ohn Wesley noted long ago that, in reference to money, Christianity tends to undermine itself. In a sermon by Wesley recently featured in Christianity Today, he observed that on the one hand, Christianity causes people to be diligent and frugal and, as a result, to become rich. On the other hand, riches beget pride, love of the world, and a disposition that is destructive of Christianity. He concluded that, unless Christianity can prevent this, it cannot stand. The teaching of the book of Proverbs answers that problem. More than that, it gives believers a comprehensive view of acquiring lasting money in a way that ennobles their lives and benefits others.
Proverbs was written to protect covenant youths against easy sex and money. Its "sound bites" about money protect those who will listen from the world's philosophy. Instead of "Get the other guy before he gets you," they should store in their hearts, "Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death" (10:2). Instead of "You only go around once, so live it with gusto," they should believe, "The LORD does not let the appetite of a righteous person hunger, but what wicked people crave he thrusts aside" (10:3).
The book's aphorisms about the danger of money, its limitations, its values, and how to have enduring wealth give saints a comprehensive philosophy about wealth. These sayings enable us to be wise and righteous when we purchase a house or car, hear the cry of the truly needy, or give our offerings to the Lord.
THE DANGER AND LIMITATIONS OF MONEY
Money offers us a false god, by which I mean a false security and false significance. A god is that to which your heart clings. The ungodly cling to mammon (the Aramaic word for "riches"), not the triune God, to secure their lives and to give them social esteem (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:9). The psalmist defines the wicked as "those who trust in their wealth and in their riches they boast " (Psalm 49:6). Depraved people praise these folk for their magnificent houses in the best part of the city, but these consumers are nothing more than enlarged digestive tracks. Like fattened bulls that titillate every appetite and have eaten everything in sight, they are destined for destruction (Psalm 49:12, 18, 20). In Proverbs, unlike English, a "rich person not only has an excess of wealth, but he also finds his security and significance in his wealth." In Proverbs the emphasis is on a rich person's attitude toward money; in English the focus is on the wealth itself. The sage says, "One wise in his own eyes is a rich person, but a poor person with insight searches him out" (28:11). Proverbs 18:10-11 contrasts the secure high tower of the righteous person with the insecure high wall of "a rich person":
A strong (Heb. oz) tower is the name of the Lord; into it a righteous person runs and is protected on high (Heb. nisgab). The wealth of a rich person is his strong (Heb. oz) city, and like a high (Heb. nisgab) city wall in his imagination.
Indeed Wisdom bestows wealth as part of her good gifts to those who store up the teachings of this book faithfully (2:1): "Riches and honor are with me, enduring wealth and prosperity" (8:18). However, God's good gift of wealth may invidiously become our enemy if we prize the gift and separate ourselves from the Giver (cf. Deuteronomy 8:11-20). Even though the possession of wealth alone may be a mark of wisdom --and its possession does not libel a person as "rich" -- most people cannot handle too much of this good gift. Humble Agur, recognizing this danger, prayed:
Two things I ask from you; do not withhold [them] from me before I die. A deceitful lie keep far away from me. Poverty or riches do not give me, provide me my quota of food; lest I be sated and dissemble and say: 'Who is the LORD?' (Proverbs 30:7-8).
A recent magazine advertisement made this point well. Under a picture featuring bank wrappers around bundles of dollar bills of varying denominations the caption read: "It's put more Christians at the stake than Nero. Through history countless Christians have fallen victim to the power of money. So if you've been struggling to find the balance between finance and faith, remember this: real security is not a matter of what's in your pocket, but who's in your heart."
Wisdom's fruit is better than precious metals because money can give us a house, not a home; a table laden with food, but not fellowship around it; jewelry but not love. Hear what Proverbs has to say: "Wisdom boasts her gifts are better than money: My fruit is better than gold, even pure gold, and my yield than choice silver (8:19; cf. 3:13-15).
Americans worship unrighteous mammon. As a result they have ever larger houses but ever more broken homes; they have food on their tables but strife around them; their women have fur on their backs and diamonds on their fingers but not the love they really want. Richard Nixon said that American were financially poor in the 1930s but spiritually rich; in the 1970s they were materially rich but spiritually poor. Wisdom gives us both a house and a home, food and fellowship, adornments and adoration.
THE VALUE OF MONEY
All are aware of money's material benefits, but Proverbs is one of the few books that articulates its spiritual values as well. Indeed, poverty can be a threat to our spiritual lives as well as to our clinical lives. First, poverty may imperil our relationship with God. Recall Agur's prayer: "Give me neither poverty nor riches, lest I become poor and I steal, and so do violence to the name of my God" (30:7-9). The poor are tempted to find salvation in the lottery, which is largely at the expense of other poor people, or through insurance fraud, or by pilfering a fruit stand. Though people may excuse them of wrongdoing, they are guilty and bring reproach on God's name.
Second, poverty also alienates a person from friends:
Even by his neighbor a poor person is hated, but the friends of the rich person are many. The one who despises his neighbor is a sinner, but as for the one who shows favor to the poor/oppressed, blessed is he (14:20-21).
Verse 21 protects the fact of verse 20 from misuse. Like it or not, the beggarly poor are shunned by their neighbors, but saints should be kind to them, nevertheless.
Also, the poor have no social weight or gravitas: "The poor person speaks pleadingly, and the rich person answers rudely" (18:23). And "A rich [person] rules over poor [people], and the borrower is a slave to the lender" (22:7).
In addition to money's value in saving one from jeopardizing one's relationship with God, friends, and society through poverty, Proverbs also recognizes the benefit of money to enjoy a more abundant life. "Better to be one who is held as worthless and have a slave, than to be one who exalts himself and lacks bread"(12:9). According to this proverb, a modest way of life included having at least one indentured slave to do the hard work in the fields or the onerous household chores. In ancient Israel possession of one slave was by no means a sign of superior wealth (in fact, kidnapping a person to enslave him is a capital offense in the Mosaic Law).
God also did not allow his people unjust bankruptcy laws. A defaulting debtor or a poor person sometimes had no alternative but to enslave himself for six years, in which state his godly creditor treated him with kindness. Today instead of personal slaves we have dishwashers, dryers, and personal computers. These expensive "slaves" free us from wearisome, time-consuming labor in order to enrich our lives and others in education, social action, and community leadership. Sometimes students forget that it takes leisure to get a good theological education.
Finally, money enables us to be righteous, a point I have never seen an investment ad make. In Proverbs "righteousness" means to disadvantage yourself in order to advantage others in God's universal kingdom. Christians should invest and make money to enrich others, not to retire to a self-indulgent lifestyle. Proverbs puts it like this:
There is one who scatters and who is increased still more, and one who withholds from what is right [and comes] only to lack. A life bestowing blessing will be fattened, and as for the one who drenches, he in turn will be soaked. As for the one who withholds grain, people curse him, but blessing [is] on the head [see 10:6] of the one who sells it (11:24-26).
Paul expressed the same truth this way:
"He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need" (Ephesians 4:28).
The first time I heard that text preached led me to confess my selfish attitude toward my hard-won money. That afternoon God tested me by putting at my doorstep a destitute Christian woman with four children. Putting her back on her feet proved to be one of the most blessed experiences of my life.
HOW TO HAVE ENDURING WEALTH
Because of the lack of space, permit me simply to note briefly the means of acquiring enduring wealth:
Proverbs is not a "how to" manual through manipulative techniques. Rather, it is a "how-to" manual through character development - piety, generosity, diligence, contentment, patience, prudence. These graces produce abiding wealth. Paradoxically, righteousness both increases wealth for ourselves and others and saves us from its dangers. The Prologue to the book (chapters 1-9) calls upon Israel's youth to fear the LORD (i.e., to submit themselves humbly to the book's teaching out of awe for the One who stands behind its threats and promises). That attitude towards the teachings of Proverbs is foundational to internalizing it (1:7; 9:10). The Lord Jesus Christ as one of the Trinity revealed these truths to us, in his humanity incarnated them for us, and as the ascended Lord, administers the Holy Spirit to enable us to live them.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 3, Fall 2000