“He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself …” (Isa. 44:20).

Some times ago, a New Yorker cartoon showed a portly man and his wife looking through the picture window of their living room at a lovely vista of fields and trees. The man was saying: “God’s country? Well, I suppose it is. But I own it.” We smile. Yet that cartoon points to the confusion between God’s ownership of everything we have and our stewardship of it. The confusion is one we have all at some time slipped into—not that we should ever think of expressing it so crassly as the cartoonist did.

In one way or another, the culture we live in is pushing us toward more elaborate living. No society in history has been so incessantly stimulated as ours to spend more and more money on nonessentials. And if the resulting materialism hinders our witness to a needy world, as it surely does, not all the fault lies with Madison Avenue and its unremitting appeals to self-indulgence. It lies also with us. With all our devotion to the Bible, we evangelicals have not been biblical enough to resist the pressures around us. We are zealous for bringing people to Christ—and I say this without disparagement. But we have neglected essential parts of Scripture in which God sets forth what he requires of us in our relation to our neighbors. Our fault has been, and still is, an unbiblical selectivity in the preaching, reading, and application of the Word of God.

Here is an excerpt from a full-page advertisement of a certain reference Bible: “At first glance you will recognize its major feature: a unique color shading system that instantly classifies all verses dealing with the four major Bible themes—Salvation, The Holy Spirit, Temporal Blessings, Prophecy.” There you have in a nutshell the imbalance that is weakening evangelical obedience to the whole counsel of God.

Since the 1920s I have attended evangelical churches and participated in many Bible conferences. Yet never have I heard at a Bible conference a responsible treatment of Amos’s strong words about the injustices done through the misuse of wealth or an exposition of the great passages in Isaiah and the other prophets that stress God’s concern for the poor and oppressed. Not, in fact, till this year have I heard in a conservative evangelical church any really forthright preaching about these things, which are so important in God’s sight. Prophecy, yes—but only in its predictive, eschatological aspect with little or nothing about the major witness of the prophets against the idolatry of things and the oppression that may be entailed in accumulating them.

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Why are so many evangelicals apparently insensitive to injustice? One reason may be an Old Testament translation problem. A discussion with a Christian friend in Washington, a distinguished professional man, showed me this. We had been talking about civil rights and my friend amazed me by insisting that the Bible has practically nothing to say about justice. Like most older evangelicals, my friend was devoted to the King James Version. So I investigated the use of the word “justice” in the KJV and found that mishpat, which the Hebrew uses far more than any other word for “justice,” is translated “judgment” 294 times in the KJV and only once “justice.” But in over 90 of these 294 times, mišpāṭ means “justice” and is so translated in newer versions. Thus for the reader of the KJV, Psalm 106:3, “Blessed are they who maintain justice” is “Blessed are they who keep judgment”; Isaiah 30:18, “The Lord is a God of justice” is “The Lord is a God of judgment”; and Amos’s magnificent imperative, “Let justice roll down like waters” (5:24, RSV), is narrowed to “Let judgment roll down like waters.” So also in scores of passages. Obviously the KJV use of “judgment” for “justice” has for many readers obscured the totality of the Old Testament emphasis on “justice,” an emphasis vitally linked to the need for a simple lifestyle.

But we are to think about some Old Testament aspects of the question, “How in This Affluent Society Should We Then Live?” Here, then, are six categories of Old Testament teaching that shed light on the need for simplifying the way we are living.

1The account of our creation, found in Genesis 1:26–27. This is the greatest thing ever said of humanity—that God made us in his image, an image which, though marred through the fall beyond human power to repair, is not beyond God’s regenerating power, an image that has never been effaced. This is the source of human dignity—not wealth or position, but our creation in God’s image.

No one has put the implications of this more powerfully than C. S. Lewis in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory”: “The dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.… You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations [and, may I interpose, all the trappings of affluence]—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

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What has this to do with our subject? Well, for one thing it sets our lifestyle in the perspective of the human dignity inherent in our creation. It compels us to see whether anything in the way we live tends to diminish or degrade the humanity of our fellow image-bearers. So it faces us with the relation of our lifestyle to meeting the needs of the poor and hungry and oppressed—in short, those whom God himself is especially concerned about. The Old Testament makes it clear that God’s people were to enjoy the fruit of the land and celebrate his goodness in joyful feasts. Yet along with this there had to be continuing provision for the needs of the poor and hungry. Christians can do no less.

Now the account of our creation also gives us another perspective. Here in Genesis 1 is the first biblical reference to stewardship. God made man responsible for the earth—to “fill [it] and subdue it” and “rule over” all living things (Gen. 1:29, NIV). God put him in the garden “to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15, NIV). So man received a delegated authority, a subordinate administration for which he was accountable to God. The biblical principle of the relation of humanity to God’s world is not ownership but stewardship. Therefore, for us to degrade the environment in the pursuit of affluence is to sin against our fellow image-bearers, because degrading the environment diminishes their rightful heritage. This is a perspective that we who live in the most wasteful society in the world, one that is consuming God-given natural resources at an unparalleled rate, must take seriously.

2The Decalogue (Exod. 20:1–17). The first two commandments confront us with a basic perspective. The Old Testament refers many times—and not always negatively—to prosperity and riches. Yet it also insistently warns against the idolatry of material things and allowing them to turn us from God. There is a sense in which the biblical history of Israel is one long record of their lapsing into idolatry and of God’s judgment upon them. What happened to Solomon, who began by asking God for wisdom instead of wealth and ended up by letting his lifestyle betray him into idolatry, including even the worship of Molech (1 Kings 11:7), shows the inherent snare of affluence. Not all idols are religious ones. Materialism with its inordinate preoccupation with money and with things is idolatrous. The mention of Molech, to whom human beings were sacrificed, raises a question about the place of the automobile in American life with its mounting toll of over 50,000 highway deaths annually—a number that most Christians, including those committed to social action, accept with little or no protest. Surely a responsible Christian lifestyle must be concerned about this sore spot in our national life and reckon with the idolatrous pride of possession that so often goes with car ownership.

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Consider next the fourth commandment. In their reaction against Sabbatarian legalism, most evangelicals have given little thought to the Sabbath principle in the Old Testament. It is true that Christians are not bound by the Hebrew Sabbath regulations in keeping the Lord’s Day. Nevertheless, the Sabbath has important things to say to us. One of them relates to the acquisitiveness that coexists with affluence. My friend, Dr. Joshua O. Haberman, senior rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, put one of the perspectives of this fourth commandment like this: “On the Sabbath,” he said, “I must acknowledge God the Creator by resting from my acquisitiveness, because I have no real title to anything. The Sabbath is the Day that fully shows God as Creator. In it we add nothing to what he has done.”

One of the pitfalls of a lifestyle marked by getting more and more things irrespective of need, is the false sense of ownership it fosters. But in its witness to God as Creator and to his ownership of everything, including material wealth, the Sabbath reminds us of our creatureliness.

Look now at the tenth commandment. Consider the link between its prohibition of covetousness and the fall in Eden. It was their inordinate desire for something they did not have that the serpent used to entice Adam and Eve into rebelling against God. The temptation was for them to reach out for another lifestyle that was not God’s will for them. This tenth commandment probes the sin behind the progressive aggrandizement that is leading Christians today into idolatrous lifestyles in which almost everything is spent on self and only a pittance given to help the poor and hungry. Inherent in covetousness is idolatry. The New Testament word for covetousness (pleonexia) has the meaning of “wanting more and more,” and Paul was right in saying twice (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5) that covetousness is idolatry. So an increasingly elaborate lifestyle, spurred by constant pressures to keep on getting things, comes full circle with the first two commandments.

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3The Sabbatical Year and the Year of the Jubilee (Lev. 25). Few Old Testament passages have been more closely studied by socially concerned Christians than this chapter. In it the Sabbath principle of the fourth commandment is extended and intensified. As Hans Ruedi-Weber says, “You cannot understand the Jubilee Year without understanding the Sabbath.” Built into the Jubilee Year regulations is the principle that the land does not belong to us but to God. We are “strangers and sojourners” (NIV, “aliens and tenants”) in it. Coupled with this are some powerful economic perspectives. As Arthur Holmes said in the Reformed Journal (Oct. 1978), the Jubilee Year regulations “prevented the perpetuation of destitution by periodically returning to the family those lands which had passed into the possession of others. The veto on Israelites charging [interest] is not in itself unjust. Fair pricing was also required, a corollary of the fact that business is a service to others rather than the pursuit of unqualified self-interest.”

But liberation was also built into the Jubilee Year, because in it the Hebrew slaves were to be freed, a provision that was likewise built into the Sabbatical Year. Since it was the prosperous Israelites who had slaves, this was an act of justice for the poor. Nor should we think that the provisions about slaves are irrelevant for us. All oppression of others is a form of bondage, and lifestyles that lord it over others are tainted with the spirit of slavery.

One more thing: the time when the Jubilee Year was proclaimed throughout the land was the tenth day of the seventh month—the Day of Atonement. So its context in Israel’s calendar was one of reconciliation. With its check on unrestrained aggrandizement and its stress on rectifying injustices, the Jubilee Year gives us perspectives on the relation of the way we use our resources and wealth (of which the land and slaves in Old Testament times were the counterpart) to the reconciliation available to us all in Christ—rich and poor alike. In short, the link of the Jubilee Year with the Day of Atonement reinforces the principle that we must not tolerate anything in our lifestyle that will diminish our brother or sister for whom Christ died.

4The tithe and the law of gleaning. Four principal Old Testament passages set forth the law of tithing in Israel: Leviticus 27:30–33; Numbers 18:21–32; Deuteronomy 12:5–18; 14:22–29. Questions as to how many tithes there were are for scholars to answer. But the perspectives of Old Testament tithing are plain. The practice of setting aside one-tenth of all produce of the land, including that derived from the animals that lived on it, powerfully affirmed stewardship. Tithing clearly implied that everything humanity has belongs to God. Imbedded in its laws was the compassionate provision that at the end of every third year the tithe for that year was to be laid up for the use of the Levites, and that the fatherless and widows were to come and eat it. Thus a kind of reserve would be built up.

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Akin to this was the beautiful law of gleaning (Lev. 9:9–10; Deut. 4:19–21). This required that at the harvest the fields were not to be reaped to their very borders nor the vineyards or olive groves stripped bare. Something was always to be left for the poor and the sojourner. (The second chapter of Ruth gives us a poignant glimpse of this practice.) We see, then, that in the law of gleaning God put into the economy of Israel still another compassionate requirement for helping the needy. This divine concern should lead us rich Christians to reassess the extent to which we are sharing our resources with the poor.

5A statement and an exhortation (Deut. 6:4–5). “Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (RSV). In these great words, there is first a basic theological statement and then an exhortation. The pattern is, as John Stott says, that “our theology must govern our conduct.” For us the perspectives implicit in these words in Deuteronomy are especially important, because the Lord Jesus used them, along with Leviticus 19:18, in defining the heart of Christian obedience based on love (Matt. 22:37–40).

Central to the Shema is the exhortation to love God, which occurs in Deuteronomy and nowhere else in the Old Testament. The three terms—with all your heart, soul, and might—include our total being, our mind and will and desires, our emotions, our intellectual and physical energies. Yes, and our possessions too. The Jewish commentator Rashi related the words, “with all your might,” to “with all your money, for,” he said, “you sometimes find a man whose money is dearer to him than his life.” For us Christians, Deuteronomy 6:4–5 probes the integrity of our commitment to the God who “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32, NIV). In its perspective, we must examine our lifestyle to find the extent to which it reflects our love for God and our love for our neighbor. Hard questions come to mind: Does an indulgent lifestyle betray a failure in love? Is increasing expenditure on material things depriving our poor and hungry neighbors of help? Is idolatry of things impairing the integrity of our love for God?

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The words of Deuteronomy 6:6–7, moreover, compel us to think about what our lifestyle is teaching our children. Is it such as to give them the feeling of entitlement to having more and more things that characterizes children of the affluent? Does it show them that, beyond our oral testimony, we love God with our whole being, and with our money too, and that we love our neighbors as ourselves? And if we feel compelled to cut down our manner of living drastically, let us be sure not to deprive our children of any necessities, for our children, too, are our neighbors.

6The great body of Old Testament teaching about possessions and prosperity. The Old Testament says much about wealth and possessions. Passage after passage deals with these things. Scripture neither idealizes poverty nor condemns wealth and prosperity as themselves evil. In his covenant-dealings with his people, God does reward obedience with material prosperity. There are Scripture promises—not a few of them—of temporal blessings for God’s people. But along with these, there is always the underlying premise of God’s sole ownership of everything and of his grace in doing for his people what they cannot do for themselves. Though the Old Testament says that God gives prosperity to the righteous, as Ronald Sider points out, it denies the opposite—namely, that wealth and prosperity always indicate righteousness. On the contrary, it shows over and over that wealth may be the fruit of oppression and exploitation—sins for which God has not only destroyed individuals but wiped out whole nations.

Many thoughtful readers of the Old Testament have felt the tension between the promises of prosperity for the righteous (as in Ps. 37:34) and the plain fact that the righteous are sometimes poor and needy through no fault of their own—a circumstance the writer of Psalm 37 apparently overlooked when he wrote: “I have been young and now am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (v. 25). Perhaps he was stating the norm to which there are always exceptions. It is interesting that when this psalm is read in Jewish worship after a meal the leader sometimes reads this verse silently lest a righteous poor person should be offended.

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For a divine perspective on the tension we cannot help feeling between the righteous poor and the flourishing wicked, we may go to Psalm 73, where Asaph says his feet had “almost slipped” when he saw the wicked—strong, proud, and carefree, boasting in the enjoyment of their wealth. “When I tried to understand all this,” he wrote, “it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (Ps. 73:16–17, NIV). There follows in the psalm the picture of the swift destruction of the wicked rich as God’s inexorable judgment overtakes them.

With all the Old Testament says about wealth and prosperity, it sets them in clearly defined perspective. While not forbidding them, it hedges them about with restrictions and cautions. They are not to be accumulated just for the sake of getting more and more, they must not be gained by oppression and injustice, they can and do lead to covetousness. They do not belong to us but to God, who is the ultimate owner of all we have. Therefore, we are stewards, not proprietors, of our wealth. In our use of it, we are sinning if we do not reflect God’s strong concern for the poor and the hungry, the weak and the oppressed. What we do with what we have must be in accord with the great command to love God with everything we are and have. Even our ability to gain wealth is a stewardship like any other talent. The Old Testament reminds us that it is God who has given us the ability to get wealth (Deut. 7:17–18, RSV).

The Old Testament does not tell us specifically whether we should buy a better car, or keep the one we have, or have no car at all. It does not tell us whether we should upgrade our lifestyle by getting a bigger house or cut it back by getting a smaller one. It does not specify exactly what our lifestyle should be. What it does do is to give us certain principles by which we must measure our lifestyle. To face these principles honestly and prayerfully is bound to lead to changes in how in this affluent society we are living—changes that will simplify our lives and help us to be more obedient disciples of our Lord.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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