Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean,
but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.
Proverbs 14:4 ESV
The wisdom literature of the Bible (that is, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon) holds a special place in my heart. Although a lifetime may be (and should be) given to studying them, no one can rightly claim to have mastered them. Such a belief would only reveal how foolish the person still is and how little they have truly progressed in wisdom. They may be able to express many biblical truths, as Job’s friends were clearly able to do, yet if the heart remains in folly, these greatest of proverbs will hang useless “like a lame man’s legs” (26:7) at best or wound “like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard” (26:9) at worst. No, like the rest of Scripture, the wisdom books are not to be mastered by us; they were written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we may be mastered by them.
It is for that reason that I pray the words of James 1:5 as I read from the Psalms and Proverbs each day: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” In reading God’s law, we are meant to see clearer the depths of our sin that we may cry out to God in repentance for righteousness. In the same way, our reading of the wisdom of God ought to give us a clearer vision of how foolish we are that we may cry out to the LORD to make us wise through His Scriptures. May this be our prayer as we come to God’s Word.
DEFINING THE PRINCIPLE
In approaching the book of Proverbs, it is crucial that we keep in mind the nature of wisdom, which I think is best defined as the skill of living according to God’s design. Or we may say that wisdom is knowledge and understanding applied and put into practice. There are plenty of intellectual and insightful fools, and there are many who are very wise, even though the world would scoff at their ignorance on many subjects. Wisdom does require knowledge and understanding, but it is the knowledge and understanding of God specifically, which is the one thing necessary. You do not need great learning in literature, mathematics, science, linguistics, etc. in order to be wise. You only need to know God and seek to structure your life according to His will. Such knowledge of God applied to how we live is wisdom.
In seeking to follow God’s will as found in His Word, we will quickly find that many proverbs make large and sweeping claims. “No ill befalls the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble” (12:21). We read such verses and immediately think of exceptions. We may even say of the wicked like Asaph did in Psalms 73:5, “They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.” And that often appears to be the case. Often the wicked seem to have the least troubles of anyone. Is that proverb then false?
No. The proverbs do not, in general, make specific promises; rather, they give general principles. Holding up any particular situation we may easy find a case of ill befalling the righteous, as it befell men like Joseph, Daniel, and the only One truly righteous, Jesus. Nevertheless, the principle of the proverb remains true. Ultimately, there will come a day when the righteous stand before the face of their Shepherd and see that His goodness and mercy followed them every step of their path to His everlasting house. Conversely, the days of ease and comfort will only be a mocking remembrance added to their eternal torment.
But Proverbs 12:21 is not our text; Proverbs 14:4 is. And it simply reads: “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.”
Like most proverbs, the principle here is simple enough to glean it at first glance yet profound enough to spend a lifetime meditating over it. The most basic idea being expressed is that “good and necessary things come at a cost: one who desires abundant crops must accept messy mangers” (ESV Expository Commentary). The strength of an ox is far greater than the strength of a man, which means that an ox can be used to work far more ground than a man could do with his own hands. The imagery still works today. Anyone can have a garden using only their hands some basic tools. Farms, however, still require more. Indeed, if we were to modernize this proverb, it goes something like, “Without a tractor, there is no maintenance, but abundant crops come by the strength of the tractor.”
We can, of course, make a similar adaptation to anything of use. Houses, cars, refrigerators, and air conditioning units all come at a cost, and all require maintenance. Yet the cost is worth the abundance that comes through them. Electric lighting and night-shift jobs are the same. There is a cost to continuously disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm, but the abundance of having 24-hour emergency rooms and on-patrol first responders is worth the cost. Similarly, jet lag can have long-term consequences on the mind, but being able to travel to the other side of the planet in less than twenty-four hours is an abundance that outweighs the cost. I would argue that cars have brought a similar cost and abundance. By them, everything has become more accessible, yet the cost is that our communities have widened.
All abundance comes at a cost. If we want to eat healthier, nothing works like making homemade meals from scratch so that you know each ingredient and its amount. But that comes at the cost of a messy kitchen, which, by the way, is why I want to have this verse hanging in my kitchen! In the same way, losing weight comes at a cost. Ironically, part of the cost is declining the abundance of food that is now before us.
Tiff and I certainly apply this verse to our view of childrearing. Though it could apply in multiple ways, in one sense, our children are like oxen, and we pray that one day will yield the crops of righteousness to our joy and gladness (23:24-25) and to the blessing of the world. And though they are already blessings of abundance from the LORD, our present stage of life is mostly feeding, nourishing, instructing, and discipling. Thus, if you come by our house on a whim, you will readily notice that the manger is very much in use!
Let us also apply this to our work. Devotion and initiative certainly tend to yield greater results. As Proverbs 22:29 says, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” Yet developing skills is like feeding an ox; both come at a cost. When it comes to starting a business, we call that cost an investment. Entrepreneurs put forth money, time, and energy with the hope of an abundant crop to come. In fact, one of the main pieces of counsel that Tiff used to give as a small business advisor was to discourage people who just wanted to start a business so they could set their own hours to work. Being a business owner, especially in the beginning, is more difficult in every way than being an employee of a business. Yet there is generally a greater abundance to be gained if the business is successful.
The most important of these are the spiritual disciplines, particularly Bible intake and prayer. No abundant love and knowledge of God’s Word comes without cost. Neither does a thriving life of prayer. An investment, at minimum, of time and consistency must be made, but the crop yielded is abundant indeed. The Scriptures are a cavern of treasure that only reveals greater depths and brighter riches the more they are explored. Eternity is too short a time to mine each gem within; how much less a lifetime!
Or consider evangelism. We have no right to lament a fruitless evangelism if we are not being intentionally evangelistic. In other words, if we want to fruit of the gospel to be made known to those who do not yet know, we must embrace the cost of working toward that end. We must look and pray for open doors to proclaim the gospel.
Of course, we must remember once again that this proverb is a principle rather than a promise. The strength of the ox is not a money-back guarantee that abundant crops will come; it is simply an instrument that will make them more likely. Famine, drought, invaders, or any number of other factors might decimate crops, even when an ox was used. Even disobedience may factor into the equation, as God told His people through Haggai that He had limited their crops because they had ceased rebuilding the temple. Remember too that Jesus told a parable for all growing seeds:
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”Mark 4:26–29
Ultimately, in everything we do, the outcome is dependent upon the LORD. Our very best efforts are entirely in His hands. Thus, the pattern of Proverbs (and the Bible as a whole) is to strive in faith. We are called to truly give the very best of ourselves to our efforts and use the very best tools for our work.
ON CLEANLINESS AND ORDERLINESS
Now that we have taken a broad survey of how the main principle of this proverb plays out in various spheres of life, let us also observe an implied principle here: cleanliness and orderliness are not supreme goods.
Hear me out. God certainly is a God of order. Amen. Though He could have created all things complete and perfect with the snap of His fingers, God chose instead to created the earth “without form and void” (Genesis 1:2). He then proceeded to form the formless and fill the void during the six days of creation. He chose to use a process. And the same is true for the new creation that He is working through Jesus Christ and through broken instruments like us. Again, amen.
Even so, order is not the ultimate good, as this proverb shows. A clean manger is certainly more orderly than one being used to feed an ox. Nevertheless, the clear implication of the proverb is that an abundance of crops is worth a dirty manger, and a clean manger is a foolish excuse for not owning an ox. A clean manger is clearly of less value than an abundance of crops, and only a fool would think otherwise.
Of course, we are very often such fools. We display this folly whenever we value the tidiness of our home over showing hospitality, the strictness of our schedule over an opportunity to show compassion, or whenever orderliness is wielded against marriage and children. In regards to that last point, of course, there are a multitude of reasons for not marrying and by the providence of God not every married couple will have children, yet there is an ever-growing percentage of the population that is choosing to avoid both because of how messy they are. Married couples choose not have children because of how their lives will be disrupted. Couples who live together choose not to get married because of all the divorces that they have witnessed. Young singles are forsaking relationships altogether because porn is easier.
And yes, the reality is that it is easier. It is easier to have a digital harem than a relationship. It is easier to be roommates than to commit to marriage. And it is easier to have a home without children. All of that is easier and more orderly because when you avoid the ox, the manger stays clean. The overwhelming abundance of the modern world has led a large percentage of our global population to choose clean mangers over continued abundance, and unfortunately, future generations will reap what we have sown.
Our Lord, however, has not called us to embrace what is easy and comfortable. In fact, He has done the exact opposite. Regardless of where we are in life, single or married, Christ calls us to follow after Him while carrying our own crosses. And we are to follow Him, I might add, down a road that is narrow and difficult that leads to a door to life that few will find. The call to follow Christ is a call to come and die. Yet those who embrace the cost will find abundance. Those who lose their lives to Christ’s sake will, paradoxically, save their lives. Those who are last will become first. Those who are humbled will in the end be exalted. The life that Jesus calls us to live is as messy as a used manger.
EMBRACING THE MANGER
Speaking of mangers, the greatest principle of any portion of Scripture is how it relates to Jesus. In John 5:39-40, Jesus said of the Old Testament to the Jews of His day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” Our whole exploration of this proverb is worthless unless by it we come to Christ. How then does Proverbs 14:4 turn us toward Jesus?
Paul rightly called Jesus “the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24) because Jesus is the embodiment of God’s wisdom. Just as Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and “the exact imprint of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3), Jesus is the wisdom of God made manifest, made flesh to dwell among us. And by that very dwelling among, Jesus began His embodiment of this proverb.
Speaking of Himself as the good shepherd, Jesus gave us an explicit reason for His coming: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Jesus came into this world to give the greatest crop of all to His people: life. And He came to give it to them in abundance! Yet that harvest of life would come at a great cost and through much mess, beginning with Jesus’ birth.
In a physical display that the Holy One Himself was entering into the messiness of our world, Jesus was born.
From a woman.
Now, I have watched my wife give birth to our two daughters, and if the Lord will, I will be there for the birth of our third child as well. Childbirth is, without doubt, a magical moment, but it is also very much a messy moment. The fact that Jesus’ first crib was a manger ought to always jolt us out of sterilizing that most holy night. Indeed, just because Jesus was born without sin does not mean that He was not still covered in vernix.
Yet His birth was only the beginning of His humiliation into our mess. As we studied last year, the crucifixion was greatest cost paid by the Son of God. Through the cross, He was despised and rejected by the very ones He had come to save, and He became accursed by His Father for the only moment in His eternal being.
Yet as we noted frequently, Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). He embraced the messy manger and the bloody cross for the abundant crop that could only come through His divine yet human strength. Indeed, He was not speaking metaphorically whenever He said in John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” That is precisely what Jesus did for us. He laid down His life in order that we may have life. And have it in abundance.
This, of course, is a promise, not merely a principle. To embrace Christ certainly means to embrace messy mangers. The Scriptures repeatedly warn us that suffering, affliction, scorn, and persecution will come to those who follow Christ. Even more fundamentally, to follow Christ is to imitate Him, which means counting others as more significant than ourselves, dying to our selfish desires and ambitions and living for the benefit of others, even if our offerings are received with scorn as Jesus’ was upon the cross. Therefore, if your ultimate goal in life is to keep your mangers clean, do not follow Christ. The path away from Christ is broad and easy. Of course, its end is destruction, while Christ’s difficult path leads to life.
As we come to Table set before us by our Shepherd, let us taste and see His goodness in this bread and cup as we remember His broken body and shed blood to atone for our sins. Let also eat this meal of fellowship as a reminder of our call to follow after Christ, embracing the messy mangers of life for the everlasting joy of Christ that is set before us. Let us choose, therefore, the messy path. Let us choose the road of crucifixion, for afterward comes the crown. Let us look for the better things in life than clean mangers and homes. Let us embrace the dirt of the ox, and eat with thanksgiving its harvest on the last day.