Proverbs: The Sluggard

I found the following excerpt particularly jarring given the current circumstances of the ongoing pandemic. With limitations on freedom and employment and reliance on government aid, the temptation to take on characteristics of the sluggard of proverbs can increase (from Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary [1]):

The sluggard

1. The sluggard’s character

The sluggard in Proverbs is a figure of tragi-comedy, with his sheer animal laziness (he is more than anchored to his bed: he is hinged to it, prov 26:14), his preposterous excuses (‘there is a lion outside!’ prov 26:13; prov 22:13) and his final helplessness.

1. He will not begin things. When we ask him (prov 6:9-10) ‘How long …?’ ‘When …?’, we are being too definite for him. He doesn’t know. All he knows is his delicious drowsiness; all he asks is a little respite: ‘a little … a little … a little …’. He does not commit himself to a refusal, but deceives himself by the smallness of his surrenders. So, by inches and minutes, his opportunity slips away.

2. He will not finish things. The rare effort of beginning has been too much; the impulse dies. So his quarry goes bad on him (prov 12:27, AV, RV; see commentary) and his meal goes cold on him (prov 19:24; prov 26:15).

3. He will not face things. He comes to believe his own excuses (perhaps there is a lion out there, prov 22:13), and to rationalize his laziness; for he is ‘wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason’ (prov 26:16). Because he makes a habit of the soft choice (he ‘will not plow by reason of the cold’, prov 20:4, AV—see commentary) his character suffers as much as his business, so that he is implied in prov 15:19 (see commentary) to be fundamentally dishonest. (A suggestion of the way he would describe himself is made in the commentary on prov 26:13–16.)

4. Consequently he is restless (prov 13:4; prov 21:25-26) with unsatisfied desire; helpless in face of the tangle of his affairs, which are like a ‘hedge of thorns’ (prov 15:19); and useless—expensively (prov 18:9) and exasperatingly (prov 10:26)—to any who must employ him.

2. The sluggard’s lesson

1. By example. The locus classicus is prov 6:6 ‘Go to the ant …’—for he shames the sluggard twice over. First, in needing no ‘overseer’ (prov 6:7), whereas he must be prodded; he waits for it, resigned and defensive. Secondly, in ‘knowing the time’. To him, all time is alike: summer and harvest (prov 6:8) suggest long, languorous days (cf. prov 10:5), rather than the time of crisis in which the year’s work will be crowned or cancelled, and the battle with winter decided (cf. Jer. 8:20). Like the pharaoh of Jeremiah 46:17, ‘he hath let the appointed time pass by’; like the slumbering watchmen of Isaiah 56:9–12, his motto is ‘tomorrow shall be as to-day was, and braver, braver yet!’ (Knox’s translation).

2. By experience. This lesson comes too late. He will suddenly wake to find that poverty has arrived (‘like a vagabond, … like an armed man’, prov 6:11, RSV), and there is no arguing with it. Through shirking hard work he has qualified for drudgery (just when his too energetic friend has risen to more rewarding duties, prov 12:24); and through procrastination the disorder of his life has become irreversible: all is wasteland (prov 24:30-31).

‘Then I beheld, and considered well: I saw, and received instruction’ (prov 24:32). The wise man will learn while there is time. He knows that the sluggard is no freak, but, as often as not, an ordinary man who has made too many excuses, too many refusals and too many postponements. It has all been as imperceptible, and as pleasant, as falling asleep.


1. Kidner, D. (1964). Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 17, pp. 39–40). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.