The Wisdom of Work

Time is short. We only have so many years, months, days, and hours in which to be productive. This is reason enough for us to work as unto the Lord during the short time God has given us in this life. The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes speak repeatedly about our need to pursue productive and fruitful lives. The author of Ecclesiastes explains why productivity is fundamental to what we do when he says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Eccl. 9:10). This takes shape and form in a variety of areas of our lives. We ought to use our time to diligently work, study, and manage our homes. We should also diligently attend our devotional lives, physical well-being, and care for others. In order for us to apply the biblical call for us to work wisely, we first need to understand the biblical teaching about vocation. 


Most people in the Western world today view a job first and foremost as a means to an end (i.e. a way to get provision for possessions and pleasures). Because the idea of vocation has been lost. People now jump from job to job throughout the course of their lives. If we viewed our work under the rubric of God’s calling, we would be more apt to settle into whatever lawful work God has gifted and called us to do—and, we would seek to do it for His glory. The garbage man—who picks up trash to better the community and to bear witness to the goodness and greatness of God—is fulfilling his vocation as unto the Lord. Fulfilling the creation mandate to be fruitful for God’s glory must be the ultimate goal of our labors rather than merely seeking after a fruitful retirement. This was a vital principle reclaimed by the Reformers in their polemics with the Roman Catholic Church. As Gene Edward Veith explains,

“The Reformers formulated the doctrine of vocation in response to the Roman Catholic insistence that ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ was reserved for those entering the service of the church through the priesthood or a monastic order. Those doing so would renounce marriage, secular work, and economic advancement through taking vows of celibacy, obedience, and poverty. In response, the Reformers argued that all Christians are called by God to live faithfully in the three arenas of life: the household, the church, and the state.”1

John Calvin summarized the Reformed reclamation of the concept of vocation, when he wrote,

“We know that men were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when every man applies himself diligently to his own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.”2

John Murray noted that the concept of a person’s vocation is rooted in the creation ordinance of labor. He wrote, 

“The institution of labor underlines the whole question of vocation. What path of life each individual is to follow in respect to this basic interest of life is to be determined by the proper gift which God has bestowed, and this is the index to the divine will and therefore to the divine call. In connection with the specific kind of labor in which each person is to engage we find this same kind of sanction. Each person’s labor is a kind of divine vocation. . .It is the consciousness of divine vocation in the particular task assigned to us that will imbue us with the proper sense of responsibility in the discharge of it.”3

After we have come to understand the doctrine of vocation and embraced our particular callings, we must understand the way in which those vocations are to be carried out with divine wisdom. 


When I was young, my father gave me a simple key to leading a productive life. He would remind me to “pray, plan, and do.” Over the decades, I have come to realize the importance of this counsel for every aspect of life. Proverbs 24:27 says, “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.” The significance of planning comes from the triune God Himself. In His eternal counsel, the Lord planned the world and all the events of human history. Everything that happens in time and space occurs according to the eternal wisdom of God. The Apostle Paul speaks of the work of Christ in reconciling all things in heaven and earth as being God’s “plan for the fullness of time” (Eph. 1:10) and “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages” (Eph. 3:9). Every aspect of creation, providence, and redemption has been carefully planned out by God and executed in time. Since we are vulnerable to fall out of routine, we should strategically plan out our days and hours during this season of isolating pandemic.


We must remember that our diligent labor ordinarily leads to a profitable outcome. While Scripture rejects all false gospels of health, wealth, and prosperity, it affirms that God rewards the diligent labors of His people. Proverbs 12:11 states, “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.” Proverbs 12:14 explains, “The work of a man’s hand comes back to him,” and Proverbs 28:19 says, “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.” The wise woman of Proverbs 31 “seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands (Prov. 31:13). Her family is better provided for by her labors. These verses set out the essence of this two-sided principle: As productivity leads to provision, so laziness leads to impoverishment. This is true in the spiritual realm no less than it is in the physical realm. Whether we are diligent or negligent in our work, study, management of our homes, devotional lives, physical care, and care for others, we will inevitably reap what we sow. God calls us to diligent labors. This present circumstance is an opportunity for us to diligently carry out the many responsibilities the Lord has given us.


It is, however, possible for us to busy ourselves in vain, under the pretext of being diligent (Ps. 39:6). Diligence must be always be accompanied by a skillful use of the gifts God has given us in the spheres in which He calls us to labor. As Proverbs 22:29 explains, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” Charles Bridges observed: “[A skillful person] is marked out for our special notice . . . in his business—quick, ready, actively improving his time, his talents, his opportunity for his work. . . . If the letter of the promise is not always fulfilled, [such a person] will rule in his own sphere.”

We should use our time to pursue excellence in our labors. One day, we will all stand before the King of kings “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). One straightforward way to pursue skillfulness is to commit to reading and studying in a focused way. Focus on specific areas of our lives in which we wish to see growth. There are so many resources online to help us grow in knowledge. We can always improve the quality of our labors, seeking to do them to the best of our ability for the glory of God. Remember the Apostolic exhortation, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Whether it is in private or family worship, ordinary vocations, or special acts of service to our church family or others in the community, these can all be carried out through the principle of skillful labor.


We sometimes mistakenly consider our labors as merely futile and arduous tasks. There is certainly an element of futility to our work in this fallen world—as the author of Ecclesiastes frequently notes. However, Ecclesiastes also teaches us that “there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot” (Eccl. 3:22). There should be joy in our labor, knowing that the Lord has given us the privilege of being productive for His glory and the benefit of our neighbor. We can rejoice in knowing that we are benefiting others—whether members of our family, neighbors in our immediate community, or men and women throughout the world. Additionally, we get to enjoy the fruit of our labors as a gift from God. Ecclesiastes 3:13 explains, “Everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” We can rejoice in the blessing of having provisions from God. What we do has an impact on others.

All biblically lawful labor tends to the betterment of society. There is no better example of this than that of our Lord Jesus Christ, who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Jesus endured the awful God-forsaken travail of His soul at Calvary for the joy of “bringing many sons to glory” (2:10).

In the short time God has given us, we should seek to embrace our vocations and set our hands to work with preparation, diligence, skill, and joy. As we keep the biblical wisdom of work before us, we will find that we will be productive and fruitful in whatever we set our hands to do. If we seek to do all that God has called us to do as unto Him and for the good of others, we will come to realize that there is real benefit to all that we set our hands to do. May God give us grace to embrace and carry out our calling commensurate with what He has revealed about the wisdom of work in His word. 

1. Gene Edward Veith, “The Doctrine of Vocation,” TGC

2. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, on Luke 10:38

3. John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957) p. 86

* This post is a revised version of a post first published at Tabletalk Magazine in April of 2020.

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