Anyone can recognize the tragedy of a lazy man. Even normal responsibilities overwhelm him. He is paralyzed by absurd fears (Proverbs 22:13). He cannot provide for himself, or anyone else (Proverbs 20:4). Just about anything is too hard for him (Proverbs 19:24). Those who once depended on him have learned not to (Proverbs 10:26). His cravings, never satisfied, slowly destroy him (Proverbs 21:25). We pity lazy men, and strive not to be one.
While it may be easy to see the futility in laziness, how many of us miss the futility in some forms of hard work?
Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain. (Psalm 127:1)
“Some of us need to be told to trust God enough to work less.”
Good men — men loved, equipped, and sent by God — work hard, but not in vain. They build, and watch, and work as if the God of heaven and earth works for them — because he does. God “acts for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4). Good men know that unless the Lord works in, and through, and over their work, they accomplish nothing truly meaningful or lasting.
Build with All Your Heart
Make no mistake, faithful men do work hard. Any man who hears that God must do the work and decides his own work is not needed has not understood how our work honors God. He has missed the sanctity of human instrumentality. God is not honored when we work hard in self-reliance, nor is he honored when we are negligent or cavalier about what he has called us to do.
When the Lord builds, the builders do not abandon their tools. The watchmen don’t leave their posts. In fact, the Lord condemns watchmen who fail to stand watch, saying of Israel’s shepherds,
His watchmen are blind;
they are all without knowledge;
they are all silent dogs;
they cannot bark,
dreaming, lying down,
loving to slumber. (Isaiah 56:10)
If the builders refuse to work, nothing gets built. If the watchmen neglect the wall, the city sits in peril. And if either works without God, they work and watch in vain. Knowing that God works for us, and in us, inspires us to genuinely work hard. The apostle Paul says, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
“Good men know that unless the Lord works in, and through, and over their work, they accomplish nothing meaningful.”
In the beginning, “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15) — to build and to watch. And still today, God calls a man to build and to watch, first and foremost in his own home, then in his church, and then beyond in the world around him. God has given us the dignity of doing his building and protecting work in whatever garden he has placed us. How could we take that work lightly? If God has called us to this, and if he promises to accomplish the decisive work through us, how could we lay aside our tools or abandon our post?
God says to builders and watchmen, to husbands and fathers, to bosses and employees in every field, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). Good men, men loved by God, work hard.
Work Hard at Home
Many men will love the charge to work hard, and may be all too ready to plunge headlong into more hours, more sweat, more intentionality — at the office. The work of first importance, though (at least in Psalm 127), is home-work. To builders and watchmen alike, the psalm declares,
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. (Psalm 127:3–5)
What is the message for husbands and fathers about work? Do not neglect the precious, demanding, and powerfully productive work you are called to do at home. Notice how the psalm speaks directly to the man, “Blessed is the man . . .” God wants men, in particular, to feel the awesome burden (“from the Lord”) and immense pleasure (“the fruit of the womb a reward”) of having a family and raising the next generation. The souls God assigns to our homes are worth our best work — and certainly not just the leftovers.
“Work hard with what you have been given, for as long as you are given, and get some sleep along the way.”
We feel the tension, even in the psalm, that many men feel today. We tend to think the hottest fires, the most fruitful fields, the most pressing priorities are somewhere out there — on the battlefield, where the war is waged, or at the gate, where disputes were judged and conflicts resolved. But working hard to raise faithful children will make a man all the more dangerous on the battlefield (“like arrows in the hand of a warrior”) and all the more compelling at the gate (“he shall not be put to shame”). In the wisdom of God, working hard and investing well at home will make a man that much more effective everywhere else.
Some Need to Work Less
Since the Lord builds the house and watches over the city, we should be inspired to work hard, beginning at home. Some men, however, need to be counseled to work (and worry) less. One evidence that we have not fully surrendered our work to God is that we refuse to truly cease from our labors.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:2)
The vanity in these verses is a massively important ingredient to any healthy work ethic. We can work really hard, and still come up really empty. Derek Kidner comments, “It is not simply that our projects will fail — there is at least ‘bread’ to show for them — but that they lead nowhere. The house and city may survive, but were they worth building?” (Psalms, 477).
Men work hard for all kinds of reasons, and many of them are poor, if not pathetic. Selfish ambition and conceit are strong enough to inspire a lifetime of intentionality, creativity, and discipline. Many men work long into the night and long before the sun rises, and with every passing hour of diligence they offend God. Their work ethic devalues him, because it doesn’t need him. And the temptations are as great as ever because so many of us carry our work home with us on our laptops and phones. Any work is in vain, however passionately and diligently the work is done, if we are trusting in self. Some of us need to be told to trust God enough to work less.
“In the wisdom of God, working hard at home will make a man that much more effective everywhere else.”
Some men refuse to stop working — to go home, close the computer, put down the phone. This is not just about lying down and closing our eyes, though. The warning applies every bit as much, or more, to those of us who lie down but lie awake worrying — our minds are still working feverishly on everything that didn’t get done today or everything that needs to get done tomorrow, on the problems that didn’t get solved today or the problems that might emerge by the time we wake up. If bread represents anxious toil, our mind can become the hottest oven. And our worrying is in vain (Philippians 4:6).
Jesus says, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). Who worries about adding an hour to his life? The one who can’t finish all he wants to do in a day, who rises early and goes late to bed (and sleeps restlessly in between). What does Jesus say to that man? “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” (Matthew 6:34). Hard work will never satisfy your deepest needs or solve your deepest problems, but God will.
Refusing God Is Reckless
The pointed response to overworking, at least in Psalm 127, is simple: God gives, to everyone he loves, sleep. Does the way you live, work, and rest prove that precious reality — or obscure the wisdom, mercy, and fatherly care in his gift? It is reckless and foolish to refuse what God has expressly and gladly given.
Again, Jesus holds out his hands to those enslaved to unnecessary burdens:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28–29)
When we refuse to rest, we spurn the infinite love and wisdom of heaven. We refuse to follow his plan, preferring whatever proposal we’ve drawn up for ourselves. We refuse to believe he knows what is best for us. Good men do work hard, but they also sleep well (medical conditions aside). These men not only know that God can be trusted with all they cannot do or finish, but they know that God intentionally crafts and imparts rest and sleep to deepen and display their faith in him.
If you build in the strength that God supplies, he will build the house you’re building. He will watch over the city you’re protecting. Because he is wiser than we are, he certainly will leave a few things (or more) undone that we thought had to be done, but he will not overlook any detail, nor will he misuse any work we have done by faith in him.
So, work hard with what you have been given, for as long as you are given, and get some sleep along the way. Trust God’s will will be done. He will accomplish everything he means to be done through you.