One the best thing about Proverbs is its practical wisdom about everyday topics such as wealth and poverty. However, Proverbs is more than simply a self-help book – it is godly wisdom which seeks to put “the fear of the Lord” at the beginning. As we saw in the previous session on guidance, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). Today we are going to look at how that works out with money / wealth and poverty.
This is a huge issue in our society: according to the Global Inequality website, the richest 1% of people own 44% of the world’s wealth. According to Oxfam, the wealth divide between the richest and the poorest in the world is steadily growing. Closer to home, in the UK about 20% of households are below average income. And yet, a lot of people chase after wealth – according to the Telegraph, 70% of UK adults (more than 32 million people) play the lottery on a regular basis – and 99% of winners play again, convinced they will win again.
Money and wealth play a huge role in our society. What does the the wisdom of Proverbs have to say about it?
Let me first just give a quick caveat: one of the problems with proverbial wisdom is that you can’t simply read off one verse and then ignore the other verses about wealth and poverty. Proverbs isn’t a “get rich quick” scheme! All of these things need to be taken into consideration together. With that in mind, here are seven short lessons about wealth from the wisdom of Proverbs.
1. God blesses the righteous with wealth
With me are riches and honour,Proverbs 8:18-19
enduring wealth and prosperity.
My fruit is better than fine gold;
what I yield surpasses choice silver.
I don’t know about you, but I often see people talking about those who become wealthy with a mix of envy and suspicion. “How did they get that money? Why do they deserve it, of all people?” However, Proverbs doesn’t mince its words: wisdom and wealth do go together.
The prime example of this is King Solomon. Once, in a dream, the Lord appeared to Solomon and asked him what he wanted. He didn’t ask for riches or wealth but wisdom, to rule God’s people. God was pleased with his request, and he replied: “Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for – both wealth and honour – so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings” (1 Kings 3:13).
Now, I just wish to make one thing very clear: this is not promoting some kind of prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel is a distortion of Christian teaching which says, if you believe in Jesus, God will give you all the material things you could ever want. It’s basically a Christian version of a ‘get rich quick’ scheme. This is emphatically not the truth. The prosperity gospel is a horrible distortion of the gospel and it has led many people astray. This is why we need the rest of what Proverbs has to say about wisdom…
2. Foolish behaviour leads to poverty
I mean “foolish” in the Proverbs sense here. Proverbs contrasts the wise and the foolish: the wise, as we have already seen, start with fearing the Lord. The foolish, on the other hand, do not fear the Lord and do not act in accordance with his ways. What does that look like in terms of wealth / money?
Lazy hands make for poverty,
but diligent hands bring wealth.
He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son,Proverbs 10:4-5
but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.
The first foolish way of behaving is laziness. In the Bible, work is seen as a gift – God wants us to work and provides it as a way of providing for ourselves and others. Those who refuse to work are acting in a foolish way, and poverty can follow. This is just the way the world works! But there is another foolish behaviour which leads to poverty:
The wealth of the wise is their crown,Proverbs 14:24
but the folly of fools yields folly.
The foolishness of fools – that is, behaving in an ungodly way, can lead to poverty as well. This could mean, acting recklessly, for example gambling away money.
3. The wealth of fools will not last
A wicked person earns deceptive wages,
but the one who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward.
Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath,Proverbs 11:18, 4
but righteousness delivers from death.
You know the expression people sometimes use: “You can’t take it with you!” It’s true, isn’t it – we can’t take wealth down to the grave. Proverbs is realistic about the fact that the wealth of people who are rich in this life will not last. What use will fancy cars and houses be, or a big savings account, on the death bed?
But I think there is some truth here even in this life time: we started out thinking about the lottery, for example. One thing you may not know about lottery winners is that they often go bankrupt.
4. Poverty can be a result of injustice and oppression
An unploughed field produces food for the poor,Proverbs 13:23
but injustice sweeps it away.
Sadly this is all too true in our society. We saw at the start how the gap between the richest and the poorest in our world seems to be widening. When the rich line their own pockets, those who lose out are often the poorest in society. But that doesn’t mean riches are a bad thing:
5. Those with money should be generous
Riches are not evil in and of themselves – but money is a responsibility.
Those who give to the poor will lack nothing,Proverbs 28:27
but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.
Giving to the poor is something which has always been part of the Christian faith. This one hardly needs saying, but I think it’s important to remember. God expects us to be generous with our money, especially when considering the poor. But it’s not just about throwing money at a problem:
The righteous care about justice for the poor,Proverbs 29:7
but the wicked have no such concern.
We should care about justice, not just money – we should recognise that the problem is often systems. Poverty is not always linked to folly, and we should care about the systems of the world which keep people in poverty. Caring about the poor involves caring both about their material needs and the ‘bigger picture’ injustices which keep them there.
6. Wisdom is better than wealth
How much better to get wisdom than gold,Proverbs 16:16
to get insight rather than silver!
There is something which is worth much more than gold or silver – that is wisdom. Sometimes we need to choose! There are people who have given up lucrative careers to follow Jesus. I myself gave up a reasonably secure and well-paid job in order to go into the church. But, as Proverbs said, it’s much better to get wisdom than money!
Better the poor whose way of life is blamelessProverbs 28:6
than the rich whose ways are perverse.
And it’s even better to be poor and righteous than rich and ungodly. To put it bluntly: it’s better to be poor and good than rich and evil! These two things are precisely why Jesus told us to “store up treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-21) – because God, and life with him, is far better than any earthly wealth.
In fact, Jesus said, when we seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, all the things we need will be given to us as well. This has been my experience – God has provided, even through some difficult times.
7. Wealth has limited value
A person’s riches may ransom their life,Proverbs 13:8
but the poor cannot respond to threatening rebukes.
Wealth can cause problems. As this Proverb says, someone who is rich is at risk of being held to ransom or blackmailed. That’s never going to happen to a poor person – it wouldn’t be worth it! Wealth is not something which can solve all our problems – in fact, it can cause more problems.
Do not wear yourself out to get rich;Proverbs 23:4-5
do not trust your own cleverness.
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.
There’s a story about a businessman on holiday on a beach, who sees a fisherman relaxing. This fisherman has been working hard in his boat all morning, and is spending the afternoon relaxing. The businessman asks him, why are you relaxing? If you went out in the boat again, you could earn more money. Maybe enough to buy another boat, hire more people – you could make enough money to retire in comfort. The fishermen said to him: “And then what?” And the businessman said, “Well, you could relax on the beach with your family…”
Money is a good servant but a terrible master. Money should serve us and our needs – pursuing wealth for no reason other than getting more is not good. We should trust God to provide the things that we need, and not pursue wealth just for the sake of getting wealthy!
‘Two things I ask of you, Lord;Proverbs 30:7-9
do not refuse me before I die:
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 dishonour the name of my God.
I think this is my favourite wisdom from Proverbs about wealth: we ask God to give us the things that we need – our daily bread, nothing more or less. If we have too much, we might disown the Lord – having riches can be spiritually very bad for you. At the same time, if we become poor and have to steal, we will dishonour the Lord.
Let’s ask God to give us the things that we need, and ask him to help us trust him for our daily bread. Above all, let’s ask God to help us seek his kingdom first and foremost, and for wealth to take its proper place in our lives.
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.Matthew 6:33