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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:Measured against God's Plumb Line
Text:Amos 2:6-8 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Law is Good

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 87:1,5                                                                                

Ps 111:4,5

Reading – Amos 2; 1 Corinthians 6:1-11

Ps 112:1,2,3,4,5

Sermon – Amos 2:6-8

Hy 51:1,2,3

Ps 40:3,4 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, have you ever seen a plumb line? Simply, it’s a string with a heavy weight tied to one end of it. A bricklayer will hang a plumb line beside a wall that’s under construction, to see if the wall is being built vertical and true. If things are out of kilter, then he’ll be able to see it right away: the line tells him so.

In the seventh chapter of Amos the LORD has a plumb line in his hand, and he’s standing beside a wall. He’s going to test it, and see if it’s built right. But this is no wall of bricks and mortar, it’s his covenant people. He says to Amos in 7:8, “I am setting a plumb line in the midst of them.” They are “the wall” that God has raised up in his power and grace. Which means that they also have to receive his scrutiny. He’s the master builder, and God wants to know: Do they measure up? Are they standing upright? The line doesn’t lie.

What do you suppose that plumb line represents? What’s the standard by which God tests the character of his people? If you thought of the commandments, you’d be right. This is the enduring rule for personal faith and for church life. When you’re set beside the Word of the Lord, it quickly reveals if you’re standing true, or not.

God had built his people to be firm and solid. But they haven’t conformed to the Architect’s plan. Israel’s life and religion are completely self-focused, so they’re tilting badly toward sin. They’re like the Tower of Pisa, they’re so obviously leaning in one direction! This is what the plumb line reveals. So God is seeing how far Israel needs to be pulled down. This tottering wall will be no more—at least, not in its present form. God has to rebuild.

Beloved, we’re tested every day by that same Word of God. Are we continuing upright in the ways of the Lord? Are we inclined towards all kinds of sin, or are we striving to be true to the Lord? The Word of God tests us, every time that we read it, every time we hear it. Also today we are tested, as the Lord announces through his prophet Amos that:

God won’t lift his punishment from those who keep doing evil:

  1. a warning against greed
  2. a warning against adultery
  3. a warning against false worship


1. a warning against greed: We don’t mind it if other people are getting into trouble. The children probably know about this: when the teacher’s getting mad at the kids in the back of the classroom, then everyone else breathes easy—the attention is on someone else. Yet things can quickly change. That’s what happened for Israel. In chapter 1 and the first part of chapter 2, Amos had brought a message to the nations. He pronounces God’s judgment on Syria, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab.

One by one, the nations are called out for their violence and cruelty. All the while you imagine Judah and Israel sitting back with a smug smile. But now it’s their turn, beginning in 2:4. It’s safe to say that this came as a shock! As God’s people, they expected protection, maybe immunity from judgment. Weren’t they his possession, after all?

They certainly were, which meant they were also more accountable. God is always stricter with his own children, because we’re his—God’s children should know better! So Amos speaks at length about Israel’s sin. “Thus says the Lord: ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment’” (2:6). That’s been his refrain since chapter 1, “For three transgressions, and for four…” Each time the prophet lists a number of sins, but it’s just a sampling. The prophet is inviting the people to reflect on it further: What else can be added to this list? Much more than three or four—there’s sins too numerous to count!

But for Israel, so much of their transgression comes back to one core issue. Here and throughout Amos, God is concerned with justice. The Israelites weren’t treating each other rightly, but they were taking advantage of each other. They were ignoring the second greatest commandment for “They sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals” (v 6).

At first glance, it’s surprising that this was the case. For in Israel it was actually a time of prosperity. Egypt had faded, and for now the Assyrian threat had subsided, so the people were free and clear. Right now the king of the northern kingdom (Israel) was Jeroboam II, and he’d been able to enlarge the borders and strengthen the nation. The land was enjoying a good season.

But with blessing always comes responsibility. For God’s gifts there must be gratitude.  And one thing that He always commands is that his people help the weak and needy, that we look after those who might be lacking in basic material things. Those who are poor, the widows and orphans should always be special objects of our care and concern. And this goes back to the character of the LORD. As the Father is merciful and compassionate, so we his children need to be: merciful to the weak, compassionate towards the sick and needy.

We can be sure that some people in Israel strived to be generous. But a booming economy is no guarantee that everyone will feel like sharing. Instead, many were simply concerned to build up their own wealth—they wanted a winter house and a summer house, like Amos describes in chapter 3. The rich hoped to get richer.

So what were they doing? Again, “They sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals” (v 6). What’s being described here is probably a misuse of loans and credit. The rich would lend out their money, and then when the poor couldn’t pay up on demand, their land would be confiscated. Or the poor would end up paying high rent for something that used to be theirs. Or they and their children would have to become slaves.

Now, all this was allowed to some degree. The LORD did allow the making of loans, and giving collateral to back those loans up. In his law God even let people become slaves for a while, in order to try clear up an amount that was owed to someone. All these things might’ve been permitted, but God is always concerned with more than the letter of law. The question always is: have we honoured the spirit of God’s Word? With these business dealings and financial decisions, have we truly acted in love, for God and our neighbour? Have we dealt seriously with our calling to treat others with justice?

In practice, Israel’s poor were being denied the chance to get free of debt. The rich would make them slaves even if they owed a small sum, like the price of a pair of shoes. The “little guys” could hardly resist the pressure of those with bags of money. God has never opposed the wealthy just because they’re wealthy. But these rich were forgetting something essential, which is that the LORD God owns the land, and everything in it. Israel was God’s land, and He’d given it as a gift to his people! Years before the Promised Land had been carefully parceled out: to tribes and clans and families, from the smallest to the greatest. The point was, everyone had their place. In God’s grace, everyone was entitled. The land stood as proof of God’s covenant blessing.

But now the rich were mocking the sacred trust God had given to each family. Says Amos, “They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor, and pervert the way of the humble” (v 7).The rich would take everything they could get from them—even the dust on their heads—they’d squeeze them until they were dry. For this, the LORD says in verse 6, “I will not turn away [their] punishment.”

We’re starting to see why God is so upset. To mistreat others is to deny God’s own character as the compassionate and merciful God. To think little of others is to think little of the LORD, who created them in his image. So Amos says that real religion isn’t ceremony and ritual, but it’s treating people with fairness. Worship happens even in the acts of mercy that we do for those who are needy. God is honoured when we defend the weak and vulnerable.

Now, maybe we wouldn’t put ourselves in the same class as those Amos is speaking to. We don’t feel like we’re in a position to exploit the poor. We try not to build ourselves up on the backs of others. But in this area of life more generally, how do we measure up according to God’s plumb line? Would God’s testing find us to be a little crooked in our finances? Would it reveal that we’re sometimes leaning towards greed? Is there a perpetual desire for better stuff, for more money? Or maybe we’re trying to duck out of bills and commitments, or cheating the government of its money, or milking clients for all they’ll give us. Or what about giving the Lord the first and best portion of our earnings? Does the plumb line show that we’re holding back more for ourselves than we should?

Then there’s also our failing to do what’s good for others. The lesson of Amos is that when we’re captivated by greed, it’s so much harder to share. When our attention is always fixed on our own financial goals, we’ll have few thoughts for others. And we should think of them.

Think of what James writes in his letter. He says, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? … If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:14-17).

The Spirit is telling us to have an eye for those around us who might be suffering, who need our help. Think of those in the congregation who might love a visit during the week. Think about those who might enjoy your hospitality on Sunday. Think of how you can bless someone who is sick, or someone who is troubled. Not everyone has it easy—some have real struggles. Don’t just wish them well, but show them real deeds of love.

Christ has also given us the deacons for this work, so that we can support their ministry of mercy. Think of the offertory as our faith in God, and our love for God, being put into practice. It’s being merciful, even as our heavenly Father is so merciful.


2. a warning against adultery: One of the things about sin is how it multiplies. One sin so often leads to another sin, and then to a third and a fourth. Compare it to how a disease completely overtakes a person: it starts as a simple infection, localized and small. But if it’s not treated, that infection spreads, and drastic measures are needed to stop it. Sometimes when we commit a sin, we cover it up with more sin—often lying and deceit. This in turn requires more sin to keep it from being detected. Before long, you get yourself stuck into a sticky web of interconnected sins. Like it says in Proverbs 5:22, “The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of sin hold him fast.”

This is how it went in Israel. For Amos condemns something else he sees in the land, “A man and his father go in to the same girl” (v 7). A couple things could be going on here. First, it might be a case of cultic prostitution. In a few minutes we’ll see how idolatry was infecting the land of Israel. And the idols often had a liturgy that was “seeker-sensitive,” because there was the appeal of sexual immorality. So other prophets condemn those who went to the prostitutes of Baal or some other god. This might be what verse 7 is referring to.

But it’s more likely that this was a variation on the same sin as before: injustice. We saw that this was one of the core issues in Amos’ time, people treating one another without consideration. That came out in greed. But it also came out in sexual sin. For if you were a rich man, and you had acquired servants, you might be tempted to sexually mistreat them. A powerful man could easily intimidate his servants if they didn’t agree to his wishes.  

So in verse 7 the LORD is still warning against oppressing the defenseless. He condemns trying to get what you want through exploitation: when nothing is thought of another person’s value in God’s sight, and there’s a seeking only of personal gain. On so many levels, this was wrong. Amos speaks against “a man and his father [going] in to the same girl.” This kind of perversity was forbidden in God’s law. Sexuality should only take place in the setting of a committed and exclusive bond of marriage. To share partners with anyone, family members or otherwise, is considered totally wrong.

And what’s the result? Adultery can have disastrous effects. We know that it can tear apart families, and it can traumatize children, and it can bring shame to the church. But the very worst effect is how God’s holy name is profaned. The LORD is direct: “[So they] defile my holy name” (v 7). This wasn’t simply injustice, or a mistreatment of women. No, God says this is a utter lack of fear for him as God. “They defile my holy name.” The men of Israel couldn’t pollute themselves like this without also defiling the Lord’s honour.

Beloved, think again of the question: If God held his plumb line next to us, what would it show? How do we as Christ’s people measure up to the standard of the Word? Are we taking advantage of people in this regard too, for our own gain? Are we thinking only of our own pleasure, not the well-being of others?

The question is relevant, because this is exactly the way that many people look at sexuality today. It’s there for the taking, because it makes you feel good. So you might get involved in meaningless physical relationships, just for the enjoyment of it. You might get into the habit of watching pornography. You might allow lustful thoughts to fill your mind all day. But in the process, think of how people are again exploited. They’re being used for nothing more than their bodies. And God’s name is being defiled.

The LORD says through his prophet, “I will not turn away punishment.” He condemns this sin! And let’s understand that this isn’t just an Old Testament truth. For God hasn’t changed his view of these things. He still vows to punish anyone who doesn’t repent of sin. He tells us that sin, when it’s fully grown, leads to death. Because He loves us, He warns us!

Consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians. He says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortionists will inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9-10). This is why the plumb line is so important: it reveals our sin. It points out those areas we need to repent. And we have to know that if we live in this kind of sin—or any other kind of sin—God won’t turn away his anger. If we don’t confess our sin and truly repent of it, we simply won’t have a place in God’s kingdom. If we give in to sin, it will kill us.

Amos had a difficult message. You could actually call it one of the most negative or severe books in the Bible, for in it there’s hardly a word of comfort. Yet the book ends with a word of salvation, in chapter 9. Amos 9 is worth reading, later on today. There Amos joins in with that chorus of patriarchs and prophets, who point to and pray for the coming of Christ. Even in days of great evil in Israel, God’s promise to save was not forgotten.

It wasn’t forgotten, for Christ did come to redeem us from all sin. And so after warning the Corinthians that the wicked won’t inherit God’s kingdom, Paul reminds them of the radical change through Christ: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 6:11). For those who earnestly seek him, in Christ there’s a cleansing from all sin. For those who believe in him, Christ gives a new resolve to be holy, and a new strength to walk in his ways.


3. a warning against false worship: Back in Israel, the web of sin just got tighter and thicker. This is what comes next: “They lie down by every altar on clothes taken in pledge, and drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god” (v 8). Is this verse a continuation of what comes before, about father and son laying with the same girl? Some have said it belongs to the same picture, that this “lying down by every altar” is cult prostitution. It’s not clear that it is. But what we have here is bad enough.

For Israel wasn’t bringing true worship to God. You remember that Jeroboam I didn’t want the people to go to the Jerusalem temple, so he made shrines at Dan and Bethel. But these two were only the beginning. Once you start with a little idolatry, it’s going to multiply. So there were many altars in Israel, at places like Gilgal.         

And besides false worship, injustice was again on display. For “they lie down by every altar on clothes taken in pledge” (v 8). As we saw before, those who were owed money could collect the last thing their debtors owned, even their outer garments, to ensure that payment was made. But God said you weren’t allowed to take such a pledge overnight. A cloak was needed for support of life, to keep out the evening cold. The people has to be compassionate, as God was.

But there the people were, at shrines for false worship, asleep on garments they should’ve returned to the needy, and full of wine: “They drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god” (v 8). Will God be pleased with this? Does He want to see his worshipers laying around, drunk, on stolen clothes? Of course not. Yet they still thought they were being religious by coming and sacrificing on the altars. This is how hypocrites always think that they’ll please God, by playing the role, putting on appearances of devotion. Everything’s fine: they’re worshiping, aren’t they? They’re giving their gifts!

Yes, the Israelites actually thought they were excelling in worship. Hear what the prophet says in 4:4, “Come to Bethel and transgress, at Gilgal multiply transgression. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days.” They would outdo one another in shows of religion, but all they were doing was piling up sin. Attention to ritual and tradition will never replace a living relationship with God.

So one more time, we need to ask the plumb line question. How is our worship? Is it genuine? Can we really draw near to God on Sunday, if our hearts are full of pride? Or full or anger, or full of bitterness? Can we truly worship, if we’re still hung over from the drinking last night? Is God pleased with us, if we’re here just for the approval of others? Can we impress God today, if we’ve mistreated the people around us all week long? How is our worship?

Amos wouldn’t be a true prophet if he didn’t tell us about the better way. So he calls his people to repentance. The LORD says in Amos 5:4-6, “Seek me and live… Do not seek Bethel, nor enter Gilgal… Seek the LORD and live.” Amos is telling God’s people that there can be true worship, sincere and heartfelt. There can be right sacrifices, pure and holy. That’s what God delights in. It means seeking him with humility, a heart that’s made confession of sin.

For when we confess our sin, we know that there’s a full forgiveness. When we repent of our sin, we know we’ve also got a faithful Saviour. For Christ our Lord was upright in all things, and his holiness becomes our holiness, by faith.

And just to return to images of bricks and mortar and plumb lines… Think of how Christ our Saviour has become the cornerstone. He’s the one on whom the whole church is built, strong and true. Christ alone gives us a firm and unshakable basis for holy living. In his Word and Spirit, He provides a foundation for uprightness that endures. As Ephesians 2 says, “In Christ the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (v 21).

So build on the Cornerstone. Strive to conform yourself to his will, in all things and every way. Let each of us—and all of us together—live for the Lord our Saviour. May we get ourselves more and more in line with his perfect Word!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2016, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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