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  • Paul Reich

Why I Call My Blog "The Plumbline" Part 3: Symbolic Reasons

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

The plumbline is used symbolically outside of Scripture for a divine, objective, and reliable standard of moral uprightness, justice, and truth.


"Weighing of the Heart" ceremony from the Book of the Dead

Hunefer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


In my last blog, I discussed the Bible’s use of the plumbline as a symbol for God’s standard of righteousness by which He evaluates our lives. In the Old Testament, God’s covenant people were to align their lives to the plumbline of His laws, and these laws were the same standard by which they would be judged. In the New Testament, the plumbline for followers of Christ (His new covenant people) is His life and teaching as recorded in the Gospels and the Epistles. The teaching of the New Testament also provides a lens through which we can properly interpret and apply the instructions and events of the Old Testament.


In this blog and the next, I will explore the symbolic use of the plumbline outside of the Scriptures as a divine, objective, and reliable standard of moral uprightness and truth. Though the Bible uses the plumbline uniquely to refer to God’s moral law, other cultures and groups recognize(d) the symbolic significance of the plumbline as representing a divine or absolute standard. In this blog and the next, I will examine the use of the plumbline in ancient Egyptian mythology, in Freemasonry, in broader culture, and in nautical usage. Doing so is not to endorse these ideologies, but simply to see the similar symbolic use of the plumbline outside of Scripture as a divine and objective standard.


The Plumbline in Ancient Egyptian Mythology


The symbolic use of the plumbline as a divine standard of justice, truth, and morality is seen in the mythology of ancient Egypt. Depicted in their hieroglyphs and drawings, the plumbline is not only portrayed as a tool used in construction, but also with higher representational meaning. One such place is in their drawings of the “Weighing of the Heart” ceremony.


The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart recorded all of the good and bad deeds of a person’s life, and was needed for judgment in the afterlife. After a person died, the heart was weighed against the feather of Maat (goddess of truth and justice). The scales were watched by Anubis (the jackal-headed god of embalming) and the results recorded by Thoth (the ibis-headed god of writing). If a person had led a decent life, the heart balanced with the feather and the person was rendered worthy to live forever in paradise with Osiris.[1]

Image from https://imgbin.com


Egyptian art depicts the judgment of the dead with some variation, though there are consistent elements. The above image is an artist’s replication of one such Egyptian portrayal of the "Weighing of the Heart" ceremony. Depicted are four Egyptian gods and four other noteworthy items that I describe briefly below.


Description of above Image[2]

Anubis (jackal head): Anubis was the god of the dead, also known as the “conductor of souls.” Note that his left hand is steadying the scale and his right hand is holding the plumb bob hanging from the scale, showing that he is the one responsible for weighing the heart.

Horus (falcon head): Horus was the god of the sky, war, order, and justice. As the god of order and justice he is observing the weighing of the heart. More complete judgment scenes will show additional Egyptian gods and foremost Osiris, king of the underworld and judge of the dead, seated on a throne (see full image below).

Thoth (ibis head): Also depicted in his baboon form sitting on top of the scales, Thoth was the god of learning and wisdom, the inventor of writing and science, and the protector of the scribes. His role in this pictograph is observing and recording the outcome of the ceremony.

Ammit (crocodile head): Ammit, also spelled various other ways, is depicted with the head of a crocodile, the rear legs of a hippo and the front legs of a lion – to the Egyptians these were the largest and most feared man-eating animals. Ammit was a goddess/demonness who sat beside the scales of Ma’at. She was also known as the Soul-Eater, the Heart-Eater, and the Devourer. If the heart was judged guilty, Ammit would devour it. Once devoured, the person was denied physical immortality and his soul would become restless forever.

Scales: These are the scales of Ma’at, also known as the scales of justice. Ma’at (not pictured above) was the goddess of truth and justice. In the image at the top of this blog, you will see her pictured in place of Thoth at the top of the scales. In the full image below, you will also see her in her bird form before king Osiris. It is also noteworthy that in Egyptian mythology, the judgment of the dead takes place in the Hall of Truth.

Feather: Note the ostrich feather (yellow) on top of the scale directly above the plumbline. There is a second one (turquoise) resting on the right tray of the scale. The feathers are from the goddess Ma’at, emphasizing the justice of this occasion as well as the standard of truth and morality by which the heart is weighed.

Heart: The heart is represented by the canopic burial jar resting on the left tray of the scale. The physical heart is not actually being weighed, but rather it represents the heart of the soul, which revealed the person’s true character.

Plumbline: The plumbline is held in the right hand of Anubis, the god of the dead. In some judgment scenes, Horus is seen holding the plumb bob. Note that the plumbline is suspended below the feather of Ma’at. The plumbline is aligning the scales and thereby “emphasizes the divine impartiality of the scales.”[3]


The judgment of the dead in the presence of Osiris

Hunefer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


It is not difficult to see the great emphasis on justice and truth in Egyptian beliefs about the judgment of the dead. The term "Ma'at" in ancient Egypt was used for both a concept and a goddess. The goddess Ma'at was the personification of the principle of Ma'at, which stood for truth, justice, righteousness, reciprocity, balance, order, and harmony. These were the traits symbolized by the feather in the tray, against which the heart was weighed. The plumbline, suspended from another feather of Ma'at, emphasized that the scales were also aligned to these principles and that the judgment would be true and just.


Perhaps, the Egyptian myth of "Weighing of the Heart" has contributed to the mistaken notion held by many today that they will enter heaven if their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds. The Scriptures are clear that this is not the case since all have sinned and fall short of God's standard (Romans 3:23). In fact, if we fail in one letter of the law, we are guilty of it all (James 2:10-11), in other words, we transgress the law and stand guilty before God.


We do not enter heaven because of the good we have done, but rather because of the good Christ has done for us by taking our sin upon Himself and dying in our place, thereby paying the price for our sins resulting in forgiveness and right standing before God (2 Corinthians 5:21). The good news of the Gospel is "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)


For the believer, we are saved by grace through faith, not of works, lest anyone would boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yet, even believers will be judged for their deeds in this life, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10), for though we are saved by grace, we are rewarded by works (1 Corinthians 3:8-15).


Moreover, God doesn't merely judge us for our deeds, he weighs our motives behind our actions. Jesus warned against practicing our righteousness before men to be noticed by them or we would have no reward with our Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1). Some religious leaders in Christ's day were guilty of flaunting their prayers, fasting for show, and giving to receive the praise of men. In contrast Jesus calls us to pray, fast, and give in secret and our Heavenly Father who sees in secret will reward us openly (Matthew 6:2-6, 16-18).


The apostle Paul teaches that I can speak in tongues, prophesy, know all mysteries, and even have faith to move mountains, but if I do not have love, I am nothing. Further, I can give all my possessions to feed the poor, and die a martyrs death, but if I don't have love, it profits me nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-4). God is not just concerned about the deeds that we do, but also the motive behind those deeds.


I find the "Weighing the Heart" ceremony intriguing because the Bible is replete with references to God searching and weighing our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Chronicles 28:9; 29:17; Psalm 26:2; 139:23; Proverbs 15:11; 17:3; 24:12; Jeremiah 11:20; 20:12; Romans 8:27; 1 Corinthians 4:5; Revelation 2:23). The Scriptures are clear that God not only judges our actions, but He also judges the motives behind our actions. One well-known verse conveying this is Jeremiah 17:10.


Jeremiah 17:10 (NIV)

10 “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.”


When thinking about weighing the heart, one cannot help but recall the handwriting on the wall incident in the book of Daniel. King Belshazzar chose to distribute to his festal guests the vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem. He and his nobles, wives and concubines defiled the vessels when they drank from them and worshipped idols. During their revelry, a large hand appeared and wrote on the wall the words: ‘MENĒ, MENĒ, TEKĒL, UPHARSIN.’ At this sight, the king became so fearful that his face went pale, his joints went slack, and his knees knocked together. When his diviners could not explain the words, eventually, Daniel was called to interpret them.


Daniel 5:26–28 (NASB)

26 “This is the interpretation of the message: ‘MENĒ’—God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it.

27 ‘TEKĒL’—you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient.

28 ‘PERĒS’—your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians.”


That very night, the armies of the Medes and Persians conquered the Babylonians (also known as Chaldeans) and king Belshazzar was killed (Daniel 5:30-31). This entire incident illustrates that God’s judgment is carried out by the standard of His divine scales. He is the true God who aligns the scales with His plumbline. His plumbline will be the standard by which our lives will also be judged.


Next week, we will look at other symbolic uses of the plumbline as a divine, objective, and reliable standard of moral uprightness, justice, and truth.


References:

[1] Author unknown. (2017) Funerary Customs: Weighing of the Heart. Carnegie Museum of Natural History. https://carnegiemnh.org/sarcophagus-image-carnegie-museum-of-natural/#:~:text=The%20ancient%20Egyptians%20believed%20that,goddess%20of%20truth%20and%20justice (accessed January 16, 2021).

[2] There are many websites that discuss the gods of Egypt and “Weighing the Heart” ceremony. My summary description draws from nearly a dozen of these sites.

[3] Smith, M. (2019, July 5). The Grand Architect: The Sacred Link Between Architecture and the Divine Across Ancient Cultures. https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-other-artifacts/grand-architect-0012238 (accessed January 16, 2021).

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