Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than he who is perverse in speech and is a fool
This is one of those value proverbs where God, through Solomon’s observations, is trying to teach us the importance of something by comparing it with something else we would not expect.
This particular proverb is a very interesting and strange sounding comparison to our ears. We are essentially asked which do you think is better – this kind of person or that kind of person? We may not want to be either, but it highlights that right value that Solomon wants us to see.
The word integrity is the Hebrew word tom which means complete, perfect, finished. It can have the theological meaning of righteousness or perfection or being without sin. We have to be careful that we do not immediately apply the theological meaning to this word every time it appears.
The word poor is the word ras which means poverty or poor. The Hebrew word translated here walks is the word halik which means steps or movement in general. There are two different directions that this first phrase could mean. It could be understood that this is a poor person; a person who does not have enough to feed himself or his family; is complete or contented in his poverty and does not have the usual drive to feed his belly; is better than the person in the second clause. Another possible understanding of the poor person is one who lives in the midst of his poverty or lack of basic necessity without going outside of law to try and gain what he needs. One interpretation focuses on the lack of drive in the poor person – his sloth or lack of industry – and the other interpretation focuses on his unwillingness to be sinful, even to gain basic necessity.
One has to understand the basic orientation of the proverbs and this period in biblical history toward wealth and poverty. The idea was that one’s wealth was a sign of God’s blessing upon your life. The richer you were, the more blessed and loved by God you were. This was a tangible way for people to see the strength of your faith. Abraham, Job, and David were all wealthy, righteous men. In our day and age we tend to see wealth and riches as a sign of greed and law breaking. Realize that from the biblical perspective, one who does not make money through the pain or harm of others; is generous with tithes and offerings; does not go outside the boundaries of the Ten Commandments to make their money; and is generous with their employees; and still has a growing pile of goods is not unrighteous to have this increasing pile of wealth. God has blessed this person and put them in the place where they can provide for themselves and others and even fund the movement of the kingdom of God.
The second clause talks about the perverse in speech. The word perverse is the Hebrew word iqques which means crooked, twisted, perverse. The normal use of words and speech has been abandoned for a twisted, sinful, crooked pattern of speech that in this case is all harnessed for selfish purposes. This would include those who flatter others to get what they want; those who use speech to con people out of their goods; those who talk their way into ladies’ hearts; those who twist logic and argumentation to prove that there is no god or that we developed from slime. The “say anything” idea to get what you want. Notice that this does not necessarily mean that the person curses or swears.
Therefore, contrast is between a poor person who has no drive to get out of his poverty or is unwilling to break God’s law to move out of poverty verses a person who has lots of selfish drive and uses words to fulfill it. In that day there was the natural tendency to excuse the fast-talking, selfish person but to see the poor person as lazy and unblessed. God, through Solomon, is saying to look again. If the smooth-talking salesman gains goods, hearts, trust, and position through lies, half-truths, and distortions, then the poor person is more blessed and of a higher value. It is not what you have but how you got it that God wants us to understand in this proverb. Value the process and the motive.
If you become rich or wealthy by twisting words and tricking people, then you are a poor person and will eventually be discovered as such – usually because those closest to you want nothing to do with you. They are tired of your word-twisting, lying games. Remember it is the richness of relationships that is the true riches that fill houses and bring life its joy and treasure. Someone whose words cannot be trusted does not build true rich relationships but only shallow surface interactions.
Make sure that you are a person who people can trust to mean what you say and say what you mean. If you have to lie or tell a half-truth to get what you want, you are impoverished when you gain it.
*This material is copyrighted © by Gil Stieglitz who retains all rights to the material. The verses quoted are taken from the NASB Bible 1995 edition.