Proverbs 22:22-23 Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the LORD will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.
The opportunity to capitalize on another’s misfortune is everywhere. When desperation meets a lack of resources it creates a crisis. This in turn creates an economy where someone with cash becomes disproportionately strong. It’s easy to make a killing when someone desperately needs what you have, and you lend them the money to buy it at high rates of interest.
There is a fine line between financing and extortion. Unfortunately the people who often come looking to borrow money are among the most vulnerable. A willing lender requires some kind of security for the loan, and now you have a recipe for disaster if the poor person can’t pay.
The fact that Solomon starts here with his specific words to the wise is worth considering. He could have started off with a command to avoid a heinous sin, or warnings against sedition, or a call to fear God, but instead he goes to the bottom of the socioeconomic pile and draws a circle around poor and afflicted people.
Don’t miss the link between poverty and affliction. It’s not clear always which comes first. Sometime poverty leads to a lack of opportunity. If you can’t afford insurance and then something relatively minor occurs, it can lead to a much greater calamity. On the other hand, even if you’re doing well, quality of life can quickly deteriorate if you loose your job, get hit with a lawsuit, or find yourself on the loosing side of a financial transaction. In almost every case, poverty leads to some kind of affliction.
Don’t miss the specific instruction here. Taking advantage of a poor person in order to make money is not clever business. Don’t turn it back on them and say if only they had been more responsible with their money this wouldn’t be happening. If only they had finished high school or quit smoking they would have all the money they need. That isn’t the point. The point is that they are poor, and you are responsible for not robbing them through tactics they don’t understand or strategies they can’t contend with.
When you rob someone, you are stealing. When you steal, you break the eight commandment. So “do not rob the poor” means “do not break the eighth commandment by taking away money or possessions from poor people”. To rob in the original language was to take away by force, or to seize. Think of it as confiscating the property of another person. That property could be cash or the goods put up as collateral.
The reason you can take these assets is the same reason you could rob a bank if the vault door was open the guards were gone. No one can stop you. But just because no one can stop you doesn’t mean you should do it. Just because it’s technically legal doesn’t mean you will be commended for how shrewd you were as a business person.
When you crush someone, you oppress them in their affliction. This is something Solomon says will happen at the gate, or the place where legal and financial transactions would occur. Think of it as his saying, “Don’t go out there and try to get your pound of flesh in court”. This is where so many of the poor are abused using government approved methods. No one is denying the culpability or responsibility of those who are being sued, but the motives behind the actions of the accuser are being questioned. Did you have a court judgment in mind when you accepted the collateral? Are you actually hoping they will default on the loan so you can get their property? If so, you are no better than a thief who takes advantage of a defenseless neighbor.
This very thing drove Nehemiah berserk. He returned to Israel for a short time after a successful career in politics. His first order of business was to round up greedy Jews and force them to cease and desist the sordid and illegal practice of extorting their countrymen through usury. They were no better than the pagans in their lust for material wealth, and they would stop at nothing to get it. The most vulnerable were the most preyed upon, and the situation had gotten so bad that families had seen their sons and daughters become slaves to those who had lent them money and used children at collateral. As a righteous man, he made sure that everyone, even his own family members returned any ill gotten gains, and promised to treat everyone with dignity going forward.
This brings up an interesting question. Are the poor totally defenseless? In reality, the answer is no. They may not have advocates you can see, but they have a champion in heaven who will rescue them according to his own sovereign power and decree. Proverbs 19:17 says that if you are kind to the poor you “led to God”. If we reverse the truth it means you are robbing God when you rob the poor. God does not take it lightly when you rob him. He is not defenseless and certainly not negligent when it comes to settling accounts.
Savvy people make money off the poor. Wise people don’t. We cannot love God and exploit those who bear his image (Proverbs 14:31). Take God at his word when he says you can expect a miserable life, an early death, or both if you keep up the practice. Wise people who want to know the blessing of God take the opposite approach by showing genuine love for God by helping the poor and defending them from predators (James 1:27).