POVERTY. The condition of having insufficient money, goods, or means of subsistence, measured by the standard of a given society at a given time. It is therefore always a relative condition. (For the Biblical terminology, see Poor.)

In speaking of the poor, the Bible never exactly specifies the standard of living by which they were judged. By modern western standards, most men who lived in Biblical times would be classified as poor. Yet Biblical standards designated only some as poor, and these are the ones we are concerned with, whether or not we can delineate their standard of living. The poor widow had nothing left after her contribution to the treasury (Mark 12:42-44), but others who were termed poor had enough to make meager sacrifices (Lev 14:21ff.; cf. 14:10-20).

After Israel conquered the Promised Land, everyone was given a portion of it. But time brought business deals, the sale of land, and normal economic fluctuations. Some families profited and became wealthy, but others sank into poverty. Anticipating the defenselessness of poor individuals, God provided protection by special legislation (see below). But it is not only the poor who are protected, but also all those who are economically weak or the victims of poverty. These include the widows, orphans, and resident aliens (gerîm) (Isa 1:17; Jer 7:6; Zech 7:10; etc.).


AIs (1961), 68-79, 164-177; TDNT VI (1968), 37-40, 318-332, 865-915.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Old Testament References:

This word, found but once in the Old Testament (Ge 45:11) outside of the Book of Proverbs in which it occurs 11 times (6:11; 10:15; 11:24 the King James Version; 13:18; 20:13; 23:21; 24:34; 28:19,22 the King James Version; 30:8; 31:7), is a translation of yiwaresh, "to be poor," "to come to poverty" (Ge 45:11). Four different Hebrew words are used in the 11 references in Prov, all bearing the idea of being in need of the necessities of life, although a distinction is made between being in want and being in extreme want. Pr 18:23 well illustrates the general meaning of "poverty" as found in this book: "The poor (rush, "to be impoverished," "destitute") useth entreaties; but the rich answereth roughly."

2. New Testament References

"Poverty" occurs 3 times in the New Testament (2Co 8:2,9; Re 2:9) and is the translation of ptocheia, "to be reduced to a state of beggary or pauperism."

The teaching of the Bible on this subject would, however, be incomplete unless all the references to the "poor" were considered in this connection. Indeed the word for "poverty" has its root in the word for "poor" (ptochos; `ani, or dal).

See Poor.

3. Two Degrees of Poverty:

At least two degrees of poverty are recognized. The Old Testament does not distinguish between them as clearly as does the New Testament. The New Testament, for example, by its use of two words for "poor" sets forth this distinction. In 2Co 9:9, "he hath given to the poor," the word used is penes, which does not indicate extreme poverty, but simply a condition of living from hand to mouth, a bare and scant livelihood, such as that made by the widow who cast her two mites into the treasury (Lu 21:2); while in such passages as 2Co 6:10: "As poor, yet making many rich," and Lu 6:20: "Blessed are ye poor" (ptochoi, a condition is indicated of abject beggary, pauperism, such as that in which we find Lazarus who was laid at the gate of the rich man’s palace, begging even the crumbs which fell from the table of the rich man (Lu 16:20,21). It was into this latter condition that Christ voluntarily entered for our sakes: "For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor (a mendicant, a beggar), that ye through his poverty might become rich" (2Co 8:9). Between 30 and 40 times in the New Testament this latter word is used.

4. Causes of Poverty:

The causes of poverty are failure of harvest and poor crops (Ne 5:1-3); devastation caused by enemies sweeping through the land; the oppression of the people by their own rulers (Isa 5:8); excessive interest, usury (Ne 5:1-5); persecution because of the faith (2Co 6; 8). Widows and orphans by reason of their desolate condition were in a special sense subject to poverty. Gluttony brings poverty (Pr 23:21), as does indolence (Pr 28:19).

See Poor.

The happiest mother and the noblest and holiest son that ever lived were among the poor. Jesus was born of poor parents, and had not where to lay His head (Mt 8:20), no money with which to pay tribute (Mt 17:27), no home to call His own (Joh 7:53; compare Joh 8:1), and was buried in a borrowed grave (Mt 27:57-61).

Figurative: Of course there is also a spiritual poverty indicated by the use of this word--a poverty in spiritual things: "Blessed are the poor in spirit." By this is meant, Blessed are they who feel that they have no self-righteousness, no worth of their own to present to Christ as a ground of their salvation, who feel their utter bankruptcy of spirit, who say "Nothing in my hand I bring." It is to this state of spirit that Christ refers in Re 3:17: "Because thou sayest, I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art the wretched one and miserable and poor and blind and naked."

See also

  • Poor