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“And the LORD said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said, ‘See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.’” – Amos 7:8
The Leaning Tower of Israel
The “Leaning Tower of Pisa” gained fame, not because of its architectural genius, but because the 186-foot-tall bell tower is noticeably off kilter. Built on a faulty foundation of soft soil, the tower began to lean even while under construction, which stretched over two centuries.
To compensate for the lean, builders added extra blocks to the lower side of some upper floors, giving the structure a slight curve. Modern efforts to shore up the foundation have reduced the slant, but the tower’s tilt is as obvious as its fame.
Today’s text deals with a leaning nation that also suffered from a flawed foundation – and a lonesome prophet’s unappreciated attempts to straighten it out.
A visionary prophet(vv. 7-9)
The prophet’s name was Amos, a man who hailed from the land of Judah but went north to proclaim God’s message in Israel. Amos planted his pulpit in Bethel, one of Israel’s two sanctuary cities. There, he faced a social and religious climate that contemporary readers may find familiar.
Both Israel and Judah had prospered during the mid-eighth century, when Amos was active. They were able to collect tolls on caravans using the highways that ran through Palestine, and some smaller nations nearby paid tribute as the price for peace. Export industries such as wine making sprang up to complement the traditional reliance on agriculture, bringing much wealth into the kingdom (2 Kings 15:20).
The wealthy could afford elaborately built vacation homes (3:15, 4:11), where they could eat and drink like royalty (6:4-6) while reclining on couches inlaid with ivory and covered with silk (3:12, 5:11).
But not all shared in the wealth. Daily life in Israel was a far cry from what was prescribed in the law. The egalitarian ideal in Israel was that every family should have land to call its own, but that system had seriously eroded. Over time, the rich bought up the lands of the poor, and the disparity between classes became increasingly obvious. Some Jews were forced to sell themselves as slaves to fellow Jews in order to pay their debts.
Amos preached to a people who were sharply divided. Wars and periods of drought and famine affected those in poverty disproportionately, producing a bumper crop of widows and orphans. Amos accused the rich of overcharging the poor and selling them inferior products (8:5-6). People of means could take the poor to court and bribe the judges in order to take their land (8:12).
The concept of a covenant community of equals had fallen prey to a new economy, even though the upper classes of Samaria – like adherents of modern prosperity theology – thought of themselves as quite religious. They offered regular sacrifices and convinced themselves that they were especially favored by God, but Amos told a different story.
Chapter 7 begins with an account of three consecutive visions God showed to the prophet. First, Amos saw a plague of locusts devouring the crops, leaving the land without grain. The prickly prophet took no joy in judgment, but pleaded with God to forgive: “How can Jacob stand?” he asked. “He is so small!” His prayer was effective, and Yahweh relented (vv. 1-3).
Amos next saw “a shower of fire” that vaporized the oceans and advanced on the land. Again Amos begged God to relent. “This also shall not be,” Yahweh replied (vv. 4-6). But there was a third vision yet to come.
This time, Amos saw a vision of the Lord “standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand” (v. 7). The plumb line – basically a pointed weight tied to a string – has been used for as long as humans have been building walls. The weight hangs straight and tells the builder if the wall is vertically “plumb” or if it’s leaning.
God was standing beside a wall that had been built with a plumb line – presumably an indication that God had built Israel true to plumb from the beginning, calling the people into a clearly defined covenant designed to keep them straight. Now, God had returned with a plumb line to test whether they had remained true.
Surprisingly, Amos does not follow through with the obvious conclusion that the nation had developed a dangerous lean. The simple presence of the plumb line was evidence enough, so that God declared “I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (vv. 8b-9).
A sharp confrontation(vv. 10-15)
Amos’ visions and the concluding words of judgment found their way into his preaching, which caused considerable consternation to the religious leaders in the temple. They had a good thing going under Jeroboam. Professional temple prophets predicted the prosperous future they were paid to foresee, and Amos’ ruinous visions were not welcome.
Amaziah, the leading priest in Bethel, reported Amos’ negativity to the king (vv. 10-11) and attempted to quiet his troublesome voice by ordering Amos to flee back to Judah. “Earn your bread there and prophesy there,” he said, “but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (vv. 12-13).
Note that Amaziah said nothing about the temple’s purpose as a place to worship. Rather it was a royal sanctuary and “a temple of the kingdom” – more emblematic of government than of God. By describing it this way, Amaziah was claiming royal authority to banish Amos while also letting his own spiritual blindness show.
Amaziah’s order that Amos return to Judah and “earn your bread there” was probably intended to be derogatory. Itinerant prophets typically lived on the donations and good will of others. Perhaps Amaziah was insinuating that Amos had come to Bethel in hopes of accessing deeper pockets than he could find in Judah.
Amos’ response moved from humility to audacity. He first denied that he ever wanted to be a prophet, and had no wish to claim the title. He described himself as a farmer and a shepherd, one who tended figs and flocks. Though neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, Yahweh had called him from the flocks to go and “prophesy to my people Israel” (vv. 14-15). Amos did not speak with the authority of the king, as Amaziah did, but with the power of God.
A painful prognosis(vv. 16-17)
Amos’ self-effacement did not prevent him from proclaiming the word God had given him, including a specific message for Amaziah. Amos pronounced a series of stereotypical curses: the priest would live to see his wife forced into prostitution, his children cruelly slain, and his land given to others – then he himself would die “in an unclean land” as the people of Israel were forced into exile (vv. 16-17).
Prophetic words are needed, but not always welcome. This remains true in our own world.
Harry Golden, a Jewish-American immigrant who published a journal called The Carolina Israelite from 1944-1968, promoted equality during the hottest days of the Civil Rights era. Speaking of how many Southerners sought to silence those who called for racial justice, he once wrote, “No state can long progress that exiles its prophets and exalts its fools.”
And yet, too often, prophets are still without honor in their own country. Voices that call for fairness fall on deaf ears when the ears belong to those who profit from injustice. Few people would oppress others directly, but when the system is rigged so that minimum wage laborers cannot work their way out of poverty, prophetic voices are needed, if not wanted.
It is helpful to remember that Amos was a layperson. He was not trained to be a pastor or priest, and did not make his living as a religious professional. That gave him the ability to say things that the religious establishment found it hard to say. It also gave added weight to his words, because anyone could see there was nothing in it for him. He didn’t get paid for prophesying, but caught a lot of grief for doing what he felt God leading him to do. Nobody in their right mind would do that unless they really did believe that God was leading them. All of those things gave extra power to what Amos had to say.
Amaziah, defending his government-sponsored sanctuary, so much as said to Amos: “If you’ve got to preach, don’t do it in church!” That’s actually not bad advice, at least to the extent that prophetic voices should not be limited to church: we must also call for justice in the secular arenas of work and politics. We must live just lives in our homes and communities.
Laypeople have an especially powerful witness, because Christian living is not what they do for a living. We all deal with the question of whether we will live as the world lives, or live as God has called us to live. As we get up each morning to face that world, we can know that God is with us, and our lives carry more influence than we will ever see.
Where is our prophetic voice? NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for July 10, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Amos 7:7-17
It’s really easy to read through our Facebook feeds and see all the things that are going well. It’s even easier to only have those things come up in your feed that you agree with. With a simple “unfollow” or “hide” we can make it to where we only see what we want to see. But how many times do we do this in our real life as well? We listen to the people that echo what we have said and agree with the people that are saying what we want to say. There are times though that we need someone like Amos that will stand up and say what we need to hear. Who are those people in your life that you trust to speak truth into you even when it is hard to hear? If you don’t have someone that will do this for you, find them. If you do, go give them a hug and buy a cup of coffee for them. We need those people that will lift us up, but we also need those people that will knock us down a peg or two as well.
Teaching Resources |Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“10 Movies That Actually Predicted the Future” from Screen Rant
Read Scripture online: Amos 7:7-17