Please read Deuteronomy 15:1-11 in your Bible.
A highly successful businessman was once asked to make a substantial donation toward an urgent charity appeal. The businessman listened to the case presented then said, “I can understand why you approached me. Yes I do have a lot of money, and yours is an important cause. But are you aware that I have a lot of calls upon my money? Did you know my mother needs 24 hour nursing care?”
“No we didn’t” came the reply.
“Did you know my sister is struggling to raise a family of eight on her own?”
“No we didn’t” came the reply.
“Did you know I have one son in a drug rehab clinic and another doing voluntary work overseas?”
“No we didn’t”
“Well, if I don’t give them a cent, what makes you think I’ll give it to you?!”
CONTEXT = The book of Deuteronomy is Moses reviewing the law with the Israelites prior to their campaign to occupy the Promised Land. It is a collection of teachings in no obvious order, so context is not as important as it is for other parts of the Bible. However, this section joins with 14:27-29, which identifies the needy persons requiring support: the Levites (assistants to the priests), aliens, fatherless, and widows.
Prosperity is given to empower & reward generosity.
- God attached a promise of prosperity to the 7 year cycle of debt forgiveness.
This command is one aspect of God’s commands to observe a “Sabbath Year” every seventh year. Other aspects of a Sabbath Year include the release of slaves and allowing the land to rest (planting crops was forbidden; only what grew “volunteer” was to be gleaned for food).
Here in Deuteronomy 15, God commanded debt forgiveness of loans made to fellow Israelites (1-3). Throughout the Old Testament law, God’s people were to give one another special treatment. The language is a little ambiguous whether this was a permanent forgiveness of debt or a temporary one, just for the duration of the year. Either way, it was to be a demonstration of faith in God and generous love to needy countrymen.
God’s gracious gift of prosperity was given to empower their gracious generosity. Verse four states God gave them the LAND AS AN INHERITANCE. Combine this with the promise of prosperity in v. 6 and we see their prosperity as a gift from God to be shared, not a personal achievement to be hoarded.
On the surface it appears verse 4 contradict verses seven and eleven. Verse four states, THERE SHOULD BE NO POOR AMONG YOU while in verse seven we read, IF THERE IS A POOR MAN AMONG YOUR BROTHERS and verse eleven says THERE WILL ALWAYS BE POOR AMONG YOU.
The way I see it, verse four is a promise: if this statute is observed, poverty would be eliminated. It is a conditional statement: this effect would be achieved by a combination of the people’s obedience and generosity and by the Lord’s blessing.
On the other hand, verses seven and eleven are a prediction that the Israelites would NOT observe the statute and so poverty would continue. Verse four reflects optimism, verses seven and eleven show pessimism or realism. We see both these perspectives in other statements Moses made, so it is not at all out of character to see both of them here. It is worth noting that in the Gospels Jesus agreed with the realistic tone of verses seven and eleven when He said, “THE POOR YOU WILL ALWAYS HAVE WITH YOU.” The situation had changed so much that an observance of Sabbath years was impossible and the cure for poverty unavailable.
Had this system been followed, it would have limited the centralization of wealth in the hands of the few. The cancellation or suspension of debts would have put money back into the economy and eased the oppressive burdens of indebtedness. As God promised it would work, I have no doubt it would have eventually eliminated poverty from Israel. To observe the Sabbath Year as it was commanded would have been an act of trust in God and a huge faith-building experience.
Verses five and six develop God’s promise of future prosperity. This is Moses assuring the people that if they follow these rules even though they appear to have no business sense, they do not need to fear poverty. They can count on God to reward their faithfulness with fruitfulness.
Verse five conveys in two phrases the condition that predicated the fulfillment. Firstly, IF ONLY YOU FULLY OBEY. In the Hebrew language, this is an “infinitive absolute construction indicating intensity” which is a fancy way of saying the original language stresses the condition of obedience more than we can in English. Secondly, IF ONLY YOU…ARE CAREFUL TO FOLLOW ALL THESE COMMANDS, especially the Sabbath year laws of this section. The Old Testament law teaches us that God blesses complete obedience, not grudging obedience or faked obedience or partial obedience. In order to do right by God we must obey completely, which includes body and soul.
Verse six is a promise of prosperity and security = THE LORD WILL BLESS YOU AS HE PROMISED. Prosperity is promised in this phrase: YOU WILL LEND TO MANY NATIONS BUT WILL BORROW FROM NONE. National prosperity would be one of the means God would use to end poverty in Israel. Security is promised in the words, YOU WILL RULE OVER MANY NATIONS BUT NONE WILL RULE OVER YOU. Economic prosperity would certainly be part of how this promise would be realized, but that does not exclude military or political means.
These promises came to their greatest fulfillment during the reign of King Solomon. Israel enjoyed fantastic wealth and held the preeminent place among the nations of the world. However, as they did not keep this command and observe the Sabbath years, the wealth stayed in the hands of the minority and poverty remained. We know from history that God clearly kept His part of the covenant but Israel did not keep her part. As a consequence, Solomon’s sons divided the kingdom and the fortunes of both nations fell over several generations, ending in both nations being conquered by foreigners.
- God commanded generosity to the poor.
God condemned having a bad attitude toward the poor. Verse seven forbade being HARDHEARTED and TIGHTFISTED. Note this is a condemnation of both attitude and action that results in a person who could help refusing to help.
Verse nine goes a bit further, condemning WICKED THOUGHTS about abusing the Law and the poor. After all, a businessman might, in year six, decide that he does not want to wait twelve months or more for repayment to start, and refuse to make a loan. God appealed to the spiritual side of His people and condemned this selfish attitude as a sin. There is a word of deterrent here in verse nine; help the poor lest they appeal in prayer and God declares the miser guilty of sin. This is the only place a warning of this type is found in the Bible. In the Old Testament, a miser is depicted as a sad and lonely figure while a generous person is shown as happy and social.
God commended generosity. Verses eight and eleven command being OPENHANDED in order to meet needs. Righteous and happy people are generous people. While they exercise caution and give in an orderly fashion, they are nonetheless gracious in their giving. Be aware of God’s grace and generosity to you and then follow His example.
In verse ten, Moses commanded the people to GIVE GENEROUSLY…AND WITHOUT A GRUDGING HEART. Thoughtful and careful use of one’s resources is a part of wisdom, but that is not an endorsement of miserliness. Hoarding and withholding from the needy is condemned as a sin. A generous heart is indicated by the habit of thinking of the needs of others ahead of your own.
Prosperity is given to empower & reward generosity.
I suppose economists would look on this regulation with horror. So much of our economy is based on credit and loans earning interest, debt forgiveness would seem to them like rewarding slackers and creating poverty.
It’s possible the ancient Israelites shared this perspective on the Sabbath year laws. We have no evidence these laws were ever observed. Sadly, people with money and power are unwilling to release it and apparently their will triumphed. Which is too bad for a host of reasons not least among them is that it would have been wonderful to see this economic system demonstrated and an actual end to poverty achieved.
In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared “war” on poverty. His methods of war predictably involved expanding the federal bureaucracy. The four pillars of this effort included an expansion of Social Security, food stamps, job agencies, and educational programs. We’ve been at this war for just over 55 years. Are any closer to winning? What’s really needed is what God’s law decreed in Deuteronomy 15; a heart of generosity and grace toward persons less fortunate than one’s self.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (#3), Earl S. Kalland.
The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Deuteronomy), Peter C. Craigie.