"Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox" (Proverbs 14:4 ESV)
The book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings, with many instructions and advice that can help us to make wise decisions in life. In Proverbs 14:4, we can be wise by learning the lesson of the manger. The word “manger” probably brings our minds to the place where Jesus was laid as a baby (Luke 2:7). As there was no place in the inn, baby Jesus had to be placed in a makeshift cot. The manger is actually the feeding trough for the farm animals. We can probably safely assume that baby Jesus was laid in a clean manger. However, we can imagine that usually, the manger would be filthy with the food for the animals, mixed with the filth of the animals.
If we were to put ourselves into the shoes of the farmer, it must have been such a chore to clean the filthy manger every single day. I am most certainly not up for such a task, as I cannot envision myself drenched in the stench and filth of the farm animals. What would it take to make such a difficult task easier? The writer of the proverb suggests that one way is have no oxen. No oxen, no filth, clean manger!
However, which farmer would seriously discard his animals just to have a clean manger? The oxen and other animals are necessary in order for the farmer to have a successful harvest. The farmer relies on the strength of the ox to plow the fields, which kicks off the cycle of planting and harvesting. No oxen means no planting, no harvest, no profit. Hence, the farmer accepts the filthy manger as a necessary chore in order to achieve a successful harvest.
I do not believe the proverb writer is trying to teach all of us to be better farmers. Here in Singapore, hardly any of us are involved in the work of farming! However, there is a principle to be learnt: reward comes by hard work. If we do not want the dirty job, we can take the easy way out. But if we take the easy way out, we will not achieve any reward! This concept is very familiar to me, as I grew up studying in Victoria School, whose motto is “Nil Sine Labore” (i.e. Nothing without labour).
This principle that the proverb writer is teaching us is really nothing new. Most of us should already understand this concept. This is the reason we study hard in school, because we know if we take the easy way out, we will not be rewarded with good grades. This is the reason we find employment, and slog every day, because we know that we earn our salary by hard work. More importantly, do we apply this principle in our spiritual lives?
Serving our Lord Jesus requires effort. Jesus Himself said that all who wish to follow Him must deny themselves and take up their cross daily (Luke 9:23). Jesus said that those who love Him must keep His commandments (John 14:15). Jesus said that those who serve Him will suffer persecution (John 15:19-20). Apparently, not everyone was prepared to follow Jesus (Luke 9:57-62).
If we wish to take the easy way out, we can take a step back and relax. Instead of putting 100% for God, we can put 50%. Instead of suffering persecution, we can avoid persecution. Instead of being busy serving Jesus, we can get busy with our own lives instead. However, if we take the easy way out, can we get any reward from Jesus? What reward do we have for serving the Lord?
Close relationship with God (James 4:8). If we draw close to God, God will also draw close to us. If we stray far from God, we risk being separated from God and His blessings!
Confidence in God (Hebrews 13:6). When we have a close relationship with God, we can have confidence that God is our helper as we go through life’s challenges. In contrast, if we are far from God, we have no confidence that God can even hear our prayers (Isaiah 59:1-2)
City of God (Hebrews 11:16). Those who have an active faith towards God can look forward to the heavenly city, which God has promised to all who serve Him. However, those who are unfaithful and slothful will be cast out into eternal darkness (Matthew 25:30).
It is nice to have a clean manger; but a dirty manger is a necessary part of a successful harvest. The lesson of the manger: there is no reward without hard work. May all Christians exercise an active faith towards God, and do our best to serve our Lord Jesus, so that we can receive the eternal reward when this life is over.
"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:7-8)