Psalm 112 – Generous Slavery

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Today’s PassagePsalm 112

Sometimes the psalm summarizes itself for you. Consider the opening lines of today’s psalm: “How blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commandments!” (112:1). The rest of the psalm is basically a litany of blessings for the man who fears the Lord. He receives a well-established family tree, material wealth, a good legacy, victory over his adversaries, and more. But let’s zero in on a verse in the middle of the psalm, characterizing this man of many blessings. The man is merciful–and a creditor.

Here’s the verse in question: “It is well with the man who is gracious and lends; he will maintain his cause in judgment” (112:5). It immediately reminded me of Proverbs 22:7: “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.” For years I’ve taken this verse as a warning against dealing in debt from either side of the table, consistent with Polonius’ admonition from Hamlet, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” (I.iii). (No doubt my views were also influenced by Dave Ramsay.) But it would seem that Psalm 112 casts lending in a positive light, an act of generosity by a man who fears the Lord. And yes, I checked Strong’s Concordance, and it’s the same word for “lend.” In both the psalm and the proverb in question, the Hebrew word is the causative tense of the verb lavahliterally, “to cause to borrow.” The creditor binds the debtor to his debt.

So: the man who lends is gracious, and the man who lends enslaves the man who borrows from him. Are we supposed to conclude that it can be an act of charity to enslave people through debt?

Well, yes and no. There are a lot of different ways to render lavah, depending on its context. The KJV in various places translates it join, lend, borrow, abide, and cleave. The root meaning appears to be “join,” as I hinted at above, in the case where the borrower is joined to the sum of money he owes. The “negative money” becomes like a weight he has to carry, and his obligation to repay the debt limits his freedom of action like a ball and chain or a pair of handcuffs. Moreover, the word “slave” in Proverbs 22:7 can be translated a variety of ways as well. It’s the Hebrew ebeda noun derived from the verb abadwhich might be translated as serve, do, till, worshippers…um, dress…or ear? Wait, what?

Abad, as far as I can make out, is tied to labor and service. Even before the fall, it’s what Adam does in the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15, “cultivate”), and after Adam is exiled from the garden, it’s what his son Cain does to the ground (Gen. 4:2, “tiller”). It’s what the older brother Esau has to do for the younger brother Jacob (Gen. 25:23, “serve”). It’s even what the Israelites do for God after Pharaoh releases them during the exodus (Exo. 3:12, 12:31, “worship”). There are a lot of different forms of activity that abad can take, and if it’s slavery, then most days of the week we go to slavery at the office, or slavery at the retail counter or warehouse or restaurant. We go to the bank and take out a home slavery so we can buy a house, and on Sunday mornings we go to slavery and sing songs of slavery to God. My point is, maybe “the borrower is slave to the lender” isn’t the best translation of Proverbs 22:7.

But, after the word studies in Hebrew are all said and done, we’re still left with Psalm 112:5 and its suggestion that lending can be a benevolent act. You’re obligating someone to yourself: how can that be good? It seems that after five paragraphs I’ve opened up a bigger can of worms than I’m prepared to deal with, but the verse challenges my preconceptions. I think of the Parable of the Talents, in which three servants are loaned a sum of money and expected to make a return on their master’s investments. And I think about how microloans in third-world countries can help people and villages escape poverty. My brother did some missions work in Nigeria with one such organization, Self-Sustaining Enterprises. Am I prepared to write his work off as bad? And at the end of the day, I think of Bob Dylan’s words: “You gotta serve somebody.” One way or another, we are all ebeds, servants of something.

And I didn’t even get to verse 9: “He has given freely to the poor.” Man, talk about a line that hit me where I live. The man who fears the Lord doesn’t merely lend. When it comes to the poor, he gives without expectation of return. Have I given freely to the poor? Not so much.

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