Proverbs 6:6 says, “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” Read or listen to this chapter from Work and Rest God’s Way to see the wisdom in God’s Word about the dangers of laziness.
Table of contents
- The Sluggard’s Sobering Example
- Learning from Ants
- Are Sluggards Funny?
- A Better Motivation
The Sluggard’s Sobering Example
God’s Word provides the conviction that can help Christians resist laziness. Commit the verses in this chapter (or at least their locations in the Bible) to memory. The next time you’re tempted to remain on the couch when there’s work to do, or sleep in later than you should, review these passages.
The sluggard is characterized by inactivity and doesn’t take responsibility for himself. He can work but refuses to do so. He lacks the drive, personal responsibility, and common sense to provide for his needs.
The sluggard is not a Christian who occasionally gives in to the temptation to be lazy. Instead, he is habitually lazy, and his life serves as evidence that he is unregenerate. He is mentioned fourteen times in Proverbs, and each instance condemns his behavior and warns of the consequences. There is nothing good said about him. Since he is dead in his sins, his laziness can’t be corrected by mere information, even biblical information. He needs the transformation of regeneration to repent and change.
Proverbs is the book of wisdom, filled with practical teaching for daily living. Since Jesus “became for us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30), all proverbs point to Him. In John 8:23, He said, “I am from above.” James 3:17 says, “The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.” Jesus is the embodiment of the wisdom from above, and only in looking to Him in the Proverbs can the sluggard’s life be remedied. As preacher and theologian, Charles Bridges, wrote:
But with all care to preserve a soundly-disciplined interpretation, we must not forget, that the Book of Proverbs is a part of the volume entitled—“The word of Christ” (Colossians 3:16). And so accurately does the title describe the Book, that the study of it brings the whole substance of the volume before us. It furnishes indeed the stimulating motive to search the Old Testament Scripture [which testifies of Christ] (John 5:39)—the true key that opens the Divine Treasure-house—“If we do not see the golden thread through all the Bible, marking out Christ, we read the Scripture without the Key.”Charles Bridges, An Exposition of the Book of Proverbs, (BiblioBazaar, May 20, 2009), 7.
Learning from Ants
A proverb is a short saying that expresses a general truth for practical living. There are so many proverbs dealing with laziness it would take up too much room to cover all of them. We’ll consider the three main passages (Proverbs 6:6–11, 24:30–34, 26:13–16) with other verses integrated.
Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which, having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest (Proverbs 6:6–8).
The book of Proverbs is written as a wise father speaking to his son: “My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother” (Proverbs 1:8, see also Proverbs 1:10, 1:15, 2:1, 3:1, 3:11, 3:21, 4:10, 4:20, 5:1, 5:20, 6:1, 6:3, 6:20, 7:1, 19:27, 23:15, 23:19, 23:26, 24:13, 24:21, 27:11, and 31:2.). He tells his son to learn from the ant’s example. She’s a humble, industrious creature that works without anyone watching over her. We, too, should work without having someone standing over our shoulders. If you’re a parent, you know the blessing it is when your children work without having to constantly tell them what to do.
Ants are also good examples of planning. They busy themselves storing food, so they’re prepared for the winter ahead. Proverbs 30:25 says, “Ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their food in the summer.” Ants serve as a rebuke to lazy people who think only about the moment. Sluggards expect the benefits of labor without laboring, showing they don’t understand the law of sowing and reaping. Since they don’t plan, they don’t have what they need to live.
Oversleeping—The Sluggard’s Great Temptation
How long will you slumber, O sluggard? When will you rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep (Proverbs 6:9–10).
Oversleeping is one of the marks of sluggards. Asking “how long” implies this has been going on too long, and something bad is going to happen. For example, Exodus 10:3 says, “So Moses and Aaron came in to Pharaoh and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord God of the Hebrews: “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go, that they may serve Me.’”” (See also Proverbs 1:22 and Psalm 74:10). The longer Pharaoh would not let the Hebrews go, the worse things became for him. The longer the sluggard sleeps, the worse things become for him.
All the sluggard knows is his tempting drowsiness. The two rhetorical questions, “How long will you slumber…When will you rise,” are aimed at stirring him to get to work and ridiculing his preference to stay in bed. The three-fold repetition of “a little” shows the lazy person prefers “a little” more sleep rather than work.
He doesn’t refuse to work. He simply won’t get started. Newton’s first law of motion states that an object in motion tends to remain in motion, and an object at rest tends to remain at rest. This law can apply to people too! Some people work hard, and they tend to stay in motion. Other people are lazy, and they tend to stay at rest. The poet Robert Frost said, “The world is full of willing people, some willing to work, the rest willing to let them.”
Physical Consequences to Oversleeping
If Scripture’s condemnation of oversleeping isn’t enough, science has found an increased risk of death from sleeping too long! There is a 30 percent increase in mortality rates for people who sleep more than eight or nine hours per night on average. In 2010, The National Library of Medicine published, “Sleep Duration and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies.” The study found:
Increasing evidence suggests an association between long duration of habitual sleep with adverse health outcomes. Long duration of sleep is a significant predictor of death in prospective population studies.
Poverty—The Sluggard’s Payment
So shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man (Proverbs 6:11).
Sluggards dream of the things they want to enjoy, but they won’t work to earn them. Soon their dreams become nightmares. This is the first mention of a truth that is communicated throughout the book of Proverbs—laziness results in poverty:
- “Do not love sleep, lest you come to poverty” (Proverbs 20:13).
- “Poverty will come upon (the sluggard)” (Proverbs 24:34).
- “He who follows frivolity will have poverty enough” (Proverbs 28:19).
Lazy people deceive themselves. Since they don’t expect the disaster that comes upon them, they aren’t prepared. Two illustrations capture the suddenness and unexpectedness:
- First, a prowler is a vagabond or drifter who silently creeps in and steals. Poverty surprises sluggards like thieves surprise people.
- Second, the armed man is a bandit or a man with a shield. He forcibly imposes his will. Sluggards are overpowered and left in need.
Poverty is also caused by talk without labor: “In all labor there is profit, but idle chatter leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23). Lazy people like to talk, but without work, they’re like the second son in Jesus’ parable:
“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I [will] go, sir,’ but he did not go” (Matthew 21:28–30).
Talk is cheap. It doesn’t matter what we say. It matters what we do. The second son was a lazy talker, but the first son was a convicted worker.
Are Sluggards Funny?
Proverbs 26:13–16 describes lazy people with a can-you-top-this quality that provides comic relief. This causes us to ask: Is laziness funny? Not at all. Sluggards are the object of jokes in Scripture, but although the verses are humorous, they are also very unflattering. Reasonable people would want to ensure that these verses don’t apply to them.
The Lazy Man’s Strength Is Excuses
The lazy man says, “There is a lion in the road! A fierce lion is in the streets!” (Proverbs 26:13).
Proverbs 22:13 records an almost identical verse. Remember, God repeats Himself when He wants to make sure we don’t miss something. What makes this proverb so important that it’s worth repeating? Lazy people are filled with excuses, even if they’re absurd. This would be like a person in our day saying, “A piano might fall on my head, so I better not go to work.” For most people, the possibility of a piano falling on them is so remote it is laughable, and certainly no reason to stay home in bed.
Billy Sunday said an excuse is “the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie.”1 People who are good at making excuses are rarely good at much else. Proverbs 15:19 says, “The way of the lazy man is like a hedge of thorns, but the way of the upright is a highway.” Lazy people find reasons why they can’t make it to work (they’re surrounded by thorns), but the righteous find ways to make it to work (it’s an open highway). The weather is too cold for the lazy man, so he “will not plow because of winter” (Proverbs 20:4). Any flimsy reason is enough to prevent him from working. If we’re honest, when we give in to the temptation to be lazy, our excuses are often equally lazy.
When one of my children was young and we asked her to do simple things, such as pick up her clothes or clean up a mess, she would say, “I’m too shy.” This excuse has stuck around our house as a joke that Katie and I repeat when we don’t want to do something our kids ask us to do. We hope this reminds them of how ridiculous their excuses sound when they don’t want to work. The way our children sound to us might be the way we sound to God when we make excuses to avoid doing what He wants us to do.
The Lazy Man’s Payment Is Starvation
As a door turns on its hinges, so does the lazy man on his bed. The lazy man buries his hand in the bowl; it wearies him to bring it back to his mouth (Proverbs 26:14–15).
These verses use parallelism to again mock the lazy person’s love of sleep. They are attached to their beds, like doors are attached to hinges. Their only activity is turning in bed, as a door’s only activity is turning on its hinges. They are no more likely to get out of bed and go to work than doors are to get off their hinges. Lots of motion, but nothing accomplished.
We say lazy people won’t lift a hand to help, but this proverb brings it to another level; the lazy man won’t even lift a hand to feed himself. Doing so exhausts him because even that is too difficult. He summons the strength to put his hand in the bowl, but it’s too much work to bring it back to his mouth.
The sluggard may not have to worry about reaching for food for long, though, because the longer he lives so lazily, the less chance he’ll have to find something to eat. The words of Proverbs 26:15 are repeated in Proverbs 19:24 so we don’t miss that the greatest threat to lazy people—even greater than poverty—is starvation. The mockery makes a legitimate point: lazy people starve, and it’s their fault. Our nation is so opulent that poor people rarely go without food; however, in the Old Testament, starvation was a real threat. If people chose to be lazy, they were choosing to starve.
The Lazy Man’s Selfishness
People might ask, “Why do you care if people are lazy? Their behavior doesn’t affect you.” It doesn’t? Since lazy people don’t want to starve, how do they survive? They “beg during harvest” (Proverbs 20:4), expecting others to feed them. Part of the reason Scripture condemns laziness is because it negatively affects others.
When lazy people choose not to work, they’re also choosing to consume what others produce without producing themselves. They sleep while others are working. Laziness is a sin of profound selfishness.
The Lazy Man’s Pride
The lazy man is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly (Proverbs 26:16).
Surprisingly, lazy people have high opinions of themselves, with smug, unteachable, “know-it-all attitudes.” They don’t help the real world because they live in a fantasy world. Their deception is twofold:
- They consider themselves wiser than a host of wise men. No matter how many reasonable arguments are presented, they persist in their conceit. This makes them hopeless, because as Proverbs 26:12 says, “There is more hope for a fool than for a man wise in his own eyes.”
- They believe their own excuses. Perhaps they think they’re clever because of all the work they’re able to avoid.
A Better Motivation
We can be motivated by the sluggard’s example and the danger of what will happen if we give in to the temptation to be lazy, but is there a better motivation? Yes, the gospel itself!
Following conversion, there’s a new calling that God created us for and recreated us to accomplish. We become Christians when the Holy Spirit regenerates us. This new life in Christ brings with it new desires and motivations. The transforming power of the gospel gives us a vocation that allows us to joyfully serve God and our neighbor. It is not enabled by our willpower or resolve, fear of punishment or forfeiture of reward, or—worse yet—our salvation that we thought we had in Christ. Instead, it is motivated by God’s gracious sanctification in our hearts, because “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
As we concentrate on the biblical theme of work, it is tempting to gradually shift away from the whole teaching of Scripture to the selective and legalistic. Imperatives (commands) in Scriptures must be grounded in the indicatives (truths) of the gospel. God calls us to live holy, disciplined, godly lives, but we’re motivated to obedience, not by fear or appeals to self-help, but by the Holy Spirit’s work. As John Calvin said:
Justification and sanctification, gifts of grace, go together as if tied by an inseparable bond, so that if anyone tries to separate them, he is, in a sense, tearing Christ to pieces. Sanctification doesn’t just flow from justification, so that one produces the other. Both come from the same Source. Christ justifies no one whom He does not also sanctify. By virtue of our union with Christ, He bestows both gifts, the one never without the other.John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary Volume XX 1 & 2 Corinthians (Baker Book House, 1979) 93.
Any call to resist laziness that isn’t motivated by the gospel will become formulaic and consequently legalistic. It will either produce spiritual pride or despair. However, if we labor in the power of the gospel, then we can do so joyfully and thankfully, which is truly working God’s way!