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
[nextpage title=”The Ill Effects of Laziness” ]
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.[/nextpage]
The Structure of Proverbs 10:26 and of its Setting
Alright, get ready. Here is the technical part, but there is a point, I promise you. It is interesting that this proverb occurs here, because its structure is actually more typical of later chapters in the book of Proverbs. From chapter 10 to the first part of chapter 16, most of the proverbs are antithetical. Righteous people do this, but wicked people do that. Wise people are like this, but foolish people are like that. We do have a few proverbs that are more comparing than contrasting. These we call synthetic rather than antithetical. Synthetic means putting together. Antithetical means putting against one another. By far, however, the bulk of the proverbs prior to chapter 16 are antithetical rather than synthetic, whereas after chapter 16 antithetical proverbs virtually disappear. So the occurrence of this proverb here is striking.
But even more, this specific structure, “As X, so Y”, is more typical of later chapters in the book of Proverbs, particularly chapters 25, 26, and 27, where by my count, about 30 of the total 35 or so proverbs of this structure are found. This structure can be described as a simile where the first clause is an image from nature or life experience that is compared to one of the main virtues or vices of wisdom literature in the second clause. “Like apples of gold in settings of silver, so is a word skillfully spoken.” “Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to those who send him, for he refreshes the heart of his masters.” “Like a bad tooth or a foot out of joint, so is confidence in an unfaithful person at the time of trouble.” These are all taken from Proverbs chapter 25, where sayings of this sort are much more common.
So if this structure is unusual for its surrounding context, what could this tell us? It seems likely to me that this proverb is here for a reason. It is not just a part of a collection of random proverbs as it might be if it were among other proverbs of similar design. Rather, it seems to have a special purpose within a larger structure. Here is what I mean. Verses 24-28 may actually form a kind of chiastic unit. A chiasm is a kind of concentric literary structure where the first element relates to the last element, the second element relates to the second-to-last element, and so on. In the center of a chiasm is an element that stands all by itself.
A (24) What the wicked fears will come upon him;
but the desire of the righteous will be granted.
B (25) When the storm has passed, the wicked one is no more,
but the righteous are an everlasting foundation.
C (26) As vinegar to the teeth and as smoke to the eyes
so is a lazy man to the one sending him.
B’ (27) Fearing the LORD prolongs life,
but the life span of the wicked will be shortened.
A’ (28) The hope of the righteous is gladness,
but the expectation of the wicked will perish.
So if verses 24-28 are a chiasm, verse 24 is parallel to verse 28. Verse 24 says, “What the wicked fears will come upon him, but the desire of the righteous will be granted”, and verse 28 says, “The hope of the righteous is gladness, but the expectation of the wicked will perish.” Different sayings, but clearly concerned with some similar things: the hope of the righteous will be granted and will bring gladness. The fear of the wicked is what they will get, and what they hope for will wither up and die.
What about verses 25 and 27? Verse 25 says, “When the storm has passed, the wicked one is no more, but the righteous are an everlasting foundation.” Verse 27 says, “The fear of the LORD increases days, but the years of the wicked will be shortened.” Again, clearly some related things going on, and conspicuously related. The wicked will not last through the storm. Their years will be shortened. The righteous endure, because the fear of the LORD increases days.
So now we come back to verse 26, which is about … laziness? How could this verse relate to the surrounding verses. Let me suggest that this is perhaps a key to understanding why it is that the righteous endure when the wicked are swept away, and why the hope of the righteous is granted while the hope of the wicked perishes. The righteous are diligent, while the wicked are lazy. But there is actually more to it than that.
The Interconnectedness of Wickedness, Foolishness, and Laziness
As I said before, laziness is, for the book of Proverbs, one of the chief vices, along with foolishness and wickedness. And there is an intrinsic connection among these big three. The connection between foolishness and laziness is pretty easy to see, I think. The connection between foolishness and wickedness has been sketched out for us in Proverbs, and it essentially is that wicked people trust in themselves and in their own cleverness, which is manifestly foolish. The wise man seeks counsel and fears God, realizing that he is not the center of the universe.
But what about laziness and wickedness? The connection is this: wickedness is essentially lazy. The wicked person tries to get things quickly and “easily”, meaning they will use deceit and outright theft to get rich quick. The righteous person realizes that real wealth is, first of all, bigger than money, and second, is only of lasting value if it is gained honestly. Wickedness is lazy because it doesn’t submit to the LORD and to the morals of wisdom and righteousness. It is important to note that righteousness and wickedness are social concepts. What does it mean to be righteous? It means to be just and honest in your relationships. To be wicked is, conversely, to violate your relationships, to trespass on the natural, God-given rights of others. Wickedness is lazy because thinks it can get by without having to deal with the repercussions of neglecting the feelings and rights of others. These feelings and rights are often codified in law, therefore law acts a kind of guide to what is right and wrong, but human law is always an imperfect reflection natural law, which is the principle of right and wrong that is built into the universe and into the human psyche by virtue of being God’s creation. Human law is imperfect because there are always loopholes. This is why there can be someone who is untouchable legally, but they are, nevertheless, wicked because of how they treat other people and take advantage of them. Wickedness is lazy because it thinks it can get away with neglecting its God-given social responsibilities.[/nextpage]
[nextpage title=”We Are All God’s Employees”]
We Are All God’s Employees
You see, we are all, in a sense, God’s employees. He has sent each one of us inasmuch as he has called each one of us to live justly and honestly with each other and to walk humbly before him. That is really what we mean by natural law, at least that is what Christians mean by natural law. God has issued a general call to all of us to be honest, righteous, and humble people. Therefore, wickedness and righteousness are essentially responses to God’s call. He has sent us, we are his employees whether we like it or not because we are his creations. How will we respond? The righteous person responds by diligently trying to be completely fair and honest in his business dealings, to respect property lines, to pay the taxes that he owes. If he errs, he errs on the side of being overly honest, of paying too much, of charging too little. The wicked person lazily neglects God’s call, and in the process messes everything up, just like a lazy employee.
We can see how God feels about lazy employees in the story of Jesus’ cursing of the fruitless fig tree in Mark 11:12-25:
(12) Now the next day, as they went out from Bethany, he was hungry. (13) After noticing in the distance a fig tree with leaves, he went to see if he could find any fruit on it. When he came to it he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. (14) He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
(15) Then they came to Jerusalem. Jesus entered the temple area and began to drive out those who were selling and buying in the temple courts. He turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, (16) and he would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. (17) Then he began to teach them and said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have turned it into a den of robbers!” (18) The chief priests and the experts in the law heard it and they considered how they could assassinate him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed by his teaching. (19) When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
(20) In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. (21) Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered.” (22) Jesus said to them, “Have faith in God. (23) I tell you the truth, if someone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. (24) For this reason I tell you, whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (25) Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven will also forgive you your sins.” (NET)
While the last several verses turn this into a lesson on faith, the fact that the story of the cursing of the fig tree surrounds the story of the cleansing of the temple (and in Matthew it follows it immediately) tells us that the fig tree is a prophetic image, an acted out oracle related to what was going on in the temple. The fig tree represents a fruitless Jewish national and religious leadership. Whatever was going on in the temple was somehow indicative of the spiritual fruitlessness of the temple establishment’s leaders, the priesthood.
What Fruit is God Looking for in His Employees?
The lesson is this: while God is unfathomably merciful and kind, his patience with fruitlessness, with spiritual laziness, does come to an end at some point. What, though, is spiritual fruitfulness, or what is the fruit that he is looking for? Paul provides us with a convenient list in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The prophet Micah summarizes it like this: “He has told you, O man, what is good and what the LORD is looking for from you: simply to do justice, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.” The fruit God is looking for from us is not meeting key metrics in church growth or donations to the capital campaign. It is not even winning a certain number of souls to Christ within a given time period. He is looking for love, justice, faithfulness, and humility. Above all he is looking for love, because it is by that characteristic, Jesus told us, that his true followers will be identifiable.
If we read this back into Proverbs 10:24-28, what do we see? Godly diligence is what makes it so that the righteous endure and see their hopes fulfilled, while the lack of godly diligence is why the wicked pass away when the troubles that they feared come upon them. Godly diligence, moreover, does not necessarily connote working 60 hour work weeks or triple tithing on our income or devoting all our spare time to church programs. None of that matters if we are not bearing real spiritual fruit. Godly diligence consists in self-sacrificingly loving our neighbors every single day.
You know, my attitude toward an employee was totally different if I could see that they were trying really hard but did something wrong, because that is just an issue of training. Everybody gets things wrong at some point. If you alphabetize a section of books wrongly, but you get the whole section alphabetized wrongly but quickly and efficiently and then start looking for something else to do, shoot, I might just leave it alphabetized wrongly because I have other things to worry about. That does not make me mad. I am super pleased that you are working hard, because that means you are someone I can work with. You are a fruitful if imperfect employee. And you know why I did not immediately just jump up on my desk and say “Jetson, you’re fired!” to the lazy employee? Because I could see potential in that employee. I could see gifts that would have worked well in our store if we could just get the lazy out of him or her. But more often than not, once lazy, always lazy. It was really difficult to train lazy out of an employee. So at some point we had to part ways, because I could not afford to keep them on.
And that is the way God is towards us. He is not looking for perfection. He is looking for someone he can work with to perfect. In our complicated world, where sin is what makes it complicated, somehow continually putting us in these no-win situations, sometimes the decisions we make will not be the best decisions. But if we are not just being lazy employees, if we are diligent but imperfect, then we are not vinegar to God’s teeth or smoke to his eyes. God’s patience with the imperfect but well meaning is endless. If, on the other hand, we are wantonly neglectful of our God-given moral duties simply because we cannot be bothered to even try, well, that is wickedness. God has patience with the wicked because he can see all the good that they could do if they would just turn from their wicked ways and respond to his call. But God’s patience with wickedness, while incomprehensibly greater than mine, nevertheless does come to an end at some point.
So let us think, this week, about what kind of an employee are we to God, both individually and corporately. Even if we are good employees, part of being a good employee is always reflecting on your performance and looking for ways to improve. That is what makes a good employee coachable. How are we responding to God’s call? In what way has God perhaps issued a special call to us? Are there things that God wants of us, individually and corporately, that maybe are new and a little scary? God is not looking for perfection. He is looking for a coachable and obedient spirit. So let us endeavor to be not smoke to God’s eyes or vinegar to his teeth, but a delight to him like the refreshment of snow on a hot August day. Let us be good employees.[/nextpage]
[nextpage title=”Notes and Parsing” ]
- Asymmetrical 4-3 structure.
- A lot of ayins and sibilants, specifically shins and tsades in this mashal. Every word except the pivot adverb kēn includes at least one ayin, tsade, or shin. This creates a noticeable assonance throughout the saying.
- laššinnayim (to the teeth) and lāʿênāyim (to the eyes) rhyme, both being anatomical features with dual number (grammatically).
- Every noun in this verse is definite, even though technically “vinegar” and “smoke” do not need to be.
- A not necessarily exhaustive list of “As X, so Y” proverbs includes: 11:22; 17:14; 18:11; 24:26; 25:3, 11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 28; 26:1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 16, 17, 18-19, 21, 22, 23; 27:8, 17, 20, 21; 28:15. A close but not identical structure is seen in 13:14; 17:3; 26:22; 27:15, 19. Closer analysis will probably reveal more examples.
- כַּחֹ֫מֶץ – Noun, masculine, singular, absolute of חֹ֫מֶץ (ḥōmeṣ) with preposition k and definite article. Translated “As vinegar”
- לַשִּׁנַּיִם – Noun, feminine, dual, absolute of שֵׁן (šēn) with preposition l and definite article. Translated “to the teeth”
- וְכֶעָשָׁן – Noun, masculine, singular, absolute of עָשָׁן (ʿāšān) with preposition k, definite article, and conjunction w. Translated “and as smoke”
- לָעֵינָיִם – Noun, feminine, dual, absolute of עַ֫יִן (ʿayin)
- כֵּן – Adverb (kēn). Translated “so” or “thus”
- הֶעָצֵל – Substantive adjective, masculine, singular, absolute of עָצֵל (āṣēl) with definite article. Translated “the sluggard”
- לְשֹׁלְחָיו – G-stem active participle, masculine, singular, status pronominalis from שָׁלַח (šālaḥ) with preposition l and third, masculine, singular pronominal suffix. Translated “to the one sending him”[/nextpage]