“Give Me neither Poverty nor Plenty”: 7 Things the Book of Proverbs Teaches Us about Money
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When my grandmother sold her 1976 Toyota Corona in 1996, the sun visors and doors were still covered with the protective plastic from the factory. The car’s original green paint was brilliant and immaculate, and it had been serviced within an inch of its life. In fact, when it rained Grandma had to go out with raincoat and umbrella because Grandad didn’t want to risk rusting their beautiful car.
It wasn’t just the car. Grandma only ever owned one electric toaster, a 1948 wedding present. It had flip down doors on either side, and you had to manually turn the bread. She only ever used one carving knife—the one her blacksmith grandfather had repurposed, using forge and hammer from a worn-out steel file in the early 1900s.
In her last years, in the blazing Perth summers, she still cooled herself using a damp towel and electric fan, reluctant to waste electricity on her perfectly good split-system air conditioner.
Grandma was born in 1926, and so she lived her girlhood through the Great Depression. Her family had no car or cart, and they traveled by foot or bus. Her father, a school master, supplemented the family table by hunting rabbits. Her mother had to sell her beloved piano to buy food: “We ate the piano,” Grandma would sometimes say. Butter was scarce, and drippings on bread with salt and pepper made a frequent meal. (Dripping was the fat from a cooked roast, collected into used tins.) Grandma, like just about every other Australian in the 1930s, had to live frugally, and she never lost those childhood habits. She treasured and looked after every possession.
How different my life has been. I have had many cars, and I haven’t looked after any of them especially well. Cheap electric appliances come and go. My worn-out clothes are discarded instead of repaired. Every now and then we have to clear uneaten leftovers out of the fridge. If it’s cold, we put on the heater without much thought.
By any standard of history and place, the Australian middle class enjoys spectacular wealth. And with wealth comes wastage, greed, forgetfulness of the poor, pride, a sense of entitlement, and spiritual apathy.
These are not small dangers. And so we turn urgently to God’s word for help and guidance. Here are seven things the book of Proverbs teaches us about poverty and wealth, riches and want.
1. Wealth comes from the Lord.
“The blessing of the LORD brings wealth” (Prov. 10:22). If God is sovereign, if he governs all creation, then both riches and poverty come ultimately from him. Poor and barren Hannah recognized this: “The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts” (1 Sam. 2:7; Scripture quotes from NIV version unless otherwise noted). And Moses warned rich Israelites never to forget this:
You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth. (Deut. 8:17)
Godliness and riches are linked: “Humility is the fear of the LORD; its wages are riches and honor and life” (Prov. 22:4). Psalm 112 concurs:
Praise the Lord.
Blessed are those who fear the Lord,
who find great delight in his commands.
Their children will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in their houses,
and their righteousness endures forever. (Ps. 112:1-3)
In a fallen world, however, the correlation is far from robust. The godly can be destitute (like Hannah, Job in his trials, Elijah, and Mary), and the godless can be rich (like Pharaoh, Nabal, Darius, and the glutton who pretended Lazarus didn’t exist). The rich should not presume that God smiles on them, nor should the poor assume that he frowns on them.
2. The Lord normally bestows wealth by hard work, frugality, and saving.
“Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow” (Prov. 13:11). “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Prov. 14:23). “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty” (Prov. 21:5).
And so indolent epicureans tend to impoverish themselves: “He who loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich” (Prov. 21:17). “He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty” (Prov. 28:19).
Some will inherit the benefits of the hard work, frugality, and saving of others. “Houses and wealth are inherited from parents” (Prov. 19:14a). The godly will want this for their children: “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous” (Prov. 13:22). A patrimony does not however come without its dangers: “An inheritance quickly gained at the beginning will not be blessed at the end” (Prov. 20:21).
3. Greed is evil.
Gordon Gecko, the fictional Wall Street swindler, urged that “greed is good.” Scripture urges instead that greed is godless. The greedy fall easy prey to “get rich by corruption, stinginess, and bribery” schemes: “A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live” (Prov. 15:27). “He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty” (Prov. 22:16). “A faithful man will be richly blessed, but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished. To show partiality is not good—yet a man will do wrong for a piece of bread. A stingy man is eager to get rich and is unaware that poverty awaits him” (Prov. 28:20-22).
Ill-gotten gain must ultimately harm: “The wages of the righteous bring them life, but the income of the wicked brings them punishment” (Prov. 10:16). “A greedy man stirs up dissension, but he who trusts in the LORD will prosper” (Prov. 28:25). The New Testament concurs, not because it says that “money is the root of all evil,” because it doesn’t. It does, however, say that “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1Tim. 6:10), and “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5).
When it comes to money, this is the wisest and godliest prayer:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” (Prov. 30:8-10)
And so we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11).
4. It is important to save during rich times for lean times.
The wise know, like Joseph in Egypt, that there are seasons of plenty and leanness, and to save during plenty. “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has” (Prov. 21:20). Saved wealth can thus defend us through hard times: “The wealth of the rich is their fortified city, but poverty is the ruin of the poor” (Prov. 10:15-16). The wise are hard-working ants, who store food in summer for the barren winter. The sluggard’s short-sighted penchant for sleep leaves him exposed (Prov. 6:6-11).
Our government makes retirement funding compulsory, so that we will have something to live off when we can no longer work. It says much about human nature that we must be forced to do this.
5. Money does not buy happiness.
The fact that all history proves this doesn’t mean that we don’t stop trying. But Proverbs concurs, the fattest bank balance cannot smother the pain of strife. “Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred” (Prov. 15:17). “Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife” (Prov. 17:1).
Thus, clamoring for wealth is a fool’s pastime: “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle” (Prov. 23:4-5).
6. Riches can bring arrogance.
If money can’t buy happiness, it can buy hubris. That’s because, as a rule, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender” (Prov. 22:7). And so “A poor man pleads for mercy, but a rich man answers harshly” (Prov. 18:23). However, “A rich man may be wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has discernment sees through him” (Prov. 28:11). And we must always remember that “rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all” (Prov. 22:2).
7. Many things are much more important than wealth.
First, wisdom and knowledge. “Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her” (Prov. 3:13-15). And so Lady Wisdom urges, “Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her ... My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver” (Prov. 8:10-11, 19). “How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver!” (Prov. 16:16).
Second, good words. “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel” (Prov. 20:15). Third, a good reputation. “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold” (Prov. 22:1). Fourth, good friends. “Wealth brings many friends, but a poor man’s friend deserts him” (Prov. 19:4). Fifth, a gracious wife. “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies” (Prov. 31:10). Sixth, and above all, righteousness. “Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse” (Prov. 28:6).
For if money cannot buy happiness, it’s sure that death and taxes cannot buy salvation and life. It is God’s righteousness, not wealth, that turns the key of heaven’s gates. “Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death ... Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf” (Prov. 11:4, 28).
Jesus had much to say about money.
Unlike our forebears, people today flounder in a sea of greed, materialism, and waste. Christians included. A bad attitude to money is a constant temptation. We must listen carefully to the words of Jesus in Proverbs on money, and we must also listen to the words of the incarnate Jesus on money: for he knew its power and danger, and had very much to say about it:
“No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:13 KJV)
Mammon was a Canaanite word that referred to “food, maintenance, and provisions,” and Jesus uses it to personify wealth as a rival god. Why did the Pharisees sneer when they heard this? Because they “loved money” (Luke 16:14).
In the Parable of the Sower, it is life’s “riches and pleasures” that strangle the seed (Luke 8:14). It was the greed of the younger son that caused him to despise his father’s house, and God himself (Luke 15:11-13). The rich young ruler, like the monkey grasping the banana in the gourd, couldn’t let go of his money to take hold of Jesus and salvation (Matt. 19:21-22). Riches are so powerful a temptation that Jesus went so far as to say:
Jesus looked at him and said,
“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:24-25)
How will the godly use money? Jesus said,
“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9)
Money must be our slave, not our lord. Instead of being strangled by it in luxury, we master it and use it for acts of mercy and kingdom growth. Then instead of barring us from heaven, our mammon will win us a warm welcome from those who have been helped by its godly use. So, finally,
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34)
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.
Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World by Michael Horton