Ronald H. Hanko is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church, Houston, Texas.
When we understand that the eighth commandment is founded on the truth that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” we will not only have a better understanding of what the eighth commandment requires of us, but the only possible motive for obeying it. We have seen that God’s sovereign ownership of all things, as expressed in this verse from Psalm 24:1, and His sovereign right in distributing them, are aspects of His glory as Creator, and therefore that we confess the sovereignty and glory of God as our Creator in a very practical way in obeying the eighth commandment. We should also see that it is the knowledge of God as our Creator that must move us to obey this Commandment. It is from Him as Creator that we receive life and breath and all things. It is to Him as a faithful Creator that we are able to commit the keeping of our souls (I Pet. 4:19). And because the eighth commandment is a revelation of God the Creator, our life of obedience to it is the way that we express our gratitude to Him for what He as Creator has done for us.
The better understanding we have of the requirements of the eighth commandment in light of this, its deepest meaning and significance, involves a clear insight into the fact that the commandment does not only forbid outright acts of robbery and theft, but also many other things that we do not usually think of in connection with the commandment. Certainly all forms of robbery that are punished by the civil authorities are specifically forbidden by this commandment, but also those forms of robbery that are practiced or legalized by the magistrates are forbidden. The most widespread violation of the eighth commandment which is practiced by the magistrates is in unequal and oppressive taxation, especially for the support of various social welfare programs, public education, and assistance to the unemployed. Since the civil government has no authority from God to be involved in social reform, education, and such-like, its support of them out of public taxation must be considered a form of robbery, and a violation of the eighth commandment. It represents the efforts of wicked men to redistribute this world’s wealth according to their own humanistic and godless principles. It flouts God’s sovereign right in ignoring or bypassing the means He has provided for the care of the poor and the education of children. It also ignores in many cases His command that .the idle may not eat (II Thess. 3:10) and that the wicked ought not be allowed to profit from his wickedness (Deut. 23:6, Mal. 3:13-15).
It is quite a commentary on the perversity of sinful men that in the areas where God gives the civil government authority, i.e., to defend its citizens, wage war, and punish evildoers (Rom. 13:3, 4, Ps. 82:3, 4, I Tim. 2:1, 2), that authority is widely denied. Where He does not give authority, wicked men clamor for the civil government to take authority or allow it to do so, without question.
All this does not mean, of course, that we may rebel against the authority of civil magistrates or seek to overthrow them for their evil practices. For that there is no warrant at all in Scripture. We may not even rebel, so Scripture says, in refusing to pay our taxes, in spite of the fact that they are misused by the authorities. Paul specifically commands obedience in the matter of taxes in Romans 13 although the government of his day was as much in violation of the eighth commandment with its program of “bread and circuses” as our government with its welfare programs, all supported out of the public treasury. Therefore, though our understanding of the evils that are practiced against the eighth commandment by governments may not move us to sedition, it certainly ought to give us pause in making use of these government “benefits.”
The civil government also legalizes disobedience to the eighth commandment in its support of labor unions and gambling. The labor unions have come to power and retained their power not so much because they have struggled against injustice and oppression in the work-place (and that in violation of the fifth commandment), but rather because they allow greed and discontent with one’s God-given lot in life to proceed unchecked. That same greed and discontent is the motive behind all gambling. Solomon might have been writing of just these things when he said that “hell and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied” (Prov. 27:20). Gambling is, however, an even greater evil against this commandment in that it is an attempt to satisfy greed apart from the means that God has provided for the support of our earthly life, really apart from God Himself. How different from Abram who refused to receive anything of the riches offered him by the King of Sodom, fearing even the suggestion that he had sought or obtained any wealth apart from God. His motive is clear in his confession of God as “the most high God, the Possessor of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:21-23). We must have that same faith in God as the power of our obedience to his commandment.
To our condemnation of labor unions and gambling might be added a condemnation of the common practice of suing for huge sums of money by way of compensation for various injuries, real or imagined. In many cases at least this practice has nothing to do with justice and simply constitutes another legalized means of robbery and of getting what God has not given.
We might also notice in this connection, that because the truth concerning God lies behind the eighth commandment, it is impossible that wicked men make good use of the gifts God gives them. I Corinthians 13:3teaches us that even if a man give all his goods to feed the poor, if he have not charity, that is, the love of God, it profits him nothing. Then his “charity” is an abomination before God. Scripture even goes so far as to say that God’s curse is in the house of a wicked man: that is, if we may put it that way, in his pots and pans, upon his fork and his table, in his chair and his bed, upon all his use of his possessions (Prov. 3:33). Even his plowing is sin (Prov. 21:4). David echoes this inPsalm 69 when he prays that their table may be a snare to them and that which should have been for their welfare a trap (Ps. 69:22).
Another form of robbery which is practiced in the name of Christ and His Kingdom is that of extorting from widows and from the poor their very livelihood, by persuading and cajoling them into giving everything they own “for the kingdom,” leaving them and often also their families in great need. The popular evangelists and so-called churches which do this not only shear the sheep for their own popularity, prosperity, and power, but bring great dishonor to the name of God, especially when “the kingdom” only means fancy buildings, enormous religion-factories, huge social projects, showmanship, and waste.
Much closer to home, the eighth commandment also forbids various forms of stealing that cannot be punished and are not recognized by the civil authorities. When we understand that all we have belongs to God, including our talents and time, then it is also clear that laziness, wastefulness, miserliness, and all misuse of God’s gifts are in violation of this commandment. Jesus tells, for example, of a steward who misuses his position as caretaker in his Lord’s house by wasting and gluttony. Jesus speaks of this in a “story” but the story touches us too closely and is too real to be considered among the parables of Jesus. In other words, it is not part of the “mysteries of the kingdom” but a very plain and stern warning to us. The punishment of such an unprofitable servant is just. He has portion among the unbelievers, because he does not acknowledge in his stewardship the sovereign right and rule of his master (Luke 12:42-48).
Proverbs condemns the sluggard (the lazy man) as a brother to him who is a great waster (Prov. 18:9). When we are idle we steal from God, for we misuse the time He has given us. There is certainly good reason whyEphesians 4:28 says that the opposite of stealing is labor and doing an honest day’s work. For that same reason the fourth commandment speaks not only of resting the seventh day, but of working the other six.
Boasting in our wealth is also forbidden. The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21) brings that point home to us. But Deuteronomy 8 makes that boasting a matter of the heart also, so that although we may not boast openly of what we have, we nevertheless boast against God and commit great sin against the eighth commandment when we forget Him, especially as the One who gives us even the power to get wealth (Deut. 8:11-14, 17, 18). We forget Him most of all when we do not bless and thank Him for all the good He has given.
The negative emphasis of the eighth commandment is not directed, therefore, only at the ungodly who openly practice their greed, but is directed to us, that the wickedness of our own natures may be corrected and admonished as far as this commandment is concerned. In light of the revelation of God that is given in the eighth commandment we cannot help but see our sin, so that in confessing our sin, we pray: “Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight” (Ps. 51:4). And humbled before God by that knowledge of our sins we flee to Christ, Who was crucified between two thieves, and for the salvation of one of them.
To Him we go also for grace to live a life that is in harmony with God’s glory as Creator and Owner of all things. We need that grace because the calling to be a steward in the house of God is a calling which requires a great deal of self-denial. The calling to use all that God gives for His glory in the work and maintenance of the church, in the support and care of our families, in the Christian education of our children, and in the care of the poor, will often mean that we have nothing extra for our own pleasure and enjoyment. But even then we have the promise of Jesus: “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”
By that grace of our Lord we not only look forward to inheriting the wealth of His heavenly kingdom, but we are able now to enjoy what God has given us—something the wicked man cannot do. All these things, Paul says, are created by God to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth (I Tim. 4:3). There is, then, nothing better for a man in this life but to enjoy what God has given, but this also is from the Lord (Eccl. 3:12).