Help of the Helpless 


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Many have heard the lovely old hymn which calls God the "Help of the helpless" (Abide With Me): "When others helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me!" But when pollster George Barna asked American Christians about the popular catch-phrase, 'God helps those who help themselves,' they responded with enthusiasm. Not only did they agree with the sentiment expressed, the majority thought it was in the Bible! Recently President Obama's press secretary Jay Carney reminded the American public of this 'Bible verse' which isn't. When it comes to Democratic politicians quoting the Bible, the operative verse to remember is Proverbs 17:28: "Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding." People who don't read the Bible ought to steer clear of 'quoting' it, because that way leads to unmasking. The wise both read and quote what they have read.

Benjamin Franklin presented the American public with this bon mot in its current form in his Poor Richard's Almanac: "However, let us hearken to good advice, and something may be done for us; God helps them that help themselves, as Poor Richard says." (Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, Appendix, The Way to Wealth, Kindle location 3070). But the concept goes way back, not only before the American Revolution, but even before the proclamation of the Christian gospel. It's found in Aesop's Fables:



  • “HERCULES AND THE WAGONER


  • “A Carter was driving a wagon along a country lane, when the wheels sank down deep into a rut. The rustic driver, stupefied and aghast, stood looking at the wagon, and did nothing but utter loud cries to Hercules to come and help him. Hercules, it is said, appeared and thus addressed him:
  • “Put your shoulders to the wheels, my man. Goad on your bullocks, and never more pray to me for help, until you have done your best to help yourself, or depend upon it you will henceforth pray in vain.”
  • “Self-help is the best help.”


  • (Aesop's Fables, Hercules and the Wagoner)






Ascent of Elijah, Russian Icon


Another translation: "The god appeared to the man and said, 'Grab hold of the wheels and goad the oxen: pray to the gods only when you're making some effort on your own behalf; otherwise, your prayers are wasted!'" (Gibbs; Babrius' Greek: τοῖς θεοῖς δ' εὔχου ὅταν τι ποιῇς καὐτός, ἢ μάτην εὔξῃ.). The idea that the gods help those who help themselves appealed mightily to the ancient Greeks. Xenophon explained the logic in his Cyropaedia:



  • “Aye, father,” said Cyrus, “as you have taught me, I always try to take care, as far as I can, that the gods may be gracious unto us and willingly give us counsel; for I remember,” said he, “having once heard you say that that man would be more likely to have power with the gods, even as with men, who did not fawn upon them when he was in adversity, but remembered the gods most of all when he was in the highest prosperity. And for one's friends also, you said, one ought always to show one's regard in precisely the same way.”


  • “Well, my son,” said he, “and owing to that very regard do you not come to the gods with a better heart to pray, and do you not expect more confidently to obtain what you pray for, because you feel conscious of never having neglected them?”


  • “Yes, indeed, father,” said he; “I feel toward the gods as if they were my friends.”


  • “To be sure,” said his father; “and do you remember the conclusion which once we reached--that as people who know what the gods have granted fare better than those who do not; as people who work accomplish more than those who are idle; as people who are careful live more securely than those who are indifferent; so in this matter it seemed to us that those only who had made themselves what they ought to be had a right to ask for corresponding blessings from the gods?”


  • “Yes, by Zeus,” said Cyrus; “I do indeed remember hearing you say so, and all the more because I could not help but agree with what you said. For I know that you always used to say that those who had not learned to ride had no right to ask the gods to give them victory in a cavalry battle; and those who did not know how to shoot had no right to ask to excel in marksmanship those who did know how; and those who did not know how to steer had no right to pray that they might save ships by taking the helm; neither had those who did not sow at all any right to pray for a fine crop, nor those who were not watchful in war to ask for preservation; for all that is contrary to the ordinances of the gods. You said, moreover, that it was quite as likely that those who prayed for what was not right should fail of success with the gods as that those who asked for what was contrary to human law should be disappointed at the hands of men.”


  • (Xenophon, Cyropedia, Book I, Chapter VI, 3-6).






What is this but practical atheism? No doubt the pagans found it a waste of time to pray to Hercules when the cart was stuck in the mud, because there was nobody home. Like the ever-absent Baal, he was away on a trip, out of town. . .always:

"And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked." (1 Kings 18:27).

There was no help coming from that quarter.

The Latin author Varro quotes a proverb,

"dei facientes adiuvant" (Varro, On Country Life, Book One, Chapter 1.4).

. . .which is heading somewhat in the same direction as our bon mot, but more broadly: 'the gods help those who are working,' or 'the gods help the busy.' The proverb does not specify what king of busy-work the gods like to see, so while the proverb would apply to situations where an observer might be tempted to say, 'the gods help those who help themselves,' it might also be seen as commending the kind of busy-work the gods were thought to favor, such as offerings and invocations. This is the way Varro himself seems to understand the proverb, because he quotes it, and then goes on to invoke the gods. Thus the translator renders, "And since, as told, the gods help those who call upon them, I will first invoke them. . ." Unpacking the proverb, that idea is present: if you never converse with the deities, when in time of peril you finally do call upon them, what will stop them from answering, 'Who are you? I don't believe we've met.' Cultivate their acquaintance in the convenient time, before disaster strikes. Yet it would be equally apt, upon seeing people sitting there doing nothing, to point out, 'the gods help people who are doing something, which is why they are not helping you.'

The monotheist Mohammed ibn Abdallah travels somewhat in the same direction when he says, "And him who helpeth God will God surely help: for God is right Strong, Mighty:. . ." (Koran Sura 22:41).

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But why would self-sufficiency appeal to self-professed Christians? Martin Luther warned, "Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing." (Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God). When this ancient proverb drifted over into Christian territory is uncertain, though reportedly Joan of Arc said, "Aide toy, Dieu te aidera:" "Help yourself and God will help you." Is this Biblical?

The Bible does not teach that we are self-sufficient, but rather that we are helpless. Paul gloried in his weakness: "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." (2 Corinthians 12:10). Christians do not look to themselves, but to God for strength and sufficiency:

"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth." (Psalm 121:1-2).

We meet in the Bible with people who are not helping themselves because they had given up:

"And she said, As the LORD thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die." (1 Kings 17:12).

"And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept." (Genesis 21:15-16).

These women had given up, they were waiting to die. So if our proverb holds true, God did not help them. But He did. This 'Bible quote' not only isn't there, it contradicts what is there, which accounts for its unpopularity amongst those who actually read the Bible. The Bible warns us not to put our hope in man:

"Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.  Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God. . ." (Psalm 146:3-5).

If you put your trust in yourself, in what are you are trusting? A human being. . .and probably not even royalty! There is "no help" to be found there. It is about on a par with trusting in Hercules.

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This is not the first time somebody has tried to 'port' Aesop's material into the monotheistic tradition. Who Aesop was is unknown; perhaps he was an Ethiopian; 'Aesop' could be a devolution of 'Aethiop.' But wherever this material came from, it is of such excellent quality that public speakers past and present often resort to it. Even Jesus, perhaps?:

"Jesus said, 'Damn the Pharisees! They are like a dog sleeping in the cattle manger: the dog neither eats nor [lets] the cattle eat.'" (Gospel of Thomas 102, p. 321, The Complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller, Editor).

It's not like this 'Dog in the Manger' story is novel or unfamiliar:




  • “The Dog in the Manger


  • “A DOG lay in a manger, and by his growling and snapping prevented the oxen from eating the hay which had been placed for them. 'What a selfish Dog!' said one of them to his companions; 'he cannot eat the hay himself, and yet refuses to allow those to eat who can.'”


  • (Aesop's Fables, The Dog in the Manger, translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop's Fables (p. 21). Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)




The story is very apt and fits in with Jesus' general diagnosis of the problem with the Pharisees. There is nothing intrinsically impossible about Jesus, the living God incarnate, quoting from Aesop's Fables; not only did the Rabbis of the Talmud do so, but even many of the preachers He commissioned and sent out into the world do so, to this day. Or can it be that the one thing the living God cannot do, is quote? Why not? This is the underlying assumption of parallel-o-mania: "His [Bultmann's] basic assumption that parallels point to non-authenticity." (A Shorter Life of Christ, by Donald Guthrie, p. 44). They assume, if Aesop said it, Jesus cannot have said it, which is strange when you think about it. Does that go for everything, like 'The sky is blue'? In any event, the saying, as a dominical saying, is not attested anywhere else, and 'Thomas' is not generally a reliable source.

Margaret Barker has made a name for herself by discovering 'The Lady,' a goddess, in ancient Israel's religion. This party turns up everywhere; for instance,

"Enoch preserves a short poem about rejecting her. When she found no place to dwell on earth:
'Wisdom returned to her place
And took her seat among the angels.
Unrighteousness went forth from her chambers;
Whom she sought not, she found,
And dwelt with them. . . '"

(Barker, Margaret. King of the Jews: Temple Theology in John's Gospel (Kindle Locations 4749-4754).)

Wow, authentic Jewish teaching about the goddess! Except where have we heard it before? It's just Themis, or Nemesis, or whoever is your goddess of wisdom, departing from unrighteous mortals, her place taken by an unsavory sister: "Envy will be everybody's constant companion, With her foul mouth and hateful face, relishing evil. And then up to Olympos from the wide-pathed Earth, lovely apparitions wrapped in white veils, off to join the Immortals, abandoning humans There go Shame and Nemesis. And horrible suffering Will be left for mortal men, and no defense against evil." (Hesiod, Works & Days, 227-233, p. 29, translated by Stanley Lombardo). It's a standard pagan riff; when Wisdom, or Justice, finds no place to dwell among men, she returns to her heavenly home.

Sometimes there is a synergy between God's viewpoint and some previously expressed human view, such as Cato the Elder's disdain of women's ornaments:

"And on this subject Cato delivered a speech in which he made out that the law ought to prevail, and finally he added these words: 'Let the women, then, be adorned not with gold nor precious stones nor with any bright and transparent clothing, but with modesty, with love of husband, love of children, persuasion, moderation, with the established laws, with our arms, our victories, our trophies.'" (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 18, Fragment IX, 17.)

Where there is such synergy, it's worth noting, but there's no reason to find it here. It always surprises me that the 'Jesus Seminar'-types are willing to accept 'Thomas;' they even champion and celebrate it. In so doing they are giving away the store. The Gospel of Thomas reports Jesus as having told the story of the Vineyard, which makes clear that He is the Son of God, not in the sense in which any random human being, or any random Israelite, might be called a son of God, but in a unique sense. He is the heir:




The Gospel of Thomas has an 'alien' sound to Christian ears, because the author's world-view decidedly tends toward gnosticism. What is the problem with humanity? Is it that we are sinners, estranged from God because of our sin, and in need of a blood covering to shield us from God's wrath? Why, no, it is an information problem; we have 'forgotten' something that we used to know, no doubt in our pre-existence before our earthly sojourn. We need to remember this lost information; we have got to get ourselves back to the garden:

"Jesus said, 'I took my stand in the midst of the world, and in flesh I appeared to them. I found them all drunk, and I did not find any of them thirsty. My soul ached for the children of humanity, because they are blind in their hearts and do not see, for they came into the world empty, and they also seek to depart from the world empty. But meanwhile they are drunk. When they shake off their wine, then they will change their ways.'" (Gospel of Thomas 28, p.310, The Complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller, editor).

Ignorance or lack of mindfulness is the problem, not sin. This is not the Bible perspective.

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