What is poverty?
In their book, Church in Hard Places, Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley refer to a study conducted by the World Bank that looked into this question asking both poor and rich for their perspective. Interestingly, there surfaced a significant divide in the answers given. On one hand, the rich tend to think of poverty in terms of resources: education, food, housing, medical care, etc. Whereas the poor tended to think of poverty in terms of experiences: powerlessness; hopelessness; loss of meaning; shame. Poverty has many complex dimensions about it. Certainly a simplistic diagnosis will only produce disastrous results.
I am not misguided; I do not think that one blog-post is going to reverse the misunderstandings surrounding poverty.
Perhaps you’re thinking, but what does the bible say about poverty? And that would be a good question to ask. Now, we won’t have time to consider what the Bible as a whole says about poverty, instead I want to consider what the book of Proverbs says about poverty.
If you’ve spent any time in the Proverbs, you’ll see that one of wisdom’s most persistent concerns is the plight of the poor. The Proverbs present poverty in more complex terms than I’ll even address in this post. For example, a consistent theme is the inevitability of folly that leads to poverty (see 12:24; 13:18).
However, I want us to think about what Proverbs says about caring for the poor and destitute. The reality is, there are other reasons for poverty besides folly.
Sometimes it is the result of some form of perpetual injustice: some individuals– some of you even reading this– have worked hard and done everything within their power to gain material security, but forces beyond their control have robbed them of it.
But even then, this won’t occupy my burden in this post. Rather, I want us to zoom in even closer to a particular aspect of poverty from Proverbs. I want us to look at what God’s relationship to those in poverty is, and consequently, what our relationship to the poor and powerless ought to be, should we wish to follow and heed Solomon’s wisdom.
So, what do the Proverbs teach us about caring for those in poverty and for those who are powerless? I think one of the burdens of this kingly wisdom is this: the wise hear, protect and provide for the poor and powerless, and we do so because God himself identifies with the poor and powerless.
So let’s look at several Proverbs that explain how and why God himself identifies with the poor and powerless so that we might know how to walk in wisdom and righteousness.
Proverbs on God’s Identification with the Poor
For starters, Proverbs 14:31 says this,
‘Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
but he who is generous to the needy honors him.’
A key to understanding the Proverbs, is that Israel was called to create a type of culture that cared for the poor and vulnerable. It was in this way that the nation would then display God’s glory and character to the world. God promised Israel that if they kept his commands, all the nations of the world would look at the justice and peace of their society, and be attracted to his wisdom and his glory.
What we have here is a very simple principle: if we exploit the poor, we insult God. How we treat the poor and needy among us says a lot about what we believe, it says a lot about our religion and spirituality. In fact, it says a lot about who we think God is.
We have to ask ourselves why such a proverb like this exists. We don’t see it the other way around: “whoever oppresses a rich man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the rich honours him.” No—could it not be that wealth and riches provide a great temptation to justify ourselves, to place us in a position that is above the rest?
The Apostle Paul can speak of Demas who had left him and fallen in love with this present world (2 Tim. 2:4). The love of money, Paul tells us, plunges people into ruin and destruction (1 Tim. 6:9). Why? Because it is not a justification that can deal with the most important matters in life: it cannot make right our separation from God and being prisoners in the kingdom of darkness. If we look to any justification outside of Jesus, we will fall prey to pride and ideas of superiority.
Instead, throughout the entire OT, we find a remarkable consistency of God identifying with the poor. To oppress a poor man is to insult the Maker. But, as this proverb states, the opposite is also true: if we are generous to the needy, God himself is honoured.
Beloved, the next time we come into contact with the poor, hopefully this Proverb will remind us that how we treat the needy says something about our estimation of God. We cannot rightly honor God if we continue to exploit and keep-down those in need. Great thoughts of God ought to necessarily create in us a great concern for the poor. Would you join me in meditating on this verse? What are some ways, even unknowingly, that we contribute to the exploitation of the poor? Let us pray for wisdom and discernment.
Let’s take a look at Proverbs 17:5. Here we are provided with another example of God identifying with the poor and powerless,
‘Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker;
he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.’
What we have here is Hebrew parallelism. Basically the two lines are to be read together, interpreting one another. This suggests that the poor here have suffered some kind of calamity, perhaps a natural disaster of some sort. This verse now takes on a fresh meaning in light of a pandemic, doesn’t it?
To enjoy and revel in the suffering of those in need is not only to add salt to the wounds on a social level; but it is in fact to insult their Maker and invite the very punishment of God.
This one cuts deeply. Mocking doesn’t always have to be public. Often the scoffing that goes on in my heart doesn’t leave my mouth. When we think to ourselves, “Sjoe, they deserved that,” we are guilty of betraying the wisdom that comes from above. We instead show ourselves to be inheritors of an earthly, unspiritual and demonic ‘knowledge’. Beloved, can you relate? Instead, the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere (James 3:17).
As those called to follow the One who is wisdom, we cannot enjoy seeing calamity take place– especially to those in need. Surely we will be under the Lord’s discipline.
Again in Proverbs 22:2 we see God’s relationship to the poor, this time accompanied with the rich,
‘The rich and the poor meet together;
the Lord is the Maker of them all.’
Here we have the confirmation that the rich in the world in fact share something with the poor: the same Maker. You see, we can go through life– some of us digesting the finest delicacies, others eating once or twice a week– but, as Job said, naked we came, and naked we return to the ground (see Job 1:21).
Money can create so many façades, can’t it? It creates so many barriers between us who share the image of God. You see, material consumption has the unfortunate byproduct of establishing social barriers:
“‘they’ live over there”
“’we’” shop here”
“that place is not for ‘folks like you.’”
These so-called “walls” may be less visible and more permeable than concrete, but they are no less significant and dividing.
And yet, Solomon tells us, we share the same Maker. Beloved, this ought to humble us. Woe to us when we think that our material possessions actually place us in a position that makes us qualitatively better than others– as if our human worth would actually increase with the increase of our net worth! Not before the eyes of God. We all alike share in and reflect his image.
If we move to verses 22-23 of Proverbs 22, Solomon again presents the idea of God’s identifying with the poor,
‘Do not rob the poor, because he is poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate,
for the Lord will plead their cause
and rob of life those who rob them.’
Old Testament commentator Eric Lane writes,
to exploit the poor…is to rob those who can least afford it…it is the sin of injustice…due to the inability of the poor to find anyone to speak for them in court.
Solomon would have us know that God so identifies with the poor that he himself will rise up and plead their cause. “The gate” speaks of a public place, the intersection of commerce and politics. In their powerlessness, Yahweh rises to defend the defenceless with a shocking, and more intense retribution: those who rob the poor of their livelihood will themselves be robbed of life.
This is why David can say,
Father of the fatherless and protector of widows(Ps. 68:5)
is God in his holy habitation.
We see this theme in one final proverb that I want us to consider: Proverbs 23:10-11,
‘Do not move an ancient landmark
or enter the fields of the fatherless,
for their Redeemer is strong;
he will plead their cause against you.’
Again, Solomon uses similar retributive and legal terminology here to say that God especially concerns himself with justice for the poor and powerless.
The “ancient landmarks” were the original boundaries put in place for the various tribes of Israel when they possessed the promise land. These boundary lines were markers of property and, essentially, one’s financial security. Solomon’s warning is directed to those who would enter into the land of those who are fatherless, that is, those who had no one to protect them or take up their cause, to enter that land and to adjust the boundaries of the property, to adjust another’s financial security and opportunity for revenue.
This is the classic case of ‘taking advantage of others’, knowing full well that there would be little prospect for recourse. Why is it that the vulnerable are the most preyed upon? Because they make for the easiest extortion. The fatherless were considered as those who were socially marginalised and without access to power to defend themselves.
What is significant for us to consider here is the word ‘Redeemer.’ It’s the same word used, most famously, in the book of Ruth, where Boaz is said to be the ‘kinsman redeemer,’ that is, the closest of kin who redeems and vindicates his relative in distress. By order of Mosaic Law, the next of kin was to save and take under his wings the distressed and defenceless relative.
Who is such a redeemer to those without a father? Yahweh. Yahweh is said to be the one who will plead their cause: he is their next of kin, the strong one who will play advocate and defend the defenceless. This is how Yahweh identifies with the poor and the powerless.
Beloved, I hope you can see that to work against the poor and powerless is to work against God himself, who emphatically states that he “works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6); and that he himself “will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy” (Ps. 140:12). Only the simple, the fool, would place themselves on the side opposed to God.
Jesus as Wisdom Incarnate
If we think this is remarkable, consider how this identification with the poor and powerless is in fact only made clearer in the life and ministry of Jesus. It isn’t until the Second person of the triune Godhead is incarnated in flesh and blood that we see God’s ultimate concern for the poor and powerless.
Consider the fact that Jesus was born into a feeding trough. Consider that the offering presented by his parents at his circumcision was the sacrifice of the poorest class of people in society. Of his own life, Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk. 9:58). He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). Jesus lived and moved and ministered among the poorest, the vilest. Timothy Keller rightly notes that,
He rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, spent his last evening in a borrowed room, and when he died he was laid in a borrowed tomb. They cast lots for his only possession, his robe, for there on the cross he was stripped of everything. He died naked and penniless. He had little the world valued and the little he had was taken. He was discarded—thrown away.
To what end? “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)
Israel’s kings could not keep and embody God’s Torah, the instruction for mankind. But Jesus has in his perfect life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension. In so doing he radically identified with those poor, marginalized, and powerless. He now calls all of us then, both rich and poor to take up our crosses and follow him in the way of righteousness and justice, in the way of wisdom that is from above, repenting of insults, oppression, extortion, and plundering. By the grace given to us, we are those who now hear, care and provide for those poor and powerless, since God himself so cares for them.
Will we honour God? Then we will be generous to those in need.
Will we secure for ourselves life? Then we will plead the cause of those afflicted, those without voice and power.
Will we walk in the way of wisdom? Then we will identify with the poor and powerless to the degree that our heavenly Father has.
This will take more than handouts, for, as David Leong asserts,
it is when we locate our lives among those hurting that the “us” and “them” is done away with. There is then no “them” when it comes to pain or injustice. There is just “us” and our collective sense of shared tragedy.
Would God help us to walk in wisdom.
 See Proverbs 13:23; Tremper Longman, III, Proverbs (Baker Academic, 2006), 291.
 David Leong, Race and Place, 120.