Work and Laziness - Proverbs Commentary

One never sees a lazy ant, so Solomon suggests we consider this tiny insect to learn wisdom: "Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its substance in harvest" (6:6-8). Ants apparently know what to do and do it without a foreman or supervisor. And they do their work to provide for the coming winter. That suggests that a root of laziness is being indifferent to the future.

But if we look down from one of the high towers in Toronto, and see people like ants scurrying around we wonder whether working like an ant is all that to be desired. It seems like work, work, work, with no joy or creativity. Which is why in the sixties many dropped out and became hippies. "Why should we spend our life working to pile up wealth for the future like our parents? Life is to be enjoyed to the full now."

One answer is that without work poverty will overtake us. "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed robber" (6:10-11). "A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich" (10:4). It is no sin to be poor, but it can be very inconvenient. Nobody wants to employ the lazy. "Like vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes, so are the lazy to their employers" (10:26). And no farmer will prosper if he is too lazy to plow his land. "Those who till their land will have plenty of food" (12:11, 20:4). But the lazy are condemned to unsatisfying work. "The hand of the diligent will rule, while the lazy will be put to forced labor" (12:24). There is also the fact that "the appetite of the lazy craves, and gets nothing, while the appetite of the diligent is richly supplied" (13:4, 19:15, 21:25).

Another way to avoid work is idle chatter. "In all toil there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty" (14:23). The love of sleep is equally dangerous. "Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread" (20:13, 24:33-34, 26:13). And there is always a good reason. "The lazy person says, "There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!" (22:13). We don't have lions in the streets of Kingston, but we can easily find plenty of other reasons for not going to work.

We appreciate the beauty of solid oak carved furniture, or the work of a goldsmith, or a sculptor who made a bronze horse and rider for our city park. Making a violin, or playing one, looks easy enough, but the long careful practice that is needed is out of reach for the lazy. "Do you see those who are skillful in their work? They will serve kings; they will not serve common people" (22:29). Excellence in any field is very satisfying but it takes a lot of time and hard work.

The lazy are usually too complacent to seek the advice of others. But in any work situation "by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory" (24:6). There is also the need for careful preparation. "Prepare you work outside, get everything ready for you in the field; and after that build your house" (24:27). But "the lazy person is wiser in self-esteem than seven who can answer discreetly" (26:16). The result is the following of "worthless pursuits" which never achieve anything worthwhile (28:19).

Now having seen the sad results of chronic laziness, we realize that we also are tempted to put off till tomorrow what we need to do today. We too find reasons to do anything else but what is important. And it does not seem that Solomon knew any solution that could change the situation. He offers guilt for the lazy without any hope of change. As we know, willpower does not work for most of us. And if a person is indeed strong-willed, he or she soon becomes a threat to others.

In the New Testament this situation is wonderfully changed. In the face of our lazy powerlessness, Jesus offers us the power to do what we could never do by our own willpower. "The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father" (John 14:12). This would be because "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate (advocatus means one called alongside to empower), to be with you forever" (14:16). This is the power of the resurrection, which can also empower us. "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies" (Romans 8:11).

But this power is not just for being raised from the dead but for energizing us for our work in the here and now. "May you be strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power" (Colossians 1:11). And this is the blessing that Paul uses to conclude the main text of his great Epistle. "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13, in our Romans Commentary we show that the power of the Holy Spirit is the main topic of that Epistle).

The advantage of being changed from shifty laziness by the power of the Spirit is that we know the power is not the result of our own willpower. There is no room for spiritual pride. And it is for Christians to be empowered in this way that Paul says, "for this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me" (Colossians 1:29).

A Note on Power The Old Testament name for the Holy Spirit is ruakh elohim (Wind of God). And on the Day of Pentecost "there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind" (Acts 2:2). We might remember that the average hurricane in its ten days of life uses enough energy to furnish electricity to the USA for one million years. So Paul says it is important for us to realize "the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to his great power. God put this power to work in the Messiah when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand" (Ephesians 1:19-20). On occasion we experience the Holy Spirit as a gentle cooling breeze. But he could also be the wind of a forest fire.

Chapter 6 .... Wealth and Money