Being the Plumbline – Amos 7:10-16
In the first half of Amos 7, God showed Amos three visions of judgment. Amos interceded on behalf of Israel by negotiating with God. The first two visions, Amos said, would be unjust because they either would unfairly target those who were the victims of the Israelite elite’s injustice or would punish everyone and everything indiscriminately. Finally, God tells Amos that he will use a plumbline to distinguish the guilty from the innocent and so execute a fully just judgment. That plumbline represented Amos and his prophecy. How different Israelites reacted to Amos and his prophecy would determine whether they were going to be punished or not. The second half of chapter seven illustrates what it means for Amos to serve as a plumbline in Israel.
(10) Amaziah, priest of Bethel, sent to Jeroboam king of Israel saying, “Amos is conspiring against you within the House of Israel. The land cannot contain endure all his words. (11) For thus says Amos, ‘By the sword Jeroboam shall die, and Israel will certainly go into exile from upon its soil.'”
“Amos is conspiring …” – Note how Amos’ prophecy is interpreted in political terms: it is rebellion or treason. To declare the sovereignty of God can only be interpreted as rebellion by a system that has rejected the kingship of God, regardless of whatever pious platitudes might have been uttered.
“Endure” – This word can mean “to contain”, as in a liquid. Yahweh’s justice is threatening to flow like a river, as Amos had said in Amos 5:24. The land is about to burst from his prophecy.
(12) Amaziah said to Amos, “Seer, Go! Flee to the land of Judah. Eat bread there and prophesy there. (13) But in Bethel you shall not continue to prophesy anymore, for it is a sanctuary of the king, and it is a royal house.”
“Royal house” literally is “house of the kingdom”. Bethel, which means “House of God” (beth = “house”; “el” = God), is being claimed by the worldly power structure, the priest Amaziah and the king Jeroboam, as a “house of the kingdom”, a beth-mamlekah (mamlekah means “kingdom”, and is etymologically related to the word melek, which is the Hebrew word for “king”). The replacing of “God” with “kingdom” is more than just linguistic infelicity. Amaziah seems to be unaware of the implicit usurpation in his terminology.
(14) Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I am not a prophet, and I am not a son of a prophet [a ben-nabi’]. For I am a herdsman, and a tender of sycamore figs. (15) But Yahweh took me from following the sheep, and Yahweh said, to me, ‘Go! Prophesy to my people Israel.’
“Son of a prophet” is an imprecise if literal translation. Really what Amos is saying is that he is not a professional prophet. He is not part of any community of prophets. For Amos this is not about money or bread. This is about something bigger than that, so he cannot be scared away or motivated by the kinds of things that a professional prophet might react to.
(16) “Now, therefore, hear the word of Yahweh: You say, ‘You shall not prophesy against Israel. You shall not preach against the house of Isaac.’ (17) Therefore, thus says Yahweh, ‘Your wife will become a prostitute in the city. Your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. Your land will be divided up into portions. You yourself will die in an unclean land, and Israel will certainly go into exile from upon its soil.'”
When held up against the plumbline of Amos, Amaziah has proven to be crooked in rejecting Amos’ prophecy and laying political claim to Israel and to Bethel. Though he is a priest, he is derelict in his duty to Israel. So here we get some of the specifics of the punishment that we were left without in verse nine: your life will be utterly destroyed, and Israel will go into exile anyway. Your rejection of the word of Yahweh had no effect on the word of Yahweh. It only had an effect on your own destiny. The details of Amaziah’s fate read almost like a checklist of characteristics of the epitome of the bad death in the Hebrew Bible and in the ancient Near East.
The World is Threatened by the Plumbline
Amos’ plumbline was rightly perceived as a threat to those who held worldly power, because, ultimately, it has all been about the sovereignty of God – the exclusivity of his power and authority, against which the worldly methods and practices of Israel are understood as usurpation and treason. This was also the reason that the early Christians were persecuted: their confession that Jesus alone was Lord, their refusal to participate in the Imperial cult, and the various other ways the Christian ethic often put them at odds with the way things simply were done in the Roman Empire made the Roman authorities and Roman society in general perceive them as an existential threat. They refused to be a part of the various festivals and observances that appeased the gods, and this refusal risked making the gods angry with Rome (so the non-Christians thought). The early Christians were staunch pacifists and refused to be a part of the Roman war machine. They refused to confess that Caesar was lord. All of these things were deemed unpatriotic and potentially threatening to the Roman peace. So in different ways and at different levels of organization, the early Christians were persecuted, both officially and unofficially, even to the point of being killed.
We can anticipate that the same will be true of us today when we declare the exclusive sovereignty of the Lord Jesus over against the various worldly authorities that lay claim to our loyalties. When we refuse to be owned by political parties or various other cultural forces, those forces will turn on us and call us their enemies regardless of how we might have been allied in the past. Do you not think they would do that? Consider how suddenly the White House turned on the Freedom Caucus when they initially refused to back a health care bill that did not address their fundamental concerns. I am not saying that the Freedom Caucus are the Church in action, but they refused to vote for the House health care bill on principle, on conservative principle which the Republican Party and the President have claimed to share, and suddenly they were no longer seen as allies to be accommodated but as enemies to eliminated. They had supported the President in the last election, but suddenly the President was saying that he against work against them and the Democrats. He had branded them disloyal, friends of the enemy, and targets of persecution.
I am not simply singling out the President here: this is the way the world works. If you do not go with the flow, you are the enemy. Why? Because not going with the flow threatens those who hold power, particularly those who acquire their power through manipulation and threats. And you cannot go more against the flow of the world than by declaring your exclusive allegiance to Christ, by saying to the world “Jesus is Lord and you are not”. As just one example, remember when it came out that Vice-President Mike Pence and his wife live by what the world considers a strict code of conduct: they never go out to dinner alone with a member of the opposite sex, and Mike Pence never attends events serving alcohol unless his wife is present. The reason for this is simple enough to understand: (1) they are Christians who take their Christian ethics seriously and want to be accountability partners for each other, and (2) they are public figures who are likely to be targets, so they have this rule in order to guard each other’s back. But the world sees this behavior not simply as prudish or a little over the top. If you remember the uproar on social media it was clear that the world considers this kind of behavior dangerous and aberrant. The Pences are not saying that everyone needs to behave like they do, even though, honestly, many if not most of us might be better off if we did. Nevertheless, this is seen by the world as a perfect example of conservative Christian oppression of women and near insanity. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Pences choosing to live this way. You do not have to live this way in order to be a Christian, but there is nothing wrong with it. But the world sees in their behavior an implied threat, because inasmuch as we declare “Jesus is Lord” and are thereby freed thereby from things like sex obsession and alcoholism we are also free from the world’s control. The world presents sex obsession as freedom, but it is really bondage. When we say as Christians, “We treat sex as something that is holy unto the Lord and so do not engage in it outside of marriage”, the world hears a threat to a self-affirming behavioral norm. They hear, “You are wrong”, and they are enraged by any implication that secularism and sexual libertinism is anything other than the healthiest and most normal way to live. The traditional Christian proclamation that Jesus is Lord over our bodies and our sexuality is a plumbline, and the world is shown to be the world by their reaction to this proclamation.
The flow of the world right now, honestly, is not coherent, so it is difficult to characterize. It is chaotic. This is purposeful, in my opinion. The enemy, the spirit of antichrist, is not interested in building up a kingdom that coheres based on any particular ethical principle other than the rejection of Jesus as Lord. Whatever either/or option is being presented to us right now by the world, it is a false one. The world is not simply left or right, but it wants you to think that it is. It wants you to throw your loyalties completely and unthinkingly behind one of the options that it presents. When you choose, in Christ, not to be ruled by the world’s false binaries, you place yourself outside of the control of the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. Be prepared, however, because the world rages against anything that declares that it is not its own lord.