Proverbs 28:19: “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.”
This is a near quotation of Prov. 12:11.
This proverb is tied together by the repetition of the main verb, to be satisfied or full. One kind of action results in fullness of bread, and another kind of action results in a fullness of poverty. And a “fullness of poverty” is a striking and ironic image.
“Working the land” is reminiscent of Genesis 2-3. Adam was originally placed in the garden to “work” it (2:5, 15). And in the curses for his sin, the ground is cursed and Adam is told that he will have to toil to eat anything from it. Adam followed worthless/empty things when he listened to the voice of his wife and disobeyed God. Thus, he and the ground he was taken from were cursed, and he was filled with poverty.
Adam was sent out of the garden to work the ground he was taken from (3:23), but where Adam is cursed with hard toil, Cain is cursed with the promise that the ground will not give its strength to him (4:12). From these early episodes, it is clear that poverty is not merely lack of material goods. Poverty has everything to do with estrangement from God and from His blessing on our labors. Cain may have been a very hard worker, but the curse of God promises poverty.
Another way of looking at this proverb is as a promise for the renewal of creation. The original creation scene suggests that God Himself was the original “worker” of the ground. God worked/tilled the ground, and out of the ground He formed animals and plants and ultimately Adam. God causes good things to come up from the ground. This was Adam’s original mandate and part of his image bearing. He was called to imitate God’s work in creation.
This proverb suggests that the image of God is being renewed. Working the ground will produce plenty again. Perhaps this is bound up with another meaning of the word “work.” The word can and frequently does mean “serve.” The word becomes particularly significance in the Exodus narrative. Pharaoh makes Israel serve him, but Yahweh comes for His people so that they may serve Him (Ex. 1:13-14, 3:13, 4:23). And the Israelites begin their service of Yahweh in the Passover (Ex. 13:5) and it ultimately takes place in the worship of God in the tabernacle (Num. 3:7-8, 4:23-47).
It’s after the Exodus that God explicitly says “You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you.” (Ex. 23:25) The covenant rescue and love of God is beginning to turn back the curse. This was to be constantly pictured in the tabernacle with the Levites and Priests who “served” or “worked,” offering the Lord’s food offerings, the bread of their God (Lev. 21:6).
28:20: “A faithful man will abound with blessings, but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.”
The Proverbs have previously warned against “haste” as a sure method of falling into sin and getting lost (Pr. 19:2). Likewise, “haste” is a sure recipe for poverty (Pr. 21:5). The Proverbs go so far as to say that a man who is hasty in his words is worse off than a fool (Pr. 29:20).
Following the last proverb, this one distinguishes between different kinds of diligence, different sorts of “work.” Abundance and blessing comes to the man who works “faithfully.” Haste can seem like hard work and sometimes looks like diligence. But as the previous proverbs have warned, it is frequently a high-handed sort of folly.
“Faithful” means steady or truthful. Moses hands are held up by Aaron and Hur and made “steady” (Ex. 17:12). God is faithful like a “rock” (Dt. 32:4). Repeatedly, God is described as truthful and faithful. He keeps His promises and saves and defends His people (e.g. Ps. 89, 96:13, 98:3).
He who hastens to get rich will “not go unpunished.” The word for “unpunished” means “free” or “innocent.” He who takes the name of God in vain will not be “guiltless” (Ex. 20:7, Dt. 5:11). God shows mercy to thousands who fear Him, but He by no means will “clear” the guilty (Ex. 34:7, Num. 14:18). The word is used again in Numbers 5 to describe the jealousy rite for the husband who suspects his wife of infidelity (cf. Pr. 6:29. The word is also used in a few contexts with regard to loyalty to the king/nation (1 Sam. 26:9, 1 Kg. 2:9). All of this seems to indicate a kind of treachery, a guilt specifically of covenant breaking, betrayal.
This fits with the previous part of the proverb. A faithful man imitates God’s covenant faithfulness. But a greedy and hasty man is a covenant breaker. And this leads us back to the previous proverb and the point about poverty having to do with one’s standing before God. A man who just scrapes the ground and digs everywhere looking for treasure will ordinarily find nothing because he does not know or want to believe that God’s blessing is necessary for success. The man who seeks God and imitates His faithfulness will find that the earth produces blessings.
28:21: “To show partiality is not good, but for a piece of bread a man will do wrong.”
Literally, to show partiality is to “regard/recognize faces.” Isaac did not “recognize/regard” Jacob (Gen. 27:23). Later Jacob identifies Joseph’s robe by recognizing it (Gen. 37:33). But regarding or recognizing faces is not good because it distorts justice (Dt. 1:17, 16:19). Someone’s reputation or one’s own reputation before that person’s face can lead people to judge wrongly. Bribes can be implicit (reputation) as well as explicit (a bribe). And perhaps this proverb points to how little it can sometimes take for a decision to waver. Partiality in judging is not good (Pr. 24:23).
Waltke suggests that this proverb should be understood in a parallel way to Pr. 6:26 where a prostitute reduces a man to a “piece of bread.” And the thought may be that the prostitute is actually fairly cheap (see ESV), and it is that very cheapness that reduces the man’s worth. The word for man in this proverb is gever which is related to the word givor which means “mighty man.” This is a man who is strong enough to work the ground and under the blessing of God cause it to produce fruit. But instead of an honest wage, a man may take a bribe for a crust of bread.
Not only can the verb mean recognize, but in some forms it means to be “unrecognized” or “foreign/stranger” (Gen. 17:12). In Dt. 32:27 the meanings seem to converge when Moses sings about how God would have destroyed Israel except for what their enemies would have thought. They would have “misunderstood” or as the KJV puts it “behave themselves strangely.”
This ambiguity points to the fact that in some sense justice must always be done by both recognizing faces and not recognizing faces. There is a proximity and distance necessary to execute justice. And absolute objectivity is simply impossible.
The law forbids “sons of a foreigner” from eating the Passover (Ex. 12:43). Neither may Israelites bring animals for sacrifice which they have purchased from a son of foreigner or stranger (Lev. 22:25). Perhaps there is some covenantal connection here as well?
Parents can sometimes fail in this regard when they neglect basic justice for the sake of a moment of silence.