We normally think of property rights as belonging to wealthy companies, or landowners, and those of us who strongly defend property rights often seem to make arguments that are viewed as protecting the property rights only of those who are wealthy and relatively powerful from threats like eminent domain  or the loss of intellectual property rights . However, one of the Bible’s most ferociously harsh condemnations against theft, and one of its most strict laws against theft, is in the context of theft against poor wage earners. In the interests of showing how the Bible’s hostility to theft also serves to protect poor people from exploitation from the wealthy and powerful, I would like to look today at Deuteronomy 24:14-15 and its implications and references in scripture.
Deuteronomy 24:14-15: The Law
First, let us look at the law of Deuteronomy 24:14-15 in some detail and see what sort of theft it condemns. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 reads: “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates. Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be a sign to you.”
First, we note that this passage is directly dealing with employee rights. An employee is called a “hired servant” in biblical language, because an employee works for a boss for a certain schedule and loses a certain amount of freedom as a result of that, doing so for wages that are necessary to pay for food, clothing, transportation, lodging, and other expenses. God’s law placed limitations on what a boss could do with his (or her) employees. God’s law included labor laws to regulate working conditions so that they were not oppressive. These laws protected not only citizens, but also resident aliens who lived within the local community. Employers are strictly forbidden by biblical law from exploiting either the poor or foreigners.
Let us note briefly one of the implications of this passage. There is much dispute concerning the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:10 that talks about the enforcement of the Sabbath laws to those in your gates. All too often we rather pedantically and legalistically apply our own interpretation to this and say, we don’t have any strangers within our houses, so we don’t have to worry about our neighbors. Since we see this expression used in Deuteronomy 24:14 for both poor neighbors as well as foreigners, we see that the expression “within your gates” refers not to our houses but to our cities and communities. This law commands those who are wealthy to view their poorer fellow Israelites and those foreigners within their communities as neighbors and brethren. It commands us to do the same here and now within our own communities.
The Bible is also very specific on when wages are to paid–every day. God knows that we need our daily bread and so he requires employers to pay daily so that people can buy their daily bread daily. This is something that our own labor laws do not recognize. It is common for employers to pay very delayed wages, often withholding the wages by fraud (especially in commission-based jobs), and this is contrary to biblical law. The expenses incurred by a worker are daily–gasoline must be paid for when it is purchased, as is the case with food. The same is true, therefore, of wages. They are due at the end of every working day so that the worker can pay is daily expenses with his daily wage. With the ease and convenience of digital banking it does not seem overly complicated for this to become a more common habit in our own economies.
There is an important corollary to this law that is worthy of note also. The Bible assumes that daily labor requires a daily wage so that it is not theft. This would seem, on its face, to automatically prohibit any sort of job that requires a capital investment for normal employees as well as any job that has commission-only pay, since it is work without wages that is considered theft. The Bible is very specific that physically and spiritually we are wage earners, and are not on commission only pay. When, in the Bible (for example, the story of the generous landowner, in Matthew 20:1-16), there is a departure from the strict providing of wages, it is in the direction of greater generosity and not less. Additionally, in the parable of the talents and minas, God requires profit from His servants because He gave them money first to start out . We see therefore that God requires people to be paid for the time and effort that they spend at work, without exception. A laborer is worthy of his hire, after all.
The last part of this law comments that the poor have set their heart on their wages, because someone who works expects a wage to be able to survive. They use their God-given gifts to labor for their survival, and when they do not receive wages as they are owed, it is a great strain and burden on their heart (something, sadly, I know all too well personally). To withhold wages from employees for even a day after the work is done is theft. There are a lot of companies and employers that are thieves in this world.
We should note in passing that this law is a small part of a larger group of miscellaneous laws, many of which have to deal with the larger concern of love and community, including the freedom of a man from warfare for a year after he has married, several prohibitions on pledges, including pledges taken from economic goods (like millstones), pledges taken from widows, and pledges taken overnight from poor neighbors, the biblical death penalty placed on kidnappers and slave traders (who steal people and treat them like things), as well as the command against landowners gleaning their property to maximize profit, so that the poor and landless are able to work for their own bread. Many of these laws are connected to theft in ways that we as a civilization have been slow to recognize and apply to our own behavior.
How Does This Law Apply To Christians?
For the record, I do not believe that a law has to be quoted in the so-called “New Testament” to be valid for Christians today. I believe, per the early Christians and the explicit command of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17) that all scripture is divinely inspired and profitable for reproof and instruction. And so that is how I treat it. Nonetheless, when a law is explicitly applied by the apostles, we must pay attention to how the law is applied and draw lessons from it accordingly.
So, we must ask ourselves, is the biblical command for employers to pay the wages of their employees immediately, which we have been reviewing, mentioned elsewhere in the Bible in the early church? Yes. Is it mentioned in a way that specifically applies this law to the wealthy and condemns them for defrauding their employees? Yes. Does this mean that mean that those who practice such behavior themselves here and now face condemnation and punishment from God unless they repent and pay their back wages? There are also implications from this law that imply that God will avenge those who are so defrauded so long as they do not take vengeance into their own hands.
Let us examine the indirect case first. In Ephesians 4:26 Paul says for us not to let the sun go down on our wrath and then immediately discusses the case of a thief, saying that he should steal no longer. As it happens, Deuteronomy 24:15, itself talking about theft, as we have discussed, says that we should “not let the sun go down on it [the wages of poor employees].” It would appear as if some of the anger Paul cautions Christians about relates to their anger about being cheated and exploited by unscrupulous and corrupt employers, and certainly that is a significant source of anger in the world right now. As Romans 12 advises us, we should let God avenge and not seek to avenge ourselves.
Because God has explicitly promised to avenge those who are robbed of their wages by the corrupt wealthy. He has explicitly promised to do so in James 5:1-6: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who have mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and in luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.”
This is a fiery and passionate message, something that would be well-suited for an Old Testament prophet like Amos, or someone like myself who was hostile to exploitation and had a strong populist streak, but not the sort of Christianity one is likely to think of as being particularly “right wing.” We may think of property rights as a “conservative” issue or as benefitting the wealthy and powerful, but this ferocious attack against theft is against the theft of the wages of the righteous poor by the corrupt wealthy. We must recognize that property rights, which are protected by the eighth commandment, belong to all, and that a man’s wages are his property even before they are paid because he has earned them with the sweat of his brow or with the labor of his mind.
It is interesting to note that the behavior of the wealthy whom James condemns, under divine inspiration, engage in behavior very familiar to many of us today. While the poor are cheated and exploited, the wealthy fatten themselves up in luxury, hoarding gold and silver for themselves while refusing to pay wages to their workers. And James promises that their corrupted wealth will be a sign of their judgment, and that their flesh will be eaten by the corruption and that they have fattened themselves for slaughter, presumably divine judgment. We ought to soberly reflect that to those whom God gives much, including material blessings, He expects much concern and generosity to others. God does not give us wealth because we are righteous, nor does He curse the poor with poverty because they are wicked, rather He gives wealth (and other gifts) so that we may in turn give them to others and practice the divinely generous love shown by our God who created us, gave us Jesus Christ as the sacrifice for our sins, and who gives us by His grace an opportunity for eternal life and glory that we cannot earn by merit. What He does expect of us is that we should walk in faith and in generous love toward Him and each other–and this is no unreasonable demand.
According to the Bible, this law definitely applies for Christians. To rob employees was theft in the time of Moses, it was theft in the time of James the brother of Christ, and it remains theft for us today. In fact, part of the problem of this theft is that when we consider what God has given us as our own and that we deserve it and do not want to part with it to those whom we judge as unworthy in our selfishness, we then commit the same theft that we accuse others of. Those who loudly demand respect for their own property rights have a high obligation to respect the property rights of others, or else their own will be put in jeopardy by their selfishness and greed, neither of which are acceptable behaviors before God. This is as true now as it ever was.
 The expression for “hosts” is often transliterated Sabaoth.