As vinegar to the teeth and as smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to the one sending him.
כַּחֹ֫מֶץ לַשִּׁנַּיִם וְכֶעָשָׁן לָעֵינָיִם כֵּן הֶעָצֵל לְשֹׁלְחָיו׃
kaḥōmeṣ laššinnayim wǝkeʿāšān lāʿênāyim kēn heʿāṣēl lǝšōlǝḥāyw
The Ill Effects of Laziness
Having had the opportunity to hire people and manage them at Family Christian, as well as having been in other sorts of leadership positions over the years, I can say with authority that one of the most soul-destroyingly irritating things is the lazy underling. I give them a task, and they leave it unfinished for no good reason. And even what they do manage to accomplish is done so poorly that it has to be redone. And if I do not give them a list of tasks, I come back to find them just standing around rather than looking for something productive to do. Why am I paying you, again? I want to be not simply just but Christ-like: kind, full of grace, understanding of an employee’s age or workload or personal life. But these kinds of employees are like performance enhancing drugs for my fleshly desires for confrontation and eye-for-an-eye justice. What I want to do is jump up on my desk like Mr. Spacely and say, “Jetson! Yooooooou’re fired!”
This is exactly what the composer of this proverb felt. “A lazy man is like vinegar to the teeth. He’s like smoke to the eyes.” What does vinegar do to teeth? In short, it destroys them. Vinegar is extremely acidic, and if you consume vinegar without brushing your teeth properly thereafter, it starts to eat away the enamel on your teeth. It may create some discomfort in the short term, but the long term effect is far worse – it destroys your teeth.
Actually, the same is true of smoke to the eyes. Smoke irritates the eyes. If you’ve ever been near a large fire, you’ve experienced this. I looked up the scientific reason for this. At whitsonvision.com, it says:
“Exposure to smoke on any level can cause irritation to your eyes—symptoms such as burning sensations, redness, and tearing up are commonplace with exposure to smoke … What causes this irritation is the existence of small particles … within the smoke that get stuck in your eyes. These particles are too small to be seen with the naked eye. These particles can remain floating in the air long after the smoke has cleared, so if you are around fire or a place where large amounts of fire have been recently, many firefighters recommend the use of protective eyewear.”
I did not find anything that talked about the long term harmful effects of natural smoke on your eyes, but there is plenty online about how the habit smoking can be harmful to your eyes. It increases the likelihood of developing cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, retinal detachment, and diabetic retinopathy. To be clear, this proverb is not talking about smoking cigarettes, which had not yet been invented. But clearly because the smoke from cigarettes is there as a result of burning something, it stands to reason that some of the same lasting effects on your vision that the smoking habit causes might be experienced if you spent a lot of time around natural smoke, too.
The point of all of this is simply this: both of these are short-term irritants with long-term harmful effects. The lazy employee is not just a momentary irritant. In the long-term, they damage the business of the employer and possibly even the health of the employer through added stress. If you do not think employees cause stress, try being an employer.
The “Sluggard” in Proverbs
The word ʿāṣēl ( = lazy man, sluggard, loafer) only occurs in Proverbs. The traditional translation of ʿāṣēl as “sluggard” would be perfect if it were not for the fact that we do not use “sluggard” all that much anymore. This word is an adjective that describes a person who is sluggish or lazy. This is somebody who just kind of goes around life as if in a daze, without any sense of urgency or responsibility. “Loafer” is a decent translation that uses a word that is, perhaps, a little more contemporary than “sluggard”, but a lot of our English terms for the lazy person are compound terms: “ne’er-do-well”, “do-nothing”, “good-for-nothing”, “layabout”.
Some of the funniest sayings in the book of Proverbs concern the lazy person. Proverbs 19:24 says, “The sluggard plunges his hand in the dish, and he will not even bring it back to his mouth.” Proverbs 26:15 is very similar. This one cracks me up. I imagine this guy sitting on a couch in his sweat pants and t-shirt watching TV. He has a bag of Doritos sitting next to him. He lazily puts his hand in the bag of Doritos, but then he stops, looks forlornly around, and says, “Can I get a little help, here?” Proverbs 22:13 and 26:13 both talk about how the sluggard uses ridiculous lies to avoid going out and doing anything productive. Perhaps this one is a little funnier to me because of its similarity to a Jerry Clower routine. Proverbs 26:14 says, “Like a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.”
At the same time, the book of Proverbs does not see the sluggard as merely lazy but harmless. It also observes, “The one who is slack in his work is brother to the one who destroys.” Though comical, the Proverbs about lazy people telling ridiculous lies are, in fact, saying that lazy people are liars, which is saying they are unrighteous or wicked. The lazy person is described as a fool in 26:16 (“The sluggard is wiser in his own estimation than seven people who respond with good sense”), and Proverbs is full of examples of the ill public effects of foolishness. Additionally, the lazy person is explicitly contrasted with the righteous person (e.g., 15:19) and with the wise person (e.g., 24:30). In short, laziness does not just harm the lazy person, it harms all the people around the lazy person. Again, just ask someone who has ever employed a lazy person. You lose money when a lazy person is on the clock.
On the other hand, the diligent employee is like a breath of fresh air, or rather, as in Proverbs 25:13, like snow on a hot August day, refreshing the heart of his employer. So if we can pull a surface level lesson from today’s proverb, it would be: (1) don’t be a lazy employee – it not only hurts you but everyone around you; (2) don’t hire lazy people. But, as we shall see, there is actually a lot more going on here than just that.