Work or Vanity

Devotional on Prov 13:11 by Don Strickland

Prov 13:11: “Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow.”

On a dirt road in Alabama almost a century ago, a man drove his wagon home from a “friendly” poker game where he had been successful that night. He must have been quite pleased with his winnings, even though his cousin had accused him of cheating. The newspaper said that he was ambushed on his way home. Shot dead by that same cousin. The deceased was my great-grandfather. . . .

The verse above is better translated: “Wealth gotten by vanity will come to nothing (or “be diminished”), but he who gathers it by labor shall make it multiply.” This verse is not contrasting the persons who are collecting the wealth (ie the lazy versus the diligent). Rather, it is contrasting the method of their wealth gathering. One does so by work and the general principle is that his wealth will grow. The other does so “by vanity,” and not only will his wealth not grow, what he gains by such a method will vanish (the word used for “dwindles away” comes from “breath” and therefore emphasizes the transitoriness of this man’s wealth).

But what is “vanity”? The NIV interprets it as “dishonest,” which might imply theft of some sort. However, the word used here does not strictly mean theft, so “dishonest” is not a good translation here. The word actually means “meaningless” or “empty,” and therefore can take on the idea of something that is “false.” This is the reason why the NASB translates the word as “fraud,” and is therefore seen in connection with a business contract. But does that idea cover the full meaning?

To understand the full meaning, one must look at the positive side of the contrast. That is to say, gathering by labor (or “labour” if you are from the British Isles). Thus the contrast is: work versus vanity. So whatever “vanity” is, it is not work. Also, the NIV’s translation does help in one way in that it understands the contrasting ideas of slow growth of wealth versus the sudden accumulation of a fortune. Thus, we have the idea of a sudden fortune acquired without work with the possibility of deceit being involved – and money gotten in such a manner is transitory.

Ok. What are the possibilities for application? Theft could be in view, especially as it relates to con artists and fraudulent agreements where people are cheated out of the their money. But one situation that especially sticks out to me is gambling or other games of “chance” where one risks or spends some of his money for an opportunity to win a greater sum. There is little or no work involved. There is a sudden increase in wealth to the winner. And it is transitory. Transitory? Yes, studies of lottery winners have shown that almost every big lottery winner declares bankruptcy within a year of winning their money. Therefore, a legitimate application of this verse is may be made against gambling, playing the lottery, and other games (including “approved” church games like bingo) that may grant sudden wealth upon its winners — games that, unfortunately, have become so ingrained in our culture.

“But,” you say, “what if one is not playing the lottery primarily for money? What if the money changing hands in a poker game among friends is incidental? What if one is doing any one of those things merely for entertainment? After all, one could argue, one could work hard for his money and this is disposable income after all other obligations have been met.” All of these are good questions/points.

I will not answer those questions directly, but instead will ask questions of my own. Would you feel any shame to bring Christ into “a game of chance”? Would you have any hesitation trying to convince Him that what you are doing is approved for followers of God? Remembering that addictions begin with a first exposure, do you have any problems introducing your children to such activities? Knowing that such activities are particularly addictive, is it wise to participate in them? Is this a way God would have you spend the money with which He has entrusted to you?

Romans 14 teaches that whatever is not done in faith is sin. If you have difficulty answering those

Don Strickland

Don Strickland

questions in such a manner that would allow your participation in them, then your conscience does not satisfy the criteria that Paul gives in Romans. These type of questions can be helpful for many different activities, not just gambling. Using these principles will help keep one’s conscience clear.

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