Greed & Oppression of the Poor (Bible Study) – Part 5

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]
God’s Judgment of the Oppressors

Isaiah 3:14-15, “The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of His people: ‘It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’ says the Lord God of hosts.”
Context: Isaiah prophecies against Judah (the southern kingdom) during the time period in which Israel (the northern kingdom) was under siege by Assyria.
Analysis: One of two things is happening here. Either, the wealthy vineyard owners are underpaying their workers (and God is saying that the workers deserve more of the spoils), or the nation’s leadership is taking from small, local farmers and hoarding the spoils to support their luxurious lifestyles.
Some might see the latter explanation as one that opposes taxation. But, as we’ll see later, there’s a difference between taxes that take from the wealthy to help the poor and taxes that take from the poor to enrich the wealthy, as these taxes do.

Isaiah 5:8, “Ah [‘Woe to’ in the NASB], you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!”
Context: Isaiah prophecies against Judah (the southern kingdom) during the time period in which Israel (the northern kingdom) was under siege by Assyria.
Isaiah 10:1-2, “Ah [‘Woe to’ in the NASB], you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!”
Context: Isaiah prophecies against Israel.
Analysis: Notice that God addresses politics as He rebukes those “who write oppressive statutes.” I’m unaware, however, of any civilizations that have passed laws requiring the wealthy to oppress the poor. It’s not what the law commands that oppresses the poor; it’s what the law permits. Allowing business and legal practices that make life harder for the working class is the sin of which this verse speaks.

Isaiah 58:3, “‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.”
Isaiah 58:6-7, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Isaiah 58:9-10, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
Context: Isaiah prophecies against Judah.
Analysis: Verses 3-9 demonstrate that God turns His back on nations that neglect the needs of the poor. Some Christians say that the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are evidence that God is turning His back on the United States. If they are correct, it may not be the sins of the non-Christians (such as homosexuals) fueling God’s anger, however, but the sins of the Christians who oppress the poor. Remember, it wasn’t the World Gay Center that fell; it was the World Trade Center. If this disaster was indeed God’s punishment on America, it was our business practices He was judging, not the sexuality of non-Christians.

Jeremiah 5:28-29, “They have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things…?”
Jeremiah 6:6, “For thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Cut down her trees; cast up a siege ramp against Jerusalem. This is the city that must be punished; there is nothing but oppression in her.”
Context: Jeremiah prophesied to Judah during the years prior to its fall to Babylon.
Analysis: Notice that, in chapter 5:28-29, God wants the wealthy to “make” the orphans prosper. He denies the wealthy the right to do whatever they want with their money and power. When they assume such a right, God’s punishment follows.

Amos 2:6-7, “Thus says the Lord, ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.”
Amos 4:1, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’”
Amos 5:11-12, “Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.”
Amos 8:4, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land…”
Context: God speaks against the sins of Israel and goes on to promise a day of judgment upon it.
Analysis: We’re seeing an abundance of verses in which God promises wrath for His people who oppress the poor. Will we American Christians experience this wrath? Will oppressing and neglecting the needy, while supporting the wealthy, be acceptable as long as we do it in Jesus’ name?

Ezekiel 16:49, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and the needy.”
Context: Ezekiel is prophesying against Jerusalem.
Analysis: This is yet another example of God infuriated with a nation that fails to care for its poor.

Daniel 4:27, “Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with the righteous, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged.”
Context: Daniel interprets the dream of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.

Micah 2:2-3, “They covet fields, and seize them; house, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance. Therefore thus says the Lord: Now, I am devising against this family an evil from which you cannot remove your necks; and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be an evil time.”
Context: Micah prophecies judgment against Samaria and Jerusalem.
Analysis: Here the word “covet” again applies to the desire to acquire someone else’s property.
Unlike portable objects, houses and lands are immovable. To take them requires a political or financial scheme. In modern times (at least up through 2008), this scheme might involve a loan to someone who’s unlikely to be able to keep up with the payments, or even an Adjustable Rate Mortgage in which the lender knows that the borrower will be forced to foreclose when interest rates rise, thus allowing the lender to seize the property and sell it at a profit in the event that prices rise after the loan is issued.
Many people support schemes like these by placing all blame on the borrower for wanting and borrowing more than they can afford. But I know from both sales experience and being the target of mortgage industry sales pitches that mortgage sales reps twisted numbers in order to deceive potential homeowners into borrowing more than they could afford. The mortgage companies didn’t care if the people couldn’t pay (because they sold the mortgages off to be bundled into securities); they only cared about the size of their commissions—the bigger the loan, the more they earned. Granted, in the end, this wasn’t a scheme to take property, but it was a scheme to run up prices, earn big payouts, and earn additional refinancing income when the rates adjusted on the ARM’s, all at the expense of unsuspecting individuals. Either way, it’s an example of oppressing “householder and house, people and their inheritance.”

Malachi 3:5, “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear Me, says the Lord of hosts.”
Context: Unhappy with the behavior of the Jews during the decades following their return from Babylon, God promises future judgment upon Israel again, but this time, through the coming of Jesus.
Analysis: How are “hired workers” oppressed in their wages? It’s possible that their promised wages were withheld, but businesses that practiced such things probably had trouble recruiting workers after a short time. It’s far more likely that these businesses oppressed their workers by paying them too little.
As Americans, this makes no sense to us, because we’re taught that it’s right, as well as “just good business”, to pay workers as little as the free market will allow. The goal of any supposedly efficient business is to minimize the cost of labor in order to maximize profits. In such a world, there’s no such thing as paying a worker too little; if an employer’s compensation for a particular job is below that job’s market value, then qualified workers will find “fair” wages elsewhere and the job will never be consistently filled.
But this passage indicates that God holds a different set of values. Maybe workers deserve more than being paid as little as the free market will permit. Maybe they should be paid wages that reflect the value of the workers’ contribution to their employers’ success. Or maybe they should be paid enough to afford food, shelter, clothing and basic enjoyment of life, since they’re of great value, being created in God’s image.
That’s not to say that businesses struggling to survive are guilty of sin when they pay workers low wages. But when corporate executives and investors earn several hundred times as much as their employees, who are paid as little as the market will allow, they likely violate God’s words in this passage.

Matthew 25:41-46, “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they will also answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Context: Jesus explains that on Judgment Day, He will separate the righteous from the evil. The righteous will receive eternal life, while the evil will face God’s wrath.
Analysis: In the Old Testament, God brings wrath upon the nation of Israel for their neglect and oppression of the poor. Jesus’ ministry, on the other hand, focused upon individuals rather than upon a nation.
We who oppress and neglect the poor will suffer eternal punishment. Many Christians might argue that we receive forgiveness for this if we believe in Jesus, but that’s only if we repent of this behavior and try to turn away from our sin. Remember, in Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my father in heaven.” Jesus makes it clear that mercy on the poor is a vital part of God’s will. Therefore, it’s a requirement for eternal life.

Luke 6:24, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”
Context: Chapter 6 is Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. Some will argue that this is a different sermon, because verse 17 says that Jesus came down to a level place. However, many mountains have level areas, and the text does not say that He came off the mountain. Also, the events that follow the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew follow this sermon as well.
Analysis: Are all wealthy, full, and happy people going to hell? Probably not. Here, Jesus warns the wealthy that their prosperity on earth will one day end, and that if their prosperity results from oppression of the poor or causes neglect of the poor, they will be the ones suffering for eternity.

Acts 5:1-5, “But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the Apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were of the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard it.”
Context: See Acts 4:32, 34.
Analysis: Why did Ananias and Sapphira lie? Were they required to sell their property and give all the money to the church, or had they promised to do so in an attempt to impress others? I guess we’ll never know. It’s enough to make us wonder whether all Christians must sell their homes and give the proceeds to the church. There are, however, biblical references to Christians owning homes, such as 1 Corinthians 11:22 in which Paul says, “Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?” So we need not jump to a rash conclusion based on this example.