The Sluggard and the Sabbath
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11)
God has a plan for your rest and refreshment. It’s called the Sabbath, and it was made for you. The world may treat this day as simply another occasion for profit and output, but the Christian is called to lay that aside, dwell in the shadow of the Almighty, and cease from striving.
We are familiar with this command, but we forget that it is not simply a mandate to spend one day in rest and worship. Adherence to this command begins in the week that precedes it, in the six days “shalt thou labor.” Rest is only rest if we are resting from something. Just as God only rested after six days of creation, so too do we experience rest from our labors after the fact.
When “rest” is misused, and turned into a lifestyle, rather than a set-apart time for rejuvenation, it becomes laziness. Proverbs talks a great deal about laziness, particularly in the form of a character referred to as a “sluggard.” Proverbs 19:4 says,
“The sluggard buries his hand in the dish but will not even bring it back to his mouth,”
and Proverbs 26:14 adds,
“As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed.”
The imagery is jarring. For some reason, a vision of Jabba the Hut comes to mind. There is a slowness, a reluctance to move, a self-imposed weariness and an apathy that characterizes the sluggard. This isn’t an occasional thing: it is his way of life day after day after day. We may be tempted to think of this sluggard as having taken rest “too far,” but that’s incorrect. Quite the contrary, in fact. Laziness is not a subcategory of rest but the antithesis of it. Rest rejuvenates; laziness drains. Rest is an investment; laziness seeks instant gratification. Rest is intentional; laziness is aimless.
How did the sluggard come to be this way? Proverbs 6:10-11 offers us a clue:
“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.”
The sluggard, it seems, is a chief procrastinator. “I’ll do it tomorrow,” “I’ll do it a later,” or “Allow me a little sleep first,” he says. Of course, it is a fine thing to know when it’s time to pause and catch a breath. This passage is not an indictment on knowing one’s limits. The problem with the sluggard is far more serial. He is not intending to resume his work, for he has not even begun it. He is lying to himself, and he does it so often that he has become numb to the danger he is in.
There is an irony in the sluggard’s life. He is always trying to avoid strain and effort. His goal is to get away with doing the bare minimum. The less he can do, the better. And yet, in doing so, he makes his life harder in the long run. Proverbs 20:4 says,
“The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing.”
This is the contradiction of laziness. This sluggard refuses to farm yet seeks a farmer’s reward. He goes out to the field which he neglected and earnestly looks for a harvest. And now he finds himself in a situation that is far more difficult than an autumn of farm chores. The sluggard is in a scarcity of his own doing.
Do you resonate with this? Do you find yourself looking for shortcuts and avoiding exertion whenever possible? Do you loathe the repetitive nature of life? The tasks are never-ending, and at times do you wonder what the point of it all is?
The sluggard is a cautionary tale, and a sad one. We see that what begins as a habit of postponing or comfort-seeking can become a lifestyle, and that lifestyle will become a burden.
But the sluggard is not the only character in Proverbs. In glorious contrast to the aimless wanderings of the sluggard stands the fruitful labors of the Proverbs 31 woman. This is a woman whose “lamp does not go out a night,” who “seeks wool and flax,” and “works with willing hands.” Whereas the sluggard shirks from tasks, her hands seek them, and willingly. The sluggard retires early to do his own pleasure, but the Proverbs 31 woman “rises while it is yet night.”
Again, this is not an admonition to run oneself into the ground. I began with a reminder of the gift and command of rest, and I do not doubt that the Proverbs 31 woman observed this with gratitude. What we would do well to observe is the stark difference in the attitudes which permeate these two characters’ daily lives.
Whom do you resemble more? Perhaps you are careful to attend to the necessary tasks which keep things running smoothly in your home, but with what attitude? The sluggard sees it all as drudgery. The Proverbs 31 woman sees her tasks as a gift, an opportunity to serve God and others. The sluggard takes no delight in hard-earned rewards, but the Proverbs 31 woman knows the joy of multiplying her talents and resources. In every way, these archetypes of human experience oppose one another and offer us a mirror to better understand ourselves.
It is in looking in this mirror that we also see our relationship to rest and the Sabbath. When we rest without labor, we are not resting at all, we are simply slaves to ease. When we work without rest, we are forfeiting the gift of the Sabbath, that Jesus tells us is “made for man.” May our work and rest be sweet, received in their proper proportions, with thankfulness to God.