God showed the prophet Amos three visions that warned about the coming judgment against Israel (Amos 7:1-9). After the first two visions, Amos protested, pleading for mercy on behalf of Israel. But after the third vision he did not. What was different about the third vision? Answering this question will provide a valuable lesson for us today.
“Thus the Lord God showed me, and behold, He was forming a locust-swarm when the spring crop began to sprout. And behold, the spring crop was after the king’s mowing. And it came about, when it had finished eating the vegetation of the land, that I said, ‘Lord God, please pardon! How can Jacob stand, for he is small?’ The Lord changed His mind about this. ‘It shall not be,’ said the Lord.
“Thus the Lord God showed me, and behold, the Lord God was calling to contend with them by fire, and it consumed the great deep and began to consume the farm land. The I said, ‘Lord God, please stop! How can Jacob stand, for he is small?’ The Lord changed His mind about this. ‘This too shall not be,’ said the Lord God.
“Thus He showed me, and behold, the Lord was standing by a vertical wall with a plumb line in His hand. The Lord said to me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said, ‘Behold I am about to put a plumb line in the midst of My people Israel. I will spare them no longer. The high places of Isaac will be desolated and the sanctuaries of Israel laid waste. Then I will rise up against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (Amos 7:1-9).
The difference between the final vision and the ones that preceded it was the plumb line. This tool was used to determine whether or not a structure was vertical. Even though a wall or a building might appear to be perfectly upright to the naked eye, the plumb line would make it evident if it was even one or two degrees off. It is the perfect and unmistakable standard. The plumb line was the reason Amos could not protest God’s judgment.
The Condition of Israel
The people of Israel did not see themselves as having fallen and being in need of repentance. They longed for the day of the Lord (Amos 5:18), believing that it would bring deliverance rather than judgment and punishment. They were religious, even if God was not pleased with their offerings (Amos 5:22). They were “at ease” and felt “secure” (Amos 6:1), indicating their contentment with their current condition and lack of a guilty conscience.
Yet God had a very different perspective about the condition of Israel than the people did. God said, “I loathe the arrogance of Jacob, and detest his citadels; therefore I will deliver up the city and all it contains” (Amos 6:8). Despite the people’s attempt to worship God, He said, “Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:23-24). Earlier in the book, the Lord numbered the reasons why Israel would be punished: “They sell the righteous for money and the needy for a pair of sandals. These who pant after the very dust of the earth on the head of the helpless also turn aside the way of the humble; and a man and his father resort to the same girl in order to profane My holy name. On garments taken as pledges they stretch out beside every altar, and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined” (Amos 2:6-8).
How could there have been such a difference between God’s perspective and the people’s perspective? Israel thought its spiritual condition was good, yet God knew it to be corrupt. The reason for the difference was that the people were not following God’s perfect standard. This became evident when God put the plumb line in their midst. They were following their own fallible standard, which allowed them to see themselves as righteous when in fact they were not.
Fallible Standards for Us Today
This same thing can happen today. One can convince himself he is righteous simply because he measures up to whatever standard by which he has decided to judge himself. But if his standard is not God’s standard, then he will be found lacking. Sadly, many religious people are guilty of this. They judge themselves by a fallible standard then convince themselves that God will be pleased when they conform to such a standard. Let us notice a few of these fallible standards which we must guard ourselves against today.
Religious leaders – In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of that day. Although they presented themselves before the people as being righteous, Jesus said they were “like whitewashed tombs” that would “outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly [were] full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28). These religious leaders were corrupt and certainly were not the standard the people were to be following. In the same way, we must not assume that we will please God by conforming our lives to what we see in someone who has attained a level of prominence among religious people. God expects more of us.
Denominations – It might be easy to look to the denominations around us – their numbers, growth, zeal, etc. – and want to have those things as well. But we must be careful not to become like the denominations in order to obtain the things they have that we desire. The Israelites rejected God in favor of a king to rule over them (1 Samuel 8:5-7). The fact that this constituted rebellion against God did not matter to them at that point. They wanted to be “like all the nations” around them (1 Samuel 8:20). In the same way, we must not look to the churches and denominations around us. They are not our standard. Instead, we must pattern ourselves after the New Testament (2 Timothy 1:13).
The world – There is often a tendency among Christians to want to fit in with the world. Yet Paul wrote, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Christians are not to blend in with the world. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). It is not enough to be good by the world’s standard. We must be different, just as Christ was different (John 15:18-19).
Fellow Christians – The first three fallible standards we have discussed may be more obvious. But we must also refrain from using our fellow Christians as our standard. Yes, we can and should follow the example of those who are following Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1) and walking according to the divine pattern (Philippians 3:17). But we must also realize that sometimes our fellow Christians are not what they should be. The church at Corinth had a fornicator in its midst (1 Corinthians 5:1) and they were warned about that evil influence spreading (1 Corinthians 5:6). Laodicea was a “lukewarm” church (Revelation 3:16). Sardis was a “dead” church (Revelation 3:1). What if a Christian in one of those places were to conform to the standard set by his brethren? He would become lukewarm himself – or even dead – for “a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (1 Corinthians 5:6).
Our conscience – Paul told the Jewish Council, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day” (Acts 23:1). While a good conscience can be a good thing, that is not always the case. Paul had zealously persecuted the church (Acts 22:3-5; Philippians 3:6) and described himself as the “foremost of all” sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). All of this was done with a good conscience. Our conscience can be a guide to us as we train it properly (Hebrews 5:14), but it will never be our standard. We must continually examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5) and not rely exclusively on what our conscience tells us.
The True, Infallible Standard
The plumb line was God’s standard by which the people of Israel would be measured. If they did not line up with this standard, they would be punished. Amos could not argue with God over this point. The condition of the people was unmistakable.
The plumb line to which we must measure up today is Christ and His word (John 12:48). It is the perfect standard (2 Timothy 3:16-17), infallible (John 10:35), and will not be changed later (1 Peter 1:25; Jude 3; Galatians 1:6-9). Therefore, we must reject man’s standards – regardless of how popular or desirable they seem to us – and embrace God’s standard.