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Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out

Wisdom for the wealthy 

Proverbs 13:8

8 The ransom of a man’s life is his riches,
But the poor does not hear rebuke.

Proverbs 19:4

4 Wealth makes many friends,
But the poor is separated from his friend.


The legendary English rock and blues guitarist Eric Clapton is known for keeping with the times. Since the 1960’s he has released over 20 albums, and has toured and collaborated with other music legends, such as bluesman B.B. King and Sonny Boy Williamson. 

When he recorded his album for the “MTV Unplugged” series in 1992, Clapton remembered his roots, stating, “I also enjoyed going back and playing the old stuff like 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out.’” [Check out Clapton’s "Unplugged" version HERE!]

“Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out” is not only a staple for the Blues, it captures a significant theme in the book of Proverbs. Solomon may not have been the founder of the blues, but if he were around today, there is no doubt that the king of ancient Israel would have enjoyed one of the many renditions of this soulful tune.

Striking in its musical appeal, as well as its veracity, “Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out” was first penned by Vaudeville-blues pianist Jimmie Cox in 1923.  At initial impression, the song is a lament of a poor man, down on his luck. It is a cautionary tale about the fleeting nature of friendships when one’s fortune goes up and down. 

Upon deeper listen, however it is as much a commentary on the life of one who is enjoying high times–and finds himself surrounded by “fair weather friends:

Once I lived the life of a millionaire, spendin' my money I didn't have any care
I carried my friends out for a mighty good time, buying bootleg liquor, champagne and wine

Then, when his fortunes turn, his money disappears–and so do his companions:

When I begin to fall so low, I didn't have a friend and no place to go
So if I ever get my hand on a dollar again, I'm gonna hold on to it 'til them eagles grin
Nobody knows you, when you down and out
In my pocket not one penny, and my friends I haven't any

When the jazz icon Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” recorded her version of the song, it was released on September 13, 1929–and the timing seemed uncannily prophetic. Two weeks prior, the New York stock market had reached an all-time high and was going into its biggest decline. On Tuesday, October 29, the great “Wall Street Crash” occurred, and the lyrics to “Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out” became a reality for many. 

Fair weather friendships are a timeless truth and it can be directly tied to one’s financial status. Solomon knows this, and issues a word of caution, and healthy instruction to his young pupils. Along with fleeting friends, wealth can often bring other troubles:

8 The ransom of a man’s life is his riches,
But the poor does not hear rebuke.–Proverbs 13:8

This is a curious proverb, where once again, two short lines can be rich in meaning and application. It is a picture of the dangers–but also the blessings–of having wealth.

Verset one speaks of “ransom.” One of the most insidious crimes you can commit against another person is kidnapping. One purpose of doing this is often to hold the victim alive and unhurt, in an attempt to extort funds from them or their family.

Solomon’s point in this is that generally, only a wealthy person is subject to the threat of this. All around the world, rich tourists, relatives of political figures, celebrities, and the powerful risk the danger of this happening. A wealthy family can pay large sums of money in order that a kidnapper will release the hostage and be safely returned.

This sort of thing does not normally happen to the poor, for there is little money or reward to be gained. 

So one part of this proverb seems to be an argument to gaining and keeping a large sum of money in order to protect your life. There is a basic wisdom in this, and can also be paired with other benefits that wealth can bring you: property, a savings account that acts as a “safety net” in times of trouble, sufficient health insurance, or resources to ensure a comfortable retirement.

Are these things not the goal of most everyone, regardless of class or station?

The possibility of ransom, however, casts a darker tone to it all, and highlights some of the struggles, or burdens, of being wealthy. Face it, wealthy people generally have troubles that most of society does not realize:

When you obtain wealth, you will quickly become inundated by requests for gifts, invitations to invest your money in business ventures, or to donate to worthy causes. Sadly, even the church can operate this way, putting undo pressure on well-to-do parishioners, or taking for granted that their gifts will come.  

When you have money, friends and family can come out of the woodwork. Like the blues song above, when you enjoy the high life, you will never want for companions who are willing to share your fortune with you. Everyone will want to be your best buddy, until the first drops of rain begin to fall. When the gravy train comes to a halt, you may find yourself more friendless and lonely than when you had nothing.

Solomon strikes a nerve with this in Proverbs 19:

4 Wealth makes many friends,
But the poor is separated from his friend.–Proverbs 19:4

Having wealth can exhaust you in an effort to maintain it, or can become an unbearable burden to happiness. You can become obsessed with gaining more, or in keeping the kingdom you have built. This need can stress family relationships and true friends–and become an idol to your heart. Tim Keller writes of the particular challenge you face as a believer once you gain wealth:

Living life with money actually requires greater faith and dependence on God, not less.–Tim Keller, “God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life”

Think about this. When you are poor and have nothing, it can seem easier to come to God to pray for relief. The widow’s mite can seem understandable to you, for she has nothing more to lose. You, however, may struggle to give up even a small portion of a comfortable lifestyle, or risk its loss. 

This, then is the backhanded warning that Solomon is giving here. Wealth may be beneficial to you and others in staving off suffering or even promoting the kingdom of God–but it must come with a true devotion to the One who has given it to you in the first place. 

This is the warning of rebuke in verse 8 that the poor do not hear. What Solomon means is that a wealthy fool will heed rebuke, while a poor fool will not. This is because when you are wealthy, or have a comfortable lifestyle, you have something to lose. A poor man has nothing and, and thus not as far to fall, so to speak.

The devil knows this, as he revealed in Job 2:

So Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life.–Job 2:4

This is a timeless truth in many ways. In the movie “Braveheart,” English King Edward I states that, in order to defeat William Wallace and his attempts at Scottish independence, he will simply reward Scottish nobles with English lands and thus buy their loyalty. 

This principle was realized in another way during the battle of Solway Moss in 1542, when defeated Scottish nobles were befriended by King Henry VIII, who won their support and loyalty. 

Does your devotion to a comfortable lifestyle leave you open to the wiles and promises of the devil? Does he buy your loyalty through the promise of worldly goods you cannot keep? To paraphrase Thomas Brooks, he is an apt fisherman who knows how to bait his hook. 

If you have wealth, or are simply comfortable in your lifestyle, then this is a blessing. Remember your Heavenly Father who has granted it to you and seek to use it for His glory. Ambrose of Milan, mentor to St. Augustine, explains this attitude in a letter:

The riches of a person should work to the redemption of his soul, not to its destruction. Wealth is redemption if one uses it well. It is a snare if one does not know how to use it.-Ambrose, Letter 15

Do you know how to use your wealth? I am not just talking about how to read the market or know a good investment when you see one. Can you use it to serve Christ? 

If the prospect of losing the earthly security you have built is real, then this is a reminder to heed the call and instruction of God. The rebuke of I AM comes with the promise of forgiveness to those who repent. As the psalmist sings in Psalm 130:

3 If You, Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?

But there is forgiveness with You,
That You may be feared.–Psalm 130:3-4

David, for all of his faults had a healthy view of the source and purpose of his wealth. He had the treasury of a kingdom and all of the blessings of heaven, and he know where to give the glory:

12 Both riches and honor come from You,
And You reign over all.
In Your hand is power and might;
In Your hand it is to make great
And to give strength to all.–I Chronicles 29:12 

Does your lifestyle govern your ability to properly serve Christ? You may willingly give to support your church or causes in His name, but does it have a strangle-hold on your heart? 

Are you afraid of losing your wife, your children, or your friends if it all went away tomorrow? 

You may not be called to give it all away, but to follow Christ is to give away your very heart–and all of its devotions. In the words of the kind, compassionate, and soul-penetrating missionary Amy Carmichael:

If I do not forget about such a trifle as personal success, so that it never crosses my mind, or if it does, is never given a moment’s room there; if the cup of spiritual flattery tastes sweet to me, then I know nothing of Calvary love.–Amy Carmichael, “If” 

Beware of the flattery that can come your way due to your wealth, for Calvary love can call you at any time to lose it all for the sake of Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again for you. Fair weather friends may come and go, but He is the friend whom “all your sins and griefs” will bear. He was “a man of no reputation” [Philippians 2:6-7], who loves you despite the balance in your bank account, not because of it.

Artist Rich Mullins remembers the Savior in his song “Man of No Reputation: 

He was a man of no reputation 
And by the wise, considered a fool 
When He spoke about faith and forgiveness 
In a time when the strongest arms ruled 
But this man of no reputation 
Loved the weak with relentless affection 
And He loved all those poor in spirit just as they were 
He was a man of no reputation–Rich Mullins, “A Man of No Reputation”




The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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