A Biblical View of Work

God is presented in Genesis as the Creator of the universe, the earth, and all that is in it (Gen 1:1). He created everything over a period of six days (Gen 1:2-31). The result of God’s work was satisfaction, as “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The Lord also created mankind in His image with the capacity to think, feel, and act (Gen 1:26-27). The first humans, Adam and Eve, were created by God as theocratic administrators to rule over His creation. He created them to work, and work is good. God created the Garden of Eden and gave Adam the task of caring for it. Moses wrote, “the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). The word cultivate translates the Hebrew verb עָבַד abad, which means, “to toil…to till the ground…to work…to work for someone, to serve.”[1]

Sin changed everything when Adam rebelled against God. Because God is righteous, He introduced a curse on the creation, which meant Adam and his descendants would experience resistance from the earth; resistance in the form of diminished agricultural yield. God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face, you will eat bread” (Gen 3:17b-19a). Just as Adam had rebelled against God, now the earth would rebel against him. Whereas Adam previously could “eat freely” from the produce of the land (Gen 2:16), now he would have to fight and struggle to eat. Labor still yielded food and other necessities for life, but the effort needed was greatly increased (by sweat). Though impediments in labor abound, work is still regarded as a good thing. Solomon wrote, “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and to enjoy his labor, for this ability to find enjoyment comes from God” (Eccl 2:24).

Later, in the Mosaic Law, God mandated work, saying, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Ex 20:9). The original work-week was six days. However, to prevent people from overworking themselves, God also mandated a time of rest, saying, “but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you” (Ex 20:10). Here, the physical rest was for everyone and even included animals, whom God cares for. God intended the Sabbath to benefit people, as Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Keeping the Sabbath is not obligatory for Christians; however, the principle stands that we should not be workaholics, but should intentionally structure our lives so that we make time for rest.[2] All things in moderation, including work. Solomon wrote, “One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind” (Eccl 4:6). Here is wisdom.

Gleaning Wheat     In the Old Testament, the poor were to receive special treatment concerning loans (Ex 22:25), and free participation in annual festivals (Deut 16:10-14). However, when able, God expected the poor to work for their meals. The Lord instructed landowners who grew crops, saying, “Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:9-10). During harvest time, the farmers were to leave a portion of their fields uncut and their vineyards with fruit left on the trees and vines so that the needy person in their community could come and work the fields for themselves and have something to eat. Moses wrote:

When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. (Deut 24:19-21)

The unharvested portion of the field was for the less fortunate in society, but they had to come and work for what was left, and this provided them food to eat. Working for food is a biblical principle, as Paul said, “if anyone is not willing to work, neither shall he eat” (2 Th 3:10). No work means no food. Of course, this assumes one has the physical and cognitive ability as well as the opportunity. Naturally, a special dispensation would be granted to those who could not help themselves because of a disability.

The lazy person does not like to work, and he suffers for it. Solomon wrote, “The sluggard does not plow after the autumn, so he begs during the harvest and has nothing” (Pro 20:4), and, “The desire of the sluggard puts him to death, for his hands refuse to work” (Pro 21:25). The sluggard is mentioned several times in Proverbs. Wisdom counsels him to learn from the ant, which works hard and prepares for the winter (Pro 6:6-8). Wisdom addresses the sluggard’s laziness (Pro 6:9-10), which leads to his deficiency (Pro 6:11). Because of his poor work ethic, the sluggard craves much but gets little (Pro 13:4), fails to feed himself when he has opportunity (Pro 19:24), begs and gets nothing (Pro 20:4), lives in fear (Pro 22:13), lacks good sense (Pro 24:30), and experiences poverty (Pro 24:34). In the end, “The desire of the sluggard puts him to death, for his own hands refuse to work” (Pro 21:25). John Kitchen writes, “the craving of the sluggard digs his grave, for, if he can muster any energy and take any initiative, it is spent on that which is frivolous (‘desire’) and not on what is essential (‘work’). In the end, such a lifestyle destroys him.”[3]

The Bible promotes a strong work ethic. Solomon wrote, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Eccl 9:10a). And the work we perform is not merely for self or others, but unto the Lord. Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Col 3:23-24). With this realization, we should work wisely and with good energy, producing a good product or service, knowing we are working and serving the Lord Himself.

Personally, I love to work and be productive. If anything, I tend to overwork, and that to my own harm. Over the decades I’ve overworked myself into fatigue, burnout, and even depression a few times. That’s no fun. Managing my stress levels has been a struggle, and I’ve had to make it a discipline to force myself to stop working, take some rest, and find something enjoyable to do. This benefits me physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. Lewis Chafer wrote. “It is a serious thing to remove the element of relaxation and play from any life. We cannot be normal physically, mentally or spiritually if we neglect the vital factor in human life. God has provided that our joy shall be full.”[4] Of course, other matters for good health include proper sleep, good nutrition, hydration, socialization, etc. All things should be done in moderation.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 773.

[2] As Christians, we are living in the dispensation of the Church age and are not under the Mosaic Law as the rule for life (Rom 6:14); rather, we under the Law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). The Sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic Covenant (Ex 31:13, 17), which covenant was fulfilled in Christ (Matt 5:17), and rendered obsolete by His death (Heb 8:13). Christians are under the New Covenant, which Jesus ratified with His death, and the sign of the New Covenant is the unleavened bread and red juice which picture Jesus’ sinless humanity and shed blood on the cross (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:23-25).

[3] John A. Kitchen, Proverbs: A Mentor Commentary, Mentor Commentaries (Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor, 2006), 482.

[4] Lewis S. Chafer, He that is Spiritual (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan Publishing, 1967), 60-61.

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