The Application of Wisdom: Stewardship (Part 1)

Notes on Proverbs

Stewardship refers to how we use the money and possessions we have. The book of Proverbs contains instructions that help us know how to be wise stewards of those things which we have.

Obtaining Wealth

We begin our study of stewardship by noticing the wise man’s counsel about how we obtain wealth in the first place.

Ill-gotten gains do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” “Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. He who gathers in summer is a son who acts wisely, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who acts shamefully” (10:2, 4-5).

Treasures” that come as a result of “wickedness” (KJV) are not the type of possessions we should desire. It does matter how we obtain our wealth. Rather than seeking to become rich through wickedness, we are to practice righteousness. How does one acquire wealth in a righteous manner? He does so by being diligent and not putting off the responsibilities of life. Though many wish to do so, we cannot escape the need to work hard. Solomon says, “He who tills his land will have plenty of bread, but he who pursues worthless things lacks sense” (12:11). We should strive to gain prosperity through hard work, not through deception. “Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles, but the one who gathers by labor increases it” (13:11).

He who profits illicitly troubles his own house, but he who hates bribes will live” (15:27).

One who “profits illicitly” or “is greedy of gain” (KJV) has material things as his sole focus. The righteous man may certainly prosper. But material prosperity is a side benefit, rather than the primary goal. For the wicked man, material prosperity is the primary goal. Therefore, he will do whatever it takes to obtain wealth without regard to the consequences. This type of attitude will not only bring trouble to himself, but also to “his own house.”

The acquisition of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor, the pursuit of death” (21:6).

One may be able to gain some degree of prosperity through deception. But Solomon warns that such wealth is only fleeting. Its end is death because this is the limit to which one may enjoy the riches of this life.

A gracious woman attains honor, and ruthless men attain riches” (11:16).

A woman who is gracious may obtain a good reputation for her character. In contrast, a man who is ruthless may obtain riches. The word for ruthless is used for one who is terrifying, powerful, tyrannical and even oppressive of others. The wise man does not deny that such wicked individuals will gain wealth. However, the difference is that the wealth of the wicked is fleeting, just as is true with the liar (21:6).

An inheritance gained hurriedly at the beginning will not be blessed in the end” (20:21).

We have likely all heard stories of individuals who have won millions of dollars in the lottery, only to be broke in just a few years. They became rich very quickly – just as many people would like to do. But that great windfall of wealth “will not be blessed in the end.” It will not last because the one who acquired it does not know how to handle it. Therefore, the wealth will be squandered and lost and he will be back in the same condition in which he was at the beginning.

A man with an evil eye hastens after wealth and does not know that want will come upon him” (28:22).

Many want the rewards of labor without the actual labor. Solomon says it is a characteristic of the evil man to hasten after wealth – strive to obtain wealth without the labor necessary to acquire it. He is oblivious to the fact that his attitude will result in “want [coming] upon him” (cf. 21:5; 28:20).

‘Bad, bad,’ says the buyer, but when he goes his way, then he boasts” (20:14).

It is common to haggle with a seller or negotiate the price of an item before purchasing it. This may be fine to some degree. But we should not take advantage of others and, in essence, deceive the seller into giving us the item for less than what would be a fair price for it.

He who increases his wealth by interest and usury gathers it for him who is gracious to the poor” (28:8).

Similar to the previous verse (20:14), this verse condemns the practice of taking advantage of others. The wise man says that wealth obtained by taking advantage of others will one day be lost. The gain is only temporary. Eventually the wealth we have obtained will belong to others. It would be better to use our wealth to do good while we have the opportunity to do so, rather than try to acquire wealth for our own selfish purposes by taking advantage of and harming others.

The Wise Use of Wealth

After we obtain wealth, we need to use it wisely. There are several passages in the book of Proverbs that speak to this.

Honor the Lord from your wealth and from the first of all your produce; so your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will overflow with new wine” (3:9-10).

The wise man reminds us that we are to be mindful of God when we consider how we use our wealth. Our service to God is to be our highest priority, as we honor Him “from the first” of our produce. We focus on pleasing the Lord first, then let everything else follow. However, we need to be careful not to interpret verses like this one as some sort of guarantee of material prosperity as the reward of faithfulness to God. Those who teach the “health and wealth” gospel will try to do this, promising people material prosperity for one’s faith (which, according to these false teachers, is usually demonstrated by one sending money to their “ministry”). Even without the false guarantee of the “health and wealth” preachers, there are blessings for following the Lord. Our focus, however, must be primarily upon serving God and being good stewards of the blessings He has given.

The rich man’s wealth is his fortress, the ruin of the poor is their poverty” (10:15).

Solomon tells us here that wealth is able to provide a level of protection and stability for the one who possesses it. However, this requires that he acts as a good steward of the wealth he has, rather than squandering it on worthless things. But we should notice the caution contained in a similar verse: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe. A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his own imagination” (18:10-11). Though wealth may provide a degree of protection and stability in life, it cannot eliminate our need to rely upon God. Our trust must be in the Lord as we make wise use of our wealth, rather than placing our trust in our riches. This point will be discussed more later in the study.

There is one who pretends to be rich, but has nothing; another pretends to be poor, but has great wealth” (13:7).

The problem Solomon describes here is common in our society. Many people try to live beyond their means – they pretend to the rich. In order to continue the illusion – either to fool themselves or others – they must go further and further into debt in order to maintain their lifestyle. In contrast, the wise man will live within his means – pretending to be poor even though he is not. Not only does this help him avoid debt, but living within his means allows him to save for the future.

A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, and the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” (13:22).

Three things are necessary for one to be able to leave an inheritance for his grandchildren. First, he must spend a lifetime in diligent labor. Second, he must be a good steward of the fruits of his labor so that he is able to save enough to have something to provide for his grandchildren as an inheritance. And third, he must have a desire to help them that is stronger than any desire to use the money on himself. Of course, it is possible for one to be a good man and, because of factors beyond his control, not have an inheritance to leave for his children, let alone his grandchildren. But regardless of the variables and possible outcomes, a good man will have these characteristics – diligence, frugalness, and generosity.

There is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more, and there is one who withholds what is justly due, and yet it results only in want. The generous man will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered. He who withholds grain, the people will curse him, but blessing will be on the head of him who sells it” (11:24-26).

The first two verses above discuss the virtues and rewards of generosity and contrasts it with the negative consequences that come to one who cheats others. The last verse is interesting, especially in light of modern attacks on capitalism and demonization of those who engage in business and make a profit. A constant in life is the need for people to eat. Therefore, it is not surprising for the wise man to say, “He who withholds grain, the people will curse him.” If one person hoards all the grain, those without will starve. But notice the contrast Solomon makes to this. He does not say that he who gives away all his grain will be blessed. Generosity certainly is commendable, but this verse makes another important point: “Blessing will be on the head of him who sells it.” Just as a “laborer is worthy of his wages” (Luke 10:7), so also is a seller of goods worthy of his profit. We have already discussed how one is not to obtain wealth by taking advantage of others. But participating in a free market and receiving a fair price in exchange for goods that others want or need is commendable and makes one a fitting recipient of God’s blessings.

The Wise Use of Our Possessions

Being a good steward does not just pertain to one’s wealth, but also to one’s possessions. Let us notice the passages in Proverbs that discuss how to make wise use of our possessions.

Prepare your work outside and make it ready for yourself in the field; afterwards, then, build your house” (24:27).

This verse is about time management in making wise use of our possessions. Both preparing one’s field and building one’s house are necessary. But if one does not tend to his field at the appropriate time, he will have nothing during the time of harvest (cf. 20:4). Because of the patience required in allowing the natural processes in God’s providence to work, certain matters are more pressing than others. If one fails to recognize this, the field that he possesses could become worthless to him.

A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal, but even the compassion of the wicked is cruel” (12:10).

This verse is often used to make the point that one of the character traits of a righteous man is mercy, and it may be seen even in how he treats his animals. However, this verse is not so much about mercy as it is about stewardship. Animals are valuable in agriculture (cf. 14:4). One makes wise use of his possessions by taking care of his animals so that they will continue to do what he needs them to do so that he will prosper.

Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much revenue comes by the strength of the ox” (14:4).

Solomon reminds us here of the value of practicality over aesthetics. Animals – such as oxen – are dirty, stinky creatures. There is also a lot of work and expense required to keep such animals. However, the reason why one would endure the unpleasantness, work, and expense of keeping these animals is because “much revenue comes by the strength of the ox.” If we judged and kept our possessions on the basis of beauty and sentimentality alone, we would find ourselves in poverty. While such impractical things may be fine to a point, we do need to possess and maintain those things which are practical and can help us survive and prosper.

Know well the condition of your flocks, and pay attention to your herds; for riches are not forever, nor does a crown endure to all generations. When the grass disappears, the new growth is seen, and the herbs of the mountains are gathered in, the lambs will be for your clothing, and the goats will bring the price of a field, and there will be goats’ milk enough for your food, for the food of your household, and sustenance for your maidens” (27:23-27).

These verses are a strong testament to God’s enduring providence. Economies may collapse (“riches are not forever”) and nations may fall (“nor does a crown endure to all generations”), but God’s people are still able to survive through what He has provided. But we must be good stewards of what we possess (“know well the condition of your flocks, and pay attention to your herds”), using our blessings to obtain the things we need. This may be done either by producing what we need for ourselves (“lambs will be for your clothing”), or trading with others for what we do not have (“goats will bring the price of a field, and there will be goats’ milk enough for your food”). By being good stewards of those things with which God has blessed us, we can survive in the world He has created.

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