“For oppression makes the wise look foolish and welfare continually destroys the heart.”
I think that I just got political without intending to do so. Then again, politics formed the vast majority of Solomon’s life for not only was he a king over Israel from Jerusalem, he grew up as the favored son of a king over Jerusalem. So, maybe we are not so far off chasing down this rabbit hole.
The oppression being spoken of is the kind of oppression that is harsh and heavy-handed, something Solomon knew well as a king when he was building the Temple and his houses and stables. It is using one’s power to force others to do things that they otherwise would not be doing…hence some translations will render עֹשֶׁק (‘osheq) as “extortion.” The real question has to do with why this behavior makes the wise appear foolish. The simple action is that when you oppress, you end up breaking God’s law. For example, believers are forbidden from oppressing (same word) their neighbor or robbing from him (Leviticus 19:13). Similarly, believers are also forbidden from oppressing (same word again) a hired worker, especially if he is poor (Deuteronomy 24:14). And since wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10), one ends up looking like the fool when his actions go down this pathway.
Thus, those who are in a position of authority, in businesses, in governments, and in institutions should always pay a fair wage to those who labor under them. One of the traps that Christian institutions often fall into is the idea that since their work is a “ministry,” those people who work for them should somehow be paid less than their secular counterpart. This too, is a form of extortion and it will be something for which many Christian overseers will be called to task when they stand before Christ’s judgment seat. It is not uncommon, for example, for Christian schoolteachers to earn only about 60% of what their public school counterparts earn. That does not mean that people ought not make sacrifices for the work of ministry, but a worker deserves his wages (1 Timothy 5:18).
So far, while the application may step on some of your toes, we haven’t found ourselves getting too political. Yet, the second half of this verse begs a question about the morality of the practice of welfare. Solomon writes that this destroys the heart. The term that I chose to translate as “welfare” is the Hebrew word, מַתָּנָה (matanah), which can be translated variously as a gift designed to gain influence (a bribe), a gift to provide for the needs of another, or as a gift to provide for the needs of the poor (welfare). This, Solomon writes, destroys the heart.
Let us begin by asking why a gift might destroy the heart. The simple answer is that when people begin to get accustomed to receiving gifts and benevolences from others, it is very easy for them to fall into the trap of relying on those things. And, when we rely on the benevolence of others, we often seek to engage in productive work ourselves. As human beings made in the image of God, we are made to work (Genesis 2:15) and our lives are not to be filled with passivity or sloth (Proverbs 6:9-11). In facing this problem in the early church, the Apostle Paul instructs the Thessolonians that if people are unwilling to work, do not give them food — insisting that believers in the church earn their own livings (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12). Even widows, if younger than the age of 60, were not allowed on the rolls of the church benevolence lest they become idle and gossips (1 Timothy 5:9-16).
This does not mean that benevolence is bad. There is a place for it and it is a good thing if applied wisely. At the same time, benevolence becomes a social welfare program when people learn to live on the gifts of the people rather than seeking gainful employment. Thus, benevolence is meant to be for a time and a season, not for an indefinite period. Furthermore, there is a great deal of satisfaction and a sense of self-worth that comes from putting in a hard day’s work and earning your wages. That self-worth tends to produce self-respect. And the heart (which in the Hebrew language speaks of the mind and personality of an individual) is then strengthened. But, when you live on the benevolence of others, that self-respect dwindles — the heart is destroyed.
Again, there is a place for benevolence and aide (though it should come through the Deacons of the church and not the government). Use it when you need it and there are seasons when hard-working people do need a helping hand. But, don’t fall into the habit of relying on it. As soon as you are able, go back to work and earn your keep; it is good for your soul.