Business ethics (Psalms 15, 24, 34)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The Psalter says a good deal about workplace ethics. Psalm 15:1 and 5 say, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?…[Those] who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.” If we allow that interest is not necessarily prohibited in the contemporary context (see “Does the Bible Prohibit Charging Interest?” at www.theologyofwork.org), the application of this Psalm is that we are not to take advantage of others in the workplace. Loans that put distressed borrowers into greater debt would be an example, as would credit cards that intentionally entrap unsavvy cardholders with unexpected fees and interest rate escalations. In an expanded sense, any product or service that targets vulnerable (or “innocent”) people and leaves them worse off is a violation of the Psalter’s ethics. Good business ethics—and its counterparts in other fields of work—requires that customers genuinely benefit from the goods and services offered to them.

Psalm 24:4–5 adds to this that God accepts “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.” The falsehood described here is perjury. As in the modern world, so also in the ancient world, it was difficult to be involved in business without sometimes getting ensnared in lawsuits. The passage moves us to testify honestly and not pervert justice by fraud. When others are unscrupulous, our honesty might cost in lost promotions, business transactions, elections, grades and publications. But in the long run such setbacks are trivial in comparison to God’s blessing and vindication (Ps. 24:5).

Ethics also comes to the fore in Psalm 34:12–13: “Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.” This could refer to any kind of deceit, slander or fraud. The reference to “many days to enjoy” simply points out that if you swindle people or slander them, you are likely to create enemies. In extreme cases, this could lead to your death at their hands, but even if not, life surrounded by enemies is not enjoyable. If life is your chief desire, trustworthy friends are far more profitable than ill-gotten gain.  It is possible that a life of integrity will be costly in worldly terms. In a corrupt country, a business person who does not give bribes or a civil servant who does not take them could be unable to make a steady income. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” the Psalm acknowledges. “But the Lord rescues them from all,” it adds (Ps. 34:19). Working with integrity may or may not result in prosperity, but integrity in God’s eyes is its own reward. 



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