Work in Proverbs

Work is a gift from God to give meaning to our lives. Pity the man or woman who doesn’t do any, regardless of how rich or poor. 

Our family was at the marina yesterday morning getting our sailboat ready to go into the water for the sailing season. Decks needed to be scrubbed, the cabin needed to be cleaned, rigging needed to be checked, and the tires on the trailer, having gone flat during our unusually cold winter, needed to be repaired and changed. It was a family affair, with everyone pitching in to do what they could even when they didn’t want to; like when two of my daughters cleaned the anchor locker. Enjoying the cool breeze and warm sunshine while we worked, another boater walked over and asked how I got my whole family to help with the boat; he had to do all of his boat work alone. It is a common sentiment; we often see whole families enjoying their boats but generally see only adults, usually men, working on them.

In 1978 the movie “Thank God it’s Friday” lauded the last day of the work week and in 1981 the band Loverboy sang “Everybody’s working for the weekend”. More recent and more sinister, nearly 150 police officers and firefighters in New York City were arrested for faking post-traumatic stress disorder related to the 9/11/2001 terrorist attack so that they could get government benefits and get out of work. Thus some of the most admired people in the country used one of the most horrific events in our history to cheat taxpayers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars each. God made man to work, and yet so many want to avoid it.

The Book of Proverbs has a lot to say about work.

Laziness versus diligence

Proverbs 13:4 – The slothful man lusts after (אָוָה ‘avah) a great deal, but he has nothing. The industrious man has plenty. “Soul” in this verse refers to the totally of the man, body and spirit. Diligence feeds the diligent in every aspect of his life.

Proverbs 14:23 – Honest work is profitable, but mere talk leads to poverty. As technology puts more and more physical labor into the realm of machines, man spends more time talking. As long as the talk is rational and constructive, it leads to good things. When the conversation becomes sinful, angry or vapid, such talk leads only to hot air. People should be more afraid of idle words than of hard work.

Proverbs 20:4 – Winter wheat and barley are major sources of food in the spring, but plowing in the cold and wet winter is hard work. Averse to labor, the slothful man wishes to wait until things are easier and more pleasant. Unfortunately for him, this does not produce grain. The implication is that the sluggard did plant something and did look for a harvest, but since he did not work in the proper season, he had nothing at harvest time.

Proverbs 24:30-34 – The sluggard and the man lacking sense, and the field and the vineyard, refer to the same situation. At one point in time this man was successful; he had a well ordered vineyard surrounded by a stone wall. Few people were wealthy enough in Solomon’s day to have vineyards, and though the work was hard, he was no tenant; the land was his. Perhaps he inherited it or perhaps he had built it himself into a successful operation, but whatever happened in the past, now his business was in a shambles and he was a lazy fool.

The owner of the field did not expect to be destitute. He took a little time off, and then a little more, and then a little more. Jobs that he once had the energy to do slowly became too difficult, and even easy or simple work became harder and harder. It was not because of sickness, because there is no hint in this passage of physical disability. Rather it was because the man got into the habit of foolish thinking and developed a pattern of laziness. All seemed to go well until, with the suddenness of an armed robber attacking at night, the foolish man had lost it all. Maintaining and protecting what he had seemed like too much work, and so the lazy man now had nothing. He also lacked wisdom or strength to reclaim what he had. Note the clear parallels in verses 33-34 to Proverbs 6:10-11.

Proverbs 26:13-15 – The sluggard exaggerates danger, in part to avoid doing things that he does not wish to do, and in part because he truly believes that danger exists where it actually does not. A man who is wise and strong has many ways to deal with adversity and so has little to fear, while a man who is foolish and weak has few resources to handle hardship, so he has much to fear. Fearful and confused, the sluggard flees to his bed, tossing and turning in terror of the terrible fate that he imagines, but which is not likely to ever happen. Even when not fearful, the sluggard clings to his bed. Indeed he is so lazy and foolish that even eating, one of the simplest pleasures in life becomes too hard to do.

Proverbs 28:19 – Not every form of work will end in financial success, no matter how hard or skillfully one pursues it. Some pursuits, such as those that are ethically worthless, will end in poverty. Other pursuits, such as those that honor God, will end in plenty.

Foolishness versus wisdom

Proverbs 6:6-11 – Not only is the sluggard lazy, but he is also foolish. The ant is a tiny, humble creature, but despite his small and weak appearance, he is a fitting example to the sluggard. Ants have a queen to reproduce, have no clear ruler to the casual observer, but do have organization and cooperation. Nonetheless they store in the right season and are secure in the hard times. The foolish man rests when he should be working and finds himself destitute. Laziness develops gradually, beginning with a little sleep and a little slumber and expanding into too much of both. Note the clear parallels in verses 10-11 to Proverbs 24:33-34.

Proverbs 10:5 – Related to the passage in chapter 6, the wise man knows the times and the seasons, both of nature and of life. Just as every day has time to work and time to rest, so also men serve the Lord differently during the times of their lives. Children learn and grow, adults produce the goods and services that society needs, and elders produce what they can while training the next generation. To do otherwise is to bring want and shame to one’s family and harm to society. If too many people do the same, the nation will collapse.

Proverbs 14:4 – In the ancient world, oxen were needed for pulling, plowing and other heavy labor. However, they also required a lot of food, a lot of care and a lot of space. The foolish man does not buy the oxen that he needs because he wants his barn to stay clean, or not have to build a barn in the first place. Some would say that he is “penny wise and pound foolish”, saving a little by not buying oxen but foregoing all of the large financial and other benefits that he could gain.

Proverbs 21:20 – The wise man has great treasure in his home, but the fool consumes all that he has. Like the Prodigal Son, the fool may begin with a lot but squanders it, often in loose living.

Proverbs 24:27 – No man can build a house until he has first prepared the ground. Land for building must be level, with major obstacles removed, and then a strong foundation laid. Only once this is done can someone build a house that will be beautiful and strong. The same is true in a person’s life. He must continually strive to be level headed, to remove sin and keep it out, and lay a strong foundation in knowledge of God and obedience to His will. Only then will his life be beautiful and strong.

Proverbs 26:16 – Despite the fact that the sluggard has nothing, he maintains his arrogance before his fellow man. The lower he goes, the less he has, and the more tightly he holds on to his own opinions and the illusion of his own success and wisdom. One commentator suggests that “much anti-intellectualism may be traced to such rationalization for laziness” (Greenstone, p269, in Allen P. Ross, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, volume 5, Proverbs, p1091)

Stinginess versus generosity

Proverbs 11:24-25 – No man can succeed completely on his own. No matter how clever and industrious we are, the idea of the “self-made man” is self-delusion. Just as there is no success without successors, so those who live for themselves alone soon find themselves dying with nothing at all. “Scattering” in this context pictures a farmer generously dispersing his seed all over his good ground, and the good ground of those around him. He is generous with his bounty, and even in his need. The man who keeps everything to himself, however, will lose even what he thinks that he can keep.

Proverbs 19:17 – The godly man is generous to those who can give nothing in return. The Lord, who is the Master and Creator of everything in the universe, will see such acts done in obedience to Him. In a real sense, that righteous person has lent to God. He will then reward the giver. The reward from the Lord may not be financial, but it will be bountiful.

Proverbs 22:9 – The eye is the metaphor for the heart of man, out of which springs good things or bad things. The generous man (with a “good eye”) looks for opportunities to give, evaluates the situation, and then gives. The Lord will bless him. The stingy and covetous man (with an “evil eye”) holds back from others, and the Lord holds back blessings from him.

Proverbs 28:27 – It is all too easy to see a person begging on the street corner or drive past a homeless shelter and close our eyes. We close them because though we have an inner conviction to do something, we don’t want to. Rather than catching their gaze and dealing with the pleading in their eyes, we avert our own eyes. Parodoxically, the man who is generous and gives to the needy will have more, and the man who holds tightly to what he has will have less.

Anyone who has traveled to the Middle East has encountered beggars, some of whom will curse you if you pass them by without giving anything. While such cursing is often a crass attempt to manipulate others and some of the beggars are anything but poor, it can be disconcerting to a person who strives to serve God. The answer is to look to Him for guidance every moment. A curse without a cause will not alight (Proverbs 26:2), so a child of God must give when He commands and withhold when He commands.


God created man and woman to work; doing whatever task He assigns in His time and in His way. Adam and Eve were to tend the garden, to take care of the rest of creation, and to have children to fill the earth. Men and women today have the same tasks; to tend to the things the God has placed in our lives, to care for those around us and the whole world, and to continue the human race. Each person’s work is a variation on these basic themes. Ultimately the object of man’s work is to glorify God and to love and enjoy Him forever. Proverbs provides specific instructions on how to be diligent and not lazy, wise and not foolish, and generous and not stingy. They are lessons worth learning, as work will not end with death; people will continue work into eternity. Paradise, the New Heavens and the New Earth, will be places of work.

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