What really matters in the end? The quest to answer this question has driven human history, inspired philosophers to probe the meaning of life, and sparked the imagination of great artists. No one can avoid this question, and all of us develop our priorities according to what we believe is of ultimate importance.
Scripture’s answer to this all-important question proclaims the emptiness and futility of those answers that our unbelieving world tends to propose. Ultimately, what really matters is not the degree of fame that we achieve. Our level of intelligence is not what is most significant. The position to which we rise on the corporate ladder is not of ultimate importance. No, what counts forever is righteousness.
Proverbs 16:8 makes this point by comparing the importance of righteousness and the importance of wealth. One is better off as a righteous person even if he owns very little than he is if he is fabulously wealthy and yet is also an unjust individual (Prov. 16:8). In other words, all the money in the world will not help us one bit if we are not concerned for righteousness. If we lay up treasures for ourselves but are not rich toward God, we are fools indeed (Luke 12:13–21).
As we consider the full implications of today’s passage, there are several lessons that we must take to heart. First, the verse indicates that the promises of divine material blessing upon righteous people we find in Scripture (for example, Deut. 28:1–14) are not always fulfilled in our lifetimes. That it is better to be righteous and own little than it is to be wicked and rich implies that there are some righteous people who do not experience material prosperity. Second, because this proverb offers a comparison of two particular situations, we cannot apply it universally to mean either that righteousness and poverty go hand in hand or that injustice and wealth are inseparably linked. The proverb looks at a hypothetical situation and concludes that it is better to be righteous and poor than evil and wealthy, making the point that when one is forced to choose between money and righteousness, righteousness is better. However, one can be righteous and wealthy, just as one can be wicked and impoverished. Given a choice between two options, it is still better to be righteous. Simply put, money in itself is indifferent. What is morally significant is the heart of the person. In the end, only righteousness matters, not the size of one’s bank account.