How Does the Bible Define Poverty?

Many people and organizations view poverty in economic terms. The World Bank has described poverty as “pronounced deprivation in wellbeing.” This conventional view primarily links well-being to the ability to have command over commodities. By this definition, the poor are those who do not have enough income.
But how does this conventional view align with how the Scripture describes the poor? How does the Bible define poverty?
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There are 178 uses of the word poor in Scripture. Although there are a few exceptions, the term poor in Scripture means economic or material poverty.
Review the following verses and notice the characteristics: insufficient food, cannot afford, cannot support himself, debt and shabby clothes.
  • “Then the poor among you may get food” (Exodus 23:11).
  • “If . . . he is poor and cannot afford these” (Leviticus 14:21).
  • “If one . . . becomes poor and is unable to support himself” (Leviticus 25:35).
  • “Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it” (Deuteronomy 24:15).
  • “The poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb” (2 Samuel 12:3).
  • “The infant of the poor is seized for a debt” (Job 24:9).
  • “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare” (Proverbs 20:13).
  • “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21).
  • “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:26).
  • “Suppose . . . a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in” (James 2:2).
The term poor in Scripture refers to an economic condition, but the circumstances and causes associated with that condition are complex.
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The condition of poverty is sometimes associated with oppression, isolation and injustice. Consider Proverbs 13:23:
“A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.”
Proverbs 19:4 speaks of social isolation:
“Wealth brings many friends, but a poor man’s friend deserts him.”
There are many conditions and experiences that surround economic poverty, but they are descriptions of the circumstances/causes and not definitions of it.
A person who has a right relationship with God can be economically poor:
“Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse” (Proverbs 28:6).
In other words, the termpoor describes the man’s economic condition despite his spiritually rich state.
Poverty can also exist in a person whose moral/spiritual condition is degraded:
“Drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags” (Proverbs 23:21).
A poor man may be wise and discerning:
“A rich man may be wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has discernment sees through him” (Proverbs 28:11).
As another example, consider Ecclesiastes 9:15:
“Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered the poor man.”
Poverty can also result from foolishness:
“The one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty” (Proverbs 28:19).
The verses above demonstrate that the terms poor and poverty as used in Scripture refer to economic poverty. They also show that the condition may exist in a person who is wise or foolish, godly or otherwise.
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There may be a few instances in Scripture in which poor is used metaphorically, such as Revelation 3:17:
“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
There is also Jesus’ unique use of the phrase “poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3, which refers to spiritual realities:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Despite these few exceptions, the case can overwhelmingly be made that references in Scripture to the poor or to poverty should be taken to mean economic poverty, unless the passage can clearly be argued to have a different meaning.
Compassion’s mission to release children from economic, spiritual, social and emotional poverty in Jesus’ name begins with economic poverty as described in the Bible. Because economic poverty is often a catalyst of other forms of poverty, it is a nonnegotiable element in our definition of poverty.


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