The soul of the diligent shall be made fat! That’s the proclamation of Proverbs 13:4 in the King James Version, so let’s eat until bloated!
Actually, this King James translation, though a bit embarrassing, isn’t half bad. Yet most of our more recent versions read quite differently. The point of the proverb extols the value of the disciplined life. The verse reminds us that the lazy crave and get nothing because they are lazy, but the disciplined grow fat because of their diligence!
Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke writes his own translation of this proverb:
The sluggard’s appetite craves, and he has not;
But the life of the diligent is fattened.
Fair enough, but something in me prefers the uncouth and somewhat impolite word fat! The soul of the diligent shall be made fat! FAT! I like the sound of that. Our culture obsesses over being thin, and King Solomon says, Be fat! Notwell fed, not nourished properly, but fat!
But what is the proverb talking about? On the one hand, it simply refers to a principle of life. Diligence is productive; work produces profit; if you snooze, you lose. This is a proverb Germans and Scandinavians love! It contains a truism for those built for speed rather than comfort. But at a deeper level the verse teaches us something invaluable for our Christian life. The proverb shows us, graphically, that maturity in our discipleship doesn’t happen by accident. Christian growth takes place gradually, incrementally, and always by diligence. If we desire to grow spiritually fat, it will take some work!
Are you familiar with John Charles Ryle? He may be the most important pastor you have never heard preach. J.C. Ryle was born in 1816, near Macclesfield, England. After the complete financial collapse of his family’s fortune, Ryle was destitute and depressed. He entered the pastorate and served faithfully for the rest of his life. When Ryle was 64, the age of retirement in his day, he was appointed as the first Bishop of Liverpool in the Church of England. This pastor-teacher served as bishop for twenty years and died two months after his retirement in the year 1900.
It is because of these last two decades of Ryle’s life that we remember him. He challenged the lackluster clergy of his day and worked strenuously to preserve evangelical faith at a time when theological liberalism was sweeping over the church in Europe and England. One of Ryle’s concerns was what he called “jellyfish” Christian faith:
We have hundreds of “jellyfish” clergymen, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity. They have no definite opinions… they are so afraid of “extreme views” that they have no views at all.
We have thousands of “jellyfish” sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint…
And worst of all, we have myriads of “jellyfish” worshipers—respectable Church-going people, who have no distinct and definite views about any point in theology. They cannot discern things that differ, any more than color-blind people can distinguish colors… They are “tossed to and fro, like children, by every wind of doctrine”;… ever ready for new things, because they have no firm grasp on the old.
One of my all-time favorite books is Ryle’s Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots. The book, originally published in 1877, is a compilation of papers and sermons by the first Bishop of Liverpool on the Christian’s call to holy living. Again, Ryle’s book is one of my devotional treasures. I read it, often early in the morning along with my Bible, and the good bishop takes me closer to God.
Recently I was reading Holiness, and Ryle quoted Proverbs 13:4. He then went on to make this hard-hitting point:
One thing essential to growth in grace is diligence in the use of private means of grace. By these I understand such means as a man must use by himself alone, and no one can use for him. I include under this head private prayer, private reading of the Scriptures, and private meditation and self-examination.
Ryle goes on to say that the person who doesn’t take pains about these three things must never expect to grow!
Here is the whole reason why many professing Christians never seem to get on. They are careless and slovenly about their private prayers. They read their Bibles but little, and with very little heartiness of spirit. They give themselves no time for self-inquiry and quiet thought about the state of their souls.
Were we to re-write Ryle more than a century later, we might paraphrase like this:
Here is the whole reason why many professing Christians are dead in the water. They are more interested in the sports page and texting than they are in prayer and Bible reading. They are more keen on a new app for their iPad than they are on examining themselves so as to take the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28).
As you read this, the Lenten season is behind you. Easter has come and gone, and spring is in full bloom. Your trees are blooming, and your agapanthus are shooting up in all their glory. To put it in the words of the proverb, the plants in your yard are going fat at this time of year.
Are you growing spiritually fat in this season of your life? Dear Christian, make every effort to grow a fat soul. Realize this won’t happen without determination on your part. Put to work what J.C. Ryle calls the private means of grace. Give attention to private prayer, private reading of the Scriptures, and private meditation and self-examination. Again, hear Proverbs 13:4: The soul of the diligent shall be made fat. Let it be so in our lives, that we may grow to maturity. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there by every wind of teaching… instead…, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ!(Ephesians 4:14-15).