Amos 7:1-17 (10 July 2022)

In the 8th century BC, into an atmosphere of overconfident nationalism steps Amos, a shepherd from the southern kingdom of Judah. He stands in the great royal temple at Bethel and announces that God is stirring up a nation to conquer Israel. The day of the Lord, he insisted, will be darkness, not light. 

God isn’t impressed with Israel’s wealth, military might, or self-indulgent way of life. He is looking for justice, while the rich and powerful are taking advantage of the poor. God is calling Israel to repentance as the only way to avoid destruction.

Amos gave the people God’s words: Amos 5:21’I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.22Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’

God came to Amos with a series of prophecies and visions including this one in today’s readings:

'This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ ‘

A plumb-line,’ I replied. 

Then the Lord said, ‘Look, I am setting a plumb-line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. ‘The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.’

“Thus he showed me” (v. 7a).  As is clear from verse 6, it is the Lord God who showed Amos a vision and when God gives a message pay attention:

God showed Amos a vision of a plumb line which is a string with a weight (known as a plumb-bob) attached.  When the user holds a plumb line by the string, the plumb-bob at the bottom will point to the earth’s centre of gravity with the string in a straight vertical line.  People use plumb lines, even today, to determine whether a wall is perfectly straight, i.e., exactly perpendicular to the horizon.  In other words, a plumb line enables the user to test the vertical straightness of a wall. 

One of the first things a builder needs to do is lay out foundations and set up the first corner of the building. A plumb line and string are the usual tools to do this to determine the vertical line.

A crooked wall can be difficult to correct.  In many cases, an out-of-plumb wall must be torn down and rebuilt if it is ever to be right.

“the Lord stood beside a wall made by a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand” (v. 7b).

Amos sees God God standing beside a wall with a plumb line in his hand. We cannot bypass the fact that it is God who is holding the plumb-line, it is God who is setting the standards.  It is God who is making the judgement on the faithfulness of the people. God’s purpose is to test the wall to see if it is straight or not—usable or not.  But we understand, of course, that God is concerned with something more than a wall. 

“God said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold, I will set a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel'” (v. 8a).  Now God explains the meaning of the plumb line metaphor.  Israel (the northern kingdom) is the wall that is being tested. 

While the next verse will make it clear that God has pronounced the people of Israel guilty and plans to execute judgment against them—nevertheless, in this verse, he calls them “my people.”  There is no sense here that God is gloating over the judgment that he must render.  It is a broken-hearted God who has tried and tried to bring these people to faithfulness, but who is finally having to admit that it just didn’t work. 

This message is thousand of years old but has it lost its relevance? I don’t think so.  The people of Israel were self-satisfied and confident when Amos was called to prophecy to them.  Those who ignore this prophecy will be found to comfort themselves in their own smugness and sense of independence and bear the consequences of this.

Recently census results were released showing that as few as 40% of Australians have a belief in God. Only occasionally do people look beyond their own resources and independence. Are 60% of Australians sufficiently self-satisfied, thinking they have no need of God, that he can safely be ignored? It seems so. 

This is important, because one thing we can be sure of is that God’s standards have not changed.  Just as God held up a line to check how well Israel kept to his standards we should be know that he is measuring up and judging our society today.

Then God said, “I will not again pass by them any more” (v. 8b).  The northern kingdom (Israel) had been in existence for nearly two centuries—since the end of Solomon’s reign and the division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms.  With regard to the northern kingdom, there had been ups and downs, but mostly downs.  God has given them opportunity after opportunity to repent and mend their ways, but they have failed to do so.  Now God has decided not to “pass by them” any further—not to shower grace upon grace any longer.  The time has come to put an end to their corruption.

He warned, “The high places of Isaac will be desolate, the sanctuaries of Israel will be laid waste” (v. 9a).  The high places were sacred sites dedicated to the worship of pagan gods, places where the one true God Almighty was denigrated and ignored. 

The “high places of Israel” were temples established by Jeroboam I in Bethel which as in the far south of Israel, just a few miles north of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and others in Dan in the far north of Israel. 

The Census indicates that 60% of people in Australia do not believe in God.  So what do they believe in? In what do they put their faith - for it is inevitable they will find something to have faith in.  This could include political leaders, celebrities and commentators. But I think there is a lot of faith placed in what is fashionable, acceptable, what’s trendy in the media, clearly, little faith is placed in Jesus Christ and his teaching. People are like sheep, following the crowd. 

Although most people in the community don’t see it, it is Christians who are the non-conformists. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” The Bible says in Romans 12:2 

Whatever these sanctuaries were and whatever the sanctuaries people use today are, the warning is that such sanctuaries, such temples are already desolate and wasteful. 

The warning continues:

“and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (v. 9b).  God will bring a violent end to the house of Jeroboam.  This came to pass when Shallum, son of Jabesh, conspired against Zechariah, the son of Jeroboam II, striking him down and assuming the throne (1 Kings 15:8-10).

We live safely and peacefully in Australia, unlike in other countries, taking things for granted.  Can we believe that violence, even war, could descend on our society? Or do we recognise that such destruction is almost on our borders? Look at the situation in Ukraine. 

After the first two visions he was given Amos begged God for mercy (7:2, 5), and in each of those instances God relented (7:3, 6).  However, in this third vision, Amos makes no such plea for God’s mercy and God shows no signs of relenting. Presumably, Amos has seen the righteousness of God’s judgment and no longer has the heart to protest against Israel’s punishment.

We could beg God to have mercy on our society - but why should he when so few of us even believe he exists? 

What response do we expect when we try to urge our society to follow the teaching of the Bible?  What response did Amos get? 

Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: ‘Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. 

The land cannot bear all his words. For this is what Amos is saying: ‘ “Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.” 

Amaziah is the priest of Bethel—one of the “high places of Israel” established by Jeroboam I.

What we heard in verses 7-9 were the words that God spoke to Amos.  We have no record of Amos speaking to the people, but verse 10 makes it clear that Amos has been telling people what God said—warning them of the judgment to come.  Amos would have done so, not out of personal pique, but because God told him, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (7:15).  His purpose would have been to secure the people’s repentance and, perhaps, to stave off the worst of the judgment which God is about to impose.

The priest, Amaziah, has become aware that Amos has been preaching to the people, and interprets Amos’ words, not as prophecy, but as sedition against Jeroboam.  There is an element of self-interest involved in Amaziah’s report to the king, because it was almost certainly Jeroboam who appointed Amaziah to his priestly position (1 Kings 12:31; 13:33).

Amaziah sends word to Jeroboam concerning Amos’ preaching, slanting his report to portray Amos, not as a prophet, but as a traitor.  The fact that Amos came from Judah rather than Israel made this a believable charge.

Amaziah’s report reflects his loyalty to Jeroboam, his desire to curry the king’s favour, and a desire to hang onto his comfortable office in Bethel. Certainly, Amaziah’s report makes it clear that his first loyalty is to the king rather than to God.

Why did the Lord send his message through Amos, not Amaziah? Probably because Amaziah’s loyalty was to the king, not to God. Probably because Amaziah was out of touch with God, busy serving false gods in Bethel, not the true God in Jerusalem.

Amaziah’s report to the king was so typical of corrupt officials.  It included misinterpretation, manipulation and distortion to colour it to Amaziah’s benefit. What he said was, “For Amos says, ‘Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of his land'” (v. 11).  

This report is in part consistent with God’s words to Amos, but it deviates at two points.  First, God said that it would be the “house of Jeroboam” (7:9) rather than Jeroboam personally who would die by the sword.  In fact, it will be Jeroboam’s son who dies by the sword.  Second, this is the first mention of the people going into exile. This is an additional warning coming from a God who has determined the faithless people should get the treatment they deserve. 

Then Amaziah said to Amos, ‘Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.’ 

Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

 The word “seer” is roughly synonymous with “prophet,” although it might have carried a negative connotation. It was something of a put-down. It’s being dismissive, like saying, “shut up and get lost”.

Amos is from Judah, so Amaziah tells him to go home to Judah and earn his keep there.  There is Amaziah’s unsurprising assumption that Amos is profiting financially from his prophesy and is surely influenced by the fact that Amaziah is profiting from his priesthood. 

He says, “but don’t prophesy again any more at Bethel; for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a royal house” (v. 13).  There is a turf issue here.  Bethel and its sanctuary belong to King Jeroboam—and, by extension, to Amaziah, the king’s priest.  If there is religious work to be done here, Amaziah considers it his privilege to do it.

However, Amos isn’t prophesying for profit.  He makes his living by serving as “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees” (v. 14).

Amos tells Amaziah, being a prophet is not my profession.  It’s not how I make my living. It’s not in my background.

 Amos goes on to make it clear that he is a simple man who makes his living as a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees.  He trims hedges, probably to keep the sheep in.

Amos explains how it came about that he was instructed and authorised to bring the message he was sharing.  He said, “and God took me from following the flock, and God said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel'” (v. 15).  I can do no other, he was saying.

This brief description of Amos’ call leaves many questions unanswered.  Why did God call Amos instead of someone else?  What was Amos supposed to do with his flock of sheep while carrying out God’s call?  Where is Amos supposed to prophesy?  Is he to preach on street corners?  Is he to knock on people’s doors?  Is it to try to gain entrance to the king’s palace?  How is he supposed to support himself while serving as a prophet?

While it would be interesting to us to know the answers to questions such as these, this verse tells Amaziah everything he needs to know.  It tells him that Amos was called by God and is prophesying by God’s authority.

In addition, the Lord God has a message for the unfaithful priest, Amaziah and Amos passed this on as well. 

Now then, hear the word of the Lord . 

You say, ‘ “Do not prophesy against Israel, and stop preaching against the descendants of Isaac.” 

‘Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘ “Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. Your land will be measured and divided up, and you yourself will die in a pagan country. And Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.” ’'

God told Amos to prophesy (v. 15), but the priest Amaziah tells him not to prophesy.  In doing this, Amaziah is attempting to countermand God’s instructions.  He is presenting Amos with a stark choice—obey the priest or obey God.  From the context, we can see that this is not a difficult choice for Amos.  He will obey God.

Whereas Amaziah the priest has given his first loyalty to the king rather than to God—and whereas Amaziah the priest has failed to call the people of Israel to faithful service to God—and whereas Amaziah the priest has attempted to countermand God’s orders—therefore, God has decreed that these punishments will follow.

The test to see whether a prophet is really a prophet is to see whether his prophecies come true or not.  Without going through the sad details now you can read in the Bible that Amos’ prophecy to Amaziah did come true.

But does this episode and the prophecy from Amos have relevance to our society?

A couple of weeks ago William Barr made some comments which illustrate that it does have relevance.

William Barr was the US Attorney General when Donald Trump was the US President. In these recent comments he said, “Western civilisation faces its deepest crisis since the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

“That’s because our whole civilisation is based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and that tradition is under sustained attack by increasingly militant secular forces,” he said. 

“What we’re living through is not a situation where religion is intruding into the government’s rightful arena—it’s exactly the opposite,” he said. “It’s that government and politics are usurping the role of religion.”

“It basically is an artificial or substitute religion that gives them a sort of truncated version of the place filled by religion in people’s lives,” he said. “It also explains the bitterness in our politics today because once you adopt this view, then your political opponents aren’t just disagreeing with you, they’re evil.”

There are so many troubling changes in our society that in many ways it seems to be unravelling, confusing even inexplicable. Certainly it has lost the peace, certainty, hope and love we should have were we following the teachings of Jesus. The experts point out that because people don’t gather at church we have lost an important contribution to social cohesion.

The fact is that, as in the time of Amos, God has held up his plumb-line against each of us, against our church, against our society.  That plumb-line has been given to us in the standards set by Jesus Christ and passed on to us through his apostles. It’s called the Bible and the New Testament in particular. 

But some 60% of Australians choose to dismiss it altogether. 

People decide to set their own limits, pick and choose what to accept, invent their own ideas and interpretations and try to tell God what he should do or say and what he really meant. They place their faith in someone or something other than Jesus and so they do not know the way, the truth and the life. Instead they follow false idols and their false priests and prophets. 

We need to listen for the modern versions of Amos and beware of the multitude of contemporary versions of Amaziah.

The point of this passage is simple. God has told us what to do and how to behave and when God tells you what to do and how to behave do as you’re told — or else.

1413 Modified: 10-10-2022
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