"labour not to be rich"
Our Master taught a vital truth, which ought to govern our thinking with regard to riches, labour, and the motivating force that drives our labours:
“Take heed, and beware of coveteousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he posesseth” (Lu. 12:15).
This is the underlying principle of the Proverb that we have taken as our title for this article: “Labour not to be rich: cease from thine own wisdom” (Prov. 23:4). It is a major theme that runs throughout Scripture like a golden thread: “wisdom is a defense, and money is a defense: but the excellency of knowledge is that wisdom giveth life to them that have it” (Eccl. 7:12). Our material goods do not comprise a man’s life—but wisdom does give life. Wisdom therefore is to be sought after like silver, or hidden treasure (Prov. 2:4) – such is the value placed upon it by those who follow the teaching of Scripture.
Genesis chapter 3 recounts the circumstances of Adam and Eve’s fall from a position of favour and grace, where everything they needed was freely provided in the Garden of Eden. Since their expulsion from the garden, a curse was placed upon them:
“Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:17-19).
We see then, that labour and travail came upon man following his expulsion from the Edenic Paradise. From the moment of man’s birth, till the day of his death, his life is filled with labour. As the Preacher spake:
“this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith” (Eccl. 1:13).
“Yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail” (Eccl. 4:8).
This last passage demonstrates the vanity of labour in carnal things: the human constitution is never satisfied; there is a constant craving to obtain more and more: “neither is his eye satisfied with riches.” Yet all that can be obtained is lost when the owner thereof descends into he grave:
“As he came forth of his mother’s womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand” (Eccl. 5:15).
And the Apostle drawing upon this passage expounds the implied exhortation:
“we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (1 Tim. 6:7-8).
Because in the day of our death we can take nothing out of this world, anything we might lay up by way of this world’s goods can have no lasting profit. But the advantage of Wisdom, is that it is able to give life—the Wisdom of the Gospel being able to make a man “wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). So the Prophet spake:
“Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money, and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your labour for that which satisfieth not?” (Isa. 55:1-2).
Seeking after the spiritual food that gives live, the way of the wise is to search after the treasure of knowledge contained within the Word. Showing himself to be a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth, (2 Tim. 2:15), the way of the wise is to labour in spiritual things, to lay up treasure in heaven (Luke 18:22). There are two “ways” before us: the broad way that leads to destruction for those who sow to the flesh, and the narrow way that leads to life for those who sow to the spirit. Which way will we choose? Wisdom is profitable to direct.