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The meaning of Poor in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

poor ('ebhyon, dal, 'ani, rush; ptochos):

I. In the Old Testament.

The poor have great prominence in the Bible; it is said, indeed, that there should be no poor among the Hebrews because Yahweh should so greatly bless them (Deuteronomy 15:4 the Revised Version (British and American) and the King James Version margin); but this was only to be realized on certain conditions of obedience (Deuteronomy 15:5), and in Deuteronomy 15:11 it is said,"The poor will never cease out of the land"; but they were to see to it that none was left in destitution. The very foundation of the Hebrew religion was God's pity on a poor and oppressed people.

1. The Terms Employed:

The words for "poor" are chiefly 'ebhyon, "desirous," "needy," "poor" (Exodus 23:6, etc.); dal, "moving," "swaying," hence, weak, poor, lowly (Exodus 23:3, etc.); dallah, "poverty," "weakness" (II Kings 25:12, etc.); rush, perhaps "to shake," "tremble," "to be poor," "impoverished" (I Samuel 18:23, etc.); 'ani, also 'anaw, "poor," "oppressed," from 'anah, "to bend" or "bow down (Exodus 22:25, etc.); 'aneh, Aramaic (Daniel 4:27), chelekhah, "wretchedness" (Psalms 10:8, Psalms 10:14 the King James Version); yarash, "to make poor" (I Samuel 2:7); machsor, "want" (Proverbs 21:17); micken, "a needy one" (Ecclesiastes 4:13; Ecclesiastes 9:15-16).

2. Representations:

(1) Generally.—God (Yahweh and 'Elohim) is represented as having a special care for "the poor," which was illustrated in the deliverance of the nation from Egyptian poverty and bondage and was never to be forgotten by them (Deuteronomy 24:22); as punishing the oppressors of the poor and rewarding those who were kind to them; God Himself was the Protector and Saviour of the poor (Exodus 22:23): "If thou afflict them at all, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath shall wax hot," etc. (Deuteronomy 15:9; Deuteronomy 24:15; I Samuel 2:8; Job 31:16; Psalms 9:18; Psalms 12:5; Proverbs 19:17; Isaiah 25:4; Ecclesiastes 5:8, "one higher than the high regardeth," etc.).

(2) Liberality to the poor is specially enjoined (Deuteronomy 15:7 f.), and they were to beware of self-deception and grudging in this (Deuteronomy 15:9-10).

(3) Special provisions were made on behalf of the poor: (a) Every third year a tithe was to be given "unto the Levite, to the sojourner, to the fatherless and to the widow" that Yahweh might bless them (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 26:12 f.); (b) the poor were to have the free use of all that grew spontaneously in field or vineyard during the Sabbatic year (Exodus 23:10 f.; Leviticus 25:5-6); (c) each year the gleanings of the fields and vineyards should belong to the poor, the corners of fields were to be left for them, and if a sheaf was forgotten it should remain (Leviticus 19:9-10; Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19); (d) fruit and ripe grain in a field might be eaten by any hungry person, but none should be carried away (Deuteronomy 23:24-25); (e) in the Feast of Weeks the poor were to participate (Deuteronomy 16:9-12); (f.) every seventh year there should be a "release" of debts (Deuteronomy 15:1 f.) ; in the seventh year of servitude the Hebrew bond-servant should go free (Exodus 21:2), or in the Jubilee, if that came first, on which occasion—the fiftieth year—property that had been sold returned to its owner or his family (Leviticus 25:8-17); (g) they were to lend readily to the poor, and no interest or increase was to be taken from their brethren (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-37; Deuteronomy 15:7 f.); in Leviticus 25:39, no poor Hebrew was to be made a bond-servant, and, if a hired servant, he was not to be ruled with rigor (Leviticus 25:43); his hire was to be given him daily (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:15); no widow's raiment was to be taken in pledge (Deuteronomy 24:17), nor the handmill, nor the upper millstone so essential for daily life (Deuteronomy 24:6), a man's garment should be returned to him before sundown, and no house should be entered to seize or fetch any pledge (Deuteronomy 24:10-13); breach of these laws should be sin and their observance righteousness (Deuteronomy 24:13, Deuteronomy 24:15, etc.; see ALMS, ALMSGIVING); (h) justice was to be done to the poor (Exodus 23:6; Deuteronomy 27:19, "Cursed be he that wresteth the justice due to the sojourner, fatherless, and widow"); (i) offerings were graduated according to means (Leviticus 5:7; Leviticus 12:8).

(4) Definite penalties were not always attached to those laws, and the prophets and psalmists have many complaints of the unjust treatment and oppression of the poor, contrary to the will of God, and frequent exhortations to justice and a due regard for them (Psalms 10:2, Psalms 10:9; Psalms 12:5; Psalms 14:6, etc.; Isaiah 3:14-15; Jeremiah 2:34; Ezekiel 16:49, "the iniquity of .... Sodom"; Ezekiel 18:12, Ezekiel 18:17; Ezekiel 22:29; Amos 2:7; Amos 4:1; Habakkuk 3:14; compare Job 20:19; Job 24:9, Job 24:14, etc.; Proverbs 14:31).

(5) The duty of caring for the poor is frequently and strongly set forth and divine promises attached to its fulfillment (Psalms 41:1; Psalms 72:12 ff.; Proverbs 17:5; Proverbs 22:9; Proverbs 28:3, Proverbs 28:17; Isaiah 58:7; Jeremiah 22:16; Ezekiel 18:17; Daniel 4:27; Zechariah 7:10, etc.; compare Job 29:12, Job 29:16; Job 30:25; Job 31:19; Psalms 112:9).

(6) The day of the divine manifestation, the times of the Messiah, should bring deliverance and rejoicing to the poor (Psalms 72:12-15; Isaiah 11:4, "With righteousness shall he judge the poor," etc.; Isaiah 14:30; Isaiah 29:19; Isaiah 61:1 the Revised Version margin).

(7) The equality of rich and poor before God and the superiority of the righteous poor to the ungodly rich, etc., are maintained (Proverbs 19:1, Proverbs 19:22; Proverbs 22:1-2; Ecclesiastes 4:13).

(8) Ways in which men can willfully make themselves poor are mentioned (Proverbs 6:11; Proverbs 10:4; Proverbs 12:24; Proverbs 13:4, Proverbs 13:18; Proverbs 14:23; Proverbs 20:13; Proverbs 21:5, Proverbs 21:17; Proverbs 23:21; Proverbs 28:19).

3. The Godly Poor:

The chief words given above all mean poor, literally, but 'ani (rendered also "afflicted") may also denote Israel as a nation in its afflictions and low estate, e.g. Psalms 68:10; Isaiah 41:17; Isaiah 49:13; Isaiah 51:21; Isaiah 54:11; in Zephaniah 3:12, it is "the ideal Israel of the future." Dr. Driver remarks (art. "Poor," HDB) that such passages show that 'ani (as also its frequent parallel 'ebhyon, and, though somewhat less distinctly, dal) came gradually "to denote the godly poor, the suffering righteous, the persons who, whether 'bowed down' or 'needy' or 'reduced,' were the godly servants of Yahweh." The humble poor became in fact distinguished as the line in which faithfulness to Yahweh was maintained and spiritual

religion developed. The less frequent word 'anaw, often translated "meek," "humble," is regarded (see Driver in the place cited.) as having from the first a moral and religious significance. It is used of Moses (Numbers 12:3) and occurs in Psalms 10:12, Psalms 10:17; Psalms 22:26; Psalms 25:9, etc.; Proverbs 3:34; Proverbs 16:19; Isaiah 29:19; Isaiah 32:7; Isaiah 61:1; Amos 2:7; Zephaniah 2:3.

II. In the New Testament.

In the New Testament ptochos, "trembling," "poor," "beggar," is almost exclusively the word translated "poor." It does not occur very frequently, but we see the same regard for the poor maintained as we have in the Old Testament; besides, the new principle of love and the example of Him who "though he was rich, yet for your sakes .... became poor" (ptocheuo, II Corinthians 8:9) necessarily carry in them this regard even more fully than in the Old Testament. Jesus announced His mission (Luke 4:18) by quoting Isaiah 61:1, "to preach good tidings (the King James Version "the gospel") to the poor" (or meek or humble); He gave as a proof of His Messiahship the fact that "the poor have the gospel (or good news of the Kingdom) preached to them" (Matthew 11:5; Luke 7:22); according to Luke 6:20, He pronounced a beatitude on the pious "poor" because the kingdom of God was theirs; in Matthew 5:3 it is "the poor in spirit" (the humble); we have the injunction to "give to the poor" (Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22) who are "always with you" (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8), which does not mean that there must always be "the poor," but that, in contrast with Himself who was soon to leave them, the poor should remain and kindness could be shown to them at any time, which was His own practice (John 13:29); we are enjoined to call not the rich or well-to-do to our entertainments, but the poor (Luke 14:13; compare Luke 14:21); Zaccheus cited in his favor the fact that he gave 'half of his goods to the poor' (Luke 19:8); special notice was taken by Jesus of the poor widow's contribution (Luke 21:3). The first church showed its regard for the poor in the distribution of goods "according as any man had need" (Acts 2:45; Acts 4:32; Acts 6:1); when the council at Jerusalem freed the Gentiles from the yoke of Judaism, they made it a condition, Paul says, "that we should remember the poor; which very thing I was also zealous to do" (Galatians 2:10); contributions were accordingly made "for the poor among the saints that are at Jerus" (Romans 15:26), and it was in conveying such contributions that Paul got into the circumstances that led to his arrest. God's ability and will to provide for those who give to the poor is quoted from Psalms 112:9 (II Corinthians 9:9); James specially rebukes certain Christians of his day for their partiality for the rich and their dishonor of the poor (James 2:5-9), and John asks how, in the man who "hath the world's goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him," the love of God can dwell (I John 3:17-18).

Ptochos is translated "beggar" (Luke 16:20, Luke 16:22) and "beggarly" (Galatians 4:9); penes, "one who works for his daily bread," "a poor man," is the word in II Corinthians 9:9; the poor widow of Mark 12:42 is described in Luke 21:2 as penichros, "very poor."

III. In the Apocrypha.

In the Apocrypha the poor are often mentioned; God's regard for them (Ecclesiasticus 21:5 (ptochos); 35:12-13); their oppression and wrongs (The Wisdom of Solomon 2:10 (penes); Ecclesiasticus 13:3,19,23 (ptochos); Baruch 6:28); the duty of care for and of giving to the poor (Tobit 4:7 (ptochos); Ecclesiasticus 29:8 (tapeinos); 29:9 (penes); 34:20-22); of justice and kindness to such (Ecclesiasticus 4:1,5,8; 7:32; 10:23 (ptochos)); "poor" in the sense of pitiable occurs in 2 Macc 4:47 (talaiporos), the Revised Version (British and American) "hapless."

IV. The Revised Version (British and American) Changes.

For "the poor of this world" (James 2:5) the Revised Version (British and American) has "them that are poor as to the world"; for "The poor .... shall trust in it" (Isaiah 14:32), "In her shall the afflicted .... take refuge"; instead of "Whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor" (Ecclesiastes 4:14), "Yea, even in his kingdom he was born poor"; "poor" for "humble" (Psalms 9:12; Psalms 10:12, margin "meek"), for "lowly" (Proverbs 16:19, margin "meek").

W. L. Walker


See more on the meaning of Poor in the Bible:
Poor {Easton's Bible Dictionary}

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