Does God want people to work to provide for their needs? Or does God want people to protect the poor? In our polarized conversation about wealth and poverty, we often feel like we have to choose between the two.
To answer this question, we must first ask a bigger one: What does the Bible teach about wealth and poverty? We’ve tried to address this question in recent posts by exploring the creation account and the Old Testament law. Today, let’s continue our journey by investigating the prophets and writings.
Much had changed since God delivered the Old Testament law to the Israelites. The Jewish nation grew and transitioned from a theocratic (God-centered) form of government to a monarchical (king-centered) form of government. With these changes came new economic challenges such as Israelite kings avoiding the self-exaltation that can come with the accumulation of excess wealth (see Deut. 17:16-17), issues related to governmental taxation (see 1 Sam 8:10-18), and the continued duty to tithe (see Mal. 3:8-12).
Yet the two foundational biblical teachings on wealth and poverty remained the same:
- Laboring in order to meet material needs is a good.
- The poor must be protected from being oppressed by the rich.
The economic material in the Old Testament that comes after the Law can be summarized as follows: the historical books narrate the Jews’ (especially their kings’) record of wealth and poverty; the Wisdom Literature upholds and espouses creational economic ideals; and the prophetic books confront the Jews for their failure to deal appropriately with wealth and poverty.
The Wisdom Literature, in particular, contains the greatest amount of material related to economics. Let’s explore what it tells us about the two foundational teachings on wealth and poverty.
1. Laboring in order to meet material needs is a good thing.
The creation account taught us that God designed labor as a means to meet our material needs. This topic is frequently mentioned in Wisdom Literature. For example, the book of Proverbs reports that “the hand of the diligent makes [one] rich…. whoever works his land will have plenty of bread” (Prov. 10:4; 28:19). Likewise, the wisdom books implicitly encourage labor by warning against idleness:
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.
An idle person will suffer hunger…
Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty.
These books also uphold the ideal of labor being productive. They contain warnings against mortgaging one’s future against the unnecessary incurrence of debt (see Prov. 22:7), and they repeatedly discourage practices such as becoming surety for another’s loans (see Prov. 6:1-5; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26; 27:13).
2. The poor must be protected from being oppressed by the rich.
The Wisdom Literature also frequently prescribes the duty to protect and care for the poor. The book of Proverbs encourages believers,
Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and need. (Prov. 31:9)
The biblical authors warn readers against oppressing the poor through usurious loans and extortion (see Ps. 15:5; Prov. 28:8; Ezek. 18:8, 13). The wisdom books also explicitly link righteousness with generosity (see Prov. 14:21; 29:7; 31:20), going so far as to equate lending to the poor with lending to the Lord (see Prov. 17:5; 19:17), a theme that appears in the New Testament as well (see Matt. 25:31-46).
Conversely, other passages warn of divine retribution for ignoring the poor. For instance, Proverbs 21:13 states,
Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.
The theme of the Lord delivering the poor from the oppression of the wicked is so prevalent in the Psalms that theologian John Stott concludes, “The Psalter is the hymnbook of the helpless.” Passages such as these, which reiterate the foundational wealth and poverty from the creation narrative and law, are scattered throughout the remainder of the Old Testament.
So does God want people to work to provide their needs, or does he want them to protect the poor? As we’ve seen in the Wisdom Literature, we don’t have to choose. These two approaches form the foundation of God’s teaching on wealth and poverty — and they should form the foundation of our approach to wealth and poverty as well.
This post is a modified excerpt of Dr. Jones’ book Health, Wealth and Happiness.
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 John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, Intervarsity Press, 2006), 3-5.