Well, as most of you know, we’re working our way through the book of Proverbs, one topic at a time. Typically you want to preach through a book just the way it’s written, but with the way book of Proverbs is set up, it wouldn’t really work that way. So we’ve arranged all of the Proverbs together that address a particular topic and are dealing with one each Sunday.
I posted a bit of a plan on the website this week of what you can expect in the next few weeks, up until the series wraps up on Sept. 18.
But today we’re talking about work. And as we turn to listen to what Proverbs has to tell us, it can be helpful to consider how God’s wisdom contrasts with the wisdom of the world that we’re so often exposed to these days.
In their excellent book The Gospel at Work, Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert talk about two very common approaches that people take to work. The first is idleness. Idleness is not working—or working as little as possible.
Idleness might be seen in the person who refuses to work, and tries to live off of the generosity of others. Idleness might show up in someone who has a job or a career, but who makes it their aim to get away with putting in as little effort as possible. The kind of person who stands chatting around the punch clock for 15 minutes at the end of the day so that they can get paid for a full hour they didn’t actually work.
Idleness might show up in the busy professional working long weeks to pack away as much money as possible so that they can retire early and spend as many decades of their life as possible doing basically nothing. Idleness certainly shows up in the common belief that work is a necessary evil, something we need to take care of as quickly as possible so that we can get back to chilling out.
On the other end of the spectrum is the idolatry of work. This is when people find their identity in their work, or what they gain by it. Whether it’s the money or the prestige or the feeling of being needed, work becomes everything to them and they sacrifice everything for it.
Another name for this is “workaholism.” A workaholic doesn’t know when to stop, when to rest. They don’t know how to be; all they know is “do.”
There’s a lot more that we could say about work in our modern world, but what we’re really after this morning is what God has to say to us in Proverbs. What does this book have to say about work? How does wisdom work?
Here’s how we’re going to answer that question this morning. We’re going to start by considering three broad truths that Proverbs teaches us about work. Then we’ll quickly touch on two key lessons from Proverbs. And then we’re going to ask two important questions. These questions aren’t on your handout, but they have to do with the question of rest, and what all of this means for you and I today.
A. THREE TRUTHS
But let’s begin with the three main truths that Proverbs teaches us about work.
1. Work is Wise and Honourable
The first truth we see in Proverbs is that work is wise and honourable. This is a truth we first glimpsed in Proverbs 8, which we considered a couple of years ago, where wisdom itself was pictured as a “master workman” (Proverbs 8:30). Work and wisdom have been connected together since before the beginning of time.
And so we shouldn’t be surprised to see the remainder of Proverbs honouring work. “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men” says 22:29. In other words, work is not a lowly thing. Work is honourable and tends towards reward and promotion.
The following two Proverbs reinforce this idea that diligent careful workers will be, and should be, rewarded with promotion. “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor” says Proverbs 12:24. “A servant who deals wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully and will share the inheritance as one of the brothers” (Proverbs 17:2).
Together, these proverbs show us that working hard, even as a servant, is a good thing that is worthy of honour and reward.
Proverbs 30:24-25 tells us that the ants, who provide their food in the summer, are “exceedingly wise.” And so taken together, these proverbs paint a very positive picture of work. Work is not a necessary evil; work is good, and wise, and honourable, and worthy of reward.
2. Work is (Typically) How God Provides For Us
Second, Proverbs shows us that work is typically how God provides for us. I say typically, because a few weeks ago we did hear from Proverbs about the poor who depend on the generosity of others.
But at the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, we should note that these people were not poor because they could work but didn’t. That kind of person is called a sluggard and we’re going to hear more about them in a few minutes. The poor in Israel were usually those who could not work, or had no opportunity to work because they had no land, or who were poor as a result of oppression or injustice.
In other words, the assumption in most of the Old Testament is that “the poor” are “the righteous poor.” And like we see in the book of Ruth, the generosity they needed was not a replacement for work.
But the general pattern, for most people, was that God provided for them through their work. Proverbs 13:25 tells us that “The righteous has enough to satisfy his appetite, but the belly of the wicked suffers want.” And one of the reasons for that is because the righteous is diligent and actually works to plant and harvest.
“Whoever tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and he who guards his master will be honored” says 27:18. If you’re a servant, and you want to be honoured, guard your master. If you want to eat, tend your fig tree.
“A worker’s appetite works for him; his mouth urges him on” says 16:26. If you want to eat, then you should work.
I’ll read two more Proverbs that fill this out further: “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense” (Proverbs 12:11). “Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth” (Proverbs 12:27).
And this is how God provides for His people. He’s the one who promised to bless their land and make their harvests rich and their flocks and herds large. But the wheat didn’t get into their barns by itself. The way they accessed those blessings was by working. And you can see several more proverbs listed in your handout that spell out this principle more. (10:4, 10:16, 12:14, 13:4, 14:23, 15:6, 28:19-20.)
Once again, we should remember that the Proverbs are giving us general principles. There are exceptions, but generally, this is how God provides for His people. They work.
3. Laziness is Foolish and Destructive
And if that is true, then this third truth should be no surprise to us: laziness is foolish and destructive.
Already we’ve seen this. We’ve heard 12:24 speak about the slothful, and 13:25 talk about the empty belly of the wicked, and 12:27 tell us that “whoever is slothful will not roast his game.” Whether he shot the deer but is too lazy to prepare it, or whether he never bothered to go hunting in the first place, the lazy, slothful person isn’t going to have anything to eat.
And that’s exactly the lesson that these following three proverbs reinforce for us. “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger” (Proverbs 19:15). “The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing” (Proverbs 20:4). “The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor” (Proverbs 21:25).
The lazy person, who sleeps instead of working, will be hungry, and have nothing, and eventually die because he refused to work.
Now maybe you’re wondering, “How could that happen? How could someone be so lazy that they would keep refusing to work even though their cupboards are bare and even though their stomach is grumbling?” And what Proverbs tells us is that laziness is fundamentally a matter of the heart.
Proverbs 26:13-16 gives us a series of descriptions that help us understand the inner workings of a sluggard. First, verse 13: “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets!’” The sluggard invents reasons for staying inside. “Oops, I’d better not go out to work today, or I might get killed by that lion that’s out there.” He uses his mind to justify his lazy heart.
Verse 14 says, “As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed.” That’s all a sluggard does—rolls around in bed. They didn’t have couches back then or perhaps we’d read that here, too.
In verse 15, we get straight-up humour. “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.” That’s funny—someone so lazy that they reach for some food and are too worn out to even bring it back to their mouth. We’re supposed to laugh at this, because it’s helping us see the foolishness at the heart of laziness.
But finally, verse 16 points us to the real issue: “The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly.” This is the ultimate reason for laziness: the sluggard is a fool. He thinks he’s wiser than seven men. So you can’t reason with him. You can’t help him. He doesn’t think he needs help. He thinks you’re the foolish one for urging him to work. He’s got it all figured out.
So laziness is ultimately the fruit of a foolish heart. And the lazy person will ultimately be destroyed by their own laziness. And there’s several more verses on your handout that repeat these same ideas (10:26, 15:19, 18:9, 19:24, 22:13).
B. Practical Lessons
So, work is wise and honourable, it’s how God provides for His people, and laziness is foolish and destructive. Now, if all of that is true, then what does Proverbs want us to learn? What does Proverbs want us to do with these truths?
1. Don’t Rest Too Much
And there’s two key lessons that I found in my study this week. The first is simple: don’t rest too much.
Proverbs 20:13 puts it really simply: “Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread” (Proverbs 20:13).
Here’s the idea here: rest is not the priority. Work is the priority. You don’t work as little as possible so that you can rest as much as possible. You should only rest as needed so that you can get back to work. So, don’t enjoy rest too much. Open your eyes and get to work.
24:30-34 fleshes this picture out a little bit further: “I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. 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 man” (Proverbs 24:30–34).
It started small. “Just a bit more sleep.” “I could probably take another nap today.” “Hmm, that was a good solid five minutes of work. Maybe I’ll take another break.” And soon the vineyard is overgrown and poverty has robbed that person of all that they have.
So what’s the lesson? Don’t rest too much. Get back to work.
2. Work for The Future
The second key lesson for us in Proverbs is just the other side of this coin: we should work for the future. We should work because we have tomorrow in mind.
That’s the problem with the sluggard, right? Especially the one who we just read about. He sat down for his fourth nap of the day because, at the moment, things seemed fine. At that moment, his vineyard was in good shape. But he wasn’t thinking ahead. He wasn’t thinking about all of the work that he would need to do between now and harvest so that he’d be fine through the winter and into the next year.
But that kind of forward thinking is exactly what Proverbs teaches. 24:27: “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.” This is the kind of advice you’d give to a son who just got his own plot of land. And he’s probably all excited to set up his new pad, but the wise father says, “Think ahead. You’re going to need to eat over the winter. Get your crops ready, and then, while they are growing, you can build your house.”
27:23-27 gives the same advice is much more detail. Pay careful attention to your flocks, because they will help meet your needs in the future when your money has lost its value.
Proverbs 14:4 is one of my favourite proverbs, and it addresses this same theme so poetically: “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox” (Proverbs 14:4).
The lazy person thinks, “These oxen are so much work. All I do is clean up after these cows. I’ll get rid of them, and then I’ll have a clean barn for once.”
But that’s not thinking ahead. The diligent person thinks ahead and realizes that “abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” No cows, no mess, but also no food.
That’s the kind of forward thinking that the lazy person never does. And Proverbs encourages it again and again. Even a verse as obscure as 24:10 teaches this: “If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small.” It seems like a rebuke, but it’s actually an encouragement. Think ahead! Plan for the day of adversity. Make sure you’re prepared and strengthened for when tough times come your way.
C. TWO QUESTIONS
So, what have we seen so far? We’ve seen that work is wise and honourable and the way that God provides for His people, and therefore laziness is foolish and destructive. Therefore, a wise person will not rest too much, and will think ahead to plan and prepare and work for the future.
In all of this, Proverbs is echoing the perspective of Genesis. As far back as the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve work to do (Genesis 2:15). Work is not bad. Work was there before sin.
And in the covenant with Israel, God had brought the people a step closer to the garden of Eden by promising to bless their land with crops and herds. But in order to enjoy and access those blessings, they were going to need to work. And that was not a bad thing. Work is good.
But now that we’ve seen these three truths and two lessons, we want to ask two important questions.
1. What About Rest?
The first question is, “What about rest?” Isn’t it important to rest? Isn’t it possible to burn out by working too hard for too long? Why doesn’t Proverbs address the idolatry of work, or say anything about the importance of rest or taking care of yourself?
The answer is that Proverbs was written to Israelites living under the Old Covenant. And that covenant had a lot to say about rest. Think of the Sabbath commandment. If they didn’t rest one day in seven, they would be executed. So they had to take a break every week.
And then there were the regular festivals, where three times a year they had to pause from their work and travel to Jerusalem to celebrate before the Lord for multiple days (Exodus 34:23). And then there was the sabbath year, where every seventh year they were to rest and let the land lie fallow for a whole year.
And even beyond this, they lived in an era before electric lighting and screens and cell phones. Their lives more naturally followed the rhythms of the sun because much of their work just couldn’t be done at night.
And so for a faithful Israelite, rest was just baked into their life. They did not have the option of working 24/7, 365. They had to rest, regularly.
But even then, we can’t miss the overall message from Proverbs this morning. Work is good. The picture does not seem to be that we just work so that we can rest. It seems far more that we rest so that we can get back to work.
So that’s our first question. And now for the final question, where we’ll try to bring all of this home:
2. What About Us?
What about us? What about us, today?
You and I live in a different place on earth, a different time in history, but most importantly, we live under a different covenant than the recipients of Proverbs. The Old Covenant is finished, and we live under the New Covenant in Christ.
And in this New Covenant, the promised blessings that God gives us are not accessed by our work. They are received by faith because Jesus did the work for us.
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:4–5).
Jesus lived the perfect life we should have lived but didn’t. Jesus died the horrible death that we deserved. And so the blessings of the New Covenant—forgiveness and adoption and justification and the Holy Spirit and eternal life—come to us not by our work, but by the work of Jesus, whom we simply receive by faith.
And that’s why Jesus can say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The gospel frees us from working to earn God’s favour. Working to receive eternal life. Working to prove that we’re good enough. Jesus was good enough for us, and the gospel is an invitation to rest in Him.
And yet, at the same time, we also find that the gospel is a summons to work. Not to work for our salvation. Not to prove ourselves to God. But rather, because we’ve been saved, because we’ve been accepted by God, because we’ve been adopted as His children, we work.
This applies at the basic level of working for our daily necessities, just like Proverbs has been emphasizing. 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12 says, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”
Some Christians had apparently thought that they could live off of the generosity of others and just drift around doing whatever. And that’s not how it works. Much of the time, our work in the Lord involves earning our own living so that we won’t be dependant on others, like 1 Thessalonians 4:12 says.
Jesus told us not to worry about what we’d eat. He didn’t tell us to stop working for what we’d eat. Normally, work is still how God provides for many of His children. So from that angle, these words from Proverbs still do apply to us in a fairly straightforward way.
But the main way that the New Testament applies these words to us has to do with our work in the Lord. In other words, partnering with God to play our part in the great work He’s doing in the world.
Romans chapter 12, after 11 chapters of unpacking gospel grace for us, can say “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11).
That word “slothful” is a Proverbs word. It’s translated from the word for “sluggard,” just like in our passages today. We must not be sluggards in our zeal to serve the Lord.
And of course, as we serve the Lord, we serve in the strength that He supplies, like 1 Peter 4:11 says. We toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within us, like Colossians 1:29 says. But we do toil.
And so, this is one of the first and most important ways that we must apply this teaching on Proverbs to ourselves today. Because of all that Christ has done for us in the past, and by faith in all that He will do for us in the future, we put spiritual slothfulness to death, and we rise to serve the Lord with zeal and energy and work.
The Israelites worked for full barns at the harvest. We work with our eyes set on the resurrection and the New Creation that God has promised to bring. And it’s after a whole chapter about this resurrection that Paul says to the Corinthians, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
So, through this grid, we apply these words from Proverbs. We serve the Lord. We love our brothers and sisters in Christ. We make disciples. We get involved in the work that God is doing in the world.
Now in all of this we should not forget about the importance of rest. We don’t live under the Old Covenant. Colossians 2:16 and 17 tells us that the Sabbath was just a shadow of the reality in Christ, just as much as the food and drink and festival regulations. We don’t have a religious obligation to rest one day in seven, or to travel to Jerusalem three times a year, or to take one year in seven completely off.
But it’s still a good idea, isn’t it? Your mind and your body need a regular break, and one day in seven is the best pattern that they’ve found. It’s good to take regular rests throughout the year, just like Israel did. And if you can, taking longer, more intentional pauses every few years would be a really helpful way to be able to keep going for the long-haul.
Out in the foyer we’ve got a little pamphlet called “Crazy Busy” that speaks about the importance of rest. I’ve also just ordered a couple of books for our library by David Murray that help men and women know how to build patterns of rest and refreshment into their lives. Especially in our always-on, burnout-culture world, we have to be deliberate about resting.
And yet, we don’t work so that we can rest. We rest so that we can get back to work, serving the Lord and others with energy and endurance, until we enter in to the great rest of the resurrection, and all the adventures that await us in the New Creation.
Some Concluding Exhortations
And so I want to end this morning with some concluding exhortations for you, coming from the Bible truths we’ve explored this morning.
Parents, I urge you to teach your kids to work. They are not going to magically develop a work ethic some day. You need to teach them from a young age.
So give them chores to do. Help them be involved in the work of the household. But more importantly, train them how to serve the Lord. Get them involved in ministry, whether that’s raking the yard of a sick neighbour or washing plates after your small group meets or tidying up the Sunday school room before they go. Do what the authors of Proverbs did by teaching your children that work is good and honourable, and that laziness is foolish and dangerous.
When your children become teenagers, don’t buy into the lie that it’s just normal for them to stay up until 3am scrolling on their phone, and then sleep in until lunch time, and generally do as little as possible. Our culture tells us that being a teenager makes it okay to be a sluggard, and we need to realize just how crazy that idea is. The teen years should be years of deliberate preparation for adulthood. And yet how many parents let their teenagers act like their next stop in life is a long-term care home? And is it any wonder why so many 20-somethings struggle with ambition and motivation and purpose in life?
Parents, reject the low expectations that our culture has for your teenagers. Train them to see that work is good, and laziness is foolish and destructive—at any age, and especially in that crucial stage as you prepare them to go make a difference in the world.
20 and 30 somethings, I hope you hear the call of this passage today for you. Stop complaining about the fact that life is hard work. See the lie behind all of those memes about “adulting being hard.” Yes, it is hard. And it always has been. And hard is not bad. Work is wise and honourable.
Young men, I want to talk to you especially. God wired you to want significance. And the father of Proverbs wanted his sons to find significance the right way—in working hard and making a valuable contribution to society.
Instead, today so many young men are wasting years of their life getting their feelings of significance from pornography or video games or other media. Slightly better might be personal hobbies or sports. But still, so many of these pursuits ignore the work that God has for them to do, and the way they could be involved in God’s work in the world through the church.
So young men, put down the screen, put down the controller, and get in the game. Do hard things. Do uncomfortable things. Take responsibility for yourself and your church and whatever part of the world God has allowed you to influence. Join us in September when we start meeting for our monthly mens Bible study. We’ll be digging deep into the work that God has for us to do in the world, and I urge you to join us. I long for the men of this church to become a band of brothers who spur each other on in the great battle that surrounds us, so come and be counted when we start meeting again next month.
Adults of all ages, please hear the lessons of Proverbs this morning. Don’t work so that you can rest. Rest so that you can work. And especially as you get older, please reject the lies that tell you that you’ve done your time and now you’re allowed to check out whenever you feel like it.
As you get older, you may not be able to do as much as quickly as you could before. But as long as your mind is healthy, there’s always something for you to do, even if that’s just pray.
And sadly, so many people today are spending what could be the most fruitful decades of their life, decades of passing on a legacy, on themselves because they’ve believed the lie that they deserve it.
“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11). There is no expiry date on that instruction.
So church, rest in the gospel. Let your soul rest in the work that Jesus did to save you. And then hear His call to get up and follow Him and join Him in His work
Like the song by Steven Delopolous says, “There is work to be done, there is work to be done, we're all just dust to glory. There is work to be done, there is work to be done, bow your head to the mission story.”
Let’s do that now as we pray.