“Wo Unto Them That Join House to House”

K. Douglas Bassett

(Isa. 5:8; 3 Ne. 24:5; Gal. 6:17; D&C 19:26; Micah 2:1–2)

This woe is pronounced on the wealthy landowners who covet and buy up property, thus depriving the poor of their heritage. (See Micah 2:1–2.) The law of ancient Israel prescribed that land could not “be sold for ever” (Lev. 25:23; see also 1 Kgs. 21). It was to remain within families as a heritage for posterity. When economical circumstances necessitated the sale of land, it was to be returned to the original owners in the year of jubilee, which occurred every fifty years. (LDS Bible Dictionary, “Jubilee, Year of,” 718).

(Hoyt W. Brewster, Jr., Isaiah Plain and Simple [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1995], 46.)

Property acquired for selfish purposes is not a blessing. Greed is never satisfied. Ownership of property is not condemned. The only question is, how did the owner get it, and to what use does he put it?

(George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjodahl, Commentary on the Book of Mormon,ed. Philip C. Reynolds, 7 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1955–1961], 1:334.)

What are the things of this world? What are houses and lands … generally, to us? What are they to any Saints of God compared with eternal life? … There have been too much selfishness and division and every man for himself amongst us, and the devil for us all.

(Wilford Wooddruff, Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, ed. G. Homer Durham [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1946], 126.)

We are gathering to this beautiful land, to build up “Zion.” … But since I have been here I perceive the spirit of selfishness. Covetousness exists in the hearts of the Saints… . Here are those who begin to spread out buying up all the land they are able to do, to the exclusion of the poorer ones who are not so much blessed with this worlds goods, thinking to lay foundations for themselves only, looking to their own individual families, and those who are to follow them.

(Brigham Young, as quoted in Hugh Nibley, Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, ed. Don E. Norton and Shirley S. Ricks [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1994], 47.)

The surplus property of this community, as poor as we are, has done more real mischief than everything else besides… . A man has no right with property, … [when the property doesn’t] do good to himself and his fellow-man… . If the people of this community feel as though they wanted the whole world to themselves … and would hoard up their property, and place it in a situation where it would not benefit either themselves or the community, they are just as guilty as the man who steals my property.

(Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 1:252, 255.)

Even when right is plainly on his side the poor man doesn’t stand a chance, for “the churl … deviseth wicked devices to destroy the poor with lying words, even when the needy speaketh right,” (32:7). “For the vile person will practice hypocrisy and utter error to make empty the soul of the hungry and he will cause the drink of the thirsty to fail.” Real estate is a special province for such people and the ancient record is full of the slick and tricky deals by which they acquired their great estates… . “Wo unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till no place is left, till they be alone in the midst of the earth,” and own it all themselves.

(Hugh W. Nibley, “Great Are the Words of Isaiah,” Sidney B. Sperry Symposium [Provo, Utah: Religious Instruction, BYU, January 28, 1978], 202.)

This judgment falls upon wealthy landowners who buy up all the property they can until their lands border one another. This results in a monopoly of property that should be divided among others, especially the poor. This practice violates the spirit of the Law of the Jubilee, the property law of ancient Israel, which states that “the land shall not be sold forever.” (Lev. 25:23.) Instead, land was to remain within families and clans as a perpetual inheritance. (See 1 Kgs. 21, in which Neboth refuses to sell his ancestral lands to King Ahab.) The hoarding of land described in verse 8 was in violation of this law, for when all property was purchased by a few wealthy individuals, there was no place for the original families to dwell. Having no homeland, they were forced to move to the cities or live on the property of the owner as indentured servants or slaves. Although drought, sickness, or economic setbacks might require a farmer to sell his land or indenture himself and family to cover losses, the Year of Jubilee every fifty years was instituted to correct the perpetual loss of land and the slavery of people by guaranteeing the periodic return of land to the original owners. Obviously, this law was severely abused by the landowners of Isaiah’s time.

(Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1982], 117.)

Wo is addressed to those who seek after, collect, acquire, or amass wealth; expanding their own personal power at the expense or neglect of all else. This is not a simple condemnation against the acquisition of wealth. It is a warning against the desire for the acquisition of wealth to an extreme degree, motivated by devotion or religious zeal. It is a warning against worshiping the god of this world, materialism.
The mania for acquisition is never quieted or satisfied by the gain. It is an unquenchable thirst or indulgence, and like an uncontrolled passion, indulgence is never sufficiency. The aspiration to acquire power, dominance, or conquest leaves the aspirant surrounded by his gods, earthy materialism, clamoring for constant attention. There is no place to be left alone in quiet solitude of soul.

(Loren D. Martin, Isaiah: An Ensign to the Nations [Salt Lake City: Valiant Publications, 1982], 124.)

Commentaries on Isaiah: In the Book or Mormon