The First Isaianic Woe!

Reprinted from When Thou Sittest in Thine House, by Abraham Kuyper, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1929. Used by permission of Eerdmans Publishing Co.

 

Love of Money

The well-known “Woe unto you’s!” of the prophet Isaiah are six in number, with the “Woe unto you!” against the service of Mammon, i.e., against the love of money, the mania to have and to save, as starting point of national self-weakening.

Of loose capital there was almost none in Isaiah’s days. There was no other great possession thinkable than in fixed goods, i.e., in houses and in lands.

This gave to the first Woe unto you! a peculiar tint.

Just listen. Thus sounded the Woe unto you! against the eagerness for riches: “Woe unto them, that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth” (Is. 5:8) . . . .

The over-large possession of lands springs from sin; runs counter to the ordinances of God; and ends in the break of the divinely-appointed relation between the land and the dwellers on that land.

Already in days of old, Calvin pointed out how foolish it was to enlarge one’s house, till all sorts of chambers stood unoccupied, while others scarcely have necessary room. And how senseless it is “to add so much land to land, as to necessitate the removal of those whom God has put there, while the earth indeed was given us for our common dwelling place.”

In like sense wrote a prince among exegetes of our century, Delitzch: “They, the insatiable, do not rest, before every small landed-property is swallowed up in the large landed property. A sin the more atrocious in Israel, where the Divine legislation had instituted an equal division of lands.”

In Isaiah’s utterance there is a definite and sharp judgment of bringing large landed estates into the possession of one owner.

This must not be.

Even the State should not tolerate it.

And yet, the first dreadful Woe! from which pres­ently the other five follow does not turn itself against wrong possession of land as such, but against the sinful spirit that expresses itself therein.

The first Woe! condemns in every man and in ev­ery nation the sinful inclination of making wealth the ideal of life, and of always getting more property, more money.

It is a Woe! against the unholy fever of capitalism.

A Woe! against Mammon, and against everyone who as priest or choir-boy at the altar of Mammon dances to the tune of covetousness and penuriousness.

That there is also a protest in that Woe unto you! against the old, sinful custom of taking a whole street, with over-sized houses and gardens, in pos­session on the part of well-to-do families, while the numerous households of the humbler classes are assigned to cellars, shacks, and slums, goes without saying.

Calvin chastises this practice justly as covetousness and vanity and unmercifulness, which we likewise must condemn. Yea, already Chrysostom did not hesitate to scourge his Byzantian hearers with the woes: “Your covetousness goes so far, that at last you would rob the poor even of sunlight and free air.”

It has actually come to this. And the present move­ment to provide better houses for the laboring classes, where he who has little can at least have God’s dear sun and better air, is doubly worthy of the hearty support of every Christian.

But apart from this there lies in this first Woe! a warning for every confessor of the Christ, not to seek good in large houses, nor in building of semi-palaces, nor in laying out of large country estates, but to be con­tented with a moderate residence, which offers room for necessary use.

Also in the choice of a house the use, and not the ambition to live on a grand scale, must be the stan­dard.

For therein vanity has play, and the desire to push others back is evident.

For the root of the sin of covetousness is that every­one is bent upon securing privilege for himself, and to realize this end, pushes others to the wall.

The prophet makes this sharply prominent in these words: So long do you join house to house and lay field to field, that at length there is no more room for other dwellers, and you dwell all alone.

Truly, it does not come quite so far, because they fall short in power, but yet, as Calvin says correctly, “as far as they are able, they go to work indeed, as though they want to push every one out of his place and eject him from his possessions, so that he must either live under the open skies, or move elsewhere.”

In the capitalistic fever works the motive of brother-envy.

For of course, though it is pure folly in a world of man in which by power and disposition one is alto­gether different from the other to dream of equal pos­sessions for all, yet this inequality has certain limits.

Poor and rich there will always be, but this does not take away the fact that one is too poor and the other too rich; and it is this grievance that covetousness and miserliness refuses to reverence.

The one ever increases store, though he knows that by adroitness and cleverness the other is outdone.

He who dares to do this and succeeds comes to pow­er. That power has honor and distinction. The great masses go out of the way before it. And in this way, the effort to make money, to lay up fortunes, to be mighty owners of vast sums of money, like a poisonous fever attacks the entire national constitution, and thereby tears it away from every higher ideal and holier calling, and so brings the Woe unto you! of almighty God upon the whole national exis­tence.

Until even the purest that is known on earth, the love be­tween husband and wife and the sacred honor of marriage, ends by coming under that Woe!

One chooses a wife, not because he loves her person, her soul, her real self, but because he loves her money, her house, and the landed estates she brings with her.

And do not say that this occurs among the higher classes, but that such eagerness for money and prop­erty, such passion for possession avenged of God at the sacrifice of others, is not found among ordinary burghers and farmers, or among the lower classes.

For facts deny this assertion.

Among the children of God there is indeed among the lower classes a most estimable group of people who truly live soberly, labor diligently, earn reasonable wages, and lay nothing by, but at least comparatively give and communicate with a generous hand and take more pleasure in generosity than in hoarding.

But that is not the national spirit.

And he who overhears our young men when they talk of their future, and our merchants when after their work is done freely express their mind, and our farmers when they make plans for the future, and our fisher­men when they put out their eel baskets in the water, observes, alas, all but too surely and too constantly, that in the blood of our people the fever of money greed and covetousness throbs all too excitedly, even ever more so.

If anywhere, the fever thermometer at this point indicates most ominous figures.

One thinks of money, dreams of money, chases after money.

In more than one company, and in more than one house, it has already come to pass that not the man has money, but money the man.

This is extremely dangerous, because the boundary between what is conformable to duty and what is admissible on one side, and what is sinful and what is accursed of God on the other, is not clearly evident.

Am I not right in my business to be on the alert? The answer is: To neglect it would render you guilty. You must be zealous, and be zealously on the watch, in the calling wherein God has placed you.

And so it is asked: Am I not permitted to earn money and lay by for wife and child? Again the answer sounds: He who merely looks out for himself, and at his death, by his own fault, leaves wife and child behind in destitute circumstances, stands guilty before God.

But further along comes in the difficulty.

One lives, a family lives. Those persons are creatures of God, and they have no thought of the Lord their God. They have a soul, and that soul they leave to starve, to become barren and impoverished. They are on the way to an eternal fatherland, and up to their death they are merely concerned about houses and fields, about money and goods, here on earth.

They think of nothing else. They speak of nothing else. In their beds they dream of it.

So are father and mother.

They beget children. Those children drink in that selfsame Mammonistic spirit. The poisonous money-fever takes hold of them also.

So the entire family becomes a small Mammon temple.

With neighbor at the right and neighbor at the left it goes the same way. So the city-spirit is corrupted. Presently also the spirit of our towns and villages. In the end the spirit of the nation as a whole is infected.

And then comes the Woe unto you! from the Lord Jehovah upon such a people, and ripens it for destruc­tion.

Only one spirit goes in against this and offers an antidote.

That is the Spirit of Christ, that is the Spirit of God, who speaks in His interpreters and witnesses, the Spirit of the Word.

And therefore it is so dreadful when Christians also are infected by this insatiable, deeply ignoble, spirit of Mammon.

For then there is no more deliverance. Then the hor­ror has penetrated into the sanctuary. Then the altar of Mammon is carried into the holy places, and by His own children God the Lord is provoked to His face.

Let it be said therefore to all Christian households and be bound upon the heart, to testify against that unholy spirit; to banish that unholy Mammon spirit from their midst; to make not money, but God their highest good; and not less than by large, generous, if needs be extravagant, generosity to lift the ban, which because of money and through money rests upon so many a Christian household.