The following is an excerpt from the book The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case for Free Markets, by Scott Rae and Austin Hill:
From the beginning, we learn that God created the world and called it good, making the material world fundamentally good (Gen. 1:31). He further entrusted human beings with dominion over the earth—giving them both the privilege of enjoying the benefits of the material world, but also the responsibility for caring for the world. We also learn that, from the beginning, God has implanted His wisdom into the world and given human beings the necessary tools to uncover His wisdom and apply it for their benefit (Proverbs 8:22-31). God set human beings free to utilize their God-given intelligence, initiative and creativity in discerning and applying what the wisdom He embedded into the world—this is all a part of the responsible exercise of dominion over creation that brings innovation and productivity to benefit humankind. British economist Sir Brian Griffiths rightly sees in the dominion mandate that, “Man has been created with an urge to control and harness the resources of nature in the interests of the common good, but he is subject to his accountability to God as a trustee to preserve and care for it. This process is precisely what an economist would refer to as responsible wealth creation.”[i] The dominion mandate coincides with human beings being made in God’s image, giving them an innate inclination to utilize the created world for productive purposes. In creation, God is portrayed as a worker, (Gen. 1:31) who continues working to sustain His world. His creativity, initiative, resourcefulness displayed in creation are also traits that have been given to human beings by virtue of being made in His image. Though human beings are clearly more than autonomous economic agents, responsible human dominion over creation involves exercising these creative qualities. In Genesis, God ordained work as a good thing and one of the primary means by which dominion was accomplished (Gen. 2:15), though as a result of the entrance of sin into the world, work was corrupted and made more difficult (Gen. 3:16).
But it’s not really until the Old Testament law that the Bible begins to have a lot to say about economics. Israel became a nation “under God” which required a set of guidelines resembling a “constitution.” Many of these guidelines in the OT law have to do with economics. The purpose of Israel’s constitution was to show how they could model God’s righteousness in the way they lived together as a nation—that is, how they could become a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). When it came to economics, there were two main ways that they would do this. One was to make sure that their society was fair—that when people made exchanges, they did so without engaging in fraud or cheating each other. For example, the law mandated that the scales that would weight out measures of goods were accurate, so that when someone bought a “pound” of something, they could be sure they got a pounds worth (Lev. 19:35-36, Deuteronomy 25:13-16). The law assumes that individuals could legitimately own and accumulate property, since laws prohibiting theft and fraud only make sense if there is something like private property that is accepted. But the law also makes it clear that God is the ultimate owner of everything (Lev. 25:23).
The second way that they would be a “holy nation” in economics was to insure that the poor were cared for properly (Deuteronomy 15:1-11, 26:12-13). It was assumed that people were responsible for taking care of themselves and their families. The focus in the OT law was on how to provide for those who could not provide for themselves—that was the definition of the poor. The law structured many aspects of economic life to see to it that the poor were not without opportunity to take care of themselves. For example, the law mandated a tradition known as “gleaning” where the poor could make their way through another’s agricultural field and gather some of the produce for themselves (Leviticus 19: 9-10). The law also provided for a right of redemption of property, so that the poor, who had met misfortune, could have renewed opportunity to make a living themselves (Leviticus 25: 25-28). Finally there was the tradition of the year of Jubilee, which returned land to its original owner every 50th year (Leviticus 25: 8-12, though there is no evidence that such a radical tradition was ever followed). The law also set forth the Sabbath tradition, which went back to the original creation account, which mandated a regular day of rest from work. One of the main purposes for this was to help the people trust God to provide for them through their six days/week of work (Exodus 20: 8-11, Deuteronomy 5:12-15). It seems that the law was concerned both about the overall goals of economic life—to provide for fair dealings and take care of the poor, and the means to accomplish those goals—with laws such as gleaning, redemption and Jubilee.
God’s heart for the poor comes out throughout the Psalms and other poetic literature in the OT. The marginalized, vulnerable and oppressed occupy a special place in the heart of God, because they only have Him as their defender and advocate. For example, Psalm 10:17-18, says that “You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.” Similarly, in Psalm 82: 2-4, God mandates caring for the poor and protecting them from those who would do them harm (“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needs, deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”).
The wisdom literature, especially the Proverbs, echoes this concern for the poor and oppressed. In fact, a community’s care for the poor is considered an indication of how they value God—“he who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31, 17:5, 19:17). The prophets routinely and forcefully spoke out against oppression, economic injustice and exploitation of the poor. They considered taking care of the poor a strong indicator of a person’s (and the nation Israel’s) spiritual health (Isa. 58:6-7), even making a strong connection between compassion for the poor and genuinely knowing God (Jer. 22:16)! The prophets considered this neglect of the poor a serious disregard of the law, and it was one of the symptoms of the major disease afflicting Israel—abandoning their relationship with God for the worship of idols/false gods (Exek. 16:48, Amos 2:6-7, Amos 4:1, Micah 2:2-9, Hab. 2:6-12).[ii]
However, another important strand comes out of the wisdom books—that of individual responsibility for prosperity. The wisdom books repeatedly make the connection between diligence, hard work, initiative—and prosperity. For example, “lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 10:4-5). This is part of a broader point made throughout the wisdom literature, that a person’s individual moral character (or to put it another way, adherence to the way of wisdom) determines the path that person’s life takes. The fool, or one who lacks wisdom and character, ends up with a life of calamity, but the wise person, the one who has well developed character, ends up with a life of prosperity and well being. Of course, the Proverbs are rules of thumb and not legal guarantees from God, so there are exceptions to this general pattern—both the poor saint and the rich idiot! And sometimes the poor are poor because they are the victims of injustice (Prov. 13:23). To be sure, this is not teaching anything like a “prosperity theology” in which God always automatically rewards righteousness with material wealth. Even the Proverbs acknowledge that wealth doesn’t last forever (Prov. 27:24). But the general pattern here is that prosperity is a matter of personal responsibility, namely, hard work, diligence and perseverance (Prov. 13:11, 14:23, 16:26, 20:13, 28:19, 20, 22, 25). The emphasis seems pretty clear—that individual responsibility, a strong work ethic, and other “entrepreneurial” character traits such as initiative and perseverance, are critical to a life of economic prosperity. By contrast, the Proverbs illustrate this with the portrait of the sluggard (Prov. 19:24, 26:15, 22:13, 26:13, 24:30-34).
As important as these character traits are, it is also important to recognize that a person’s prosperity is ultimately a blessing from God. This was particularly true in the agricultural economy of the ancient world. People were dependent on natural forces such as rainfall to have a sufficient harvest. But it is no less true in our information based economy today. The Proverbs indicate that it’s the blessing of God that makes a person prosperous (Prov. 10:22), and that God is the one who enables us to enjoy the fruit of our labors—and He says that it’s a good thing that we can enjoy life as His good gift (Eccl. 2:24-25, 5:18-20).
[i] Brian Griffiths, The Creation of Wealth: The Christian Case of Capitalism, (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1984): 52-53.
[ii] Other symptoms of the disease of idolatry include various forms of violent crime (Hab. 2:8, 17), perversion of the justice system, mainly through bribery, and rampant sexual immorality.