James K. A. Smith says, “If the “American dream” is anything it is a dream of upward mobility: the dream of getting ahead, climbing the ladder, leapfrogging from one class to another in a “land of opportunity”—all if you’re willing to work for it. Too often, fantastic “rags to riches” tales push aside the more mundane stories of generational accomplishments over time, where parents who finish high school make it possible for their children to go to college, achieving some security within the middle class. We shouldn’t discount the unique joy that comes from simply seeing your grandchildren not have to live hand-to-mouth as you once did. It is certainly true that this dream easily slides towards idolatry. It can become a nightmare of crass materialism and selfish ambition. But we shouldn’t confuse idolatrous perversions with more humble aspirations of families to simply enjoy a mode of economic security that is conducive with flourishing. Those who are passionate advocates of the poor are often, oddly, knee-jerk critics of the American dream and aspirations to be middle class. How odd. . . The God who cares about the poor must also be a God who celebrates economic flourishing and stability as features of shalom.”
Sometimes people say the Bible doesn’t speak to real life, to what we deal with every day. But Proverbs shows this isn’t true. We have seen that Proverbs gives instruction on the most practical and down to earth things in life. Instructions are given on parenting and on what God commands children to do. Proverbs speaks to our sexual desires and tells us how to please God with our bodies. In my last post we looked at how Proverbs addresses our speech. What we talk about matters to God.
In this post we will consider what Proverbs teaches about riches and poverty. In other words, Proverbs addresses how we make a living, what we do to survive every day. It addresses the world of business and commerce. We shall see that the message of Proverbs is complex and multifaceted. What Proverbs says on riches and poverty can’t be reduced to a simple formula. We are going to focus on four themes. First, we are warned not to be lazy. Second, riches are a blessing from God. Third, the wicked may be rich. And fourth, the righteous may be poor.
First, we are warned not to be lazy. The sluggard, the lazy person, makes wild and hilarious excuses for not working, so he says, ‘I can’t go outside because there are lions in the street and they will kill me’ (Proverbs 22:13). Solomon pokes fun at his laziness, using exaggerated language. “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish and will not even bring it back to his mouth” (Proverbs 19:24). He finds it oh so tiring to lift his arm from his food to his mouth. We read in Proverbs 6 that the sluggard doesn’t learn from ants how to work but just wants to sleep, sleep, sleep. Proverbs 19:15 says, “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger.” And Proverbs 20:13 says, “Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.” The message could be misunderstood: we need sleep and rest to recharge ourselves. But we sleep to energize ourselves for work, and those who love sleep too much fail to work diligently. We read in Proverbs 24:30-34, “I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, 31 and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. 32 Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. 33 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, 34 and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” The lazy person protests: just a little more sleep, a little more slumber, a little more time to relax.
By the way, I am a naturally lazy person. My dad taught me to work. I still remember when my brother and I picked strawberries when I was in 5th grade and he was in 4th grade. We were definitely the worst pickers out there. We absolutely hated the work! It was incredibly boring. We picked a few, ate a lot, and threw them at others. I made $5 that year and my brother made $4, which attests to how hard we worked. At noon we would often walk home and lie about the work day ending early and then go swimming. But the next year I started working for my dad, and the first thing he said to me was, “I know how lazy you were last year, and now you are going to learn to work.” It was definitely the beginning of my training.
We read in Proverbs 20:4, “The sluggard doesn’t plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing.” The sluggard doesn’t work when he should. Since he doesn’t work when he should, he doesn’t get the food he needs. When he should be working, he is surfing the net or chatting it up with other employees or wasting his time on other things. Proverbs 28:19 says he follows “worthless pursuits.” How about you? Do you spend too much time being unproductive? Are you investing your life in what is eternal or whiling it away on your pleasures? There is a time for pleasure and for relaxing, but sluggards spend too much time on video games, listening to music, watching television, watching videos, doing email, and of course, resting and sleeping. It isn’t as if the sluggard doesn’t have aspirations and dreams for his life. He is full of desires and longings and spends his days dreaming about what he would like to do. His dreams and desires are as big as the sky. Proverbs 13:4 says, “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing.” He longs for the good things in life but refuses to work for them. Zero times zero is still zero!
As Proverbs 21:25-26 says, “The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor. All day long he craves and craves.” Desires without discipline lead nowhere. Desires without work are worthless. The sluggard is always looking for a handout and constantly begs for help. Proverbs 30:15 says, “The leech has two daughters: Give and Give.” But Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If anyone is not willing to work, don’t let him eat.” Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to refuse to help someone.
Laziness is also a form of theft. As Proverbs 18:9 says, “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.” The lazy person might say, “I am not doing any harm, I’m just chilling out.” But we learn here that laziness is destructive. For the lazy rob others even if they don’t know it. For instance, that road would be built and that project would be done if people actually worked hard. If you are an employee and aren’t working as you should, then you are actually stealing from your employer.
Riches are a blessing from God
The second truth we see here is that riches are a blessing from God. Proverbs 10:22 says, “The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.” Riches aren’t a curse but a blessing. John Schneider wrote a book called Godly Materialism in 1994, reminding us that God often blesses his children by giving them wealth. As 1 Timothy 6 says God has given us everything richly to enjoy. We don’t hold to the health and wealth gospel, but we do rejoice in the good things God gives us. If we have wealth, it is the gift of God, thank him for what you have. As Proverbs 15:6 says, “In the house of the righteous there is much treasure.” There are advantages to having money. Proverbs 22:7 says, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” Riches bring some security in life. As Proverbs 10:15 says, “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”
We can also say the blessing of prosperity often belongs to those who work hard. Proverbs 28:19 says, “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread.” The diligent worker is the one who prospers. Those who prosper don’t only work hard, but they are also wise. They anticipate the future. They plan, invest, and strategize for the future. They invest in what is profitable so that they will have enough in the future. Proverbs 27:23-27 makes this clear, “Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds, 24 for riches do not last forever; and does a crown endure to all generations? 25 When the grass is gone and the new growth appears and the vegetation of the mountains is gathered, 26 the lambs will provide your clothing, and the goats the price of a field. 27 There will be enough goats’ milk for your food, for the food of your household and maintenance for your girls.” The wise worker knows the condition of the business and considers what will bring a profit in the future. As one author says, “To build businesses, and build savings and build real wealth, spiritual as well as material, requires patience and sacrifice.”
Furthermore, the wise avoid get rich schemes. They don’t seek to gain wealth on the cheap. “An inheritance gained hastily in the beginning will not be blessed in the end” (Proverbs 20:21). Riches come from planning and hard work. Steady and faithful work week in and week out, year in and year out leads to prosperity. “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5). We are to use common sense and wisdom. We don’t buy a house we can’t afford. We don’t ring up huge debts we can’t pay back. We don’t buy the nicer car if we can’t afford the car payments. We don’t go out to eat if we will go into debt by doing so. We don’t take out student debts that are so high that they hang like a chain around our necks. We don’t go shopping if we know it will lead us to spend money we don’t have. Proverbs 24:27 says, “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.” Concentrate your energies wisely. Make sure the top priorities are taken care of first. Otherwise, you may build a house and lack the means to pay for it.
Those who are rich are also to be compassionate to the poor. They are not to be used simply to enrich themselves. Proverbs 22:9 says, “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.” 28:27 “Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.” We must not hide our eyes from the suffering of others, but ask God to give us a heart for those who are suffering. Even at a young age, children, can be generous with others by sharing their toys or other good things God has given them. And all of us should pray about how we can help the poor with our money. Are we doing anything to help those who are suffering economically? It is a complex world, and so you may need to research to ensure you are giving to an organization that truly helps the poor and is devoted to the gospel.
When we think of riches we should think of God. Scripture says that God is rich in mercy, for we deserve his judgment as sinners, but he richly pours his mercy out on us. Romans 2:4 warns us about presuming on the riches of his kindness, for the kindness of God is intended to lead us to repentance. The riches of God’s kindness are poured out so we will see our spiritual poverty. But how is God kind to us? Through his Son Jesus Christ! 2 Corinthians 8:9 says, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, he became poor for your sake, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” The Son of God, Jesus Christ, was rich as the second person of the Trinity. But though he was rich, he became poor for our sake. He became poor, not by giving up his deity, but by assuming humanity. And he became poor by giving himself over to death, by humbling himself to death, even death on the cross. He became poor so that we might become rich. If we repent of our sins and turn to God in faith and give ourselves to Christ, we become rich through him. The greatest riches of all belong to us when we know God’s kindness to us in Christ.
Before we go any further, it is important to remember that Proverbs are generalizations. We could easily misunderstand what Proverbs says about riches and poverty. Proverbs isn’t simplistic. Solomon recognizes that a person may be rich and wicked. Riches are a blessing from God, and yet they may be obtained wrongly or trusted in wrongly, which brings us to our third truth.
Rich, yet wicked
A person may be rich but wicked. We read in Proverbs 11:28, “Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.” If God has given us riches, we may begin to trust in our wealth instead of putting our trust in God. God may take our wealth away in an instant, showing us what we truly relied upon. Riches are God’s blessing, but they can easily become our god. Wealth and comfort may draw us away from God, and so we are never to put our trust in what God has given us. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because someone has money he is wise. There are hilarious novels by P. J. Wodehouse I suspect some of you may have read. The books I am referring to are about two characters named Jeeves and Wooster. Wooster is rich, but his riches are inherited. He is truly a fool, and Jeeves as his wise butler saves him from disaster repeatedly. A poor person, Jeeves and Wooster show us, may be much wiser than a rich one.
In some instances, people get rich through crime, extortion and violence. Proverbs 11:16 says “violent men get riches.” Wickedness and riches may live in the same house. Proverbs says some fascinating things about bribes as well. Remember, Proverbs often records what works in life. Solomon isn’t naïve, he knows the real world. The world of the mafia, of government corruption, of evil business practices would not surprise him in the least. In Proverbs 17:8 he says, “A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.” In other words, bribes often work! Doors may open for us when we offer a bribe.
We see the same thing in Proverbs 18:16, “A man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before the great.” We all know that those who give gifts can find themselves in positions of influence and power. We all know that money talks. How many people get plumb government positions or government contracts in countries all over the world because they make the necessary donation? But, just because bribes work, it doesn’t follow that they are right. Proverbs 17:23 makes this very clear, “The wicked accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the ways of justice.” Bribing and accepting bribes perverts justice, even if it works. Sometimes those who get rich get rich by evil means. They may bribe their way to the top, but in doing so they have given themselves over to evil.
The rich often mistreat the poor. Proverbs 22:2 says, “Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate.” So, one may get rich by robbing the poor. The rich may work the market in such a way that they make more money, while in the process they are defrauding others. Proverbs 11:26 says, “The people curse him who holds back grain, but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it.” Obviously, the rich are holding back grain to make more money and such a ploy often works, but such an endeavor is not pleasing to God. Profits shouldn’t be our only consideration. The well-being of the poor must also be taken into account.
We read in Proverbs 30:14, “There are those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mankind.” Solomon teaches that the rich may get their money unjustly or they may oppress the poor. But in oppressing the poor, the rich act against God. Proverbs 17:5 is a sobering word, “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker; he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.” God will not abandon the poor. Ultimately, the rich will pay for their mistreatment of those who have less. So, we are reminded that wealth will not rescue us from God’s wrath on the day of judgment. Proverbs 11:4 says, “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.” Comfort in this world doesn’t mean we will find comfort in the next.
Righteous, but poor
Finally, the righteous may be poor. Proverbs 28:6 says, “Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways.” Proverbs makes it very clear here that one can be poor and a person of integrity. We see the same thing in Proverbs 19:1, “Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.” One may be poor and enjoy very little of the world’s goods and yet be righteous and happy in the Lord. We must not be simplistic. Poverty isn’t always due to laziness. It has many causes. Proverbs 15:16-17 tells us, “Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it.” There are many houses in the US where there are great riches and sumptuous meals, and yet hatred and fighting and quarreling dominate the house. And there are many godly who have very little but have joy in God. We see the same sentiment in Proverbs 16:8, “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.” So, Proverbs doesn’t teach that all those who are poor are lazy and sluggards.
Poverty may come from oppression or other circumstances beyond our control. In closing, we are reminded that riches must not be our aim in life. The stance of Proverbs on wealth is captured well by Proverbs 23:4-5, “Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist. When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.” Wealth is a blessing from God, but we must not set our hearts on it or work to the bone to obtain it, for wealth is temporary. If we make comfort and riches our God, we will be deeply disappointed. We thank God for wealth if he gives it, but we don’t set our hearts on it.
Proverbs 30:7-9 captures how we should respond to riches and poverty. “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” It is fitting to pray that we don’t become too rich or too poor. Too much wealth may lead to self-satisfaction so that we cease trusting in the Lord and rely on riches instead. On the other hand, extreme poverty may have the same effect; we may become desperate and turn to sin to support ourselves. So, let us ask God to give us our daily bread. Let us ask him to give us every day just what we need, and let us trust that he will give us what we need every day. For truly he is our kind Father who knows what we need before we ask him.
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.