POVERTY: WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
The emerging church claims that Christians are responsible to solve the world’s poverty problem. They emphasize the need for a grand “social justice” program that will create heaven on earth, but it is a vain dream. The kingdom of God will not be established on earth until the King returns from heaven, and until then the Bible says that man will go from bad to worse.
The Bible’s recipe to reduce poverty is simple: obedience to God, honesty, thrift, diligence, and charity. Consider the following study from the Bible’s book of wisdom. This is from the Advanced Bible Studies Series course on Proverbs, published by Way of Life Literature.
Proverbs 10:4, 15; 12:11; 13:18, 23; 14:20-21; 15:16-17; 17:1, 5; 18:23; 19:1, 4, 7, 17, 22; 20:13; 21:17; 22:2, 7, 16, 22-23; 23:20-21; 28:8, 11, 19, 22, 27; 29:7, 13; 30:8-9; 31:20
Billions of dollars in foreign aid have been poured into impoverished nations, but it hasn’t solved the poverty problem there, and billions of dollars in welfare money have poured into poverty relief in wealthy nations like America and England, but the poor are still poor. What foreign aid and welfare rarely if ever do is address the root problems underlying poverty. The book of Proverbs, on the other hand, goes right to the heart of the matter and does not gloss over underlying issues and human responsibility.
1. THE CAUSE OF POVERTY
a. Dealing with a slack hand results in poverty (Prov. 10:4; 20:13). This refers to being lazy, and this is certainly one of the root causes for poverty in this world. Many people loll around, avoiding work as much as possible, and if forced to get a job are not dependable or hard-working and are a frustration to their employers. The Bible says that those who do not work should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10). It is foolish and wrong to provide government support or private assistance to lazy people. It only makes them more lazy.
b. Loving sensual pleasure and drunkenness results in poverty (Prov. 21:17; 23:20-21). Multitudes of people have been reduced to poverty by this means. They unwisely spend their income on liquor and debauched living and having become enslaved thereby are reduced to drowsiness and poverty. Many who are poor remain poor because they spend their income on these things. In the Himalayan Times in early 2007 I read about a group of beggars in Kathmandu, Nepal, who work at a certain temple area and receive a good income from begging by Nepali standards, but they waste it on liquor and gambling and thus remain poor. Their many health problems come not from lack of money but from debauched living.
c. Following vain persons results in poverty (“He that tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread: but he that followeth vain persons is void of understanding,” Prov. 12:11; 28:19). This is repeated two times in Proverbs by way of emphasis.
(1) It is God’s will for men to till the land, meaning to occupy themselves with making an honest living by means of hard and faithful labor. From the very beginning it was so. God put the first man in the garden of Eden “to dress it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15), and after man sinned God ordained that “in the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread” (Gen. 3:19). It has been said, “Keep thy shop, and thy shop shall keep thee.”
(2) But when a man neglects his own business and follows after vain persons who promise an easy living by means of theft or violence or extortion or revolution or gambling or some other thing he incurs God’s judgment and “shall have poverty enough” (Prov. 28:19). He who follows vain persons often is enticed to spend his own substance on their gluttony. The young man Jesus described in Luke 15 “wasted his substance with riotous living” (Lk. 15:13), and no doubt he had plenty of vain friends who were eager to help him spend his inheritance, but when the money was gone so were the “friends.” When he was in need “no man gave unto him” (Lk. 15:16), because vain persons are not true friends but rather leeches.
(3) Note that he that tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread (Prov. 12:11). God has not promised that we will be rich but He has promised to meet our needs when we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and follow His will (Mat. 6:33; Heb. 13:5).
(4) By way of spiritual application the one who tills his land is the one who pays careful and diligent attention to his relationship with the Lord. He reads and studies his Bible every day. He walks in fellowship with Christ and has an effective prayer life. He is faithful to church and can be depended upon to give and work so that Christ is glorified in the assembly. Such a Christian will be satisfied with the bread of life, but the Christian that follows vain persons, whether sinners or heretics, will go out of the way and backslide and be brought to spiritual poverty.
d. Refusing instruction results in poverty (“Poverty and shame shall be to him that refuseth instruction: but he that regardeth reproof shall be honoured,” Prov. 13:18).
(1) There are many ways that a person can refuse instruction. Some people refuse instruction in school and drop out. Some refuse to heed the instruction of a father and mother and run away from home. Some refuse the instruction of a boss and will not put themselves under authority. Some refuse the instruction of the law and become criminals. All those who refuse instruction are foolish (Prov. 12:1) and receive the fool’s reward, which is divine punishment. “He that is so proud that he scorns to be taught will certainly be abased. … He will become a beggar and live and die in disgrace; every one will despise him as foolish, and stubborn, and ungovernable” (Matthew Henry).
(2) The individual that regards reproof, on the other hand, will be honored. Obedience brings both physical and spiritual blessing. The wise person knows that he needs reproof and correction and accepts it with humility (Prov. 9:9).
e. Lack of judgment results in poverty (“Much food is in the tillage of the poor: but there is that is destroyed for want of judgment,” Prov. 13:23). This proverb contains a far-reaching truth in this sin-cursed world. Why are so many people poor? Oftentimes it is because they are made poor by lack of judgment.
(1) God has ordained that there is much food in the tillage of the poor. Tillage refers to plowing. If a poor person will labor diligently and honestly and attend to his business and not waste his substance through drink and gluttony and gambling and such he will usually have plenty for his own needs and those of his family.
(2) But much is destroyed by lack of judgment.
(a) Many times the lack of judgment is on the part of the poor himself. First, he that lacks wisdom and judgment can waste his substance through sloth and gluttonous or riotous living and following vain persons, or through lawbreaking. Second, he can ruin his estate by lack of prudence in its management. Many times poor people have been given houses and modular homes and apartments through government and private welfare schemes only to have them ruined by lack of judgment. Third, the poor can also ruin themselves by borrowing unwisely. In South Asia the poor often borrow large amounts of money in order to go overseas to work or to start a business, but in many cases the job doesn’t pan out and the business is not run wisely and they end up in much worse condition than before. “Men over-build themselves or over-buy themselves, keep greater company, or a better table, or more servants, than they can afford, suffer what they have to go to decay and do not make the most of it; by taking up money themselves, or being bound for others, their estates are sunk, their families reduced, and all for want of judgment” (Matthew Henry).
(b) The lack of judgment can also be on the part of others who affect the poor such as governments and revolutionary movements. Even if the poor man is laboring diligently and not following after vain persons and not spending his substance on riotous living and is minding his own affairs prudently, his labor can be reduced or destroyed by lack of judgment on the part of those who are over him. The food in the tillage of the poor is destroyed by corruption in government. When governments are corrupt and self-seeking they do not protect the poor and do not provide true justice to the poor and thus allow the poor’s enemies to harass and rob him. This is just as true in the West as in Third World nations. In America environmental and unjust property laws have destroyed the value of much real estate. We knew a couple who had 40 acres of land in Washington state and were planning to divide it into eight pieces and sell the five-acre lots for their retirement, but the government ruled that the property could not be divided down to less than 20 acres and they lost their income. These were ordinary people whose food was destroyed for want of judgment. Unreasonably high taxes have forced many people to sell property that has been in the family for generations just to satisfy an unjust and greedy government. Valuable properties have been confiscated through unjust imminent domain laws. I have lived for nearly 18 years in poor countries with corrupt governments and have often witnessed the poor run over and destroyed by lack of judgment. A vast amount of foreign aid from wealthy countries is squandered through such corruption. The food in the tillage of the poor is also destroyed by lack of judgment on the part of revolutionary movements. Communists run over the poor even in the name of the poor, confiscating their crops and lands, kidnapping their children, demanding provisions for their cadres, forcing the poor to perform their labor, and many other things. The food in the tillage of the poor is also often destroyed by false religion. Consider, for example, the Hindu caste system. It divides men into castes and the lowest castes, particularly, are terribly mistreated and are kept in perpetual poverty and bondage. In some villages in Nepal the high caste villagers will not allow the low caste to drink out of the wells; they will not allow them to enter their homes or touch their possessions. The low caste cannot attend the same schools or work the same jobs as the high caste and they cannot marry out of caste.
f. Hastening to be rich results in poverty (“He that hasteth to be rich hath an evil eye, and considereth not that poverty shall come upon him,” Prov. 28:22). The evil eye is defined in Matthew 6:21-24 as the eye that is focused on obtaining wealth and pleasure as opposed to the eye that is focused on serving God with a true heart.
(1) Many men have been made poor because they hastened to be rich and thought there was an “easy” path to wealth. They have been impoverished by joining with thieves and extortioners. They have been impoverished through gambling and lotteries. They have been impoverished by promises of lucrative-sounding jobs that do not pan out. They have been impoverished through deceitful “get rich quick” schemes. It has been wisely said, “If something sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true!” Many, though, are captured by fantastic-sounding promises because their greed blinds them to common sense and they refuse to listen to good advice.
(2) Bible examples of men who had an evil eye and hasted to be rich and ended up poor include Lot, Achan, Ahab, and Gehazi. Lot moved to Sodom and overlooked its wickedness in his pursuit of wealth, and lost both his wealth and his family (Genesis 13-14). Achan coveted pagan gold and was destroyed with all his possessions (Joshua 7:20-26). Ahab lusted after Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21), and because of his greed God said to him, “Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will take away thy posterity…” (1 Kings 21:21). Gehazi lusted after Naaman’s silver and was smitten with leprosy (2 Kings 5:20-27).
2. THE PAIN OF POVERTY
Proverbs not only shows us the cause of poverty, it also warns that poverty is attended by many pains.
a. Poverty is the destruction of the poor (“The rich man’s wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty,” Prov. 10:15).
(1) This means that the poor is destroyed because he is poor and lacks the protection that wealth provides in this wicked world. Whereas the rich man has his money and possessions to act as a protection and he feels secure in this “strong city,” the poor man has no substance of any significance. He must face life’s contingencies alone, without money, without position and prestige, without higher education, without connections, often even without political and libertarian rights. So when the poor man gets sick or is arrested or otherwise faces life’s problems he has no “strong city.” For example, a report on international calling card scams which cheat people out of their money emphasized that it is the poor who are targeted. “You have companies with no scruples targeting low-income minorities with no access to traditional credit and banking services who view themselves as defenseless” (“Fraud Is a Hang-up for Pre-paid Calling Card Market,” USA Today, Oct. 5, 2008).
(2) It is important to understand that the rich man’s wealth which he looks to as his “strong city” is fleeting and uncertain and can disappear in a moment, whereas if a man puts his confidence in the Lord he has a true rock and fortress and high tower which cannot be overthrown and in which he is truly safe (Psa. 18:2). The Bible warns us not to “trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God” (1 Tim. 6:17).
b. The poor is hated even of his own neighbor (“The poor is hated even of his own neighbour: but the rich hath many friends,” Prov. 14:20). See also Proverbs 19:4 and 19:7.
(1) The rich have many friends because they are rich, though such friends are insincere and undependable. The Prodigal Son discovered this the hard way (Luke 15:11-16). Multimillion dollar lottery winners invariably discover this. Teresa Brunnings, who won $1.3 million in a lottery in 1985, says that she had a party then for her “friends,” but later after the winnings were gone, “Of all the people who came, not one speaks to me now.”
(2) The poor, on the other hand, is hated even of his own neighbor because, unlike the rich, he has nothing of substance that they desire and no social standing or office that they respect. You would think that the neighbors of the poor would respect him and care for him because they, too, are poor, but this is not the way that fallen human nature works. The poor is commonly disrespected, disdained, neglected, and mistreated by his poor neighbors. Rarely do they band together to help one another, but they often take advantage of one another in a multitude of ways. They lie to one another and steal from one another. They borrow and do not pay back. They loan to one another at exorbitant rates. As we saw in the studies on Proverbs 6, Jim Corbett, the famous tiger hunter of India during the first half of the twentieth century, told of how that millions of poor people in India were made bond-servants generationally through debts, and that the children of those who borrowed would inherit the debt and its crushing interest, the debt actually increasing exponentially with each generation. The neighbor of a poor man will loan him money requiring that he put up his family property as collateral, knowing that the man very likely will not be able to repay the loan on time and the property, which is of much greater value than the loan, will fall into his hands. Relatives of the poor man take his property upon the death of his father by hiring shady lawyers and bribing corrupt court officials. The poor are scammed by their neighbors in a multitude of ways. There have been many reports about poor people who have won large sums of money through government lotteries and almost immediately their own neighbors and relatives attempt to cheat them. And even though the poor man pursues his hateful neighbors with words, begging them for help and reproving them for their unkindness, “yet they are wanting to him” (Prov. 19:7).
c. The poor are ruled over by the rich (“The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender,” Prov. 22:7).
(1) This is another painful aspect of poverty. It is the rich who rule in this present world, regardless of how evil and unjust they might be. The poor man is subject to the rich on every hand. He is ruled by the rich in government, in the judicial system, in education, in the business world, in real estate, even in religion.
(2) This verse reminds us of the potential danger of borrowing. Proverbs 22:26-27 warns that the borrower who cannot pay will be forced to relinquish his most necessary possessions. Hebrews 13:5-6 exhorts believers to live contended, covetous-free lives and not to put themselves in any position whereby they must fear what man shall do to him and cannot explicitly trust the Lord. To borrow in any situation whereby the borrower could become enslaved and impoverished is foolish.
d. The poor use entreaties whereas the rich answereth roughly (Prov. 18:23).
(1) The rich is puffed up in his false sense of superiority and is often unkind to those of lower “social standing.” This tendency to pride is one of the many spiritual dangers of wealth. The Bible exhorts the rich man to humble himself before God and to forebear threatening his fellow man (Eph. 6:9). “The tendency of wealth to foster pride and haughtiness of spirit, is great. To be rich, and at the same time truly humble, is the fruit of divine grace” (Family Bible Notes).
(2) The poor, on the other hand, knows that in order to get any help or justice he must humble himself and use entreaties. He cannot demand anything. This does not mean that the poor are naturally humble. Pride rather than humility is the natural characteristic of the flesh that we have inherited from our father Adam. That the poor’s humility is commonly faked is demonstrated by the fact that when he is elevated out of his poverty he quickly loses his humility.
(3) Spiritually, every sinner is poor before Almighty God and salvation is not a right that we can demand but a matter of God’s grace that we must entreat. The believing sinner is not rich in his own right, and thus has nothing of which to boast, but he is rich by means of having inherited Christ’s riches (2 Cor. 8:9). Salvation is a gift that was purchased for undeserving sinners by the grace of God (Eph. 2:8-9).
3. MISCELLANEOUS OTHER LESSONS ABOUT POVERTY
a. The Bible says that one’s attitude toward the poor is an evidence of the condition of one’s heart. (“The righteous considereth the cause of the poor: but the wicked regardeth not to know it,” Prov. 29:7). The book of Proverbs is a mirror that shows us the condition of our hearts, and if we have no concern for the poor we are wicked and probably unconverted. “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now” (1 John 2:9).
b. Many things are worse than poverty. Though the book of Proverbs does not hedge about the fact that poverty is attended by many troubles, it hastens to add that poverty with righteousness is much better than wealth with unrighteousness. The poor person must not be deceived into thinking that poverty is the worst thing in life and that at all cost he must find a way to be rich. If a person puts his faith in Jesus Christ and finds wisdom he learns how to look at his situation properly and to judge things through God’s eyes rather than man’s. He can look beyond this brief life to eternity and thus not be shortsighted. He understands and agrees with the words of Christ, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mat. 16:26).
(1) Poverty with righteousness is better than wealth with trouble (“Better is little with fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble therewith. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith,” Prov. 15:16-17). See also Proverbs 17:1. Those who love wealth and pursue it do not stop to think about the trouble that often accompanies it. How much better it is to live in a simple manner and to be surrounded by God’s blessing and the sincere love of one’s spouse and friends in Christ and the honor of one’s children than to be married to the most beautiful movie star who lives only for herself and to have riches untold in the midst of strife and trouble, such as the rebellion and dishonor of one’s children and the greedy devices of one’s friends and relatives. The Bible warns that “they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (1 Tim. 6:9).
(2) The righteous poor is better than the fool (“Better is the poor that walketh in his integrity than he that is perverse in his lips and is a fool,” Prov. 19:1). See also Proverbs 19:22. To walk in integrity and honesty brings blessings both in this world and in the next. If a person has riches but is foolish and unrighteous any enjoyment he gets from the riches will be corrupted by strife and trouble and he will enjoy his riches for a few months, or a few years at the most, and will then go out into eternity without Christ and suffer eternal wrath.
c. God blesses those who help the poor and judges those who oppress them.
(1) There are three specific promises in Proverbs to those who help the poor.
(a) He that has mercy on the poor is happy (Prov. 14:21). There is joy in giving, especially when those we help are truly needy.
(b) He that hath pity on the poor lends unto the Lord (Prov. 19:17). The Lord, who cares for the poor and needy, promises to pay back those who help them. What a great deal! Almighty God pledges Himself on the behalf of the poor, and those who help the poor put God into their debt, so to speak. It has been wisely said, “You can’t out give God, because when He shovels blessings back to the giver His shovel is bigger.”
(c) He that giveth to the poor shall not lack (“He that giveth unto the poor shall not lack: but he that hideth his eyes shall have many a curse,” Prov. 28:27). This is another wonderful promise, and we have found it to be true. During the years we have lived in one of the poorest parts of Asia we have given many thousands of dollars to help the needy, and we can testify that we have never lacked for anything.
(2) There are also three sharp warnings in Proverbs for those who oppress the poor.
(a) Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his maker (Prov. 17:5). God identifies Himself with the poor in such a manner that if the poor are mistreated God is mistreated, and He will repay. God takes the oppression of the poor seriously, and punishes those who practice it. This warning looks beyond the brief days of his life. In this world there are countless people who mock and abuse the poor, and it often appears that they get away “scot free,” but they don’t. They will give an answer for their crimes at the Great White Throne judgment described in Revelation 20.
(b) He that oppresseth the poor shall come to want (“He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches, and he that giveth to the rich, shall surely come to want,” Prov. 22:16). We have described some the ways that the rich and the poor alike oppress the poor to increase their own riches, but God observes all such things and will impoverish those who practice it. Whether it be fulfilled in this present world or in the next or both, this warning is infallible and will be heeded by those who are wise. To give to the rich, in this context, refers to giving to them to increase one’s own riches. The context is corruption and theft. It refers to such things as giving bribes to the rich so that they will turn a blind eye to one’s oppression. John Gill says “he that giveth to the rich” refers to the one “that gives to those that are richer than he; or that are in greater power and authority, that they may protect him in the possession of his ill gotten riches.”
(c) He that oppresses the poor will be impoverished in his soul (“Rob not the poor, because he is poor: neither oppress the afflicted in the gate: For the LORD will plead their cause, and spoil the soul of those that spoiled them,” Prov. 22:22-23). Not only does God warn that those who oppress the poor will come to want in the material sense but also that He will spoil their souls. Thus a spiritual curse comes upon the one who oppresses the poor. His soul is spoiled in this present life and in the next. The Bible tells that the soul can be spoiled by leanness (Psa. 106:15), by spiritual blindness (2 Cor. 4:4), and by being given up to its own way (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). And in the next life the soul is spoiled in eternal hell (Mat. 10:28).
d. The rich man is wise in his own conceit but the poor that hath understanding searcheth him out (Prov. 28:11).
(1) Rich men are often deceived into thinking that they are much wiser than they actually are. Since they have the sense necessary to gain and/or hold onto wealth they come to think that they know almost everything. It is the rich man’s conceit that causes this. Bill Gates has been one of the world’s wealthiest men for many years and in interviews he has expounded on a wide variety of things that have nothing to do with his narrow field of expertise, which is computers. He even makes predictions about the future. In an interview with David Frost on the Public Broadcasting Network in November 1995 Gates said he does not believe in “the specific elements of Christianity.” It is doubtful whether he has made a serious study of the Bible and Christianity, yet he boldly expresses his unbelief and is given a hearing because of his great wealth.
(2) The poor that has understanding can search out the rich man who is wise in his own conceit. He does this with God’s Word. He can cut through the rich man’s false thinking and refute his wrong-headed arguments. Proverbs informs us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the man who fears the Lord will have far more understanding about the important things pertaining to life and death than any unconverted person, regardless of his wealth, intellect, education, or social standing. The rich often promote evolution as fact, whereas the poor that is wise knows that God created the world and can refute the rich man’s philosophy with the Bible and common sense and observation, which is true science.
(3) We see that wisdom is far better than wealth. Wealth cannot buy forgiveness of sin or a relationship with the living God. It cannot buy the things that wisdom naturally gives in this present life, such as the knowledge of God’s perfect will and the ability to make wise decisions about friends, education, marriage, and occupation. Wealth cannot buy rewards at the judgment seat of Christ.
e. The wise person prays for neither poverty nor riches (“Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die: Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain,” Prov. 30:7-9).
(1) In light of what Proverbs says about poverty, we are taught in conclusion to seek neither poverty nor wealth. Paul taught Timothy the same lesson in 1 Timothy 6:6-9.
(a) The prophet Agur prayed that God would feed him with food convenient for him. This refers to that which is fitting and proper in God’s eyes, that which meets his needs though not necessarily his wants.
(b) He knew that the great danger in being rich is to become proud and self-sufficient and to deny God.
(c) He knew that the great danger in being poor is to become desperate and steal from others in order to escape one’s poverty and to foolishly blame God for not lifting him out of poverty. Notice that the poor can be tempted to steal. He is so tempted because he wants to get out of his poverty and if he dwells on that sole objective he can get to the place where he is willing to do anything toward this end. The stealing can come in several forms. It can come in the form of robbery, of pick pocketing or entering into houses to steal possessions or robbing stores or banks or highway robbery. It can come in the form of cheating and scamming and lying in order to gain wealth, which encompasses a multitude of sins. It can come in the form of joining an extortion gang.
(2) Notice that the wise man knows how to pray properly. When praying for himself he does not pray for something to consume upon his lusts (James 4:3). He prays rather that God will provide his needs, protect him from sin, and not lead him into temptation. This is how Christ taught us to pray. See Matthew 6:9-13.