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Notecards on Books of the Old Testament

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Author: King, Martin Luther, Jr. (Boston University) 

Date: September 22, 1952 to January 28, 1953?

Location: Boston, Mass.?

Genre: Essay

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Education


These six notecards were found among the hundreds that King wrote for DeWolf’s Religious Teachings of the Old Testament. In his informal exegesis of biblical passages—particularly those from the books of Psalms, Jeremiah, and Amos—King reveals his views about human nature, personal immortality, the nature of divinity, and social ethics. In his examination of a famous passage from Amos (“let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream”), King notes that “unless a man’s heart is right,… the external forms of worship mean nothing.” Worship and ritual, King writes, can never be “a substitute for ethical living.” He argues that Christians have a special duty to strive for social justice. “Whenever Christianity has remained true to its prophetic mission, it has taken a deep interest in social justice. Whenever it has fallen short at this point, it has b[r]ought about disastrous consequences.”

God (Amos)

5:21:24—This passage might be called the key passage of the entire book.1 It reveals the deep ethical nature of God. God is a God that demands justice rather than sacrifice; righteousness rather than ritual. The most elaborate worship is but an insult to God when offered by those who have no mind to conform to his ethical demands. Certainly this is one of the most noble idea ever uttered by the human mind.

One may raise the question as to whether Amos was against all ritual and sacrifice, i.e. worship. I think not. It seems to me that Amos’ concern is the ever-present tendency to make ritual and sacrifice a substitute for ethical living. Unless a man’s heart is right, Amos seems to be saying, the external forms of worship mean nothing. God is a God that demands justice and sacrifice fo can never be a substitute for it. Who can disagree with such a notion?

Social Ethics (Amos)

Amos’ emphasis throughout seems to be that justice between man and man is one of the divine foundations of society. Such an ethical ideal is at the root of all true religion. This high ethical notion conceived by Amos must alway remain a challenge to the Christian church

Man (Jer)

17:5.2 “Cursed is the man who trusts in man …” For Jeremiah one of the greatest of sins is the sin of trusting in man rather than God. He probably felt that man was to weak and to finite to even approximate the infit infinite power of God. So it is the man who trusts in the Lord that is on sound footing.

This passage makes it plain that Jeremiah was opposed to any form of humanism in the modern sense. It might be well that those of us who are opposed to humanism in the modern world would speak out against it as did Jeremiah and set out to give a rational defense of theism.

It seems to me that one of the great services of neo-orthodoxy, notwithstanding its extremes, is its revolt against all forms of humanistic perfectionism. They call us back to a deeper faith in God. Is not this the need of the hour? Did n Has not modern man placed to much faith in himself and to little faith in God?

Sin (Jer)

4:22.3 Here it is implied that goodness is a foreign thing to human nature. In fact men dont even know how to do good. They are only skilled in doing evil.

We may question such a conclusion. Does man ever become so corrupt and wicked that he can have no conception of the good? I think not. It seems to be that no matter how low an individual sinks in sin, there is still a spark of good within him.

Evil (Jer)

12:1—Here Jeremiah inquires of God why the wicked prosper.4 This point disturbed Jeremiah greatly. Here we find a revolt against the Deuteronomic idea which asserted that prosperity always followed righteous and trouble or disaster followed wickedness.

Jeremiah was realistic enough to see that this didn’t always follow, at least from a materialistic point of view. He saw that there were times when the wicked prospered and the righteous suffered.

We must admit that Jeremiah raises a significant question at this point. If God is justice there must somehow and sometime {somewhere} be a wedding of virtue and happiness. This doesn’t always take place in life as Jeremiah so candidly points out. What then is the solution? It seems to me that the only solution to this problem is found in the doctrine of personal immortality. In another existence man will receive the benefits unattainable in this existence. Without immortality the universe is irrational and the justice and love of God are put in jeopardy.

Social Ethics Psalms

72—This whole psalm is a plea for social justice.5 There is expressed a deep concern for the needy and the oppressed. The oppresor is looked upon with scorn. He is to be crushed.

This emphasis found its greatest expression, excluding the fine work of the prophets, in the teaching of Jesus. Throughout his ministry th he manifested a deep concern for the poor and oppressed people of his day. While somewhat extravagant, there is a healthy warning in the statement, Christianity was born among the poor and died among the rich. Whenever Christianity has remained true to its prophetic mission, it has taken a deep interest in social justice. Whenever it has fallen short at this point, it has bought about disastrous consequences. We must never forget that the success of communism in the world today is due to the failure of Christians to live to the highest ethical tenents inherent in its system.

1. Amos 5:21–24: “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. 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.”

2. Jeremiah 17:5: “Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord.”

3. Jeremiah 4:22: “For my people is foolish, they have not known me: they are sottish children, and they have none understanding: they are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge.”

4. Jeremiah 12:1: “Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? Wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously?”

5. Among the relevant passages in Psalm 72 is the fourth verse: “He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.”

Source: CSKC, INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands.

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