The book of Proverbs starts with a collection of lessons presented as advice from a wise father to his son. This verse comes from a lesson on work and business ethics. The father warns his son against being a ‘sluggard’. Instead he encourages him to learn from the ant!
We are introduced to the sluggard as a lazy person who enjoys a bit too much sleep and rest. Ants, by contrast, are entirely different characters. The ant is such a good contrast and picture it barely requires elaboration. Whoever saw a sluggardly ant! Ironically we are perhaps most likely to observe one whilst resting in the garden on a lazy summer’s afternoon. What does the father want to teach his son, and us, as we watch?
We will see that ants are lean and active creatures, steady and reliable workers, disciplined and self motivated, not easily thwarted, working tirelessly alone and yet reliable and effective partners in a team. It’s hard to imagine a better example for the son to follow. But why should we? What benefits are there from such behaviour?
In this passage the lesson is quite down to earth. The sluggard’s life falls apart, ending in poverty; the ant’s labours on the other hand ensure material security. Elsewhere Proverbs contrasts the sluggard with the upright man whose path in life opens up, the diligent man whose desires can be satisfied, and the righteous man whose lifestyle allows for generosity. There is great truth in the fact that dogged diligence as displayed by the ant will tend to pay off materially in this life, and this surely is wise advice from a father to his son. But there’s a problem, which the Bible acknowledges elsewhere. The life of a righteous man can fall apart. The good are often poor. There must be more to it – a greater justice. And there is.
One of the greatest ants we meet in the Bible is surely the apostle Paul. He told the Corinthians, ‘I am… in labors more abundantly … in labor and travail’(2 Corinthians 11:23&27), and he encouraged the Philippians ‘The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: do these things’(Philippians 4:9). But Paul looked beyond this life for his ultimate reward, as he wrote to the Corinthians, ‘Every man who strives in the games exercises self-control in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible.’(1 Corinthians 9:25). It’s important to realise that all work, done with the right motive, is rewarded by God in this way. Much of Paul’s work involved the everyday task of making tents to support his ministry. He even taught the slaves in Colossae, ‘whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord, and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward’(Colossians 3:23-24). It’s our motive and effort that count. We may well reap material prosperity in this life from a strong work ethic, but either way, justice will be done in eternity.
Moreover, work is something we’re made for, and ultimate joy comes from fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives. Being ant like is part of the image of God in us. Jesus said ‘“My Father is still working, so I am working, too.”’(John 5:17). Right at the beginning God set us to work, as we read in Genesis ‘Yahweh God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.’(Genesis 2:15). We often think of work negatively because sin has soured it for us, as Genesis goes on to explain, ‘“cursed is the ground for your sake. In toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will yield thorns and thistles to you; and you will eat the herb of the field. By the sweat of your face will you eat”’(Genesis 3:17-19). Work can feel like that in a fallen world, but Jesus came to save us from this, something we can begin to experience now, ‘“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest”’(Matthew 11:28). But this rest is not from work but from the curse of work. There is still a yolk for us, since he continues, ‘“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me”’(Matthew 11:29), and one day we’ll enjoy our work forever, in the eternal rest described in Revelation: ‘There will be no curse any more. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants serve him.’(Revelation 22:3)