HH Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div
She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
Compare an earlier verse in the same Proverb: “Plead the cause of the poor and needy” (verse 9).
Verse 20 is an example of parallelism that is found so often in Hebrew poetry. In these two phrases, parallel ideas are set forth, with the second phrase saying basically the same thing as the first phrase, with only minor variations. Both phrases emphasize the fact that the virtuous woman has compassion toward the poor and needy and she shows her compassion with concrete deeds of mercy. She loves the poor, not in word or in tongue only, but also in deed and in truth (1 John 3:16-18).
The word “poor” means “afflicted, humble.” It is used of those who are physically and materially poor as in Proverbs 31:20, and it is also used of believers who recognize their spiritual poverty and bankruptcy (“I am poor and needy”– (Psalm 40:17; 70:5; 109:22; 34:6). No one can make progress in his spiritual life until he realizes how desperately needy he really is, and recognizes that only the Lord can supply that which is needed.
God’s people are to have a heart of compassion for those who are physically and materially poor and needy. In the law, God told the Israelites that the gleanings from their vineyards and fields should be left for the poor of the land (Leviticus 19:10; 23:22). The godly woman of Proverbs 31 faithfully obeyed the following command: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” (Deut. 15:11). Early in Proverbs 31, believers are encouraged to plead the cause of the poor (verse 9). In Proverbs 14:21 a benediction is pronounced upon those who show compassion to the poor and help them: “He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he.”
In studying this Hebrew word which is translated “poor” in Proverbs 31:20, I was surprised to find it used of our blessed Lord Himself during the days of His humiliation: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9:9). The word “lowly” is the same Hebrew word as “poor” in Proverbs 31:20. We are reminded of our Lord’s amazing condescension: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes, he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The word “needy” at the end of verse 20 means “one who is in need, in want; one who is lacking.” When a person lacks basic material necessities such as food and clothing, then he is considered poor, and hence the word is a synonym for poor.
The word “needy” is used to describe the spiritual condition of God’s people. Every believer needs to recognize his spiritual bankruptcy: “I am poor and needy.” See Psalm 40:17; 70:5; 86:1; 109:22. What we need, only God can supply. When He supplies that which we lack, then we are rich indeed.
The key Old Testament passage instructing the Israelites on their responsibilities toward the poor and needy is found in Deuteronomy 15:7-11:
7: If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother:
8: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.
9: Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought, and he cry unto the LORD against thee, and it be sin unto thee.
10: Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this thing the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto.
11: For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.
Notice that they were not to shut their hand, but open their hand wide unto the poor person (verses 7,8,11), just as the godly woman stretched out her hand to the poor and reached forth her hand to the needy (Prov. 31:20).
In Job 29:16 Job said, “I was a father to the poor (needy).” Just as a father takes care of the material needs of his children, so Job took care of the material needs of the poor. See also Job 30:25 where we see Job’s heart of compassion for the poor.
Proverbs 17:5 teaches that the person who is merciful to the poor and needy is the person who honours God. The Amplified Bible renders it this way, “He who oppresses the poor reproaches, mocks and insults his Maker, but he who is kind and merciful to the needy honours Him.”
As we consider our responsibility to the poor today (see 1 John 3:17-18; James 2:15-17), some words of caution are necessary. Don’t be duped. A man may deceptively beg for money for groceries and end up spending it on alcohol. This writer sadly remembers giving a man money for an emergency car repair only to find out later, to my horror, that it was spent on drugs. Another might ask for gas money and use it to support some sinful, wicked habit. Different approaches need to be used. For example, if a person is truly hungry, and you believe it is proper to help, you can sit down with him at the restaurant. As he eats his meal there is an opportunity to share the gospel with him. Not only are you satisfying his physical hunger, but you are also providing an opportunity for spiritual nourishment, which is his greatest need. If a car repair is really needed, don’t give the money to the poor man who may wrongly use it, but to the car mechanic. Make sure the money is used for the right purpose. Discernment is needed. There are times when the right thing to do is to not give any money.
There are people who routinely go around to churches looking for handouts and financial gifts. Supporting this kind of behaviour will not really help the person to be responsible for the long term. After the profits from you, he is off to the next church. We don’t want to support irresponsibility.
In Bible times, the poor and blind and lame depended upon merciful almsgiving in order to survive. Things are somewhat different in our American society where (whether rightly or wrongly) there are all kinds of government programs to assist the poor and needy, and wise stewardship should take this into account. Our government is going to spend a great deal of money supporting the poor and needy (and we contribute to this through our taxes), but our government is not going to spend any money on God-honoring missionary efforts. Also, we should always remember that meeting a person’s physical and material needs does not solve his greatest problem. If we give a person food, clothing and good housing for his entire life, and then he dies and eventually goes to the lake of fire, what have we really done for this man? How much better to support Christ-centered mission agencies which have workers who are concerned about the material needs of the poor, but who are even more concerned about their spiritual and eternal needs.
May God give us much wisdom and discernment in how to best meet the needs of those with whom God puts us in contact.