What is the meaning of “go to the ants you sluggard” in Proverbs 6:6?

Many proverbs unearth moral lessons from the world of nature. Proverbs 6:6 is one example: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!” Here King Solomon challenges a lazy person to learn from ants, creatures who exemplify hard work, discipline, and foresight.

The Hebrew word translated “sluggard” appears fourteen times in the book of Proverbs but nowhere else in the Old Testament. In this passage, sluggard speaks of someone who is disinclined to work or exert himself. Slacker and lazybones are appropriate substitutes. According to Proverbs 21:25, the sluggard’s “hands refuse to work.” A sluggard even makes up excuses to stay in bed (Proverbs 26:13–14).

In place of “Go to the ant, you sluggard,” the New Living Translation says, “Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and become wise!” (Proverbs 6:6). The fundamental lesson Solomon illustrates through the industry of ants is that a person can become financially ruined through laziness and irresponsibility. He points out that ants, “Though they have no prince or governor or ruler to make them work, they labor hard all summer, gathering food for the winter” (Proverbs 6:7–8, NLT).

Solomon applauds the ants for their initiative and diligence. He notes that even though they have no supervisor, they work harder than some people who have an overseer to prod them on.

“Go to the ant, you sluggard” is Solomon’s way of imploring the lazy person to consider the virtues demonstrated by the ant colony. Ants possess instinctive motivation and discipline that we can develop through wisdom. They do not labor just for the sake of staying busy; they have a prudent expectation of future needs. Elsewhere, Solomon observes that ants, while small and frail, are nevertheless wise creatures: “Ants—they aren’t strong, but they store up food all summer” (Proverbs 30:25, NLT). They gather and stockpile food in the summer months of plenty, so they will have enough to make it through the scant months of winter. “Those too lazy to plow in the right season will have no food at the harvest,” expounds Proverbs 20:4 (NLT). Hard work combined with discipline and forethought equals true wisdom, according to Solomon.

With two rhetorical questions, Solomon implores the sluggard to stop sleeping and start working: “But you, lazybones, how long will you sleep? When will you wake up? A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—then poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber” (Proverbs 6:9–11, NLT). “A little extra sleep, a little more slumber” is Solomon’s sarcastic portrait of laziness. “Folding of the hands to rest” is his word picture for idleness. These shortcomings will rob a person of every resource until nothing is left.

By saying, “Go to the ant, you sluggard,” Solomon accentuates his message with an example from nature. A wise person will see that ants are the epitome of hard work, which results in rich blessings, while laziness ends in poverty. Proverbs 10:4 agrees, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (ESV). Stern warnings to the lazy recur throughout the Proverbs: “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Proverbs 13:4, ESV). Like the fool, the sluggard thinks he is wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 26:16), but his laziness “will be the death of him” (Proverbs 21:25).

The apostle Paul echoes Solomon in the New Testament, entreating Christians “to warn those who are lazy” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). He teaches that sluggards should not be allowed to freeload, explaining, “We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10–12).

God calls us to be hardworking and diligent and to give ourselves wholly to matters of faith: “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:5–10; see also 2 Peter 3:141 Timothy 4:14–15).

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