Readings: Proverbs ch. 14; Galatians chs. 5 and 6
If from the book of Proverbs we were to try to single out one facet of its teaching which is stressed above all others it would surely have to be the almost continuous rebuke of idleness, sloth and inactivity. “Go to the ant thou sluggard; considerher ways.” “The sluggard will not plough by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing.” “The slothful man saith, there is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets.”“As the door turneth upon his hinges, so doth the slothful upon his bed.”“The slothful hideth his hand in his bosom; it grieveth him to bring it again to his mouth.”“The sluggard is wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason.” “Slothfulness casteth into a deep sleep; and an idle soul shall suffer hunger.”
Even the acquisition of wisdom, which in this book is strongly urged, is represented as the fruit of diligent seeking, of labour and of endeavour. It is not a mere leisurely, intellectual exercise.
Similar exhortations are conveyed in the chapter which we have read this morning from the book of Proverbs: in verse 4 of this 14th chapter the matter is expressed by means of a metaphor which is readily understood and in addition, when considered in conjunction with other parts of Scripture, clearly illustrates both our privilege and our obligation as sons and daughters of the Almighty. Proverbs 14.4 reads: “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean: but much increase is by the strength of the ox.”
In the usage of Scripture the ox is always associated with productive labour; yet it was not a work of unrewarded slavery, for in the Law of Moses it had been written: “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn,” and it is worthy of note that twice the inspired apostle made quotation of those words from the Law, once in order to make the point that the labourer is worthy of his reward, and by inference, that any not labouring have no reason to look for reward, and once to illustrate the fact that the labour of the servant of God is a labour which is motivated by hope, sure and certain hope. “Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.”
The ox, together with the associated idea of hopeful and rewarded labour, has a close relationship to the whole of the Divine purpose amongst men. One of the four faces of the cherubim wa that of the ox, the other three being the lion, the eagle and the man. The cherubim occur in several parts of both the Law and the Prophets and always they serve to represent the purpose of God-manifestation, the Memorial Name of God, Yahweh Elohim. We all know the principles of that doctrine. The face of the lion suggests royalty and dominion, as in “the Lion of the tribe of Judah”; the eagle suggests the penetrative sight and wisdom and omniscience of the Almighty manifested in His Spirit power; the ox speaks of both labour and sacrifice; and fourthly, the face of the man is a reminder that it is the human race, made in the image of the Almighty, in which God is to manifest Himself in the earth to His honour and glory and to man’s salvation and deliverance.
That purpose entails the operation of faith, together with the works without which faith is dead. It entails labour and sacrifice by man, but only insofar as man accepts the guidance and instruction of the Spirit of God. Today, of course, the Spirit instructs and guides only through the medium of the inspired Scriptures, whose function is to make perfect or complete the man of God, that by their means he may be thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
Men and women thus called and directed into faithful labour and sacrifice certainly do not “plough without hope,” as indeed these memorial emblems proclaim. “We shall be like hint” That is the hope—God-manifestation. We are called to take part in it. In Christ the Father was manifested, firstly by his life of obedience, and secondly by his elevation from mortality to the Spirit nature of the Father.
It is perhaps not without interest or consequence that of the four faces of the cherubim only one, that of the ox, represented a creature which by the Law of Moses was accounted as clean. The lion, though not specifically mentioned by the Law, neither chews the cud nor parts the hoof. The eagle was expressly stated by the Law to be unclean, and man himself may be described as the unclean creature, uncleansable by the works and the enactments of the Law, as Paul demonstrates in his letter to the Galatians which in the last few days we have been reading, yet redeemable in the way that God has provided, by the works, the sacrifice, the labour of an obedient faith, after the example of Abraham, as Paul in this letter demonstrates. Clear-sighted wisdom, dominion and royal status, these are of no avail to mortal man unless in humility he accepts the cleansing, the direction and the guidance afforded by the Almighty in His Word. It is His instruction and Spirit teaching which cleanses and sanctities the unclean and makes it fit for His use. Jesus said: “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.” Submission to that Word in faith and works and labour, even to the point of sacrifice, is the only means whereby a man may commend himself to God. Without these features, of which we are reminded by the work of the ox, our professed association with the purpose of God-manifestation is unacceptable.
The proverb declares that it is by the strength of the ox that much increase is to be had, and yet the employment of the ox involves temporary disadvantages. “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean.” No untidiness, no feeding and cleaning out to be done, and yet at the same time without the oxen no useful work will be done either. These facts have an application to life in the Truth, It has been said that labour has its rough, unpleasant side, yet it ends in profit. In one of our anthems we sing: “We labour today thy rest to attain.” In other words, we profess to endure the roughness of the way, the irritations and the friction that can arise, because we plough in hope, in hope of that rest which remains to the people of God.
The Scriptures express these principles in various ways, all of which are familiar to us. For instance, there are the words which were written to the Hebrews: “Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.... No chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”
Always there is the temptation to “opt out” of the tribulation:
metaphorically to keep the crib clean. Jesus himself was aware of the freedom which he had to take the easy alternative. “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?” If we pray to the Father for the removal of some particular form of tribulation, yet without regard to the over-riding wisdom of God for our final profit, for our strengthening, for our much increase in spiritual well-being, then such a prayer may well be answered in much the same way that the demands of Israel in the wilderness for flesh to eat were answered and granted. The tribulation may thus be removed. The crib will be made clean. But as it was for Israel, it could well be for our destruction and not for our blessing. There is therefore the need for not a little care and forethought in our prayers. God has promised to make all goodness abound towards us if only we will trust His guiding Hand, and in that trust be careful to make our petitions to Him in every respect subject to His overriding yet inscrutable wisdom and love. To the Hebrews again Paul wrote: “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.” It was as if to say, What kind of God do you suppose He is? Do you think that He is going to command that the working ox be not muzzled, and yet not look after the highest interests of those whose desire and aspiration is toward His Name? Therefore, the writer continues: “We desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
The writer proceeds to cite the instance of Abraham, and the fact that God’s promise to him, mortal man though he was, was confirmed even by an oath, that not only Abraham but even we “might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.” We have been called as “labourers together with God,” labouring in certain hope.
Those words stress the need of collective action, indeed, collaboration amongst ourselves. Some at various times have found it tempting to abandon ecclesial life, to make deliberate choice of isolation, or for that matter to live as it were on the outside fringe of the ecclesia. Those who so do may, in the words of the proverb, keep their own little crib clean so far as this present short mortal life is concerned, but there can be in the spiritual sense no increase, no fruit, no development of ox-like strength and growth if of purpose we separate ourselves, more or less, from fellow labourers. If from a red- hot fire we take out with the tongs a single piece of coal and lay it down on the hearth, very soon it becomes cold, dead, lifeless. In separating ourselves, or by passive refusal to co-operate, we may seem to keep the crib clean by avoiding some of the possible yet chastening frictions of ecclesial life, yet on the other hand, in such case there is not likely to be the maintenance of any warmth of appreciation of spiritual things. To separate ourselves and to withhold co-operation from ecclesial activity because of alleged shortcomings of fellow-labourers is of course to imply that we are without fault. It is equally true, on the other hand, that the awareness of our own shortcoming is no valid ground either for despondency or for ceasing to try to do better.
The word which in the Scripture is translated “crib” means also a feeding place. The Scriptures and the ecclesia are together our appointed spiritual feeding place, but where in an ecclesia little or no work is being done the crib may well be clean by human standards, as was that at Laodicea, but like Laodicea there will be no true feeding place for the flock. Peter exhorted: “Feed the flock of God.” That is a collective responsibility, a labour in which all can help and which most certainly is not restricted to the brethren in the fulfilment of speaking duties. Paul wrote that the ecclesia is “the pillar and ground of the truth” Where the ecclesia fulfils that purpose it must inevitably be a crib, a feeding place in spiritual things.
Now the effect of all these considerations presented to us by the Scriptures this morning must be, not to tell us any new thing, but rather to remind ourselves that the way of the servant of God, the way of the man of God as he is sometimes termed in Scripture, although being a way of peace and of contentment of mind, has neverbeen and was never meant to be a way of ease and mere quiet contemplation. It is represented to be a fight, a course of unremitting labour in certain hope of a rest which is to come. It was so even for Jesus himself, and the apostolic exhortation is to “look unto him, who is the authorand finisher of our faith,” and “who for the joy that was laid before him” as a future prospect “endured the cross, and despised the shame,” and yet was glad to do that because with the eye of faith he could look to the end, to that very joy that had been set before him by the promise, the certain promise of God. At this table we now seek the honour of his fellowship, aware though we are, each one, of failings and shortcoming.
Those who have real cause for doubts and misgivings are, as the Proverbs so widely indicate, the lazy, the slothful, those who are too idle to make anything like a full use of their capacities in the service of God. Even in the world it is recognised that a man or woman is likely to give of his best in work if the duties involved have the effect of extending the worker to somewhere approaching his full capacity. Each one of us has received in some measure a portion of the Master’s goods wherewith to trade, and that stewardship brings the responsibility to be occupied now, to the extent of mortal capacity, in the business of the Lord, the Father’s business. Jesus was doing exactly that even at the early age of twelve.
These things clearly imply that the Truth is not a call to a life of prosperous ease, nor for that matter to a life of non-prosperous idleness, but to a life of activity in the Lord’s service to the limit of capacity, and in that very activity to find the means to an increased ‘ability and strength, according as it is written: “They that wait upon [the Lord shall renew their strength.” It is a call to be workers and labourers together with God rather than to be the providers of good excuses for not so working.
The field of labour is extensive, so much so that without the guidance of the Word it would be difficult to know where to begin. The Scriptures do, however, provide us with a correct sequence of priorities. The sequence is that which is observable in all the worthy characters exhibited in Scripture. Firstly, knowledge of God, leading in its turn to belief of God, and from that to the obedience of God. Our appointed field of labour, therefore, begins necessarily with ourselves. If that necessary first work is neglected then all else is completely useless. We cannot expect to pass on effectively to other people something which as yet we ourselves have not properly grasped. The conclusion of the whole matter is stated in the words of Paul which we have read this morning towards the close of his letter to the Galatians. He stated the nature of the work, the warfare in which individually and collectively we are occupied. It is, as we have read, the flesh versus the spirit, the flesh having its characteristic works, those works being suitably rewarded by death; the spirit producing fruits unto everlasting life.
At the table of the Lord it is fitting to remember the further words of Paul which we have read this morning: “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” Finally in chapter 6 there is a return to the metaphor of husbandry, involving, as that did, the use of the labours of the ox. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked:
for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, we faint not.”:—W. Hilton