Apparently the Lord’s patience with Israel was quickly running out. The Lion had roared, the formal charges had been made, judgment was coming. The Lord gave Amos three visions which give us a lot of insight into how he deals with us and our sin issue.
God had declared earlier that he doesn’t do anything without notifying his prophets in advance. Of course this is speaking hyperbolically, but the point is still valid: He reveals what people need to know. Therefore, no one has an excuse.
But there’s another reason (besides warning people) why the Lord reveals his planned judgment to his prophets. He revealed this in order to invite his prophet to intercede for sinful people. Amos was following in a grand tradition that included Abraham (the first man listed in Scripture as a prophet), Moses, an unnamed man of God, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
Literally interceding means to “stand in the gap,” which is the phrase that the Lord used with Ezekiel. Between God and sinful people there’s a grand canyon called sin. The prophet acted as a “go between,” for the two parties. He represented the Lord to the people by proclaiming the word revealed to him. But he also represented the people to the Lord, pleading their case, especially when they’re about to be destroyed due to their sin.
In today’s reading, the Lord gave Amos three visions, all related to each other. The first was one of the most terrifying to people of that era, actually in any era except to modern residents of the West. Locusts, as we mentioned before with Joel, usually mean a lot of people were going to slowly starve to death—a particularly unpleasant way to die. In his vision, Amos saw the land picked clean, meaning the marauding insects got everything.
So he cried out to the Lord. Notice some things about his intercession. First, he addresses his Master as “Sovereign Lord,” denoting a healthy respect for the Person with whom he was speaking. He asked God to forgive them, but notice that he doesn’t appeal to the people’s goodness or righteousness. No, he appeals to God’s compassion. Israel looked with pride on her accomplishments and conquests which supposedly she’d done herself, but the prophet acknowledged how weak and defenseless they really were.
Also take note—this is very important—the Lord doesn’t exactly give in completely to his request. The prophet pled with the Lord to forgive, but the next verse says he “relented” and said “OK, this particular judgment won’t happen.” That’s it. He makes no promise to forgive them.
The next vision reinforced the second, although this time it seems to be describing more of a quick judgment instead of lingering starvation. Again the prophet respectfully begged the Lord to relent, and once again he did. Just like Jonah, Amos knew that he’s “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity,” and once again he demonstrated this.
But then we see something very different from the first two visions. The Lord showed him a wall and a plumb line. And if you’re not sure what that is, don’t feel bad because I had to learn about it as well. It’s a tool that people used to build walls and other structures, consisting of a long string and a weight. You held the string at the top of the wall and let it dangle, and by comparing the plumb line to the wall you could tell if the wall was built straight or crooked.
Unlike the other times, the Lord didn’t merely threaten a national calamity that affected people indiscriminately. This time, he was very specifically comparing their behavior to an objective standard. Obviously this is a symbol of his revealed word—in their case, the Torah. Also in this case, the prophet didn’t try to intercede. The Lord’s written word was final, literally.
So I see three things this passage teaches us: 1) God’s reprieves are not pardons, 2) His people are called to intercede between him and lost sinners, and 3) His judgments are not capricious or based on a whim, but are a reasoned comparison between his standards--as laid out in his word--and our performance.
So, whom are you going to pray for today?
Father God, it's amazing to me that you invite me into your throne room and use my poorly worded prayers as you reach out to sinners. Wow.