“It is the blessing of the LORD that makes one rich, and toil does not add to it.”
בִּרְכַּת יהוה הִיא תַעֲשִׁיר וְלֹא־יֹוסִף עֶ֫צֶב עִמָּהּ׃
birkat YHWH hîʾ taʿăšîr wǝlōʾ-yôsip ʿeṣeb ʿimmāh
The blessing of YHWH, it makes one rich, and toil does not add to it [or ‘and he does not add pain with it’]
- I can find no alliteration or other phonological organizing principle in this proverb. Meter is essentially symmetrical, if the construct chain birkat YHWH is counted as one.
- The pronoun in the first clause is there for emphasis. This shifts the roles of topic and comment. Without the pronoun, the first clause would say “the blessing of YHWH makes one rich”, and the sentence would be giving us information about the blessing of YHWH. But with the pronoun, the sentence is instead giving us information about what makes one rich. The predicate has become the topic, while the subject is the comment. In other words, it says “What makes one rich is the blessing of YHWH” (as opposed to some other source of wealth), rather than “The blessing of YHWH makes one rich” (as opposed to some other effect of the blessing of YHWH).
- The various English translations differ over how to interpret the second clause. This is because there is a grammatical ambiguity in the verb yôsip. Being a masculine verb form, the subject could be either YHWH or ʿeṣeb = “pain/painful toil” (which is a masculine noun).
- The older tradition, as seen in the LXX, the Latin Vulgate, the Geneva Bible, and the KJV (as well as the Reina-Valera Spanish tradition and, it seems to me, Luther’s German translation), and followed by the KJV’s child translations (ASV, RSV, NKJV, NASB, NRSV, ESV, and MEV), understand YHWH to be the subject: “and he addeth no sorrow with it.” This also continues to be the most common translation among more recent translations (CEB, LEB, NCV, NET, NLT, YLT).
- An important minority of translations (GW, GNT, HCSB, JBS, Message, NAB) disagree and translate the verse with ʿeṣeb as the subject: “and painful toil does not add to it.”
- The NIV’s rendering is bizarre and seems to be trying to capture both possible meanings.
- Either reading has theological and devotional potential. If we take YHWH as the subject of wǝlōʾ-yôsip, then the proverb tells us that YHWH gives good gifts, and he gives them in a good way. Wealth gained suddenly or through wicked means is tainted (cf. Pr. 13:11; 15:6, 16; 16:8; et al). Wealth inevitably brings along extra pressures and responsibilities, and if it is gained before one is mature enough to handle it, it will destroy one’s life. Wealth gained fraudulently will always be tainted by fear or paranoia.
- Moreover, YHWH gives good and appropriate gifts, not second-best or ironic gifts. Here we could see an ancestor to Jesus teaching in Matthew 7:9-11 and Luke 11:11-13: “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” According to this reading, the proverb’s contribution to wisdom is that wealth gained through YHWH is the best kind of wealth.
- If we take “hard work” as the subject of wǝlōʾ-yôsip, then the proverb tells us that even though hard work is important (the proverb does not deny this) it is the blessing of YHWH that is ultimately responsible for wealth (cf. Pr. 16:3, 9; Ps. 127:1-2). Just as in Genesis 2, man was created to work (to tend and care for the garden), but his material needs were not intended to be provided for through that work. Rather, God told him that he could eat from the fruit of any of the trees in the garden, and these trees were created and planted by God himself, not the man. It is sin and foolishness that turns hard labor (related word ʿiṣṣābôn in Gen. 3:17) into the means whereby we procure our material needs. Whether you fear God or not, your hard work is not guaranteed to provide for your needs, let alone make you wealthy. God, who honors hard work, causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike. It is the fool who says, “God did not make me wealthy. I made myself wealthy through hard work.” According to this reading, the proverb’s contribution to wisdom is to affirm YHWH’s sovereignty over material success and to keep hard work in perspective (it is important, but it is not of value without the blessing of YHWH).
- How does one decide between these potential translations? Important pieces of data include: (1) the meaning(s) of the word ʿeṣeb; (2) the similarity or dissimilarity of the sentiment behind either translation with what we typically find elsewhere in Proverbs and throughout the Bible; (3) clues in a close analysis of the discourse, especially of the first half of the verse.
- The word ʿeṣeb is not especially common. It can mean toil, hard labor, painful work (in Proverbs 5:10), but it can focus on the pain more than the work. In fact, pain or sorrow does seem to be more fundamental to the meaning of the verb ʿāṣab, but the idea of “labor” is attached not only to ʿeṣeb but to the related noun ʿiṣṣābôn, which occurs in Genesis 3 (alongside ʿeṣeb) as well as later by itself in Genesis 5. The word ʿeṣeb occurs six times in the Hebrew Bible. Four of those are in Proverbs. One, like I said, is in Genesis 3:16, referring apparently to the pain of childbirth. The last one is found in Psalms 127:2, where the meaning is toilsome labor. This is an important context to which we will return later.
- So outside of Proverbs, one use focuses on pain, one focuses on work. Within Proverbs, the occurrences in 5:10 and 14:23 are clearly about hard work. Only the occurrence in 15:1 (where it is contrasted with rak = soft) clearly has more to do with pain than work. So statistically we are at an impasse: roughly half the uses emphasize “work” and roughly half emphasize “pain”.
- So is the idea communicated by either translation conspicuously odd or foreign to the Bible? Not really. The first translation, which makes YHWH the subject of the verb (“and he [i.e., the LORD] does not add sorrow to it”), is certainly compatible with biblical ideas, generally speaking. Other proverbs speak of the excellence of wealth that God gives the righteous versus wealth gained otherwise: 13:11 – “Wealth gained hastily (or by fraud) will diminish, but the one gathering by hand will increase”; 16:8 – “Better is a little with righteousness than much wealth with injustice.” I do struggle to find another proverb that says something exactly like what is said by this first translation, but there is nothing jarring about it.
- Toy (213) thinks that the second translation which makes ʿeṣeb the subject (“and hard labor does not add to it”) is foreign to the Bible, saying: “such a sharp distinction between man’s work and God’s work is hardly an OT conception … man is everywhere represented as working under God’s direction.” He also points out that in Proverbs 14:23, it clearly says that all hard labor is profitable. More recently, Waltke (NICOT [Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2004], 473) agrees, noting the especially harsh attitude Proverbs takes towards laziness.
- Be that as it may, there is a strong current in OT thought that points out the futility of hard work unless God is blessing it. So Delitzsch (171-172) and Strack (338), both noting Psalm 127:1-2 (one of the occurrences of the word ʿeṣeb): “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain that build it … in vain you rise up early and go to bed late, eating the bread of hard labor.” It is only small step from there to give all credit for one’s riches to the blessing of God. Like Psalm 127:1-2, the second translation of this verse is NOT saying that hard work is unnecessary, just that it is not what ultimately is responsible for material success. Certainly, there are other proverbs that say something very close to this: 16:9 – “The heart of man plans his path, but the LORD establishes his steps.” This verse should not be taken to mean that man should not make plans. But it does say that man’s plans, alone, are not what create success.
- There are many, many proverbs that attribute wealth to wisdom and righteousness – it is, in fact, one of the most important themes of the book of Proverbs. There are comparatively fewer proverbs that attribute material prosperity to diligence and hard work, but they are there and are conspicuous. It takes little logical deduction to realize that sayings are needed that explore the relationship between these two concepts.
- As for the close proximity of Proverbs 10:26 which condemns laziness, this is not conclusive evidence against reading verse 22b “and hard labor does not add to it.” Rather than creating a contradicting effect, instead what comes from these verses occurring close together is a complementary effect: it is not your hard labor that gains you wealth, it is God’s blessing, but that does not mean that you can be lazy, or that hard work is not important in God’s eyes. Certainly, this kind of complex relationship between hard work and worldly success echoes very strongly the New Testament’s synergism between God’s saving and sanctifying work in the believer through the Holy Spirit and our continued responsibility to strive for righteousness. It also echoes the place of work in the first man’s life in Genesis 2 – God places him in the Garden of Eden to work and tend it, but this is not so that he may raise his own sustenance, since that had already been provided for (“from any tree in the garden you may eat”).
- In short, neither the meaning of ʿeṣeb nor any jarring foreignness in either of the possible readings clearly argues for one reading over the other. My own feeling is that the second reading (“and hard labor does not add to it”) is the idea that is more familiar in the OT, but this intuition is not conclusive even for me. So we turn to syntactic clues.
- As I noted earlier, the structure of the first clause not only emphasizes “the blessing of YHWH” but it actually flips the topic/comment relationship. Typically (in Hebrew as in English), the topic of a sentence (the base element about which the comment gives new information) is the same as the subject, while the comment (the new information) is the predicate. However, in both languages it is possible to complicate this relationship. By adding the personal pronoun hîʾ to the sentence, the topic becomes “what makes one rich”, and the comment becomes “the blessing of YHWH.”
- To clarify what I mean, it can help to determine what is the topic and what is the comment by asking “as opposed to what?” What is a possible alternative to what is being said? In the first half of the sentence, if the topic were the blessing of YHWH and the comment were that it makes one wealthy (“the blessing of YHWH makes one wealthy”), the answer to “as opposed to what?” would be something like: as opposed to “it makes one poor” or “it makes one fat” or “it makes one happy.” On the other hand, when we have a sentence like “It is the blessing of the LORD that makes one wealthy”, the answer to “as opposed to what?” is “it is luck” or “it is the favor of the king” or “it is hard work”.
- So given that the topic/comment relationship of the first clause has flipped, the second reading of the second clause (“and hard labor does not add to it”) is clearly the more relevant reading. The first reading, while perhaps true and encouraging, is kind of non-sequitur. Therefore, because of this and because of my feeling that the second reading is slightly more familiar to biblical lines of thought, I think the second reading is the better reading of the Hebrew, despite the antiquity of translations to the contrary.
- בִּרְכַּת – Noun, feminine, singular, construct of בְּרָכָה. Translated “the blessing of”
- יהוה – PN, “Yahweh”
- הִיא – Third person, feminine, singular personal pronoun (referring to בְּרָכָה). Translated “it”
- תַעֲשִׁיר – H-stem, prefix, third person, feminine, singular from עשׂר. Translated “[she/it] makes rich”
- וְלֹא־יֹוסִף – H-stem, prefix, third person, masculine, singular from יסף (defective spelling), with negative particle lōʾ and conjunction wǝ. Translated “and he/it does not add”
- עֶ֫צֶב – Noun, masculine, singular, absolute of עֶ֫צֶב. Translated “pain” or “toil”
- עִמָּהּ – Preposition ʿim with third person, feminine, singular pronominal suffix (referring to בְּרָכָה). Translated “with her/it”