The Plumb Line of the Lord

This is what the Lord God showed me: behold, he was forming locusts when the latter growth was just beginning to sprout, and behold, it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings. When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said,

“O Lord God, please forgive!
    How can Jacob stand?
    He is so small!”
The Lord relented concerning this:
    “It shall not be,” said the Lord.

This is what the Lord God showed me: behold, the Lord God was calling for a judgment by fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. Then I said,

“O Lord God, please cease!
    How can Jacob stand?
    He is so small!”
The Lord relented concerning this:
    “This also shall not be,” said the Lord God.

This is what he showed me: behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,

“Behold, I am setting a plumb line
    in the midst of my people Israel;
    I will never again pass by them;
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.” Amos 7:1-9 ESV

After calling out the well-to-do and powerful upper class of Israel for their injustice, pride, and arrogance, God provides Amos with three disturbing visions. Each is designed to illustrate the devastating nature of His coming judgment. His anger against His covenant people will manifest itself in tangible ways that impact every level of Israelite society – from the richest dignitary to the poorest peasant. They all stand before Him equally condemned and worthy of His righteous indignation because they have all proven themselves to be unfaithful and unwilling to repent.

Amos opens this section by referring to God as Yᵊhōvâ ‘ăḏōnāy, or the “Lord God.”  Adonai, which means, “Lord” is more a title than a name.  Yᵊhōvâ, sometimes translated as Jehovah or Yahweh, is one of the many names for God found in the Old Testament scriptures. When the two words are used together, it is meant to refer to God’s sovereign power over the entire universe. In fact, the NET Bible translates the opening line of verse 1 as follows: “The Sovereign Lord showed me this….”

Amos appears to be stressing the fact that Yahweh is Lord over all. He is the Lord and Master over the people of Israel, but also over all of creation. He controls the natural elements as well as all the creatures of the earth. He is sovereign over the nations, including the ten tribes who comprise the northern kingdom of Israel.

But this sovereign, all-powerful God has turned His focus and the full force of His fury on His covenant people. He provides Amos with a vision of coming destruction that will take the form of a plague of locusts.

I saw him preparing to send a vast swarm of locusts over the land. This was after the king’s share had been harvested from the fields and as the main crop was coming up. In my vision the locusts ate every green plant in sight. – Amos 7:1-2 NLT

According to Amos, the timing of this devastating pestilence could not have been worse. It seems to have come between the first and second harvests, and because the locusts ate everything in sight, the results were a devastating famine in the land. Just when the king’s crops were beginning to sprout and grow, the locusts showed up and eliminated any hope of a second and much-needed harvest. The locusts were equal-opportunity destroyers, consuming the crops of the powerful and the poor. Even the fields, orchards, and vineyards of King Jeroboam II were not spared. Everyone suffered.

When Amos saw the destruction caused by this divine judgment, he called out to God.

“O Lord God, please forgive!
    How can Jacob stand?
    He is so small!” – Amos 7:2 ESV

Amos purposefully uses the name “Jacob” when referring to Israel. Jacob was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. As a representative of the third generation, he was the recipient of the covenant promise God had made to Abraham.

“The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.”  – Genesis 28:13-15 NLT

Not long after making this promise to Jacob, God changed his name to Israel, which means “God prevails.” Jacob had lived a life marked by deception, dishonesty, and disobedience to God. Yet God had not left nor forsaken him. The God who had promised to make of Abraham a great nation, had reiterated that promise to his grandson, confirming that His will would prevail.

And yet, rather than calling the ten northern tribes by their proper name, Amos chooses to refer to them by their patriarch’s former name: Jacob. In doing so, he seems to be stressing their affinity with Jacob’s former lifestyle of deception and deceit. Amos begs God to forgive “Jacob” for their disobedience because they are small and helpless. This seems to contradict the successful expansionist efforts of Jeroboam II. He had greatly expanded Israel’s borders and the wealthy saw their newfound territory as a symbol of their growing strength. But Amos seems to know that they are actually helpless in the face of God’s pending judgment. They are no match for the wrath of God. And, surprisingly, God listens to Amos’ plea and spares His wicked people.

But the first vision is followed by a second and equally devastating one.

Then the Sovereign Lord showed me another vision. I saw him preparing to punish his people with a great fire. The fire had burned up the depths of the sea and was devouring the entire land. – Amos 7:4 NLT

This time, rather than locusts, God sends a great fire. This vision may be meant to represent a severe drought that plunged the nation into a severe famine. Under the intense heat of the sun, the available water sources dried up and the land was left dry and totally unproductive. With no water, no crops could grow, and every Israelite would suffer equally, regardless of their social or financial status.

But, once again, Amos begs God to show mercy and relent from His judgment, and God agrees. Despite Israel’s ongoing rebellion and refusal to repent, He agrees to spare them.

Then God shows Amos a third and distinctively different vision.

I saw the Lord standing beside a wall that had been built using a plumb line. He was using a plumb line to see if it was still straight. – Amos 7:7 NLT

This time, Amos sees God Almighty standing next to a wall, holding a plumb line in His hand. In Amos’ day, a plumb line was a common construction tool used to establish a vertical axis that was perpendicular to the ground. It consisted of a metal or wooden “bob” tied to a string. By holding the end of the string and allowing gravity to pull on the weighted bob, a builder could establish a true vertical plane for constructing a wall.  When held alongside a wall that was under construction, it was easy to determine whether it was “plumb” or straight. A plumb line, when used correctly, would ensure that a wall was in line and free from structural deviations. In other words, the wall was not leaning.

So, Amos is given a vision of God holding a plumb line in His hand. But Jehovah makes it clear that He is not assessing the vertical axis of a wall, He is measuring the spiritual integrity of His people.

“I will test my people with this plumb line. I will no longer ignore all their sins. – Amos 7:8 NLT

The point of this vision is clear. The people of Israel were out of alignment. They did not measure up to God’s righteous expectations. He had given them His law, but they had failed to keep it. And their disobedience had left them “leaning” in the wrong direction. They were like a wall that was out of plumb, and now they were about to fall. The people of God were guilty of the very thing the apostle Paul pointed out to the believers in Rome.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. – Romans 3:23 NLT

God was holding His divine plumb line next to the wall of Israel and it revealed that His people were leaning dangerously in the wrong direction. Centuries of rebellion had resulted in a poorly constructed wall that was out of line and in danger of collapse. So, God reveals that He will bring it all to an abrupt but necessary end.

“The pagan shrines of your ancestors will be ruined, and the temples of Israel will be destroyed; I will bring the dynasty of King Jeroboam to a sudden end.” – Amos 7:9 NLT

The plumb line was His law. The wall represented the results of their sinful behavior, conducted in direct violation of His clear guidelines. They had disobeyed and were found to be out of line with His will for them. They had turned out just as Moses had feared they would.

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect.
    Everything he does is just and fair.
He is a faithful God who does no wrong;
    how just and upright he is!

“But they have acted corruptly toward him;
    when they act so perversely,
are they really his children?
    They are a deceitful and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:4-5 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson