The Bible says a great deal about social welfare, but very little per se about the involvement of civil government in it. The Bible focuses almost entirely on the responsibility of the individual to provide for the social welfare of the needy. Moses codified a number of laws as to how the Israelites were to care for the poor in their theocracy, but the caring was to be done by individuals who had the means to do so, and not by any form of civil bureaucracy. The only biblical instance of civil government providing social welfare for its citizenry through government regulations and structures is that of Pharaoh and Joseph in Genesis, chapters 41 through 47 (elaborated upon in previous chapters). We do know from extra-biblical sources, however, that believers of Bible times did live under civil governments (mostly pagan) which had varying forms of government-regulated social welfare programs. It is certain that first century Christians lived in a Roman empire which administered a "dole" system (see Caesar and Christ, by Will Durant, p. 333).

It is a reality of history that humankind has always consisted of a wide spectrum of economic classes from the very rich to the extremely poor (with an occasional "middle-class" which has usually been taxed to provide economic relief to the extremely poor). The Bible is realistic about life. Man's sin and rebellion against the law of God is, according to the Bible, the cause of poverty. God told Israel that if they would keep covenant with him by keeping his laws there would be no poor among them (Deut. 15:4, 5). However, God knew Israel would not obey his law perfectly and there would be poor always (Deut. 15:7-11) among even his theocratic people. Jesus Christ also acknowledged that, even after the messianic age had been ushered in, "you always have the poor with you ..." (John 12:8). As long as there is sin, there will be poverty. As long as this present world exists there will be sin. Man, this side of heaven, will never find an economic Shangri-La, a Utopian society where poverty is eliminated. Some poverty is inevitable because of physical circumstances beyond human control (drought, floods, or human physical limitations and defects). Some poverty results from human sin and depravity (greed, war, laziness, exploitation, injustice). The Bible is almost completely silent about any responsibility of civil governments from becoming involved in social welfare. The Bible clearly lays obligation for assisting the poverty stricken on the conscience of the individual who has been blessed with economic means.

There are twelve Hebrew words sometimes translated "poor." They are:

      1. dal - exhausted, poor
      2. aniy - afflicted, oppressed, poor
      3. miseken - honest poor
      4. eveyurt - needy, poor
      5. muk - bankrupt, poor
      6. rashash - one who has impoverished himself, poor
      7. rash - an impoverished person, poverty stricken
      8. chelekah - dejected, wounded in spirit

9. enaviym - meek, poor in spirit

10. machesor - in want, be deficient

11. chelekkaiym - very miserable, cast down, dejected

12. dalbth - the poorest

The Hebrew word most often translated "poor" is 'aniy (no. 2 above), but it does not necessarily mean impoverished or financially destitute. It usually means "humbled, afflicted, oppressed, powerless." As may be seen from above there are three Hebrew words which have to do specifically with economic impoverishment (dal, or dallath; muk; and rash or rashash). The word muk is used in Leviticus 25:35-55. The word dal is used in Genesis 41:19; Exodus 23:3; 30:15; Leviticus 14:21; 19:15; Judges 6:15; Ruth 3:10; I Samuel 2:8; II Kings 25:12; Job 5:16; 20:10,19; 31:16,19; 34:19,28; Psalms 41:1; 72:13: 82:3,4; 113:7; Proverbs 10:15; 14:31; 19:4; 21:13; 22:9,16,22; 28:8,11,15; 29:7; 30:14; Isaiah 11:4; 14:30; 25:4; Jeremiah 5:4; 39:10; 40:7; 52:15,16; Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:11; 8:6; Zephaniah 3:12, and the word dallath ("the poorest") is used only once in II Kings 24:14.

The Hebrew word rash is used in I Samuel 18:23; II Samuel 12:1, 3, 4; and in the following listing of scriptures from Proverbs indicated with an asterisk:

of Laziness or

Care for the Poor Extravagance

Proverbs 10:3 Proverbs 10:4

Proverbs 10:15 Proverbs 10:5

Proverbs 13:8* Proverbs 12:24

Proverbs 13:23* Proverbs 12:27

Proverbs 14:20* Proverbs 13:4

Proverbs 14:21 Proverbs 13:11

Proverbs 14:31 Proverbs 13:18*

Proverbs 15:15 Proverbs 13:22

Proverbs 17:5* Proverbs 15:14

Proverbs 18:23* Proverbs 18:9

Proverbs 19:1* Proverbs 19:15

Proverbs 19:7* Proverbs 19:24

Proverbs 19:17 Proverbs 20:4

Proverbs 19:22* Proverbs 20:13*

Proverbs 21:13 Proverbs 21:17

Proverbs 22:2* Proverbs 22:13

Proverbs 22:7 * Proverbs 23:21*

Proverbs 22:9 Proverbs 24:30

Proverbs 22:22 Proverbs 24:31

Proverbs 28:3* Proverbs 24:32

Proverbs 28:6* Proverbs 24:33

Proverbs 28:27* Proverbs 24:34*

Proverbs 29:7 Proverbs 26:13

Proverbs 29:14 Proverbs 26:14

Proverbs 30:14 Proverbs 26:16

Proverbs 31:20 Proverbs 28:13*

Proverbs 28:19*

Proverbs 28:22

In Proverbs 10:15; 13:18 and 23:21, the word rush (a derivative of rash) is translated "poverty." The word rash is also used in Ecclesiastes 4:14 and 5:8. In practically all other cases where the English word "poor" appears in the Old Testament it is a translation of the Hebrew word 'aniy or eveyun and speaks of the "oppressed" (not necessarily, economically destitute).

Specific laws were codified in the Law of Moses concerning the poor:

  1. Every third year ten percent was to be given to the Levite, to the sojourner, and the fatherless and widow (Deut. 14:28, 29; 26:12ff).
  2. The poor were to have free use of all that grew "volunteer" in the fields or vineyards during the Sabbatic year (Exod. 23: l0ff; Lev. 25:5, 6).
  3. Each year "gleanings" and the "corners of the fields" were to be left for the poor, and if a sheaf was forgotten at harvest, it too, was to be left for the poor (Lev. 19:9, 10; 23:22; Deut. 24:19).
  4. Hungry traveling through a field or vineyard or orchard were permitted to eat what they could but none was to be carried away (Deut. 23:24, 25).

  1. The poor were to be subsidized as participants in the Feast of Weeks (Deut. 16:9-12).
  2. Every seventh year there was to be a "writing-off" or "release" of debts owed (Deut. 15: 1ff) and indentured servants were to be set free (Exod. 21:2), and every fiftieth year indentured property was to be returned to its owner (Lev. 25:8-17).
  3. Israelites were to lend to their poor brethren and take no interest (Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-37; Deut. 15:7ff); no widow's cloak was to be taken as surety for a loan (Deut. 24:17) nor handmill nor millstone.
  4. The Mosaic Jaw was categorically insistent that justice be done for the poor (Exod. 23:6; Deut. 27:19).
  5. The poor were extended leniencies concerning the offerings they had to make for sin and purification (Lev. 5:7; 12:8, etc.).

Oppression, exploitation and abuse of any kind against the "poor" was severely denounced by the prophets (e.g. Isa. 1:23; 10:1, 2; Ezek. 34: 1ff; Amos 2:6; 5:7; 8:6; Micah 2:1, 2; Hab. 3:14; Mai. 3:5). Isaiah has an especially pertinent passage (58:3-9) showing that God desires "mercy and not sacrifice" - love and goodness to those in need before ritualism.

But there is not one word of command that the individual is to leave caring for the poor to a civil government or organization. The welfare of the poverty stricken and helpless is the responsibility of every "neighbor" who has enough for his own needs (not his extravagances). That is God's ideal. And if all individuals would pay heed to God's law concerning the poor, that is one area civil government would not need to administrate. However, even as God knows, the ideal will never be reached as long as there are people who reject God. Therefore, laws and regulations have to be enacted for the care of the poor. And when society has to be moved to do good through law, there has to be a law-enforcer. That is the role of civil government - "God's servant for ... good" (Rom. 13:4). And when government has to administrate good on behalf of the poor, those who are not poverty stricken have to support such administration with their taxes (Rom. 13:6, 7). It is evident from Daniel's exhortation to Nebuchadnezzar that he must "break off... sins by practicing righteousness, and . . . iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed" (Dan. 4:27). The ancient pagan societies administered welfare to the poor. Nehemiah, governor of Judah, ordered the poor cared for (Neh. 8:10). The Jews living within the land of Persia, instituted a Jewish national holiday (Purim) upon which they made a feast, "sending choice portions to one another and gifts to the poor" (Esther 9:22). King Herod the Great in the thirteenth year of his reign, used his government powers to extend famine relief to the poor (Josephus, Antiq. XV:9:1, 2), and Queen Helena, of Adiabene, employed her government's resources to send famine relief to Judea (Josephus, XX:2:1, 2, 3). When catastrophic poverty descends upon a whole culture or civilization, it is essential that human beings pool their resources and offer them through a government administered program to those in need. In catastrophic and pervasive poverty it is practically impossible that such needs could be met by individual enterprise alone.

The Greek word ptochos is used almost exclusively in the New Testament for "poor" or "poverty" in the sense of economic impoverishment. The Greek words penichros and penes axe sometimes translated "poor" but they mean more precisely, "the person who labors for his daily bread" - a peasant (see II Cor. 9:9; and in the LXX, Exod. 22:25; Prov. 28:15; 29:7).

The New Testament, in total agreement with the Old Testament, expects that believers will, on an individual basis, be especially sensitive and beneficent toward those in need - the "poor." Believers are expected to so care for their families, young and old, that none of their "own" would need financial assistance from other sources (Matt. 15:3-6; Mark 7:6-13; Eph. 6:1-4; I Tim. 5:8). The commandment to "honor" is tima which means "to page wages to" (see I Tim. 5:17, 18). "If anyone (a believer) does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (I Tim. 5:8). This is more than a suggestion! This is a warning, a commandment, an obligation. Believers should not expect the civil government to care for their relatives.

In the New Testament, believers are emphatically instructed to "work with their hands" so that they should be dependent on nobody (see I Thess. 4:9-12; II Thess. 3:6-15; I Pet. 4:15; Eph. 4:28; Acts 20:34, 35; I Cor. 4:12; II Cor. 12:13-17; Phil. 4:10-17; I Thess. 2:9). Those who can and will not work, shall not eat! That seems harsh to some, but it is an apostolic command. The command of God from the beginning has been, "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread" (Gen. 3:19; II Thess. 3:10-13). Those who cannot work, or those who would work but are hungry and naked due to circumstances beyond their control are to be fed and clothed by those who have anything to give. Any believer who has anything at all, regardless of how little, must have a conscience to share with those who have nothing (see Matt. 5:42; 25:31-46; Mark 14:7; Luke 14:13; Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4; Rom. 15:26; II Cor. 8:1-9:15; Gal. 2:10; I Tim. 6:17-19; James 2:1-7; 2:14-17; I John 3:15-18).

However, our world is populated by millions of people who do not ascribe to God's biblical ideals. They are, in fact, in rebellion against God's "kingdom" standards. That is why God "ordained" civil government. In a world where a massive majority of people are unbelievers it is essential that civil governments become the source and regulators of social welfare for that segment of citizenry found to be legitimately impoverished (starving, naked, and shelterless). That being the biblical principle (Rom. 13:1-7), it is also imperative that civil governments be guided by Bible principles in administering social welfare:

1. Those who are able to work should be forced by law to do so (I Thess. 4:9-12; II Thess. 3:6-15). If the tax-payers are to feed the hungry through government administered money, the government should see that the recipients work. Service in the nation's military forces; cleaning up the nation's littered cities and highways; working in conservation corps; any number of millions of jobs for minimum wage could be engaged in. Work is a fundamental and insistent biblical doctrine. All work that edifies is dignified in the Bible, no matter the job and no matter the pay (see Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25, etc.) - even that of servants (see Eccl. 2:24; 3:13; 6:12; 9:10).

  1. Those claiming to be unable to work must be legitimately unable to do so. Legislation must be enacted and enforced to eliminate laziness (Prov. 12:24; 13:18; 18:9). Those who resist a law against laziness should not be fed (II Thess. 3:6-15; Prov. 20:4).
  2. Civil legislation must make the family unit the first line of social security (I Tim. 5:8; Eph. 6:1, 2, etc.). Laws must be made and enforced to make those who produce children out of wedlock (both man and woman) work to support them. Legislation should be enacted that makes the nearest relative responsible to support family members who cannot or will not provide for themselves.
  3. Civil government administered social welfare should be strictly and constantly "policed" to minimize fraud and waste. We hardly need to cite scriptures condemning fraud and cheating (which is nothing more than stealing and robbing). The Bible condemns wastefulness and extravagance (Luke 15:11-16; 16:1-3; John 6:12, 13).
  4. Tax-payers must insist that their governments, in providing social welfare to those in legitimate need, are not thereby given a mandate to provide luxuries - only necessities (I Tim. 6:6-10: Luke 12:15).


Strictly speaking, the Bible makes no specific assignment of public works to the domain of civil government. The generic statement in Romans 13:1-7, and precisely the phrase, "... would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good ..." may be understood to include any number of "good" services, including public works and social welfare. Undoubtedly the Bible is silent concerning the details of civil government's "good" services so that enough latitude may be granted for the exigencies of varying cultures, socio-economic systems, historical circumstances and political structures. It appears that the biblical writers simply assumed public works (roads, buildings, fortifications, communications, general education, commerce, and other works especially necessary to urban life and international commerce) would generate through the auspices of a central government and be paid for by taxing the citizenry.

The Bible documents a number of "public works" engaged in by civil authorities and "governments":

  1. Cain, a tribal patriarch, "built" a city and named it Enoch (Gen. 4:17).
  2. Egyptian Pharaohs built public storehouses in which grain was stored for public consumption (Gen. 41:56).
  3. Nimrod "built" cities in the land of Assyria (Gen. 10:11, 12).
  4. Those of the "land of Shinar" "built" a city and a tower (Gen. 11:4).
  5. Pharaoh forced the Hebrews to build "store cities" at Pithom and Raamses (Exod. 1:11).
  6. Moses as leader of the nation of Israel built the nation's most "public" edifice - the Tabernacle (Exod. 25:1ff).
  7. Joshua "rebuilt" the city of Timnathserah for his clan (Josh. 19:50).
  8. Danites "rebuilt" the city of Bethrehob (Jdgs. 18:28).
  9. David "built" the city of Jebus (Jerusalem) "round about from the Millo in complete circuit . ..." (I Chron. 11:8)..

  1. Solomon employed nearly 200,000 workers and took 20 years to build the first Temple in Israel (I Kings 5:1-9:14).
  1. Solomon also "built" walls, palaces, cities, government storehouses, war-horse stables, a national maritime fleet, and did public landscaping in Jerusalem (I Kings 9:15-28; see Eccl. 2:4; II Chron. 8:2). All this was done with tax money and the spoils of war in the national treasury.
  2. Rehoboam, son of Solomon, built cities, fortifications, storehouse (II Chron. 11:5-12).
  3. Asa built fortifications and cities (I Kings 15:22-24; II Chron. 14:6, 7).
  4. Jehoshaphat built cities, fortifications and storehouses (II Chron. 17:12, 13).
  5. Joash (boy king) taxed the people and restored the Temple (II Chron. 24:8-14).
  6. Uzziah built towers, cisterns and weapons of war (II Chron. 26:1-15).
  7. Jotham built gates, walls, towers, cities, and forts (II Chron. 27:3, 4).
  8. Hezekiah built up the walls of Jerusalem (II Chron. 32:5) and treasure houses, storehouses, cattle barns, cities, aqueducts (II Chron. 32:27-31).
  9. Manasseh (after repenting) built a wall and increased Jerusalem's fortifications (II Cor. 33:14).
  10. Omri built Samaria and fortified it (I Kings 16:24). Ahab built cities (I Kings 22:39).
  11. Nebuchadnezzar built Babylon (Dan. 4:28-30).
  12. Ezra began the work of rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 3:7ff).
  13. The king of Persia ordered and assisted in rebuilding the Jewish cities and its Temple (II Chron. 36:22, 23; Ezra 1:1-4; 6:1-5; 7:21-24).
  14. Nehemiah rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem (Neh. 2:17ff).
  15. Zerubbabel carried on the rebuilding of the Temple (Zech. 6:12).

Very little, if anything, is said by the Old Testament prophets about public works. The focus of their messages was primarily on the destruction of many of these "public works" (including the glorious Temple of Solomon) by heathen empires as they took the Israelites into exile.

There are no explicit references to public works by civil government in the New Testament with the exception of the notation in John 2:20 that the Temple in Jesus' day had been "forty-six years" under construction (actually, remodeling) and the notation in Luke 7:5 about an individual civil officer (a Roman centurion) who "built" a synagogue in Capernaum for the Jews of that city. We do know that a tremendous amount of public works construction was generated by Herod the Great (and his successors):

He (Herod) furthered the emperor's cultural policy by his vast building enterprises. Old cities were refounded and new cities were built; temples, hippodromes and amphitheatres were constructed - not only in his own realm but in foreign cities as well, in Athens for example. In his own kingdom he rebuilt Samaria and renamed it Sebaste, after the emperor (Sebastos is the Greek equivalent of the Latin Augustus, the title by which Octavian was known from 27 B.C. onwards). He also rebuilt Strato's Tower on the Mediterranean coast and equipped it with a large artificial harbour, calling the new foundation Caesarea, also in the emperor's honour. The work occupied some twelve years, from 22 to 10 B.C. Other settlements and strongholds were constructed here and there throughout the land, many of them bearing names in honour of members of his own family, such as Antipatris (on the road from Jerusalem to Caesarea), Cypros (at Jericho), and Phasaelis (west of the Jordan). At Jerusalem he built a royal palace for himself adjoining the western wall (c. 24 B.C.). Northwest of the temple area he had already rebuilt the Hasmonaean fortress of Baris and renamed it (after Antony) Antonia. But the greatest of all his building enterprises was the reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple. This grandiose project was begun early in 19 B.C. A thousand Levites were trained as builders, and they carried out their work in such a way that the sacred offices of the holy place were never interrupted while it was going on. The great outer court was enclosed, and surrounded by colonnades; the whole area was beautified with splendid gateways and other architectural structures until the temple became renowned throughout the world for its magnificence.... The main work of reconstruction was completed within Herod's lifetime, but the finishing touches were not put to it until A.D. 63, only seven years before its destruction.

Israel and The Nations, by F.F. Bruce,
pub. Eerdmans, pp. 194,195

We also know from Josephus that Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea in the days of Jesus' manhood, built an aqueduct to bring outside water into the city of Jerusalem (Josephus, Antiq. XVIII:3.-2) but caused a near riot among the Jews because he used money from their Temple treasury to build it. What an individual or a small group of individuals cannot do for themselves, they must seek from either a much larger group of individuals engaged in private enterprise (corporations) or from a common and centralized treasury administered by a government which has been granted the authority to generate resources (from taxes) and enact legislation ordering the (public) work to be done. History has demonstrated that corporations engaged in private enterprise will seldom produce "public works" affordable to individuals or small groups of individuals. Thus the much larger public treasury (government) becomes necessary for certain exigencies (national defense, law enforcement, roads, communications, etc.). Reason (the "natural law" of God) justifies government initiative in these necessities. In addition, citations from the Bible are sufficiently abundant to confirm that civil authorities did, in fact, assume responsibilities for necessary public works without divine censure for doing so. We may thus conclude that public works (with some qualifications) are a part of the mandate from God that civil authorities are man's servants for the good of man. Public works produced through the civil government should be expected to conform to the following principles - all of which may be found in the Bible:

  1. They should not contribute to depravity or be detrimental to the public welfare.
  2. They must be "policed" to insure against fraud or waste.
  3. They should be only such as are necessary to carry on the functions of the nation's defense, commerce, communication, or cultural edification.
  4. They should be submitted to a public referendum either through a general election or through a polling of legislative representatives. Those who pay for public works (tax-payers) should have a decisive voice in approving their creation.
  5. All citizens should have access to all public works, if such access does not impair national security.
  6. Civil government should not generate any public work that might be done more efficiently, with greater expertise, and that is sufficient to meet the need, by private enterprise. This is simply the principle of wise stewardship. God will call civil governments to account for their stewardship of his creation!

The Bible does have something to say about social welfare and public works. It does not give extensive and categorical direction but it does reveal unequivocal principles by which any individual or group of individuals (civil governments) may be guided in what is right and just. God has kept his Word silent on the details to allow man latitude in working out the mechanics of social welfare and public works himself. In exercising this latitude, however, the wisest of civil governments will mold its service to man according to the divine principles revealed in God's Word. 

Copyright © 1990, Paul T. Butler