The Meaning of Poor as Used in the Bible

Last week, we asked you to define poverty. And we promised to share what our definition and understanding of poverty is and explain to you the basis of our holistic approach to ministry.

Today, Scott Todd, our Senior Ministry Advisor, begins with the meaning of poor as used in the Bible — something we’ll build upon in future posts.

There are 178 uses of the word poor in Scripture. Although there are a few exceptions, the term poor in Scripture means economic/material poverty.

Review the following verses and notice the characteristics: insufficient food, cannot afford, cannot support himself, debt and shabby clothes.

  • “Then the poor among you may get food” (Exodus 23:11)
  • “If . . . he is poor and cannot afford these” (Leviticus 14:21)
  • “If one . . . becomes poor and is unable to support himself” (Leviticus 25:35)
  • “Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it” (Deuteronomy 24:15)
  • “[T]he poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb” (2 Samuel 12:3)
  • “[T]he infant of the poor is seized for a debt” (Job 24:9)
  • “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare” (Proverbs 20:13)
  • “[G]o, sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21)
  • “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:26)
  • “Suppose . . . a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in” (James 2:2)

The term poor in Scripture refers to an economic condition, but the circumstances and causes associated with that condition are complex.

The condition of poverty is sometimes associated with oppression, isolation and injustice. Consider Proverbs 13:23:

“A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.”

Proverbs 19:4 speaks of social isolation:

“Wealth brings many friends, but a poor man’s friend deserts him.”

There are many conditions and experiences that surround economic poverty, but they are descriptions of the circumstances/causes and not definitions of it.

A person who has a right relationship with God can be economically poor:

“Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse” (Proverbs 28:6).

In other words, the term poor describes the mans economic condition despite his spiritually rich state.

Poverty can also exist in a person whose moral/spiritual condition is degraded:

“[D]runkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags” (Proverbs 23:21).

A poor man may be wise and discerning:

“A rich man may be wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has discernment sees through him” (Proverbs 28:11).

As another example, consider Ecclesiastes 9:15:

“Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered the poor man.”

Poverty can also result from foolishness:

“[T]he one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty” (Proverbs 28:19).

The verses above demonstrate that the terms poor and poverty as used in Scripture refer to economic poverty. They also show that the condition may exist in a person who is wise or foolish, godly or otherwise.

There may be a few instance in Scripture in which poor is used metaphorically, such as Revelations 3:17:

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

There is also Jesus’ unique use of the phrase “poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3, which refers to a spiritual realities:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Despite these few exceptions, the case can overwhelmingly be made that references in Scripture to the poor or to poverty should be taken to mean economic poverty, unless the passage can clearly be argued to have a different meaning.

12 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Dr Rev.R.E.A.Blake June 20, 2016

    If a person lack the basic necessities of life required to protect his dignity and his health, and if that lack is the result of powerlessness, then that person is poor. I propose this remark as a possible definition of the adjective:POOR.

  2. Linda December 3, 2015

    This was very helpful…Biblical and to the point!

  3. luckson rweyemamu November 3, 2015

    its only because of our poverty both economically and spiritually JESUS went on cross died for us and 3rd day ressurected for our graet salvation as now to enjoy his grorious richness.

  4. Therese October 22, 2015

    Poor…meaning “Lack”. Anytime you have lack, “you are poor”. Lack of love, lack of friends, lack of health, and lack of bread, etc. There are people that are millionaires that are anything but rich…they are poorer than those who lack in money.

  5. Glenn Wassmer October 4, 2010

    The briallance of the written Word is in instances like Isaiah 61:1 for example. In hebrew the word “meek” (poor) literally is translated “humble, lowly, meek, poor” ie, “in spirit”. But when Christ quotes himself in Luke 4:18 the word “poor” in greek, it is implied as a pauper or beggar when it’s played out through Strong’s. A few years back I made a scroll that listed the 198 times the word “poor” is mentioned in the KJV, of those 198, only 20 of them refer to “humble, lowly, meek” as in the “blessed are the poor in spirt” passage of the beattiudes. Sometimes there is a clear distinction between the two and sometimes they simply are meant to blend together, but one thing for sure is that they both meant/mean very much to Jesus Christ!

  6. Sandra McHarg September 28, 2010

    Kees, re. point two, Jesus at one point says that God causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and that he is generous even to the ungrateful and the ungodly. Also it’s not the well who need a doctor but the sick, and not the sheep safe in the stall that need to be rescued but the one that’s run off. From my experience it’s really hard to be generous to the ungrateful but hey, I guess if it’s good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for me.
    Sponsorship has a kind of emotional inbuilt reward. My first sponsored child disappeared presumed dead in the Rwandan massacres. I didn’t get to see him graduate from the program and lead a transormed life or anything, but I’m positive the sponsorship money wasn’t therefore a waste. When we spend our money helping the poor we get our own lives into a better perspective, we demonstrate the good news instead of just jabbering on about it, but generally we don’t come close to the kind of sharing in the early church and which Paul talks about in his letters. It’s very hard to disentangle our lives from our wealth when we live in a culture that is so heavily defined by how much we spend and what we posess. And yet Jesus tells us that we must be on our guard against all kinds of greed because our life is not defined by our posessions. Oooh he makes it hard 🙂

    1. Kees Boer September 29, 2010

      Hi, Sandra,
      I can definitely see all you are saying in the second paragraph and you bring out some excellent points. I wish everyone thought like you did. Several of my children have departed over the years without graduating. I hope I didn’t scare them off. jajajaja But I still think that it made a big impact in their lives… And I could even see that Compassion or that local church made more of an impact in some of the children that didn’t graduate as some that did. Not that I encourage any child not to graduate!
      But I am a little confused about the first paragraph. Are you saying that all of the instruction given to the church should be applied to people in the church as well as to people outside of the church? For instance, would the church practice church discipline to believers as well as to unbelievers? Would they baptize believers as well as unbelievers? My big point in Biblical interpretation is more fundamental than the application. As a matter of fact it is more of a general question that should be answered as we grapple with passages in Scripture… The whole post above relates more to one’s hermeneutics as they approach the Scriptures. Once that has been estabilshed then we can look at individual passages and see 1. what they say, then 2. what does that mean, 3. how does that correlate with the rest of Scripture and then 4. how will we apply it in our lives. My whole post refers more to part 1 and maybe part 2 of the hermeneutical procoss.
      Now my last paragraph about Camilla, that’s on level 4. jajajaja

      1. Sandra McHarg October 12, 2010

        Hi Kees, I’m specifically referring to helping the poor, other church practices probably need to be looked at case by case. But the church has a long history of helping the poor and powerless, believers and unbelievers, according to both biblical and historical accounts, and there have been so many people who have then asked “why do you care about me” and come to believe in God because of the demonstration of his love through us. Sounds like too good a chance for us to pass up.
        There seems to be additional responsibilities within the church to share with each other, but even then I think making sure everyone’s material needs are met is only part of the story, and that gross inequality is not God’s pattern for his kingdom, of which we are the present imperfect representation.

  7. steph September 28, 2010

    I read a really great book on this subject & various theories of poverty called Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development by Bryant L. Myers. I recommend it to anyone thinking about this!!

  8. Joanie September 27, 2010

    This information and post really cleared up a lot of confusion for me.
    I was confused about a lot of those passages, especially the proverbs and the Gospel of Jesus. Thank you for such a blessing of this important viewpoint and information. It really helped clarify things for me.
    Mr. Boer, I will pray that little Camila gets a sponsor soon. All I can do currently is be a correspondent….
    I will pray for you, Camila, her family, your family etc tonight. God bless and good night.

  9. Kees Boer September 27, 2010

    This is a very insightful interesting post…. There are a few foundational questions that should be asked about these pasages….

    As is clear, the Bible is not written in verses. The chapter and verse distinction was added much later and the division is not inspired by itself. As a matter of fact, there are clear instances in the Bible, where it hurts interpretation.

    These are the points to consider:

    1. What are the commands or instruction given to the nation of Israel as given to a nation and what are commands or instruction given to the church and what are commands or instructions given as general principles to people?

    For instance, I would not think that the instructions to execute capital punishment given to the nation of Israel would be appropriate to apply them to the church or to an individual. That’s instruction to a nation. At the same breath, the instruction to baptize or the instructions to not associate with certain false teachers is not given to a country , but to the church….

    So, each of these passage we would do well in to evaluate, who the instruction is for and how it will apply to us as believers.

    Then the next question that I would pose is:

    2. Are the instructions to physically or financially help the poor all by itself given to the church directed to the poor within or outside of the church?

    For instance, the passage from Romans 15 is clearly relating to the believers that are poor in the churches in Jerusalem.

    These are important questions to grapple with and to answer them based on what the Scriptures teach based on solid hermeneutics…

    Ok…. back to writing my kids and looking for a sponsor. Anyone know someone, who could sponsor little Camila. I have several pictures of her and her mother. She is a very nice little girl in Cochabamba. She is 5 years old. Camila makes her home with her father and her mother. Running errands and cleaning are her household duties. Her father is sometimes employed as a laborer and her mother maintains the home. There are 4 children in the family.Camila is not presently attending school. Playing with dolls is her favorite activity. She also attends church activities regularly..

    If you know someone, who could sponsor her, Please, email me at:

    1. Tiffany October 4, 2010

      Then, there is the passage in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus talks about the difference between sheep and goats. He refers overwhelmingly to the poor in this passage, with no qualifiers. There is no “I was hungry, and not going to use the money for booze, and you fed me.”

      We need no qualifiers to help the poor. I’m not saying God will call everyone to give every homeless person he passes money, it was just an example. No matter what – these people are far worse off than we, and to ignore God’s compassionate heart for the poor is not a good idea. (Not saying you are, by the way.)

      In fact, God calls each of us to help the poor in different ways – some ARE called to help the homeless in our own country. Others, like myself, are called to make a difference in one child’s life via sponsorship. Getting too picky about “what it all means” is like trying to stuff God into a box. Most of the time, the safest interpretation of Scripture is the simplest, most obvious one. And where the poor are concerned, the Bible is pretty clear – we are called to have compassion and to help in whatever practical way we can.

      From other Scriptures, we are given the impression that what we have is given to us for the benefit of OTHERS, and to bring glory to God.

      After all, he’s not going to ask us how well we interpreted Scripture, despite the chapter/verse divisions. He’s not going to ask us what church we went to. He’s going to either acknowledge our willingness to help the poor, imprisoned, and sick, or acknowledge that we never did.

      It is obvious, from the overall tone of Scripture, from beginning to end, that God loves the poor, and desires to use his children to help the poor – believers or not. In the church, or out of the church does not matter.

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