The translation of several Biblical terms (discussed below) which describe the person who has little or nothing in the way of wealth, goods, or means of subsistence. Sometimes the term is used metaphorically of the humble and meek.
Israel as a nation was born out of deep poverty (Exod.1.8-Exod.1.14; Exod.2.7-Exod.2.10) and was never allowed to forget it (e.g., 1Kgs.8.50-1Kgs.8.53). If Israel met the conditions of God’s covenant, there would be no poor among them; but God knew this would never be realized (Deut.15.4-Deut.15.11).
Willful neglect leading to poverty is not condoned (Prov.13.4-Prov.13.18). National disasters caused the poor to become almost synonymous with the pious (e.g., Ps.68.10; Isa.41.17). Even in the early nomadic and later agricultural economy there were slaves and poor freemen, but there were many more in the urban and commercial economy of the monarchy.
At the outset of his ministry, Jesus, taking for his text Isa.61.1-Isa.61.2, presents as his first aim, “to preach good news to the poor.” That physical poverty is meant is shown by the contrasts in Luke.6.20-Luke.6.26. In Matt.5.3 Jesus commends the poor in spirit, the humble ones. Jesus moved among the poor and humble. He associated himself with them in his manner of living and his freedom from the encumbering cares of property (Matt.8.20). He understood and appreciated the sacrificial giving of a poor widow (Mark.12.41-Mark.12.44). He recognized the continuing obligation toward the poor and at the same time appreciated a unique expression of love toward himself (Mark.14.7). The early church moved among the poor, who were not too poor to be concerned for one another’s welfare (2Cor.8.2-2Cor.8.5, 2Cor.8.9-2Cor.8.15), drawing inspiration from Christ’s leaving heavenly riches for earthly poverty.
The origin of the diaconate is linked with a special need (Acts.6.1-Acts.6.6). Those with property contributed to the common fund (Acts.2.45; Acts.4.32-Acts.4.37). The Jerusalem Council asked Paul and Barnabas to remember the poor (Gal.2.10). James has some sharp words about the relations of rich and poor (Jas.1.9-Jas.1.11; Jas.2.1-Jas.2.13; Jas.5.1-Jas.5.6).
The Poor in the Old Testament
The poor have great prominence in the Bible; it is said, indeed, that there should be no poor among the Hebrews because Yahweh should so greatly bless them (De 15:4 the Revised Version (British and American) and the King James Version margin); but this was only to be realized on certain conditions of obedience (De 15:5), and in De 15:11 it is said,"The poor will never cease out of the land"; but they were to see to it that none was left in destitution. The very foundation of the Hebrew religion was God’s pity on a poor and oppressed people.
The Israelites were slaves in Egypt and immediately after the Exodus all were at the mercy of the desert. Under such conditions no sharp class or economic distinctions could develop. The conquest of the Promised Land brought a hereditary portion of land to every Israelite, and with it a settled life. It also brought contact with the Canaanites who already lived in towns with class distinctions. The new life in the Promised Land produced the conditions which resulted in social differences. With a special concern to prevent permanent and hopeless poverty, Yahweh gave specific commands to His people regarding the poor.
Special Provisions for the Poor
every third year a tithe was to be given "unto the Levite, to the sojourner, to the fatherless and to the widow" that Yahweh might bless them (De 14:28,29; 26:12 f);
the poor were to have the free use of all that grew spontaneously in field or vineyard during the Sabbatic year (Ex 23:10 f; Le 25:5,6);
each year the gleanings of the fields and [vineyards should belong to the poor, the corners of fields were to be left for them, and if a sheaf was forgotten it should remain (Le 19:9,10; 23:22; De 24:19);
fruit and ripe grain in a field might be eaten by any hungry person, but none should be carried away (De 23:24,25);
in the Feast of Weeks the poor were to participate (De 16:9-12);
every seventh year there should be a "release" of debts (De 15:1 f); in the seventh year of servitude the Hebrew bond-servant should go free (Ex 21:2), or in the Jubilee, if that came first, on which occasion—the fiftieth year—property that had been sold returned to its owner or his family (Le 25:8-17);
justice was to be done to the poor (Ex 23:6; De 27:19, "Cursed be he that wresteth the justice due to the sojourner, fatherless, and widow"); (i) offerings were graduated according to means (Le 5:7; 12:8).
Caring for the Poor
Day of Divine Manifestation
The day of the divine manifestation, the times of the Messiah, should bring deliverance and rejoicing to the poor (Ps 72:12-15; Isa 11:4, "With righteousness shall he judge the poor," etc.; Isa 14:30; 29:19; 61:1 the Revised Version margin).
Equality of Rich and Poor
The equality of rich and poor before God and the superiority of the righteous poor to the ungodly rich, etc., are maintained (Pr 19:1,22; 22:1,2; Ec 4:13).
Ways in which Men Make Themselves Poor
The Poor in the New Testament
In the New Testament ptochos is translated "beggar" (Lu 16:20,22) and "beggarly" (Ga 4:9); penes, "one who works for his daily bread," "a poor man," is the word in 2Co 9:9; the poor widow of Mr 12:42 is described in Lu 21:2 as penichros, "very poor." It does not occur very frequently, but we see the same regard for the poor maintained as we have in the Old Testament; besides, the new principle of love and the example of Him who "though he was rich, yet for your sakes .... became poor" (ptocheuo, 2Co 8:9) necessarily carry in them this regard even more fully than in the Old Testament.
Additionally, the term “poor” sometimes occurs in the Bible in the combination “rich and poor,” which indicates completeness. This is similar to the use of other pairs of antonyms such as “great and small” (2 Chron 34:30; 36:18), “good and evil” (Gen 2:17; Prov 15:3), etc. to mean “all,” “everything,” or “everyone.” Thus “rich and poor” (Ps 49:2) means “all the inhabitants of the world” (cf. v. 1). This usage also occurs in Proverbs 22:2 and Revelation 13:16.
Jesus and the Poor
Jesus announced His mission (Lu 4:18) by quoting Isa 61:1, "to preach good tidings (the King James Version "the gospel") to the poor" (or meek or humble); He gave as a proof of His Messiahship the fact that "the poor have the gospel (or good news of the Kingdom) preached to them" (Mt 11:5; Lu 7:22); according to Lu 6:20, He pronounced a beatitude on the pious "poor" because the kingdom of God was theirs; in Mt 5:3 it is "the poor in spirit" (the humble). Special notice was taken by Jesus of the poor widow’s contribution (Lu 21:3) as well as Zaccheus' gift of `half of his goods to the poor’ (Lu 19:8).
Jesus was a realist when He said that there would always be poor people (Matt 26:11), but this did not diminish His concern for them and aid to them. He and His disciples had a common treasury from which contributions were made to the poor (John 13:29). He encouraged the rich man to distribute his wealth to the poor (Matt 19:21), and inculcated an attitude of mercy toward debtors (Luke 7:41ff.). The guests for a banquet should be the poor, maimed, lame, and blind, because they could not repay (14:13, 14). Likewise, in the parable about the heavenly banquet, God seeks the poor and needy (14:15-24).
The Early Church cared for its own poor (Acts 2:45; 4:34) and its widows (6:1). Paul was anxious to remember the poor (Gal 2:10) and to promote the collection for the poor (Rom 15:26). James criticized the disrespect shown to the poor by the Church in contrast to their attitude to the rich (James 2:2-7). Here the poor are considered to be the rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom (2:5).
The Poor in the Apocrypha
In the Apocrypha the poor are often mentioned; God’s regard for them (Ecclesiasticus 21:5 (ptochos); 35:12,13); their oppression and wrongs (The Wisdom of Solomon 2:10 (penes); Ecclesiasticus 13:3,19,23 (ptochos); Baruch 6:28); the duty of care for and of giving to the poor (Tobit 4:7 (ptochos); Ecclesiasticus 29:8 (tapeinos); 29:9 (penes); 34:20-22); of justice and kindness to such (Ecclesiasticus 4:1,5,8; 7:32; 10:23 (ptochos)); "poor" in the sense of pitiable occurs in 2 Macc 4:47 (talaiporos), the Revised Version (British and American) "hapless."
The Godly Poor
`ani (rendered also "afflicted") may also denote Israel as a nation in its afflictions and low estate, e.g. Ps 68:10; Isa 41:17; 49:13; 51:21; 54:11; in Ze 3:12, it is "the ideal Israel of the future."
The Revised Version (British and American) Changes
For "the poor of this world" (Jas 2:5) the Revised Version (British and American) has "them that are poor as to the world"; for "The poor .... shall trust in it" (Isa 14:32), "In her shall the afflicted .... take refuge"; instead of "Whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor" (Ec 4:14), "Yea, even in his kingdom he was born poor"; "poor" for "humble" (Ps 9:12; 10:12, margin "meek"), for "lowly" (Pr 16:19, margin "meek").
AIs (1961), 68-79, 164-177;
TDNT VI (1968), 37-40, 318-332, 865-915