And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the LORD thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. . . And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day (Deut. 8:13-18).
Come ye, say they, I will fetch wine, and we will fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant (Isa. 56:12).
The drunkards who enjoyed their lifestyle had faith in the future. It would be like today, but much more abundant. They believed that they would forever dwell in the same sort of world, and their fortunes would continue to improve. They would experience the joys of economic growth, no matter what their personal habits were. This is the faith of the wastrel who believes that money really does grow on trees, and that he owns these miraculous trees. Furthermore, his unmanaged workers will not find ways to confiscate a growing portion of the wealth on those magical trees.
There is something almost pathetically naive about such a view of the future. The future is supposed to be the same, yet much better. But “better” inescapably means “different.” Things cannot get better and also stay the same. There is an unbreakable law of nature: You cannot change only one thing. This world is interconnected. It takes enormous faith to believe that change is always beneficial. It takes even more faith to believe that change will be beneficial for me, and that nothing will change in the world around me which has produced all these benefits for me.
Covenantal Sanctions and Feedback
Moses warned the generation of the conquest that the underlying cause-~and-effect structure of economic growth is based on the law of the covenant. “But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day” (Deut. 8:18). The visible blessings of God in history serve as covenantal confirmations for covenant-keeping societies. These blessings are supposed to reinforce men’s faith in the reliability of God’s covenant promises in history. God had sworn faith to their fathers, Moses said, and the visible external blessings which they and their heirs would experience in Canaan should increase their faith in God’s faithfulness. Greater faith should lead to greater obedience; greater obedience should lead to greater external wealth; and so on, year after year. This is a program of positive feedback.
Covenantal sanctions are not always positive. They can be negative. “And it shall be, if thou do at all forget the LORD thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, l testify against you this day that ye shall surely perish. As the nations which the LORD destroyeth before your face, so shall ye perish; because ye would not be obedient unto the voice of the LORD your God” (Deut. 8:19-20). Isaiah’s description of the optimistic drunks was supposed to warn the nation of the consequences of moral rebellion. The good times would not go on indefinitely. Negative sanctions would eventually come. In the absence of covenantal faithfulness, today’s blessings point to a coming period of crisis and judgment.
Over a century and a half elapsed from the era in which Isaiah preached until the Babylonian captivity of the Southern Kingdom. In the Mosaic timetable, things moved slowly. But the covenantal reality was nonetheless in force. Blessings would not go on indefinitely in the face of widespread moral rebellion.
This raises the question of time perspective. Sanctions that lie beyond one’s time perspective cease to be meaningful. If a society is short-run in its perspective, this will have repercussions on its ethics.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)