He who withholds grain, the people will curse him, but blessing will be on the head of him who sells it.
There are very many texts in Proverbs that encourage giving, but sometimes it’s better to sell goods and services rather than freely giving them away. Grain is a basic need. People gladly pay to meet their basic needs. In this text, someone is blessed because he sells to people in need. He doesn’t give it away for free, but sells it and is blessed. The price is not even mentioned.
What is the principle here? Don’t withhold a benefit in miserly hoarding, but don’t give it away in naïve generosity. This principle applies to any good: Avoid both extremes, especially in times of dire need.
This truth applies to commodities as basic as bread. This was the case with Joseph who sold grain to the Egyptians during the seven years of famine (Genesis 47:13-27).
All major English Bibles translate the Hebrew word, שבר (šā•ḇăr, pronounced “shah-var”), as “sell.” It indicates commerce, the exchange of goods and services for money. Šā•ḇăr is used most frequently in buying and selling food—especially grain. It does not refer to a hand out (Deuteronomy 2:6, 28). The word “it” is in italics, because it’s absent from the Hebrew text. The emphasis is on the exchange of value (sell or šā•ḇăr) rather than on whatever good or service is being sold.
Most traditional commentaries (Adam Clarke, John Gill, Matthew Henry, JFB, and Albert Barnes) see this proverb as a warning against hoarding food, while others suffer, just to increase future profits. This is the strongest and clearest message here, yet the text also advises against inappropriate generosity. Good business is neither miserly nor free.
In Praise of Payment
If we’re willing to pay for our real needs, then surely we’re willing to pay for our luxuries. Why?
Payment completes the transaction. Once payment is made, there’s no outstanding obligation. The balance-sheet is cleared, and there’s no sense of outstanding debt to the other party. This permits a better relationship, a friendship between equals. As my dad used to say in German: “Strenge rechnung gute freundschaft”: Keep tight accounts with all your friends, and you’ll keep tight friendships.
If we’re given gifts and never allowed to give in return, we’re deprived of any chance to show own abilities and generosity. People who live off handouts develop a poor self-image and even resentment of their “betters,” the very people who support them. And especially in business, if we’re given something for nothing, even advice, we think that “it’s worth what we paid for it”—nothing.
We tend to waste whatever we get for free. Easy come, easy go.
Blessed Business Transactions
With this in mind, we should always charge as much as we can, subject to the constraints of the competition and supply, the buyer’s ability to pay, and our own conscience. If we refuse to trade with others, when we have the opportunity, and others have the need, we’re guilty of selfishness, “inflating” the value of our goods. So refusing to engage in business may be a kind of cheating in business.
Certainly, we like free gifts, every now and then, but do we bless the givers? Or do we think them foolish, giving something for nothing? Or maybe they’re “up to something,” swindlers? Do we bless those who freely give us bread? Yes, if we can’t pay. No, if we can pay and aren’t give a chance.
Our Maker, Saviour, and Friend
Jesus said that the worker is worthy of his hire (Matthew 10:10). In other words: A person should get properly paid for the benefits he provides. That’s the free market economy. Fees for products and services have clear biblical support. Commerce is not inherently evil.
Jesus also criticized the lazy servant for burying his “talent”—a silver bar—rather than depositing it in a bank, where it could earn some interest (Matthew 25:26-28).
Even God Almighty does not like to see money stand idle.
- Memorize the text in your favourite Bible translation and think about it often.
- Rather than giving products or services away for free to those in need, consider charging a reduced fee to the poor.
- Don’t participate in a cartel, or any other similar organization, aiming to fix quotas for sales, production, or profit—especially one selling basic goods and staples.
- Don’t reject free enterprise and prefer a government-controlled economy.
Which of these steps, if any, does Jesus want you to take first? Ask Him.