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High Cotton

Wisdom found in poverty with integrity

Proverbs 19:1

1 Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity
    than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.

Proverbs 19:22

 22 What is desired in a man is kindness,
And a poor man is better than a liar.


In 1989, sweet song filled with nostalgic reminiscences of a simple life growing up in the rural American south was recorded and released by the country music group Alabama. Titled “High Cotton” it was penned by songwriters Scott Anders and Roger Murrah, two giants of the music industry. Murrah was known for other hit songs he’d written for country music legends such as Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell, and the Oak Ridge Boys.  

The simple rhythms of Alabama’s guitar and fiddle sound, their Friday-night-just-got-off-work look, along with the twang of voices of Randy Owen, Ted Gentry and Jeff Cook evoked memories of the simple but noble life of the hard working poor. Lyrics such as these pulled the heartstrings of America, quickly bringing it to number one in the Hot Country Singles chart: 

We didn't know the times were lean,
Round our house the grass was green,
It didn't seem like things were all that bad,

I bet we walked a thousand miles,
Choppin' cotton and pushin’ plows,
And learnin' how to give it all we had.

Being young at the time, the singer is unaware of any hardship, only hard work and honest happiness. It is only as he reaches adulthood that he realizes the physical and mental toll that such a life was taking on his parents. They provided as best they can, and in the midst of suffering, there was love:

As Life went on and years went by,
I saw the light in daddy's eye,
And felt the love in mamma's hands,
They kept us warm and kept us fed,
Taught us how to look ahead,
Now lookin' back I understand.

[Check out the official music video HERE]

Songs like this tugged at the heartstrings: the poor may have it hard, but at least they are honest. The band members of Alabama grew up in the rural south and knew just such a life, and even in their own music career. After struggling into young adulthood, they attempted to break into the music scene many times, finally getting their big break in the late 1970’s. “High Cotton” came after ten years and over 20 number one hits.

They may have grown up in simple poverty, but they were happy. It is easy to get the impression that they were happy because they were poor. Or at least that, looking back after a decade fame, the once-poor country boys remembered a happier time without all of the trappings of stardom.

Solomon makes such a comparison in Proverbs, chapter 19. Once again he is making moral comparisons, but it comes with a warning–and an encouragement–for you and I:

1 Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity
    than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.–Proverbs 19:1

Poverty has many causes, and rarely is a person “poor” without the confluence of a number of these causes in their life. Among the most common are substance abuse, mental health issues, emotional trauma, sexual abuse, and being a victim of crime. Whether by foolishness or injustice, being poor nearly always comes with a stigma attached.

Solomon is reminding you in verse 1 that not all poverty is shameful, and in fact some who are poor can be wise, and even bear a blameless moral character.  

It is easy to encounter the poor and make a quick judgment as to the cause of their hardship. We can jump to laziness, lack of self-control, and even a heart bent on evil–and in many cases may be correct. Here in the modern west, our cities and even our small towns are witnessing a growing number of homeless and “street people.” Tent cities can spring up overnight in city parks or wooded areas, and many homeless actually “couch surf,” traveling from house to house to crash with friends until the welcome is worn out.

But there are many innocent caught up in poverty too–and not just hard-working cotton farmers, miners or factory workers. Divorce can ravage a family, leaving children or a broken-hearted spouse to fend for themselves. A rebellious, misdemeanoring teen soon becomes a career criminal–or at the very best can have trouble getting or keeping a job with a jail record on his background check.

You may be forced to make a judgement call on whether or not to help someone in poverty, based on their circumstances–but you can never see what is truly in their heart. It is only when you get to know someone as a person, and not just a “poor person” that you can see if they have the integrity Solomon acknowledges.

Verse 1 is typical of many of the “better than” or “better is” proverbs of Solomon. This is the Hebrew טוֹב־ (“tob”), and it sets up a sharp contrast in two different ways of living. In the first verset, it describes a life that may be one of physical poverty, but spiritual richness. This wealth comes from fearing God, and following the path of His righteousness.

At this point, as you think about this modern western culture, your gut reaction as a Christian may be one that feels such a comparison is shallow or even useless. You can be conditioned by the therapeutic age in which we live to feel that “spiritual wealth" may be all well and good for Bible study and a sermon, but real help–true help–for a needy person comes by receiving shelter or financial support. 

“Thoughts and prayers won’t cut it,” shout the inhabitants of social media, or a grandstanding politician proposing a relief bill, “we need action!” Solomon is not discounting the need for physical or emotional health as much as he is looking beyond all of this to the state of the poor person’s heart. In this age of action and activism, people–even Christians–can place physical needs over those of the soul. 

Back to verse 1: Solomon compares the poor man with integrity with “one who is crooked in speech.” In other words, a poor man who tells the truth is better than a liar and a fool.

It is implied that the “lying fool” may be rich, but for someone living in poverty, a person who is simply “not poor” can be lightyears ahead of them in terms of safety and security. 

In 2012, “Australian billionaire mining magnate and business tycoon” Gina Rinehart posted advice to those in poverty: 

If you're jealous of those with more money, don't just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself – spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working.

This rather simplistic and insensitive advice from someone who was very much “not poor” has been mocked ever since. In the sarcasm of pop culture, memes and t-shirts advising people to “stop being poor!” have made is a source of dark humor. This incident reminds me of an episode of “The Simpsons,” when Homer Simpson has been fired, and finally gets to speak his mind to his boss:

Homer: Let me ask you something: does your money cheer you up when you're feeling blue?
Mr. Burns: Yes.
Homer: Okay, bad example. So let me ask you this: does your money ever hug you when you come home at night?
Mr. Burns: Why, no.
Homer: And does it say "I love you"?
Mr. Burns: No, it doesn't.
Homer: (chanting) Nobody love you, nobody loves you... 

Are you poor? Chances are, in this day of high inflation and rising prices, you may indeed be feeling the pinch, with concerns of poverty in the back of your mind. Solomon is telling you that no matter your economic status, or even hardship, your earthly struggles are only temporary, but the wicked are doomed for all eternity.

Commentator Bruce Waltke puts it more succinctly, and reminds you of who is really in control of your financial status: 

The poor person’s way is better than the liar, for it is blessed and secure, and I AM is his protective shield.–Bruce Waltke, “Proverbs”

Solomon shares this wisdom with you, not to turn you into a class warrior or as a reason to feel good about your poverty. Any lesson from scripture that results in you thinking, “at least I’m not THAT guy” is a lesson that dangerously misses the point. Solomon reinforces this in verse 22: 

22 What is desired in a man is kindness,
And a poor man is better than a liar.–Proverbs 19:22

This implies that greed is satisfied by lies, and that this is done at the expense of kindness itself. Solomon on one level is urging his son, and the youth of Israel, to show kindness to the poor. On another level, he is reminding them that if they have a choice to lie or live in poverty, then it is better to be poor and retain your integrity–for nothing less than eternity is at stake. 

If you struggle financially you will be tempted to compromise your integrity and give in to your sinful nature. It may not cross your mind to “take money from the till” at work, but you can become resentful or be consumed with jealousy. You can be tempted to lie in order to advance yourself in the eyes of others, or to seek actual financial gain: padding expense reports, exaggerating accomplishments–or slandering a co-worker in order to diminish their own achievement. 

Hold fast and keep the faith! Jesus sees you in your poverty and in your wealth–for He loves you in hard times as well as in halcyon days. Throughout His ministry, Jesus continually reminded His disciples to not seek the “easy path” in life, but to take on the “easy yoke” of Christ instead–for the alternative is death:

13 “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. 14 Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.–Matthew 7:13-14

Even if you are poor, you can still proclaim the gospel in your words, and in your humble state of life. The apostle Paul suffered greatly at times as he and his friends labored to plant churches and encourage new believers along the path to Rome. Often beaten, whipped, imprisoned and impoverished, Paul gave up the glory of being a scholar and son of a successful Jewish tent maker to find his true sufficiency in Christ:

11 Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: 12 I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. 13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.–Philippians 4:11-13

You are "in Christ" [II Corinthians 5:17], and when you have Christ you are always in "high cotton." You may not take a vow of poverty, like the “white martyrdom” of the Celtic monasteries of Patrick’s day, but you can spiritually commit yourself to focus on being contented in Christ alone, and not the physical blessings of this world–for they can be gone in an instant. Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs reminds you of this:

Christian, how did you enjoy comfort before? Was the creature anything to you but a conduit, a pipe, that conveyed God's goodness to you? 'The pipe is cut off,' says God, 'come to me, the fountain, and drink immediately.' Though the beams are taken away, yet the sun remains the same in the firmament as ever it was.–Jeremiah Burroughs, “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment”

When you encounter the poor, be kind to them, and in the midst of giving physical help, give them Christ. In your own need and struggles, seek His radiant face yourself, and “drink deeply” from His fountain. For He is wealth that can never be taken away. 



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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