One of the most critical developments of our time is the massive, headlong surge of government debt—in fact, all types of debt—and the widening chasm between the rich and the poor. Yes. Seen from a historical perspective, these are not new trends. Yet, these conditions today are indeed unprecedented in a number of respects.
Down through history, similar wealth dynamics have played out before, almost always ending up with a final traumatic, wealth-redistributing bust. Debts were always rebased in one of three main ways: 1. Through such measures as hard work and increased savings … i.e. repaying the debts; 2. A massive hyper-inflation, this ultimately ending in a deflationary collapse; and 3. Outright default on debt obligations.
However, whenever speaking of debt, it must always be remembered that it is only one side of a two-fold condition. After all, for every debtor there must also be a creditor; their must be someone that has the monetary capital to lend in the first place, as “for seller as for buyer, for borrower as for lender, for debtor as for creditor” (Isaiah 24:2). (This is the very same duality that this writer believes is portrayed in Zechariah’s fifth vision of the great, flying scroll found in Zechariah 5. The flying scroll had writing on both sides.) Therefore, when indebtedness soars, it is most always associated with a rising imbalance in wealth distribution.
One of the pitfalls of money (this being a reflection of the base nature of human lusts and affections) is its facility to become concentrated in the hands of a few. Anyone who has played the game of Monopoly will recognize this tendency. Eventually one player wins all the money and the time comes to restart the game.
This tendency of “wealth begetting wealth” today is viewed by economists as a “flaw” of capitalism. They observe that over time, the competitive economic arena leads to winners who then become very dominant, in turn having the ability to suppress new competitors. (At times, the U.S. and other governments intervened to break up companies that were thought to have become too large …i.e. ATT and General Motors). The point we wish to emphasize is that the laws of money, compound interest and relative advantage (everything else being equal) contribute to the tendency that the wealthy get wealthier, and the poor, relatively poorer. However, these very trends over time lead to instability and eventual destruction.
Many philosophers and religious thinkers have pondered these questions, devising teachings and theories about how to discourage repressive debts and imbalanced wealth distribution. For example, Islamic scholars developed principles that sought to achieve relief for the poor and a sustainable wealth balance. Alone their teaching of “al riba” served this end. This is the doctrine that money is not allowed to earn income through interest. According to Islam, gain is only to be achieved through labor and trading. If money is allowed to earn income, though producing nothing, eventually it would lead to an imbalance of wealth distribution.
Much earlier yet, we read of the practices of the ancient Akkadians. Cancellation of debts became a common royal practice in the old Babylonian period. Hammurabi who was the Babylonian king early in the second millennium BC around 1800 BC … dating vary) founded the basic principle of ruler-mandated debt cancellation in the renown Code of Hammurabi. It is very likely that Abraham, the Biblical patriarch, lived during the very same time as Hammurabi. In fact, some scholars consider that the account of Genesis 14 actually references this same king, though under the different name of Amraphel, King of Shinar. To recall, it was this king along with several others who had captured Lot, the nephew of Abraham. As it was, Abraham himself originally came from Ur, a location which by most accounts is on the southern extremity of Shinar.
Debt cancellation was one of Hammurabi’s first acts when he came into power. As in our time today, overindebtedness was a major problem in Babylonian society. Citizens could easily become enslaved to the creditor class. Anyone falling upon hard times or not able to pay taxes would be forced to borrow. Interest rates were onerous … commonly as high as 33% over the duration of the loan period.
As we see today, once indebted, people were almost certainly doomed to fall even deeper into debt or slavery. With such usurious interest rates, it would not take long for wealth distribution and concentration of land ownership to become extreme, this potentially also threatening the power of the king. It made sense to periodically decree an amnesty from all personal debts (this not including commercial liabilities in the case of the Babylonian system). This wiping out of debts rejuvenated society and served to maintain a sustainable wealth and power balance.
We can imagine just how different our modern economies would be were this same convention applied. There would be no massive accumulations of debt as we see today. For example, according to recent forecasts of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the government debt of the advance nations of the world is headed to historically unprecedented levels in the decades ahead.
In the Old Testament, we read of the Jubilee Year. This required that every 50 years all obligations of debt were reset to zero and that land was returned to its original clans. As such, possibilities for economic oppression and chronic concentration of wealth were cleansed. Also, debts and obligations of services were reset on a seven year cycle. What we see today, certainly in the case of America, is that this process of debt-building and wealth concentration has been underway for some time. Today, wealth distribution in America is severely skewed … amongst the most extreme of all countries in the world. In tandem with high indebtedness, a growing array of financial serves, aided by a great idolatry for wealth and gains, has led to a society of over-hyped financialization. The financial industry has become so large it is constricting its host. Its demand for resources and profits is denutriating real-wealth-creating industries and activities. What we observe is financial markets that drive the economy rather than the other way around. Industry has become the servant to the financial industry.
How will this resolve itself? Time will reveal the exact course. The catalysts and the endpoints were different throughout history. Sometimes, popular uprisings occurred such as in the French Revolution. Other times great depressions reset the clock and purged the excesses.
Debt Forgiveness and the Prophetic Plan
The Lord’s Prayer, given to us to pray from Matthew 6:9-13 has the statement, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (verse 12, KJV). However, Luke provides us a slightly different version of this prayer. He writes: “And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.” (Luke 11:4). Here we note that Matthew refers to “debts” being forgiven while Luke mentions “sins” being forgiven. Two different Greek words are used: “debts” (opheilēma) and “sin” (hamartia), respectively. Are these two accounts therefore inconsistent … one of them perhaps in error?
No. Both of these similarly involve indebtedness. Sin and debt are very closely related concepts. Also to recognize is that the Lord’s prayer embraces the entire cosmology of God’s plan for the world. It is therefore also prophetic in character. The statement that “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10) will not happen until the Millennium at the earliest. Similarly, the full forgiveness of mankind’s sins and debts, including that of the Hebrews (Daniel 9:24) will not occur at the earliest until the beginning of the Millennium. As such, the forgiveness of both debts and sins are in the view of the Lord’s prayer.
Daniel was told that “Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy (Daniel 9:24, KJV). All of these things await His return and the Millennium.
Jesus Christ quoted Isaiah’s prophecy about Himself (Isaiah 61:1-13) when He said: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Christ deliberately did not read the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy which further reads “[…] and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:12-13).
Why? Because these were things that would be completed at his Second Coming, signifying the arrival of the “year of the Lord’s favor.” While our Lord proclaimed “the year of the Lord’s favor” during His first coming, it was not to occur until His second. The Lord did not rescue the poor at His first coming, rather the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3 from the Beatitudes). The rescuing of all poor (Luke 6:20, Sermon on the Plain) will be fulfilled in the Millennium.
A “late stage” wealth and debt imbalance exists in America and many other nations today. The wide gap between the rich and poor is a worldwide phenomenon. Everywhere one looks in the world, a cry is heard for “debt cancellation.” The world groans for a Jubilee Year. As Apostle Paul says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). Something else is needed to liberate the world, to free the economic captives.