Motivating a building project at your church? Preaching series in Nehemiah. Financial giving is dropping off? Pulpit thumping sermons from Malachi. And whatever the occasion, in and out of season, have Jeremiah 29:11 handy. Though said tongue-in-cheek, this is tragically how the Old Testament is often treated and taught, as little more than a collection of unrelated stories, poetry and laws to prop up whatever we need it to. This is no different when it comes to the book of Proverbs, which seems to promise wealth to all who are obedient to God and ply his wisdom. But in the seven short points below I hope to persuade you that it is more nuanced than that.
1. God blesses the wise with wealth (3:9-10, 15-16; 10:22)
This is an unavoidable conclusion as you read the book of Proverbs. But we must remember that the genre of wisdom employs principles that are generally true rather than unconditional promises and strict formulas. Material gain will result from wisdom, for God rewards those who honour and obey him. Furthermore, wealth can make life’s challenges easier to navigate (10:15-16). Thus wealth is both a blessing of wisdom and one that when wisely put to use greatly assists us in living. Because God orders our universe, our actions have consequences; this is positively seen when wisdom results in material blessing.
2. Foolish behaviour leads to poverty (10:4-5; 6:6-11)
This is vividly portrayed in the contrast between the hard worker and the sluggard (26:13-15). While laziness is the primary reason given for poverty in Proverbs, other follies are given: over-indulgence (21:17); oppression of the poor (22:16); even being frugal or stingy (11:24). This means that though folly or laziness might be the cause of poverty, it is not necessarily the cause (see point four). In Proverbs, God urges us to be productive not lazy. Contrast with the point above, God’s wisely ordered universe means that, generally speaking: if you are foolish and lazy, you will suffer want.
3. The wealth of fools will not last (13:11; 21:6; 22:16; 23:4-5)
Proverbs raises the tension of the wealthy wicked or rich fools and righteous sufferers (also see Psalm 73). This is an uncomfortable and confronting question that arises from a mere glance at our world. But 11:18 reads, “Evil people get rich for the moment, but the reward of the godly will last.” Money is not as precious as right living for it cannot avert judgment (11:4). Despite God blessing the wise with wealth, it cannot be your security, nor should you conclude from your wealth that you are righteous. Sinners can be wealthy while the wise suffer. The ultimate difference between those two groups of people in Proverbs is not how much they have but who they serve, which God they worship.
4. Poverty is often the result of injustice and oppression
Wisdom involves knowing when laziness is the cause of poverty as opposed to circumstances or injustice (13:23). Since God’s world isn’t mechanical and the human condition is complex, the poor person might be wiser than the wealthy (16:8). “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD made them both (22:2). Therefore, poverty is not necessarily the fruit of laziness or folly. The Bible knows many righteous and godly people who suffered greatly with persevering faith and integrity. Jesus comes to mind first. It is therefore a terribly reductionistic, not to mention far from biblical, assumption that poverty and suffering are the results of a lack of wisdom, or faith.
5. Those with money must be generous (29:7; 3:27-28)
This principle is surely not one many would need to be convinced of; while neither Old or New Testament people of God practised communism they were expected to share the wealth God had entrusted to them. There are rewards and blessings for being generous (29:14; 28:27; 11:24). This idea is picked up by Paul in 2 Corinthians 8-9. In both Old and New Testaments we must recognise that being generous in order to get something in return is not actually generosity; it is selfishness. Again, because Proverbs presents us with generally true cases: generosity is not a formula for gaining wealth. We do not seek blessings from God through generosity, rather we should seek to bless others generously, doing so wisely (6:1-5).
6. Wisdom is better than wealth (3:14-16)
Proverbs makes things relative using better-than forms (15:16, 17; 16:8, 16; 17:1; 22:1; 28:6). Repeatedly the book insists that wealth ranks far beneath godly fear of the LORD. Furthermore, Proverbs provides numerous characteristics that are more important than having wealth: peace (15:16; 17:1), loving relationships (15:17); honesty (16:8; 28:6); and a good reputation (22:1). These flow from wisdom (16:16), which is almost synonymous with reverent fear of the LORD (15:16) and godliness (16:8). So while wisdom may not necessarily bear the fruit of wealth it should shape how we live, to love others and trust God.
7. Wealth has limited value (11:4)
Wisdom enacted in right living keeps us from dangerous situations (6:34; 2:11). But wealth can be troublesome (13:8), exposing the rich to scorn (19:10) and bringing false friends (14:20). All of our points above, taken together with this final one, should warn us that it is foolish to: measure faith by wealth; to think that wisdom (and our relationship with God) is a means to wealth; and that we should pursue wealth above godliness, virtue and generosity. God has much greater things in store for us than those that can be stolen, rust and cannot last into eternity.