Years ago, on a trip to Southern Saskatchewan; we were traveling across country looking at maps. For all the younger crowd, this was before G.P.S. Patty, my wife pointed out that we had probably missed our connecting highway, but I was convinced that if we had, we were on a short-cut and would tie into another connecting route further south, which would save us time and mileage as we were cutting cross country.
I suddenly realized that we were in trouble when the road we were traveling on became a dirt road, with grass growing up in the center and we had just driven over a Texas gate crossing. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves turning around in front of a farmer’s house, heading back the way we came. The short-cut was a dead end. What is true in traveling on a road to a destination is equally true in our journey of life. Often what we consider a faster means of arriving to a goal is actually a moral dead-end, leading to significant relational losses.
In these additional sayings of the wise found in Proverbs 24:23-34, we find three practical expressions of wisdom from the ‘Further Sayings of the Wise.’ All of them affecting both ourselves and others. These are some powerful signs or markers guiding us in making healthy moral decisions needed in various areas of life. There are many tragedies that happens when injustice is pursued at the highest levels of life; from showing partiality in the court system which undermines social stability, to having honest personal communication with others, and finally to having a proper work ethic. These are all essential elements in maintaining a healthy society, which, in turn, fosters emotional and mental health in the lives of people. So, how do we handle life’s injustices? How do we deal with dishonesty? What is the right response to helping others take personal responsibility in providing for their families? Wisdom speaks powerfully to these issues.
WISDOM ADVOCATES IMPARTIALITY TOWARD OTHERS
How we treat others is a manifestation of biblical wisdom. In other words, how I treat others is indicative of my relationship with God. If we truly have ‘the fear of God,’ we will treat others with dignity and respect. Impartiality rather than personal prejudices and bias is an important reflection of the wisdom that God puts into our hearts. Here we see this in a judicial sense. The way we treat people reflects how we perceive them. Judgment is a part of life. One of the ways in which we discriminate against others is that we allow personality to determine our decisions rather than the activities of the participants. When we make decisions based on personalities we often show partiality in the process, which wisdom warns is not a good thing.
These also are sayings of the wise: To show partiality in judging is not good:
Whoever says to the guilty, ‘You are innocent,’ will be cursed by peoples and denounced by nations. But it will go well with those who convict the guilty, and rich blessing will come on them.[i]
Here we see that to pronounce that the guilty are innocent is not wise. Paul Koptak in explaining what is meant by being cursed by peoples and nations is “a euphemism for unanimous public opinion.”[ii] It’s a figure of speech that means that when injustice is supported by those in authority, the people are justifiably upset. It helps bring about social destabilization. When we skew justice, we lose the respect of others. Simply put we need to continually try and do the right thing.
Many scholars see this verdict of freeing the guilty being rendered because of some sort of a bribe. When graft and corruption take over the highest offices in the land, the society is in a precarious or dangerous place. One of the major reasons why people become cynical of people in leadership is that leaders often abuse their positions for personal gain. This past week I ran across this startling but not necessarily surprising revelation of some of the corruption in the U.S:
More than 1,000 key officials from county sheriff to US Vice President were brought to the bar of justice between 1970–1976 on federal charges growing out of bribery, kickbacks, extortion and similar schemes. This does not include people cited for violating State and local laws.[iii]
Before we kick our neighbors to the south to the curb and point our fingers at these stats in their country, we don’t have to look far to find scandals that are constantly being exposed in our own nation. It’s tragic when the government of our country used parliamentary procedures in order not to give an account of questionable practices as it relates to conflict-of-interest issues. Openness and transparency breed confidence and trust in others. Doing the right thing can be painful. Rather than defending the guilty, regardless of party affiliation, those who have the power to address guilty parties should do so. This would help deter others from doing dishonest things. Unfortunately, there is far too much secrecy and cover-up, rather than doing the right thing. Regardless of how much injustice there is in the land, we all need to understand is that there is a final court of appeal. God, who sees all renders His verdict. “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent – the LORD detests them both (Proverbs 17:15).” As we read through the Scriptures, we see that God does address evil. Judgments are rendered in people’s lives, if not in this life than before Him in eternity.
WISDOM ADVOCATES HONESTY
Here we see the blessing of truth-telling versus those who falsely accuse others. There are those who speak the truth and do what is right which brings about rich blessings. When honest people stand for what is right and true, honesty wins the day, and it brings a new freedom and joy into people’s lives. “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips (Proverbs 24:26).” Here honesty is described as a kiss on the lips which in the ancient world “communicated loyalty as well as affection.”[iv] This is in contrast to Proverbs 24:28, where falsehood is spoken to the detriment of one’s neighbor. “Do not testify against your neighbor without cause – would you use your lips to mislead (Proverbs 24:28)?” This violation is actually one of the Ten Commandments which states that we are not to bear ‘false testimony against our neighbor (cf. Ex. 20:16).’
What triggers false testimony can be motivated by being personally wronged. “Do not say, ‘I’ll do to them as they have done to me; I’ll pay them back for what they did’ (Proverbs 24:29).”
These verses [24:28-29], returning to the courts, move from the role of the judge to the role of the witness. In particular the witness is urged not to commit perjury or use the courts as a tool for settling a personal score against another person.[v]
How sad when we resort to the ways of our broken world to try and seek resolution between believers. The apostle Paul makes a compelling argument that we need to address issues within the community of faith, walking in the wisdom that comes from above, which as James tells us is impartial. In 1 Corinthians 6, the apostle Paul appeals to the same motivating principle that was exhibited in Christ, as he laid aside his rights for the sake of others (cf. Philippians 2:4-11):
If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people?
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?
Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? [vi]
This is a strong warning against cheating, lying and doing wrong against others. One of the temptations is to try and get even with others. God is able to address wrongs, in his time. When we allow injustice to move us to try and get even, it ultimately leads to heartache, bitterness and joyless living. Wisdom teaches us to forgive and allow God to redress these issues. “Do not say, ‘I’ll pay you back for this wrong!’ Wait for the LORD, and he will avenge you (Proverbs 20:22).” The tragedy of not forgiving others is that we remained imprisoned by our own sins. This is the message of the unmerciful servant (a parable that Jesus taught), who was forgiven by the king, but would not forgive his fellow servant for a lesser offense. Notice what Jesus says about the condition of an unforgiving heart:
Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.
Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from you heart.[vii]
One of the greatest needs to living in harmony is to walk humbly before others, repent when we have sinned and to have a forgiving spirit. This is certainly pointed out to us by Jesus in teaching us to pray, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Jesus, understood how broken we all are.
WISDOM ADVOCATES DILIGENCE FOR A WORK ETHIC
This is more than just expressed in our work, but is an expression of how we actually serve God.
How do we go about serving God and others? Are we diligent or do we find reasons to be lazy, indifferent and apathetic? “I went past the field of a sluggard, past the vineyard of someone who has no sense (Proverbs 24:30).” Here in the final few verses we see the destructive nature of being lazy, negligent and indifferent. When we are not diligent, we cheat not only our employers, but also those that we are serving: our families, ourselves and ultimately we are cheating God.
And whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Jesus Christ you are serving.
Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.[viii]
It is interesting that the apostle Paul here in Colossians brings together the idea of diligence in work, with wronging others and not showing favoritism or partiality. We almost see the texts we have been looking at here in Proverbs as the foundation of these texts in Colossians.
We rarely consider the idea of being lazy as simple negligence, or having a lack of due ‘diligence,’ but many tragedies would and could be avoided if a person would be diligent in their actions.
Consider what would have happened at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, when 353 Japanese airplanes were found swarming all around the Harbor site. Within a couple of hours, America lost 8 battleships, 6 major airfields, almost all their planes, and 2,400 men. That happened at 7:50 AM in what was supposedly a surprised attack. But these are the startling facts: That morning at 7 AM, while the Japanese warplanes were 137 miles (50 minutes) away, two US soldiers on a small radar station in the Pacific scanned the screen and saw dots and dots appearing, until the whole screen was filled. These soldiers notified their youthful supervisor, a lieutenant. No other officer was around, that being a Sunday. The lieutenant thought these must be planes from California, and without another thought, said these crucial words: “Don’t worry about it.” [Without checking and giving a warning] there would have been time to scramble the planes at Pearl Harbor, prepare the battleships and shelter the men, but this lieutenant, at the most responsible moment of his career, failed his nation.[ix]
“One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys (Proverbs 18:9).”
A. It is critical that we have the right priority in relationship to work and pleasure.
One of the priorities of an affluent society is that pleasure precedes work. Our state of indebtedness tells us that as a society we are living on tomorrow’s labor, but the Scriptures teach us the proper order to living in freedom rather than in financial bondage. “Put your outdoor work in order and get your fields ready; after that, build your house (Proverbs 24:27).” Wisdom teaches us the idea of securing an income before we invest in our security and comfort. In an agrarian society it was practical wisdom to put your crops in before you built a permanent dwelling place. Paul Koptak points out: “It is folly, therefore, to have a house to live in but no provisions to live on.”[x]
This verse does not address laziness in the direct terms that vv. 30–34 do, but it relates to the principle that one should not provide for personal comfort until a means of income is established here. As such, it emphasizes the practical rule of producing before consuming, a rule the slothful do not accept. It is possible that “building a house” refers not just to the building in which one lives but to the establishment of a family. If so, the guideline is even more appropriate: one should be able to provide for a family before starting one.[xi]
B. The final verses are Wisdom’s parody on being a lazy person.
This section of Proverbs closes with a deliberate comic exaggeration. As we read this we see the tragic humor in the picture being painted of laziness or sloth.
I went past the field of a sluggard, past the vineyard of someone who has no sense; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins.[xii]
Here we have a value judgment of a person who is disinclined to work or exert themselves as a person who lacks sense. In the Hebrew language the words that are translated, ‘has no sense’ is literally is someone who lacks ‘heart.’ When we have no heart we lack moral courage and good sense. It results in the issues we are addressing. We lack courage to address wrongs. We end up showing favoritism, which is a form of dishonesty. We don’t take issue to injustices against others and are therefore negligent and apathetic. We all realize that things left to themselves will deteriorate. Wisdom teaches us to observe outcomes and therefore take preemptive steps to address things before they deteriorate.
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 thief and scarcity like an armed man.[xiii]
Here we see the loss that happens when we don’t apply ourselves to the tasks at hand. Negligence is as destructive or causes losses in our lives, just like losing things to thief.
During the Middle Ages, sloth was considered one the seven deadly or cardinal sins. One of the reasons that these particular sins were singled out is that they often inspired or were the foundation of other sins. Sloth or laziness is the foundation of things like lying, cheating, stealing and can lead to such dangerous and life-threatening activities like armed robbery and murder.
C. Wisdom in addressing laziness is not speaking to the unable but willing, but rather to the able and unwilling.
Laziness is the height of foolish behavior and deserves to be parodied. After all, it leads to difficult consequences for both the individual and community, and it is easily remedied. The latter is the case for true laziness, not lack of work for other reasons such as disability. If one is simply lazy, then the antidote is hard work.[xiv]
We see throughout the Scriptures that we ought to help the poor, but what is being warned here is those who are poor because of laziness will suffer. This idea is brought forth by the apostle Paul. “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).’”
This issue of sloth, indifference and apathy are far more serious than most of us have considered. If we think that laziness is a minor element, Jesus reserved some of his most challenging remarks to those who neglected what God had given to be employed in service to God. We all have a stewardship of life, abilities, gifts, and specific time in which to serve our Creator. In the parable of the Talents, Jesus talks about three different servants who have been given different amounts but all were required to use what was given according to their abilities.
The first two servants were faithful and were given words of approval and promise of sharing in their master’s joy. However, the final servant simply neglected to invest the initial investment. He buried or didn’t use what his master gave him. When he was called to give account of the master’s investment in his life, his response revealed his attitude toward his master. Notice the master’s words of rebuke.
His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?
Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags,.
For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.
And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.[xv]
I cannot think of how damaging this attitude of indifference was toward God’s investment in our lives and the corresponding accountability and judgement that was rendered. While we may tend to minimize and make excuses for our spiritual apathy, here we see negligence as a deeper indictment in our lives. When we don’t serve God, wholeheartedly, we really are revealing our ignorance of who God is, His goodness, the joy we forfeit in doing His will, and the delight to invest the totality of our being in serving him. Our view of God creates in us a desire to be diligent and faithful, whereas, harsh or indifferent thoughts of God cause us to be negligent. The servant who was negligent made a nasty judgment against God. His sentence was consistent in what he believed about God. The judgment rendered was total separation from God. Scriptures are quite clear about the danger of negligence.
Edmund Burke in a letter addressed to Thomas Mercer pointed out how powerful apathy and indifference are in relationship to this battle with evil: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”[xvi]
So, what are these three practical expressions of wisdom designed to do? They are to teach us to be impartial, honest, and diligent in our service to God and others. When we discriminate, lie and are lazy; we will find that the short cut we are taking in this life will lead to a dead end. The only way out is to turn around and head back the way we have come. That is exactly what repentance is all about: a change of mind that leads to a change of behavior.
[i] Proverbs 24:23-25, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 564.
[iii] P. L. Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times, (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 557-58.
[iv] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, 564.
[v] D. A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of songs, Vol. 14, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers), 201.
[vi] 1 Corinthians 6:1, 7-9a.
[vii] Matthew 18:32-33, 35.
[viii] Colossians 3:23-25.
[ix] P. L. Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times,), 153-154.
[x] Paul Koptak, Proverbs,565.
[xi] D. A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of songs, 201.
[xii] Proverbs 24:30-31.
[xiii] Proverbs 24:32-34.
[xiv] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 443.
[xv] Matthew 25:26-30.
[xvi] Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents 82-83 (1770) in: Select Works of Edmund Burke, vol. 1, (Liberty Fund ed. 1999), 146.