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When The State Seizes Your Millstone

Amidst the Covid-19 novel coronavirus pandemic, one of the most difficult experiences for Americans has been the decision at various levels of government to prevent “non-essential workers” from doing their job. This was not a unique experience to American workers, it occurred in various parts of the world. The question is, if those deciding were governed by and submissive to God’s Word, would they make such a decision?

Watching scenes in Michigan, I believed it necessary to instruct the minds of the Lord’s people on this matter. There were no protests in South Carolina (Michigan’s restrictions were much more prohibitive), but the events in Michigan offered a teaching moment.

Although the Bible gives light on the matter of government, the realms of government, its structure and limitations, all forms of government are only as good as the men in office. It doesn’t matter if it is in the family, church, or the state. While there is good reason to believe that the American form of government is the best (on paper) in the world, it’s only as good as the men that hold office. The checks and balances put in place are designed to aid against abuse of power, but as in church life, it is only as good as the men in power.

In 1787, at what we now know as the Constitutional Convention, the concept of a federal government with three branches was laid down. The primary purpose for having these separate branches of power was to help prevent the abuse of power.

I was fascinated to read an article recently in the Washington Times. The author begins by explaining what I’ve just mentioned,

“The legislative branch writes the laws, and the executive enforces them, and the judiciary interprets them and articulates what they mean. The president cannot write laws. The courts cannot enforce them. And Congress cannot interpret them…The same is the case for the states, as each state’s constitution mimics the U.S. Constitution and mandates separation. The separation is not mandated to protect the prerogatives of each branch. It is mandated to protect individual liberty by preventing any branch from accumulating power assigned to the others.”

There is a genius in this, but again, the best form of government is only as good as the men in office. But as interesting as American government may be, it’s not our ultimate source of authority.

Moses records in Deuteronomy 24:6, “No man shall take the nether or the upper millstone to pledge: for he taketh a man’s life to pledge.”

I. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MILLSTONE

The text tells us of the “nether or the upper millstone” i.e. families in ancient societies would have a base stone on which grain was placed, and a much smaller upper stone that was rubbed back and forth over it to grind the grain. Such mills were used to prepare flour and were probably found in every home. The lower stone was heavy and inconvenient to move, sometimes fixed in the ground. So the upper stone was easier to take away and render the mill useless.

But the millstone is mentioned in reference to a “pledge” i.e. something of value given as a security. The law of God foresees a not uncommon scenario of a lender requiring a pledge so that if the borrower defaults on the loan, they lose the pledge. It didn’t necessarily have to be of value to the lender, but if it had value to the borrower it functioned as an incentive to them to pay quickly.

The text teaches, therefore, that the lender can take a pledge, but nothing essential for the life of the family. Exodus 22:25-27 also teaches that if a man has something that’s only essential to him at night, you may take it for the day, but it must be returned by the time he needs it.

What’s the point?

The idea that the state would ever impose upon its citizens the inability to provide for themselves is so far removed from reality that I’m not sure anything in the law of God directly regulates such an insane proposition. However, this law, among other things, establishes the importance of the preservation of the family economy. It instructs both the lender and the borrower. Both the lender and borrower are counseled not to request or agree to terms that remove a man’s ability to provide. To take away his ability to provide is to take away his life.

Ah, but we no longer use millstones, right? Things are different now.

You might not need a millstone, but the law in the text is not exclusive to the millstone. It applies to any items used to prepare food or provide the means to buy food. As John Gill said,

“this takes in any other thing whatever, on which a man’s living depends, or by which he gets his bread.”

Or as Matthew Poole observed,

“Under this one kind he understands all other things necessary to get a livelihood, the taking away whereof is against the laws both of charity and prudence, seeing by those things alone he can be enabled both to subsist and to pay his debts.”

God’s first line of defense in providing for someone is their family, not the government, and it is an act of tyranny to remove from people the ability to provide. To take the means by which a man provides his bread is to rob him of his life.

There are laws against oppression that prevent the abuse of the weak, even those that put themselves under obligation to another and are indebted to them. “the borrower is servant to the lender.” (Prov. 22:7).

No man or human institution may deprive a man of his livelihood, even if he is indebted. There are certain exceptions in filing for bankruptcy that reflect this biblical mercy, e.g. there are certain provisions in bankruptcy laws that can permit you to keep your home despite the bankruptcy. It’s an act of mercy.

II. A CONTAGIOUS DISEASE DOES NOT PRESENT AN EXCEPTION

Early in this pandemic, some were quick to liken the measures being taken to biblical laws relating to leprosy. Of course, that is not the case.

It is good to remember that biblical leprosy was not the same as modern leprosy that’s still found in parts of the world today. In fact, it is difficult to be dogmatic on what the disease called leprosy in our English Bible was.

  • Like Covid-19, the leprosy of which the Bible speaks appears to be contagious
  • Like Covid-19, you would have biblical leprosy before you realized you had it and before it was identified by the priest
  • Like Covid-19, there was no cure for biblical leprosy
  • Like Covid-19, since there was no treatment, the sick were quarantined

I am not undermining the dangers of Covid-19, nor am I unfeeling towards those that have lost their life. I understand that even dealing with this subject, I am likely to be misunderstood by those who wish to misunderstand.

But you either believe in individual liberty or you don’t. What many people forget is that freedom is personal responsibility.

When the state puts a man in prison, he removes from that man his freedom, and inherent in that is the removal of personal responsibility. He is no longer responsible to put a roof over his head, food on the table, provide for his medical care, etc. The removal of freedom is the removal of personal responsibility. Is he safe from starvation? Yes. Is he safe from medical neglect? Yes. But he has no freedom. And there are few or no risks in his life because he has few or no decisions to make.

Conversely, the blessing of freedom is the bestowal of personal responsibility. A free man embraces his responsibility and decides and determines risk.

Freedom is a risky business. But we’re either a free people or we’re not. And a biblical view of the state prohibits the removal of individual liberty, unless he has forfeited it by committing a crime.

The structure of a biblical government, and can I say, the American government, is designed to “protect individual liberty.” But amidst the pandemic this appears to be ignored. In fact, the global response to this pandemic has run rough-shod over the individual in order to protect “society.”

Do you know what social order places society over the individual? Communism.

“Communism assumes that the individual person exists for the sake of the mass, of society; but this is contrary to God’s Word, which teaches us that society and all social institutions exist for the sake of the individual, in order that the individual may attain the divine purpose of his life and thus glorify  God…any system which regards the individual human being as unimportant and seeks to merge him in the mass for the supposed welfare of “society” is basically wrong and anti-Christian.” Johannes Vos [Commentary on the WLC, pg. 378]

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that there is not a collective responsibility for the vulnerable in society. But, there must be great care in prioritizing social needs in such a way that it destroys individual liberties.

In 1905 during the smallpox epidemic, when a pastor argued that a mandatory smallpox vaccination violated his constitutional rights, the court stated,

“the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”

Was that a correct judgment? I without my opinion for now. I also acknowledge that this is precarious territory, and not one easy to determine. That’s why so many people feel differently about it. But, since my mandate is to bring the mind of Christ, I must state clearly that God’s law for contagious disease was to isolate the sick, not to remove the right of the individuals in the community from gainful employment. Of course, that brings the inherent risk that people need to decide for themselves whether they should do business or how they should do business, but that’s the risk inherent in a free society.

The government has a mandate to warn. They have a mandate to preserve life, and I don’t envy their position. It’s not an easy one. But I will say this. You should not be surprised that people are angry that the government seized their millstone. God forbids it, and many men inherently know it is wrong even if they are ignorant of Scripture.

III. THE LAWS BROKEN WHEN THIS IS NOT OBSERVED

To take a man’s millstone seriously violated the law of God, and no amount of state welfare can change that. Let me underline, state welfare is the prostitution of biblical charity.

True charity is to maintain a lawful man’s liberty to provide. Any government that forbids conducting lawful business is breaking several commandments.

They are breaking the first commandment. The first commandment forbids us from “making men the lords of our faith and conscience.” If a man believes God has called him to work and that the Word of God requires it of him, the state is calling him to submit to something other than what God requires.

They are breaking the fifth commandment. The fifth commandment forbids superiors from “commanding things unlawful.”

They are breaking the sixth commandment. The sixth commandment forbids “the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life.” Lockdown is a luxury for the affluent, and many nations following western example are plunging millions into poverty, starvation, and death.

They are breaking the eighth commandment. The eighth commandment requires us to have “a lawful calling, and diligence in it” and requires us “to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.”

Are there things to dispute in all this? Absolutely. But, blindly following and supporting that which is unscriptural is always dangerous.

“The past shows unvaryingly that when a people’s freedom disappears, it goes not with a bang, but in silence amid the comfort of being cared for. That is the dire peril in the present trend toward statism. If freedom is not found accompanied by a willingness to resist, and to reject favors, rather than to give up what is intangible but precarious, it will not long be found at all.” — Richard Weaver, 1962

Never forget, freedom is hard work. And when the government seizes any man’s millstone, it should not be submitted to without thought.

Was any nation more free than Israel when she obeyed God’s law? It was said to Israel, “That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” (Deut. 16:20).

This is not a call to protest. There are many things this nation does not do biblically that we do not protest. We don’t protest a standing army, even though God forbid Israel from having one. We don’t protest prisons, even though God made no provision for long-term and indefinite incarceration. We don’t protest property tax, even though it subverts the eighth commandment.

My hope in dealing with this subject is to make people appreciate the full spectrum of God’s Word, and to bring people back to it, to hear it and do it. God is shaking the nation, and we must know what is right and ask Him to show mercy. If tyranny reigns, it is a judgment from God.


The above is based on my notes from a sermon preached May 3, 2020.