As the old adage goes, “Honesty is the best policy.” But, is it really? Additionally, is it always? Since the late 19th century, the American-born philosophy of pragmatism has increasingly undermined this venerated principle. The pragmatist maxim of Peirce, James, and Dewey admonishes us (commands us even?) to evaluate every decision in terms of its “practical consequences.” Today, the principles of honesty and integrity still enjoy a measure of lip service; most people, however, live life as practical pragmatists.
Essentially, the old adage has been culturally amended. Honesty is the best policy, except, of course, when its effects do not bring about positive consequences. Granted, in Proverbs, “Some things are said to be better than others because of their convenience, but others are just ‘better’, come what may.” Integrity is better, come what may! Christians, therefore, need to see an old Proverb with new eyes, and understand that the wisdom of Proverb 19:1 is much better-than worldly wisdom.
“Better is the poor that walketh in his integrity, than he that is perverse in his lips, and is a fool.”
1. Several are the relevant figures of speech
Bullinger recognizes a relative ellipsis in 19:1, “where the omitted word is to be supplied from a contrary word.” He supplies the omitted word thus, “…than [the rich, that is] perverse in his lips, and is a fool.” It is necessary merely to define the person as rich to complete the contrast which is clearly implied. Bullinger’s elliptical reconstruction has witnesses in the Syriac and Targums, which read “rich,” whereas the Masoretic Text and the LXX has “fool.” “However, the MT makes sense as it stands; this is an example of metonymical parallelism.” Although not impossible, Bullinger’s ellipsis is not highly plausible.
As alluded to above, there is the nearly certain employment of metonymy, specifically metonymy of cause, with regard to the term “lips,” for what is spoken by them. The expression “perverse in his lips” refers to speech that is morally perverted. The use of metonymy of cause with regard to “lips” for speech is a commonplace in Hebrew literature, which is averse to abstractions, preferring instead the concrete realities of life.
Finally, there appears to be a four-member chiasm present in this proverb. The chiasm would function to emphasize the antithetical parallelism of the proverb, creating a more striking difference between to two men and their two ways.
A. The better man [though poor]
B. Walketh in his integrity
B. Perverse in his lips
A. The fool [though rich?]
2. Imagery and word-pictures in the proverb
The metaphor of walking is an important one in Scripture and the life based on Scripture; the better man “walketh in his integrity.” In Proverbs, he also walketh in the ways of good people (2:20), the way of righteousness (8:20), understanding (9:6), the wise (13:20), and wisdom itself (28:26). “References to how people walk yield a composite picture of how the godly person lives…Walking at a…figurative level becomes a prime metaphor for…a person’s lifestyle (with the image of walking suggesting continuing progress in time and in a chosen direction.)” 
The image of one being “perverse in his lips” is another concrete image, which is brought across well by the KJV, and which is set in antithesis to “walkest in integrity.” There are several reasons for believing that the breadth of the metonymy extends well beyond the immediate product of the lips, to mean only mere speech. First, there is the parallelism (antithetical) between the two types of characters. If, as we’ve seen, “walketh” is reference to one’s entire manner and direction in life, then “lips” is likely intended to present a similar concept. This is confirmed by looking to the near-parallel proverb of 28:6, which puts “ways” in the place of “lips.” Thirdly, because the speech that the “lips” produce, for better or worse, is itself rooted in the heart, the control center, of each person (e.g., Prov 16:23; Matt 12:34; 15:18), lips, as an image, conjures up a picture of the whole person.
3. Contributing cultural elements
The only significant contribution from the culture that can be perceived is a literary one. The basic message of Prov 19:1 is also reflected in other ancient Near Eastern proverb collections. For instance, the Instruction of Amenemope, a collection of Egyptian wisdom (so-called), chapter six, reads thus.
Better, then, is poverty in the hand of God
Than riches in the storehouse;
Better is bread when the mind is at ease
Than riches with anxiety.
4. Possible experiences of Solomon’s day that influenced the proverb
Because of the aphoristic nature of Proverbs, it is tremendously difficult to discern any influential socio-historical context. At the risk of crass speculation, one may venture to conjecture that Solomon had his father’s recounting of his experience with Nabal floating in the background of his mind as he penned this proverb (1 Sam 25:23—39). Or, to stretch things a bit further, one could possibly even suggest the Nathan parable (see especially 2 Sam 12:3). Finally, it is also possible that Solomon had his second encounter with Yahweh in mind, when Yahweh commanded Solomon to “walk before me…with integrity of heart and uprightness” (1 Kings 9:4 ESV).
5. The connection between this proverb and the Fear of Yahweh
The connection between the principles of Prov 19:1 and the concept of the “fear of Yahweh” is a sure one, though it is an indirect one. It demands reading across the various strata of Proverbs and drawing necessary inferences.
For instance, the children of the one who “walks in his integrity” are blessed after him (20:7); and, the one who fears Yahweh prepares a future refuge for his children. In tandem, then, these two verses roughly bring together the fear of Yahweh and walking in one’s integrity. Likewise, in Prov 8:13, Wisdom says that the fear of Yahweh is the hatred of evil; she, in fact, hates “perverse speech.”
Proverbs 15:16 is perhaps more explicit. This verse is another “better-than” proverb; it reads, “Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it” (ESV). In this, the better-ness of the little is conditioned by the “fear of the LORD” rather than walking in one’s integrity; the worse-ness of the great treasure is conditioned by trouble rather than folly. Nevertheless, the general equity of the principles is consistent and congruous. To fear Yahweh results in walking in integrity; walking in integrity is an illustration of one’s fear of Yahweh.
6. The moral element of this proverb and its significance
Caution must be taken to avoid a serious mistake in understanding this proverb. In our era of liberal and liberation theology, one could be misled to see the poverty rather than the integrity of the man to be what is “better.” Within the scope of Proverbs the poor are certainly subject to oppression and injustice (13:23; 14:20; 22:7), sometimes even by others in poverty (28:3)! Such oppression is warned against by divine threat, however, and viewed as a direct attack on God himself (17:5). But being poor is not necessarily a virtue according to Solomon, neither does it mean one is virtuous (10:4; 14:20). In fact, the socio-economic categories of rich and poor can often be deceiving (13:7). Ultimately, whether rich or poor all men are ontologically equal before God (22:2). Nevertheless, the poor are generally more tender than the rich (18:23), and are certainly better than liars (19:22), which hits close to the target of 19:1.
The moral implication of 19:1 is integrity. It is the righteous one whose walks in integrity (20:7). Those who walk in their integrity have Yahweh as their shield (2:7), and their integrity serves as a guide through life’s difficulties (11:3). So, ultimately they walk securely (10:9). Although, this integrity-walking may cost one greatly, even bring poverty on him (19:1; 28:6), he will be finally delivered (28:18). Therefore, the ethical teaching is that one’s integrity must be treasured above all, despite the cost of hanging onto it. It is not being poor that is better, but being poor and having integrity is better than being and having anything else (19:1; 28:6).
7. Back to the Future: a modern application of the wisdom of 19:1
Especially in light of the recent economical unrest, with its concomitant foreclosures, unemployment and various other financial hardships, the path of those walking in integrity is at great risk of being grown-over with thorns and thistles. The bottom-line has become the only point of reference for making ethical decisions, not only in corporate America but right down in the homes of the families that make up our society. Business managers aren’t often looking for integrity, but profit today. The Christian is in no less risk than the heathen when it comes to opportunities to compromise his integrity, and we all have all the motivations to compromise that we need—“all that is in the world…” (1 Jn 2:16). In 19:1, integrity is juxtaposed with perverse lips. It is the classic “two ways,” the way of light and the way of darkness, the way of life and the way of death, which are always before us. To walk in one’s integrity is to walk with the Lord; but the “way of evil and perverted speech” is hated by Lady Wisdom (8:13).
8. Wisdom’s “payoff”
Lady Wisdom’s wages are the best! “My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver” (8:18). Walking in integrity is itself one of the “payoffs” of divine Wisdom. All other temporal and material blessings are worthy of scorn, if they compromise one’s walk of integrity.
9. Integrity better than, 101: explaining the proverb to a 10 year old
Dad: Billy, Christ in his word teaches us that “Better is the poor that walketh in his integrity, than he that is perverse in his lips, and is a fool.”
Billy: Dad, wouldn’t it be simpler to just tell me I must ‘love my neighbor as myself’?
Dad: Well, I’m thankful that you recognize that in this situation you failed to do that most basic command in thought, word and deed. Knowing that, I think you will agree with me that there is more involved and more at stake in this situation.
Billy: I reckon. But, how? And, how does this proverb figure in?
Dad: Look, Billy, don’t think that I don’t remember what it was like to have to ‘fit in’ and be in the swim with the guys. In fact, there is a sense in which we guys never grow out of that situation; peer pressure is always there, so long as you’ve got peers, really. How you respond to this show yourself and the world where your real treasures lie and what your highest values are.
Let me ask you a question, Billy. Is it a mystery to your classmates, your teacher, or even the whole school that you confess to be a follower of Jesus?
Billy: Well…I don’t thi…Golly, I sure hope not, Dad!
Dad: I hope not either, Billy. You already realize that you didn’t love your neighbor like yourself when you joined with your friends in making fun of Sam in the gym. Sam didn’t choose to be handicap, you know. If he could run like you and the other boys, don’t you think that he would rather do that?
Billy: Of course, Dad. But you don’t understand! Toad and Eric said that unless I joined in with them in the hall...that they’d make me wish that they treated me as good as they treat Sam, cause Sam would be the only one left in the whole class that would consider hanging out with me!!
Dad: That is getting right to the heart of the proverb, Billy. When it says, “Better is the poor…” It doesn’t mean only poor as in not having money; it can apply to your dilemma just as well. It can also mean friend-poor. In this case, you chose not to walk in your integrity, that is, to act contrary to the most basic command of your Lord, by treating Sam in the exact same way you feared that Toad, Eric, and the others might treat you, if you didn’t go along with them in their “perverse speech” and foolishness toward Sam.
The point is this, Billy. It is better to walk in your integrity, which means “walking just as [Jesus] walked” toward others (1 Jn 2:6), since you confess to be following in his steps, even…well, especially if that means suffering for it (1 Pet 2:1). You see, buddy, while your walking in your integrity in this case could have risked you becoming poor in friends, Sam was the poor one already; and your attacking him was a direct attack on God, in whose image Sam is made (Prov 14:31; 17:5). Billy, you can see how badly we need the gospel every day. Like Sam’s physical problem, we are all spiritually handicap before the Lord; sin cripples our legs and prevents us from “walking in our integrity.” Even if, Billy, you have to lose every friend you have, if you walk in your integrity, you have one Friend who sticks closer than a brother, Jesus (18:24)!
10. The wisdom of 19:1 for the covenant community
Today, above any period in church history, the covenant community is guilty of not walking in the integrity of her confession in her Christ. We are willing to compromise what we say, as soon as there is any risk of becoming “poor,” whether that means losing esteem in the culture, losing tithers in the pews, or even one’s position in the pulpit. The last example is of particular threat. It is becoming increasingly vogue for pastors to drive a wedge between the orthodox doctrines of our holy faith and the practical life of the faithful. Michael Horton recounts a recent example of this conforming compromise.
Not long ago, a pastor in Arizona was reported in Newsweek saying, ‘People today aren’t asking about justification, sanctification, and similar questions.’ Hardly a rank liberal, he has nevertheless opted for a user-friendly religious approach that tries not to bore people with, well, Christianity. Doubtless, this pastor would sign on the dotted line of orthodox doctrine, but it would appear that such commitments have little to do with his actual ministry. If we have to judge by the popular sermons, Christian best-seller lists, or by the shelve space given in Christian book stores to Christian doctrine and the relationship between truth and life, the church seems to have little interest in God’s questions, much less his answers.
Again, “…this pastor would sign on the dotted line of orthodox doctrine, but it would appear that such commitments have little to do with his actual ministry.” In essence, this is the message of the church in our age, ‘we believe these doctrines are true, but they are irrelevant to life.’ This is a perfect picture of what is looks life to not walketh in integrity. There is a great divide between our talk and our walk.
Appropriately, we are hearing from the pollsters, apologists, and thoughtful evangelism teachers that one of the primary complaints against the church from this generation is a lack of authenticity within the church, which is another way of saying a lack of integrity. The church is “perverse in [her] lips” today, and has foolishly surrendered the heart of her existence in the world by becoming a mirrored-image of the world. Sadly, we have forgotten that conviction not compromise is what has always grown the church, in depth as well as breadth. The impoverished Jerusalem church of the Book of Acts knew what the proverb meant in saying, “Better is the poor that walketh in integrity…” If we today cannot learn to embrace this same wisdom, we are the worst of “fools” for it (Prov 19:1c).
 Anonymous, “Pragmatism” at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (August 16, 2008). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pragmatism/#PraMax on April 6, 2011.
 There is a great irony in this. Often the one who crows the principles of integrity and honesty the loudest does so in reference to others, whose dishonesty could have negative ‘practical consequences’ for the one, thus revealing that the supposed principled one is so for purely pragmatic reasons!
 Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes. IVP: Downers Grove, Illinois (1985), p. 30.
 E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible: Explained and Illustrated. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Michigan (1968), pp. 58—59.
 Ibid. p. 59.
 Ibid. Op cit.
 NET Bible translator’s annotations. Retrieved from http://net.bible.org/#!bible/Proverbs+19:1 on April 7, 2011. Ad loc., fn. 3.
 E. W. Bullinger, The Companion Bible. Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, Michigan (1990), ad loc. Also see Appendix 6, p. 11.
 NET Bible translator’s annotations, ad loc., fn. 3, op cit. The deeper significance of the metonymy and the term “lips” will come to center in the section below, regarding imagery in the text.
 “Walk, walking,” pp. 922—23 in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III editors. IVP Academic: Downers Grove, Illinois (1998), p. 922. Parenthesis original.
 Most modern translations miss this picture by using the more abstract “speech” or like concept.
 It is also worth out notice that some medieval Hebrew manuscripts, the Syriac, and Targums of Prov 19:1 have “his ways” rather than “his lips.” See the NET Bible translator’s annotations, ad loc., fn. 2.
 Anonymous, “Lips,” pp. 515—16 in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, p. 515.
 “Integrity” here is the same term used to translate integrity in Prov 19:1, which is tôm. It is used only a surprising 24x in the OT.
 We Believe: Recovering the Essentials of the Apostle’s Creed. Word Publishing: Nashville, Tennessee (1998), p. 4.