A Plumbline in the Midst of My People – Amos 7:1-9
Clarifying the Coming Judgment
(1) This is what the Lord Yahweh showed me: behold he was forming a swarm of locusts at the beginning of the growth of the aftermath crops – the aftermath crops after the king’s cuttings. (2) When it had finished eating the vegetation of the land I said, “Lord Yahweh, pardon them please! Who among Jacob will stand, for he is small.” (3) Yahweh relented from this. “It will not happen,” Yahweh said.
Precisely when Amos is seeing this locust swarm descend on Israel is not entirely clear, but it appears to me that Amos is describing a kind of disaster that he objects to because it would utterly destroy Israel, or perhaps because it would hurt the poor more than it would the wealthy. Several words in this passage are not transparent in their meaning. Leqesh, which the KJV translates “the latter growth” and I translated as “aftermath crops”, occurs only here. This root in other languages and in later Hebrew has to do with being late, so the traditional idea for what it means is plant growth that happens after the malqosh, the latter rain (which occurs in March and April). The rainy season in Israel goes from November to April. From May to October one rarely sees rain. The end of the rainy season is heavier than the beginning, and this change seems to mark the distinction between yoreh or early rains and malqosh or latter rains. After the latter rains, meaning in late April and May, one would expect to see a burst of growth, particularly in vegetable crops that were planted comparatively late, in January and February. This late planting may also have something to do with the meaning of leqesh. Either way, the point in time at which this vision seems to take place is late spring, meaning April and May.
Additionally, in April and May is when the barley harvest happens. Roughly concurrently with Passover (which happens around the same time as Easter) the Israelites celebrated Mazzot or the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which celebrated the firstfruits of the barley crop. Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, which is also called Pentecost, takes place in late May or early June. It celebrated not only the completion of the barley harvest but the firstfruits of many other crops. The term “the king’s cuttings” seems to refer to a royal tax, a kind of second firstfruits which went to the king before the Israelites got to partake of their barley crop. If the first firstfruits still went to the LORD the way they were supposed to, then the king got there immediately after and took his share, as a kind of income tax. This kind of tax would necessarily hurt the poor subsistence farmers far more than the wealthy elite, and the poor would rely desperately on the rest of the barley harvest. My feeling is that leqesh really refers to the remaining barley harvest, the aftermath that remained after the initial cutting for the Feast of Unleavened Bread and after the king took his share.
If God were to create a locust swarm that destroyed Israel’s crops at this critical point – when the late growth was just beginning and after the king had swooped in to take the lion’s share of the early maturing barley – it would be devastating to the country, but especially to the poor. The king and the priests, who would make up a large portion of the wealthy elite in Israelite society, would already have their barley, but the subsistence farmers would be left with nothing and have nothing to look forward to.
So it seems to me that Amos is objecting to this first vision for two reasons: first because it would destroy Israel as a whole, but secondly because it would unevenly punish Israel, more heavily punishing the poor and leaving the wealthy comparatively well off. So God relents.
(4) This is what the Lord Yahweh showed me: behold, he was summoning to prosecute Israel by the fire of the Lord Yahweh. It devoured the great deep and it devoured the fields. (5) I said, “Lord Yahweh, hold back. Who among Jacob will stand, for he is small.” (6) Yahweh relented from this, as well. “It will not happen,” said the Lord Yahweh.
This second vision appears to depict a great divine fire that indiscriminately burns up everything, perhaps even the whole earth. “The great deep” might refer to underground aquifers, but it may also refer to the vast subterranean ocean the Israelites may have thought lay underneath the earth. One way or another, it not only burns up Israel’s fields, it seems to destroy the entire earth.
Again Amos intercedes and points out that this punishment will not leave any survivors. Whereas the first proposed judgment punished the poor more severely than the rich, this one destroys indiscriminately, wiping everyone and everything, so God relents again.
Why does God relent? It is not because he really changed his mind, I think. Rather, he has engaged in a kind of negotiation with Amos, the intercessor, in order to reveal more about the punishment that would eventually come. God could have sent locusts during the barley harvest, or he could have sent a great fire to destroy everything. But the former would have ended up targeting the poor more than the wealthy, and the latter would have been largely meaningless, destroying everything indiscriminately. Moreover, both of these according to Amos himself would have utterly destroyed Israel and left nothing behind. Amos understood that this was not the heart of God. God intended to leave a remnant. So instead, we get another kind of punishment, one that punishes the whole country, yes, but it leaves some of it intact and targets the most guilty members of Israelite society for special punishment.
(7) This is what the Lord Yahweh showed me: behold, the Lord stood at a wall checked by a plumbline, and in his hand was a plumbline. (8) And Yahweh said to me, “What do you see, Amos?” I said, “A plumbline.” The Lord said, “Behold, I have set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel. I will no longer continue to pass over their sins. (9) The high places of Isaac will be destroyed, and the sanctuaries of Israel will be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
These three verses are definitely among the most famous parts of Amos, and they are also among the most difficult to interpret. The word ’anak, which is usually translated “plumbline”, again occurs only here, so we have to make a guess as to its meaning. Most literally it probably refers to some kind of metal, which then signifies a plumbline by metonymy – a plumbline has a heavy metal tip that is its most defining feature. Tin and lead have been suggested. The Septuagint translates it into Greek as adamas, which means the hardest kind of iron.
Some have suggested that there is a wordplay going on here. Whatever ’anak means the first three times, the fourth and last time it occurs it does not mean “tin” or “plumbline” but rather “grief”, a meaning for ’anak that is attested in post-Biblical Hebrew. This is possible, but it seems to me that there are a lot of pointless details in this vision if it all boils down to a pun.
I still think that the most compelling reading of this passage understands anak as a plumbline in all four occurrences. Here is what I think the vision is communicating. A plumbline does what? It uses gravity to give a builder a vertical line by which to gauge walls and pillars and other construction as to their straightness. Now, pretty much every word I can think of in Hebrew for righteousness literally has to do with being straight and upright. This is true in English, too. To be righteous or upright in character or spirit is powerfully illustrated physically by the strength and reliability of uprightness. On the other hand, we sometimes use words like crooked and twisted to describe wickedness. Spiritually, then, a plumbline is a measure of righteousness.
When God says he is putting a plumbline in the midst of Israel, he is referring to Amos and his prophecy. This is the measure against which Israel is to be judged. God is saying to Amos, “Their wickedness will be demonstrated by not lining up with you, by their unwillingness to accept your prophecy.” This interpretation, in my opinion, makes the most sense of the way these visions are paired with Amos’ confrontation with the priest Amaziah. To use a different image, Amos’ prophecy becomes the compound that draws out the venom in Israelite society.
So how is this an improvement over the punishments God had shown Amos before? By essentially tying the punishment of Israel to their acceptance or rejection of Amos’ message, it makes it so that those who are truly guilty will be the ones who are punished. Who has Amos been targeting in most of his prophecy so far? The wealthy elite, predominantly. True, some of his prophecy applies to all Israelites, but Amos has reserved his most scathing comments for those who occupy positions of power and who abuse those positions to maintain their power at the expense of the poor and the helpless. But how do you target just the powerful and wealthy when their power and wealth seems to make them immune to most of the typical punishments God might bring on Israel? That questions isn’t really answered here. We don’t really see what the punishment is going to look like. We just see that God has listened to Amos and is going to target his punishment on those who most deserve by making Amos and his prophecy a catalyst.
Now before we proceed to the confrontation between Amos and Amaziah and get a little sneak peak at how this selective punishment is going to work out, I want to dwell a little on Amos’ interaction with God, specifically in viewing it as a kind of negotiation or intercession on behalf of Israel.
Intercession as Negotiation
The interaction between God and Amos in verses 1-9, which seems kind of like a negotiation, reminds me of two other passages in the Old Testament. The first is when God meets Elijah on Mount Horeb. First there comes a mighty destructive wind, then an earthquake, then a fire, but God is not in any of these things. Then he comes to Elijah in a soft whisper. It wasn’t that God was not responsible for the wind, the earthquake, and the fire – he most certainly was. But these three things happen so that we more fully understand the still small voice, the soft whisper, and everything it means about God. The point is that God is not contained in these things. He controls the storms, but he is not a storm God. The storm is not itself God. It is just part of God’s creation over which God has exclusive control.
But even more similar to this passage from Amos is Genesis 18:16-33, where Abraham negotiates with God for the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah on behalf of his nephew Lot. Abraham intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah, talking God down to where he is willing to spare the cities if he can find ten righteous men. Obviously, the main point of this negotiation in Genesis is to highlight the fact that there were not even ten righteous men in Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham acted as a righteous intercessor, but it wasn’t enough. Sodom and Gomorrah were just too wicked.
Here in Amos chapter 7, Amos likewise negotiates with God over the fate of Israel. He negotiates God down from two different kinds of destruction, neither of which really targeted the real problem with Israel. Ultimately, we should realize that the plumb line punishment was what God always intended, but he went through this process of interacting with Amos as intercessor in order to clarify the nature and the complete righteousness of the punishment he had chosen. It was not God’s purpose to completely wipe Israel from the earth, but Israelite society had become so corrupt that something extreme was required to separate what could be redeemed from what could not. In order for the sin-diseased vine to survive, it had to be pruned down to a point that you might think it couldn’t possibly survive. Fortunately for Israel, God is a miraculously good vine-dresser.
What Amos does here is the very heart of intercession, and I see in it what I feel the Church in America really ought to be doing on behalf of America. American society is sick. The sickness is deep and it is systemic. And all our human attempts not only to treat the sickness but even to diagnose it are not only ineffective, but they usually tend to make the problem worse. This is because we simplisticly diagnose the problem as “those guys over there”, and the treatment is to marginalize or eliminate “those guys over there”. That’s the way fallen humanity solves its problems: find a consensus and cut off or at least strip the power from all parts of society that don’t consent. This way of “solving problems”, though, is just as sinful as the problems it purports to solve, and its real effect is to create systems with tensions that are ever more precariously unbalanced. Our society today is at a breaking point because of our own sinfulness, and I think we all feel that tension. There is a spirit of oppression of our own making that is hovering over the United States. This oppressive spirit is both the collective sum of our sins and the means of our corporate punishment – we are living with the mess we ourselves have created, and it just feels like judgment is right around the corner.
But even so there is a lot that is worth preserving, a lot that is worth redeeming about American society. In such a time as this I feel the Church is being called to truly intercede on behalf of America the way Amos interceded for Israel, not out of fear that we ourselves are going to suffer from economic hardship or political oppression. We may, but that is not the reason we intercede. If we are to be like Amos or like Abraham in Genesis 18, when God gives us a glimpse of the dark road America is headed down, we should pray out of our love for our neighbors, who may not have the same hope that we have, that God spare America from destruction that would end up punishing the oppressed more than the oppressor, as would happen in economic collapse or by world war. It isn’t predominantly the political elites or those who occupy places of power in our government and society that would be hurt the worst by economic collapse. Their wealth is their strong tower. At the same time we don’t want a punishment that simply targets the wealthy. First of all, there are righteous wealthy people, and second such a punishment would have an inevitable trickle down effect on the poor who depend on the wealthy for their jobs. On the other hand, there are a lot of wicked poor people, too. So how do we sort through all of this? We don’t have the wisdom to do so. But neither Abraham nor Amos were offering alternative solutions to God. Both Abraham and Amos were simply pleading with God, “I know you must bring about justice in this world, and I long for justice, but whatever you do, don’t let the innocent suffer just because they are surrounded by the wicked. Don’t let those who can be redeemed be destroyed along with the irredeemable. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Separate the sheep from the goats.” We who have our hope in Jesus need not fear, but there are many among our neighbors who are not wicked people but they have not yet placed their hope in Jesus. They have not declared to the usurping spirit of antichrist, “Jesus is Lord and you are not.” And so they are vulnerable. They are subject to the oppressive, chaotic spirit that hangs over us so pervasively at this time. If I am interpreting all of this correctly, these are the people we are praying for: “do not destroy the innocent with the wicked, do not bring disaster on us that destroys our neighbors while letting the wicked among the wealthy elites get off scot free. Do not simply bring indiscriminate destruction. Bring a merciful justice.”
God’s response to our intercession will likely sound something like this: “Okay. I am setting you in their midst as a plumbline, as a sign to them of what my justice and my mercy looks like. Go to your neighbor and tell them of my goodness. Proclaim to your neighbors that I have installed my Messiah in Zion, that Jesus is Lord. Go. Make disciples. Proclaim the good news in order to bring about the obedience of faith among the nations. Their response to you and your prophetic message will be the catalyst, the means of separating the goats from the sheep.”