Who are the Poor?

 

“Blessed is he who has regard for the poor.”  –Psalm 41:1

God’s concern for the poor is no footnote in Scripture; no mere afterthought.  It is a central, pervasive theme.  Over 400 verses – sprinkled throughout every genre of Scripture, from the Law to the wisdom literature and the prophets to the Gospels and the epistles – speak about God’s passion for the needy and His desire that His followers share that passion.  One researcher decided to physically cut out, with scissors, every reference in Scripture to God’s heart for the poor.  He ended up with a very “Hole-y” Bible indeed; it was literally shot through with holes!  Whenever we are passionate about something, we talk about it often.  God, through His Word, speaks frequently about the poor and needy.  Undoubtedly, He has “regard for the poor” – and wants us to do as well.

Who are “the poor” that we are to regard?  Several different words in Hebrew and Greek are used to describe the poor.  Dal, used nearly fifty times in the Old Testament, refers to those who compose the lower class.  It describes those who lack the material wealth of the upper classes.  Ani refers to the “oppressed poor.”  It emphasizes the pain that the socially powerless person experiences when the rich and strong take advantage of him.  Ebyon indicates a person in dire want, who is dependent on others.  Many times this word is used to describe a righteous person who has suffered loss because of wicked enemies.  Ebyon is used often in the Psalms, where such a person cries out to God as his only source of help.  Rus speaks of those who are desperately poor and often weak and unprotected.  Those described by this word lack both the materials necessities of life and suffer from low social status and vulnerability to oppression – they are the ones likely to be treated unfairly in the courts or robbed by the powerful.  Rus is used for the “poor” in Psalm 35:10, a passage revealing God’s compassionate intervention on behalf of the weak poor (“Who is like you, O Lord?  You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.”).

In the New Testament, two Greek words are translated “poor.” Penes describes what we might today call the “working poor.” As wage laborers, they are poor relative to the position of the well-to-do who do not have to work for their sustenance.  Penes is used twice in the New Testament (Luke 21:2 and 2 Cor. 9:9).  The latter use, in a passage about generosity in giving, suggests that it is appropriate for Christians to help the working poor, even though they are not technically destitute.  The Greek word ptochos is used far more often in the New Testament; it describes those so poor that they are “reduced to a beggarly situation.” *Unable to meet their basic needs, this word emphasizes their dependency on others for help.

The diversity of words used to describe the various aspects of the condition of poverty shows God’s broad-ranging concern for the poor.  He sees them not only as materially bereft but as often vulnerable to the powerful, afflicted by the wicked, and disparaged by the rich.  Thus, He frequently asserts His special regard for the weak and unprotected, proclaiming His faithfulness to them and eager willingness to intervene on their behalf.  He displays “tender mercies” to the poor and needy, desiring that they find in Him refuge, protection, and provision.  The Church is called to imitate such compassion, lovingly assisting the poor in numerous and diverse ways – both in terms of individual aid and in terms of working for a just society that treats the impoverished with fairness.

*Lawrence O. Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Grand Rapids:  Regency/Zondervan, 1985), pg. 492.

For Further Thought…

  1. Who comes to your mind when you think of “the poor?”
  2. Were you surprised to learn that there are such a large number of Scripture references to God’s concern for the poor?  Why do you think this theme is not discussed more in the church?
  3. In practical, everyday terms, what does “regarding” the poor mean?  How are you personally obeying the exhortation to regard the poor?
  4. This Scripture teaches that those who regard the poor are blessed.  Think of some situations when you compassionately served someone who was poor and needy.  In what ways were you blessed through your service?

 

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