7 Lessons on Wisdom and Wealth from Proverbs

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)

WisdomThis 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)

Tremper Longman IIIWisdom 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.

This post originally appeared at Christ Church Umhlanga. I have reposted it here with a few alterations because the original was lost when major structural changes were made to that website. Most of the material is gleaned from How to Read Proverbs by Tremper Longman III.

The Epistle of James: Wisdom and Works

Martin-Luther-SketchFor whatever reason, perhaps stemming from Martin Luther calling it a ‘right strawy epistle’, James is not a book many Christians are familiar with. If you know anything about James then you have most likely heard it called the ‘Proverbs of the New Testament’. However this is not necessarily a kind comparison, since anyone who has studied Proverbs probably found the book dislocated and quite perplexing. Added to this proverbial nature, James draws dangerously close to the ‘Papist heresy’ of self-merited righteousness: justification is by works, not faith alone (2:24), much to Luther’s distaste. But cleverly tying these two issues together, Graeme Goldsworthy offers a clear way forward, in Gospel & Wisdom: James is concerned with the wisdom of old, which comes from God and shows itself in a good life; wisdom is both a gift for and expectation of the community of faith. So in this post I want to explore the idea of James as wisdom literature and how the emphasis on both wisdom and works fits with salvation by faith.

In an overview of James, Daniel Akin provides a very helpful definition of wisdom: seeing the world from God’s perspective. In order for us to become “mature and complete, lacking in nothing” we need wisdom from God (1:4-5). As Christians endure their fallen world the wise Christian recognises that suffering produces steadfast faith (1:2-3), wealth and comfort will fade (1:11), and those who remain faithful to the end will receive the crown of life (1:12). A sure faith, without doubting or double-mindedness, approaches the only wise God and petitions for wisdom not merely to persevere through trials but also to perceive the ruined creation as God does, awaiting its glorious restoration. And the community of faith are the “firstfruits” of that recreation (1:18).

Bible Black and WhiteAlong with praying for wisdom, we are also told to practice not manmade religion but the pure religion of God our Father (1:26-27), which produces the righteousness of God in our lives (1:20). Therefore our faith must be shaped by listening to God’s word, which is able to save our souls (1:21), and becoming a community of faith characterised by obedience to God’s words (1:22-25). Wise faith that comes from enacting God’s words, as well as prayerfully acquiring God’s view of wealth and poverty (1:9-11), will be impartial towards those who poor in the eyes of the world, remembering that only those who are rich in faith will receive the kingdom (2:1-7). Thus mistreatment and calloused apathy towards the impoverished and disenfranchised might reveal that our faith is dead (2:17). The lives of Abraham (2:21-24) and Rahab (2:25) demonstrate saving faith that justifies, since living faith will result in works of righteousness (2:26).

Following on from James’ contrast between God-given faith and manmade religion, he further develops this point in showing two kinds of wisdom: earthly, unspiritual wisdom (3:15-16; 2:5) and “wisdom from above” (3:17-18; 1:5). The former causes disorder and disharmony while the latter creates peace. In the context of 3:1-12, James’ most renowned passage, scrutinising our tongues, the obvious link to make is this: God’s gift of wisdom is closely tied to how people speak. The untameable tongue is destructive, harmfully effective despite its size. So, as James says earlier, we should be quick to hear and slow to speak (1:19). This is wisdom. Furthermore, living faith that is seen in wise living will be exhibited as we are peaceable, gentle, open to reason, and full of mercy (3:17). On the other hand, earthly wisdom is revealed in jealousy and one-upmanship (3:16), tongues that bless God yet curse people (3:9-10). And as James says, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

Considering the preceding chapter, we already know the answers to James’ questions in 4:1. It is worldliness, or earthly wisdom (3:16), that causes quarrels, fracturing the community of faith. So his repeated exhortation is towards humility (4:6-7). In some ways this section, specifically 4:4, presents the reader with an ultimatum: friendship with the world or God. Abraham, “who was called a friend of God,” possessed saving faith and godly fear or wisdom (2:22-23). Friendship with the world on the other hand, is evidenced by what Peter H. Davids calls the uncompromising desire to get ahead. It is proud and presumptuous (4:13-16), forgetting that all of us are nothing but a momentary mist (4:14), a wildflower beneath the scorching sun (1:10-11). Humility is a mark of biblical faith, wisdom gained from the vantage point of God’s grace towards those in the community of faith. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).

jobFinally, in 5:1, 3, 6, 9, and 12 (also see 2:12-13; 4:12) we are admonished to consider that our fleeting lives are carried out before the returning Christ, to whom all hearts are open. This signifies judgment for those who have lived as if Christ is not their impartial Lord, arrogantly presuming upon their wealth and status (5:1-6); on the other hand, it will result in vindication for the steadfast, the innocent sufferers, as in the case of Job and the Lord’s prophets (5:7-11; 1:4, 12). The latter group illustrate wisdom, similar to the farmer, in observing the “firstfruits” of restoration in their own lives and the life of the Christian community (1:18), patiently waiting for the Judge who is standing at the door (5:9). Coming full circle, wisdom is marked by prayerful faith that without doubt or double-mindedness commits all things to the Lord (5:13-18; 1:4-8). If we claim to belong to the community of faith then there must be evidence of it: godly wisdom and good works that necessarily entail saving faith.

We started with a helpful suggestion from Goldsworthy, that James deserves its comparisons with Old Testament wisdom due to the book consistently drawing the link between the good life (or godly wisdom) and the gift of faith. In closing I want to tie this point in with another made by John Calvin (in his commentary on James). Drawing comparisons between wisdom literature and the Psalms he writes: “the former was intent on forming the outward man and teaching the precepts of civil life, the latter spoke continually of the spiritual worship of God, peace of conscience, God’s mercy and gratuitous promise of salvation. But this diversity should not make us to approve of one, and to condemn the other.” James certainly emphasises “the outward man”, godly lives and wise living, but this accentuation is grounded in a biblical and saving faith.