Faith seeking understanding

Does Proverbs promise material prosperity

Are the riches of the world a sign of God's favour or a dangerous distraction from a life of faithful service to God and His people? Lindsay Wilson examines the Book of Proverbs and finds where it says real wealth lies.

By Lindsay Wilson

 

It seems reasonable to expect that being a follower of Jesus in the world he owns and runs ought to lead to a flourishing life in community and as individual human beings. The Bible, after all, does try to shape our understanding of the “good life”. But does that mean that every individual Christian can expect to prosper materially in this life? In many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as in many Western churches, preachers have sought to promote what has been called “the Prosperity Gospel”. Its essence is that God will reward you financially if you give generously to Christian work, usually the ministry of the prosperity preacher. Prosperity gospel preaching has caused cruel damage to Christians in the majority world and has destroyed churches.

Does the Book of Proverbs give any biblical support to the idea of prosperity theology? At first glance it might seem to be a promising source. In Proverbs 3:9-10, honouring the Lord with your wealth leads to your barns being filled to overflowing and your vats brimming over with wine. In modern terms, that means a healthy investment portfolio, frequent overseas holidays (post-COVID, of course) and full enjoyment of all the activities we were not allowed to do during lockdown. One Proverbs scholar, Knut Heim, has argued that Proverbs 3:9-10 has been “a mainstay of ‘prosperity gospel’-type preaching for many decades”.

But does this stand up to closer scrutiny? I think not, and for four reasons.

Context

It is not a good reading of Proverbs 3:9–10 in the context of Proverbs 3. Prosperity preachers tend to focus on the outcome (your barns will be filled with plenty), but the real thrust of the verses is about honouring the Lord with your wealth. Heim calls this the gospel to the rich. In the unit of 3:1-12, the even-numbered verses announce that those who are shaped by wisdom will receive a long and peace-filled life, favour and success in the sight of both God and others, a straight path through life, physical health and healing, and abundant material prosperity. Yet all this cannot be independent of trusting in the Lord (v.5), fearing the Lord (v.7) and honouring the Lord (v.9). There is no guarantee of abundant wealth in verses 9–10, any more than there is a promise of long life and peace in verse 2. In fact, verses 1–10 are also followed immediately by verses 11–12, which describe the Lord disciplining not rewarding his people. We must not read Proverbs 3 against the grain of the text. The wider context of chapters 1-9 also reminds us of three core truths for understanding any proverb: build on the foundation of treating God as God (the fear of the Lord), letting God shape our character, and following the pathway of wisdom not folly. The truths in chapter 3 are a celebration of what flows from fearing the Lord and following Lady Wisdom in chapter 1, and the changed character outlined in chapter 2.

Not a promise

Proverbs are not intended to be promises, and any proverb needs to be held in balance with other proverbs on the same topic. Proverbs convey a partial truth – they are part of how the world runs, but not the whole picture. This is why we have conflicting proverbs. In Australia, we know that “many hands make light work”, but “too many cooks spoil the broth”. We understand that “out of sight, out of mind” rings true to life, but at different times “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. Verbs are meant to apply in some circumstances only, not in every situation. That is why, in successive verses in Proverbs, we are told to answer a fool according to their folly, but also not to answer a fool according to their folly (26:4-5). The balance of the book is set out by Agur in 30:8b-9:

Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’

Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.

The appropriate response to gaining wealth, according to Proverbs, is not the accumulation of further riches, but rather generosity to those in need (e.g., 22:9, the generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor).

Other things more important

Proverbs itself indicates that there are other things much more important to human flourishing than wealth, and these are more valuable than “mere money”. Chief amongst these is the importance of godly character, which is characterised by self-control rather than greed. Some obvious examples will suffice: wisdom is of greater worth than wealth (8:10–11, 19), as are wholesome relationships (17:1); godly character (“a good name”, 22:1; “walking with integrity”, 28:6), righteousness (11:4) and honour (11:16). Furthermore, the way we use wealth must be consistent with a godly character. When it comes to money, that will involve not being greedy, or having as our goal in life to make as much money as possible (i.e., worshipping it). It will lead us to think in community terms and so be committed to justice and righteousness (14:31; 19:17; 22:22–23; 31:20). One clear goal of “the good life” is the virtue of contentment (15:16–17: better a little with fear of Lord then great wealth with turmoil. Better a small serving of vegetables with love then a fattened calf with hatred; 16:8 better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice). The secret is letting money be just money, and being content with that. The depiction of character in Proverbs would involve not wanting to give wealth too prominent a place in one’s desires, so that truly honouring God would entail keeping your life free from the love of money. The book of Proverbs ends with a terrific picture of the generous life in 31:10-31. The Proverbs 31 woman grounds her life in God, grows in character, chooses what is right rather than what is enticing. She uses wealth to care for others rather than for self-indulgence.

Whole of the Bible

Any part of the Bible needs to be read in the context of the whole Bible, and the New Testament makes it clear that contentment rather than great wealth is the key to human flourishing. We could think here of Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the parables of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) or in the Sermon on the Mount (e.g., Matt 6:19-34). Of course, Paul chimes in with his reminder in 1 Timothy 6:6 that godliness with contentment is great gain and greed is idolatry in Colossians 3:5.

Yet, “Prosperity Gospel” preachers have got one thing right. Those who follow God will flourish as human beings. However, human flourishing is always much more than a healthy bank balance, since it depends on godly character, trust in God, and choosing to live his way in his world. We can flourish in both times of prosperity and adversity.

The Revd Dr Lindsay Wilson lectures in Old Testament at Ridley College and is the author of the Tyndale commentary on Proverbs.

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