The Application of Wisdom: Work

Notes on Proverbs

When we consider the subject of work, Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes provide a fitting starting point: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Our time here on earth is limited. Therefore, we must work hard in the time that we have. Once our lives here are over, there will be no opportunity to do what we ought to have done during our time under the sun. So the wise man spends a good deal of time in the book of Proverbs discussing the important topic of work.

The Virtue and Rewards of Work

We learn in Solomon’s writings that work is not only necessary and honorable but that it also leads to blessings from God as we carry out the responsibilities we have in life.

In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (14:23).

Some seem to have the idea that some work is worthwhile, but other work is useless. It is certainly true that from a financial standpoint, certain types of labor are more profitable than others. But Solomon says that “all labor” is profitable. He then warns us against spending all of our time merely talking and planning about what we might do. It is easy to become so distracted by plans and dreams that we do not accomplish any actual work. No matter how good our plans or how ambitious our dreams are, they are worthless if we never do any work to make those plans a reality.

The glory of young men is their strength, and the honor of old men is their gray hair” (20:29).

Solomon says that “old men” have the advantage of experience and wisdom (implied by “gray hair”). In contrast, the “young men” have their strength. Therefore, Jeremiah said, “It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth” (Lamentations 3:27). Too often, young men in our society want to do the least that they can to get by. Perhaps they think the time for hard work is when they are older. Maybe they are hoping to figure out some “get rich quick” scheme so as to avoid the need to work hard at all. Whatever the motivation might be, young men who are striving to follow God’s wisdom, rather than worldly wisdom, should use the strength of their youth to work hard, rather than follow their peers in the way of laziness and futile, childish pursuits.

A worker’s appetite works for him, for his hunger urges him on” (16:26).

When God created man, he gave him a natural indicator in his own body that would remind him of the need to eat to sustain his life – hunger. Solomon says this hunger motivates man to work hard so that he can sustain himself from the fruit of his labors. One of the reasons many become trapped in the rut of laziness is because they do not feel the motivation of hunger to urge them to work hard. When laziness is rewarded or subsidized, people will continue in laziness. When laziness causes one to be hungry, people will eventually learn that they must work so that they will be able to eat. Later in the book of Proverbs, Agur mentions three things which cause the earth to quake and four under which it “cannot bear up” (30:21). One of these is “a fool when he is satisfied with food” (30:22). When one refuses to work and suffers hunger because of it, he harms himself. When one refuses to work but is rewarded for his laziness with food and the necessities of life, society is harmed because of it.

The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage, but everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty” (21:5).

Earlier we noticed how talking of one’s plans alone, without actually working to carry out those plans, leads to poverty (14:23). The plans that Solomon mentions in this verse are not idle dreams. Rather they are plans that belong to the diligent. When careful forethought is coupled with diligent effort, one obtains a degree of prosperity (generally speaking). However, many shy away from diligent, thoughtful labor, hoping instead to gain prosperity through deception, impulsiveness, or some “get rich quick” scheme. Yet Solomon warns, “Everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty.” He says elsewhere, “A faithful man will abound with blessings, but he who makes haste to be rich will not go unpunished” (28:20). On the point about diligent, thoughtful labor, Solomon says, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men” (22:29). One will be recognized and honored for his skill in his work. This skill does not come by accident but through diligence and perseverance.

The hand of the diligent will rule, but the slack hand will be put to forced labor” (12:24).

Solomon says that both the diligent man and the lazy man will work. Those who are lazy are trying to avoid work. But eventually, work is unavoidable.  At some point it will become necessary for one to work for himself after those who had been supporting him are no longer willing to do so, or their resources that were used to help have been exhausted. However, one who is self-motivated and is willing to work to provide for himself (rather than being forced to do so), will rule. As a result of his diligence, experience, and skill, he will have put himself at an advantage over one who has wasted his time in empty pursuits.

Consequences of Refusing to Work

The wise man warns us that there are consequences for refusing to work. These consequences go beyond simply missing out on the blessings of hard work. There are also negative consequences that come for those who refuse to work.

The way of the lazy is as a hedge of thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway” (15:19).

There are two paths one can take in life – “the way of the lazy” and “the path of the upright.” In context, the upright is one who is a diligent worker. One who is lazy tries to avoid the hard work in which the diligent man engages. Yet this verse mentions the difficulties and come from laziness. The path of the diligent man is a highway – clear and easy to travel. The path of the lazy man goes through a hedge of thorns. The point is that everything is more difficult for one who does not develop the ability or possess the inclination to work hard.

He who tills his land will have plenty of food, but he who follows empty pursuits will have poverty in plenty” (28:19).

We noticed earlier that “the plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage” (21:5). The path to prosperity is not short, but takes time and requires one to follow certain procedures – in this case, tilling his land so that he might later reap the harvest. Solomon says, “The sluggard does not plow after the autumn, so he begs during the harvest and has nothing” (20:4). Even if one realizes his mistake late in the year, it will be too late. He cannot begin planting when it is time to be harvesting. Often when one does not do what needs to be done in the proper time, he will suffer for it. “Laziness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle man will suffer hunger” (19:15).

He also who is slack in his work is brother to him who destroys” (18:9).

There is a similarity between one who is lazy and one who destroys. One is actively tearing down what is around him (“him who destroys”). The other is passively destroying (he who is “slack in his work”). The next passage explains how one’s laziness is destructive.

I passed by the field of the sluggard and by the vineyard of the man lacking sense, and behold, it was completely overgrown with thistles; its surface was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. When I saw, I reflected upon it; I looked, and received instruction. ‘A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,’ then your poverty will come as a robber and your want like an armed man” (24:30-34).

Through neglect, the field that was once fertile had become “completely overgrown with thistles.” Through lack of maintenance, the stone wall that had once served as a proper boundary had “broken down.” This came as the result of the property owner’s laziness and refusal to take care of what belonged to him. The end result was essentially no different than if one had come in and actively destroyed these things. The consequence of his destructive neglect was that he would become poor and destitute.

The Description of the Sluggard

In order to provide motivation for one to work, Solomon describes the conditions of the sluggard so that we might avoid being like him.

The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the soul of the diligent is made fat” (13:4).

Everyone has desires they wish to be fulfilled – from the basic necessities of life (the desire for food, clothing, and shelter), to various comforts and luxuries of life. One who is diligent has a way to obtain what he desires – work. The sluggard, because he is not willing to work, “craves and gets nothing.” Solomon later says, “The desire of the sluggard puts him to death, for his hands refuse to work; all day long he is craving, while the righteous gives and does not hold back” (21:25-26). The righteous man is able to be generous because of the reward he receives from his diligent labor (cf. Ephesians 4:28). The sluggard, because of his refusal to work, will not only have to live without certain things, but his laziness actually helps bring destruction upon himself.

A lazy man does not roast his prey, but the precious possession of a man is diligence” (12:27).

Without roasting his prey, the effort that was put forth in hunting it was useless. It does no good to begin work and then not finish it. Diligence is called a “precious possession” because it enables one to finish the work he starts so that he might enjoy the fruits of his labor.

The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is weary of bringing it to his mouth again” (26:15).

This verse is nearly identical to one found a few chapters earlier (19:24). It describes the utterly miserable state of the sluggard. Even though he may be so close to completing what would seem like the most basic of all tasks – feeding oneself – he does not even have the will to bring his hand back up to his mouth. This ought to serve as a warning of the destructive and progressive effects of laziness. When one gives himself over to laziness, difficult tasks become impossible. Reasonable tasks become an excessive burden. Easy tasks even prove to be more than one can willfully manage.

As the door turns on its hinges, so does the sluggard on his bed” (26:14).

Though a door may have movement in opening and closing, because it remains on its hinges, it never really goes anywhere. Solomon says the same is true with the sluggard in his bed. Though he may toss and turn, as long as he remains in his bed, he will never go anywhere or accomplish anything, thus bringing about his own destruction. As the wise man says earlier, “Laziness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle man will suffer hunger” (19:15).

The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road! A lion is in the open square!’” (26:13).

This verse is simply about one making excuses in an attempt to justify his laziness. A similar passages reads: “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside; I will be killed in the streets!’” (22:13). The sluggard uses the presence of a dangerous lion outside (assuming this was not a contrived excuse) to justify his remaining at home, in bed (26:14), not taking care of himself (26:15), and all the while thinking that he is “wiser…than seven men who can give a discreet answer” (26:16). Yet the sluggard is not wise for refusing to go out and work to provide for himself – even with a lion outside. If there was an actual lion outside, the sluggard could have done one of two things: either kill the lion or avoid the lion. But he refused to do either one. Too often people tend to make excuses to try and justify their laziness rather than simply deal with the problems and obstacles in front of them. The sluggard is the one who makes excuses. The wise man will find a way to work around any obstacle that presents itself.

Admonition to the Sluggard

After describing the sluggard and explaining some of the consequences for one’s refusal to work, we turn our attention to Solomon’s admonition to the sluggard.

Go to the ant, O sluggard, observe her ways and be wise, which, having no chief, officer or ruler, prepares her food in the summer and gathers her provision in the harvest. How long will you lie down, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? ‘A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest’–your poverty will come in like a vagabond and your need like an armed man” (6:6-11).

The sluggard can learn from observing the ant. First, the ant is self-motivated. Though it has “no chief, officer or ruler,” it accomplishes the work that is necessary for it to do. It does not need to wait to be told what is required of it. Second, the ant is prepared for the future. During the winter months there would be no food to be found. So the ant works hard during the summer and harvest in order to have food later in the year. Third, the ant does not procrastinate. In the summer months, the ant begins gathering for the winter. Yet the sluggard prefers sleep over work, and, as a result, neglects to do the work necessary to provide for himself. Because of this, he will find himself in poverty and being forced to beg (cf. 24:33-34; 20:4).

Do not love sleep, or you will become poor; open your eyes, and you will be satisfied with food” (20:13).

Sleep is necessary. But work is necessary, too. In this context, one who loves sleep is not one who simply appreciates the benefits of sleep and understands the necessity of rest for helping him carry out the responsibilities that he has in life. Rather, the one who loves sleep is one who will neglect his responsibilities in order to sleep. For him, rest is not a way to recharge from work but a way to avoid work. If we want to be “satisfied with food,” meaning we have sufficient means of providing for ourselves, we must not “love sleep” like the sluggard.

Four things are small on the earth, but they are exceedingly wise: the ants are not a strong people, but they prepare their food in the summer; the shephanim are not a mighty people, yet they make their houses in the rocks; the locusts have no king, yet all of them go out in ranks; the lizard you may grasp with the hands, yet it is in kings’ palaces” (30:24-28).

We already noticed how the sluggard is quick to make excuses (26:13; 22:13). Agur mentions “four things that are small on the earth” that can serve as an example to the sluggard. The ants are not strong, but they work hard, refuse to procrastinate, and “prepare their food in the summer” (30:25; cf. 6:8). The shephanim (small creatures that are similar to rabbits) may have been vulnerable to predators because of their size, but they protected themselves by making “their houses in the rocks” (30:26). The locusts, though they had no ruler, stuck together for their mutual protection and benefit (30:27). The lizard (spider, KJV) was small enough for one to catch in his hands, yet, because of its ability to get into hard to reach places, was able to find a place “in kings’ palaces” (30:28). Each one of these had challenges that made survival difficult – particularly in regard to their inherent physical characteristics. But in spite of their supposed deficiencies, they simply did what was necessary for their survival. We would do well to learn from these four small creatures. Instead of making excuses, we should simply use the peculiar talents and advantages we have and do the work we are responsible to do.

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