Amos' Plumb Line: God gave us more than a foundation
You may know Amos as one of the books of the minor prophets; this designation does not mean that what he had to say was of less importance than any of the others, it refers to the shorter more succinct message of the book. He is better known as one of the 8th Century prophets, these includes Jonah, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. In fact, Amos’ contribution to the history of our salvation in God is quite significant. He was the first of the writing Prophets and he helped mankind move away from a non-moral polytheism to an ethical monotheism.
Let’s set the stage and look at the world in the 8th Century BC. In the east, China’s 3rd Dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty, is about to collapse into the warring states period, the philosophy of Confucius was still 200 years away. In the Indus valley the Vedic age was beginning as the Brahmans write down the Vedas; but Prince Siddartha Guatama would not be the Buddha for another 150 years.
In Egypt, Pharaoh Osorkon III’ power is declining, and the 23rd dynasty of Egyptian rule will soon fall to the Kushite Kingdom. The Archaic Greeks begin an organised colonisation of the areas around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The first Olympic games are held between the independent city-states. Carthage becomes the great power in the western Mediterranean. The great foes of the Greeks, The Persian Empire, are still some 200 years away; and thus, the Zoroastrian god Zarathustra, has not yet spoken!
Rome is founded in 753BC
Amos’ writings come from approximately the same year, but the fledgling Rome is of no concern to him. Tiglath-Pilesar, the Assyrian King, is rebuilding his empire and re-provisioning his military. Human civilisation is on the cusp of great upheaval; and right at the centre is the divided Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. It’s all about to kick off but there has been relative peace and stability in the region under the Military rule of King Jeroboam II.
But all is not well. With no immediate threats to his rule King Jeroboam has become lax. Trade and commerce have grown and there is a rich merchant class, the people have become pre-occupied with material wealth. There is 7-day trading. Financial scandal abounds, bribery is commonplace. The Judiciary is corrupt, the poor can’t afford the bribes, so there is no justice for them. The system is broken and in the hands of the elite- who says the Bible isn’t relevant today!
Two shrines have been built to the God of Israel, both proudly sporting the dangerous idolatry of the Golden Calf motif: one at Dan in North Israel and one at Beth-el just North of Jerusalem.
At the Bethel shrine, Jeroboam had allowed the cult of Asherah to worship alongside the Jews; Asherah is known as either the mother or lover of the Canaanite god Baal. It was a fertility cult which meant temple prostitutes were available for the pilgrims. Religion was popular, unsurprisingly, and business was booming.
Amos is the Hebrew word meaning ‘burden’ and God speaks to him, a humble shepherd and fig farmer, and burdens him to travel north to Bethel to strongly rebuke the numerous bad practices underway in the Northern Kingdom.
Often when we think of prophets in the Bible, we assume that they entered into some kind of ecstatic trance and pronounced that Jesus was coming; the reality is they were simple men, often picked by God from the lowest levels of society, to go and speak to the events and to the powers of the time.
You may be aware of Amos’ preaching technique: He tells the people at Bethel how God will Judge their further away neighbours; Damascus, Gaza, and Tyre; then he moves inward to the closer neighbours: Edom, Ammon and Moab. Then he moves closer still to speak about Judah, the very place where he is from. You can imagine the people completely behind him.
‘What an amazing preacher this guy is, he’s really sticking it to those awful people’, is what they might have been thinking. We all know that we are far quicker at recognising other people’s faults before our own. Then, when he’s whipped up all this self-righteous fervour in the crowd, he drops his bomb: ‘Thus says Adonai, For the three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke its punishment’ The crimes of Israel were maltreatment of those most in need, and a defilement of God’s house.
Amos does receive visions, he has a short sequence of them; Amos 7, is an important one featuring the plumb line. A plumb line for those who don’t know, is ancient technology used to provide a straight line for the builders to stack their bricks as they built up the way: the plumb line maintains a true line to stop the building warping and ultimately collapsing.
And what a brilliant use of metaphor to be thinking about God. Israel is about to collapse; it will soon be destroyed by Tiglath-Pilesar’s advancing army. Because Israel, until this revelation to Amos, had lost the plumb line.
Israel, the people of God, the Church, all have a foundation. Foundations are important, God gave it to us through the mosaic law, the ten commandments, but He also realised that we do not only need foundations. The people of God, like a church, must build. If we can maintain that true vertical relationship, then we grow strong without fear of collapse.
But here are the truly important parts of Amos. God is not only concerned with His people, but He is also concerned with the people around them. He laid the foundations of the Law, for us, to show us what sin is. A special relationship with God does not give us the privilege to do wrong, it gives us the responsibility to do right. God’s righteousness illustrated that vice and crime are not on one hand and sin is on the other: they are in fact one thing. This is a radical concept, perhaps we take for granted now, but it would never have occurred to the average 8th Century Samarian.
And it is important for us now, to recognise this Judaeo-Christian ethic, which made our civilizations so successful. It is grounded in the truth that God made us all in His image, which bestowed upon us immediate individual dignity; this became the basis of Human rights across the ancient world and continued into the modern world: This ethic would eventually see the end of Roman Gladiatorial blood sports, the abolition of the slave trade and numerous civil rights movements including Dr. King’s quest for racial equality. When mankind recognises a truth and submits to it, we can achieve great things; but culture today denies truth, not just the Truth of God but the existence of any type of truth: everything is relative to the individual. The problem arises when man can’t submit to truth they submit to power. On Earth, power changes frequently, Empires rise and fall, borders, governments, and ideas on how best to rule change. Each time justice for the people, or for certain people, is made temporary. Amos was ultimately seeking social justice for his people; but God tried to extend it to all people for all time. Someone who seeks social Justice today is called a ‘progressive’ but what they may fail to recognise is that what they are progressing towards, is an 8th Century revelation of the Judaeo-Christian God.
We’ve all stumbled in the way we keep God’s law, and therefore Jesus came to us. He came to show us that following the letter of God’s law, in this age, is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, but still worth it. But remember Matthew 5 tells us he came to fulfil the law, and that by following him we can also follow the spirit of the law.
Jesus reminds us that at the heart of the Gospel is the vertical relationship we share with God. Everything I’ve written today, Jesus said better and far quicker. In Matthew 22 we find both the foundation and the plumb line when Jesus tells us the greatest of the commandments:
Love your God with all your heart, and with your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbour as you love yourself.