“The crown of the wise is their wealth,” reads Proverbs 14:24. This seems like a strange statement. Why is wealth the epitome of wisdom? Why not contentment, humility or righteousness?
Proverbs isn’t the only biblical book to link wealth and wisdom. When Solomon asks for wisdom, as recorded in 1 Kings, God responds by giving him both wisdom and riches (3:12–13). The same association is found throughout Proverbs. The personification of Wisdom in Proverbs states, “Riches and honor are with me, enduring wealth and righteousness” (8:18). Riches are seen as part of God’s blessing—a reward for humility and fearing Him (10:22; 22:4).
Put in that context, these statements are more palpable. But other passages in Proverbs seem to say the opposite. Proverbs 23:4 warns, “Do not toil to acquire wealth.” Riches are marked as fleeting and temporary (23:4–5). There are even consequences for gaining wealth: “Whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished” (28:20). So what is the answer? Is wealth a byproduct of wisdom or a means of self-reliant, indulgent living?
A Clue Is in the Contrast
By looking at the book’s contrasting statements on wealth, we can get a better understanding of how to read Proverbs. We quickly find that contrasting statements aren’t limited to statements on wealth. For instance, Proverbs 26:4–5 states:
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Here, Proverbs shows that, in some situations, answering a fool would be a bad idea because it would only hurt the one who attempts to answer. In other instances, however, answering a fool is necessary for correction.
Contradictions like these show us that the book of Proverbs is not a list of rules. Rather, it’s a collection of principles or guidelines that need to be applied to specific situations. The writer of Proverbs doesn’t make blanket statements, even if the pithy sayings seem to suggest otherwise.
It’s All About Motive
Wealth is praised as the result of hard work or wise living. And the diligent man is often contrasted with the sluggard. While the hardworking person obtains wealth because of his willingness to work, the sluggard is destined to be poor (10:4; 12:27; compare 20:4; 21:25).
The wealthy—if they are generous—are also portrayed as a blessing. In this context, the poor are disliked and the rich are those who should be sought after (14:20). These proverbs merely reflect economic reality rather than encouraging people to dislike the poor; they show that the rich are in a position to bless. Several proverbs encourage generosity since generosity to the poor is a way of honoring God (14:21, 31). For this reason, generosity is viewed as reciprocal, with the one who blesses receiving even more blessing (11:24; 22:9).
So when is wealth bad, then? The pursuit of wealth is often called into question: Proverbs warns against wealth when it’s obtained in dubious ways. Money that’s gained quickly will dwindle (13:11). Often, it’s violent people who obtain wealth, oppressing the poor in an attempt to increase their own riches (11:16; 22:16; 28:8). However, there are consequences for this; riches gained through wickedness or dishonesty do not profit (10:2; 21:6).
Proverbs also challenges the lifestyles of the rich. Living indulgently will ultimately lead to a loss of wealth (21:17). Our security might be misplaced: “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe. A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his imagination” (18:10–11). The rich man runs the danger of becoming arrogant or “wise in his own eyes” (28:11).
What Is Preferable to Wealth?
Proverbs promotes other qualities over wealth. A good reputation, for instance, should be preferred over great riches (22:1). It is even better to be poor with integrity than to be rich but wicked (19:1; 28:6). Godliness, righteousness and contentment also prevail over wealth (15:16–17; 16:8; 17:1).
Perhaps the most balanced perspective on wealth in Proverbs comes in the sayings of Agur (30:1–33). In this passage, Agur prays that God would give him neither poverty nor riches (30:7–9). He shuns them both because he wants to maintain the proper attitude toward God. Riches might cause him to trust in himself rather than in God; if he were poor, he might resort to stealing.
In the end, both rich and poor are equal in God’s sight (22:2). Regardless of our financial status, Proverbs tells us to live wisely, work honestly and give generously.
Biblical references are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
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