Great Texts of the Bible
The Golden Mean
Give me neither poverty nor riches;
Feed me with the food that is needful for me.—Proverbs 30:8This is the prayer of Agur, the son of Jakeh. Of Agur himself we know nothing, except that he seems to have been the author, or editor, of the short collection of pithy sayings contained in this chapter, including this prayer. We do not know the circumstances out of which the prayer was spoken. We do not know whether his request was granted to him. But we shall all agree that it is one of the sanest and most prudent prayers ever put on record. The prayer reveals the man, and we may judge from it that Agur was a somewhat shy, diffident, cautious man, the kind of man who would rather have the middle of a safe highway than the risky excitements of peak and precipice.
Supposing that our private prayers, like the Private Devotions of Launcelot Andrewes, could be given to the world after we are dead and gone, what sort of appearance should we present to posterity? It is well that the prayers of most of us are heard only by God, who is very merciful, who is very silent and keeps our secrets well, who is too wise to grant all the requests of His ignorant and foolish children.1 [Note: J. M. E. Ross.]
The Extremes of Fortune
“Give me neither poverty nor riches.”
1. The one extreme from which he shrinks is wealth. We are confronted at the outset by much misunderstanding as to what is wealth, and what is poverty. Vast numbers of poor people consider other people rich because they live in larger houses and spend more money and live more luxuriously than themselves. Now it is strictly true that a great many persons who are thus reputed to be rich are in reality poor; they are really unable without great care to make both ends meet. The expenses to which by their position they are inevitably exposed are either only barely covered by their incomes, or they have to make up large deficiencies by annual draughts on their capital. On the other hand, many among the so-called rich make a great mistake in exaggerating the wants and miseries of the so-called poor. They often pity people who live on a lower pecuniary level than their own, but who are yet able without any pinching or privation to live very comfortably and to pay their way and even to put by annually a moderate share of their earnings. Such as these are not poor at all, even though they are not rich. The envy of poor men towards the rich and the pity of rich men towards the poor are alike often grossly misplaced, and if they did but know the secrets of each other’s lives the envy and the pity would be reversed, the poor would pity the rich and the rich would envy the poor.
(1) Wealth is not an evil in itself.—There is no reproach in wishing, by one’s own honourable exertions, to rise from the ranks of ill-paid or slenderly-paid labour, to make and keep a comfortable home for those nearest to one, to have no need for material anxieties, to have a margin for books, for music, for travel, to be able to contribute to religious causes and help to support this or that movement one has at heart. To be able to do these things is a very creditable ambition; to take that ambition away would be to cut at the very root of civilized society. The duty of industry, on which the writers of Proverbs so strongly insist, is reinforced by the reflection, “He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich.” The reader is admonished to lay by for the inevitable rainy day, when some extra resources will be wanted and be found to make all the difference, in an aphorism like the following: “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty.” And lest a man should rely overmuch on his own powers and the strength of his own exertions, and forget the Giver of all, we read: “The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow therewith.” Now in all this there is a perfectly undisguised appreciation of ownership and its solid satisfactions: to be out of the reach of carking care, of sordid anxieties, so that a man may have his energies free for something else than the dreary struggle to make ends meet—this is, in the frankest manner, held up as a consummation devoutly to be wished, and the counsel of these old-time sages is that men may take thought to attain it.
Ruskin compares wealth to a river. There are rivers which overflow their banks and create malarial swamps that load the air with pestilence, while they might, by engineering skill, be directed and controlled so as to bring a blessing instead of a curse. So, he says, wealth may be “water of life,” or, if it is not wisely used, it may be “the last and deadliest of all plagues.”1 [Note: J. M. E. Ross.]
It is worth while remembering that the gentle Charles Lamb, who was as far as anyone could be from a passion for riches, saw in money the equivalent of “health and liberty and strength,” while Plato could soberly state that “the possession of wealth contributes greatly to truth and honesty.” You have only to put it to yourselves negatively—the lives of men, women, and children that might be saved year-in and year-out but for the lack of means to purchase medical attendance, strengthening diet, sojourn in a sanatorium—to appreciate Lamb’s point of view; it is perfectly true, and why not admit it, that there are hundreds of thousands of deserving folk in this land of ours who would say—and that in respect of a very trifling increase of income—
Oh the little more, and how much it is!
And the little less, and what worlds away!2 [Note: J. Warschauer, The Way of Understanding, 67.]
(2) But the possession of wealth is a constant peril.—Living in continual enjoyment of those luxuries and pleasures which wealth procures tends to cultivate the animal rather than the spiritual part of our nature. Satisfaction with the good things of life, as they are called, has a tendency to make the soul slumber and forget its immortal obligations to itself. If we have all we want, we shall seek and find pleasure only in those things which wealth can purchase. We cannot easily rise above the low ground of animal desire and gratification. Our thoughts and actions are so engrossed in finding fresh avenues for indulgence or excitement that we have little energy left for spiritual and moral aspirations. Then, further, this constant indulgence brings with it a sense of independence, an unmanly pride, a habit of trusting only in ourselves and in our own resources, which destroys, in time, all sense of dependence on others and on God. Agur felt this when he prayed, “Give me not riches, lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?” Our wealth is apt to take the very place of God in our heart’s love and trust. Our money, and not God, is in all our thoughts. We are happy because it is there and seems safe and inexhaustible. We reckon our lives by what we enjoy through its means, and not by any progress or growth of the soul. Whenever wealth is to us of supreme importance, be sure it is eating out the very vitals of our spiritual life.
In a remarkable work entitled The Tree in the Midst, Dr. Greville MacDonald has recently furnished a striking illustration of the truth that Nature is against the luxury that preys upon society. He gives an account of the process of evolution and the secondary laws which it involves; and in speaking of luxury, he takes as an example the prehistoric monster known as the ichthyosaurus. The ichthyosaurus was one of a whole series of creatures, horrible in character, function, and form, which existed in an early stage of the earth’s history. It was a reptilian fish, thirty feet in length, with the backbone and tail of a fish, the jaw of a crocodile, and the skin of a whale. Its eye was held in a socket eighteen inches in diameter and was protected by an armour of bony plates. It had a most extraordinary range of vision, and it could see in the dark. This monster, therefore, was highly gifted. It was, in fact, actually in advance of its age. It had points of advantage not existent in any other creature at that time. It anticipated the higher possibilities in structure. It was far on in the line of evolution. Why, then, did it disappear? Why was not the process of evolution continued along that line? Why is it now an extinct creature, telling us its story only by the petrified remains of its terrible body which are dug out from its rocky grave? Most significant is the answer to this question. It died out because life was too easy for it. The world did not desire it. It did nothing but feed and propagate its kind; and it did this with no effort on its own behalf. It was undesirable from the point of view of upward evolution. That this was the truth concerning it is proved by its remains. There is evidence of its swallowing fish and reptiles in quantity far larger than it could digest, far larger than could be necessary for its own maintenance and the transmission of its species. Its awful jaw, its enormous stomach, its impenetrable armour, its great fleetness, made other creatures such an easy prey to it that labour or painful effort was an experience it never knew. Its only enemies were its prey; and these enemies were altogether powerless to resist it, while its food was always superabundant. And so the ichthyosaurus died out. It died of too much ease. Its extinction was the inevitable result of its luxury. Vital energy began to ebb; structural refinement did not increase, because it was not wanted; the size and strength of the monster meant diminished need for intelligence, and the ascent of intelligence was checked. Nature was against it. It transgressed the fundamental law of upward-moving life, and it was swept into the limbo of forgotten things.1 [Note: H. Rix, Sermons, Addresses, and Essays, 161.]
(3) Money creates wants as well as meets them.—As a rule, “where goods increase, they are increased that eat them.” The more a man has, the more he is called to part with; and the deeper his pocket, the more constant is the drain upon it. The more possessions a man has to carry with him through life, the weightier is his burden, not the lighter. History tells us that the Spartans at one time had a practice of coining all their money in iron, that so the people might be discouraged from avarice by feeling that every addition to their money meant an added weight to bear. How true are the wise man’s words when he says that the abundance of the rich man’s possessions “will not suffer him to sleep.” For money, if itself “a defence,” also requires a defence for its safe-keeping. And with all his watchfulness a man cannot sometimes prevent his “riches making themselves wings and flying away.” Wealth at the worst is a source of danger, at the best a source of care.
I do not know nor desire to know if theologians have yet come to a scientific conclusion with regard to the poverty of Jesus, but it seems evident to me that poverty with the labour of the hands is the ideal held up by the Galilean to the efforts of His disciples. Still it is easy to see that Franciscan poverty is neither to be confounded with the unfeeling pride of the stoic, nor with the stupid horror of all joy felt by certain devotees; St. Francis renounced everything only that he might the better possess everything. The lives of the immense majority of our contemporaries are ruled by the fatal error that the more one possesses the more one enjoys. Our exterior, civil liberties continually increase, but at the same time our inward freedom is taking flight; how many are there among us who are literally possessed by what they possess?1 [Note: P. Sabatier, Life of St. Francis of Assisi, 126.]
2. The other extreme that Agur would be delivered from is poverty. The thought is of dire poverty, of sheer destitution, or, at least, of that precarious livelihood that is always on the verge of want, and is therefore oppressed with the ever-haunting fear of the distress which can never be quite out of sight.
(1) Poverty has this great advantage over wealth, that it compels to honest labour, it guards and protects the soul from the thousand vices of idleness by pre-occupying the heart and hands with good wholesome work; the body healthfully wearied by honest toil, even if it be never so hard, is rewarded by peaceful slumber when the day’s work is done. “The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.” It is no curse indeed, but the greatest blessing ever sent upon an ignorant and childish world, to be forced to labour that we may eat.
But the thought in the text is the evil influence of extreme poverty on character. There are currents of influence that originate in the material environment of a man’s life and yet flow in upon his very soul, helping or hindering his spiritual life. Man has a body and a soul; at least, so we roughly and popularly divide his complex nature. But body and soul are not independent; they act and react upon each other. Spiritual coldness may sometimes have its physical causes. We may, Faber says, “attribute to the wiles of Satan what is really a matter of nerves or of digestion”; and a body that is either pampered and indulged or ailing and emaciated and fatigued may have a depressing effect upon the moral life. It is only stating the same truth a little more broadly to say that a man’s temporal circumstances may influence for good or evil his spiritual prosperity; you cannot draw a sharp line of cleavage between temporal and spiritual affairs any more than you can between body and soul. And we may find in the outward circumstances of our lives some of the stepping-stones by which we rise to heaven, or some of the temptations that drag us to destruction.
There is an extreme of poverty which seems as unfavourable to the higher life as the extreme of riches. It may be such as to expose one to almost irresistible temptation, “lest I be poor and steal.” If food and warmth are not obtainable by honest means, is it wonderful that poor souls sometimes take a short cut and transgress? And even if that gross temptation is avoided, temptation comes in other forms, more subtle but equally strong. The constant anxiety, the ceaseless worry, the endless battle with the wolf at the door, may create a weary, listless, hopeless frame of mind that has not energy enough to respond to the call of God.
(2) Poverty fosters bitterness. The poor are tempted to blaspheme; not always, perhaps, against Him whom they call “God,” but against the Divine order of the universe which permits so fearful a thing as starvation or want. The world seems all wrong. Man is hard and cold, and the very universe seems cold and hard as well. There is no pity in the heavens. The soul of the poor is embittered; and that is a dreadful thing, a spiritual disease. You know that a steel spring will stand a certain amount of strain, you may test it up to a certain point, and it will contract, expand, rebound as much as you please. But in every case there is a point of maximum strain; and if you pass that, your spring loses its power to recover itself, it is spoiled for further use. And the human soul also will stand a great many burdens and buffetings; it has a wonderful elasticity of courage, and patience of hope, and power of recuperation. But there seems to be a point beyond which these things are almost impossible, a point where men and women just give in. To change the figure, they are no longer swimmers breasting the current; they are driftwood floating with the stream. Indeed, they can hardly be said even to float; they are utterly submerged by circumstance, and their capacity for faith and hope and spiritual conflict seems to have gone under with them.
Do you remember the passage in The Saint’s Tragedy, where Count Walter and the Abbot are discussing the condition of the poor? “There,” says the Abbot—“there we step in, with the consolations and instructions of the faith.” “Ay,” answers the Count, “but … in the meantime, how will the callow chick, Grace, stand against the tough old game-cock, Hunger?” The question is a pertinent one. It goes without saying that heaven is not made of bread and butter, or of stone and lime, or of parks and recreation grounds, or of anything else that can be purchased for money or provided by civilization. Good wages and good houses, healthy conditions of work, facilities for education and pleasure, will not necessarily save men from their sins. But the lack of these things tends to the loss of self-respect, the decay of the soul’s energy, the stunting of that part of man’s nature which lives “by admiration, hope, and love.”1 [Note: J. M. E. Ross.]
To his friend, Mr. C. E. Maurice, Morris writes: “In looking into matters social and political I have but one rule, that in thinking of the condition of any body of men I should ask myself, ‘How could you bear it yourself? what would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live?’ I have always been uneasy when I had to ask myself that question, and of late years I have had to ask it so often that I have seldom had it out of my mind: and the answer to it has more and more made me ashamed of my own position, and more and more made me feel that if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. Nothing can argue me out of this feeling, which I say plainly is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor are unendurable and ought not to be endured by either rich or poor. Now it seems to me that, feeling this, I am bound to act for the destruction of the system which seems to me mere oppression and obstruction. I am quite sure that the change which will overthrow our present system will come sooner or later: on the middle classes to a great extent it depends whether it will come peaceably or violently. If they can only learn the uselessness of mere overplus money, the poisonousness of luxury to all civilization, they will not be so likely to cry out ‘confiscation and robbery and injustice’ at a system which, while it proposes to give to every man what he really needs, will have no call to take from any man what he can really use: in short, what we of the middle classes have to do, if we can, is to show by our lives what is the proper type of a useful citizen, the type into which all classes should melt at last.”2 [Note: J. W. Mackail, The Life of William Morris, ii. 113.]
The Sufficient Portion
“Feed me with the food that is needful for me.”
The literal translation of this clause of the text is, “Give me to eat the bread of my portion—that which by God’s providence is determined for me.” This is not a definite petition for the needs of the coming day, such as we find in the Lord’s Prayer, but a casting of one’s self on the Divine love, in readiness to take what that love assigns. The Septuagint gives, “Appoint for me what is necessary and what is sufficient.”
1. Agur pleads for the golden mean, neither poverty nor riches. It is true that he may serve God in either, but he will serve Him best in that middle state in which he is neither poor nor rich. And it is in this fact that we find the warrant for this prayer of Agur. It is but a lawful desire to wish to serve the Lord under the most favourable conditions. We are not all called to be moral adventurers, craving the post of greatest risk that our fidelity may have the greatest honour. That would savour of spiritual pride. Our undeniable infirmities and Satan’s undeniable strength counsel a more modest course than that. When once we have resolved to do our best in any circumstances, we certainly may ask to be favoured with the easiest. Our Lord Himself taught us to pray “Lead us not into temptation,” before He added the words “Deliver us from evil.” So the prayer of our text is lawful and in every way expedient, “Give us neither poverty nor riches.”
William Watson’s translation of one of Horace’s odes gives Agur’s meaning to a nicety:
Who sees in fortune’s golden mean
All his desires comprised,
Midway the cot and court between
Hath well his life devised;
For riches hath not envied been,
Nor for their lack, despised.
2. But where is the standard that settles the proper measure of worldly prosperity? The settlement of that question largely decides the value and the applicability of everything that can be said on this engrossing topic. To speak of “neither poverty nor riches” is to speak indefinitely, for men’s opinions as to what constitute these two states vary as widely as the poles. What one calls riches another would call poverty. Riches may mean a million a year or a hundred, and poverty a penny a day or a pound. What is the determining law and the proper point of view? You will find this if you notice the hint this passage gives us as to the proper designation of our property—“Feed me with food convenient for me.” The lawfully expanded meaning of these words is—Apportion my possessions to my needs, my means to the ends of my being. And thus we are presented with this truth: A person has the proper measure of temporal wealth when he has sufficient to enable him to do the proper work of life. Thus the question as to what is riches and what poverty is not a question to be decided by either feeling or opinion. That we think we have too little and want more is beside the point. It is the proportion of means to ends that is the question. Our possessions are not simply sources of enjoyment; they are instruments for service. Our business in this world is to do the will of God, and not to please ourselves. Our kind of service, of course, varies—varies almost as widely as do our characters. And as our duty varies, it follows that our necessary means will also vary.
Let no man create all sorts of artificial obligations and unnecessary work, and then protest that his means are unequal to his needs. Let no man thrust himself into a station of life for which he was never intended, and then say he must live up to his position in society. Let him not create all sorts of lofty tastes and extravagant modes of living, and then think himself too poor because his possessions are not equal to these new inflated notions. Our means should be adjusted to our providential lot, not to our factitious circumstances. Life’s obligation and life’s glory lie in filling the space appointed by God, in doing well the task prescribed by Him, and in making the most, for our own good and the world’s, of what He has given us, whether it be little or whether it be much.
3. But the prayer of Agur does not carry us far enough. The ancient world possessed very little idea of causation; the antiquated East of to-day is still almost totally devoid of the idea. The text shows how the matter was regarded in pre-scientific times. The man of old sought for the roots of poverty and of riches, not in human arrangements or in physical environment, but in the dispensation of God. “Give me,” he says, “neither poverty nor riches.” Perhaps, on the whole, an industrious man would be more likely to thrive than a sluggard; but often and often drought or a storm sent by God would cancel all his thrift. It was, after all, God who settled the lot of man. Poverty and riches came from Him. For the old Hebrew an omnipotent God held in the hollow of His hand the fate of the individual man. He meted out to him poverty or wealth, with all that these might mean to soul or body.
The modern outlook is different. God in these latter days has revealed Himself as law. He works through Nature and the rules of Nature. He reveals His action as cause and effect. His faithfulness never swerves. There is nothing arbitrary in what He does. We look for the causes, and we know that they will fit the effects. We recognize, too, in these latter days what the ancients did not at all understand—that the individual is the product of society. If we see prevailing poverty, we are certain that it is due to social conditions. If we see overweening and plethoric wealth, we are sure that something in the social system produces or allows it. To us a man is not an isolated person; he is a member of society. God works not only through nature as a whole; He works through humanity as a whole. And so we do not think it sufficient to send up a prayer to God: “Give me neither poverty nor riches”; we know that we must ask why He gives us poverty or riches, and how He is to be prevented from giving us such poverty—how He is to be hindered from making us so disastrously rich. In other words, when we have duly weighed this saying of Agur’s, we may come to see that among all the pressing religious and spiritual problems of our day, this also must be entertained and solved—How to secure a more equable distribution of wealth, so that the extremes of wealth and poverty shall disappear, and all shall be fed with the food that is needful for them.
We are, after all, not mere driftwood. We cannot change the flow of the stream, it is true, but we can battle against it; and there are many matters in which we can effectually act in a spirit contrary to the spirit of the world. We can sometimes soften the rivalry which is the world’s great principle. We can often act in co-operation and fellowship even in business matters. We can humanize our relations to our employees. If we have the misfortune to be very poor, we can guard ourselves from servility, we can cultivate a free and independent spirit, and we can watch against bitterness and envy. If we have the still greater misfortune to be very rich, we can anxiously study how to give away our wealth without harming those to whom we give.
The spirit of sacrifice is, we can see, the revelation of a larger life; and because it is so, it is also a revelation of victorious power. The life is one, and through its action soul can reach soul. We have all been able from time to time, in the most expressive phrase, to enter into the griefs, the wrongs, the failures, of others, and as we have done so, we have found within our reach a power of relief and restoration proportioned to our power of sympathy. If we may dare to use the phrase, there is a virtue which goes out from him who truly feels for another to the object of his love, not without effort, not without loss. We must feel that which we alleviate. There is a sense in which we must pay for all we give. The instinctive pleasure which is felt in natural gifts, in wealth and strength, and beauty and rank and intellect, is a call and a promise, a call to grateful use, and a promise of effective influence. But all these things are not in themselves blessings in which we can rest, but opportunities of blessing. They must be consecrated in service before they can be a true joy to their possessors; and everywhere there is the same condition of hallowing.1 [Note: Bishop B. F. Westcott, The Victory of the Cross, 30.]
4. Wise as Agur was, would he not have been wiser still if he had prayed, “Give me character, that whether thou sendest wealth or poverty, I may be strong and obedient and victorious”? The varying ranks, vocations, and properties of human life are all evident as moral tests. God is trying our hearts by wealth and poverty, by neither, and in some lives by both, by what He gives and what He withholds, in fact, by every temporal circumstance. And at the judgment day He will deal with us, not according to the measure of our substance, but according to the nature of our works. That is the thought which should be uppermost in our minds, and not, as is so often the case, only vain calculations of our gains and our losses, of what others have and what we have not. The question is, Are we using aright that which we have, and glorifying our God with the means He has entrusted to us? That is our first concern. And there is surely nothing which can so check the present-day unhealthy appetite for wealth, which can so silence the fretful complainings of the poor, which can so well impress upon our hearts the wisdom of this prayer, and which can so conduce to make life practical, content, and holy as such honest self-inquiry as this.
Sir Henry Taylor, in his Notes on Life, has a remarkable passage about money. “So many,” he says, “are the bearings of money on the lives and characters of mankind, that an insight which should search out the life of a man in his pecuniary relations would penetrate into almost every cranny of his nature. He who knows, like St. Paul, both how to lack and how to abound has a great knowledge; for if we take account of all the virtues with which money is mixed up—honesty, justice, generosity, charity, frugality, forethought, self-sacrifice—and of their correlative vices, it is a knowledge which goes near to cover the length and breadth of humanity; and a right measure in getting, saving, spending, giving, taking, lending, borrowing, and bequeathing, would almost argue a perfect man.”1 [Note: E. H. Eland.]
“I revere,” Emerson says, “the man who is riches”; “is” not “has.” There is an ideal for you, the ideal of character, and, above all, that character which is formed after the pattern and by the grace of Jesus Christ. If Christianity had been dependent on circumstances, it would have died as soon as it was born. But because it reaches and touches the soul’s true life, it lives and is still the renewing of the world and the hope of the future. The experience of the ages tells you that Jesus Christ can help you to be what is good and to do what is right. That is the essential; all else is subordinate. And whether you find yourself on the splendid heights of wealth or in the hard and narrow lot of poverty, to be what is good and to do what is right is the highest and the most lasting success. “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Behold a wiser than Agur is here!2 [Note: J. M. E. Ross.]
Dewey (O.), Works, 272.
Horton (R. F.), The Book of Proverbs (Expositor’s Bible), 395.
Knight (G. H.), Abiding Help for Changing Days, 19.
Rix (H.), Sermons, Addresses, and Essays, 135.
Tholuck (A.), Hours of Christian Devotion, 318.
Voysey (C.), Sermons, xiii. (1890), Nos. 8 and 9.
Warschauer (J.), The Way of Understanding, 62.
Waylen (H.), Mountain Pathways, 55.
Christian World Pulpit, xxxix. 101 (J. J. Ingram); lx. 397 (E. H. Eland); lxii. 34 (J. M. E. Ross).
Preacher’s Magazine, viii. 377 (R. Brewin).