I fear there are more lessons in the Book of Proverbs than most of us care to learn. There is a lesson in every verse of it, and a shrewd one. Certain I am, that for a practical, business man, who has to do his duty and to make his way in this world, there is no guide so safe as these same Proverbs of Solomon. In this world, I say; for they say little about the world to come. Their doctrine is, that what is good for the next world, is good for this; that he who wishes to go out of this world happily, must first go through this world wisely; and more, that he who wishes to go through this world happily, must likewise go through it wisely.
The righteous, says Solomon, shall be recompensed in the earth, and not merely at the end of judgment hereafter: much more the wicked and the sinner.
That is the doctrine of the Proverbs; that men do, to a very great extent, earn for themselves their good or their evil fortunes, and are filled with the fruit of their own devices; and it is that doctrine which makes them the best of text-books for the practical man.
For the Proverbs do not look on religion as a thing to be kept out of our daily dealings, and thought of only on Sundays: they look on true religion, which is to obey God, as a thing which mixes itself up with all the cares and business of this mortal life, this work- day world; and, therefore, they are written in work-day language; in homely words taken from the common doings of this mortal life, as our Lord's parables are. And, like the most simple of those parables, the most simple of the proverbs have often the very deepest meaning.
'In all labour there is profit.' Whatsoever is worth doing, is worth doing well. It is always worth while to take pains. In another proverb, homely enough--but if it be in the Bible, it is not too homely for us--'Where no oxen are, the crib is clean,' Solomon says the same thing as in the text. He says, 'Where no oxen are, the farmer is saved trouble; the clearing away of dirt and refuse; and all the labour required to keep his cattle in condition: but all that trouble,' Solomon says, if a man will but undergo it, will repay itself; 'for much increase is in the strength of the ox.' For the ox, in that country, as in most parts of the world now, is the beast used for ploughing, and for all the work of the farm.
Now, herein, I think, Solomon gives us a lesson which holds good through all matters of life. That it is a short-sighted mistake to avoid taking trouble; for God has so well ordered this world, that industry will always repay itself. No doubt it is much easier and pleasanter for the savage to scratch the seed into the ground with some rude wooden tool, and sit idle till the grain ripens: much easier and pleasanter, than to breed and break in beasts, and to labour all the year round at the different duties of a well-ordered farm: but here is the mighty difference; that the savage, growing only enough for himself, is in continual danger of famine, he and all his tribe; while the civilized farmer, producing many times more than he needs for himself, gains food, comfort, and safety, not only for himself, but for many other human beings. The savage has an easy life enough, if that be any gain: but it is a life of poverty, uncertainty, danger of starvation. The civilized man works hard and heavily, using body and mind more in one month than the savage does in the whole year: but he gains in return a life of safety, comfort, and continually increasing prosperity.
This is Solomon's lesson: and be sure it holds good, not only of tilling the ground, but of all other labours, all other duties, to which God may call us. 'Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do,' says Solomon, 'do it with all thy might.' God has set thee thy work; then fulfil it. Fill it full. Throw thy whole heart and soul into it. Do it carefully, accurately, completely. It will be better for thee, and for thy children after thee. All neglect, carelessness, slurring over work, is a sin; a sin against God, who has called us to our work; a sin against our country and our neighbours, who ought to profit by our work; and a sin against ourselves also, for we (as I shall shew you soon) ought to be made wiser and better men by our work.
Oh, if there is one rule above another which I should like to bring home to young men and women setting out in life, it is this--Take pains. Take trouble. Whatever you do, do thoroughly. Whatever you begin, finish. It may not seem to be worth your while at the moment, to be so very painstaking, so very exact. In after years, you will find that it was worth your while; that it has paid you, by training your character and soul; paid you, by giving you success in life; paid you, by giving you the respect and trust of your fellowmen; paid you, by helping you towards a good conscience, and enabling you in old age to look back, and say, I have been of use upon the earth; I leave this world, according to my small powers, somewhat better than I found it: instead of having to look back, as too many have, upon opportunities thrown away, plans never carried out, talents wasted, a whole life a failure, for want of taking pains.
Why do I say these things to you? To persuade you to work? Thank God, there is no need of that, for you are Englishmen; and it has pleased God to put into the hearts of Englishmen a love of work, and a power of work, which has helped to make this little island one of the greatest nations upon earth. No, thanks be to God, I say, there is no need to bid you work. What I ask you to do, is to look upon your work as an honourable calling, and as a blessing to yourselves, not merely as a hard necessity, a burden which must be borne merely to keep you from starvation. It is not that, my friends, but far more than that. For what is more honourable than to be of use? And in all labour, as Solomon says, there is profit; it is all of use. And all trade, manufacture, tillage, even of the smallest, all management and ordering, whether of an estate, a parish, or even of the pettiest office in it, all is honourable, because all is of use; all helping forward, more or less, the well-being of God's human creatures, and of the whole world.
And therefore all is worth taking trouble over, worth doing as diligently and honestly as possible, in sure trust that it will bring its reward with it. Why not? Almsgiving is blessed in God's sight, and charity to the poor; and God will repay it: but is not useful labour blessed in his sight also? and shall he not repay it? Will he not say of it, as well as of almsgiving, 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these little ones, ye have done it unto me?' We may trust so, my friends; indeed, I may say more than, 'We may trust.' We can see; see that industry has its reward. By increasing the well-being of others, and the safety of others, you increase your own. So it is, and so it should be; for God has knit us all together as brethren, members of one family of God; and the well-being of each makes up the well-being of all, so that sooner or later, if one member rejoice, all the others rejoice with it.
But more. And here I speak to young people; for their elders, I doubt not, have found it out long since for themselves. Work, hard work, is a blessing to the soul and character of the man who works. Young men may not think so. They may say, What more pleasant than to have one's fortune made for one, and have nothing before one than to enjoy life? What more pleasant than to be idle: or, at least, to do only what one likes, and no more than one likes? But they would find themselves mistaken. They would find that idleness makes a man restless, discontented, greedy, the slave of his own lusts and passions, and see too late, that no man is more to be pitied than the man who has nothing to do. Yes; thank God every morning, when you get up, that you have something to do that day which must be done, whether you like or not. Being forced to work, and forced to do your best, will breed in you temperance and self-control, diligence and strength of will, cheerfulness and content and a hundred virtues which the idle man will never know. The monks in old time found it so. When they shut themselves up from the world to worship God in prayers and hymns, they found that, without working, without hard work either of head or hands, they could not even be good men. The devil came and tempted them, they said, as often as they were idle. An idle monk's soul was lost, they used to say; and they spoke truly. Though they gave up a large portion of every day, and of every night also, to prayer and worship, yet they found they could not pray aright without work. And 'working is praying,' said one of the holiest of them that ever lived; and he spoke truth, if a man will but do his work for the sake of duty, which is for the sake of God. And so they worked, and worked hard, not only at teaching the children of the poor, but at tilling the ground, clearing the forests, building noble churches, which stand unto this day; none among them were idle at first; and as long as they worked, they were good men, and blessings to all around them, and to this land of England, which they brought out of heathendom to the knowledge of Christ and of God; and it was not till they became rich and idle, and made other people work for them and till their great estates, that they sank into sin and shame, and became despised and hated, and at last swept off the face of the land. Lastly, my friends, if you wish to see how noble a calling Work is, consider God himself; who, although he is perfect, and does not need, as we do, the training which comes by work, yet works for ever with and through his Son, Jesus Christ, who said, 'My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.' Yes; think of God, who, though he needs nothing, and therefore need not work to benefit himself, yet does work, simply because, though he needs nothing, all things need him. Think of God as a king working for ever for the good of his subjects, a Father working for ever for the good of his children, for ever sending forth light and life and happiness to all created things, and ordering all things in heaven and earth by a providence so perfect, that not a sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge, and the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
And then think of yourselves, called to copy God, each in his station, and to be fellow-workers with God for the good of each other and of yourselves. Called to work, because you are made in God's image, and redeemed to be the children of God. Not like the brutes, who cannot work, and can therefore never improve themselves, or the earth around them; but like children of God, whom he has called to the high honour of subduing and replenishing this earth which he has given you, and of handing down by your labour blessings without number to generations yet unborn. And when you go back, one to his farm, another to his shop, another to his daily labour, say to yourselves, This, too, as well as my prayers in church, is my heavenly Father's command; in doing this my daily duty honestly and well, I can do Christ's will, copy Christ, approve myself to Christ; single-eyed and single-handed, doing my work as unto God, and not unto men; and so hear, I may hope at last, Christ's voice saying to me, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant. I set thee not to govern kingdoms, to lead senates, to command armies, to preach the gospel, to build churches, to give large charities, to write learned books, to do any great work in the eyes of men. I set thee simply to buy and sell, to plough and reap like a Christian man, and to bring up thy family thereby, in the fear of God and in the faith of Christ. And thou hast done thy duty more or less; and, in doing thy duty, has taught thyself deeper and sounder lessons about thy life, character, and immortal soul, than all books could teach thee. And now thou hast thy reward. Thou hast been faithful over a few things: I will make thee ruler over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.'