An Investment that Pays Dividends

Hard work is an investment that pays dividends.
The Book of Proverbs makes the case for this conclusion in two ways. Negatively, it shows the debt that laziness incurs. Positively, it shows the profit that diligence accrues. Let’s take a close look at two proverbs that make this case.
Proverbs 24:30-34 makes a negative case for hard work by showing the devastating results of laziness.
I went past the field of the sluggard,
past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment;
thorns had come up everywhere,
the ground was covered with weeds,
and the stone wall was in ruins.
I applied my heart to what I observed
and learned a lesson from what I saw:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest — 
and poverty will come on you like a bandit
and scarcity like an armed man. 
Notice in this proverb that laziness begins in the mind. A “sluggard” is a “man who lacks judgment.” Specifically, he lacks means-end thinking. He fails to see that his present actions (laziness) determine his future results (poverty).
Moreover, because he lacks judgment, the sluggard engages in counterproductive behavior. While weeds overrun his fields, the lazy man takes a nap. No intelligent person is surprised by the resulting poverty. But for the sluggard, it’s like being unexpectedly robbed at gunpoint.
By way of contrast, Proverbs 27:23-27 makes a positive case for hard work by demonstrating the beneficial results of diligence.
Be sure you know the condition of your flocks,
give careful attention to your herds;
for riches do not endure forever,
and a crown is not secure for all generations.
When the hay is removed and new growth appears
and the grass from the hills is gathered in,
the lambs will provide you with clothing,
and the goats with the price of a field.
You will have plenty of goats’ milk
to feed you and your family
and to nourish your servant girls.
This proverb teaches several important lessons:
First, hard work is not a one-off deal. It does not mean putting in a full, eight-hour day and thinking that one days’ wages will be sufficient for the rest of your life. Instead, it’s a day-after-day discipline. The “condition of your flocks” is not static; it’s dynamic. It changes from day to day. The hard working person knows this and pays attention, changing his behavior to meet new challenges.
Second, hard work is performed in the face of scarcity. “Riches do not endure forever,” we read, “and a crown is not secure for all generations.” Some work with their hands, others work with their minds. For neither is today’s wealth guaranteed tomorrow. They must continually work for what they have.
But third, and paradoxically, hard work provides what we need tomorrow. In other words, wealth accumulates. The proverb says that when the seasons change, the hard worker will still be able to provide for his family and employees.
So work hard! Other people depend on you.


The dictionary defines a slacker as “someone who avoids doing something, especially work or military service.” While the Book of Proverbs doesn’t say much about draft dodgers, it says quite a bit to about people who avoid hard work. Consider these specific proverbs:
As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes,
so is a sluggard to those who send him (10:26).
If employees or coworkers have ever hindered you from accomplishing a job on time, you know exactly what this proverb means. Their slackertude (slacker + attitude) is physically irritating, not to mention embarrassing in the presence of customers.
Two proverbs contrast the effect of slackertude with diligence:
The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns,
but the path of the upright is a highway (15:19).
Do you see a man skilled in his work?
He will serve before kings;
he will not serve before obscure men (22:29).
The life of the slacker becomes more difficult with time, as a bad employment record leads to fewer and worse job opportunities. Diligence, however, is rewarded with success and promotion.
Slackertude has other negative consequences.
The sluggard’s craving will be the death of him,
because his hands refuse to work (21:25).
According to this proverb, the slacker has every ambition except the desire to fulfill any of them. And without that desire, he goes hungry:
A sluggard does not plow in season;
so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing (20:4).
Laziness brings on deep sleep,
and the shiftless man goes hungry (19:15).
Proverbs considers the slacker so lazy that even when he has food, he can’t eat it:
The sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
he will not even bring it back to his mouth! (19:24, cf. 26:15)
Unfortunately, the slacker’s lack of hard work affects the family, friends, and community that rely on his work.
One who is slack in his work
is brother to one who destroys (18:9).
There are few sadder sights than a child who suffers because of his parents’ slackertude.
Of course, the slacker always has excuses for not working:
The sluggard says, "There is a lion outside!"
or, "I will be murdered in the streets!" (22:13, cf. 26:13)
This proverb is sarcastic. The slacker exaggerates the threats he faces. But let’s say these threats are real. How do the diligent respond? By becoming a lion tamer or a policeman, of course! There’s a solution to every problem; the slacker is unwilling to pay for it, however.
Unfortunately, the slacker doesn’t see the foolishness of his lack of ambition and work. He thinks he’s a pretty smart guy.
The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
than seven men who answer discreetly (26:16).
He’s not. He’s just lazy.
As a door turns on its hinges,
so a sluggard turns on his bed (26:14).
Some people can’t work. They’re unemployed because of physical disability or a dearth of jobs. Slackers won’t work. We have a moral duty to financially help the first group. The only duty we have to slackers is waking them up.

The Causes of Wealth and Poverty

Why are some people wealthy while other people are poor?
There are several possible answers to that question, but the Book of Proverbs emphasizes this insight: Hard work leads to wealth, but laziness leads to poverty. Consider in this matter the following proverbs:
Lazy hands make a man poor,
but diligent hands bring wealth.
He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son,
but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son (10:4-5).
He who works his land will have abundant food,
but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment (12:11).
Diligent hands will rule,
but laziness ends in slave labor (12:24).
The lazy man does not roast his game,
but the diligent man prizes his possessions (12:27).
The sluggard craves and gets nothing,
but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied (13:4).
All hard work brings a profit,
but mere talk leads only to poverty (14:23).
Do not love sleep or you will grow poor;
stay awake and you will have food to spare (20:13).
He who works his land will have abundant food,
but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty (28:19).
Each of these proverbs contrasts the effects of hard work and laziness. Hard work produces wealth, proceeds from wisdom, promotes self-reliance, and provides satisfaction. Laziness produces poverty, proceeds from folly, promotes dependence on others, and provides no satisfaction. If you want to be wealthy, then, you must work hard.
Of course, we all know hard-working people who are not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. Cross California’s southern border and you’ll meet people who put in 50-to-60-hour work weeks in backbreaking labor and still don’t make enough to support their families. You can find Americans in similar situations too.
And, of course, we all also know lazy people who are rolling in dough. These people often come from wealthy families whose wealth has given them entry into celebrity circles.
A third category of people we might mention are hard-working people who wealth results from plain, dumb luck. The man who wins the lottery jackpot, the woman who picks the right suitcase on Deal or No Deal, the dual-income family who inherits a house from a long-lost uncle – these are people whose hard work has not produced the wealth they have.
These three categories of people are exceptions to Proverbs’ linkage of hard work and wealth. But they are the exceptions that make, rather than break, the rule. The fact of the matter is, in our own lives and in the lives of others, we routinely see that hard work leads to wealth. If the rule isn’t true, you should ask yourself why you’re working so hard.
Of course, wealth is a relative concept. Some people think of it as being able to buy what you want. Of course, our wants always outstrip our resources, so the want-standard is a just a formula for unhappiness. I think wealth is being able to buy what you need. And by that standard, I’m a wealthy man.

Laziness vs. Hard Work

My dad is the hardest working man I know. He’s 66 years old, but he can work men half his age under the table. Like the Energizer Bunny, he keeps going and going and going from dawn till dusk. Some people work hard, others work smart; my dad does both. I get tired just watching him.
I’ve never asked dad why he’s so hard working, but I think it has to do with his childhood. My grandparents were godly people. They labored hard in the fields of the Lord as missionaries and pastors of small churches. But they never rose above a lower-middle-class income status. From an early age, my dad had to work. He put himself through college, graduate school, and law school to boot. He had to; there was no alternative.
In the biblical world, there was no alternative to hard work either, unless you were rich, which most people weren’t. People eked out their living from the land. If they worked hard and smart, they might produce enough grain and produce for the coming year, together with enough seeds for the next planting season. If they slacked off, however, they would be sure to suffer deprivation through the winter, if they survived it at all.
This is the real-life background to Proverbs 6:6-11:
Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest.
According to the Proverbist, ants are model workers for two reasons: First, they are self-motivated. They don’t need leaders and managers (or moms and dads) to motivate them to work. They are self-led. They do what they do because of an internal commitment to excellence, rather than an external conformity to pressure.
Second, ants are model workers because they make provision for the future. Some people work hard and spend harder. They throw all their earnings away on immediate gratifications. Ants, by contrast, store summer harvests for winter meals.
If ants model how we should work, sluggards model how we shouldn’t. While ants are self-motivated providers, sluggards are unmotivated nappers.
How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
When will you get up from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest — 
and poverty will come on you like a bandit
and scarcity like an armed man. 
Those last two lines let us know why hard work is so necessary: If you don’t work hard, you will be poor, and your resources will be scarce. This is true even in modern welfare states. Government relief programs dull the hard edge of poverty, but they don’t eliminate it entirely. And do you really want your financial well-being to be determined by politicians?
Growing up, my dad knew poverty. (So did my mom, who is another hard worker). My sister and I never did, however. Our parents worked hard to fill our house with things and our home with love. We strive to follow their (and the ants’) example.

Leadership and Self-Leadership (Proverbs 31:1-9)

The Book of Proverbs typically presents itself as a father giving advice to his son about how to live the truly good life.[*] But in Proverbs 31:1-9, it is a mother who speaks to her son. She is no ordinary woman, however; and he is no ordinary man. She is the queen mother, and he is the king. Let’s take a close look at what she says, for she teaches him (and us) several important lessons about leadership and self-leadership.
The sayings of King Lemuel — an oracle his mother taught him:
“O my son, O son of my womb,
O son of my vows, 
do not spend your strength on women,
your vigor on those who ruin kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel —
not for kings to drink wine,
not for rulers to crave beer,
lest they drink and forget what the law decrees,
and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.
Give beer to those who are perishing,
wine to those who are in anguish;
let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Notice the way the queen mother addresses her son. He is “my son,” “son of my womb,” and “son of my vows.” With these words, the queen mother reminds King Lemuel of her authority to advise him. She is his mother; she herself gave him birth; he is the legitimate offspring of a royal marriage. The mother-child bond not only gives her authority to advise him, but it also reminds him that leaders are not self-made. They are brought into the world through the choices of others. Leaders must remember their interdependence with, not independence from, others.
Second, the queen mother advises her son to avoid the temptations of adultery, alcohol, and abuse of power. “Do not spend your strength on women,” she says. “It is not for kings to drink wine,” she advises. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” she counsels. Leaders have tremendous authority and power within their respective communities. The temptation is to use that power to advance their personal interests, rather than the interests of those under their care. Resisting that temptation requires enormous self-control. When self-control is not exercised, when prudence gives way to passion and parties and power hunger, leaders slowly lose their ability to influence others in a positive direction.
Third, leaders should use their influence to advance the interests of the last, the lost, and the least of society. As leaders rise through the ranks, the tendency is to become accustomed to power and privilege and to forget the people whose interests they’re supposed to serve. Self-controlled leaders are focused on their purpose. They serve the voiceless, the destitute, the poor, and the needy.


What does the Book of Proverbs teach us about being good citizens?
It teaches us, first of all, that good citizens have good hearts.
He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious
will have the king for his friend (22:11).
A citizen with a pure heart is a person of integrity. He or she is guided by the highest values and motivated by the best intentions. This integrity overflows into action, specifically speech but also action. The pure-hearted person speaks graciously about and to the people God has placed in positions of political authority.
I should add, however, that there are times when a person of integrity must also speak hard truths to those in political power. The Old Testament prophets are case studies of this. Precisely because they were men of integrity, they challenged the injustice their government was practicing. What matters most, then, is integrity. If the government is good, speak graciously about it. If it is bad, speak hard truths to it.
Second, good citizens are uncomfortable with the privileges of power.
When you sit to dine with a ruler,
note well what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
if you are given to gluttony.
Do not crave his delicacies,
for that food is deceptive (23:1-3).
Henry Kissinger once remarked that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. He was probably right, and that should make us wary. People in positions of political authority often become used to privilege. (One thinks of the nomenklatura in the old Soviet Union, for example, who had access to luxuries while their citizens waited in bread lines.) If you get to close to privilege, it may distort your ability to distinguish justice and injustice. In that sense, the food of rulers is “deceptive.”
Third, good citizens obey the law.
Fear the Lord and the king, my son,
and do not join with the rebellious,
for those two will send sudden destruction upon them,
and who knows what calamities they can bring? (24:21-22)
I suppose that there are moments where civil disobedience to and even revolution against an unjust government becomes permissible. (The Civil Rights Movement and the American Revolution come to mind in this regard.) But in general, obedience to the law is the default position of biblically minded citizens. Why? Because of the harsh consequences civil disobedience and revolution can bring about. Remember what Nazi Ernst Rohm said before he was purged by Adolf Hitler: “Every revolution eats its own children.”
Fourth, good citizens show deference to people in positions of political authority.
Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
and do not claim a place among great men;
it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
than for him to humiliate you before a nobleman (25:6-7).
Of course, deference to government was a much greater virtue (and necessity) in a monarchy than in a democracy, but I still believe it is appropriate for citizens in a democracy to act respectfully toward their elected officials, if not because of the officeholder than at least because of the office.

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