The Theology of Work: Proverbial Lessons on Work
Full of so many pithy sayings, Proverbs adds key teaching to the Theology of Work. Tracing the thread of doctrine through its rich tapestry, readers will come away with a deeper understanding of God’s view on work and labor.
Work in Proverbs
Because it is a book of Proverbs, we have to pick our way through this book to find its teaching on work. To do so, examine with me some select Proverbs.
“The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.” (Proverbs 12:24).
Solomon is fond of seeing the world in two classes. He contrasts the righteous and the wicked, the proud and the humble, the wise and foolish. Here he applies this same dichotomy, and his two classes are ‘diligent’ and ‘slothful.’ Throughout the book of Proverbs, these two classes show up often.
“Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.” (Proverbs 13:11)
Proverbs asserts that work is the primary route to wealth. There are plenty of ways that wealth can be gained hastily. Thieves steal and may become wealthy, but their riches shall be diminished. Those who are given their wealth may have it for a time, but without work, it will be gradually used up. Get-rich-quick schemes may provide quick money, but they do not lead to sustainable increase. While Proverbs does not necessarily condemn quick wealth, the book points out the path to sustainable prosperity.
“Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.” (Proverbs 18:9).
“The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly.” (Proverbs 26:16).
Solomon gives a useful character study of the sluggard in his sayings. The sluggard, who is slack in his work, is brother to him who destroys. The slaggard is conceited. We should view these characteristics as both the causes and effects of sloth – people like this tend to be sluggards, but sluggards develop habits like these.
“The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor. All day long he craves and craves, but the righteous gives and does not hold back.” (Proverbs 21:25-26).
“The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!’” (Proverbs 22:13).
“The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” (Proverbs 28:1).
Continuing on in the character study (and remembering that these are both causes and effects of sloth), the lazy man is also compared with the righteous man. (Did you catch the obvious implication? The sluggard is not righteous). The sluggard is continually thinking about what he can get, but the righteous will freely give. The sluggard is a coward, but the righteous man is bold.
“Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger.” (Proverbs 19:15).
Along with comparing and contrasting, another common literary tool in the Proverbs is parallelism. A subject is described in the first phrase and re-described in the second phrase. Parallelism does not indicate that the subject is necessarily the same exactly in both phrases, but they are certainly similar. The parallelism in this verse helps to answer the question, ‘what is slothfulness?’ While it may not be exactly the same, slothfulness is similar to idleness – it makes a man useless to the world, as if he was in a deep sleep.
Even the Proverbs 31 woman can teach us about work, as she is a lady of industry and diligence. via @DanielPentimone
“She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.” (Proverbs 31:13-19)
Even the Proverbs 31 woman can teach us about work. One of her prime characteristics is that she is a lady of industry and diligence. Though she is not necessarily engaged in a career, she still busies herself with willing work. Here, the virtuous woman is presented as not only crowning her husband, but also shaming idle men.
What Theology of Work is presented in Proverbs? Combining pithy snippets and profound sentences, Solomon teaches that diligent toil is both honorable and profitable, but idleness is disgraceful and leads to poverty.