Ancient History & Civilisation


The class war—Origin of the Prophets—Amos at Jerusalem—Isaiah—His attacks upon the rich—His doctrine of a Messiah—The influence of the Prophets

Since poverty is created by wealth, and never knows itself poor until riches stare it in the face, so it required the fabulous fortune of Solomon to mark the beginning of the class war in Israel. Solomon, like Peter and Lenin, tried to move too quickly from an agricultural to an industrial state. Not only did the toil and taxes involved in his enterprises impose great burdens upon his people, but when those undertakings were complete, after twenty years of industry, a proletariat had been created in Jerusalem which, lacking sufficient employment, became a source of political faction and corruption in Palestine, precisely as it was to become in Rome. Slums developed step by step with the rise of private wealth and the increasing luxury of the court. Exploitation and usury became recognized practises among the owners of great estates and the merchants and money-lenders who flocked about the Temple. The landlords of Ephraim, said Amos, “sold the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes.”93

This growing gap between the needy and the affluent, and the sharpening of that conflict between the city and the country which always accompanies an industrial civilization, had something to do with the division of Palestine into two hostile kingdoms after the death of Solomon: a northern kingdom of Ephraim,* with its capital at Samaria, and a southern kingdom of Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem. From that time on the Jews were weakened by fraternal hatred and strife, breaking out occasionally into bitter war. Shortly after the death of Solomon Jerusalem was captured by Sheshonk, Pharaoh of Egypt, and surrendered, to appease the conqueror, nearly all the gold that Solomon had gathered in his long career of taxation.

It was in this atmosphere of political disruption, economic war, and religious degeneration that the Prophets appeared. The men to whom the word (in Hebrew, Nabi) was first applied were not quite of the character that our reverence would associate with Amos and Isaiah. Some were diviners who could read the secrets of the heart and the past, and foretell the future, according to remuneration; some were fanatics who worked themselves into a frenzy by weird music, strong drink, or dervish-like dances, and spoke, in trances, words which their hearers considered inspired—i.e., breathed into them by some spirit other than their own.94 Jeremiah speaks with professional scorn of “every man that is mad, and maketh himself a prophet.”95 Some were gloomy recluses, like Elijah; many of them lived in schools or monasteries near the temples; but most of them had private property and wives.96 From this motley crowd of fakirs the Prophets developed into responsible and consistent critics of their age and their people, magnificent street-corner statesmen who were all “thorough-going anti-clericals,”97 and “the most uncompromising of anti-Semites,”98 a cross between soothsayers and socialists. We misunderstand them if we take them as prophets in the weather sense; their predictions were hopes or threats, or pious interpolations,99 or prognostications after the event;100 the Prophets themselves did not pretend to foretell, so much as to speak out; they were eloquent members of the Opposition. In one phase they were Tolstoians incensed at industrial exploitation and ecclesiastical chicanery; they came up from the simple countryside, and hurled damnation at the corrupt wealth of the towns.

Amos described himself not as a prophet but as a simple village shepherd. Having left his herds to see Beth-El, he was horrified at the unnatural complexity of the life which he discovered there, the inequality of fortune, the bitterness of competition, the ruthlessness of exploitation. So he “stood in the gate,” and lashed the conscienceless rich and their luxuries:

Forasmuch, therefore, as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat; ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them. . . . Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, . . . that lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall; that chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of music, like David; that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments. . . .

I despise your feast-days (saith the Lord); . . . though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them. . . . Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs, for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.101

This is a new note in the world’s literature. It is true that Amos dulls the edge of his idealism by putting into the mouth of his god a Mississippi of threats whose severity and accumulation make the reader sympathize for a moment with the drinkers of wine and the listeners to music. But here, for the first time in the literature of Asia, the social conscience takes definite form, and pours into religion a content that lifts it from ceremony and flattery to a whip of morals and a call to nobility. With Amos begins the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of his bitterest predictions seems to have been fulfilled while Amos was still alive. “Thus saith the Lord: As the shepherd taketh out of the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the children of Israel be taken out that dwell in Samaria in the corner of a bed, and in Damascus in a couch. . . . And the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall have an end.”102* About the same time another prophet threatened Samaria with destruction in one of those myriads of vivid phrases which King James’s translators minted for the currency of our speech out of the wealth of the Bible: “The calf of Samaria,” said Hosea, “shall be broken into pieces; for they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”104 In 733 the young kingdom of Judah, threatened by Ephraim in alliance with Syria, appealed to Assyria for help. Assyria came, took Damascus, subjected Syria, Tyre and Palestine to tribute, made note of Jewish efforts to secure Egyptian aid, invaded again, captured Samaria, indulged in unprintable diplomatic exchanges with the King of Judah,105 failed to take Jerusalem, and retired to Nineveh laden with booty and 200,000 Jewish captives doomed to Assyrian slavery.106

It was during this siege of Jerusalem that the prophet Isaiah became one of the great figures of Hebrew history, Less provincial than Amos, he thought in terms of enduring statesmanship. Convinced that little Judah could not resist the imperial power of Assyria, even with the help of distant Egypt—that broken staff which would pierce the hand that should try to use it—he pled with King Ahaz, and then with King Hezekiah, to remain neutral in the war between Assyria and Ephraim, like Amos and Hosea he foresaw the fall of Samaria,108 and the end of the northern kingdom. When, however, the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem, Isaiah counseled Hezekiah not to yield. The sudden withdrawal of Sennacherib’s hosts seemed to justify him, and for a time his repute was high with the King and the people. Always his advice was to deal justly, and then leave the issue to Yahveh, who would use Assyria as his agent for a time, but in the end would destroy her, too. Indeed, all the nations known to Isaiah were, according to him, destined to be struck down by Yahveh; in a few chapters (xvi-xxiii) Moab, Syria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Babylon and Tyre are dedicated to destruction; “every one shall howl.”109 This ardor for ruination, this litany of curses, mars Isaiah’s book, as it mars all the prophetic literature of the Bible.

Nevertheless his denunciation falls where it belongs—upon economic exploitation and greed. Here his eloquence rises to the highest point reached in the Old Testament, in passages that are among the peaks of the world’s prose:

The Lord will enter into judgment with the ancients of his people and the princes thereof; for ye have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor? . . . Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth! . . . Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees to turn aside the needy from judgment (justice), and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless. And what will ye do in the day of visitation, and in the desolation which shall come from afar? to whom will ye flee for help, and where will ye leave your glory?110

He is filled with scorn of those who, while fleecing the poor, present a pious face to the world.

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord. I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts. . . . Your appointed feasts my soul hateth; they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to hear them. And when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash ye, make ye clean, put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes, cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment (justice), relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.111

He is bitter, but he does not despair of his people; just as Amos had ended his prophecies with a prediction, strangely apt today, of the restoration of the Jews to their native land,112 so Isaiah concludes by formulating the Messianic hope—the trust of the Jews in some Redeemer who will end their political divisions, their subjection, and their misery, and bring an era of universal brotherhood and peace:

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. . . . For unto us a child is born: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. . . . And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse. . . . And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. . . . With righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins. The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. . . . And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.113

It was an admirable aspiration, but not for many generations yet would ft express the mood of the Jews. The priests of the Temple listened with a well-controlled sympathy to these useful encouragements to piety; certain sects looked back to the Prophets for part of their inspiration; and perhaps these excoriations of all sensual delight had some share in intensifying the desert-born Puritanism of the Jews. But for the most part the old life of the palace and the tent, the market-place and the field, went on as before; war took its choice of every generation, and slavery continued to be the lot of the alien; the merchant cheated with his scales,114 and tried to atone with sacrifice and prayer.

It was upon the Judaism of post-Exilic days, and upon the world through Judaism and Christianity, that the Prophets left their deepest mark. In Amos and Isaiah is the beginning of both Christianity and socialism, the spring from which has flowed a stream of Utopias wherein no poverty or war shall disturb human brotherhood and peace; they are the source of the early Jewish conception of a Messiah who would seize the government, reestablish the temporal power of the Jews, and inaugurate a dictatorship of the dispossessed among mankind. Isaiah and-Amos began, in a military age, the exaltation of those virtues of simplicity and gentleness, of cooperation and friendliness, which Jesus was to make a vital element in his creed. They were the first to undertake the heavy task of reforming the God of Hosts into a God of Love; they conscripted Yahveh for humanitarianism as the radicals of the nineteenth century conscripted Christ for socialism. It was they who, when the Bible was printed in Europe, fired the Germanic mind with a rejuvenated Christianity, and lighted the torch of the Reformation; it was their fierce and intolerant virtue that formed the Puritans. Their moral philosophy was based upon a theory that would bear better documentation—that the righteous man will prosper, and the wicked will be struck down; but even if that should be a delusion it is the failing of a noble mind. The prophets had no conception of freedom, but they loved justice, and called for an end to the tribal limitations of morality. They offered to the unfortunate of the earth a vision of brotherhood that became the precious and unforgotten heritage of many generations.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!