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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Proverbs 10

 

 

Verses 1-32

CHAPTER 11

WEALTH

"Treasures of wickedness profit nothing: but righteousness delivereth from death." Proverbs 10:2

"O’er weening statesmen have full long relied

On fleets and armies and external wealth;

But from within proceeds a Nation’s health."

-Wordsworth

NO moral system is complete which does not treat with clearness and force the subject of wealth. The material possessions of an individual or of a nation are in a certain sense the prerequisites of all moral life; for until the human being has food to eat he cannot be virtuous, he cannot even live; until he has clothing he cannot be civilized; and unless he has a moderate assurance of necessaries, and a certain margin of leisure secured from the toil of life, he cannot live well, and there can be no moral development in the full sense of that term. And so with a nation: it must have a sufficient command of the means of subsistence to maintain a considerable number of people who are not engaged in productive labor, before it can make much advance in the noblest qualities of national life, progress in the arts, extension of knowledge, and spiritual cultivation. The production of wealth, therefore, if not strictly speaking a moral question itself, presses closely upon all other moral questions. Wisdom must have something to say about it, because, without it, Wisdom, in a material world like ours, could not exist.

Wisdom will be called upon to direct the energies which produce wealth, and to determine the feelings with which we are to regard the wealth which is produced.

Moral problems weightier still begin to emerge when the question of Distribution presents itself. Moral considerations lie at the root of this question; and Political Economy, so far as it attempts to deal with it apart from moral considerations, must always be merely, a speculative, and not a practical or a fruitful science.

If Production is in a sense the presupposition of all moral and spiritual life, no less certainly correct moral conceptions-may we not even say true spiritual conditions?-are the indispensable means of determining Distribution. For a society in which every individual is striving with all his strength or cunning to procure for himself the largest possible share of the common stock, in which therefore the material possessions gravitate into the hands of the strong and the unscrupulous, while the weak and the honorable are left destitute-such a society, if it ever came into existence, would be a demoralized society. Such a demoralization is always probable when the means of production have been rapidly and greatly improved, and when the fever of getting has overpowered the sense of righteousness and all the kindlier human feelings. Such a demoralization is to be averted by securing attention to the abiding moral principles which must govern men’s action in the matter of wealth, and by enforcing these principles with such vividness of illustration and such cogency of sanction that they shall be generally accepted and practiced.

In our own day this question of the distribution of wealth stands in the front rank of practical questions. Religious teachers must face it, or else they must forfeit their claim to be the guides and instructors of their generation.

Socialists are grappling with this question not altogether in a religious spirit: they have stepped into a gap which Christians have left empty; they have recognized a great spiritual issue when Christians have seen nothing but a material problem of pounds, shillings, and pence, of supply and demand, of labor and capital. Where Socialism adopts the program of Revolution, Wisdom cannot give in her adhesion; she knows too well that suffering, impatience, and despair are unsafe, although very pathetic, counselors: she knows too well that social upheaval does not produce social reconstruction, but a weary entail of fresh upheavals; she has learnt, too, that society is organic, and cannot, like Pelops in the myth, win rejuvenescence by being cut up and cast into the cauldron, but can advance only by a quiet and continuous growth, in which each stage comes naturally and harmoniously out of the stage which preceded. But all Socialism is not revolutionary. And Wisdom cannot withhold her sympathy and her aid where Socialism takes the form of stating, and expounding, and enforcing truer conceptions concerning the distribution of wealth. It is by vigorous and earnest grappling with the moral problem that the way of advance is prepared; every sound lesson therefore in the right way of regarding wealth, and in the use of wealth, is a step in the direction of that social renovation which all earnest men at present desire.

The book of Proverbs presents some very clear and decisive teaching on this question, and it is our task now to view this teaching, scattered and disconnected though it be, as a whole.

I. The first thing to be noted in the book is its frank and full recognition that Wealth has its advantages, and Poverty has its disadvantages. There is no quixotic attempt to overlook, as many moral and spiritual systems do, the perfectly obvious facts of life. The extravagance and exaggeration which led St. Francis to choose Poverty as his bride find no more sanction in this Ancient Wisdom than in the sound teaching of our Lord and His Apostles. The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, [Proverbs 10:15,, Proverbs 18:11] we are told, and as a high wall in his own imagination, while the destruction of the poor is their poverty. The rich man can ransom himself from death if by chance he has fallen into difficulties, though this benefit is to Some extent counterbalanced by the reflection that the poor escape the threats of such dangers, as no bandit would care to attack a man with an empty purse and a threadbare cloak. [Proverbs 13:8] The rich man gains many advantages through his power of making gifts; it brings him before great men, [Proverbs 18:16] "it procures him universal friendship, such as it is, [Proverbs 19:6,, Proverbs 14:20] it enables him to pacify the anger of an adversary, [Proverbs 21:14] for indeed a gift is as a precious stone in the eyes of him that hath it, whithersoever it turneth it prospereth. Not only does wealth make many friends, "it also secures positions of influence and authority, over those who are poorer, enabling a man to sit in Parliament or to gain the governorship of a colony. [Proverbs 22:17] It gives even the somewhat questionable advantage of being able to treat others with brusqueness and hauteur.

On the other hand, the poor man has to use entreaties. [Proverbs 18:23] His poverty separates him from his neighbors, and even incurs his neighbors’ hatred. [Proverbs 14:20,, Proverbs 19:4] Nay, worse than this, his friends go far from him, his very brethren hate him, if he calls after them they quickly get out of his reach; while the necessity of borrowing from wealthier men keeps him in a position of continual bondage. [Proverbs 22:7] Indeed, nothing can compensate for being without the necessaries of life: "Better is he that is lightly esteemed, and is his own servant, than he that honoreth himself, and lacketh bread."

Since then Poverty is a legitimate subject of dread, there are urgent exhortations to diligence and thrift, quite in accordance with the excellent apostolic maxim that if a man will not work he shall not eat; while there are forcible statements of the things which tend to poverty, and of the courses which result in comfort and wealth. Thus it is pointed out how slack and listless labor leads to poverty, while industry leads to wealth. [Proverbs 10:4] We are reminded that the obstinate refusal to be corrected is a fruitful source of poverty, [Proverbs 13:18] while the humble and pious mind is rewarded with riches as well as with honor and life. [Proverbs 22:4] In the house of the wise man are found treasures as well as all needful supplies. [Proverbs 21:20] Drunkenness and gluttony lead to poverty, and drowsiness clothes a man with rags. [Proverbs 23:21] And there is a beautiful injunction to engage in an agricultural life, which is the only perennial source of wealth, the only secure foundation of a people’s prosperity. As if we were back in patriarchal times, we are thus admonished in the later proverbs of Solomon:- [Proverbs 27:23-27]

"Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, And look well to thy herds; For riches are not forever; And doth the crown endure unto all generations? The hay is carried, and the tender grass showeth itself, And the herbs of the mountains are gathered in. The lambs are for thy clothing, And the goats are the price of the field: And there will be goat’s milk enough for thy food, for the food of thy household; And maintenance for thy maidens."

II. But now, making all allowance for the advantages of wealth, we have to notice some of its serious drawbacks. To begin with, it is always insecure. If a man places any dependence upon it, it will fail him; only in his imagination is it a sure defense. [Proverbs 11:28] "Wilt thou set thine eyes upon it? it is gone. For riches certainly make themselves wings, like an eagle that flieth toward heaven." {Proverbs 23:5 margin}

But further if the wealth has been obtained in any other way than by honest labor it is useless, at any rate for the owner, and indeed worse than useless for him.

As the text says, treasures of wickedness profit nothing. In the revenues of the wicked is trouble. Got in light and fallacious ways, the money dwindles; only when gathered by labor does it really increase. [Proverbs 13:11] When it is obtained by falsehood-by the tricks and misrepresentations of trade, for example-it may be likened to a vapor driven to and fro-nay, rather to a mephitic vapor, a deadly exhalation, the snares of death. Worst of all is it to obtain wealth by oppression of the poor; one who does so shall as surely come to want as he who gives money to those who do not need it. [Proverbs 22:16] In fact, our book contains the striking thought that ill-earned wealth is never gathered for the benefit of the possessor, but only for the benefit of the righteous, and must be useless until it gets into hands which will use it benevolently. [Proverbs 13:22,, Proverbs 28:8]

And while there are these serious drawbacks to material possessions, we are further called upon to notice that there is wealth of another kind, wealth consisting in moral or spiritual qualities, compared with which wealth, as it is usually understood, is quite paltry and unsatisfying. When the intrinsic defects of silver and gold have been frankly stated, this earthly treasure is set, as a whole, in comparison with another kind of treasure, and is observed to become pale and dim. Thus "riches profit not in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivereth from death." [Proverbs 11:4] Indeed it is only the blessing of the Lord which brings riches without drawbacks. [Proverbs 10:22] In the house of the righteous is much treasure. [Proverbs 15:6] Better is a little with righteousness than great treasure without right. [Proverbs 16:8] In the light of these moral considerations the relative positions of the rich and the poor are reversed; it is better to be an honest poor man than a perverse rich man; the little grain of integrity in the heart and life outweighs all the balance at the bank.

A little wisdom, a little sound understanding, or a little wholesome knowledge is more precious than wealth. How much better is it to get wisdom than gold. Yea, to get understanding is rather to be chosen than silver. [Proverbs 16:16] There may be gold and abundance of rubies, but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel. [Proverbs 20:15]

Nay, there are some things apparently very filling which will so depreciate material wealth that if a choice is to be made it is well to let the wealth go and to purchase immunity from these trivial troubles. Better is a little with the 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. [Proverbs 15:16-17] Better is a dry morsel and quietness therewith than a house full of feasting with strife. [Proverbs 17:1] Yes, the good will and affectionate regard of our fellow-men are on the whole far more valuable than a large revenue. A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold. Indeed, when the relations of the rich and the poor are brought up into God’s presence our whole conception of the matter is liable to change; we observe the rich and the poor meet together, and the Lord the maker of them all; [Proverbs 22:2] we observe that any slur cast on the poor or any oppression of them is practically a reproach against the Maker, [Proverbs 14:31,, Proverbs 17:5] whilst any act of pity or tenderness to the needy is in effect a service rendered to God; and more and more we get to feel that notwithstanding the rich man’s good opinion of himself he presents rather a sorry spectacle in the presence of the wise, even though the wise may be exceedingly poor.

Taking into account therefore the intrinsic insecurity of wealth, and the terrible flaws in the title which may result from questionable ways of obtaining it, and estimating at a right value the other things which are not usually reckoned as wealth, -goodness, piety, wisdom, knowledge, and love, -we can quite understand that enlightened men might be too busy in life to make money, too occupied with grave purposes and engrossed with noble objects of pursuit to admit the perturbations of mammon into their souls. Making all allowance for the unquestionable advantages of being rich, and the serious inconveniences of being poor, we may yet see reasons for not greatly desiring wealth, nor greatly dreading poverty.

III. But now we come to the positive counsels which our Teacher would give on the strength of these considerations about money and its acquisition. And first of all we are solemnly cautioned against the fever of money-getting, the passion to get rich, a passion which has the most demoralizing effect on its victims, and is indeed an indication of a more or less perverted character. The good man cannot be possessed by it, and if he could he would soon become bad.

These grave warnings of Wisdom are specially needed at the present time in England and America, when the undisguised and the unrestrained pursuit of riches has become more and more recognized as the legitimate end of life, so that few people feel any shame in admitting that this is their aim; and the clear unimpassioned statements of the result, which always follows on the unhallowed passion, receive daily confirmation from the occasional revelations of our domestic, our commercial, and our criminal life. He that is greedy of gain, we are told, troubleth his own house. [Proverbs 15:27] An inheritance may be gotten hastily at the beginning, but the end thereof shall not be blessed. [Proverbs 20:21] A faithful man shall abound with blessings, but he that maketh haste to be rich (and consequently cannot by any possibility be faithful) shall not be unpunished. [Proverbs 28:20] He that hath an evil eye hasteth after riches, and knoweth not that want shall come upon him. [Proverbs 28:22] "Weary not thyself," therefore, it is said, "to be rich"; which, though it may be the dictate of thine own wisdom, [Proverbs 23:4] is really unmixed folly, burdened with a load of calamity for the unfortunate seeker, for his house, and for all those who are in any way dependent upon him.

Again, while we are cautioned not to aim constantly at the increase of our possessions, we are counseled to exercise a generous liberality in the disposal of such things as are ours. Curiously enough, niggardliness in giving is associated with slothfulness in labor, while it is implied that the wish to help others is a constant motive for due diligence in the business of life. "There is that coveteth greedily all the day long, but the righteous giveth and withholdeth not." [Proverbs 21:26] The law of nature, -the law of life, -is to give out and not merely to receive, and in fulfilling that law we receive unexpected blessings: "There is that scattereth and increaseth yet more, and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, and it tendeth only to want. The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself." [Proverbs 11:24-25] "He that giveth to the poor shall not lack; but he that hideth his eyes shall have many a curse." [Proverbs 28:27] "He that hath pity on the poor lendeth unto the Lord, and his good deed will He pay him again." [Proverbs 19:17] "He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth of his bread to the poor." [Proverbs 22:9]

Such a wholesome shunning of the thirst for wealth, and such a generous spirit in aiding others, naturally suggest to the wise man a daily prayer, a request that he may avoid the dangerous extremes, and walk in the happy mean of worldly possessions: "Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me; lest I be full and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor and steal, and use profanely the name of my God." [Proverbs 30:8-9] It is a request not easy to make with perfect sincerity; there are not many who, like Emerson’s grandfather, venture to pray that neither they nor their descendants may ever be rich; while there have been not a few who in a "show of wisdom in will-worship and humility and severity to the body" have sought for an unnecessary and an unwholesome poverty. But it is a wise request; it finds an echo in the prayer which our Lord taught His disciples, and constantly appears inwoven in the apostolic teaching. And if the individual is to desire such things for himself, he must naturally desire that such may be the lot of his fellow-creatures, and he must make it the aim of his efforts after social reform to indefinitely increase the number of those who occupy this happy middle position, and have neither riches nor poverty.

And now we have followed the lines of teaching contained in this book on the subject of wealth, and it is impossible to miss the wisdom, the moderation, the inspiration of such counsels. We cannot fail to see that if these principles were recognized universally, and very generally practiced; if they were ingrained in the constitution of our children, so as to become the instinctive motives and guides of action; the serious social troubles which arise from the unsatisfactory distribution of wealth would rapidly disappear. Happy would that society be in which all men were aiming, not at riches, but merely at a modest competency, dreading the one extreme as much as the other; in which the production of wealth was constantly moderated and controlled by the conviction that wealth gotten by vanity is as the snares of death; in which all who had become the owners of wealth were ready to give and glad to distribute, counting a wise benevolence, which in giving to the needy really lends to the Lord, the best investment in the world.

If these neglected principles are hitherto very faintly recognized, we must recollect that they have never been seriously preached. Although they were theoretically taught, and practically lived out, in the words and the life of Jesus Christ, they have never been fully incorporated into Christianity. The mediaeval Church fell into the perilous doctrines of the Ebionites, and glorified poverty in theory while in practice it became an engine of unparalleled rapacity. Protestantism has generally been too much occupied with the great principle of Justification by Faith to pay much attention to such a writing as the Epistle of St. James, which Luther described as "a letter of straw"; and thus, while we all believe that we are saved by faith in Christ Jesus, it seldom occurs to us that such a faith must include the most exact and literal obedience to His teachings. Christian men unblushingly serve Mammon, and yet hope that they are serving God too, because they believe on Him whom God sent-though He whom God sent expressly declared that the two services could not be combined. Christian men make it the effort of a lifetime to become rich, although Christ declared that it was easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; and when they hear that Christ required an intending follower to sell all that he had and give to the poor, they explain it away, and maintain that He does not require such a sacrifice from them, but simply asks them to believe in the Atonement.

In this way Christians have made their religion incredible, and even ridiculous, to many of the most earnest spirits of our time. When Christ is made unto them Wisdom as well as Redemption, they will see that the principles of Wisdom which concern wealth are obligatory upon them, just because they profess to believe in Christ.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Proverbs 10:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/proverbs-10.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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