1. Old Testament References:
This word, found but once in the Old Testament (Gen 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" (Gen 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. Prov 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 (2 Cor 8:2,9; Rev 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).
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 2 Cor 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 (Lk 21:2); while in such passages as 2 Cor 6:10: "As poor, yet making many rich," and Lk 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 (Lk 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" (2 Cor 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 (Neh 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 (Neh 5:1-5); persecution because of the faith (2 Cor 6; 8). Widows and orphans by reason of their desolate condition were in a special sense subject to poverty. Gluttony brings poverty (Prov 23:21), as does indolence (Prov 28:19).
God commanded His people to care for the poor. The exhortations to relieve poverty are numerous, especially in the Pentateuch. Those in poverty must be treated with kindness (Dt 15:7-11); must be allowed to glean in the vineyards (Lev 19:10); to reap the harvest (Lev 23:22; compare Ruth 2:14-16); must not be neglected (Prov 28:27); nor dealt with harshly (Am 8:4-6); must be treated as equal before God (Prov 22:2); are to share in our hospitality (Lk 14:13,21). Indeed, the truth or falsity of a man's religion is to be tested, in some sense at least, by his relation to those in need (Jas 1:27). The year of Jubilee was intended to be of great benefit to the poor by restoring to them any possessions which they, by reason of their poverty, had been compelled to deed over to their creditors (Lev 25:25-54; Dt 15:12-15). God required certain tithes from His people which were to be devoted to the helping of the poor and needy (Dt 14:28; 26:12,13). So in the New Testament the apostles lay special emphasis upon remembering the poor in the matter of offerings. Paul, especially, inculcated this duty upon the churches which he had rounded (Rom 15:26; Gal 2:10). The attitude of the early Christian church toward its poor is amply illustrated in that first attempt at communism in Acts 2; 4. James, in his Epistle, stingingly reminds his readers of the fact that they had grossly neglected the important matter of caring for the poor (chapter 2). Indeed, so strong is he in his plea for the care of the poor that he claims that the man who willfully neglects the needy thereby proves that the love of God has no place in his heart, and that he has consequently no real faith in God (2:14-26). Christians are exhorted to abound in the grace of hospitality, which, of course, is nothing less than kindness to those in need (Rom 12:13; 1 Tim 6:18; 1 Jn 3:17).
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 (Jn 7:53; compare 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 Rev 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."