10 Key Bible Verses on Work

This article is part of the Key Bible Verses series.

Work Heartily

God has given each of us work to do faithfully and joyfully—with both our minds and our hands. Be encouraged to lean on his strength by these passages and commentary from the ESV Study Bible.

Ecclesiastes 2:22–25

What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

If one has no certainty of making a lasting impact on the world through the results of one’s work (Eccl. 2:11, 18–23), the best that one can hope for is to find enjoyment in toil and in God’s simple gifts of food and drink. Such enjoyment is to be viewed as a gift from the hand of God, granted to the one who pleases him, rather than to the sinner.

Philippians 4:13

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

The secret of living amid life’s difficulties is simple: trusting God in such a way that one can say, I can do all things through him who strengthens me. This does not mean God will bless whatever a person does; it must be read within the context of the letter, with its emphasis on obedience to God and service to God and others.

Psalm 90:16–17

Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

“Let your work be shown”, i.e., display your love toward your people in great deeds of power that enable them to flourish. God made his covenant with Abraham and with his offspring (who must themselves embrace the covenant), and the Old Testament faithful seek the continuation of the people through their own pious children (cf. Ps. 78:3–8; Ps. 103:17; Ps. 145:4). Or “beauty” (Ps. 27:4). God’s own beauty is on display through his faithful servants. The work of our hands is the work that God’s people do in pursuit of their calling (Deut. 14:29; Deut. 16:15; Deut. 24:19).

Colossians 3:23–24

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

The kind of servitude practiced in the first century was seldom in keeping with God’s will; the Scriptures regulate the institution without commending it (see notes on 1 Cor. 7:21; Eph. 6:5; 1 Tim. 1:10), and the evil of trafficking in human beings is condemned in the New Testament (1 Tim. 1:10; cf. Rev. 18:11–13). As in any other city or village in the Roman world, there would have been many slaves (or bondservants) at Colossae; Paul treats them with dignity and appeals to them directly to honor Christ in their hearts, work, and behavior. Philemon (see the book of Philemon) was a wealthy Colossian who benefited from the labors of his bondservant, Onesimus. Slaves (or bondservants) should work heartily, not primarily to please their earthly masters but as if they were working for the Lord. The principles of Colossians 3:22–4:1 apply to employers and employees today.

Philippians 2:14–16

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.

The Philippians should shine as lights amid a crooked and twisted generation. Paul’s choice of words recalls the wilderness generation of Israel, who in Deuteronomy 32:5 are described by these very words (“crooked and twisted generation”) and whose spiritual progress was thwarted by grumbling and disputing (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1–12). Shining “as lights” probably alludes to Daniel 12:2–3. Those who express their faith by living in this way will be raised to eternal life (see Dan. 12:2), to Paul’s great joy.

The Philippians’ obedience to the word of life is not merely a matter of private concern. As an apostle and fellow sharer in the gospel, Paul’s own labor would be in vain if they failed to hold fast until the day of Christ (cf. Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:2–11; 2 Pet. 3:10–13; Rev. 20:11–21:8) and thus proved not to be genuine believers. Holding fast means both believing God’s word and following it. Since the Greek epechō can mean either “hold fast” or “hold out to, offer,” some think that Paul may have in mind “holding forth,” i.e., proclaiming, the word of life.

Psalm 128:1–2

Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.

The opening section gives an attractive picture of how the faithful person (who fears the LORD, i.e., who walks in his ways; cf. Ps. 112:1; Deut. 8:6) sees blessedness (or true happiness) in his home: he is able to work his farm and to eat the fruit of the labor of his hands (a covenant blessing, cf. Deut. 28:1–6 and contrast Deut. 28:33); he has a wife who is like a fruitful vine (i.e., a bringer of joy like wine, and the mother of children; cf. Ps. 127:3), and children like olive shoots around the table (i.e., full of energy and promise). Nothing suggests that such happiness is “automatic”; the rest of the Wisdom Literature fills out how those who fear the Lord work diligently, love their spouses well, and faithfully train their children in godliness. The focus of this psalm is the aura of divine blessing that surrounds such a family.

2 Thessalonians 3:10–12

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

Paul refused to depend on others for his living. Indeed he took on a heavy workload of manual labor in addition to his ministry commitments in order to avoid being a financial burden to any Thessalonian Christian, even though (in contrast to the idle Thessalonians) it was his God-given right to be supported (see 1 Cor. 9:3–15; 2 Cor. 11:7–9; 1 Thess. 2:9). He wanted to provide his converts with an example to imitate.

“Not busy at work, but busybodies.” There is a wordplay here in Greek: not ergazomenous (“working”) but periergazomenous (“being a busybody, meddling”). Those who refused to work were exploiting their free time to meddle in others’ affairs. (Cf. 1 Timothy 5:13, where irreligious prying flows from idleness.)

Paul forcefully commands the idle to get back to work, so that they may be financially independent. To "work quietly" is the opposite of being nuisances or “busybodies” (2 Thess. 3:11).

Genesis 2:15

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.

The overall picture of Eden presented in the preceding verses suggests that the park-like garden is part of a divine sanctuary. The man is put in the garden to work it and keep it. The term “work” (Hb. ‘abad; cf. Gen. 1:5; Gen. 3:23; Gen. 4:2, 12; Prov. 12:11; Prov. 28:19) denotes preparing and tending, and “keep” (Hb. shamar) adds to that idea. Since this command comes before Adam sinned, work did not come as a result of sin, nor is it something to be avoided. Productive work is part of God’s good purpose for man in creation. Later, the same two verbs are used together of the work undertaken by the priests and Levites in the tabernacle (“minister” or “serve” [Hb. ‘abad] and “guard” [Hb. shamar]; e.g., Num. 3:7–8; Num. 18:7). The man’s role is to be not only a gardener but also a guardian. As a priest, he is to maintain the sanctity of the garden as part of a temple complex. And the LORD God commanded the man. The fact that the command was given to Adam implies that God gave “the man” a leadership role, including the responsibility to guard and care for (“keep”) all of creation (Gen. 2:15)—a role that is also related to the leadership responsibility of Adam for Eve as his wife (cf. Gen. 2:18, “a helper fit for him”).

Deuteronomy 5:13–15

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

Sabbath rest also applies to domestic animals and to the sojourner who is within your gates (Deut. 5:14), i.e., foreigners who take up permanent residence in Israel and accept its rules but cannot own land. The work prohibited is not defined here, but see Exodus 34:21; 35:3; Numbers 15:32–36.

Unlike the parallel in Exodus 20:11 (which presents Sabbath keeping as imitating God’s rest after the creation, cf. Gen. 2:1–3), the motivation for the Sabbath rest here is Israel’s liberation from slavery. (Cf. Ex. 31:12–17, which brings together the themes of creation and Israel as God’s special covenant people as the grounds for Sabbath observance.) Israel is frequently urged in Deuteronomy to remember their slavery in the land of Egypt as a spur to keeping the law (Deut. 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22). Remembering is often linked to obedience (Deut. 7:18; 8:2, 18; 9:7; 11:2; 16:3; 24:9; 25:17; 32:7).

Proverbs 10:4

A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

The diligent is another name applied to the “wise” and the “righteous” (Prov. 10:1, 3). The paragraph context (Prov. 10:3) indicates that the diligence the Lord instills in the righteous is his means to provide for their material needs. The contrasts of Proverbs 10:6–32 further indicate that the diligence referred to is grounded in “the fear of the LORD” (Prov. 10:27a) and has more than simply physical needs in view (Prov. 10:16–17). In a culture like ancient Israel, based on subsistence agriculture, “wealth” means good crops, a well-fed family, and a stable farm to pass on to one’s children, rather than the luxurious wealth a modern reader may think of. Further, Proverbs has a clear set of priorities in which wisdom is far better than wealth, and righteousness with few possessions is better than wealth without knowing the Lord and without walking in righteousness (Prov. 3:13–15; Prov. 8:19; Prov. 15:16–17; Prov. 16:8, 16; Prov. 17:1).

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