Diligence in Proverbs

(Part of a series where I’m looking at different topics in Proverbs. Here’s the last one.)

When I was a kid, my parents gave me a scripture to memorize:

Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control. 25:28

They gave this scripture in particular to me because this was something I was decidedly not good at. For me back then, self-control had a lot to do with controlling my temper. I was often unable or unwilling to control outbursts that I had, and hurt (emotionally) or threatened to hurt (physically) the people around me because of it.

Self-control doesn’t only have to do with controlling anger. In a more general sense, it’s about controlling our minds and bodies to do what we decide, rather than what we might initially desire. In this sense, self-control is a foundation of diligence. I’ve never really used this word before, instead using the term discipline to mean the same thing. To me, to be disciplined meant to be studious, attentive to my work, reliable, etc. In Proverbs, these qualities relate more to diligence than to discipline. Proverbs that discuss discipline deal more with what we might think of as correction. This was news to me.

So, in the interest of gaining an accurate definition of diligence: how does Proverbs define it? Since we don’t have a glossary at the end of Proverbs, we need to look at how and in what context this word is used. To aid in this, it’s helpful to know a bit about Hebrew poetry (and I mean only a bit – what I’m telling you now is about all I know). Many Hebrew proverbs use a poetic device called antithetical parallelism, where the second line contrasts with the first. A good example is Proverbs 15:1:

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Several proverbs that deal with diligence in Proverbs use this poetic device to contrast diligence with laziness (or, equivalently, with the “sluggard”). For example:

Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor. 12:24

The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied. 13:4

These proverbs give us two insights. First, we see the differing outcomes of diligence and laziness. As a general rule, diligence results in blessing and honor, whereas the fruit of laziness is frustrated desire and hard labor. Second, we see that we can learn something about diligence by also learning about its opposite, laziness. This is helpful, as there are a lot of proverbs that talk about laziness.

There are a few key themes that I’ve seen surrounding diligence and laziness. These themes help us to define what it means to be diligent, and also explain what its outcomes will be.

…Unfortunately, I’ve found it difficult to write up all of my thoughts on these scriptures due to time constraints. Rather than not post anything, however, I figure I can leave the scriptures with a couple of brief thoughts here.

Diligence has to do with hard work

All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty. 14:23

He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment. 12:11

He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty. 28:19

He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son. 10:5

The lazy person is incapable of meeting their own desires…

Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry. 19:15

The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he will not even bring it back to his mouth! 19:24

As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed. 26:14

The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth. 26:15

The sluggard’s craving will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work. All day long he craves for more, but the righteous give without sparing. 21:25-26

But the diligent make progress.

The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway. 15:19

The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!’ 26:13

Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth. 10:4

The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty. 21:5

Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men. 22:29

The sluggard loves sleep

Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare. 20:13

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. 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. 6:6-11

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. 24:30-34

What are you being diligent for?

Proverbs doesn’t just talk about diligence. It also notes that we should be diligent in pursuing the right things. There are a whole bunch of scriptures that discuss this in regards to wealth, which I might write about at some point. This one, however, gives a sense of the general attitude towards wealth that God reveals in Proverbs.

Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle. 23:4-5

And much more

In addition to these themes, there were several other nuggets I found when studying out diligence.

If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength! 24:10

Helpful to me because it reminds me that the times of trouble are the training and proving grounds for our faith. (cf. James 1:2-5)

The lazy man does not roast his game, but the diligent man prizes his possessions. 12:27

Relevant to my life because I frequently don’t take care of the possessions that I do have…

The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who answer discreetly. 26:16

I’ve never really thought about the connection between laziness and pride, but this Proverb brings it to mind. What is laziness other than a heart that believes that its own desires and will is more important than any other responsibility/duty/person that might come its way?

One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys. 18:9

See James 4:17 – “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”