“Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor
will himself call out and not be answered.“
– Proverbs 21.13
Does God always answer prayer? Generally we answer “Yes, though sometimes His answer is ‘No.'” This passage makes us think twice.
The word in the passage translated as “cry” (za’aqah) is a technical term. It is not just any cry. It is not simply “Woe is me, for I am poor,” or “Please give me money.” Rather, it is a cry against injustice. It is the cry of the oppressed. It is the cry of a plaintiff to a judge. It is the cry of the poor for justice in the face of injustice. Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright says it is “the technical term for the cry of protest or pain out of a situation of injustice, cruelty or violence” (Christopher Wright, The Mission of God, p 272, n7). See its usage in the following passages:
“Then the LORD said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.'” (Genesis 18.20-21, NRSV)
And what exactly was the sin of that most infamous pair of cities which typifies rebellion against God’s good design throughout the whole Old Testament? What was this “outcry” about?
“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16.49–50, ESV)
How easily could this same thing be said of us in the West? Yet Sodom and Gomorrah were wiped off the map and serve as paradigmatic objects of God’s wrath for this reason: they did not aid (i.e. listen to and care for) the poor and needy. (See also Gen 19:13.)
But this outcry against injustice does not only provoke wrath, it also provokes deliverance. In fact, just as it provokes that most paradigmatic expression of wrath in the Old Testament, it also provokes that most paradigmatic act of deliverance in the Old Testament: the exodus.
“Then the LORD said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.'” (Exodus 3.7–10, ESV)
(For more uses of the same word, see also Gen 18.20; Isa 15.5, 8; 65.19; Jer 18.22; 20.16; 48.4, 34; 51.54; Job 16.18;Est 4.1; 9.31; Neh 5.6; 9.9.)
So God listens to outcries against injustice, and it provokes both judgment and deliverance. God listens. But do we?
“Whoever closes his ear to the outcry of the poor against injustice,
he himself will also call out but he will not be answered.” (Proverbs 21.13)
I have a pastor friend who said, “My Bible says God answers my prayers if I listen to the poor. And I want God to answer my prayers.” Yes, we can argue about the theological nuances, but don’t let the force of what God is saying get lost in the arguments about what He’s not saying. Let’s not use our theology to blunt the force of God’s Word. Let us let Him speak.
To whom do we need to be listening? Where is the cry against injustice among the poor in your world? Is it the refugees (Muslim, even?) in Syria, Sudan, Somalia? Is it Black Lives Matter? We don’t have to agree with or affirm everything, but we do need to listen to the stories, listen to the cries against injustice. Listen to the pleas for justice and equity. Is it the person living on the street that you see every morning on the corner? Is it the housekeeper? Is it the immigrant, documented or not? To whom do you need to listen?
God will listen. God will answer. And it may provoke Him to act in both judgment and deliverance. How will He judge us? How will He judge our country and society for closing our ears to the outcries of the poor against injustice? To whom do you need to listen?
“They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
– Martin Niemoeller, Protestant pastor opposed to Nazi regime, served seven years in concentration camp