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"Treasures of wickedness profit nothing:

But righteousness delivereth from death."—Prov. x. 2.

"O'erweening statesmen have full long relied

On fleets and armies and external wealth;

But from within proceeds a Nation's health."


No moral system is complete which does not treat with clearness and force the subject of wealth. The material possessions of an individual or of a nation are in a certain sense the pre-requisites of all moral life; for until the human being has food to eat he cannot be virtuous, he cannot even live; until he has clothing he cannot be civilised; and unless he has a moderate assurance of necessaries, and a certain margin of leisure secured from the toil of life, he cannot live well, and there can be no moral development in the full sense of that term. And so with a nation: it must have a sufficient command of the means of subsistence to maintain a considerable number of people who are not engaged in productive labour, before it can make much advance in the noblest qualities of national life, progress in the arts, extension of knowledge, and spiritual cultivation. The production of wealth, therefore, if not strictly speaking a moral question itself, presses closely upon all other moral questions. Wisdom must have something136 to say about it, because, without it, Wisdom, in a material world like ours, could not exist.

Wisdom will be called upon to direct the energies which produce wealth, and to determine the feelings with which we are to regard the wealth which is produced.

Moral problems weightier still begin to emerge when the question of Distribution presents itself. Moral considerations lie at the root of this question; and Political Economy, so far as it attempts to deal with it apart from moral considerations, must always be merely a speculative, and not a practical or a fruitful science.

If Production is in a sense the presupposition of all moral and spiritual life, no less certainly correct moral conceptions—may we not even say true spiritual conditions?—are the indispensable means of determining Distribution. For a society in which every individual is striving with all his strength or cunning to procure for himself the largest possible share of the common stock, in which therefore the material possessions gravitate into the hands of the strong and the unscrupulous, while the weak and the honourable are left destitute—such a society, if it ever came into existence, would be a demoralised society. Such a demoralisation is always probable when the means of production have been rapidly and greatly improved, and when the fever of getting has overpowered the sense of righteousness and all the kindlier human feelings. Such a demoralisation is to be averted by securing attention to the abiding moral principles which must govern men's action in the matter of wealth, and by enforcing these principles with such vividness of illustration and such cogency of sanction that they shall be generally accepted and practised.

In our own day this question of the distribution of137 wealth stands in the front rank of practical questions. Religious teachers must face it, or else they must forfeit their claim to be the guides and instructors of their generation.

Socialists are grappling with this question not altogether in a religious spirit: they have stepped into a gap which Christians have left empty; they have recognised a great spiritual issue when Christians have seen nothing but a material problem of pounds, shillings, and pence, of supply and demand, of labour and capital. Where Socialism adopts the programme of Revolution, Wisdom cannot give in her adhesion; she knows too well that suffering, impatience, and despair are unsafe, although very pathetic, counsellors; she knows too well that social upheaval does not produce social reconstruction, but a weary entail of fresh upheavals; she has learnt, too, that society is organic, and cannot, like Pelops in the myth, win rejuvenescence by being cut up and cast into the cauldron, but can advance only by a quiet and continuous growth, in which each stage comes naturally and harmoniously out of the stage which preceded. But all Socialism is not revolutionary. And Wisdom cannot withhold her sympathy and her aid where Socialism takes the form of stating, and expounding, and enforcing truer conceptions concerning the distribution of wealth. It is by vigorous and earnest grappling with the moral problem that the way of advance is prepared; every sound lesson therefore in the right way of regarding wealth, and in the use of wealth, is a step in the direction of that social renovation which all earnest men at present desire.

The book of Proverbs presents some very clear and decisive teaching on this question, and it is our task138 now to view this teaching, scattered and disconnected though it be, as a whole.

I. The first thing to be noted in the book is its frank and full recognition that Wealth has its advantages, and Poverty has its disadvantages. There is no quixotic attempt to overlook, as many moral and spiritual systems do, the perfectly obvious facts of life. The extravagance and exaggeration which led St. Francis to choose Poverty as his bride find no more sanction in this Ancient Wisdom than in the sound teaching of our Lord and His Apostles. The rich man's wealth is his strong city,154154   Prov. x. 15; xviii. 11. we are told, and as an high wall in his own imagination, while the destruction of the poor is their poverty. The rich man can ransom himself from death if by chance he has fallen into difficulties, though this benefit is to some extent counterbalanced by the reflection that the poor escape the threats of such dangers, as no bandit would care to attack a man with an empty purse and a threadbare cloak.155155   Prov. xiii. 8. The rich man gains many advantages through his power of making gifts; it brings him before great men,156156   Prov. xviii. 16. it procures him universal friendship, such as it is,157157   Prov. xix. 6; xiv. 20. it enables him to pacify the anger of an adversary,158158   Prov. xxi. 14. for indeed a gift is as a precious stone in the eyes of him that hath it, whithersoever it turneth it prospereth.159159   Prov. xvii. 8. More literally: "A precious stone is the gift in the eyes of him who gets possession of it, whithersoever he turneth he deals wisely." That is to say, the man who receives the gift, whether a judge or a witness or an opponent, is as it were retained for the giver, and induced to use his best faculties in behalf of his retainer. Not only does wealth make many friends,139160160   Prov. xix. 4: "Wealth addeth many friends, but the poor—his companion separates from him." it also secures positions of influence and authority, over those who are poorer, enabling a man to sit in Parliament or to gain the governorship of a colony.161161   Prov. xxii. 17. It gives even the somewhat questionable advantage of being able to treat others with brusqueness and hauteur.162162   Prov. xviii. 23.

On the other hand, the poor man has to use entreaties.163163   Prov. xviii. 23. His poverty separates him from his neighbours, and even incurs his neighbours' hatred.164164   Prov. xiv. 20; xix. 4. Nay, worse than this, his friends go far from him, his very brethren hate him, if he calls after them they quickly get out of his reach;165165   Prov. xix. 7. The sense of the Authorised Version is here retained, but it will be seen in Lecture XII. that there is good reason for treating the third clause of the verse as a mutilated fragment of another proverb: see p. 166. while the necessity of borrowing from wealthier men keeps him in a position of continual bondage.166166   Prov. xxii. 7. Indeed, nothing can compensate for being without the necessaries of life: "Better is he that is lightly esteemed, and is his own servant, than he that honoureth himself, and lacketh bread."167167   Prov. xii. 9. This reading is obtained by following the LXX., whose translation ὁ δουλεύων ἐαυτῷ shows that they pointed וְעֹבֵד לוֹ. Cf. Eccles. x. 27: "Better is he that laboureth and aboundeth in all things than he that boasteth himself and lacketh bread."

Since then Poverty is a legitimate subject of dread, there are urgent exhortations to diligence and thrift, quite in accordance with the excellent apostolic maxim that if a man will not work he shall not eat; while there are forcible statements of the things which tend to poverty, and of the courses which result in comfort and wealth. Thus it is pointed out how slack and listless labour leads to poverty, while industry leads to wealth.140168168   Prov. x. 4. We are reminded that the obstinate refusal to be corrected is a fruitful source of poverty,169169   Prov. xiii. 18. while the humble and pious mind is rewarded with riches as well as with honour and life.170170   Prov. xxii. 4. In the house of the wise man are found treasures as well as all needful supplies.171171   Prov. xxi. 20. Drunkenness and gluttony lead to poverty, and drowsiness clothes a man with rags.172172   Prov. xxiii. 21. And there is a beautiful injunction to engage in an agricultural life, which is the only perennial source of wealth, the only secure foundation of a people's prosperity. As if we were back in patriarchal times, we are thus admonished in the later proverbs of Solomon173173   Prov. xxvii. 23-27.:—

"Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks,

And look well to thy herds;

For riches are not for ever;

And doth the crown endure unto all generations?

The hay is carried, and the tender grass showeth itself,

And the herbs of the mountains are gathered in.

The lambs are for thy clothing,

And the goats are the price of the field:

And there will be goats' milk enough for thy food, for the food of thy household;

And maintenance for thy maidens."

II. But now, making all allowance for the advantages of wealth, we have to notice some of its serious drawbacks. To begin with, it is always insecure. If a man places any dependence upon it, it will fail him; only in his imagination is it a sure defence.174174   Prov. xi. 28. "Wilt thou set thine eyes upon it? it is gone. For riches certainly make themselves wings, like an eagle that flieth toward heaven."175175   Prov. xxiii. 5 (marg.).


But, further, if the wealth has been obtained in any other way than by honest labour it is useless, at any rate for the owner, and indeed worse than useless for him.176176   Cf. the Turkish proverb: "Of riches lawfully gained the devil takes half, of riches unlawfully gained he takes the whole and the owner too."

As the text says, treasures of wickedness profit nothing. In the revenues of the wicked is trouble.177177   Prov. xv. 6, cf. xiv. 24, "A crown of the wise is their riches, but the folly of fools, (though they be rich, remains nothing but) folly." Got in light and fallacious ways, the money dwindles; only when gathered by labour does it really increase.178178   Prov. xiii. 11. When it is obtained by falsehood—by the tricks and misrepresentations of trade, for example—it may be likened to a vapour driven to and fro—nay, rather to a mephitic vapour, a deadly exhalation, the snares of death.179179   Prov. xxi. 6. It is evident from their translation ἐπὶ παγίδας θανάτου that the LXX. read מוֹקְשֵׁי־מָוֶת as in Psalm xviii. 6, and this gives a very graphic and striking sense, while the received text of the Hebrew, מְבַקְשֵׁי־מָוֶת, is hardly intelligible. Worst of all is it to obtain wealth by oppression of the poor; one who does so shall as surely come to want as he who gives money to those who do not need it.180180   Prov. xxii. 16. In fact, our book contains the striking thought that ill-earned wealth is never gathered for the benefit of the possessor, but only for the benefit of the righteous, and must be useless until it gets into hands which will use it benevolently.181181   Prov. xiii. 22; xxviii. 8.

And while there are these serious drawbacks to material possessions, we are further called upon to notice that there is wealth of another kind, wealth consisting in moral or spiritual qualities, compared with142 which wealth, as it is usually understood, is quite paltry and unsatisfying. When the intrinsic defects of silver and gold have been frankly stated, this earthy treasure is set, as a whole, in comparison with another kind of treasure, and is observed to become pale and dim. Thus "riches profit not in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivereth from death."182182   Prov. xi. 4. Indeed it is only the blessing of the Lord which brings riches without drawbacks.183183   Prov. x. 22. In the house of the righteous is much treasure.184184   Prov. xv. 6. Better is a little with righteousness than great treasure without right.185185   Prov. xvi. 8. In the light of these moral considerations the relative positions of the rich and the poor are reversed; it is better to be an honest poor man than a perverse rich man; the little grain of integrity in the heart and life outweighs all the balance at the bank.186186   Prov. xix. 1. The parallelism in this verse is not so complete as in xxviii. 6. The Peshitto reads, "than he who is perverse in his lips and is rich," but it is better to retain the text and understand: There is a poor man walking in his integrity, and everyone thinks that he is to be commiserated; but he is much better off than the fool with perverse lips, though no one thinks of commiserating this last.

A little wisdom, a little sound understanding, or a little wholesome knowledge is more precious than wealth. How much better is it to get wisdom than gold. Yea, to get understanding is rather to be chosen than silver.187187   Prov. xvi. 16. There may be gold and abundance of rubies, but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.188188   Prov. xx. 15.

Nay, there are some things apparently very trifling143 which will so depreciate material wealth that if a choice is to be made it is well to let the wealth go and to purchase immunity from these trivial troubles. Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble therewith. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.189189   Prov. xv. 16, 17. Better is a dry morsel and quietness therewith than an house full of feasting with strife.190190   Prov. xvii. 1. Yes, the good will and affectionate regard of our fellow-men are on the whole far more valuable than a large revenue. A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold.191191   Prov. xxii. 1. This proverb is inscribed in the cupola which lights the Manchester Exchange. It is a good skylight, but apparently too high up for the busy merchants on the floor of the Exchange to see without more effort than is to be expected of them. Indeed, when the relations of the rich and the poor are brought up into God's presence our whole conception of the matter is liable to change; we observe the rich and the poor meet together, and the Lord the maker of them all;192192   Prov. xxii. 2. we observe that any slur cast on the poor or any oppression of them is practically a reproach against the Maker,193193   Prov. xiv. 31; xvii. 5. whilst any act of pity or tenderness to the needy is in effect a service rendered to God; and more and more we get to feel that notwithstanding the rich man's good opinion of himself he presents rather a sorry spectacle in the presence of the wise, even though the wise may be exceedingly poor.194194   Prov. xxviii. 11. Cf. an interesting addition to xvii. 6 in the LXX.— τοῦ πιστοῦ ὅλος ὁ κόσμος τῶν χρημάτων τοῦ δὲ ἀπίστου οὐδὲ ὀβολός. The faithful man owns the whole world of possessions, the unfaithful owns not a farthing.


Taking into account therefore the intrinsic insecurity of wealth, and the terrible flaws in the title which may result from questionable ways of obtaining it, and estimating at a right value the other things which are not usually reckoned as wealth,—goodness, piety, wisdom, knowledge, and love,—we can quite understand that enlightened men might be too busy in life to make money, too occupied with grave purposes and engrossed with noble objects of pursuit to admit the perturbations of mammon into their souls.195195   It is said of Agassiz that he excused himself from engaging in a profitable lecturing tour on the ground that he had not time to make money. Making all allowance for the unquestionable advantages of being rich, and the serious inconveniences of being poor, we may yet see reasons for not greatly desiring wealth, nor greatly dreading poverty.

III. But now we come to the positive counsels which our Teacher would give on the strength of these considerations about money and its acquisition. And first of all we are solemnly cautioned against the fever of money-getting, the passion to get rich, a passion which has the most demoralising effect on its victims, and is indeed an indication of a more or less perverted character. The good man cannot be possessed by it, and if he could he would soon become bad.196196   Cf. the saying of Sirach: "Winnow not with every wind and go not into every way, for so doth the sinner that hath a double tongue." (Eccles. v. 9).

These grave warnings of Wisdom are specially needed at the present time in England and America, when the undisguised and the unrestrained pursuit of riches has become more and more recognised as the legitimate end of life, so that few people feel any shame145 in admitting that this is their aim; and the clear unimpassioned statements of the result, which always follows on the unhallowed passion, receive daily confirmation from the occasional revelations of our domestic, our commercial, and our criminal life. He that is greedy of gain, we are told, troubleth his own house.197197   Prov. xv. 27. An inheritance may be gotten hastily at the beginning, but the end thereof shall not be blessed.198198   Prov. xx. 21. A faithful man shall abound with blessings, but he that maketh haste to be rich (and consequently cannot by any possibility be faithful) shall not be unpunished.199199   Prov. xxviii. 20. He that hath an evil eye hasteth after riches, and knoweth not that want shall come upon him.200200   Prov. xxviii. 22. "Weary not thyself," therefore, it is said, "to be rich;" which, though it may be the dictate of thine own wisdom,201201   Prov. xxiii. 4. is really unmixed folly, burdened with a load of calamity for the unfortunate seeker, for his house, and for all those who are in any way dependent upon him.

Again, while we are cautioned not to aim constantly at the increase of our possessions, we are counselled to exercise a generous liberality in the disposal of such things as are ours. Curiously enough, niggardliness in giving is associated with slothfulness in labour, while it is implied that the wish to help others is a constant motive for due diligence in the business of life. "There is that coveteth greedily all the day long, but the righteous giveth and withholdeth not."202202   Prov. xxi. 26. The law of nature,—the law of life,—is to give out and not merely to receive, and in fulfilling that law we receive unexpected blessings: "There is that scattereth and increaseth yet146 more, and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, and it tendeth only to want. The liberal soul shall be made fat; and he that watereth shall be watered also himself."203203   Prov. xi. 24, 25. "He that giveth to the poor shall not lack; but he that hideth his eyes shall have many a curse."204204   Prov. xxviii. 27. "He that hath pity on the poor lendeth unto the Lord, and his good deed will He pay him again."205205   Prov. xix. 17. "He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth of his bread to the poor."206206   Prov. xxii. 9.

Such a wholesome shunning of the thirst for wealth, and such a generous spirit in aiding others, naturally suggest to the wise man a daily prayer, a request that he may avoid the dangerous extremes, and walk in the happy mean of worldly possessions: "Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me; lest I be full and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor and steal, and use profanely the name of my God."207207   Prov. xxx. 8, 9. It is a request not easy to make with perfect sincerity; there are not many who, like Emerson's grandfather, venture to pray that neither they nor their descendants may ever be rich; while there have been not a few who in a "show of wisdom in will-worship and humility and severity to the body" have sought for an unnecessary and an unwholesome poverty. But it is a wise request; it finds an echo in the prayer which our Lord taught His disciples, and constantly appears inwoven in the apostolic teaching. And if the individual is to desire such things for himself, he must naturally desire that such may be the lot of his fellow-creatures, and he147 must make it the aim of his efforts after social reform to indefinitely increase the number of those who occupy this happy middle position, and have neither riches nor poverty.

And now we have followed the lines of teaching contained in this book on the subject of wealth, and it is impossible to miss the wisdom, the moderation, the inspiration of such counsels. We cannot fail to see that if these principles were recognised universally, and very generally practised; if they were ingrained in the constitution of our children, so as to become the instinctive motives and guides of action; the serious social troubles which arise from the unsatisfactory distribution of wealth would rapidly disappear. Happy would that society be in which all men were aiming, not at riches, but merely at a modest competency, dreading the one extreme as much as the other; in which the production of wealth were constantly moderated and controlled by the conviction that wealth gotten by vanity is as the snares of death; in which all who had become the owners of wealth were ready to give and glad to distribute, counting a wise benevolence, which in giving to the needy really lends to the Lord, the best investment in the world.

If these neglected principles are hitherto very faintly recognised, we must recollect that they have never been seriously preached. Although they were theoretically taught, and practically lived out, in the words and the life of Jesus Christ, they have never been fully incorporated into Christianity. The mediæval Church fell into the perilous doctrines of the Ebionites, and glorified poverty in theory while in practice it became an engine of unparalleled rapacity. Protestantism has148 generally been too much occupied with the great principle of Justification by Faith to pay much attention to such a writing as the Epistle of St. James, which Luther described as "a letter of straw"; and thus, while we all believe that we are saved by faith in Christ Jesus, it seldom occurs to us that such a faith must include the most exact and literal obedience to His teachings. Christian men unblushingly serve Mammon, and yet hope that they are serving God too, because they believe on Him whom God sent—though He whom God sent expressly declared that the two services could not be combined. Christian men make it the effort of a lifetime to become rich, although Christ declared that it was easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; and when they hear that Christ required an intending follower to sell all that he had and give to the poor, they explain it away, and maintain that He does not require such a sacrifice from them, but simply asks them to believe in the Atonement.

In this way Christians have made their religion incredible, and even ridiculous, to many of the most earnest spirits of our time. When Christ is made unto them Wisdom as well as Redemption, they will see that the principles of Wisdom which concern wealth are obligatory upon them, just because they profess to believe in Christ.

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