Shakespeare Got it Right. So Did His Bible

The article below is from Kairos Journal. I am away at a conference and will be positing sporadically for a few days.

Neither a Borrower nor a Borrower Be

The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.  Proverbs 22:7 (ESV)

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.1

With this counsel in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius bids goodbye to his son Laertes, who is about to return to France. Today, these words are both well known and often ignored in what Christian financial counselor Larry Burkett described as “an economy that borrows to exist.”2 However, believers disregard this advice at their own risk, for Shakespeare’s words are informed by the scriptural truth that financial debt is dangerous. The Lord offers His people practical, dependable wisdom on the perils and pitfalls of borrowing money.

The context behind Proverbs 22:7 proves that in ancient Israel the borrower could literally become the slave of the lender. Take the grieving widow of 2 Kings 4 as an example. Upon the death of her husband she found herself at the mercy of creditors; they came to her door demanding her children as payment. Thankfully, in the midst of her horror, the Lord sent Elisha who miraculously provided for her needs.3 The dark side of debt also rears its ugly head in Deuteronomy 28:44. It is surprising to discover here that God ordained debt as a curse for unfaithfulness: “He [the sojourner among you] shall lend to you, and you shall not lend to him. He shall be the head, and you shall be the tail.” Much as God used Cyrus to punish an idolatrous people, He would use debt to humble His children before foreign rulers. No wonder Burkett concluded, “[Borrowing] is never God’s best for His people.”4

Today, debt is not necessarily a sign of God’s judgment. Nonetheless, predators exist who lure consumers into borrowing. Some have even criticized those individuals committed to paying off their credit card each month.5 One man’s debt is another man’s profit, and these lenders know that when it comes to debt “getting in takes no effort, but getting out can be next to impossible.”6 Pastor John MacArthur reported that most Americans cannot afford to pay off a credit card debt as small as eight hundred dollars. Thus, it is no surprise that seventy percent of credit card holders carry balances that provide roughly two hundred million dollars daily for banks and credit card corporations.7 For many, the debt burden is so high that their entire financial house collapses—in 2004 over 1.5 million bankruptcy applications were filed.8

The Bible, while overwhelmingly negative about the dangers of debt, does not prohibit debt outright; under some circumstances it may be helpful if not necessary. For example, few people in modern economies would be able to purchase a home without going into debt. If this is the case, then when does the borrower become a slave to the lender? A good rule of thumb is that the moment the borrower lacks a guaranteed method of repayment then his debt runs the risk of becoming unbiblical. After all, it is the wicked who borrow but do not pay back (Ps. 37:21). In any event, the burden of Proverbs 22:7 is not to find an excuse to borrow, but to lead God’s people away from the use of credit.

Christians avoid debt by working diligently, saving regularly, and buying only those goods and services they can afford. This may mean believers have to forgo the latest gadget and the trendiest zip code. It may mean putting a few thousand more miles on the car and cutting up the store credit card. Nonetheless, this is a small price to pay if it frees the believer, in the words of John Wesley, to gain all he can and save all he can in order that he mightgive all he can.9 It is indisputably better to serve the Lord this way instead of servicing one’s debt.

1 William Shakespeare, Hamlet (New York: Dover Publications, 1992), 1.3.
2 Larry Burkett and Ron Blue, Wealth to Last: Money Essentials for the Second Half of Life (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 38.
3 2 Kings 4:1-7
4 Burkett and Blue, 38.
5 “What a difference a few years makes! When I was growing up, a deadbeat was someone who didn’t pay his bills; now a deadbeat is someone who does pay his bills and does it promptly!” Ron Blue, Master Your Money: A Step-by-Step Plan for Financial Freedom Revised and Updated for the Financial Realities of the 90s (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), 120.
6 Ibid., 57.
7 John F. MacArthur, Jr., Whose Money Is It, Anyway (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), 47.
8 See “Bankruptcies Down in 2004,” U.S., December 3, 2004, (accessed July 5, 2005).
9 John Wesley, “The Use of Money,” in John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 238-250.

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