From Overwork to Laziness: What Proverbs Tells us about Work

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By David W. Jones

Scripture teaches that work is not the result of humanity’s sinfulness but is part of God’s good, divine design for His creation. The fall affected the spiritual and the material aspects of human existence. In a basic sense, sin is a denial that we are made in the image of God. Ironically, such a denial can lead us to attempt to remake God in our own image. When we sin, we proclaim ourselves to be gods; we deny our divine dependence; and we try to abdicate all that image-bearing entails—oftentimes including our duty and privilege to work. This situation is further complicated in that, on account of our sin, the physical environment is now cursed. Sin and the curse not only make us less inclined to work, but also they make work more difficult. One result of the fall, then, is a radical distortion of work.

In the cursed world in which we live, work oftentimes becomes toil. Furthermore, sin results in us grappling with a tendency to be lazy. Knowing this inclination, the author of Proverbs 6:10–11 warns, “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.” (see Prov. 20:13; 24:30–34). At other times we struggle with overworking, which we can understand as a temptation to place our security in our own labor and accumulated resources rather than in God. Again, Proverbs admonishes us, “Do not overwork to be rich; because of your own understanding, cease!” (Prov. 23:4). Other common distortions of work include the temptation to misrepresent our own work and to take credit for the work of others.

The book of Proverbs, which is arguably the most practical of all biblical books, has much to say about work and labor. In light of the above citations from Proverbs, it is clear that mankind must work, even in his fallen estate. However, we must be aware of the curse upon the created order and avoid errors relating to work, which—as was noted above—include both underworking and overworking. The Bible teaches that our work is to be creative and productive, but it cannot become idolatrous. As image bearers of God, we ought not to be surprised by biblical mandates related to work, for God is the Creator and thus God is a worker. In surveying the scriptural teachings on work in the book of Proverbs, we can place the biblical material into one of two broad categories: passages related to work and wealth, and passages related to laziness and poverty.

The Bible teaches that our work is to be creative and productive, but it cannot become idolatrous.

Work and Wealth, Laziness and Poverty

First, in considering work and wealth, we can observe that the book of Proverbs frequently teaches that work leads to wealth. For example, we read, “The soul of the diligent shall be made rich. . . . In all labor there is profit . . . . He who tills his land will have plenty of bread (Prov. 13:4; 14:23; 28:19; see Prov. 10:4–5; 12:11, 14, 24, 27; 13:11; 15:19). Furthermore, Proverbs teaches that plans, especially those committed to the Lord, will often lead to wealth. Solomon writes, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to plenty” (Prov. 21:5; see Prov. 16:3; 24:27; 27:23–27). The tie between well-planned work and wealth is an essential connection, for as an image-bearer of God, man was created to work. Moreover, mankind’s material needs ought to prompt him to work (see Prov. 16:26). Interestingly, Proverbs teaches that wealth gained hastily and/or dishonestly—that is, apart from work—will vanish (see Prov. 13:11).

Second, the book of Proverbs repeatedly teaches that a failure to work—that is, a life characterized by laziness and lethargy—leads to poverty. For instance, Prov. 10:4–5 states, “He who has a slack hand becomes poor . . . . He who sleeps in harvest is a son who causes shame.” Similarly, Prov. 13:4 reads, “The soul of a lazy man desires, and has nothing” (see Prov. 12:24, 27; 14:23; 15:19; 19:15; 20:4). In contrast to the wise man who carefully makes plans, Proverbs teaches that the poor man makes hasty and unwise decisions, chasing pleasure and frivolity. Solomon notes, “He who loves pleasure will be a poor man . . . . He who follows frivolity will have poverty enough” (Prov. 21:17; 28:19; see Prov. 12:11; 21:5). Moreover, the man who refuses to work and experiences poverty is prone to make excuses for his condition, believing himself to be wise (see Prov. 22:13; 26:13–16).

The Secret to Contentment

In conclusion, then, the book of Proverbs teaches that we must work. As fallen image-bearers of God, living in a cursed creation, sometimes we will be lazy, and our work will not be as productive as it could otherwise be. At other times we will overwork and idolize wealth. Yet, despite these challenges, the secret to contentment is to faithfully bear the image of God by working, as we look forward to the day when, as Rom. 8:18–21 teaches, both ourselves and the created order will be transformed at Jesus’ return.

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  • vocation
  • wealth and poverty
  • work
David W. Jones

Dr. Jones is a Professor of Christian Ethics and serves as the Associate Dean of Theological Studies and Director of the Th.M. Program at Southeastern Seminary. He is the author of many books, including Every Good Thing, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics and is the co-author of Health, Wealth, and Happiness. He comments on the Bible over at redeemedmind.com.

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