The ancient world did not consider religion to be morally inspiring, creative, or corrective; the reputed behavior of gods and goddesses repelled cultivated minds. Even in Israel the Wisdom Literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach), while never abandoning a religious outlook, made little of worship rituals or the traditional law. Their teaching is prudential: Since God made us, it is common sense to discover what he wants and then to do it ( Prov 9:10 ; Ecclesiastes 12:1 Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ). Job does emphasize responsibility to God, and his self-defense (chap. 31) forms a noble ethical creed, but of religious observances he says nothing.
Immoral Religion and Prophetic Protest. The prophets opposed the popular religion and even temple worship, resenting not only the use of images but the total divorce of such "worship" from morality. The Canaanite baals were fertility-spirits whose favor ensured increase of families, flocks, and herds as well as the fruitfulness of fields and vineyards. At their shrines they were "worshiped" with orgies of drunkenness and sexual license (male and female cult prostitution, incest). "A spirit of harlotry" thus gained religious sanction; greed and drunkenness degraded men and women; the people cast off discipline, defiled the land, and "knew not how to blush." Standing pillars (? female figures; "Asherah" = Ishtar, the mother-goddess) and the bull-calf represented deities, and infant sacrifice was frequent. Wizardry, sorcery, witchcraft, necromancy, and soothsaying flourished under the patronage of such religion, and eventually even the Jerusalem temple housed similar rights, together with sun-worship, astrology, and altars to foreign gods ( 1 Kings 12:28-32 ; 14:23-24 ; 2 Kings 17:7-18 ; 21:1-7 ; Isa 8:19 ; Jer 2:20-25 ; Jeremiah 3:1-13 Jeremiah 3:23 ; 5:1 ; 6:15 ; Hosea 2:5-8 ; Hosea 4:12 Hosea 4:18 ; 5:3-4 ; 8:4-6 ; 13:1-2 ; Amos 2:7-8 ; 6:4-6 ; Micah 5:10-15 ; 6:6-7 ).
Orthodox worship could also be immoral when unrelated to behavior in society. The prophets called constantly for justice; they condemned perjury and bribery, the selfish luxury of women, the scarcity of upright men, the lack of trust between neighbors through lies, deceitfulness, and fraud, as people preferred lies to truth and nourished "the lie within the soul." Avaricious moneylenders exploiting hardship, wealthy landlords dispossessing small landowners, merchants who oppressed the poor by ruthless competition and unjust balances, those who sold debtors into slavery or prostitution or exacted forced labor all are indicted. So is the prevalent theft, murder, violence, adultery, and constant neglect of widows, orphans, strangers. The ultimate condemnation was that God's people saw no contradiction between the state of their society and the crowded shrines. God hates the feasts, assemblies, offerings, and music. Micah says that only a prophet preaching drink will be welcomed! Isaiah calls Jerusalem "Sodom, " and declares God's utter rejection of her worship. Jeremiah threatens that the temple will become ruinous as Shiloh of old. Malachi pleads for someone to slam the temple doors and let the sacred fire go out ( Isa 1:10-15 ; 29:13-14 ; Jer 7:1-15 ; Amos 4:4 ; 5:21-24 ; Micah 2:11 ; Mal 1:10 ).
Thus both "religious perversion" and religion without ethical fruits are rejected by God. To watch each prophet elaborating this argument is to retrace the discipline that ultimately made Jewish ethics the envy of the ancient world. No prophet argued from psychological or social consequences, nor (until Jeremiah) did any cite divine law. They contended that such practices totally misapprehended Yahweh Yahweh was not like that. Surrounding nations or primitive Canaanites might offer immoral "worship" to their vicious, characterless deities; to offer it to Yahweh was to insult him.
Appealing simply to his own moral insight Amos demands that Israel turn from her petty gods to seek him who made heaven and earth, day and night; who through repeated recent catastrophes has wrestled with Israel's waywardness, and will yet bring judgment upon all crimes against humanity, wherever committed. If Israel refuses, nothing can save her (1:2-3:2; 4:6-13 ; Amos 5:6-9 Amos 5:14-15 ).
Hosea declares repeatedly that Israel does not know her God. Yahweh is no sex-crazed drunkard! Israel's worship has numbed her moral sense, otherwise she would know that God loved her from the beginning as father, provider, and lover, and will not let her go. Sad domestic experience had taught Hosea that love outlasts unfaithfulness ( Hosea 2:9 Hosea 2:14-16 Hosea 2:19 ; 3:1 ; Hosea 4:1 Hosea 4:6 ; Hosea 5:4 Hosea 5:11 ; Hosea 6:3 Hosea 6:6 ; Hosea 11:1-4 Hosea 11:8-9 ).
Micah appeals briefly to nature and history to testify what God is like, but rests his argument chiefly on his own indignation at injustice, his inner sense of the kind of world God wants and will achieve if only people listen to their own hearts ( Micah 6:1-5 Micah 6:8 ). Isaiah repeats that Judah "does not understand" that God is "the Holy One of Israel" (eleven times in early chapters, twenty-four times in all). He learned that, unforgettably, at his call within the temple. "Holy" implies here perfect purity, freedom from fault, the absolute good. Only worship offered by those worthy to survive as nucleus of a holy nation could ever be acceptable to him ( 1:3 ; Isaiah 5:16 Isaiah 5:24 ; 9:2-7 ; 10:20 ; 11:1-11 ).
Jeremiah attained a daring familiarity with God, partly (as a poet-naturalist) from nature, partly (as a trained priest) from Israel's history, but mainly through forty years of struggle, protest, and disappointment, sometimes charging God with deceiving him, sometimes near despair, and so learning to know God ( 15:10-21 ; 20:7-18 ). Thereafter Jeremiah knew it was "not for man to direct his steps": he needed to know the Lord who practices and delights in kindness, justice, and righteousness. Such "knowledge of God, " the essence of religion and life's highest good ( 9:23-24 ), included a knowledge of God's law, of the "homing instincts" within human nature, of God's "hand" in one's experience, what God can accomplish, and his true "name" or character. It demands "a heart to know, " and a simple, contended, just, and generous mind. In coming days all will thus know God, without instruction. That will prove the panacea for all evils.
So the prophets argued: as Israel went after false idols and became false ( 2 Kings 17:15 ), so to know and worship the true God would ensure righteousness in individuals and society. They did not add ethics to religious piety; for them religion and morality matured together, under God's guidance, through experience. But it took the exile to make Judah listen.
A Changed Atmosphere. Turning to the Psalter, one finds nothing remotely resembling the indecencies, license, and infanticide of popular preexilic religion. Discussion of ethical problems would be out of place in a worship manual, but a much deeper sense of personal consecration and concern for social righteousness is evident in Judah's praise and prayer.
Many psalms celebrate the glory and majesty of the Creator, revealed in nature. All scenes, all living things exhibit his power and declare his glory. No one who joined in Psalms 8, 19, 29, 65, 89, 96, 104 could imagine that God would take pleasure in sexual promiscuity, drunkenness, infant sacrifice or emotional frenzy. He is high above all human imagination, clothed in majesty, light, and power; worship must be dignified, reverent, and exalted to be worthy of him.
In the psalms God is holy (seven times); so is his name (= character, six times), his temple, mountain, arm, city, heaven, throne, hill, and promise, and God swears by his holiness. Hence holiness alone is fitting for God's house ( 93:5 ); anyone who would stand in the holy place must have clean hands, a pure heart the implications are fully analyzed in 24:3-6, 15:1-5. This clearly reflects the teaching of the "Holiness Code" (Lev 17-26), with its theme "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." The code expounded "holiness" in terms of love to God, the fellow Israelite, and the neighbor, shown in honesty, integrity, and charity. How seriously this demand was taken may be judged from the most searching confession ever penned ( Psalm 51 ), and the moving testimonies to God's forgiveness ( 103:8-14 , five times).
In the psalms cries for righteousness are heard repeatedly, sometimes impatiently, demanding that God will arise, wake up, stir himself to intervene within his world. Even when her prophets were silent, Judah's worship effectively kept alive the hope of a world governed by her righteous king.
With this conception arose a wholly new evaluation of the Divine King's law (mentioned thirty-four times, with varied synonyms almost two hundred times, in AV/KJV), as the rule of life and of society. This idea was to dominate Jewish thought for centuries. Though "the law" had come from Moses, from Joshua to the eve of the exile (Jeremiah, and the historian of 1-2 Kings) no prophet appealed to its authority. In the Psalter and afterwards the law becomes Judah's chief source of the knowledge of God.
The King's Law. The ground of the Ten Commandments ( Exod 20:1-17 ; Deut 5:6-21 ) is what God has already done for Israel. The first commandment asserts God's supremacy, forbidding worship of other gods; the second, his spirituality. The third safeguards the oath in court and marketplace; the fourth asserts God's claim on human time, with humanitarian overtones. The fifth protects the order of primitive society; the sixth, seventh, and eighth, the sanctity of life, marriage, and property (on which life might depend). The ninth commandment protects an individual's good name, and the tenth forbids undisciplined desire.
The Book of the Covenant ( Exod 20:22-23:19 ) presupposes a simple agricultural background; vengeful impulses of primitive society are here moderated by a sense of proportion and justice. The eye-for-eye rule was originally a limitation on unmeasured retribution. The book tolerates slavery but civilizes it; kidnapping slaves deserves death, and so do sorcery, idolatry, and bestiality. Compensation for neglected dangerous animals or buildings depends on circumstances, and restitution for theft is controlled. Seduction involves marriage and dowry. Oppression of widows, orphans, and foreigners and perversion of justice are strictly forbidden. Moderation, equity, and philanthropy, reinforced by religious reverence, are the Book's guiding principles: God defends justice and is compassionate.
The Book of Deuteronomy stressed humanitarian concerns and an inward devotion to God. God is ever impartial, just, caring for the fatherless, the widow, and the alien: so must his people be. When slaves are freed, provision must be made for their immediate needs. Holiness, and lives worthy of sons of God, are required, from motives of gratitude and love toward God ( Deuteronomy 6:5 Deuteronomy 6:20-25 ). Prostitution, child sacrifice, and divination are suppressed; the right to glean, to receive wages before evening, regular provision for the poor, and reverence for the aged, are all enacted. Animals share in such consideration ( 22:1-4 ). All punishments must be strictly limited ( 25:3 ). Law and ethics have here coalesced.
Old Testament ethics are admittedly unsystematic, and largely unreflective. Developing in each generation from Israel's growing understanding of God, its insights possess a universality, and authority, conferred by long experience. The moral principles are the conditions of individual and social welfare, not an arbitrary prize for being virtuous but as the natural consequence of obeying the inner laws of well-being implanted by Him who made us.
Intertestamental Influence. In the years before Jesus, foreign occupation narrowed and hardened moral attitudes. God's kingship fed nationalistic hopes of deliverance through Messiah; delight in God's law sank into rigid legalism, fostering self-righteousness or despair. The law was "hedged" with innumerable minor rules, to express the whole duty of man; enthusiasts (Hasidim, later Pharisees) defended it, devoted scribes expounded it, synagogues inculcated it, exaggerated claims held it to be "superior to prophecy, " "light and life of all, " and "eternal." Essenes outdid Pharisees in strictness, discouraging marriage, sharing possessions, and rejecting the temple. Covenanters at Qumran sought "absolute" holiness through monastic discipline, based on moral dualism (light/darkness, truth/falsehood).
The standard was high, in sexual purity, piety, and charity; loyalty to the law did produce saints and martyrs. But legalism became self-serving, claiming merit before God; ethics became casuistry; for the weak, ignorant, poor, or sinful, legalism had no message and no mercy.
The Baptist's manner, his demand for repentance, and his regime of fasting and prayer appealed to the new ascetic tendency ( Matt 11:16-18 ; Mark 2:18 ; Luke 11:1 ), adding prophetic authority. Luke summarizes his practical ethical emphases ( 3:10-14 ). The priesthood meanwhile maintained the elaborate ritual of sacrifice and festivals; many common people worshiped at synagogues and sustained a simpler domestic piety as at Nazareth. Into this confusion of ethical insights and tendencies Jesus stepped.
Jesus' Method. Jesus did not abate the divine law's ideals, but he severely criticized Judaism's legalism as academic ( Luke 11:52 ), cruel (forbidding Sabbath cures, banishing the mentally ill and lepers from society), having wrong priorities, external in judgment, and burdensome ( Matt 23:23-28 ; Mark 7:14-23 ). It fostered self-righteousness and contempt for the weak and sinful ( Luke 7:36-50 ; 15:25-32 ; 18:9-14 ; John 8:1-11 ). Jesus did not legislate.
Nor did Jesus cite authorities ( Matt 7:28-29 ). He appealed to the common moral judgment, very often by questions. Even his assertions often ended with "He that has ears let him hear." Jesus assumes the capacity of the sincere to recognize truth when presented with it. Such consent of the enlightened conscience ensures that obedience is free, spontaneous, approving.
The Kingly Father. As in the Old Testament, so for Jesus ethics derives from a right relationship with God, rendering obedience filial. Yet not all live as sons; some are disobedient, wayward, lost. But God remains Father, and sonship remains available; the Father welcomes their return. In such a context legalism must wither, and the moral life gain new motivation, quality, and tone.
One implication of sonship is likeness: Resemblance proves relationship. The peacemakers, the merciful, those who love their enemies and persecutors, being as impartial and inclusive in their love as God is, those who do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again all are, and are recognized as, children of the father ( Matthew 5:9 Matthew 5:44-48 ; Luke 6:35-36 ). By this simple domestic simile Jesus initiates the supreme Christian ideal of Christlikeness, the imitation of God as beloved children, conformed to the image of his Son ( Rom 8:29 ; Eph 5:1 ).
Second, the language of sonship is relentlessly plural. Such brotherliness forbids insult, and criticism, though brotherly rebuke may be necessary ( Matt 5:22 ; 7:1-3 ; Luke 17:3 ). It requires initiative toward reconciliation and understanding, and ready forgiveness ( Matt 5:23-24 ; Matthew 18:21 Matthew 18:35 ), and, in any need, service as for Christ ( Matt 25:40 ). At all times the duty of brethren is to strengthen each other ( Luke 22:32 ).
The Fatherly King. In God's kingdom the supreme law must be to love the King with the whole personality ( Matt 22:36-38 ). The kingdom's second law commands love toward whoever is near enough to be loved, with a transferred self-love that makes our wants the criteria for our neighbors' ( Matt 7:12 ; 22:39-40 ). Such love fulfills the whole law. Illustrations of its practical meaning are the cup of (scarce) water, visiting the sick, helping any mugged victim, clothing the naked, befriending the ill-deserving in prison, doing good, lending without interest. The nature of the King determines the law of the kingdom, a kingdom of love ( Matt 11:2-6 ; Luke 4:16-21 ).
Yet Christ's example of love includes sternness against evil enjoyed or inflicted; it sets high standards, warns of consequences, exposes hypocrisy, speaks of judgment. It is neither sentimental, soft, nor stupid, but a resolute moral attitude that seeks another's good, whether by gentle or ungentle means.
Jesus was a realist. To his mind, sinfulness was more, and more serious, than trespass against formal laws; it included sins of thought and desire, of neglect, of failure to love, and of sin against light ( Matt 5:27-28 ; 6:22-23 ; 12:35 ; 23:13-26 ; 25:41-46 ; Mark 3:22-30 ; Luke 10:31-32; 13:6-9 ). Life in God's kingdom, therefore, involves personal resistance, protest, conflict, and suffering, occasioned by loyalty to God in a godless world ( Mark 8:34-38 ; Luke 22:35-36 ). But the citizen of the kingdom will seek peace with all where possible, never returning evil for evil ( Matthew 5:9 Matthew 5:38-40 ).
In all situations the will of the King is to be the ultimate rule of life. And the King's will shall triumph in the end. Human beings may choose whether to live under God's reign or not, but he remains King. In parables ( Matt 21:33-43 ; 25:14-46 ; Luke 12:16-21 ; 13:6-9 ; 16:19-31 ) and numerous phrases the truth is made clear that people cannot trifle with God indefinitely. What is good news for the responsive is warning for the obdurate: The Father is King.
Even so cursory a review reveals how rich, varied, realistic, and practical is the ethical teaching of Jesus, and how directly it derives from the perceived character of God and from relationship with him. The good life is lived before God, by his help, in gratitude for his goodness; shorn of these religious roots, Christian values must die and Christian motivation fail. And all is illustrated, unforgettably, by the living example of Jesus, and therefore summed up in his "Follow me."
New Testament Moral Theology. Those who walk, live, and set their minds "according to the Spirit" find freedom, peace, acceptance with God, and constant renewal as sons of God ( Rom 8:5-17 ). This new, Spirit-ruled life is characterized by the absolute lordship of Christ over all attitudes and conduct ( Rom 1:3-4 ; 10:9-13 ; 14:7-9 ; 1 Col 6:13-20, ; etc. ). Human personality being "open" Godward, as well as toward social forces that corrupt, the soul united to Christ becomes the vehicle of the divine Spirit, by whose guidance and enabling it is made capable of otherwise unattainable virtue ( Rom 8:9-14 ; 1 Col 6:17-20 ; 2 Col 4:7-18 ). Paul presents a perpetually progressive ideal, developing constantly in its scope of love, its depth of consecration, and in likeness to Christ. Paul does not claim to have attained the goal, only to be straining forward at the ever-upward call of God in Christ, toward the stature of Christ, being by degrees changed "into his likeness" and "conformed to his image" ( Rom 8:29 ; 2 Col 3:18 ; Eph 4:13 ; Php 3:12-14 ).
Human ethics, based on philosophical, sociological or psychological premises, or intuitive responses to isolated "situations, " attain only a consensus of good advice acceptable to people already virtuous in intention. Such moral counsel lacks permanence, authority, and motive power. Biblical ethics, deriving from knowledge and experience of God but forged always in historical real-life situations, problems and needs, reveals unchanging absolutes, inarguable authority, effective motivation, and redemptive power. The Old Testament emphasizes that God's requirements enshrine the secrets of total human welfare; the New Testament points to the man Jesus Christ and his intensely human story as embodiment of the ultimate ideal. Thus biblical ethics prove more truly human in the end, enshrining the Creator's intention for his highest creatures.
R. E. O. White
Bibliography. W. Barclay, Ethics in a Permissive Society; P. Carrington, Primitive Christian Catechism; C. F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics; W. Lillie, Studies in New Testament Ethics; J. T. Sanders, Ethics in the New Testament; E. F. Scott, Ethical Teaching of Jesus; R. E. O. White, Biblical Ethics.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Ethics'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".