Scriptures use the plumbline as a metaphor for God's standard of righteousness by which He evaluates our lives.
One of Dad's plumb bobs laying on his Bible open to Amos 7:7-9. This passage, highlighted by him, was particularly meaningful to him and was the motivation behind him turning wooden plumb bobs.
The plumbline is a tool that has been in use since early human history. Archaeological discoveries show that the ancient nations of Egypt and Babylon used plumblines. They were also common in Greek and Roman culture. Bible history spans all four of these cultures, so it is no surprise to see the plumbline mentioned in the Scriptures.
Most of the structures built in the ancient world, especially the near east, were made of quarried stone or brick – houses, temples, palaces, defensive walls, towers, and more. For several thousand years, the plumbline was among the most common measuring tools used to ensure that the walls of these structures were “plumb” (straight and vertical). Though the ancients did not have our scientific understanding of the law of gravity, through observation they could certainly learn that a weight suspended on a string behaved consistently and it hung true regardless of the terrain. Obviously, this was found to be very useful for building vertical structures.
In addition to its usefulness in building, the plumbline’s faithful nature to hang “plumb” became a ready symbol for abstract standards used for evaluation. We will look more at the symbolic use of plumblines in my next blog post. For now, this gives sufficient foundation for understanding the metaphorical use of the plumbline in Scripture.
In Amos 7:7-9 (a passage that was meaningful to my Dad - see photo and caption above), Amos had a vision of God standing next to a vertical wall with a plumbline in His hand.
Amos 7:7–9 (NIV)
7 This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand.
8 And the LORD asked me, “What do you see, Amos?” “A plumb line,” I replied. Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.
9 “The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.”
This is the third of five visions that Amos had. All five visions speak of God’s judgment on Israel (a message for another time). In this vision of the plumbline, God symbolically told Amos why he must judge His people. Amos understood the interpretation. The plumbline stood for God’s moral standard by which He would judge His people.
On Sinai, God made a covenant with the nation of Israel. This covenant outlined the stipulations for their relationship with God and His blessing on their nation. Should they violate these laws, God would judge them. Both the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience are clearly stated in numerous passages throughout the Torah, in particular Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. It was these covenant guidelines, in other words, His laws and commandments, by which God would judge His people.
They were to worship only God, and they were not to make or worship idols. Yet, Israel was guilty of great idolatry (Amos 4:4; 5:5, 26). They were not to commit adultery. Yet, Israel was guilty of gross sexual immorality through temple prostitution (Amos 2:7b-8). They were not to steal or bear false witness. Yet, Israel was guilty of exploiting the poor (Amos 2:6-7a; 5:10-12), injustice in the courts (Amos 5:7, 10-12; 6;12), and dishonest business practices (Amos 8:5-6). In fact, Amos indicts Israel for more than a dozen distinct moral violations of God’s commandments.
The 10 commandments and the additional laws given by God to explain them (613 in total) taught the nation of Israel how to walk with God and how to treat their fellow man. They were to build their lives and their nation around the plumbline of God’s laws, which explained the ways of righteousness and justice. The plumbline is a symbol of this.
Isaiah 28:17 (NIV)
17a I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line; ....
Justice and righteousness are both very important themes in the Old Testament. In fact, they occur together in tandem more than 50 times, with 35 of these times occurring in the prophets. So, these were vital topics for the prophets, including Amos. These terms occur together three times in his book. In one such passage, Amos describes how God hates their worship because of their hypocrisy. He calls them to “hate evil, love good, and establish justice” (Amos 5:15). He then gives a picture of the refreshing, cleansing, and life-giving force of justice and righteousness.
Amos 5:24 (NIV)
24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
The Hebrew words for justice (miš·pāṭ) and righteousness (ṣeḏā·qā) both speak of conforming to established standards. Righteous is nuanced more relationally and speaks of walking morally in a way that pleases God and rightly treats our fellow man. In other words, one is in a right and healthy relationship with God and others because he is living according to God’s standards. Justice is nuanced more judicially and speaks of impartial equity in rendering judgment. Decisions are reached based on established standards and not because of bias, self-interest (such as bribery), or deception (such as false witnesses). Together they speak of righteous alignment with God, with our fellow man, and in the functions of our society.
When the nation of Israel was first built, they were built straight and true, but over time, they had become crooked and corrupt. They were no longer upright but were leaning severely. They had abandoned God’s string line of justice and His plumbline of righteousness. God used the plumbline to show Amos that their wall was dangerously tilting and needed to come down.
Amos was familiar with this imagery. Plumblines were commonly used in his day to ensure that the walls of a house, the protective walls around the city, or walls of other structures were built vertically. A leaning wall was very dangerous, for it could fall and injure people. Even Jesus mentioned a contemporary account familiar to His audience when the tower of Siloam fell and killed 18 people (Luke 13:4).
Many structures in the ancient world were not built on proper foundations. Over time, if the foundation under the wall was not sound, the weight of a stone or brick wall would cause it to lean. The well-known leaning Tower of Pisa is a more recent example of a structure inclining because of a faulty foundation. Other forces could also contribute to a leaning wall such as the weight of a second story, an earthquake, or deterioration over time. A leaning wall was dangerous, and it had to be shored up or it would have to be removed.
Leaning and collapsing walls were not uncommon in the ancient world. David used the imagery of a "leaning wall" and a "toppling fence" to describe himself during a time that his enemies attempted to "throw [him] down" and "topple [him] from [his] lofty place" (Psalm 62:3-4 NIV). Isaiah even described the sin of God's people as a high wall that is about to collapse suddenly.
Isaiah 30:13 (NIV)
13 this sin will become for you like a high wall, cracked and bulging, that collapses suddenly, in an instant.
It was especially important to repair or replace protective walls used for defense. A leaning city wall could easily be toppled by the enemy creating a breach in the wall through which they could attack. Regardless of the purpose of a wall, it needed to be built upright and true in alignment with the plumbline. Any weaknesses in the wall had to be repaired or the wall needed to be destroyed and replaced. This brings us to the second metaphorical use of the plumbline in Scripture.
The plumbline in Scripture not only illustrates building correctly according to God’s standards of justice and righteousness found in His laws, it also illustrates judgment – something implied above, but clearly stated in several Old Testament passages.
2 Kings 21:13 (NIV)
13 I will stretch out over Jerusalem [the capital of Judah, the nation comprised of the southern 2 tribes of divided Israel] the measuring line used against Samaria [another name for the 10 tribes that formed northern Israel] and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab [a wicked King from northern Israel]. I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.
Lamentations 2:8 (NIV)
8 The Lord determined to tear down the wall around Daughter Zion. He stretched out a measuring line and did not withhold his hand from destroying. He made ramparts and walls lament; together they wasted away.
Isaiah 34:11b (NIV)
11b ... God will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of chaos and the plumb line of desolation.
As already noted, if a leaning wall was not repaired or replaced, it could endanger lives either by falling on someone or allowing illegitimate access. Walls beyond repair had to be destroyed. When God’s people or another nation exceeded His allowance of sin and did not repent and repair their ways even though God in His grace gave them opportunity to do so, there came a time when He would finally judge them. He often did this by allowing an enemy nation to invade and conquer the offending nation (Lamentations 2:7-8). This resulted in them either being destroyed or taken into captivity and dispossessed from their land.
God is a building inspector. The standard used to build correctly is the same standard used to judge. This is true even in our day. We have building codes that must be met before occupancy can be approved. If a building is dilapidated and not up to code, it is condemned by the very same code that is used to ensure a building is constructed safely. If a structure does not meet the building code, there are two options: either it must undergo renovations to be brought up to code so it is once again fit for occupancy or it will be condemned.
This is the message of Amos. Basically, Amos called God’s people to repent of their idolatry and numerous other sins. He called them to turn back to God and “renovate” their lives. If they would repent and bring their lives “up to code,” God would be merciful, and they would "live" (Amos 5:4-15). But because they did not repent and change their ways, God’s plumbline condemned them.
By using the plumbline, God showed Amos that the devotion and practices of Israel had become so crooked and corrupt that judgment must come. In this case, God's judgment would primarily be directed toward the places of idolatry and the household of Jeroboam (Amos 7:9). By focusing His judgment on the religious and political corruption of Israel, the military, financial, and judicial infrastructures would also fall. In this way, God would judge them for their idolatry, immorality, injustice in the courts, dishonesty in business, and every other facet of their sin. Historically, this judgment took place about 40 years later when the Assyrians conquered the nation of Israel, killing countless people and leading many into captivity.
God still has a plumbline for His people today. For Christians, this plumbline is two-fold: the living Word (Jesus Christ) and the written word (the Scriptures). As disciples of Jesus, we are to follow both His example and His teaching. Both His life and His teaching are recorded in the Gospels. Christ’s example is further upheld and His teaching expanded through the writings of His apostles in the New Testament epistles. In future blogs we will explore more in depth how Christ and His teaching serve collectively as a plumbline for our lives. We will also discover that when interpreted through the filter of the New Testament, much of the Old Testament is also relevant for our lives today.
God’s word is the plumbline that instructs us in righteousness so that our lives are built in alignment with His standards (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Furthermore, His word is also the plumbline by which our lives will be judged (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14; John 12:48). It is this rich two-fold meaning conveyed by the plumbline in the Scriptures that has most significantly influenced me to name my blog "The Plumbline" and to call this ministry "Plumbline Ministries" with the motto "Aligning Lives to God's Word." Next week, we'll look at other symbolic reasons for naming my blog "The Plumbline."