Better is a little with the fear of the Lord
than great treasure and trouble with it.
My translation: Better is little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure with trouble.
This is the second in a triad of proverbs. It begins with 15:15 (All the days of the poor are hard, but a cheerful heart has a continual feast) focusing our attention on the issue of poverty and the mystery of the abundance of a cheerful heart. Taking 15:15 alone may leave us to assume that a cheerful heart is synonymous with riches, but taken in context one finds the “continual feast” of the cheerful heart as the mirrored antithesis of the “grazing fool” in 15:14. Thus, the cheerful heart is directed more toward wisdom and a self disposition than riches.
This is continued in 15:16 where poverty and riches are suggested in the wording “little/great treasure.” We are still drawing parallels between physical wealth and the disposition of the heart. As opposed to the common wisdom that wealth = happiness and poverty = sadness, this proverb suggests that wealth has no real bearing on the disposition of the heart. Instead, it directs us to the central concept of the “fear of the Lord.” When one fears the Lord, they are participating in a lifestyle of sharing and attempting to fulfill the command to be like God who frees the slaves from bondage. The disposition of the heart determines the countenance of the person. If the heart is set on physical wealth, it will wax and wane with the coming and going of money and property. If the heart is set on the fear of the Lord, it will enjoy and be burdened by the needs of others, but sustained by the grace of God.
This proverb does not say that the fear of the Lord has no trouble. As a matter of fact, it is actually stating that there will be struggle with one’s disposition directed toward fearing God. What the proverb is actually stating is that the troubles of one’s heart are more bearable under the fear of the Lord than they are under wealth. And we can see this to be true. Look to the contented nature fostered by those who take vows of poverty, or by those who live in community with one another for support instead of relying only on themselves. Again, look to the rich who accumulate great wealth for themselves, and then rise and fall with the fickle moods of the market, the changing trends of society, and the foolishness of the fellow rich and powerful who abuse the investments of people in order to make money for themselves.
This points me to the parable of the Widow’s offering. Jesus tells of a woman who comes to the temple and gives her two coins, which is all she has. She is far greater in the Kingdom of heaven than a rich person who gives a percent of their wealth. Her giving costs her life. The giving of the rich may only cost a slight inconvenience (but they can write it off of their taxes at the end of the year, and look good while doing it). She has “lost her life” for the Kingdom, and will have life anew whereas the rich attempts to “save their life” by building a reputation of charity in the community, but will lose their life in the coming days.
It is not about the wealth, but about our disposition toward God.