Commentary on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
The selection from Proverbs 22 bridges two major sections of the book as a whole.
Verses 1-16 conclude the “Proverbs of Solomon” begun at 10:1. Verse 17, on the other hand, commences a discrete portion of the book that continues to 24:34. These “words of the wise” (22:17) are generally acknowledged to be literarily dependent upon an Egyptian work, The Instructions of Amenemope, a document that likely originated in the New Kingdom during the so-called Ramesside era (1292-1069 BCE).
The specific aphorisms that appear in this reading have in common the theme of wealth and poverty and, specifically, how the wealthy are to regard and treat the poor.
The sense of the included verses is generally straightforward. Verse one reminds the sage’s student that one ought to choose a good reputation before wealth since good favor is of more worth than silver or gold.
Part of that good name and regard stems from a humble recognition that both the rich and the poor are creatures of the LORD (Proverbs 22:2). When they come together, whether in worship or on the street, the wealthy person has no more claim to divine favor than does his less fortunate neighbor. This observation was likely as counterintuitive for the sages’ wealthy contemporaries as it is for a modern society that has long embraced a notion that personal wealth and privilege are the consequence of divine blessing. Elsewhere in Proverbs, the sages observe that wealth is more desirable than poverty1 and that the poor frequently suffer the consequences of their own folly, especially laziness or drunkenness.2 At the end of the day, however, the wealthy for whom this book likely was composed find in verse 2 a reminder that their prosperity earned them no special status before Yahweh.
In this life, however, it is invariably true that the rich rule over the poor and that a borrower is subject to the lender (Proverbs 22:7, not included in the reading). Nevertheless, the wealthy creditor should remember that this relationship ought not to be one of abuse. Iniquity sows the seeds of its perpetrators own inevitable destruction “and the rod of anger will fail” (v. 8b).
In contrast, generous persons will find blessing “for they share their bread with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9). The sages do not specify the nature of that blessing, albeit the verse is surely misunderstood as a crude, divine investment plan whereby the giver will gain materially from acts of charity.
Of course, the person whose life the gift of bread preserves may verbally bless the one sharing his bread.3 It is more likely, however, that the proverb points to a divine blessing that stems from the LORD’s approval. The assumption is that the wealthy person’s abundance is a consequence of the LORD’s prior blessing, a blessing given precisely so that the rich might serve as a conduit of blessing to others. Such is the nature of the blessing promised to Abram (Genesis 12:1-3) as well as numerous legal passages that treat the expected conduct of those who have been materially blessed. Deuteronomy, for example, notes that “because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you,” there will be “no one in need among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4).4 Indeed, with regard to the needy, Israel was to be open-handed and ungrudging in generosity “for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake” (Deuteronomy 15:10).
Proverbs 22:22-23 circumscribe the wealthy person’s mistreatment of the poor. In words that echo the prophetic tradition,5 the wisdom authors enjoin the wealthy to act justly and, especially, not to manipulate the legal system to crush the poor. To do so sets the rich in opposition to the LORD who will act as an attorney for the poor. No one less than the LORD will rob the robbers of their spoil (v. 23).
If the teachings of the aphorisms are plain, the interpretive application is not. Much depends on one’s understanding of the social location and attitude of the sages.
In a seminal 1987 study, J. David Pleins argues that the values and interests of the wisdom writers aligned with those of the urban elite whom they served. Pleins concludes that the sages discussed poverty for its heuristic value in helping students grasp the proper attitude toward wisdom, an attitude that they thoroughly enmeshed with their concern for “social status, class distinction, and the proper use of wealth.”6 According to Pleins, the wisdom writers of Proverbs were unaware that, “in fact, the urban population was making great gains from its exploitation of the poor — a fact which was foremost in the denunciation of the prophets.”7
In a more recent work, Timothy J. Sandoval argues that the sages used wealth as a motivational symbol “to underscore the desirability of the way of wisdom generally and the values and virtues associated with that way.”8 Sandoval describes three overlapping but distinct subdiscourses in Proverbs, including a “discourse of social justice” that exhorted readers to practice an ethic of justice in the marketplace and in the treatment of the poor.
If Pleins’ analysis is correct, this text presents the preacher with an opportunity to expose the unhealthy link between our own generally privileged attitudes about wealth and the needy on the one hand, and the actual roots of poverty on the other. For example, the blessings described for the one sharing bread (Proverbs 22:9) stand at some remove from contemporary illiberal grumbling about wages sufficient for living, so-called entitlement programs, and legal loopholes that protect extraordinarily wealthy people from helping the poor in proportion to the middle class.
If Sandoval is correct, an accent on social justice is not imposed on the text, but inherent in it.
In any case, theses proverbs tie nicely to the verses appointed for this day from James 2. Both lections resist a sloganized subversion of Paul’s teaching on justification by grace through faith. Like James, these proverbs call us to act and live justly, especially with regard to the needy among us.
1 E.g., Proverbs 10:15; 14:20.
2 Proverbs 6:6-1: 10:41; 21:5; 24:33-34.
3 R.B.Y. Scott translates, “A generous man will hear himself blessed when he gives of his own food to the needy.” See R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs. Ecclesiastes, in AB vol. 18, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), 126.
4 The more sober recognition of verse Deuteronomy 15:11 tempers this ideal: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.””
5 See, for example, Amos 2:6-8; 5:10-12, 15; Isa 10:1-2; Jer 5:28; 22:3; Ezek 22:29.
6 J. David Pleins, “Poverty in the Social World of the Wise,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 37 (1987): 72.
7 J. David Pleins, “Poverty,” 72. Pleins’ argument depends in some measure on his treatment of Proverbs 22:22-23. Pleins believes that the concern for justice in the gate/court expressed here is anomalous and that it likely originated not from the sapiential reflections on wealth and poverty that guide the rest of the book, but rather entered via the influence of the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope. See Pleins, “Poverty,” 69.
8 Timothy J. Sandoval, The Discourse of Wealth and Poverty in the Book of Proverbs, (Leiden: Brill, 2006): 68.