Greed and God's Irony
The Bible is full of irony. One of the most obvious examples is found in the book of Esther. In it, a man named Haman – close advisor to the king – plots against the Jews. More to the point, he specifically plans against Modecai, a particular Jew. So great is Haman’s hate, that he builds a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. He does not know that his treachery is discovered. It is he – not Mordecai the Jew – who is about to be condemned by the king. The irony? He is hung on the very gallows he built for his enemies: “So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai, and the king’s anger subsided” (Esther 7:10).
There is ample irony in today’s passage from the prophet Micah. Chapter 1, though often hard to understand, was simply acknowledging the judgment of God upon His people. It was generally affirmed in the first 7 verses, and shown in specific detail within 8-16.
Here we have further detail – not only about the judgment of God, but concerning the sin of His people.
Woe to those who scheme iniquity, Who work out evil on their beds! When morning comes, they do it, For it is in the power of their hands. 2 They covet fields and then seize them, And houses, and take them away. They rob a man and his house, A man and his inheritance. 3 Therefore thus says the LORD, "Behold, I am planning against this family a calamity From which you cannot remove your necks; And you will not walk haughtily, For it will be an evil time. 4 "On that day they will take up against you a taunt And utter a bitter lamentation and say, 'We are completely destroyed! He exchanges the portion of my people; How He removes it from me! To the apostate He apportions our fields.' 5 "Therefore you will have no one stretching a measuring line For you by lot in the assembly of the LORD. Therefore you will have no one stretching a measuring line For you by lot in the assembly of the LORD (Micah 2:1-5).
There is another difference between this passage and the ones which precede it: These verses outline specific sins of individuals, rather than the corporate sins of a city or people as a whole. In fact, if the end of chapter 1 reminded us of the particularity of God’s judgment, so this passage reminds us of the particular sins which are committed by those deserving of God’s justice.
The first thing we see about the people in this passage is that they think about evil, plotting about the sins they would commit: “Woe to those who scheme iniquity, who work out evil on their beds! (Micah 2:1a)” The sins of those whom God judges are premeditated. They are thought-out. In fact, the line about planning evil on the bed indicates that perhaps this was not only premeditated, it was part of the dreams of evildoers.
That is bad enough, but it gets worse. Not only do some plan and dream about the evil they’ll do, they also act upon it when morning comes. Why do they do it? Well, in the famous words of a powerful modern leader who was asked why he committed the sins he did: because [they] could. The power – according to verse 1 – is in their hands. And they are not shy about wielding it to their advantage.
There are pitfalls associated with any station of life, but one of the particular pitfalls of power is the temptation to take advantage of those with less power. They abuse their position for their own personal gain.
What is the root of this abuse? It is something which anyone can be subject to: The root is covetousness. They seize fields, as verse 2 amply attests. But, before they seize, they covet.
It’s true that verse 2 reveals their exploitation as especially heinous, since it deprived men of their inheritance. In fact, the terms used to describe the deprived property make it clear that this is the estate and household – the sum of a patriarch’s inheritance. This was not only a heartless expression of greed – which would be true in any society – but an egregious violation of the Law of Israel. God had apportioned certain portions of the Promised Land for His people – enough so that each tribe, properly situated, could have ample supply. So the exploitation went beyond what we can imagine today. They were taking away a god-given gift, and were undermining what was to be the foundation of Israelite society. It was nothing less than oppression, or, as our English translation puts it, ‘rob[bery].’
But I want to examine again the cause of this injustice. In fact, I think it is the root of the sin, rather than its particular expression that is foremost in Micah’s mind. It is easy for us to dismiss the condemnation here as something aimed only at the privileged and powerful. But remember its root – covetousness. Covetousness is an extremely serious sin. And Micah is intentionally using terminology which reflects the prohibition against covetousness in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. This leads us to the obvious conclusion: Covetousness is, at root, the sin which Micah is primarily condemning; its expression in social injustice merely magnifies the severity.
One famous pastor said that it is almost possible to envision someone who thought he had kept the first nine commandments. But no one could delude themselves into thinking that they had not broken the tenth. Indeed, many of the dominant elements of our culture – including especially our advertising – is built around covetousness. What does it mean to covet? It means wanting for yourself something that is someone else’s. It begins with a lack of satisfaction with what God had provided. It is reflected in a lack of gratitude. So be warned. Although social injustice and exploitation will merit God’s judgment, so too will its root – covetousness.
But the covetous are not alone in their planning. Though they have been busy planning and dreaming about their exploitation, God has a plan in mind too: “Behold, I am planning against this family a calamity” (2:3a). The irony is striking. Although the covetous spend their time planning out schemes for their conquest (in verse 1 they are called ‘planners of iniquity’), they themselves will be the object of God’s calamitous plans. And the calamity cannot be avoided. They cannot remove their necks from God’s yoke of judgment, as verse 3 makes clear. If we think about the history of Israel, one of the characteristics of the the nation was the freedom they had gained through the LORD’s liberation (cf Lev 26:13). Those walking proudly in their own strength – operating in the framework of the freedom God had provided – will no longer walk haughtily in the terrible day of God’s justice.
And notice too that their sin not only brought judgment upon themselves as individuals, but on the nation as a whole. The LORD is planning calamity against their ‘family.’ The words for family could have many different meanings; clearly it refers to a group. And yet, if we compare the LORD’s condemnation here to His words in Amos 3:1-2, we see striking parallels. And, in Amos’ usage, the term refers to the nation as a whole. So the nation will suffer because of the injustice and covetousness of its elite.
A special taunt is raised against Israel. It is unclear exactly who is taunting – perhaps those who have suffered at the hands of the powerful. The lamentation would be bitter, because God’s judgment would itself be a bitter pill. The word used to describe the lamentation is used one other place in the prophets as well. There it refers to the downfall of Egypt. It is both a lamentation of her fate and a hymn of rejoicing for the just judgment of God.
What are the words of this lament? “We are completely destroyed.” Once again, the irony is ripe. Those who were unjustly seizing the property of others are now having their own property seized. The term for this seizure is not captured in our rather bland rendering, “completely destroyed.” The planning of these men found expression in taking away the inheritance of others. God’s plans will be shown in the same way toward them.
The irony is further shown by their next words: “He exchanges the portion of my people; how He removes it from me!” (2:4) They took the inheritance of others; therefore God took their inheritance from them. They planned and brought calamity against others; God planned and brought devastation upon them. Worst of all, they would have to see the land of their inheritance given into the hands of their enemies.
Think about the extent of this devastation. The rulers of Judah had freedom as part of the redeemed people of God. They had an inheritance. And, more than that, the ones mentioned in this passage had been given great authority and prestige. Yet what did they use this blessing to accomplish? Instead of gratitude to God for their privileged place, they used that very privilege to exploit those beneath them socially. Rather than enjoying their inheritance and helping others enjoy the inheritance of God, they spent their nights planning to defraud others of inheritance. And the freedom they had was used as a license to enslave others.
And so they lost it all – freedom, inheritance, and privilege. And if we wonder why it was that they lost all these things, the answer is simple: First, they ignored social justice. The poor were easy to exploit. They were not regarded as worthy of their inheritance. In a sense, they were radically dehumanized. Understand, particularly in Israel, to deprive someone of their inheritance was to deprive them of any lasting name. It was, in a sense, to push them into a faceless existence as if they had never lived at all.
Do we dehumanize those less fortunate? Who do we readily exploit? To what forms of exploitation do we turn a blind eye? Are there things which are simply intended as snares for the poor which we should speak out against? What about the promises of happiness or quick riches which can ensnare anyone, but are especially aimed at those in dire financial circumstances? Do we care? Would we speak out? Do we take a live-and-let-live approach to the exploiters of our time? God is very concerned with the way a society, and a church, treats those in its midst who are most in need of help.
And, perhaps more fundamentally, what about our own hearts? I think if we look at ourselves we recognize the same basic covetousness that provoked the planners of iniquity. We too forget to be thankful. We too want what others have, even at their expense. That is not loving our neighbor. That covetousness, in its own way, can be debasing and dehumanizing both for ourselves and for the objects of our jealousy.
What irony may we face? On what gallows of our own making will we be hung? What if God said, “You turn a blind eye to injustice done to others, I will turn a blind eye to the injustice done to you.” Or perhaps, “Since you seek to deprive your neighbor of that which I have given him, I will deprive you of those things which you possess.” What if God took away everything we didn’t thank Him for? That would be the same portrayal of justice as is shown here. We could not argue with it.
We must hear this message not simply as a condemnation – of them and us – but as an opportunity for repentance, and gratitude. Gratitude not least for the salvation in Christ – the one who reconciles, and who, though He knew no sin, became sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor 5:18a, 21).