Studies in Proverbs: Laziness

God designed man to work (Gen. 2:15). Work in and of itself is a good thing, it was created from the beginning. Of course the fall has mad work cumbersome and challenging, the return on investment is sometimes low. The curse means we sweat as we work, we find thorns in our work, and yet work is still an expected part of our lives. Laziness, in the Bible, has then both spiritual and physical implications. Laziness neglects God’s design, and it costs man earthly gain. In the book of Proverbs the emphasis is on the more practical implications and costs of laziness. Laziness leads a man to poverty.

We ought, of course, to acknowledge once again that the Proverbs speak in terms of generalities. It is not the intent of Proverbs to speak with a universal absolute, as if every scenario fits the principle of the proverb. There are obviously plenty of occasions where hard work does not pay off and where lazy people do succeed in life. We don’t need to deny this reality, but neither should we pretend that these realities undo the principle of the Proverbs regarding laziness and diligence. The general norm is that those who refuse to work make life far more difficult for themselves and their families, and they often live on the brink of poverty and ruin.

Proverbs often make their point through contrast. So, the most famous passage in the Proverbs on Laziness begins by comparing the “sluggard” to an ant. We read:

Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief,
officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer
and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep? (6:6-9)

The ant doesn’t have to be told or supervised to do hard work. She needs no one to remind her. She simply does it. The “lazy bum,” as other translations read, sleeps his days away. The results of such lethargy may look harmless, “a little sleep, a little slumber,” but in reality the consequences are serious:

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. (6:10-11)

Poverty will seize the lazy man and surprise him like an armed robber. The lazy person always thinks there is time tomorrow to do work. “It can wait,” he says. But before you know it disaster strikes. He is blind to how perilous his condition is.

Another comparison is made in Proverbs 10, and again in chapter 15. The first comparison equates a lazy person to an irritant. The lazy person is unreliable and those who put faith in him, trust him, or count on him will find him maddening. He is like “vinegar to the teeth,” or “smoke in the eyes” (10:26). In addition, his path is like a thorny hedge (15:19). The lazy person always creates more work for himself, makes life more burdensome, and his next steps more difficulty. The course he takes in life is like cutting a path through a thicket. His own apathy has created more difficulty in the navigation.

But the major contrast and comparison in the Proverbs with regard to the lazy man is with his counterpart, the diligent man. While the lazy man creates problem and walks headlong into poverty, the hard worker find success and ease. So we read in several places of the contrast:

A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
He who gathers in summer is a prudent son,
but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame. (10:4-5)

The hand of the diligent will rule,
while the slothful will be put to forced labor. (12:24)

Whoever is slothful will not roast his game,
but the diligent man will get precious wealth. (12:27)

The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing,
while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. (13:4)

The contrast, again, is not intended to create the impression of absolutes. That is to say, there are hardworking people for whom life is always difficult and they struggle to make ends meet. Likewise, there are lazy people who benefit from their laziness by mooching off of others and constantly being bailed out of consequences. Yet, in general it is true that hardworking produces gain and laziness produces nothing. These passages are intended to remind us a general principle, to encourage and promote diligence in our behavior.

The results of this lifestyle are likely to be poverty and ruin. Various proverbs warn us that without work we will not reap the benefits of work.

The sluggard does not plow in the autumn;
he will seek at harvest and have nothing. (20:4)

Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty;
open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread (20:13)

The desire of the sluggard kills him,
for his hands refuse to labor. (21:25)

The Bible says that work is part of what we designed for, and that we eat “by the sweat of our brow” in this fallen world (Gen. 3:19). Work is expected and required in general. In fact, Paul is pointed in the New Testament, saying that if you can work and you refuse to, then you don’t eat (2 Thess. 3:10).

What is at the root of this laziness? We are not, after all, talking about those who are unable to work due to physical limitations. We are speaking here of those who can but are unwilling? What is at the heart of that unwillingness? In many cases it is pride, and the Proverbs give us some indication of that true too.  In Proverbs 21:25-26 we see that the sluggard has both a desire to eat and yet a desire to avoid labor. These desires, the text says, kill him. But he is also a greedy person. All day long, it says, he “feels greedy” (NIV). In other words, he feels entitled to what he wants but feels no responsibility to earn it. Instead, he is prone to make excuses (another symptom of the proud man):

The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside!
I shall be killed in the streets!” (22:13)

The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road!
There is a lion in the streets!”
14 As a door turns on its hinges,
so does a sluggard on his bed.
15 The sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth. (26:13-15)

He can’t go out and work because he might be eaten by lions. Ultimately, the writer of the Proverb sees the lazy man as arrogant and stubborn. “The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly” (v. 16). It doesn’t matter how many men tell him differently, who give him clear and compelling rational arguments contrary to his excuses, he won’t believe them. He won’t believe because he doesn’t want to believe. To do away with these excuses would reveal his slothfulness, and that is something he cannot admit.

How does the slothful person change? There are many things we can do to cultivate discipline, but laziness is an issue of the heart. Laziness starts as a desire, an attitude of entitlement and pride. God can change that as He humbles the proud, but ultimately we want to see that we can work when we know that God is working in and through us. Paul tells us, for example, to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling,” but he tells us that we can work because “it is God who works in you to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). The gospel transforms our hearts (Phil. 2:1-11) but it also empowers our work. God is at work in us. The sluggard can change because God is empowering him to be different.

Laziness and diligence are contrasted throughout the book of Proverbs in order to point out the devastating consequences of avoiding hard work. Ultimately, however, we know that hardworking is not enough to transform lives. We need the power and grace of God to help us change. Thankfully, because of Christ, that is what we receive.

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