I was a teenager the first time I used a plumb line. My grandparents’ home in Owens Crossroads, AL, blew up when propane gas filled the house. Both my Dad’s parents were outside on opposite sides of the building when the blast occurred, and both ran inside to check on the other. My grandfather died from his injuries; over 80% of my grandmother’s body was burned. The house was destroyed. My dad and I built a brand-new house on the lot during the summer between my 9th and 10th grades in high school. I vividly remember Dad holding up a plumb line and me marking the spot where the wall of the new house needed to land to be square.
When we hear the word “prophet,” we often think of someone whose primary job is to foretell the future. Prophets of the Old Testament, however, served a greater purpose than to reveal future events. They were called to deliver hard truths to God’s chosen so God’s people would be forced to look honestly at themselves and recognize ways they were not living into their covenant with God.
A beautiful example of truth-telling prophecy is found in Amos 7:1-9. A glimpse into this passage reveals God’s anger and frustration with the people of Israel. Here’s the context: Second only to the golden age of King Solomon, Amos lived during an extremely prosperous and powerful period for Israel and Judah. As Amos’ oracles tell us, the more Israel prospered, the more the people abandoned two basic components of their covenant with God — exclusive worship of God and care for fellow human beings.
Prosperity led the people to believe they could do whatever they wanted and get away with it. Their riches gave them false assumptions nothing could go wrong. When Amos was prophesying around 760 BCE, the idea a foreign power would destroy them and drag them into exile was the farthest thing from their collective mind.
In Amos 7, we sense God’s wrath through three visions. First, Amos sees God is about to destroy Israel with locusts, but his judgment is held in check by Amos’ pleas for mercy. Next, a similar scenario occurs with fire, and again God relents. We read in the third vision:
This is what he showed me: 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, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel…
Amos saw a plumb line. He knew a plumb line was a weight suspended from a string to ensure a wall is built straight. After hearing God’s complaints about Israel’s infidelity, Amos surely understood the message God wanted him to share.
God planted God’s feet and made it clear there would be no more budging. Amos saw the danger and devastating impact of locusts and fire. Perhaps by asking, “What do you see?” God is highlighting something that must be recognized with spiritual eyes.
Using the imagery of the wall and plumb line, God shows that Israel is like a wall that is, to use an Alabama expression, crooked as a dog’s hind leg. The plumb line revealed Israel’s covenant infidelity. This time God would not “pass by,” and Amos, perceiving God’s resolve, did not intercede in order to avert impending disaster of invasion and exile.
I see parallels with the plumb line story and the U.S. today. Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, power, and prestige. We boast of economic and military clout. Have these years of prosperity given us a false sense of security? Who could have envisioned a pandemic wreaking so much havoc and death, and grinding our economy to a halt?
I am aware the danger of using this prophecy from Amos. In Amos, the people neglected their covenant with God. Justice was not “rolling down like water.” Poor and needy were neglected. The story paints a confusing picture of a God who destroys what God loves, a very different depiction of the God we encounter in Jesus who came to describe and disclose God’s love through the life of Jesus. Though we encounter contradiction, the truth of the story is clear.
I believe we are living a plumb line moment in history—for our country and for the church!
If God holds up a plumb line for us today, what do we notice is out of alignment with God’s ideals for creation? Our country is at a turning point. We are polarized because of different understandings of truth and justice for all. Churches are experiencing existential crisis. The ugly reality of our unwillingness to address racial injustice, our reluctance to grant freedom for all, our certitude that blocks true faith and Spirit’s voice, our willingness to be shaped in unhealthy ways by our culture, our neglect of the poor and marginalized, our capacity to call something “bad” good, our belief and practice the end justifies the means, and more, has been laid bare.
You ask different Christians what they see when they examine the plumb line, and you will hear different answers. If we study the life and teachings of Jesus, we know what God expects, and we discover the many ways we are not in alignment with God’s heart. Jesus would look at the plumb line and measure the degree to which we are living into the demands of the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor, following ethical demands he outlines in the Sermon on the Mount, and embracing the call to love justice, do mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).
Each of us must look long and hard at the plumb line and reflect on what we see. I believe we will be forced to declare this hard truth:
We have not loved you (God) with our whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors…
This tumultuous season is an invitation to self-reflection, confession, and transformation. I’m convinced one of the most powerful things we can do today is help folks wrestle with God’s expectations for all. God’s ideal is not found in deep division, in demonizing one another, in injustice, in power that corrupts, in violence, or in hate. Honestly identifying these in ourselves is the difficult first step.
Keep pointing to Jesus’ expectations for beloved community. Our prophetic responsibility is to direct attention to God’s plumb line and ask, “What do you see?”