As part of the longest collection of aphorisms in the book (Proverbs 15:18-16:8), Proverbs claims that the way of the “lazy” (CEV, NASB, NKJV, NLT, NRSV), “sluggard” (ASV, ESV, MSG, NIV, RSV), “slacker” (HCSB) or “slothful” (KJV) is overgrown with weeds:
The way of the lazy is as a hedge of thorns,At a time when a donkey was the standard mode of transportation, a thick growth of thorns made travel difficult if not impossible. Proverbs 15:19 uses this imagery of a blocked path to contrast the progress in life made by the lazy and the righteous. While everyone faces difficulty (Matthew 5:45), the slothful face obstacles habitually.
But the path of the upright is a highway. (Proverbs 15:19 NASB)
Associating laziness with poverty and diligence with wealth is a recurring theme in Proverbs (Proverbs 6:6-11, 10:4-5, 12:24, 27, 13:4, 15:19). Claus Westermann (1909-2002) conjectured that the first half of the Proverb is older concluding that “the second half of the saying...is a subsequent addition for the sake of parallelism.” (Westermann, Roots of Wisdom: The Oldest Proverbs of Israel and Other Peoples, 19).
Newer or not, the second half of the proverb is more unique as it adds a moral component to the Proverb. Timothy J. Sandoval (b. 1966) analyzes “Proverbs 15:19 is significant as well, for this proverb contrasts the lazy person not with the diligent person but with upright persons...a term that belongs fundamentally to moral discourse (Sandoval, The Discourse of Wealth and Poverty in the Book of Proverbs, 139).” The implication is that being lazy is immoral.
How would you put this proverb into modern language? Do you identify more with the sluggard or the upright? Is being lazy immoral? Why is the slothful person’s path habitually laden with thorns? Does God place added obstacles in the path of the lazy or is there something inherent in the slothful that summons obstacles?
Many have surmised that the lazy person’s path is blocked because she wishes it to be. Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitsky (b. 1954) write, “The slothful person is unable to act, no matter how much thinking takes place. Wherever such a person looks, problems are seen (Kravitz and Olitsky, Mishlei: A Modern Commentary on Proverbs, 150).” John Phillips (b. 1927) concurs, “He (the lazy person) is continually running into trouble, much of his own making. He never gets anywhere, mostly because he doesn’t want to get anywhere (Phillips, Exploring Proverbs: An Expository Commentary, Volume 1, 439).” This interpretation claims that the lazy person’s life trajectory is constantly impeded because she seek obstacles as an excuse not to work. Do you agree with this theory?
The crux of the passage is to be diligent. Still we must avoid the converse and assume that those who have not succeeded are lazy and undeserving of help. George Grant (b. 1954) claims that Proverbs makes a distinction between two types of poor people, the oppressed and sluggards: “Sluggards waste opportunities (Proverbs 6:9-10), bring poverty upon themselves (Proverbs 10:4), are victims of self-inflicted bondage (Proverbs 12:24), and are unable to accomplish anything in life (Proverbs 15:19). (Grant, In the Shadow of Plenty, 47)” Grant concludes that “true charity” in helping the sluggard “involves admonition and reproof” (Grant, 48).
Just who is qualified to determine who is oppressed and who is merely a “sluggard”? When Christ charges us to help those in need, should we consider such distinctions? How do we ensure that we do not blame victims?
“Then plough deep while sluggards sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and to keep.” - Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), “The Way to Wealth” (1758)