Poverty According to the Proverbs
The Book of Proverbs is much neglected. It is largely a collection of practical sayings without deep theological content; it has no clear thread running through it; and this means that preachers do not frequently preach from it.
However, it rewards his treatment of poverty is personal study, and a useful method to follow is to collect all the sayings which refer to a particular subject and so build up a complete picture of the writer's thinking on that theme. The following is an attempt to build up a description of poverty according to the Proverbs.
Solomon's reign was a very prosperous one: surrounding nations paid tribute, overseas trade flourished and the resources of the nation were exploited to the full. It is most likely that ordinary people shared in this prosperity.
That, however, didn't mean that they had the financial security that we enjoy through insurance or the state benefit and pension systems. There would still bereavement, failure of crops through natural disaster and other circumstances that would expose them to poverty. The poor we have always with us.
So how did Solomon look at the subject of poverty? He said so much about it that we can build up a fairly detailed picture of his attitude to the poor.
He deals with the following themes.
1. Causes of Poverty
Solomon was a great observer of life. He described situations as they were; not just as they ought to be. One striking feature of his treatment of poverty is the way in which he traces poverty to certain styles of life which, elsewhere in Scripture, are condemned.
Pleasure-seeking: "He who loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich" (21:17).
A pleasure-seeking style of life exposes its followers to poverty. There are three aspects to that style of life.
There is the pursuit of pleasures as such. This presumably means sensuous materialistic money-consuming pleasures. The sort associated with the other two factors mentioned: the use of wine and oil.
It is the love of wine, the constant and immoderate attachment to it, the excessive use of alcoholic drink, that is mentioned here as part of the pleasure-seeking life style that exposes to poverty.
Hand in hand with that goes the love of oil. This is a reference to the cosmetic use of oil. Oil which makes the face shine is, like wine, a gift of God (Psalm 104:15). It was used on festive occasions to beautify one's appearance or to give fragrance to the atmosphere. "To love oil" is equivalent to loving party-going. It speaks of addiction to social activities involving overindulgence.
Solomon has observed that misspending money on pleasures, party going and the drunkenness that may be associated with them exposes people to poverty.
Laziness: "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep — and poverty will come on you like a bandit; and scarcity like an armed man" (24:33-34).
The desire for ease, for rest, is what is in mind here. Laziness deprives a man of his initiative. The lazy man gets left behind and suffers for it. He doesn't plough his fields in good time, and so he reaps a poorer harvest. He doesn't open his shop in the morning until after most of the business for the day has been conducted. He always arrives late at work; so he never gets promotion or perhaps actually gets dismissed for indolence.
One way or another laziness results in a person missing out on opportunities or mismanaging resources and he is left poor. "Lazy hands make a man poor" (10:4).
There were other ways in which people became poor in those days — famine, bereavement, ignorance of the best methods of cultivation, locusts or blight, injustice and exploitation. In none of these cases could a person be blamed for the poverty that they suffered. Other passages, which we will mention later, clearly accept that in many cases poverty has nothing to do with the style of life adopted. Yet the Proverbs recognise and in effect condemn those situations where acts of human sin contribute to poverty.
In doing so, this book brings us a description that well fits our own circumstances. The fact is that many factors contribute to poverty today: but some are poor because of the reasons identified by Solomon: the lifestyle they have chosen or in which they have been brought up. They fit into the pattern that is described in these Proverbs: laziness, mismanagement, wrong priorities and drink still make people poor today.
This means that throwing money at the problem of poverty isn't necessarily the answer to it. Social programmes in themselves will never alleviate this. The spiritual dimension to this type of poverty makes its solution the special responsibility of the church rather than of the state. The power of the gospel makes people new creatures in Christ; it provides strength for the weak; motivation for the lazy and a new system of priorities for all. It promotes a lifestyle that tends to make for prosperity in material things.
But this is just a small part — a very small part — of Proverbs' teaching on poverty.
2. Results of Poverty
There are many today who allege that poverty brings all sorts of social consequences with it. That's what the testimony of the Proverbs is as well.
Ruination: "The wealth of the rich is their fortified city but poverty is the ruin of the poor" (10:15). It is not simply that (spiritual) ruination leads to poverty — as in the causes of poverty already mentioned; it is also that poverty itself ruins the life of the poor.
A fortified city brings a measure of security and stability, and gives peace for the development of one's life. That is, according to Solomon, what the rich gain from their wealth. True, the Bible has other things to say about the instability of riches and the folly of trusting in them but relatively speaking wealth brings some security which allows the rich to plan ahead, do what they want, and feel secure and settled.
In contrast to that, poverty brings ruination to the poor. They live with uncertainty; they can't do what they like but only what circumstances demand. They can't provide themselves or their children with the same educational opportunities: there are no holidays, no travel, no mind-broadening experiences. The city poor are locked in to a drab, colourless, concrete jungle which dims vision and the power of imagination.
More specifically, the result of poverty is:
Alienation: "The poor are shunned even by their neighbours; but the rich have many friends" (14:20). "Wealth brings many friends, but a poor man's friend deserts him" (19:4). "A poor man is shunned by all his relatives; how much more do his friends avoid him! Though he pursues them with pleading, they are nowhere to be found" (19:7).
Solomon doesn't say this is always the case, or must be the case: he simply observes that in his day it happened: social alienation springs from poverty. This is a feature not unknown in our day.
One poor family in a street of prosperous people stands out like a sore thumb. They are looked down on, despised and treated differently. Thus the poor is shunned by his neighbour. They are hated because they can't give, only receive; because they are always needing, always asking. Folks soak up to the rich; they look down on the poor. Poverty can be like a wedge causing separation and alienation.
This can be carried still further:
Enslavement: "The rich rule over the poor; and the borrower is servant to the lender" (22:7). In Solomon's day wealth represented power — so the tendency is for a poor man to feel oppressed and downtrodden.
The poor man has no choices; he's shut in to a narrow path of activity, limited by his circumstances. He feels himself directed by others. If he's in debt to the rich, he's a slave to them. He can't afford to alienate them; he feels obliged to them; he must kowtow to them. They rule over him. He feels the frustration that enslavement brings. Poverty can crush his spirit.
The degrading effects of poverty are not the figments of the imagination of unbelieving sociologists: the inspired writer accurately described and recorded for the benefit of future generations his own observations on the way poverty adversely affected people.
His account leaves no room for aloof unconcern for the poor, even for those of them who have brought poverty upon themselves. It can give us no pleasure that people's lives are ruined, that they are socially alienated or that they feel enslaved. Even in cases where poverty is a result of sinful life-styles, there must be a sympathetic awareness of what poor people experience. If there is not that, then we can never be able to cope with the very definite instructions which Solomon gives in caring for the poor.
3. Attitudes to the Poor
There is a wealth of material in the Book of Proverbs describing a right approach to dealing with the poor. We can conveniently summarise the teaching under the following headings:
A Right Perspective: A sense of proportion is all important. On the one hand, there are social reformers who see poverty as the worst of all evils. All their, usually commendable, efforts are directed towards material progress and development. On the other hand, because some poverty is caused by sinful lifestyles, the poor — or certain types of poor — can be readily written off and despised. The Bible sets the situation of the poor in its proper perspective and provides a corrective to both these positions.
Solomon teaches that there are worse things than being poor: "Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a fool whose lips are perverse ... or than a rich man whose ways are perverse" (19:1; 28:6). "Better to be poor than a liar" (19:22).
People are not to be judged by the state of their pockets but the state of their lives. Some sinful habits may lead to poverty, but poverty is not in itself an evidence of sinful attitudes. The poor can be upright, in which case they are better than the rich, the liar and the fool. Outward circumstances or outward appearance aren't an adequate basis for assessing a person's character. Too often Christians, who ought to have remembered that God looks on the heart, have failed to do justice to this simple teaching.
This provides us with a right perspective on poverty: to try and eradicate poverty is all very well, but to neglect the fact that there are worse things in life than poverty is to get things out of perspective. Poverty is a problem, but not the greatest problem man faces. All Christian action towards alleviating the conditions of the poor must bear that in mind.
Another teaching which helps us see the poor in perspective is that the "rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the Maker of them all" (22:2). "He who mocks the poor, shows contempt for their Maker" (17:5).
What we see, when we look at many poor folks in our land, are drunken louts, lazy spongers, a breed of folks with no initiative, no interest in bettering themselves, no moral fibre. What we ought to see are folks formed by our God, bearing in however defaced a form, the image of God. About them — as about all his creatures — God says: "you shall not kill". He puts this notice up saying: "Don't touch. To me, these folks matter.''
It is absolutely necessary that we say of down and outs: "These are God's creatures". At that level, they are our brothers; made of the same blood, coming from the same hand, belonging to the same human family. This keeps us from pride and a sense of superiority.
Attitudes to be Avoided: There's no doubt that the natural tendency of the human heart is to discriminate against the poor. In third world countries particularly, this is a major part of the problem: the poor are treated like dirt. Even in our own country, say in shops or offices or even in the church, poor people are more likely to be badly treated than rich. They can more easily be sold inferior goods; they are less likely to be believed in a court of law; more likely to be spoken to harshly or taken advantage of.
The book of Proverbs gives ample evidence that that was so in Solomon's time and that it was a situation that was displeasing to God: "There is a generation whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives, to devour the poor from off the earth and the needy from among men" (30:14). "He that oppresses the poor to increase his riches ... shall surely come to want" (22:16).
Hence the injunctions in the Scriptures. "Rob not the poor because he is poor, neither oppress the afflicted in the gate" (22:22). "To oppress the afflicted in the Gate" refers to the practice of conducting legal proceedings at the gate of a town or village. In the case of people in distress, like the Widow or the orphan, the temptation was to deny them justice with a view to appropriating their land or possessions. The Proverbs commands that this practice be discontinued.
The Bible then describes a very real problem that exists even today. The connection of poverty with oppression is widespread. When we think about the plight of poor folks, always bear in mind this aspect of the problem. There can be no solution to many cases of poverty if the accompanying oppression and injustice are not also borne in mind. Efforts to help the poor must be accompanied by attempts to weed out corruption, exploitation and injustice.
So what is the solution? That leads us to the next main heading:
4. Actions to be Cultivated
Look for justice: "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy" (31:8-9). Where injustice is being done, we cannot be silent. Many poor neither have the confidence nor the opportunity nor sometimes the education to speak out for themselves. The Bible demands that the better off, the better able, take up the cause of the oppressed and plead for justice.
Give to the poor: Encouragements to give to the poor abound. "He that gives to the poor shall not lack; but he that hides his eyes shall have many a curse" (28:27). "He that has a bountiful eye shall be blessed for he gives of his bread to the poor" (22:16). "He that has mercy on the poor, happy is he" (14:21).
There are, of course, other principles that we must bear in mind: we must administer our affairs with discretion (for example, it is usually wise to give in kind rather than in money); and act according to Paul's principle: "if a man will not work (that is, does not wish to work), he shall not eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). We should also remember that we are already contributing to the wellbeing of our own poor by willingly paying into the common purse, from which many poor folks draw weekly for their basic needs.
Nevertheless, these considerations should not lead to tightfisted stinginess, or lack of compassion. Amongst the many demands made on our money, we should bear in mind that the poor have a particular claim upon our attention — a very strong claim, given the very strong language used in the Proverbs quoted above.
5. The Rewards of Remembering the Poor
In accordance with the general principles of God's word, God's blessing comes to those who obey; God's curse on those who disobey. This is summed up in two verses from Proverbs, the negative and the positive.
"Whoso stops his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard" (21:13). You never know the time when you might be in the same or similar need. You will want others to help. But if you haven't shown a willingness to help others, how can you reasonably expect that they should help you?
Just as those that use the sword will perish with the sword, so those who show no mercy to the needy, will find no mercy when in need.
On the positive side we have the verses: "He that has pity on the poor, lends to the Lord; and that which he has given will he repay him again" (19:17).
If we see God as the maker of the poor, then when we give to the poor, we will, in effect, be giving to God. If we only see poor people, we may not give or may give grudgingly and that will be the end of the matter. But if there is that Godward aspect to it, then our giving to the poor is an investment underwritten by God himself. He will repay — no doubt, in this case at least, a very generous rate of interest will be applied.