destroyed, and the Lord himself will rise against the royal house of Jeroboam with a sword. What is out of plumb by the Lord’s measure will be demolished.
Strangely enough, it is only the final third of this demolishing that seems to prompt Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, to report to King Jeroboam II. Amaziah casts Amos as a conspirator bent on the king’s death and Israel’s fall. And in so doing, Amaziah betrays the need for the Lord’s plumb line. The center of Israel is misunderstood as Jeroboam,3 and the sanctuary as the king’s.4
During the long reign of Jeroboam II of the house of Jehu there has been peace and prosperity in Israel;5 but at the same time Israel has forgotten its center. Israel has forgotten its builder.6
In an interesting piece of dramatic prose, we are brought near to the encounter between Amos and Amaziah. The priest of Bethel tells Amos to return to Judah from whence he came,7 so as not to bother any further the status quo of the North. He assumes that Amos is a professional prophet who could return to Judah and get his “bread” there.
Amos’ response gives much of what little is known of the prophet. “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.'”8 Amos was neither part of a guild nor any religious establishment. Part of his legitimacy as a prophet is that he comes from outside the establishment — a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.
And then from this brief but powerful prose encounter between adversaries another word of the Lord…
In a structure of “you say…but the Lord says” the trajectory of Amos’ prophesy is that Israel’s peace and prosperity will be turned upside down. Amaziah’s meddling attempt to stop Amos’ prophesy returns as judgment upon his wife and children, his land, himself, and all of Israel. The result for Amaziah the priest is destruction, desolation, and impurity, and for Israel it is exile.
The power of Amos’ prophesy to disturb, as heard in his encounter with Amaziah, the priest, is met with its historical fulfillment in 721 BCE with the fall of the Northern Kingdom at the hands of the Assyria.
In Amos’ two visions prior to the beginning of the pericope, Amos intercedes on behalf of Israel. “O Lord God, forgive… O Lord God, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”9 Both times the Lord relents.
With this third vision of the Divine Builder with plumb line in hand, there is neither intercession from Amos nor relenting by the Lord. There is only judgment — clear, concise, biting judgment.
While we hear nothing from King Jeroboam II himself, what comes from the mouth of Amaziah,, the priest, is as clear as from Amos. Amos and his visions and words are a threat to the “goodness” of what Israel is — Jeroboam’s reign, his temple, his sanctuary, his land. This “goodness” is condemned throughout Amos as the perversion of justice and righteousness. Such an orientation in anything by the Lord is condemned and brings only death.
The flipside of the judgment of this passage is the plumb line — a gauge by which integrity of the structure is measured. The question is: what or who is the plumb line?
1The five visions begin at 7:1, 4, 7, 8:1, 9:1.
2The English plumb bob likely comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum.
5Jeroboam II reigned in the Northern Kingdom for approximately forty years in the first half of the 8th century BCE. The brief report on his reign (2 Kings 14:23-29) is ambiguous. While it is reported that Jeroboam II was an instrument by which the Lord saved Israel during his reign (verse 27), it also reports that he did evil in the sight of the Lord by not breaking from the sins of Jeroboam I, the first king of Israel (verse 24).
6Cf. Leviticus 25:23
7Cf. Amos 1:1
9Amos 7:2, 5