There are two parts to Amos. In the first, he describes three visions given to him by God. This section has a very folktale feel to it, as the first two visions establish a pattern, then the third breaks it (in folk tales, heroes often encounter something – a trial, a request, a question, etc – three times, with the third altering the pattern in some important way).
All three emphasise that the visions come from God, but we can also see how the pattern is established and then broken with these initiating lines. The first and second visions begin identically: “Thus the Lord God showed me” (Amos 7:1, Amos 7:4). The third, however, begins with: “He showed me” (Amos 7:7). Same meaning, but the different phrasing sets up the different outcome.
In the first two visions, God shows Amos some disaster he’s cooking up (the first is locusts who will eat all the grass, and the second is a fire that will devour the land).
Amos begs God to stop the disaster, and both times he asks:
How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!
Both times, God is moved by Amos’s speech and repents, staying his hand.
In the third vision, however, God is no longer showing Amos his destruction. Rather, he seems to be trying to convince Amos of the destruction’s rightness, giving him his reason for judgement rather than just showing him the results of it.
So in this third vision, Amos finds God standing beside a wall, holding a plumb line in his hand. Maybe. Apparently, the word used here isn’t known anywhere else, and there’s some debate about what it might mean. But though a number of objects are suggested (Claude Mariottini gives us the possibility that it might be a type of sword!), a plumb line (or similar) seems to fit the context quite well.
God tells Amos that he is setting a plumb line in the midst of the Israelites, and it is becomes of this that its high places and sanctuaries will be destroyed, and the house of Jeroboam will fall by the sword. A plumb line is used for ensuring that a vertical line is straight (in the way that a level is used for horizontal lines), so the implication is – as my study Bible puts it – that “the people are found warped beyond correction.” This is why they will be – must be – destroyed.
This time, Amos has no response. The implication is clear – he now sees what God has seen, he now knows that the destruction is warranted.
As a side note, the third vision sounds an awful lot like the prediction of destruction against King Manasseh of Judah in 2 Kgs 21:13.
In the second part of the chapter, the narrative switches to the third person as it describes Amos being exiled from Israel. Most commentaries claim that Amos 7:10-17 was added by a later editor, and that seems quite likely. It’s just too awkward to have been written by Amos himself.
Amaziah is the priest at Bethel, and he’s clearly out of patience for this weird guy who keeps preaching doom and gloom outside his sanctuary. To get rid of him, he appeals to King Jeroboam, claiming that Amos is conspiring against the king by working up the people; He’s been claiming that Jeroboam will die by the sword and that Israel will go into exile.
I’ve seen some commentaries claiming that the reference to Jeroboam’s death here is evidence that this section is original to Amos because Jeroboam does not die by the sword. Why keep the reference to a failed prediction if it isn’t even original to the author?
Maybe there’s more to this in the Hebrew, but the English RSV makes the claim rather silly. In Amos’s own words, we read that the house of Jeroboam will fall by the sword (Amos 7:9), not Jeroboam himself. What we’re reading in Amos 7:11 are the words of Amaziah, his interpretation of what Amos has said. And either the reader is meant to laugh at Amaziah’s incorrect understanding of Amos, or we’re meant to see Amaziah as a liar who twists Amos’s words to get the desired reaction from the king.
We never find out whether Jeroboam gave a crap about Amaziah’s claims, however. All we get is Amaziah himself telling Amos to leave, go prophecy in Judah.
In response, Amos says that he is not a prophet, nor a prophet’s son. Rather, he is a herdsman and a dresser of trees. God took him from his flock and told him to go prophecy to the people of Israel. And since Amaziah has told him not to do as God instructed him, God will make his wife a harlot, cause his children to die by the sword, and cause his land to be parcelled out. Amaziah himself will die in an unclean land, and Israel will go into exile. Yikes.
Much seems to be made of Amos’s claim not to be a prophet, with a lot riding on which tense would be most appropriate – is Amos claiming not to be a prophet, or saying that he wasn’t one until God called to him? The tense changes our interpretation quite considerably.
If his claim is indeed meant to be taken in the present tense, then he may be distancing himself from the guild of prophets, such as those we saw in 2 Kgs 2:3. This could mean that he is admitting that he lacks cultic authority, but that his relationship with God makes him legitimate anyway. Or it could be meant as an implicit indictment of the guild – Amos is claiming to have a direct line to God, unlike those professional charlatans!
According to Claude Mariottini, it may also be significant that Amaziah calls Amos a seer in Amos 7:12: “Amaziah recognized Amos’ authority to preach the Word of God. This is the reason Amaziah did not forbid Amos from preaching. Rather, Amaziah commanded Amos to leave the country and return to his home.” In other words, Amaziah agrees that Amos is a prophet, but could he please speak the words of God from somewhere else?
Amos’s response, that he is not a prophet, might then be in reference to the title that Amaziah uses, though this is complicated by the two using different words. Unless Amos is saying, “You’re right, I’m a seer (someone who receives divine transmissions), not a prophet (a member of a professional guilt who may or may not have any communication with God).” So is his response meant to be a clever twisting of Amaziah’s words to reinforce Amos’s authority?