Monday, August 29, 2016

The Dangers of Dishonest Gain (Habakkuk 2:6b-8)

If you walk into a major bookstore, like Barnes and Noble, you will find the books conveniently arranged by category. If you are looking for a book on business management, there’s a section for that. If you are looking for a book on financial planning, there’s a section for that. If you want a book on foreign policy, they have a section for that too. But what if you want a book that covers all those subjects? Well, you have to go to an entirely different section of the store and find one book that deals with all those topics. It’s called the Bible. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Bible was written to be a textbook on those subjects. The Bible is the Word of God, written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to reveal the nature and will of God to humanity. But God’s nature and will come to bear on how we handle money, how we handle our business affairs, and how leaders should lead. And when it comes to what the Bible says about these matters, there are promises, examples, and warnings.

We have been studying the little book of Habakkuk for a couple of months now. It is a little book, but it has a lot to say. I think many of you have discovered how surprisingly relevant to our day and time this 2,600 year old writing is through our study. I remind you yet again that Habakkuk was burdened about the immorality, idolatry, and injustice that was rampant in Judah. These were God’s chosen people, but the nation was filled with corruption. He cried out to God about it, and God’s answer was surprising and even more troubling. God declared that He was raising up the Babylonians (called here the Chaldeans) to be His agents of judgment upon Judah. God would discipline His people by bringing a foreign nation in to overtake them, just as He had repeatedly promised them that He would do. It burdened Habakkuk to consider that God would use violent pagans to do His work, and that the chosen people would suffer at their hands. The righteous would suffer alongside the wicked as this judgment came upon the whole nation. Habakkuk cried out in 1:13, “Why do You look with favor on those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?” Whereas the book began with the prophet asking “how long” God would allow corruption to run rampant in Judah, it soon turned to Habakkuk asking God “how long” He would allow the Babylonians to dominate the world.

The section of the book that we are entering into today contains the answer to that question. God’s message to the prophet is that a day of reckoning is coming for Babylon as well, and it was coming soon. Though they shot to prominence rather suddenly, their position as a global power would be short lived – less than a century. And here in verses 6-20 of Habakkuk 2, their downfall is vividly described in five statements of “Woe.” Earlier in verse 6, the Lord said that the nations which Babylon had subjected in its wave of terror and cruelty would eventually take up a taunt-song against them, even mockery and insinuations about them. And these five woes are those taunt-songs by which the nations who fell victim to Babylon’s tyranny would ridicule them in their demise. The words are an altogether certain promise of God’s judgment, but sung in such a way by the nations as to make sport of Babylon, adding to their shame. The word “Woe” translates a Hebrew exclamation that some have translated as “Ha!,” “Ahah!”, or even “Ah!” So, woe is most definitely pronounced upon the Babylonians, but almost with tongue in cheek, as the nations laugh at the downfall of their oppressors.

The first of these “Woe” statements concerns God’s judgment upon Babylon for its dishonest gain. Babylon amassed matchless wealth and land through their militant expansionism, but here we find the dangers of such dishonest gain spelled out. And the warning is not for ancient Babylon alone. In a society in which one’s worth is measured in dollars and cents, and in which the allure of leisure causes people to abandon the course of hard work and wise stewardship, there is no shortage of those who lust after dishonest gain. God forbid that any of us would be guilty of such transgressions! When the temptation arises, we must heed Scripture’s warnings of the dangers of dishonest gain! And when we fall prey to the schemes of others who seek dishonest gain, we must rest ourselves in the promises of God’s Word about what the future holds for those who abuse others for personal profit. With that in mind, let us look at these few verses to discover the dangers of dishonest gain.

I. Dishonest gain has diverse expressions. (v6b)

G. Campbell Morgan said, “Goodness is always simple. It is evil which is complex. … A straight stick is a straight stick; but a crooked stick may be crooked in a hundred different ways.”[1] Back in verse 4, the Lord said concerning the proud Babylonians that “his soul is not right within him.” It could also be translated, “his soul is not straight (that is, it is crooked) within him.” Now, as Morgan said, people can be crooked in many different ways, and Babylon was crooked in many ways. One of the manifestations of their crookedness was their dishonest gain. But even here, one can amass dishonest gain in a multitude of ways. And Babylon did.

Verse 6 says that he “increases what is not his.” Quite simply, we are talking about theft, robbery, or perhaps unlawful seizure of property and possessions. The Babylonians wrongly took things that did not belong to them, simply because they could. They were strong and powerful and no one could stop them. Thus, the NIV renders this phrase, “piles up stolen goods.” In their invasion of Jerusalem, which would happen soon after Habakkuk’s book was written, they plundered even the temple and seized all the valuables within it before setting it on fire. And this is what they did in every territory they entered. They looted the property and belongings of the land and its citizens.

We are also told here that Babylon “makes himself rich with loans.” This statement and the one following are notoriously difficult to translate and interpret, but the general idea seems clear enough. The KJV renders the expression here quite literally, saying that Babylon “ladeth himself with thick clay.” It was a common practice in antiquity that when someone borrowed money or property from another, a clay tablet served as a “receipt” of the transaction.[2] Babylon was loaded down with these clay tablets, having “loaned” people the right to retain their belongings or their property, with a back-breaking interest charge attached. The property or belongings served as a security, so that if the “loan” defaulted, Babylon would seize it. But the terms were so restrictive, that seldom could one ever satisfy them. Thus Babylon’s wealth increased with the money that was given in an attempt to repay the loan, plus the seizure of the security and the enslavement of the “borrower” to boot. So, here the NIV has “makes himself wealthy by extortion,” which is obtaining wealth or possessions through coercion. 

Theft and extortion are common enough even in our own day. But just as these were not the only means by which the Babylonians acquired dishonest gain, so today dishonest gain has a multitude of diverse expressions. Ruthless corporate greed, predatory lending, fraud and embezzlement, dishonest get-rich-quick schemes, state-sponsored gambling which plunders the poor with false hopes, unjust litigation: these just scratch the surface of the many expressions of dishonest gain that fill our society. And this is why the Bible speaks so often about its dangers. The leaders of Christ’s church are required to be not greedy of filthy lucre.[3] That does not mean that money is bad, but that it must not be acquired in dishonest ways. For it is not money itself, but the love of money, that the Bible says is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:10). The evils that are produced by the love of money are evident in the diverse expressions of dishonest gain. But also, we see it in the destructive effects of dishonest gain.

II. Dishonest gain has destructive effects (v8b).

Almost 20 years ago, I was on a Kenya Airways plane en route to Kenya for my first international mission trip. The in-flight entertainment was a movie entitled The Ghost and the Darkness. It is a somewhat fictionalized retelling of the true story of the Tsavo Man-Eaters – two lions who devoured dozens of people in a nine month span of 1898 … IN KENYA – the place I was about to land! Not the best choice for in-flight entertainment  perhaps! There are several theories about why these two particular lions destroyed so many lives. One of the most plausible is that a disease had killed off much of the lion’s normal prey, leaving them to find whatever food they could to survive. I could not get those lions off my mind for the entire time I was in-country. One of the first people I met was a guy named Simba (which means “lion”) who only had one arm because the other one had been chewed off by a lion in his childhood! I asked my guide one day, “What shall we do if we encounter a lion?” He said, “Well, you must not panic, and you must not run.” I said, “I tell you what, you stand there, and I will run, and if he’s hungry, he will eat you first!” Thankfully, we did not encounter any lions in the wild so we did not have to test his advice.

I tell that story to illustrate how destructive a lion can be when it is trying to satisfy its hunger. And the official symbol of the Babylonian king was a lion. One hundred and twenty of them are emblazoned on the famous Ishtar gate which was built under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar – the king who was in power at this time in Babylonian history. And the lion was hungry – hungry for more land, more people, more wealth, more control in the world. And because of his lust for dishonest gain, he knew no bounds when it came to achieving it.

To what lengths did he go? Verse 8 explains it: human bloodshed, violence done to the land, to the town, and all its inhabitants. The entire created order fell prey to Babylon’s terror. Notice the concentric circles of damage done. They destroyed the land, sweeping across farms and forests alike. Then they destroyed the towns, toppling great buildings and staking claim of homes and public buildings. Then they destroyed the inhabitants, enslaving some and killing others in cold blood.

This is the thing with dishonest gain. There is always a cost that someone has to pay. A thriving industry may be built on the backs of unfairly paid workers, or unpaid victims of labor trafficking. A company may do irreparable harm to the environment in order to avoid the expense of more safety measures. A CEO may lay off those who live paycheck to paycheck in order to have more funds available for company executives who already live in luxury. The bank’s lending practices might make the investors happy at the earnings call, but the borrower loses his home because his mortgage is upside down. The corrupt politician, who is already taking money from an interest group, votes himself a pay raise, while voting against funding for those defending the nation, or the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Or, a man is shot in an alley for the money in his wallet.

There’s always a victim when one pursues dishonest gain, and a price that someone has to pay – usually the one who can least afford it. No one stops to think about that, or if they do, they steel their conscience against the pricks of it so that they grow numb to the destructive effects of their dishonest gain. Habakkuk’s words remain a stern warning to those who pursue dishonest gain, calling them to repentance and restitution. But these words also serve to remind those who have fallen victim to the ruthless pursuit of dishonest gain. A day will come, in God’s perfect timing, when those wrongs (and all others) will be made right in His perfect justice. And that brings us to the final danger of dishonest gain.

III. Dishonest gain has a devastating end (vv7-8a).

“I introduce to you Naboth.” Those are the opening words of one of the most famous sermons of the 20th Century. Dr. R. G. Lee, who was pastor of the famous Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis from 1927 until 1960, preached this sermon over 1200 times. In it, he recounts the biblical story from 1 Kings 21 of Naboth, the godly man who owned a vineyard which was desired by King Ahab. Dr. Lee introduces Ahab as “the vile human toad who squatted upon the throne of his nation – the worst of Israel’s kings.”  Ahab and his even more wicked wife Jezebel conspired to kill the godly man Naboth in order to take possession of his prized vineyard. As Ahab strolled around in his ill-gotten vineyard, he was confronted by the prophet Elijah who had a message for him from the Lord. “Thus says the Lord, ‘In the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth the dogs will lick up your blood. … Behold, I will bring evil upon you, and will utterly sweep you away. … The dogs will eat Jezebel.’” Dr. Lee’s sermon is called “Payday Someday,” for he says as he draws near the end of it, “‘Payday – Someday’ is written in the constitution of God’s universe. The retributive providence of God is a reality as certainly as the laws of gravitation are a reality. … To the individual who goes not the direction God points, a terrible payday comes.”[4]

And that is the very same message that the Lord has for Babylon. There is a payday coming, when they will answer for what they have done under God’s just judgment. As Babylon pillages and plunders the nations, their victims cry out, “For how long,” in verse 6. In verse 7, the answer comes. Their end will come suddenly, and notice how surprising and devastating that end will be.

“Will not your creditors rise up suddenly, and those who collect from you awaken?” But wait – who are these creditors? I thought the Babylonians were the creditors who enriched themselves on the debts of others? So did Babylon. But in the economy of God, everything that Babylon had taken by dishonest gain was actually just borrowed, and now the payday was coming soon in which they would have to repay it all with interest! Just as the Babylonians had plundered other nations, they would become plunder for them in their downfall. Like gangs of vigilantes on the streets in a time of lawlessness, the nations will swoop in on Babylon and loot and pillage just as Babylon had done to them.

Verse 8 says, “Because you have looted many nations, all the remainder of the peoples will loot you.” The surviving remnant of those conquered nations would be able to overtake Babylon and bring about its devastation. Again, this is somewhat surprising. If the entire nation could not withstand the Babylonians, how would a small percentage of survivors manage to overpower them? Humanly speaking, it would be impossible, but God has decreed it and nothing is impossible for Him. Just as He raised up the Chaldeans to bring judgment upon Judah, He would raise up another people to be His agent of justice among the Chaldeans. Two of the nations that Babylon had conquered were the Medes and the Persians. Their surviving remnants would band together under the leadership of Darius the Mede and conquer Babylon swiftly less than a hundred years after these words were spoken.

The example of Babylon serves as a strong warning for all who pursue dishonest gain in our own day. There is a payday someday, coming just as surely as can be. All that has been taken illicitly will be required at the hand of the one who took it. In God’s great reversal at the last day, if not before, the debtors will become the creditors, and the looted will become the looters. It is but one more case of the inviolable biblical principle established by God that we will reap what we sow.

And for those who have been oppressed, taken advantage of, and wronged by the greed and avarice of others, there is the call to wait in faith and hope for that day when God will right the wrongs. While earth has its systems of justice, they are all imperfect. Perfect justice is coming, and will be rendered by God Himself. God has promised that He will “repay with affliction those who afflict you” (2 Thes 1:6). When? In His perfect time, but when that day comes, it will come suddenly. Until that time, let us rest in the contentment that God is faithful and will provide for our needs, care for us throughout life, and avenge our cause in the end. Rather than seeking dishonest gain, let us seek the greater gain of godliness, when it is accompanied by contentment, as the Bible says, “for we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim 6:5-6). Jesus said, “Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’” … For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:31-33). Let us be sure that we have Christ, for He is enough, and all is ours in Him. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:32).

[1] G. Campbell Morgan, A Bible Survey: Genesis – Revelation (Chattanooga: AMG, 1993), 331.
[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 62.
[3] 1 Tim 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7, 11; 1 Pet 5:2.
[4] R. G. Lee, “Payday Someday.”

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