There is that makes himself rich, yet has nothing: there is that makes himself poor, yet has great riches.
Two singularly-contrasted characters are set in opposition here. One, that of a man who lives like a millionaire and is a pauper; another, that of a man who lives like a pauper and is rich. Now, I do not suppose that the author of this proverb attached any kind of moral to it, in his own mind. It is simply a jotting of an observation drawn from a wide experience; and if he meant to teach any lesson by it, I suppose it was nothing more than that in regard to money, as to other things, we should avoid extremes, and should try to show what we are, and to be what we seem. This finds its highest application in regard to Christianity, and our relation to Jesus Christ.
I. OUR UNIVERSAL POVERTY. However a man may estimate himself and conceit himself, there stand out two salient facts.
1. The fact of universal dependence. Whatever else may be dark and difficult about the co-existence of these two, the infinite God and the finite universe, this at least is sun-clear, that the creature depends absolutely for everything on that infinite Creator. People talk sometimes, and we are all too apt to think, as if God had made the world and left it. And we are all apt to think that, however we may owe the origination of our own personal existence to a Divine act, the act was done when we began to be, and the life was given as a gift that could be separated from the Bestower. If it were possible to cut a sunbeam in two, so that the further half of it should be separated from its vital union with the great central fire from which it rushed long, long ago, that further half would pale into darkness. And if you cut the connection between God and the creature, the creature shrivels into nothing. So at the very foundation of our being there lies absolute dependence. In like manner, all that we call faculties, capacities, and the like, are, in a far deeper sense than the conventional use of the word "gift" implies, bestowments from Him. As well, then, might the pitcher boast itself of the sparkling water that it only holds, as well might the earthen jar plume itself on the treasure that has been deposited in it, as we make ourselves rich because of the riches that we have received. "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his strength. Let not the rich man glory in his riches; but he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord."
2. Then, turn to the second of the facts on which this universal poverty depends, and that is, the fact of universal sinfulness. Ah, there is one thing that is our own — "If any power we have, it is to will." Conscience tells us, and we all know it, that we are the causes of our own actions, though from Him come the powers by which we do them. The electricity comes from the central power-station, but it depends on us what sort of wheels we make it drive, and what kind of work we set it to do. So, then, there are these two things, universal dependence and universal sinfulness, and on them is built the declaration of universal poverty. Duty is debt. What we ought is what we owe. We all owe an obedience which none of us has rendered. We are all paupers.
II. THE POOR RICH MAN. "There is that maketh himself rich, and yet hath nothing." That describes accurately the type of man who ignores dependence, and is not conscious of sin, and so struts about in self-complacent satisfaction with himself, and knows nothing of his true condition. There is nothing more tragic than that a man, laden, as we each of us are, with burden of evil that we cannot get rid of, should yet conceit himself to possess merits, virtues, graces, that ought to secure for him the admiration of his fellows and the approbation of God. "The deceitfulness of sin" is one of its mightiest powers. You condemn in other people the very things you do yourself. Many of you have never ventured upon a careful examination and appraisement of your own moral and religious character. You durst not, for you are afraid that it would turn out badly. Then you have far too low a standard, and one of the main reasons why you have so low a standard is just because the sins that you do have dulled your consciences. Aye, and more than that. The making of yourself rich is the sure way to prevent yourself from ever being so. We see that in all other regions of life. If a student says to himself, "Oh! I know all that subject," the chances are that he will not get it up any more. And in any department, when a man says, "Lo! I have attained," then he ceases to advance. If you fancy yourselves to be quite well, though a mortal disease has gripped you, you will take no medicine, nor have recourse to any physician. If you think that you have enough good to show for man's judgment and for God's, and have not been convinced of your dependence and your sinfulness, then Jesus Christ will be very little to you. I believe that this generation needs few things more than it needs a deepened consciousness of the reality of sin and of the depth and damnable nature of it.
III. THE RICH POOR MAN. "There is that maketh himself poor, and yet" — or, as varied, the expression is, therefore hath great riches. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Consciousness of poverty is the only fitting attitude for any of us to take up in view of the fact of our dependence and the fact of our sinfulness. Then let me remind you that this wholesome recognition of facts about ourselves as they are is the sure way to possess the wealth. If you see your poverty, let self-distrust be the nadir, the lowest point, and let faith be the complementary high point, the zenith. The rebound from self-distrust to trust in Christ is that which makes the consciousness of poverty the condition of receiving wealth. And what wealth it is! — the wealth of a peaceful conscience, of a quiet heart, of lofty aims, of a pure mind, of strength according to our need, of an immortal hope, of a treasure in the heavens that faileth not. Do you estimate yourself as you are? Have you taken stock of yourself? Have you got away from the hallucination of possessing wealth? Have you taken the wealth which He freely gives to all who sue in forma pauperis? He does not ask you to bring anything but debts and sins, emptiness and weakness, and penitent faith. And then you will be of those blessed poor ones who are rich through faith, and heirs of the kingdom.
(A. Maclaren, D.D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: There is that maketh himself rich, yet hath nothing: there is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches.