In my previous studies on Amos, I discussed his call, his first vision and the power of intercessory prayer, and the second vision and the repentance of God. In the present post I want to discuss Amos’ third vision:
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 7:7-9).
Amos’ third vision is different from his previous two visions. In the third vision there is no announcement of judgment. In the first vision, God’s agent of judgment was the locust. In the second vision God announced that a devastating fire would consume the land of Israel. In the third vision Amos saw the Lord himself standing beside a wall “built with a plumb line” (Hebrew: “a wall of ’anāk”).
In the vision, the Lord was like a master builder with a plumb line in his hand, inspecting the wall to ascertain whether the wall was standing straight. A plumb line is a string with a weight at the end of it. The plumb line was used by builders to ensure that a wall was vertical, that is, that the wall was straight up and down.
In Amos’ vision, God was standing with a plumb line by a wall that was level. The purpose of the vision was God’s desire to show Amos that the plumb line was accurate and that it had been used to construct a proper wall.
After Amos saw the vision, the Lord asked Amos a question: “Amos, what do you see?” In questioning the prophet, the Lord called him by his name. This action of calling the prophet by his name reveals the intimate relationship that existed between God and the prophet.
Amos’ response was simple and direct: “a plumb line.” In his response Amos did not mention the wall nor the one standing beside the wall. The focus of his vision was on the plumb line.
In this vision, Amos did not intercede with God on behalf of Israel as he had done before. In his first vision, when Amos saw the devastation caused by the locust, he prayed, “O Lord GOD, forgive” (Amos 7:2). In the second vision, when he saw the severity of the judgment caused by the fire, Amos prayed: “O Lord GOD, cease” (Amos 7:5). But, there was no prayer after the third vision. There was no interceding on the behalf of Israel.
The case of Amos interceding on behalf of Israel is similar to the situation of Abraham interceding on behalf of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33). As long Abraham prayed, God answered Abraham’s prayer. When Abraham stopped praying, God stopped answering. As long as Amos asked for the deliverance of Israel, God answered his prayers. But there was no prayer to be answered after the third vision because Amos never prayed for Israel. The question is: why did Amos not pray on behalf of Israel?
In response to what Amos replied, the Lord told the prophet that he was placing a plumb line in the midst of his people Israel. The plumb line is an instrument of testing. When God placed the plumb line against the wall, Amos was able to understand that the wall met the requirements of a good wall.
The meaning of the vision is a matter of debate among scholars. I believe that the purpose of the vision was to teach Amos that Israel was the wall that was built with a plumb line. Because of its disobedience to the religious traditions of the nation, Israel no longer measured up to God’s ideal. Now God was placing a plumb line in the midst of Israel in order to test the people with the same instrument he had used before.
Amos understood the seriousness of Israel’s condition, and that was the reason he did not intercede on behalf of Israel. In the first two visions, God told Amos what he was doing: judging Israel. In the third vision, God told Amos why he was judging Israel: Israel no longer measured up to God’s ideal.
Once Amos understood the reason for the judgment, the Lord told Amos: “I will never again pass by them” (v. 8). This expression simply means that the Lord would no longer overlook the wickedness the people had committed. And this was the message that Amos preached to Israel: “Thus says the LORD: ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment’” (Amos 2:6).
The Plumb Line
There has been much discussion among scholars about what kind of instrument Amos saw. The reason for this debate is that scholars have had considerable problems understanding the true meaning of the word ’anāk. The word ’anāk appears only four times in the Hebrew Bible and all the occurrences are in Amos’ third vision.
The word ’anāk is generally translated “plumb line.” Some scholars delete the word, others emended it to read “stone” or interpret it to say that it means some type of instrument such as a pickax or a crowbar (Paul, p. 234). Shalom Paul contends that the word comes from the Akkadian anāku, a word that means “tin.” For this reason he declares that the translation plumb line “must now be discarded” (p. 234) because, as he said, there is no such a thing as a “tin line” or “a wall of tin.”
Tin was combined with other metals to produce weapons. For this reason some scholars have interpreted the text and said that the Lord had in his hand a sword with which he was about to judge Israel.
Paul interpreted the word ’anāk, “tin” to be a metaphor for softness and a symbol of something that is perishable. He said: “Thus in this vision the ‘wall’ of Israel is portrayed as being extremely weak, not durable, and on the verge of being demolished” (p. 235). Thus, the placing of an ’anāk in the midst of the people should be understood as the execution of God’s judgment.
H. G. M. Williamson, in his study of Amos’ vision and the use of the word ’anāk, concluded that the translation “plumb line” cannot be abandoned. As evidence for his argument, Williamson mentioned the use of a “tin plummet” in Zechariah 4:10. According to Williamson, it is possible that plumbs in ancient Israel were made of tin (p. 111-112).
The Lord told Amos that a plumb line would be set in the midst of Israel and only those who lived by the standard set by the demands of the covenant would be able to pass the test. What was the plumb line? Most commentators do not provide an adequate answer to this question. Others say that the plumb line was justice, the law, the covenant, or righteousness.
The reason commentators cannot agree on the identification of the plumb line is because they make emphasis on “what” the plumb line was. The plumb line was not a “what” but a “who.” The plumb line was the prophet himself.
In the Old Testament, the prophets served as God’s representative. They had a personal relationship with God, they had been in the council of God to know God’s will. The prophets were God’s personal representative before the people. The prophets’ words were God’s words.
The Deuteronomic writer emphasized that the fall of the Northern Kingdom by the hands of Assyria was the result of the rejection of the prophetic message: “The LORD warned Israel by every prophet and every seer, saying, ‘Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets. But they would not listen, but were stubborn” (2 Kings 17:13-14).
Williamson also believes that Amos was God’s plumb line. He wrote: “I suggest instead, however, that the [Deuteronomic] editors saw the person and mission of the prophet himself as embodying God’s plumb-line” (p. 116).
Having understood the magnitude of Israel’s sin, Amos did not ask for forgiveness nor for the Lord to withhold the judgment. The Lord had postponed the judgment twice in answer to Amos’ prayers. However, before the prophet could pray again, the Lord declared that the judgment could no longer be averted. Such a declaration explains the reason Amos did not make another attempt at interceding for Israel.
Amos was commissioned by the Lord to declare to the people of Israel their sins and to call them to repentance. He would be God’s plumb line in Israel, the chosen vessel of God’s mercy. But he was rejected by the people and his message was ignored. It was for this reason that God said that he would no longer spare his own people.
Paul, Shalom M. Amos : A Commentary on the Book of Amos. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1991.
Williamson, H. G. M. “The Prophet and the Plumb-line.” Oudtestamentische Studiën 26 (1990): 101-121.
Wolff, Hans Walter. Joel and Amos : A Commentary on the Books of the Prophets Joel and Amos. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1977.
Other Studies on Amos:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary