Whenever I am reading the Bible, I often come across verses that confuse me. These moments make me stop, study, and discover the profound meanings I might have easily missed. Proverbs has caused many of these moments of investigation and discovery. Reading just one line of Solomon’s God-given wisdom is enough for me to meditate on for the whole day.

From 1 Kings 4:29, we know “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore.” We are not just reading advice from a smart man. Solomon acknowledges that all understanding, including his, comes from the Lord (1 Kings 3:9), and “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).

Solomon’s admonitions are much more than secular pieces of advice. Although Proverbs often advises having a good work ethic, the commitment is never separated from God. The Theology of Work Project illustrates Solomon’s chain of reasoning that “good work habits generally lead to prosperity, and that work habits grow out of character, and that character is formed by our awe of God.” Any goodness we might have, including good work habits, is given to us by God (James 1:17).

Proverbs 14:4 is one verse that would be easy to look over as confusing or outdated, but it carries a profound meaning about the importance of a God-given work ethic. It displays how “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

The verse tells us:

“Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox” (Proverbs 14:4).

Proverbs 14:4 could be interpreted different ways, but each conclusion is radically significant.

A Famine: Avoided Adversity

Having an ox is the means of harvesting abundant crops. Yet, keeping the stable clean would be an arduous task. Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible observes that “labor has its rough, unpleasant side, yet it ends in profit. So also, the life of contemplation may seem purer, ‘cleaner’ than that of action.” The easy decision is to think on the daunting deeds we feel God has called us to complete instead of working to accomplish His will. However, mere contemplation will never lead to completion. As long as we are thinking of our tasks instead of doing them, we remain as empty as the stable.

Barnes explains how “the outer business of the world brings its cares and disturbances, but also ‘much increase.’ There will be a sure reward of that activity in good works for him who goes, as with ‘the strength of the ox,’ to the task to which God calls him.” Avoiding what God has called us to do reveals a laziness and imprudence Solomon strongly warns against.

A Lack Of Spiritual Food: Negligence In Ministering

John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible focuses on a very different piece of information: “Oxen are an emblem of faithful and laborious ministers… and the same word for ‘oxen’ signifies ‘teachers,’ ‘leaders,’ ‘guides.’”

Gill goes on to display the symbolism between ministers and these creatures. An ox’s chewing of cud is a parallel to how ministers “should revolve in their minds and constantly meditate upon divine things,” their patience under the yoke and strength in labor reveals their how they are “laborious in the word and doctrine; submit to the yoke, draw the plough of the Gospel; bring home souls to Christ, to his church, and to heaven; and tread out the corn, the mysteries of grace, out of the sacred writings.” Now, we see the empty stable, void of oxen, as more problematic than a lack of harvest or work initiative.

Without ministers of the word willing to overcome their arduous duties, “there is no spiritual food for the souls of men; but a famine of the word, and men perish for lack of knowledge (Gill). Again, we see the peril encountered when difficult tasks are avoided.

Work Heartily, As For The Lord

"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the lord and not for men." Colossians 3:23

Whether Solomon meant to connect ministers with oxen or not, the wisdom he gives is the same: there is no reward without hard work. In fact, refusing to do something just because of its difficulty threatens the spiritual health of ourselves and others. Solomon’s warning could have been addressing a laxity during the harvest, bringing famine, or a negligence in our ministering, bringing spiritual death. Either way, the work it took to understand this one verse in Proverbs is fitting due to its meaning, and we should never give up on understanding God’s Word or will for our lives.

The Theology of Work Project describes us as “diligent because the Lord calls us to our tasks, and our awe of him motivates us to diligence in our work.” Instead of making work separate from the Lord, He should motivate us to work. We should “commit our work to the Lord” and glorify Him through everything we do (Proverbs 16:3).

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23).

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