Prophetic Protest against Poverty The Old Testament Prophets on Rich and Poor
Prophetic Protest against Poverty The Old Testament Prophets on Rich and Poor
The unmasking of the greed and selfishness of the rich in Israel was in itself already a prophetic protest against those who, in a significant way, contributed to the increasing impoverishment of large groups in Israel’s society. Besides this the prophets also used clear language as they openly took their position against the oppressors of the weak in society because they carried the greatest responsibility for the social disruption among God’s people. However, it is important to note that the prophets never and nowhere preached a revolution against these abuses, and even less did they unleash an uprising against the authorities. Their protest is directed as an undeniable accusation and critique at the leaders and the rich, who are guilty of discrimination and societal misconduct. They are not afraid to expose even the highest authorities, the kings, and to use harsh language in mentioning the wrongdoing of these rulers. They often dare to pronounce nothing less than the holy judgment of God upon their actions.
In this way, at God’s command, the prophet Elijah goes to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel who got rid of Naboth in a despicable way so that they could take ownership of his vineyard. Through worthless false witnesses Jezebel caused a false accusation to be pronounced, as if Naboth had been unfaithful to God and to the king (1 Kings 21). The sad consequence of the shameful perversion of justice that took place here, was that this Nabotha man — who simply wanted to remain faithful to the inheritance he had received through the Lord God to his forefathers — was dragged outside the city and killed in a horrendous way of stoning. When Jezebel heard how her cruel plot had succeeded, she thought she had won the case and she urged her husband to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard. All obstacles had been removed, right?
But they did not think of the fact that there is still a God in heaven who is fair. While Ahab is busy checking out the vineyard, the Lord God sends his prophet Elijah to the king. The prophet announces to Ahab, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord” (v. 20). Elijah openly accuses the royal couple of murder and theft, and boldly he announces God’s judgment; first upon Ahab: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood”; and next upon Jezebel: “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the walls of Jezreel” (vv. 19, 23). And not only the royal couple themselves, but even the entire dynasty of Ahab will be destroyed by the Lord’s judgment over the social injustice that the king and his wife have on their conscience: “Behold, I will bring disaster upon you. I will utterly burn you up, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.”
Jeremiah Accuses Jehoiakim←⤒🔗
A few centuries later the prophet Jeremiah, equally undaunted, turns to king Jehoiakim and pronounces his woe over the king who exploits the helpless labourers in a scandalous way for the building of his proud palace.
“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice,
who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing
and does not give him his wages,
who says, ‘I will build myself a great house
with spacious upper rooms,’
who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar
and painting it with vermilion.”
The prophet protests vehemently against the king and the abuse he is perpetrating:
“But you have eyes and heart
only for your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.”
In the name of the Lord Jeremiah announces to this king, who treated his poor subjects so shamefully and cruelly, an equally shameful lot as he has caused his poor subjects:
“They shall not lament for him, saying,
‘Ah, my brother!’ or ‘Ah, sister!’
They shall not lament for him, saying,
‘Ah, lord!’ or ‘Ah, his majesty!’
With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried,
dragged and dumped beyond the gates of Jerusalem” (Jer. 22:13-19).
Amos and the Judgment of God←⤒🔗
Not only the king, but also other leaders get the brunt of things when the prophetic protest unburdens itself upon all the injustice by which the weak in society have been thrown into misery. Thus, Amos announces in God’s name the irrevocable judgment of the Lord, in the form of an earthquake that will bring about death and destruction. It will target the honourable inhabitants of northern Israel because they exploit the innocent poor and sell them like merchandise when they could not make their debt payments in time (Amos 2:6-16).
The same prophet proclaims God’s punishment for the violence and oppression that the owners of the large villas have committed in order to enrich themselves and to load up their houses with the spoil of the poor with their unjust gain. The Lord will cause a hostile army to come so that in turn they will take the plunder from the homes of those who plundered the poor. “Therefore thus says the Lord God: ‘An adversary, one who surrounds the land — he shall bring down your defenses from you, and your strongholds shall be plundered’” (Amos 3:9-11).
And the rich ladies, living in their luxurious palaces on the mountain of Samaria, who no less than their husbands oppress and trample the destitute and the poor, are scolded by the prophet in a non-courteous manner as “cows of Bashan”; they are being confronted with the judgment of the Lord that they brought upon themselves: through the breaches of the then destroyed town they will be carried far away to the land of their enemy (4:1-3). Death and destruction, exile and imprisonment, lamentation and mourning (8:9, 10) will be the destiny of the Israelites who besieged the innocent poor and pressed them hard; who made their poverty and misery even more unbearable by robbing them of their rights (5:7-17). They get to hear, “Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.”
And when yet another prophet looks at the ample buildings in the large city, he sees at the same time the suffering and the despair of the poor at whose cost these mighty dwellings have been built. Behind the walls of the large mansions he sees with his spiritual eyes the treasures that the rich have amassed by their ungodly tampering with wicked scales and deceitful weights. These godless rich with their swindle and exploitation invite not only the protest of the prophet, but above all the judgment of the Lord: “I will strike you for your sins!” Destruction and the sword will be the lot of the cheating eminences who themselves have caused so much misery and violence. The rich who made the poor suffer famine because of their greed and exploitation, will yet eat but will not be satisfied; their hunger will continue to consume them (Mic. 6:10–15).
The “Woe” of Isaiah←⤒🔗
The prophetic protest against the growing poverty in Israel is not merely a human reaction to the injustice and suffering that the prophets have witnessed, it is ultimately the protest of the Lord God himself against the violation of his covenant with his people, and the subsequent disruption of the solidarity among his people. That is why his judgment is so severe upon the culprits of the breach among his people, something that caused the weak to fall victim to them.
That is why the protest of the prophets is worded so vehemently — not only by Amos in the northern kingdom but also with his somewhat younger contemporary colleague, Isaiah, in the southern kingdom. More than a century after the protest of the northern prophet Elijah against Ahab and Jezebel, we still hear a merciless “Woe to you” from Isaiah’s mouth directed to the landowners who, in their greed, disdained the ancient basic rights of Israel, who turned poor families into slaves, and who robbed the already destitute from their already scanty belongings and properties.
“Woe to those who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone
in the midst of the land.” Isa. 5:8; cf. Mic. 2:1, 2
With this “woe” the prophet announces no less than the sentence of death to the greedy rich. The “woe” that the Israelites voiced as a lament when a dear relative had died (“woe my mother,” “woe my brother,” etc.) has been brought by the prophets from the atmosphere of the house of mourning to the proclamation of death to political and social abusers of God’s law. When God’s prophets announce their “woe” to the rulers who are robbing the poor of their property and of their right to a fair process (Amos 5:7–12; Isa. 10:1–4) the oppressors are already carrying the seed of death in themselves. The rich robbers will be devastated under God’s judgment and enemies will destroy their possessions (Isa. 5:9; cf. Mic. 3:12). Because justice has degenerated into a system of corruption and oppression of the poor “the Lord will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of the people” (Isa. 3:14).
The fact that the Lord is “the Holy One” — a favoured expression of Isaiah — does not hold true merely in religion and in worship, but it counts equally for public life: social injustice, oppression and exploitation of the weak in society; all of this cannot continue to exist before his holy eyes. He bans those who commit violence and oppression, such that the poor and humble will be able to rejoice in the Holy One of Israel (Isa. 29:19-21).
Zephaniah and Jeremiah Concerning Jerusalem←⤒🔗
Again a century later the prophet Zephaniah pronounces a “woe to you” upon Jerusalem because it has become a rebellious and polluted city full of oppressors and exploiters, a city in which people have discounted God and his commandments and where the only focus is their own interests.
The rulers treat the disadvantaged in a harsh and cruel manner, like lions. The judges, like wolves, prey on bribes to enrich themselves by condemning the innocent poor. Prophets and priests abuse their divine calling to serve their greed instead of the Lord God (Zeph. 3:1–2). God himself will visit these people (see Jer. 5:26–31) and in the same way he will deal with the merchants who, just like the heathen Canaanites (see Hos. 12:8–9), are trying to gain more and more money for themselves at the disadvantage of their compatriots.
The large quantities of gold and silver, farmlands, and houses, which they had hoarded by their fraudulent trade, are coming under the Lord’s judgment. Such a greedy and selfish mentality means not only a serious violation of the life of the weaker part of society, but is combined with indifference toward God. To them, the Lord God no longer means anything. At best they are thinking, “We can easily do whatever we want.” “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill” (Zeph. 1:11–18).
But they are mistaken, for the day of the Lord, the great day of his judgment, is near: that will mean the end of all exploitation and cheating. Then the protest that the prophets had to sound forth in God’s name against all oppression and injustice will result in the definitive judgment of the day of God’s wrath, “a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry.” The hoarded gold and silver will not be able to save the rich on that day of distress. Escape and salvation will be available only for the poor and humble people who have learned in all their oppression to find shelter and refuge in the name of the Lord (Zeph. 3:12).
A little later, in the final years before the destruction of Jerusalem, we hear Jeremiah protesting against the ungodly in the city whose aim it is to fill their own wallets and houses through injustice and violence, lies and racketeering, without showing the least concern for the desolation of their victims. God’s judgment will target them: “For disaster looms out of the north, and great destruction. The lovely and delicately bred I will destroy...and her palaces” (Jer. 5:26–6:8).
During the early years of the exile, when many leaders and princes had already been deported to Babylon, we hear the prophet Ezekiel utter a similar protest against the rulers in the rural country of Judah, who equally make themselves guilty of extortion and robbery, oppression of the poor and the destitute, committing violence toward foreigners. Such social abuses not only affect the victims, but also the Lord God himself. They are proof of the fact that the oppressors are no longer keeping God in mind: “You have forgotten me, declares the Lord God” (Ezek. 22:12).
Therefore, by destroying the land through the Babylonians, God has executed his verdict upon them and repaid them in equal measure: “I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord God” (Ezek. 22:31).
The protests of the prophets against the rich, and their speaking up for the oppressed poor, continued to sound until the prophet Malachi as the last of the scriptural prophets. This prophet also sees the day of the great judgment of God — the day of the Lord — approaching where he will pronounce his verdict on those who transgressed his law. This verdict would not only concern the magicians, adulterers, and cheaters, but particularly also those who acted shamefully in a social regard by keeping the wages of the hired day labourer, by oppressing the widow and the orphan, and by pushing the sojourner aside. Through such abuses they show that there is no fear of the Lord (Mal. 3:5). To all of those the warning holds true: “The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze” (Mal. 4:1).
God’s threat of judgment shows that the prophetic protest against poverty is not purely a human affair; it is God himself who will do justice to the poor and who will free the oppressed. Therefore, he expects from his prophets, yes, from all his people that they will oppose the harrowing social malpractices, and that they will stand up for people who suffer under poverty, oppression, and injustice.
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