As I thought about what subject to cover next in our series of sermons on Proverbs, it occurred to me that having considered its teaching on sex, it would make a natural next step to move on to its teaching about money. Sex and money go together in our modern world both as things greatly desired and as the source of unending problems. We are not, to be sure, unusual in that respect and the attention given to these two subjects in Proverbs, perhaps the subjects that get more attention than any others in Proverbs, is evidence of how people struggled in respect to these matters long ago as we do today. In one summary of the teaching of Proverbs about wealth and poverty, some 84 separate verses were listed as dealing with the theme, a bit less than 10% of the total verses in the book (.092). [Longman, 573] When I began my study of Proverbs in preparation for this series, I went through and underlined proverbs having to do with different subjects, a different color of pencil devoted to each subject. Money was brown and there is a lot of brown underlining through Proverbs in my Bible!
And how true to life that is. Like sex, money matters to human life – everyone knows it does – and, like sex, it can be a source of either great blessing or terrible harm. It is a subject about which a pastor learns quite early in his ministry to take care in speaking of to individuals because, as someone has said, “the most sensitive nerve in the body is the pocket nerve.” But, as we have come to expect from Proverbs, its teaching about money is blunt, realistic, and practically helpful. The teacher here is more concerned to help than he is concerned not to offend. And wise men and women always want the truth much more than they want to defend themselves against criticism of some kind particularly with respect to money.
We begin with certain proverbs that, taken at face value, might seem to suggest that money matters more than Christians have been taught to think it does.
“A rich man’s wealth is his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.” [10:15]
This is one of those proverbs that we said at the beginning of our study of the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, it describes people as they are, not necessarily as they ought to be. This is the way rich people think about money, but poor people think about money in the same way. They imagine that money will prove the solution to most if not all of their problems. And superficially and temporarily, it may appear that they are right. Rich people don’t have some of the problems that poor people have. They can pay their bills on time without any concern about having enough in the bank account to cover the check; they can enjoy any number of pleasures that are beyond the means of most people; they needn’t worry about financial emergencies because they have the money to address problems when they arise. We may say that “money can’t buy happiness” but that is not obviously true to a great many people or there wouldn’t be so many who day dream about having more money and who often complain because they have as little of it as they do. This is the kind of practical truth that Proverbs admits and does not deny. Money makes a big difference. That’s why people love it so and want more of it than they have.
In chapter 30:8-9 we have the famous prayer of Agur:
“…give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”
When was the last time you prayed to the Lord that he not give you riches? Agur’s prayer is, as John Bunyan has Christiana say in the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress, “scarce the prayer of one of ten thousand.” That’s because money seems to make a very big difference! Rich people live more comfortably, travel more often to interesting places, eat better, dress better, drive better cars, and worry less about bills. That is the draw of money, is it not?
But Proverbs is far from denying the practical value of money.
“The worker’s appetite works for him; his hunger drives him on.” [NIV]
That’s obvious enough, isn’t it? We need money for food, clothing, and shelter. It is a necessity and so we work for it. Our entire economy is set up so that those who have more money can take advantage of many things. Mortgage interest is deductible on your tax return. You are better off if you own a home than if you rent an apartment. But it takes money to own a home. But money is useful for more than simply the necessities of life.
“The crown of the wise is their wealth…” [14:24]
“The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.” [10:22]
In other words with money the Lord enriches a good man’s life and blesses him. There is that in money that makes life happier and full of entirely proper and pure pleasures. It is not a bad thing to drink better wine or to be able to afford symphony or opera tickets or to travel God’s world and see its fascinating places, or to drink Coca Cola instead of some generic substitute. Believe me; now that I’m not drinking Coca Cola any more, I know very well what a blessing that was! And, as Agur reminds us, having money can be a defense against the temptation to steal or to covet what belongs to our neighbor. There are these good things about money and the Bible never denies this. Indeed, God often blesses his people with the stuff.
But Proverbs is also and even more emphatically determined to remind us of the limitations of money.
- Money cannot satisfy man’s deeper, eternal, and spiritual needs which are much more important to satisfy. What lots of money can buy in the final analysis are relatively unimportant things. What it cannot buy are the most critical things of human life and existence.
In Prov. 3:13-14 we read: “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.” That is, wisdom is much more valuable than money and much more important to obtain.
Similarly, in 8:10-11: “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” Think of Solomon who chose wisdom rather than wealth and was given both. He would not have been given both had he asked first for wealth!
Again, in 19:22 we read: “What is desired in a man is steadfast love, and a poor man is better than a liar.” In other words, character counts for much more than a big house, a nice car, and a healthy bank account.
People know this to some degree. Everyone knows it. At least everyone gives lip service to it. Indeed, much of the teaching of Proverbs about money is utterly uncontroversial. We know that money can’t buy happiness. We see the rich being unhappy or making fools of themselves or destroying themselves by utterly foolish choices; we see this all the time. The desire for money takes people all the time to prison or to public humiliation. Think of Bernie Madoff. But obvious as this may be, it doesn’t change behavior unless this truth is a part of a larger worldview, as it is in Proverbs, a world view that reckons with God, with God’s judgment, with the meaning of human life, and with heaven and hell.
- A second limitation of money is that you can’t take it with you.
In Prov. 23:4-5 we read this:
“Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist. When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”
That is virtually the same proverb found in a collection of Egyptian proverbs from largely the same time in the ancient world. That is proof of how obvious it is to everyone that it is not only “easy come, easy go” with money, but that you can’t take money with you.
Or consider these proverbs.
“Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.” [11:4]
“When the wicked dies his hope will perish, and the expectation of wealth perishes too.” [11:7]
“The wicked earns deceptive wages, but one who sows righteousness gets a sure reward.” [11:18]
And a proverb that makes the point particularly well: “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.” [13:22]
In other words, whatever blessings and benefits money secures, they are temporary. It is far better to concern yourself with what lasts than with what you must part with in a short while. There are two things that we read in Holy Scripture are worth buying no matter the cost: the truth (Prov. 23:23) and time (Eph. 2:16). Isn’t it interesting that neither can be bought. Which is to say a wise man, a woman who lives skillfully in this world will be one who knows not only what money can buy but equally what it cannot! And what it cannot buy is anything that has more than simply temporary importance. As the wag has it:
That money talks,
I’ll not deny,
I heard it once –
It said, “Goodbye.”
- Another limitation of money is that it exposes you to risks that poor people or people of modest means do not face.
“The ransom of a man’s life is his wealth, but a poor man hears no threat.”
In other words, poor people aren’t kidnapped. There’s no point. Perhaps you followed the story that began two weeks ago when Wilson Ramos, the catcher for the Washington Nationals, was kidnapped from in front of his home in Venezuela. They didn’t go after Ramos because they were fans of some other team (although it is the kind of thing Cubs fans would do); they went after him because as a major-leaguer they knew he had a lot of money and could pay a hefty ransom. Venezuelan big-leaguers nowadays regularly hire bodyguards to accompany them everywhere when they return to their homeland. There are many places in the world where being rich is a very dangerous condition of life.
- Another limitation of money is that it tends to surround a person with superficial friends.
“The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.” [14:20]
Elder Skrivan and I some years ago attended the funeral of a wealthy Christian man who had made a business in his later years of investing his wealth in Christian ministries of various kinds. We happened to be standing in the back of the church before the service talking to the man who ran the deceased man’s philanthropy. He surveyed the full church before him and said to us that he thought many of the people there were in attendance because they still hoped to get something from the man’s foundation. We protested; there was no reason to be so cynical. I remember Tim saying something like, “No…, they are here because they loved and admired him and want to pay their respects.” As if to prove us wrong, at that very moment a fellow came up to that man and said, “I’d like to see you after the service to talk about a proposal I have.” I hate to think that the man was correct, but I’m sure those who have money learn soon enough that it is hard to tell who your real friends are.
Take all of this together and consider what is being said. Money is hardly an unqualified blessing. It has some serious drawbacks and anyone who doesn’t face them is, in the language of Proverbs, a fool.
That is even more the case because money comes with a set of very particular temptations that, precisely because of the power of money, are hard to resist.
- The first and the worst is that money gives to people a sense of security apart from God. I would say that this is the chief attraction of money to sinners. They would never put it to themselves in this way but money makes a man comfortable in this world without God. It makes him oblivious to the deeper issues of human life. The love of money may lead to all kinds of evil, as Paul says, but this is the greatest: it inoculates a person against any sense of his or her need for God or obligation to God. It seems that the rich can live without God and have no need of God.
As we read earlier: “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city…” [10:15] In other words he thinks himself secure, in need of nothing. But, of course, that is untrue, absurdly untrue. So we read in a similar statement in 18:11: “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his imagination.” The security of a rich person is imaginary, as anyone knows who has faced some disaster: a traffic accident or a terminal disease. [Waltke, ii, 77] The world always falls back into a way of thinking in which the visible and the temporary is taken to be what is real. But, in fact, it is only in the imagination that the unbeliever can rest secure! What would Steve Jobs tell you about his money now? [Kidner, 128-129]
Imagine the wealthy figures who are known to us in western life, the captains of industry, the entertainment figures, the celebrities, the sports heroes: imagine them one by one coming up to the great white throne, but coming up alone and as they are, with none of the trappings of their wealth, none of their fans or associates, nothing to distinguish them from all the other human beings who must face the judgment of the Lord. Hugh Hefner standing there in his pajamas makes the sight only more obviously pathetic. Without his mansion, pajamas are just pajamas, ridiculous clothes to be wearing into the court where his ultimate destiny will be determined according to standards that are oblivious to one’s wealth or celebrity except as those things were used either to honor or to dishonor the Almighty.
But remember, if you are thinking none of this applies to you, poor people are as much in danger from an inordinate desire for money – that too is finding one’s home in this world and seeking our security in money – as are the rich in danger from an inordinate confidence in it.
Read Dante’s Inferno, the 7th Canto, and his description of the fate of the avaricious in hell. It is not pretty.
“Now mayst thou see, my son, how brief, how vain,
The goods committed into Fortune’s hands,
For which the human race keep such a coil!
Not all the gold that is beneath the moon,
Or ever hath been, of these toil-worn souls
Might purchase rest for one.”
- But there are other temptations that inevitably accompany wealth. We could list a number without much thought. There are a lot of sins you have been kept from committing against God and man because you can’t afford them. But we have several proverbs, for example, that link money to injustice.
“A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.” [17:8]
We are perfectly well aware of this too, aren’t we? Financial corruption may be found in every city in the world, in every economy in the world, in every society in the world. There is corruption in government and politics, there is corruption in business. We have been treated to a litany of stories about corruption in sports of late and all of it is in one way or another directly related to money and the lust for it. So much of the corruption in American politics, government, and business is directly related to money and the lust for it. Hard corruption, the kind people can get arrested for, and soft corruption, the sort that makes nowadays for a successful and long-serving American politician. People will bend or break the rules at the drop of a hat if the prospect of lots of money is set before them.
With all of this as background, we can turn then to the wisdom that Proverbs recommends to us, the skillful approach to money that brings the Lord’s blessing and reward and does no harm to the soul. Here are the chief points of a Christian philosophy of money as we find it in Proverbs.
- First, don’t make the acquisition of money your goal in life.
“Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to resist.” [23:4]
“The blessing of the Lord makes rich and he adds no sorrow with it.” [10:22]
There is only one safe way to acquire wealth and that is by the blessing of the Lord upon your hard work and faithfulness to him. I once had a young man, who seemed to be interested in the gospel, tell me that it was his goal to become a millionaire. We talked about that. His father had died young and he had asked me to conduct the funeral which I did. But he still wanted to become a millionaire. I don’t know whether he ever accumulated that first million, but I do know that his interest in the gospel didn’t last. It is a fixed law of this world that when a professing Christian begins to make money, a lot of money, the Lord either gains a fortune or loses a man. And so it is with the desire for money.
And to some degree all of us will persevere in that view of money, Proverbs’ view of money, as much less important than other things only by putting money in its place in our hearts and minds from time to time. When a seminarian offered to repay him for a train ticket Bonhoeffer had purchased for him, Bonhoeffer replied, “Money is dirt.” [Mataxas, 284] Not a bad thing for a Christian to say to himself or to others from time to time. Money is of comparative unimportance except as it may be used for godly purposes. Money is dirt! You must from time to time make it clear to yourself and others that in a society that worships money, you are an apostate. Say it once a week to yourself, or, if you must, once a day: “Money is dirt.”
Or, better still, this anecdote from Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis (242-243).
Francis and a companion were walking along the road one day and came across a sack lying in the middle of the road bulging with money. His companion advised Francis to pick it up and give the money to the poor. He refused, saying that the friar was proposing something sinful rather than righteous and didn’t reckon with the devil. After all, however that money found its way to that spot in the road, it belonged to someone else. But as they walked on the friar continued to pester Francis about how much good the money could do. So eventually Francis returned with his companion, found the money where it had been before, and commanded the friar to pick it up. But when he did a large snake jumped out of the sack and disappeared with the sack and the money. It was the devil after all.
You don’t have to take the account to be serious history to get the point. Our temptation is always to think of money as more important than it is as well as to make excuses for our wanting more of it. “These are things that the Lord wants me to have. With more money I can do this and do that good thing.” The devil knows this and tempts us accordingly. The Lord knows this too, which is why he doesn’t give very many of us lots of money. He knows very well it would ruin us.
It is with respect to money perhaps most of all that we must practice a real an outward, a purposeful, and a determined dependence upon the Lord and a willingness to remain content with whatever measure of this world’s goods he chooses to give us. This view of things will demonstrate itself in very practical ways.
- Second, take care that your use of the money the Lord gives you is made subject in every way to the demands of righteousness and the honor of God.
You can’t be grateful for a gift that God has given you which you are misusing. Proverbs has much to say about this and it is here that its teaching concerning wisdom in regard to money descends to the particulars and the details of our daily life.
- You must care more for righteousness than money when you are filling out your income tax returns. Do you realize how much the tax return depends on your honesty and your willingness to acknowledge things that the government would otherwise never know? You must care more for righteousness than money when you are crossing the border and are asked if you have anything to declare, and you must care more for righteousness than money when you make decisions about borrowing money in order to afford things you couldn’t otherwise afford.
After describing the ruin that comes to those who steal to acquire wealth, we read in 1:19: “Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.”
- It shows up in a commitment to diligence and hard work – a subject we will consider later in this series of sermons – and in a refusal to complain about one’s lack of money. I suspect most of us admit this is a sin that we commit far too frequently. We behave and whine as if the Lord has not supplied us with enough money.
- It also shows up in wise and prudent management of one’s money. For example, a wise person does not loan his hard-earned money unless he is willing to risk losing it. And if he finds himself in debt he does everything he can to get out of it as soon as possible.
“Whoever puts up security for a stranger will surely suffer harm, but he who hates striking hands in pledge is secure.” [11:15]
“My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor, have given your pledge for a stranger…then do this my son, and save yourself, for you have come into the hand of your neighbor: go, hasten, and plead urgently with your neighbor. Give your eyes no sleep and your eyelids no slumber; save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the hand of the fowler.” [6:1-5]
In other words, the right use of money requires the good sense not to throw money away on some perhaps kindly intended but really risky effort to help someone else when you don’t have enough money to lose it in the effort. People are always asking the deacons if they would loan them the money they need. The deacons always refuse. They give money, but they won’t loan money and they are absolutely right and wise not to do so because of all the problems that would then come to pass when the money is not repaid. We will see in a moment that liberality and generosity with one’s money are good things, but not undertakings that place in jeopardy one’s responsibilities by loaning money or cosigning loans when one cannot be sure that the money will be repaid. Liberality and gullibility are two very different things and wisdom knows the difference between the two.
Generally in Proverbs the wise are advised not to give loans or to secure debts with their own promise to pay. Remember, Israelites could not loan money at interest to other Israelites – at least not when a brother was in need – so we are not talking about investment here but charity. But giving someone a gift is one thing; loaning money with the expectation that the money will be repaid is quite another. Too often the unwise give loans when they cannot afford to lose the money. Like our banks did recently which was pure foolishness that hurt millions of people. It isn’t kindness to put someone in a home he cannot afford; its foolishness. In this particular case it also happened to be greed for the quick buck and indifference to the obligations of honesty and responsibility. If an otherwise wise person has allowed himself to get into such a situation, he is advised in these verses to get out of it as quickly as he can. Money is too hard won for it to be thrown away out of some foolhardy sentimentality.
May I say simply, if you are not to loan money or cosign loans when there is real risk of a failure to be repaid, then by the same principle you definitely should not try the lottery. If the Lord has given you your money and if he who is faithful in little will be faithful in much, then no Christian should give a dime to the Washington State lottery. You can’t play the lottery without hoping for easy money (that is, money you didn’t work for), without thinking it wise to throw away some of the money you have in the infinitesimally small chance of hitting the jackpot, and without in effect saying that the Lord hasn’t given you enough money the old-fashioned way so it is time for you to take matters into your own hands. The lottery is worldliness, irresponsibility, bad stewardship, greed, and foolishness all compact!
- A right view of money, a real dependence upon the Lord will also show itself in self-control: that is, not from indulging appetites, but from curbing them.
“Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.” [21:17]
- A right view of money shows up supremely in the practice of using one’s money not only responsibly, but generously, with the intention to reflect the generous heart of God and to serve God and his kingdom.
“Whoever multiplies his wealth by interest and profit gathers it for him who is generous to the poor.” [28:8]
“One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.” [11:24-25] And supremely this from 3:9-10:
“Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the first fruits of all you produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.” This is the promise of the tithe. It’s the promise of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians where he says, “the Lord loves a generous giver.” And how often has the Lord generously repaid the generous givers among his people!
The story is told of John Eliot, the missionary to the Indians in early colonial America, that, his salary being given to him in coin in those days, by the time he got home much of it would have been given away to needy folks. So the deacons one time wrapped up his pay very tightly in a sack and knotted it in hopes that his entire salary would make it home with him. Eliot visited a widow on the way and after struggling unsuccessfully to get the money unwrapped, said to her, “Sister, I think the Lord wants you to have it all!”
Well, we are never commanded to give all our money to the poor, but there ought to be evidence easy to find that we sit lightly on our money and rejoice to use it for the help of others, to be generous as the Lord has been generous to us.
I know full well that you knew already everything that I have said to you this evening. Any Christian would. But the temptation of money, our tendency to love it, is so unrelenting and so powerful, and so strengthened by the influence of American media and advertising that we need constant reminders of what money is and isn’t, what it can and cannot do, and how it is rightly and wrongly used. We all need to be reminded, from time to time, that money is a genuine threat to our souls. Here is Robert Murray McCheyne, a man who could be as solemn and direct as any preacher ever was, speaking to his congregation in Dundee in the 1830s.
“I fear there are many hearing me who now know well that they are not Christians because they do not love to give. To give largely and liberally, not grudging at all, requires a new heart; an old heart would rather part with its lifeblood than its money. Oh my friends! You better enjoy your money; make the most of it; give none of it away; enjoy it quickly, for I can tell you will be beggars throughout eternity.”
If that seems hard to you, remember the Lord’s own remarks about how it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle and about how you cannot love God and money at the same time. “Money is dirt.” Say it with me now, “Money is dirt.”