The Powerless Poor

The Powerless Poor October 5, 2016

It’s a truism of Old Testament studies that “poverty” in the Bible isn’t merely an economic condition. To be poor is not only to lack property and tangible wealth. It connotes deprivation in a wider sense.

Psalm 10 illustrates the point. The wicked who does not believe in God (vv. 3-4) seem to be prosperous, unmovable, unaffected by adversity (vv. 5-6). The wicked man attacks the innocent with impunity (v. 8), and his “eyes lie in wait for the poor” (v. 8b). That last phrase might mean simply that the wicked looks for an opportunity to take advantage of the poor, but given the connotations of “eyes” in Scripture it might have a more specific, judicial connotation. The wicked has power to twist the law to his advantage, against the poor. The Psalm compares the wicked to a lion waiting for prey, crouching, bowing, finally pouncing on the afflicted (vv. 9-10), all the while saying that God won’t see and judge what he’s done (v. 11).

The Psalmist’s prayer is not that the Lord would make the poor wealthy, but that He would remember and defend the afflicted, proving Himself to be the “helper of the orphan” who commits himself to the Lord (vv. 12-14). What the poor needs isn’t a handout but rescue. He looks to the Lord to “break the arm of the wicked and the evildoer” (v. 15).

Throughout the Psalm, the disparity between the wicked and the “poor” is a disparity of power. It’s probably also a disparity of wealth. The wicked has “mighty ones” who will carry out his plots against the vulnerable (v. 10); he has an entourage, and is able to keep them around because he can pay them. But the disparity of wealth is relevant here because wealth is a form of power. (Dostoevsky called money “coined freedom”; it is also “coined power.”) The wicked can afford to hire thugs and to pay off the cops and judges; the poor man doesn’t have the resources to purchase the most basic defense.

Poverty also seems to be social deprivation. The orphan doesn’t have parents to protect him, and the poor in the Psalm is isolated and alone. If he had advocates and defenders, troops and networks of friends, he wouldn’t be so vulnerable. He could fight back against the thugs; he could find someone with more power to defend him. He has only one defense, the King who vindicates the orphan and oppressed (vv. 16-18), who gives the safety that the poor long for (Psalm 12:5).

The Psalm exhorts us to faith, but also hints at a paradigm for relief work. What the poor need isn’t money per se, certainly not wealth so they can become good consumers in the global economy. They need power, the power that comes through social networks, the power that comes through advocates, the power of legal protection. Insofar as they need money, they need it to secure the power that wealth affords.

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