A parishioner once approached Martin Luther for some personal counseling. He seemed to have been troubled with what was then called “a melancholy spirit.” Today we would call it depression. The parishioner confided in Luther hoping that he could provide him with some solace. The world seemed against him, all seemed dark, and he had no energy or desire for life.
Luther knew the worth of good old fashioned work. He certainly did not wish to downplay this person’s spiritual and emotional struggle. Luther would certainly have acknowledged it. But basically he said, “Life must go on and some physical labor is good for the soul.” (He probably thought that there is nothing that will make one’s outlook on life better than a nice big, old whiff of manure. That will cheer you right up!)
One of the very first institutions of creation was work. Adam’s life was to have a natural rhythm to it: It was to be a pattern of work and worship. Six days he was to handle the plow, the seventh day he was to handle the hymnbook. The Sabbath was there for a variety of reasons. But one of those reasons was to assist him in his work. He rested and was renewed for his job. And the woman that was given to him, she was there to help him in his life’s work.
Adam’s life was to center around the Lord, but it also revolved around the Lord’s calling for his life.
The same is true for us. A seventh of our lives is to be spent in the holy contemplation of God. But the majority of our lives is to be dedicated to our everyday labors and employments.
Our proverb this morning touches on that topic which consumes much of our lives. This morning we are talking about labor. Our life is a life of labor. In this proverb we find three lessons on labor to help us become better servants of God in the work force.
The first lesson we learn concerns the dignity of manual labor.
I. The dignity of manual labor
The first part of our verse talks about a man who “works his land.” It is obviously talking about a farmer.
The ancient world was mainly one of agriculture. Most of the people made their living off of the soil. And, as you know, that kind of work was toilsome work. It caused calluses. It involved sweat and oftentimes created blisters. It was an occupation where one worked with his or her hands, put in many back breaking hours, and involved a great deal of sweat. It was labor intensive labor.
Yet this occupation, as we see here and throughout the Bible, is a noble profession. And this labor, which was Man’s first vocation, represents all physical or labor-intensive occupations.
Each calling in life, no matter how insignificant it may be in our eyes, is blessed of the Lord. As long as it is a lawful employment—that is to say, as long as your work is not illegal—it is a noble work and there is dignity in it.
We are currently living in a day where we deem certain jobs as more noble than others. Many people think that a physically oriented job is “lower,” or “a more demeaning job” than say working in an office or teaching in a college classroom.
We see this often when people are introduced to one another. Someone might look to get acquainted. They might say, “What is it you do for a living?” The person would respond with, “I work for the government.” That sounds like such a dignified profession.
Then when the question is reciprocated, one might find themselves a bit ashamed to answer because they don’t see their job as significant. They might bashfully say, “Well, all I do is pick up trash.” We might even try to laugh it off by saying, “I’m a grease monkey.” With a little joke we hope that the conversation will quickly move to a different topic.
Our denigration of manual labor has become so ingrained in our society that we have sought to make up for it through political correctness. We now label jobs with pretty titles such as “Sanitation worker” or “Administrative Assistant.” We think that these fancy titles will give more meaning and dignity to our work. We think that these titles will make our work more meaningful.
But the Bible shows us that every job, no matter how insignificant, is an honorable profession. Adam was called to tend the garden of God. Abraham was called to watch over sheep. Other Bible figures were called to be craftsmen and artisans. Even our Lord Jesus Christ slung a hammer and dirtied his body while stooping to the ground. He did not enter a more noble calling when he began his public ministry. No, he simply changed from one praiseworthy job to another.
One of the greatest things that came out of the Reformation was the biblical idea of vocation. Before the Reformers emerged on the scene, life was divided into what was called the sacred and secular. People thought that if you really wanted to please God—if you really wanted a job in this world that would really mean something in the eyes of the Lord—then you would get a “sacred” job. You would become a monk or priest. People who worked the land or hammered out steel were considered second class citizens.
But with a return to the Bible, came a return to the biblical understanding of vocation. Luther would note the dignity of manual labor frequently in his ministry. He would say things like, “God himself will milk the cows through him whose vocation that is.” And “He who engages in the lowliness of his work performs God's work, be he lad or king.”
I know that this teaching is still needed today, even in evangelical circles. I was talking with a friend of mine who worked in a local factory. As we talked I came to see that he had a low view regarding his manufacturing job. He said that his real calling (meaning what was in his mind the highest calling), was to preach the gospel and win souls for Christ.
But a preacher’s work is no more lofty than one who turns bolts for a living. Each of us has been called by God to do a special work. God has ordained us to go about each of our callings. He has gifted some particular people with a green thumb. Others he has given the ability to drive a flatbed truck. Some can poke needles; others can change diapers and tend to the affairs of the house. Each of us fulfills a role in this world. And each one should remember that our work is a work filled with great dignity.
But our passage talks about something more. It not only talks about work’s dignity, it talks about work’s diligence. That is to say our diligence will be rewarded.
II. The reward of diligent labor
Look at our verse again. It says that the one who works his land “will have plenty of bread.”
Here is a man who has worked hard. He has poured his energy into his work. He has applied all his strength and knowledge to his occupation. Now, when the harvest time comes, he will not be disappointed. He is going to be rewarded for his diligence. Literally, he will be able to eat the fruits of his labors.
This is God’s ordinary working in the world. The one who punches the clock everyday and works at his job heartily, will find that he will never lack sufficient food. His stomach will always be satisfied.
Why is that? It is because he has obeyed the Lord’s commission to work.
I just mentioned that out of the reformation there came the biblical doctrine of vocation. That is to say, every calling in life, as long as it is a lawful calling, is a noble calling. It has a dignity to it. But hand in hand with that doctrine there sprang up what we now call “the Protestant work ethic.” People saw that God not only called them to salvation through faith in Christ, but they saw that every area of their lives was to be governed by the Word of God. That included one’s occupation.
Preachers began to talk about the 10 commandments again. And when they came to the 8th commandment, the people heard what it really meant when the Bible said “Thou shalt not steal.” And they began to hear sermons on passages like Colossians 3, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your might, as unto the Lord.”
They heard that industry is one of God’s guidelines for life. And as a result, during the time of the reformation, there came to be a rise in economic prosperity. A middle class emerged out of the radically polarized nobility and peasant classes.
What was really happening? God was rewarding the obedience—the diligence-- of his people.
Time and again in the book of proverbs you will find that Solomon talks about the sluggard. He is someone who is idle. He will not work, and even when he does get out of bed and get to work, he won’t apply himself. He will chatter with the other employees’, shoot the breeze here and there, or milk a project for a long period of time. And you find that the Lord condemns that kind of person. He will suffer poverty.
But time and again in these proverbs you see that the industrious person is rewarded. God blesses him for his obedience. And here you see one of those forms of blessing: He may eat. But not only is his stomach full, but he is at ease. He doesn’t have to worry about where his next meal is going to come from. That’s because his pantry is full. He not only has food, but he has food in abundance.
Think about the slothful man again. Being a sluggard he may work, but most likely he will not work much. He does enough to get by. But you know, when you’re just doing enough to get by, what oftentimes happens? You get behind. So you end up worrying.
We need to remember that the “life of ease” (i.e. the sluggard’s life) eventually leads to a life of ill-ease. It becomes a life of worry and frustration. But the industrious life—a life that might not necessarily be “the easy life”—that life leads to the more comfortable life.
I really want to press that home to you young people. A lot of young people think that their time in school doesn’t mean much. They think, “Hey, when I graduate, that’s when life is really going to start.” But that is not true. You are preparing for your future right now. And the work that you put in now, will determine how full your refrigerator is in the future.
You don’t have to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer. Your area of work does not matter. What matters is your diligence. And your present diligence will put you all the farther ahead when you graduate. And the farther ahead you are then will mean the fewer worries you will have when it comes to your earthly needs. If you work now, you will find that the Lord will reward you richly later.
The labor of the obedient will not go overlooked. The Lord always regards the diligence of his people.
So when we think about the labor of our life, we need to remember the dignity of manual labor and the reward of diligent labor. But let’s look at the last part of the verse. It too teaches us a lesson about labor. It teaches us the folly of worthless labors.
III. The folly of worthless labors
It says, “He who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.”
A. Vain pursuits
Now, here you have someone who is working hard, but he is not getting anywhere. He is pursuing (following like a hound) a most elusive prey. It is a “worthless pursuit.” This venture may seem like it will pay good dividends, but in the end it --most likely—is not going to be profitable at all. It is going to leave you empty.
In other words, it is a gamble. It is the get rich quick scheme. It is the risky business venture. It is investing a lot in something that might end up leaving you with a little.
You might readily think of something like the lottery or the slot machines. You can invest a lot of money in such things. And they tout great prospects, don’t they? But what usually comes of it? The thing that you get is usually an empty pocket.
The Ohio lottery has advertisements on the radio and television. And those advertisements say how great it is to play the lotto. And at the end of every commercial it has a jingle that says, “Odds are, you’ll have fun.” Well, it should say, “Odds are, you’ll lose.”
Now there is nothing wrong with doing this as a leisure activity. Putting your money in a slot machine is just as moral as putting your money in a soda machine. In both cases you are getting a return. For one it is a can of soda pop. For the other it is the thrill of “playing the odds.” In both cases you have to consider whether or not it is proper stewardship of your money.
This proverb is not condemning that sort of recreation. What this proverb is getting at is investing yourself in such a venture. This proverb is telling us not to substitute a “easy, get rich quick scheme” for good old fashioned, hard work because if you do, you will end up with nothing.
Why is that? It is because God doesn’t bless the person who puts stock in that kind of practice. That’s why that person is said to “lack sense.” Because that person is not living by the rule that God has establish.
That’s not only true when it comes to your pocket book, it is true for your spiritual life too. You can follow after worthless pursuits, or you can invest that time in good old fashioned Bible study. You can make a habit of sleeping in on Sunday morning, but what profit is that going to get you spiritually?
A church can follow after drama’s and try to maintain a spiritual diet on 1 line choruses, but what will such labors really get you? It won’t be all that profitable. Not compared to regular reading and preaching through the Scriptures. Those are worthless things. Whereas the means of grace (the word, sacraments and prayer—all of these) are profitable things.
No one will get anywhere by worthless pursuits. Those kinds of labors are foolish. And worthless people are just as bad.
B. Vain people
Some of you may have that in your translations. You might have “He who follows vain people lacks sense.” That would be a right translation too. A literal translation would be “He who follows that which is vain lacks sense.” So you can see how it includes things and people. It is very comprehensive.
You’ve heard the saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.” That’s true. There are certain people who, if you hang out with them, you will end up being just like them: worthless. They will keep you from going anywhere in life.
They are “empty” people because they are not filled with the Holy Spirit. They aren’t going to help you make the right decisions. They are not going to edge you one in your spiritual life. They are not going to follow Christ. They won’t help you make anything of your life. You’ll just end up wasting away. And in the end your life will become worthless too.
It doesn’t matter if it is worthless people or worthless pursuits. If you follow them, you will find that your life’s labors will not have profited any. It’s foolish.
So what is the final lesson? Saddle up the horses, get out in the field and start spreading the manure. God calls us to a life of labor. Today we are to labor in the work of worship. We rest our bodies by refraining from our regular employments, but we exert our efforts spiritually. Tomorrow and until we meet again, God calls us to diligently pursue our careers or studies. If we honor him with an industrious spirit, he will honor us in return.
Kindled Fire is dedicated
to the preaching and teaching ministry of
Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.