Timothy Finlay, professor of biblical studies, Azusa Pacific Seminary
Note: This article explores a touchpoint for curricular integration from the ON’s annual curricular integration workshop.
The wisdom books, especially Proverbs, are a superb resource for equipping our students on the topics of work, diligence, sloth, wealth and poverty. Old Testament classes ought to draw students’ attention to these biblical teachings – especially because they can easily be misunderstood and misapplied.
“He who tills his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows frivolity will have poverty enough” (Proverbs 28:19, NKJV). Before we begin interpreting a proverb’s meaning, we should appreciate its poetry. The two lines, each of which is four words in the Hebrew, have the same grammatical structure but contrasting meanings: “worker of his land” is contrasted with “follower of emptiness” and “will have enough bread” is contrasted with “will have enough poverty.” I love that last phrase, because poverty is itself the antithesis of “having enough.” The proverb packs a poetic punch.
The phrase “will have plenty of bread” is literal, in that tilling the fields of barley and wheat is part of a process that results in the production of bread. Yet it clearly has a wider application concerning the relationship between diligence and the means of sustenance.
The nature of this relationship is where misunderstanding and misapplication most often occur. The opening words are sometimes translated as “Whoever works his land…” (NRSV, ESV), which can give the impression that a universal law is being stated – that working one’s land always results in plenty of bread, and following or pursuing frivolities always results in poverty. This is a misunderstanding.
This misunderstanding can lead us to get angry at God if we work hard and are not rewarded, or if we see the lazy prospering because of good fortune or a corrupt system. The book of Job deals with the question “Why do the righteous suffer?” and the book of Habakkuk deals with “Why do the wicked prosper?” Several psalms address these topics also. The answers are complex and vary according to situation, but one firmly established truth is that righteousness/diligence is not always rewarded in this life, and wickedness/laziness is not always punished in this life. Another truth is that God is not mocked and that when our final destiny is taken into account, all of us reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7).
But neither should the proverb be minimized to say merely that “some who work their land will have plenty of bread.” Rather, the proverb is normative.
Statements like “cats have four legs” should not be taken as saying that all cats have four legs, nor merely that some cats have four legs. They are Aristotelian categorical statements, claiming that it is in the essential nature of cats to have four legs unless otherwise prevented (such as by a genetic defect or an accident). It is normative for cats to have four legs.
Similarly, many proverbs concerning work, diligence, sloth, wealth and poverty are Aristotelian categorical statements. They are normative, telling us what should be the case unless an extrinsic factor intervenes.
Understanding the proverb as normative has implications for both the individual and society. The individual should till the land, be industrious, and not follow frivolity. This is seen clearly in the parallel proverb: “He who tills his land will be satisfied with bread, But he who follows frivolity is devoid of understanding” (Proverbs 12:11). Instead of describing the normal result of following frivolity, this proverb stresses that to do so is to lack the virtue of wisdom and is therefore morally defective. Thus Proverbs becomes a moral instruction book on how to live virtuously and how to avoid the vices of sloth, envy, greed, lust etc.
Proverbs 24:30-34 starts as an anecdote: “I went by the field of the lazy man, and by the vineyard of the man devoid of understanding.” Note that “lazy” is parallel to “devoid of understanding”; moral censure is already implied. The author then details the overgrown and broken-down condition of the lazy man’s estate and remarks: “When I saw it, I considered it well; I looked on it and received instruction.”
This is a counterpart to the extended positive exhortation in Proverbs concerning diligence: “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8).
These two extended proverbs both end with an identical warning concerning the normal results of sloth: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep – so shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man” (Proverbs 6:10-11; 24:33-34). Numerous proverbs, such as Proverbs 12:11 and 28:19, also function as exhortations to work and as admonitions not to follow frivolity.
These proverbs also imply exhortations and admonitions to society. In a good society, diligence will tend to result in sustenance and even wealth, while sloth will tend to result in poverty. A bad society is one that has the effect, usually unintended and often denied by those running the society, of discouraging diligence (and other virtues) by excessively confiscating and redistributing its inherent rewards and of encouraging sloth (and other vices) by overly ameliorating the natural condition of the slothful.
In this article, we have only looked at a few proverbs concerning diligence and sloth. Other proverbs and teachings concern the ranking of goods (there are many things more important than wealth), the dangers of wealth and the benefits of poverty, other causes of poverty (such as injustice), the importance of charity and so on. And these proverbs also have implications for both the individual and society.
The important thing is to realize that most proverbs are not universal but normative, and that they function as exhortations and admonitions for the individual and society. Since this understanding is far from obvious or spontaneous to many students, it is incumbent on us as theological educators to help them understand Proverbs rightly.