Sermon preached on Proverbs 22:22-23:11 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/15/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Do Not Overwork to be Rich”
Americans know how to work hard. This can be one of our greatest strengths. Americans also know how to overwork. Too often the American dream, a good thing in itself, can be twisted into American greed. Greed expressed in a love of money and pursuit of riches resulting in too much work, too much stress, and not enough time for rest, and family, and friends. From a spiritual standpoint, this certainly has its effect. When you ask people how their time of devotions have been going, their time in the Word and prayer, what’s the most typical answer it seems? I just haven’t had the time. Usually that’s because other work has taken first priority in our lives.
Don’t get me wrong. Work is a good thing. The Bible tells us that. Money is not a bad thing, in itself, either. The Bible acknowledges we need money, and certainly paints a picture that poverty is not something to be sought after, per se. Rather, we are to work hard to provide for our families, to give back to God, and to have something to share with others. The Bible acknowledges this, and certainly the book of Proverbs acknowledges this. And yet this passage reminds us that even good things can be perverted with the wrong focus. So often man’s wisdom perverts the good things of God. This verse, however, presents us with God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom on work, particularly as it relates to the pursuit of wealth. And so today we’ll begin first by analyzing verse 4 in some detail – what is it specifically saying. Second, we’ll spend some time assessing the teaching – trying to understand it within the larger context of the Bibles’ teachings on work and wealth. Lastly, we’ll think about how to apply it to the Christian’s life.
So let’s begin with some analysis of verse 4 – what is it saying? In typical Hebrew poetry, there are two parallel parts here. The first part is the first half of the verse, “Do not overwork to be rich.” The second part is the rest of the verse, a call to cease. Let’s begin with the first part. It’s a command to not overwork. This word of overwork here is about hard work; working to exhaustion. This word can be simply translated as labor, but there is also a more general word in Hebrew to be used to simply refer to someone’s job or business. And so here the focus of this word is the kind of work that involves toil; lots of effort; hard work. To translate it as overwork is slightly interpretive of the NKJV here, but it is within the scope of the idea of this word. A more literal translation would be like the KJV, which simply has “do not labor to be rich.” The ESV is similar, “Do not toil to acquire wealth.”
I actually prefer those more literal translations because they better bring out the subtle nuance here. The word for overwork here is not something you’d usually translate as “overwork” in Hebrew. It’s a general enough word used for labor or toil. It’s a word in Hebrew that is often used to refer to legitimate hard work. You see the problem is not the toil, per se, it’s the purpose of the toil. It becomes a problem when the purpose of the toil is simply for the pursuit of riches. When you labor and toil with the chief goal to become wealthy. Wealthy like the royalty mentioned in verse 1. Then it becomes foolish and unwise. And so the wisdom of verse 4 is expressed in the negation. In the word translated as “Do not”. In other words, “don’t!” Don’t do this! Don’t spend all your life’s energy on the pursuit of wealth – just to get rich. That’s the admonition of wisdom here.
The parallel idea here is the second part of the verse. Here we have a bigger translation question to address. When you compare the different English translations, there are two slightly different ways it gets translated. Remember, Proverbs is full of poetry, and just like in English, poetry can often be terse and require some thoughtful reflection and interpretation. Some translations have what we have in our pew Bibles, “Because of your own understanding, cease!” Other translations have what we see in the KJV, “Cease from your own wisdom.” The question becomes on how we understand the reference here to your own wisdom. Is this something that informs your ceasing, or is it what you should be ceasing from? Is this second half calling you to cease from your laboring to be rich? Or is this calling you to cease from your own wisdom, that would tell you it’s worth it to labor to be rich. Now, maybe if you were a native Hebrew speaker at that time, the fine nuance would be more clear. Or, maybe the ambiguity is intentional, to get you to reflect further on this. Yet, the actual difference is a rather subtle one. Regardless of how you translate it, the overall point is clear. It’s not wise to labor for the simple goal of earthly riches. That’s ultimately what you’re called to turn from. Proverbs call us to find wisdom with regard to our work. To expend all your life energy on the pursuit of riches, it not wise. That’s what Proverbs 23:4 calls us to see.
And yet, in terms of translations for this second half, I do lean toward what we find in the KJV. Cease from your own wisdom. Others such as the NASB have that idea too. The reason I prefer that translation is because it says here “your own understanding.” Emphasis on “your own.” Proverbs does call us to make our decisions based on wisdom and understanding. But Proverbs likes to challenge us on our own flawed wisdom and understanding. If this didn’t have “your own” attached to the word “understanding,” I might favor what we have in the NKJV. But remember, it is the beginning of Proverbs, Proverbs 3:9 that says to lean not on your own understanding. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. Same word there as here in verse 4 of our passage. So, I think the preferred nuance here in verse 4 is as the KJV has it. Cease from your own understanding. Cease from your wisdom and your understanding which is justifying all your work in the pursuit of riches.
And of course, this makes sense. Who of us would work hard for nothing? Who of us would want to work hard for something that is in vain? Surely none of us would. But surely so many people fail to find the wisdom of verse 4 here. So many of us do overwork ourselves for the pursuit of riches. And we find a way in our own wisdom to justify it all. We tell ourselves various reasons why it is all worth it. We need to cease from our own rationales and find Biblical wisdom. This is certainly a teaching Proverbs makes in general, and it seems best to see that here in verse 4 as well.
So this is the basic explanation of verse 4 here. Let’s spend some time now assessing this verse. See, Proverbs is a book of wisdom. Proverbs often puts various competing ideas together that must be held in a healthy tension. Wisdom is what is needed to find the right balance of those competing ideas together. Certainly this is true when we come to this subject in Proverbs and in Scripture. For as I’ve already said, we could translate this word of overwork as simply labor, or toil. And though this is the only place in Proverbs that uses this specific word, there are lots of verses that talk about work and our earthly jobs. Passages that commend hard work and condemn laziness. Wisdom then, means that we must understand these teachings in relationship to each other. So that we can find the wise path of life. It’s the young and foolish that so often take one Scriptural principle and absolutizes it in isolation from other related teachings, with then end result that you aren’t living in wisdom at all.
So, in this case, we find that Proverbs and Scripture have a lot to say about hard work being good. For example, there are at least 10 different passages that deal explicitly in Proverbs with the problem of being a sluggard. The sluggard is the lazy person who doesn’t work hard, who doesn’t tend to work at all. Proverbs 6:6 tells the sluggard to see the example of the ant and find wisdom in it. Ants work really, really hard! Proverbs 6:9 criticizes the sluggard for too much rest. Proverbs 20:4 says that the sluggard doesn’t work the field when he should, and so when harvest time comes around he’ll have nothing. In 21:25 it says that this desire of the sluggard will end up killing him, because he refuses to labor! I’ll stop there for now from these references from Proverbs on being a sluggard. The point is really clear – Proverbs is not against hard work. Hard work is a good thing; a wise thing! The opposite of hard work will result in your ruin.
Moving beyond just Proverbs, we see that throughout Scripture, work is said to be a good thing. There are many good reasons to work in Scripture. For example, Psalm 128:2 says that we work to eat the fruit of our labor. In other words, one good reason to work is so we can have something to eat. Paul said the same thing in 1 Thessalonians the opposite way – the man who does not work shall not eat. And so that’s a primary reason to work in Scripture – to provide for our sustenance. God gives us the opportunity to work for that very reason! Scripture goes on to show us that we work hard not just for food for our homes, but for other needs we have too. For example, the virtuous woman commended in Proverbs 31 is commended specifically for her hard work. Work that for her included many things like making clothing for her family, and managing the home, in addition to other commercial ventures she was involved with. That chapter paints a wide range of benefits for our earthly labors.
Another reason we work hard in our earthly callings is so that we have something to share with others. Ephesians 4:28 makes that point. There’s a sense of that commended here in our passage too in Proverbs; verses 6-8 criticize the stingy person, implying that we should not be the stingy person. Rather, our hard work can result in us having in abundance so we have something to share. We see that spirit of sharing in the early church in the book of Acts. People are able to have these things to share with others, because they worked hard and earned them. Again, this is something commended to us in Scripture. Hard work is good for these reasons. Reasons that do involve the acquisition of money and goods through work.
And so if the Scriptures tell us that hard work is good, and that hard work even to earn money is not a bad thing, then that helps us understand verse 4 today. It shows us that the focus is combating the love of money. For those consumed with the passion to get rich, this proverb offers a challenge. That’s seen in several places in Scripture, but we can start by seeing it right here. The first three verses already painted a picture of earthly riches, and warned us against falling in love with them. When talking about the delicacies of the royal food, it warned us. Verse 3 calls such food of the rich deceptive. That’s the context for verse 4. Then immediately afterwards, verse 5 explains that further. It says that worldly riches are fleeting. It says somehow early riches make themselves wings. You can work so very hard to get them, but then they can disappear in an instant.
Jesus expressed some of this too – how these earthly riches can fly away from you so quickly. In the Sermon on the Mount he talked how thieves can steal them from you. He talked about how moths and rust can destroy earthly treasures. Or in Luke 12, Jesus talked of the rich fool who spent his time figuring out how to store his riches for the future, when he didn’t realize that he was going to die that very night. That too is a way your riches can instantly fly away from you – in your death.
And of course, Scripture shows us that the folly of this pursuit can lead to other sins. That when we set our goal just to be rich monetarily, we can sin in that pursuit. Overworking ourselves to death is just one of the ways. 1 Timothy 6:9-10 is arguably the Scripture that says it most clearly. It says that those who desire to be rich find themselves in various temptations. Temptations that will snare a person, that can lead them to ruin, and destruction. People who so love riches and money can do anything for it. They not only become workaholics, but they will trample down anyone that stands in the way. Greed and covetousness are just the start. Lying, stealing, and cheating are likely to follow. The love of money can breed so many sins. The end is destruction. Proverbs 28:20 says that the man who hastens to be rich shall not go unpunished.
And so in all of this, it’s not the state of being rich that is the problem, at the end of the day. It’s the love of money that fuels a drive to be rich. If you work hard in a balanced way, with the right focus, and end up with riches, that’s okay. There have been rich followers of God in the Bible. But you see, this Proverb calls us to have wisdom with regard what is our real focus and priority in life. For the Christian, Jesus has made this so clear to us. We need to focus on godliness with great contentment. We need to focus our labors and efforts chiefly for storing up spiritual treasures. Then we will find ourselves full.
You see, interestingly in Scripture, we find that God intends to bless his people with riches. That language is something for God’s people. And yet in Scripture, the curse upon sin is sometimes put in the language that people’s work will not bear fruit. That they will labor and toil in vain. And yet in the larger perspective, God says that will not be the outcome for God’s people, but it will be the outcome for God’s enemy. For example, Isaiah 65:23 talks of the New Jerusalem being one were God’s people will not toil in vain. But Habakkuk 2:13 talks about how God’s enemies will toil in vain. What’s the difference? Those who have sought first themselves, will find themselves with nothing. Those who have sought first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, will find themselves even with the riches of heaven.
Again, the call of the Christian is to find the greatest riches, not through a pursuit of earthly wealth at all cost. It’s to find heavenly, eternal, riches, through following Christ. Jesus said to focus on storing up heavenly treasures. To see that there is something more important than earthly wealth, even as there is something more important than earthly sustenance. We need more than just money and bread to really live. We need a relationship with God. We need to deal with our disease of sin. Christ provides the way to meet those real needs. In Christ, we will have a real relationship with God. In Christ, our problem with sin and death are solved. In Christ, we reap spiritual treasure with his help and by his grace. We must see this as our greatest priority. Christ, not money, must be our God and our greatest pursuit. That is the ultimate wisdom we must find.
Having this perspective, let me acknowledge a thought that might be pressing in your mind right now. The thought is this: Yes, I know I must follow Christ first and foremost. But I still need to eat. My family still needs to eat. Surely I know that I must ultimately follow Christ. But that doesn’t keep me from working hard. Working hard even so that I can provide for myself and my family and have something to share. Isn’t that even what Christ would have me to do? I’d say, yes and amen. At the end of the day, what we are talking about is in part about checking our focus and our priority. But it’s also about applying wisdom. Wisdom from above. Seeking God’s wisdom in how you order your life. Seeking God’s wisdom to challenge your motivations for why you work as hard as you do, or for why you don’t work as hard as others. I won’t tell you how many hours a week you should work for earthly wealth. I can’t tell you that. It’s not some specific number. This proverb instead alerts you to the need for wisdom in this important area. It’s such an important area. One which you should be on guard against yourself. Exercise some caution and some self-distrust. Constantly evaluate your priorities and energies when it comes to work and money. See the dangers of it. Be on guard.
And yet, let me offer this more biblical counsel in light of this proverb. As much as you see the dangers of wealth, be aware of how we can use our wealth for good. I believe this is where we need to get to with how we think about our work and wealth. To see our wealth as a tool for serving Christ, and thus our work as the way to gain access to that tool. It certainly is not our greatest tool, nor our only tool, and so it shouldn’t be our only focus. But it is nonetheless, Scripturally speaking, a tool that can and should be used for Christ. Let me put it this way. We should put our focus on growing spiritually, first and foremost. But we also see that part of our spiritual growth requires living in a physical world, and serving God in a physical world. That means we need food to eat and clothing to wear. That means our brothers and sisters in troubles need food to eat and clothing to wear. That means church buildings need to be paid for and kept in good repair. That means airline tickets have to be purchased to send off missionaries. In other words, our pursuit of spiritual growth while living in a physical world, will require working to earn some money. We then work to earn money, not for the goal of getting rich, but for the goal to grow spiritually, and serve spiritually.
I think of the critical and yet witting saying, that God’s people can sometimes be so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good. That’s a funny statement, but it helps to make a point here. We should be heavenly minded, yes. But that heavenly-mindedness should realize we live here on earth. And so we will need money on earth, in order to support the cause of heavenly-mindedness. In order to seek heavenly-treasure, and help others to do so, we will need some earthly-treasure. We don’t therefore work hard for the goal of getting rich. We work hard for the goal of serving God and reaping spiritual fruit. But earthly jobs will provide earthly riches in some measure. We then are to use them for heavenly good. We use them to feed our families, and yes even for some enjoyments – that’s not a sin. But we use them as well to help others and advance the work of the church.
Some examples in Scripture. Jesus called the Rich Young Ruler to use his money to help the poor. That physical money could be used for a spiritually good thing. In Acts, the early church shared their riches to meet each other’s needs, as we said. Joseph of Armithea had riches, and he used it to supply Jesus with a new tomb when he died. Mary in John 12 uses the earthly treasure of a bottle of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus before his death – something Jesus highly commended her for. The Magi gave earthly riches to Jesus as an act of worship. These are just a few examples.
But I think an example that particularly is fitting in light of our proverb today comes from 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Paul there talks in both letters about the sort of work ethic he showed among the Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians 2:9, he says this to them: “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” In 2 Thessalonians 3:8, Paul says essentially the same thing, telling them that that’s why they didn’t have to eat anyone else’s bread there. This is an interesting thought in light of our proverb for today. Our proverb tells us that it’s not worth it to toil night and day to become rich. But Paul tells us it is worth it to toil night and day for the sake of the gospel. And yet a good part of what Paul’s toiling night and day for is to earn the money to eat his daily bread. But he did that so then he’d be free and able to also preach the gospel. Paul is a picture of someone with two jobs – something probably like a day job that pays the bills and a night job that preaches the gospel, or vice versa.
And so what a wonderful picture we have here with Paul. Hard work is good. We don’t want to labor and toil all night to get rich. But if there is anything worth laboring that much for, it’s the sake of the gospel. But to do gospel ministry, you still need food, and clothing, and shelter. And you’ll need rest and time off and some recreation. You can’t go non-stop forever. The point then is simply that riches and food must not be an end in themselves. But they can be tools for a greater purpose. Christians can use their jobs to gain earthly wealth that can be used for the good things Christians want to do. Here we have today some Christian reflection on our attitude toward work and riches. Never should we set the affection of our hearts on the riches. And yet working hard to have some extra to use for the kingdom work is good. And at the same time, realize, earthly labors and earthly money is just one tool we use to serve God. We’ll need wisdom to use all the tools God sets before us in our service to him.
And so, tt will be such a fine line when you find yourself burning the midnight oil. You may convince yourself your motives are pure and right. We must be ready to cease from our own wisdom that justifies why it makes sense to kill yourself working. At the same time we must resist the opposite extreme of idleness and being a sluggard. Yet, we’ve seen today it’s not simply about finding a balanced position somewhere in between overwork and underwork. Rather, it’s about redefining how we think about money. In all of this, we’ll need wisdom from above to rightly examine our motivations and intentions. Let’s pray for this wisdom from above right now as we look ahead to another work week starting tomorrow. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.