« Prev XXII. The Treatment of the Poor. Next »




"The rich and the needy meet together; the Lord is the maker of them all."—Prov. xxii. 2.

"He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed, for he giveth of his bread to the poor."—Prov. xxii. 9.

"He that oppresseth the poor, it is for his increase; he that giveth to the rich, it is for want."—Prov. xxii. 16.

"Rob not the poor because he is poor, neither oppress the humble in the gate, for the Lord will plead their cause and despoil of life those that despoil them."—Prov. xxii. 22, 23.

If we would understand and lay to heart the very striking lessons of this book on the treatment of the poor, it will be well for us to observe that there are four words in the Hebrew original which are rendered by our English words "poor" or "needy." These words we will try to discriminate and to use with more exactness in the present lecture, that we may not miss any of the teaching by the blur and obscurity of careless language. First, there is a word (דָל) for which we will reserve our English word "poor"; it signifies a person who is weak and uninfluential, but not necessarily destitute or even in want. The "poor" are those who form the vast majority of every society, and are sometimes described by the word "masses." Secondly, there is a word (רָשׁ) which may be rendered "needy." It covers289 those who are in actual want, people who through bereavement, or infirmity, or unavoidable calamity are unable to secure a sufficiency of the necessaries of life. Thirdly, there is a word (עָנִי) which we may perhaps render by "humble," for though it more literally describes the afflicted and sad, it contains within it a hint of moral commendation which suggests a transition from the idea of simple weakness and helplessness to that of patient and humble dependence on God. Lastly, there is a word (אֶכְיוֹן) which we will render "destitute." If we keep these notions—"poor," "needy," "humble," "destitute"—distinct, and yet combined, to form one conception, we shall find that the proverbs before us refer to that large section of mankind who are in a worldly and material sense considered the least fortunate; those to whom it is a lifelong effort merely to live; those who have no margin of security on which to fall back in case of disaster or sickness; those who are engaged in precarious employments or in casual labour; those who may keep their heads above water by diligence and unremitting exertions, but may at any time go under; those who owing to this constant pressure of the elementary needs have but little leisure to cultivate their faculties, and little opportunity to maintain their rights. We are to think of the large class of persons who in more primitive times are slaves, who in feudal times are serfs, who in modern times are called the proletariate; those in whose interest the laws of society have not hitherto been framed, because they have not until quite recently been admitted to any substantial share in the work of legislation; those who have always found it peculiarly difficult to secure290 justice, because justice is a costly commodity, and they have no means to spare, since "the destruction of the poor is precisely their poverty."555555   Prov. x. 15. We are not to think of the idle and the vicious, who are so often classed with the poor, because they, like the poor, are without means,—we must rigorously exclude these, for they are not in the mind of the writer when he gives us these golden precepts. We must remember that it is part of our peculiar English system, the result of our boasted Poor Law, to discredit the very word poverty, by refusing to discriminate between the poor in the scriptural sense, who are honourable and even noble, and the pauper in the modern sense, who is almost always the scum of a corrupt social order, in four cases out of five a drunkard, and in the fifth case the product of some one else's moral failings. It requires quite an effort for us to see and realize what the Scriptures mean by the poor. We have to slip away from all the wretched associations of the Poor House, the Poor Law, and the Guardians. We have to bring before our minds a class which in a wholesome state of society would be a small, numerable minority, but in our own unwholesome state of society are a large and well-nigh innumerable majority,—not only the destitute and the actually needy, but all the people who have no land on which to live, no house which they can call their own, no reserve fund, no possibility of a reserve fund, against the unavoidable calamities and chances of life, the people who are trodden down—who tread each other down—in the race of competition; all those, too, who, according to291 the godless dogma of the day, must go to the wall because they are weak, and must give up the idea of surviving because only the fittest must expect to survive. There rise up before our imagination the toiling millions of Europe—of England—worn, pale, despondent, apathetic, and resigned; or bitter, desperate, and resentful; not destitute, though they include the destitute; not needy, though they include the needy; but poor, without strength except in combination, and often when combined without light or leading.

I. Now the first thing we have to observe is that the poor, in the sense we have tried to define, are a special concern to the Lord. "Rob not the poor," says the text, "because he is poor, neither oppress the humble in the gate, for the Lord will plead their cause, and despoil of life those that despoil them." "Remove not the ancient landmark, and enter not into the fields of the fatherless; for their Redeemer is strong, He shall plead their cause against thee."556556   Prov. xxiii. 10, 11. "The Lord will establish the border of the widow."557557   Prov. xv. 25. So intimate is the connection between the Lord and His poor creatures that "he that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker, but he that hath mercy on the destitute honoureth Him."558558   Prov. xiv. 31. "Whoso mocketh the needy reproacheth his Maker, and he that is glad at calamity shall not be unpunished."559559   Prov. xvii. 5. On the other hand, "He that hath pity on the poor lendeth unto the Lord, and his good deed will He pay him again."560560   Prov. xix. 17.

Not, of course, that there is any favouritism with292 God, not that He has an interest in a man because of his means or lack of means; but just because of His large and comprehensive impartiality. "The needy man and the oppressor meet together; the Lord lighteneth the eyes of them both."561561   Prov. xix. 13. "The rich and the needy meet together, the Lord is the Maker of them all."562562   Prov. xxii. 2. His special interest in the poor arises only from their special need, from the mute cry which goes up to Him, from the appeal to Him as their only friend, deliverer, and protector: just as His lesser interest in the rich arises from their self-satisfied independence of Him, from their infatuated trust in themselves, and from their conviction that already all things belong to them. We should make a mistake if we supposed that the Lord recognises any class distinctions, or that He valued a man because he is poor, just as we value a man because he is rich. The truth rather is that He absolutely ignores the class distinctions, regarding the mingled mass of human beings, rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, as on a plane of dead equality, and then distinguishing between them on a totally different principle,—on a moral, a spiritual principle; and, if there is any preference, it is on the ground of certain valuable moral effects which poverty sometimes produces that He takes the poor into His peculiar and tender care, honouring them with so close a friendship that service to them becomes service to Him.

This is certainly good news to the masses. "You are undistinguished, and unobserved,"—the voice of wisdom seems to say,—"In this world, with its false293 distinctions and perverted ideals, you feel at a constant disadvantage. You dare hardly claim the rights of your manhood and your womanhood. This great personage, possessing half a city, drawing as much unearned money every day as you can earn by unremitting toil in fifteen or twenty years, seems to overshadow and to dwarf you. And there are these multitudes of easy, comfortable, resplendent persons who live in large mansions and dress in costly garments, while you and your family live in a couple of precarious rooms at a weekly rental, and find it all you can do to get clean and decent clothes for your backs. These moneyed people are held in much estimation; you, so far as you know, are held in none. Their doings—births, marriages, deaths—create quite a stir in the world; you slip into the world, through it, and out of it, without attracting any attention. But be assured things wear a different appearance from the standpoint of God. Realize how you and your fellow-men appear to Him, and you at once recover self-respect, and hold up your head in His presence as a man. That simple truth which the Ayrshire peasant sang563563    "What though on hamely fare we dine, Wear hoddin-grey, and a' that; Gie fools their silks and knaves their wine, A man's a man for a' that. For a' that and a' that, Their tinsel show and a' that, The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, Is king o' men for a' that." you may take as God's truth, as His revelation; it is the way in which He habitually thinks of you."

How the scales seem to fall away from one's eyes294 directly we are enabled to see men and things as God sees them! The sacred worth of humanity shines far brighter than any of its tinsel trappings. We learn to estimate ourselves aright, undisturbed and unabashed by the false estimates which are current in the world. Our true distinction is that we are men, that we belong to a race which was made in the image of God, was dear to His heart, and is redeemed by His love. The equality we claim for men is not a levelling down—it is quite the reverse; it is raising them up to the higher level which they have deserted and forgotten; it is teaching them to live as men, distinguished not by their accidental circumstances or possessions, but by their manhood itself. It is giving men self-respect instead of self-esteem, teaching them not to vaunt themselves as one against another, but to claim their high and honourable title, one and all, as the sons of God.

II. But now it follows that, if the Lord Himself espouses the cause of the poor, and even identifies Himself with them, ill-treatment of them, injustice to them, or even a wilful neglect of them and disregard of their interests, must be a sin, and a very terrible sin. "He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth; but he that hath pity on the humble, happy is he."564564   Prov. xiv. 21.

In the East to this day the proverb, "He that withholdeth corn, the people shall curse him; but blessing shall be upon the head of him that selleth it,"565565   Prov. xi. 26. The following description of Persia, in the Missionary Review of the World, October, 1889, p. 782, aptly illustrates the practices against which the text inveighs:—"The sole end for which the Persian Government exists is the collection of the revenue, the fleecing of the people. Large portions of the land, confiscated from time to time, belong to the Sovereign, and are farmed out on terms well-nigh ruinous to the tenant. Even where property belongs to the subject, it is taxed to the last degree as a starting-point, while the successions of sub-rulers and collectors make still further drains upon the moiety that must save the labourer's family from absolute want. The whole burden of taxation thus comes really upon the labouring class. Added to this extortion is the constant uncertainty as to whether the planter will be permitted to reap his crop at all. Downright robbery of fields or households by the retainers of petty chiefs is of frequent occurrence, and the poor are liable any day to be deprived of their very last resource. Agriculture and other industries so discouraged and paralysed barely sustain the lives of the people at the best, and when drought is added thousands must perish." In times of scarcity, "The king sets the example—locks up his granaries, and withholds every kernel of wheat except at famine prices. Every nabob and landowner who has a stock on hand follows this example. Rapacity and cupidity rule; money is coined out of the sufferings of the poor." has its295 full significance. But even in the West, where the name of Christ is borne by the nations, it is a common thing for one or two greedy and selfish capitalists to form a "corner"—as the commercial slang of the day denominates it—in some article of industry, i.e., to secure all the raw material in the market, and to hold it until a famine price can be demanded. Meanwhile, the mills are idle, the looms are silent, the workpeople are unemployed, and their families suffer. Our moral sense is not yet sufficiently cultivated to condemn this hideous selfishness as severely as it deserves, and to regard the perpetrators of it as enemies of the human race. "The people curse" them, that is all. But as we have seen that the cause of the wage-earners is the cause of the Lord, we may rest quite confident that He to whom vengeance belongs enters every action of the kind in His unerasable accounts, and reserves the inevitable punishment for these "oppressors of the poor."


There is another evil of modern industrial life which is alluded to in the Proverbs before us. No oppression of the poor is more terrible than that which is exercised by those who themselves are needy. The system which results from necessity of this kind is termed "sweating." The hungry contractor undertakes the job at the lowest possible price, and secures his profit by getting hungrier and weaker creatures than himself to do the work at a price lower than possible, literally at starvation wages. What force, then, to modern ears is there in the saying, "A needy man that oppresseth the poor is like a sweeping rain which leaveth no food"!566566   Prov. xxviii. 3. Oddly enough the commentators, who seem never to have heard of "sweating," propose to read for רָשׁ, either עָשִׁיר = rich, or רשׁ = רֹאש = head, for the head of the State; an example of conjectural emendation which may well make us cautious of the mere scholar's method of treating the sacred text.
    "The cruellest landlords, receiving 10, 20, and 30 per cent. from detestable habitations (in London), are nearly connected by birth and circumstance to those they oppress" (Lecture delivered at Essex Hall, November 18th, 1889, by Thomas Locke Worthington).

The Divine oversight of these industrial abuses is not, as we sometimes suppose, pretermitted. Wisdom and Justice and Love hold the reins, and though the rapacity and cupidity of men seem to have a wide range, they are inevitably pulled up in the end, if not in this partial and transient life, yet in that long Eternity through which the Eternal will work out His purposes. As He Himself sides with the poor and pities them, and turns with indignation against their oppressors, it follows necessarily that "he that augments his substance by usury and increase gathereth297 it for him that pities the poor."567567   Prov. xxviii. 8. The difficult verse Proverbs xxii. 16 should find a place here, "He that oppresses the poor to increase for him, he that gives to the rich only for need," but it is impossible to accurately determine its meaning. If the rendering of the English Bible is correct, we may interpret the proverb as a statement of the folly of oppression which leads to want as inevitably as the more obvious folly of giving to the rich. But possibly Nowack is right in an interpretation which gives quite another turn to the saying, and makes it not a condemnation of the oppressor, but a suggestion of the advantage which may be gained from the oppression by the oppressed. "He who oppresses the poor—it turns to his (viz., the poor man's) gain," because it calls out all his energy and endurance, "while he who gives to the rich—it turns only to want," because it still further enervates and unfits him for the duties of life. This is not very satisfactory, and is decidedly far-fetched; but it is better than Delitzsch's suggestion, which strips the proverb of all moral significance, viz., "He that oppresses the poor, it is at any rate for his own gain; but he who gives to the rich, it is only to get want." The conclusion from this would be, that it is better to oppress the poor than to give to the rich, a sentiment quite out of harmony with the ethical teaching of the Proverbs. In a case like this we can only suppose that the saying has reached us in a mutilated form. In fact, the merciful and pitiful nature has all the forces that rule the universe on its side, notwithstanding appearances to the contrary: "The merciful man doeth good to his own soul, but he that is cruel troubleth his own flesh."568568   Prov. xi. 17.

It is the strange paradox of all selfishness that the selfish man is really quite blind to his own true interests. He most conscientiously lives for himself, and seeks his own good, but the good he sought proves to be his evil, and of all his innumerable foes he finds at last that he himself is the worst. The selfish man is always coming to want, while the unselfish man whose whole thought has been for others is richly provided for. "He that giveth unto the needy shall not lack,298 but he that hideth his eyes shall have many a curse."569569   Prov. xxviii. 27. "There is that scattereth and increaseth yet more, and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth only to want."570570   Prov. xi. 24.

"He that hideth his eyes shall have many a curse!" Yes, nothing is more striking than this truth, that not only positive oppression of the poor, but mere indifference to their state, mere neglect of their sufferings, involves us in sin. There are many who can honestly say that they have not deliberately wronged their fellow-men, and will on that ground plead innocent; but that is not enough. We are as members one of another responsible in a degree for all the injustice and cruelty which are practised in the society to which we belong. If we are drawing an income from invested money, we are responsible for the cruel exactions of excessive work, for the heartless disregard of life and limb, and for the constant under-payment of the workers which makes the dividends so princely.571571   Can the shareholders of the G. W. R., for instance, hold themselves free from responsibility in the case referred to in the following paragraph from the Journal of the People's Palace? "The Saturday Review, always trustworthy and read-worthy on subjects of law, calls attention to a case which concerns a great many. It is a case in which the decision is most unfortunate to the interests of all working men. One Membery was employed at Paddington to shunt trunks: he was taken on by a contractor, but his real employers were the G.W.R. The trucks were drawn by a horse, and the horse ought to have had a boy to hitch on or off at a moment's notice: but the contractor refused to supply boys. Membery in vain asked for one, pointing out the great dangers to which he was exposed. He complained on the very day of the accident by which he was knocked down and injured seriously. He sued the Company; he won his case with damages; the Company, being a rich body, appealed. Now, considering the vexation, the anxiety, and the expense of carrying on such a case, a Company which appeals ought in justice to have the damages doubled if it loses. The Company lost. They appealed to the Lords, still on the principle of being rich and their opponent poor. This time the Company won. The Lords have ruled that the Company did not employ Membery, and that he was not obliged to work without a boy: he might have refused to work at all. Indeed! Then, if he refused to work, what about the children at home? A more mischievous doctrine was never upheld. Why, there are thousands and thousands of men and women who work daily under ineffectual protest,—who work at trades unwholesome, for wages inefficient, and for excessive hours; yet they work because they must—because they must. Membery worked without a boy, knowing that he would some day be run over and perhaps killed, because he must: he had no choice. When all the Trade Unions are merged into one immense Trade Union, it will not be the wages alone that will be determined, but the cases of such unfortunate men as Membery." Nay, when we buy299 and use the cheap goods, which are cheap because they have been made at the cost of health and happiness and life to our brothers and our sisters, their blood is upon our heads, though we choose to forget it. For listen—"Whoso stoppeth ears at the cry of the poor," whoso tries to ignore that there is a labour question, and that the cry for increased or even regular wages, and for tolerable homes, and wholesome conditions of work, is a reality, and in form of unions, or strikes, or low wails of despair, is addressed to us all—"he shall cry and shall not be heard."572572   Prov. xxi. 13. Such is the inexorable law of God. And again: "Deliver those that are carried away unto death,"—those who are sacrificing the sweetness of life, the sap of the bones, the health of the marrow, to the ruthless exigencies of the industrial machine; "and those tottering to slaughter see thou hold back,"—not leaving them to "dree their own sad weird," helpless and unregarded. "If thou say,300 Behold we knew not this man,"—how could we make ourselves acquainted with all the toiling masses of the city by whose labour we lived and were maintained in comfort?—"Doth not He that weigheth the hearts consider it; and He that keepeth thy soul, doth not He know it, and shall not He render to every man according to his work?"573573   Prov. xxiv. 11, 12. That is to say, if we plead, "When saw we Thee ahungred, or athirst, or sick and in prison, and came not to Thee?" our Lord will say, "Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to Me." And we "shall go away" into everlasting punishment, while the righteous go into life eternal.

III. For it follows, from the whole consideration of this subject, that those who make their life a ministry to the poor obtain a blessing,—yes, the only true and permanent blessing that life is capable of yielding. "He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth of his bread to the poor."574574   Prov. xxii. 9. The very form of the saying is significant. Does it not imply: "It is obvious that to give our bread to the poor is a blessing to ourselves, so obvious that it needs only to be stated to be admitted, and therefore, as the bountiful eye, the philanthropic observation, the readiness to see suffering and to search out the sufferers, necessarily leads to this generous distribution, it must be a blessing to its possessor." Indeed, this is a true test of righteousness, as the Lord teaches in the parable just quoted. It is "the righteous that takes knowledge of the cause of the poor, while the wicked understands not to know it."575575   Prov. xxix. 7. A religion which takes no knowledge of the masses301 is a false religion; a Church and a Ministry which "understand not to know" the condition of the people and the needs of the poor are not Christ's Church and Christ's Ministry, but flagrantly apostate; and nothing is plainer than this—that from such a Church and Ministry He will accept no orthodoxy of belief or valiant defence of the creed in lieu of obedience to all His plain and unmistakable commandments.

If we look at governments, the test is practically the same. "The king that faithfully judgeth the poor, his throne shall be established for ever."576576   Prov. xxix. 14. Has William II. of Germany been considering this text? If so, it is full of promise for the prosperity of Germany and of Europe? (International Labour Conference, March 1890.) And it is because the Messianic King, alone of all sovereigns and governments, rightly and fully understands and maintains the cause of the poor, that He alone of sovereigns shall be established for ever, and of the increase of His government there shall be no end. And for the flagrant neglect of this vital question on the part of all governing persons and assemblies, that King will call to account those pompous and wordy magnates who have borne the sword in vain, considering all interests rather than those of the poor, whom they were specially appointed to judge; and of the needy, to whose succour they were peculiarly bound to run.

And what holds in the state holds in the family. The virtuous woman, and head of the household—she whom God can approve and welcome into everlasting habitations—is emphatically not she who is always striving for social aggrandisement, always seeking for her children wealthy settlements and spurious honours; but is one who "spreadeth out her hand to302 the poor, yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy."577577   Prov. xxxi. 30.

Well may we try to take God's view of this question, to understand what He means by the poor, and how He regards them, and how He expects us to treat them. For this, if it is not the secret and the centre of all true religious life, is at least the infallible test of whether our religious life is true or not. By our treatment of His poor, the Son of Man, who is to judge the world, declares that we shall be judged. "By that we shall be condemned or by that we shall be acquitted."

« Prev XXII. The Treatment of the Poor. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection