The Book of Proverbs has forever been the vineyard for the ad hoc plucking of verses in support of the so-called prosperity gospel. As Kaiser claims, “Few books have been assailed more frequently for suggesting a profit, success, or materialistic motivation for right action than the book of Proverbs” (Kaiser 156) Simpson’s understanding of wealth as something larger and more inclusive than economic gain (Simpson, William C 40), though consistent with Hurowitz’s analysis of Prov 8:18 and the variety of meanings of הוֹן עָתֵק (Hurowitz 252–253), does not suffice. Through paradox and ambiguity, Proverbs unravels the subject and leads to a heavenly perspective of wealth.
Prosperity Gospel of Wealth
Proverbs 3:9-10 is the primary source of the prosperity gospel within Proverbs. As Garrett observes, this quattrain leads with an imperitave (כַּבֵּד ) followed by a motive. הוֹנֶ, according to Fox, includes the concept of all movable wealth, not limited to produce (Fox 151). Waltke confirms this in referring שָׂבָע to “plenty” as well as, in light of the parallel reference to new wine, “grain/produce”. (Waltke 248). It is clear that the passage points to specifically material gain. However, the paradox posed by Longman, in that a “giving” of one’s wealth leads to an increasing, not a diminishing, of wealth. (III 134).
Proverbs 11:18 is another verse commonly referenced in prosperity gospel teaching. At first glance, the פְעֻלַּת־שָׁקֶר is quickly interpreted as “no gain” or “deceitful work.” However, a closer look reveals, as Murphy presents, “there is a play on ’empty profits’ and ‘sure wages’ (שָׁקֶר /שֶׂכֶר ) that brings out the intended contrast…” (Murphy 83). Insinuating that the wicked themselves are decieved. Do the righteous perceive the surety of their wage? If the wicked cannot perceive true wealth, then the righteous too cannot perceive it. True wealth is therefore a reward that can be neither perceived nor pursued. Such paradoxes lead to the ultimate realization of wealth in Proverbs.
The Formula of Wealth
Proverbs 10:4-5 isa chiastic structure of ABB’A’ with the metonymy of hand, כַף־רְמִיָּה (slack hand) and יַד חָרוּצִים (hand of the diligent), forming the inner structure with antithetic parallelism emphasizing the gap between diligence and slackness. Looking beyond common sense, a comparison with the surrounding verses conveys an overall theme illustrating the consequences of virtue versus vice:
Verse 1 – Honor to Parents
Verse 2 – Deliverance from Death
Verse 3 – Substance/Food
Verse 4 – Wealth
Verse 5 – Shame
Verse 32 – Discretion
Within this long list, the sage is conveying general blessing, not a specific guarantee of each reward. In addition, interspersed within are statements clarifying the source as YHWH (see 10:3, 10:22, 10:27, 10:29). Waltke surmises, “Wealth acquired by virtue is a positive good…but not when acquired by vice” (Waltke 454). The sage does not aim to postulate a formula that determination leads to wealth. Rather, despite any virtue, the source of wealth or any of the multitude of blessing is YHWH. This too is a paradox.
Wealth in Relation to Social Justice
The theme of paradox is furthered by the concept of social justice. The sheer volume of warnings against duplicitous profit, Treier deduces that wealth is commonly amassed through illicit means (Treier 71). Prov 28:27 seems to connect “giving to the poor” with gain through the “lack of nothing.” Clifford highlights that אֵין (there is not) and רַב (many/multitude) are used in Proverbs four other times ( 5:23, 11:14; 14:4, 15:22) (Clifford 248). Interestingly, Waltke conveys that both of these statements (“there is no lack”/”abounds in curses”) are imprecise predicates (Waltke 428). Is the ambiguity intentional? The antithetic parallel of “lack” with “curse” furthers this ambiguity in the meaning of wealth.
The Benefits of Wealth
The benefits of wealth also is paradoxical. “Wealth is a ransom for a person’s life, but the poor get no threats.” (Prov 13:8) Garrett’s contention is that “wealth is thus a prison” (Garrett 136) while Waltke proposes that wealth enables a ransom while the poor have no such opportunity (Waltke 558). In fact, Waltke illustrates that the כֹּפֶר of the innocent is a “ransom” while the כֹּפֶר of the guilty is a “bribe” (Waltke 558). Through antithetic parallelism, רוּשׁ, not necessarily indicating wicked (See 13:23 and 28:27), further blurs the understanding. One cannot determine which cola is for the wicked and which for the righteous. This ambiguity leads to the idea that wealth and poverty are not necessarily correlated to one’s predicament.
Wealth as a Curse
Sufficient support is given in Proverbs that wealth may in fact not be a blessing at all. Longman identifies the clear parallel to Amenemope to Prov 23:4-5, inclusive of the bird imagery, conveying the transience of wealth. (III 424) . The construction מִֽבִּינָתְךָ֥ indicates that it is not wisdom given by YHWH, but one’s own wisdom or understanding. However, one’s own understanding is leading to what end? Waltke draws the connection through the chiastic parallel with verse 5 linkingמִֽבִּינָתְךָ֥ (your wisdom) to עֵינֶ֥יךָ (your eyes) and riches to security (Waltke 240). Therefore, “one’s own wisdom” is either to seek wealth/riches or security. In either case, Clifford exposes the imagery of כְנָפַיִם כְּנֶשֶׁר (the wings of eagle) as a parallel of Amenemope’s warning that both poverty and wealth are fleeting and out of one’s control (Clifford 210). A pursuit of wealth requires one’s eyes to be on the prize. However, this passage states the folly when one’s eyes are on wealth and security. Effort towards wealth or security is fleeting. The instruction saying אַל־תִּיגַע warns against the pursuit.
What can be drawn from an analysis of these verses? As Washington summarizes, “we have seen, then, that this sub-colleciton of proverbs adopts from Amenemope a consistent view of wealth and poverty characterized by explicit concern for the poor, condemntaion of unjust gain, and only a qualified acknowledgement of the value of wealth” (Washington 190). Contrary to the message of the prosperity gospel, there is no formula for acquiring wealth. When a paradox is cannot be solved, avoid the paradox. Perhaps this is the real message of Proverbs concerning wealth. Prov 30:7-9, Agur’s plea to “give me neither poverty nor riches” speaks to this understanding. Agur realizes the truth of wealth. In and of itself, wealth is insignificant, an uncontrollable consequence, and not to be pursued; instead one is to pursue the wisdom from the LORD.
Clifford, Richard J. Proverbs. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999. Print.
Fox, Michael V. Proverbs 1-9. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.
Hurowitz, Victor. “TWO TERMS FOR WEALTH IN PROVERBS Vili IN LIGHT OF AKKADIAN.” Vetus testamentum 50.no 2 (2000): 252–257. Print.
III, Tremper Longman. Proverbs. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2006. Print.
Kaiser, Walter C. “THE OLD TESTAMENT PROMISE OF MATERIAL BLESSINGS AND THE CONTEMPORARY BELIEVER.” Trinity Journal NS 9.No 2 Fall (1988): 151–170. Print.
Murphy, Roland. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 22, Proverbs (murphy), 384pp. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1998. Print.
Simpson, William C, Jr. “The Rabbis Speak of Wealth.” Living Pulpit 12.No 2 Ap-Je (2003): 40–41. Print.
Treier, Daniel J. Proverbs & Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, Mich: Brazos Press, 2011. Print.
Waltke, Bruce K. The Book Of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15. Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004. Print.
Washington, Harold C. Wealth and Poverty in the Instruction of Amenemope and the Hebrew Proverbs: A Comparative Case Study in the Social Location and Function of Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature. Atlanta, Ga: Society of Biblical Literature, 1994. Print.