A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
We have just been taught that righteousness is far more valuable than money, and saves from the death that separates us from the blessed God (v. 2), and that those who desire righteousness will be filled, while the desires of the wicked will be thwarted in this age and the age to come (v. 3). Now, we come upon a proverb that seems so obvious one wonders why it needs to be said, let alone be said by the Lord in his holy Word! My hunch is that there is more going on in this verse than many think.
Here is the gist of the comments of one commentator, who apparently doesn't think there is anything going on beyond the literal meaning (I will hide his name to protect the guilty!):
"The generalization here is that the industrious, conscientious worker is eventually recognized by his superior and promoted, while the man who constantly watches the clock and puts forth as little effort as possible will stay in the same job slot forever, if he manages to keep his job."
I believe this commentator, and sadly he is not alone, has missed something obvious. If verses 2 and 3 have just told us that righteousness is true riches, and is to be the locus of our desire, then the words "poverty" and "rich" may not bear their literal meaning in this verse! If Solomon, and ultimately, our heavenly Father, has just told us about true wealth, it is quite unlikely our heavenly Father is now telling us about how to make more dollars! No, we would be wise, at this point, to look beyond the literal, prosaic meaning of the words.
The word "slack" has the idea of negligence, "loose, deceitful or slothful." "It describes not necessarily the person who is completely inactive, but, rather, one who only half-heartedly does his job. He has a poor work ethic. He does not care about the quality of his work." Here, then, is what is going on in this verse. Proverbs 10:4 is the equivalent of our Lord's words in Matthew 6:33: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." Don't be half-hearted or deceitful in your relationship with the Father. Instead, be devoted to your heavenly Father and pursue righteousness. Don't presume upon the grace of God, but work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). In other words, "pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart," as the apostle Paul put it. "Strive for . . . the holiness without which no one will see the Lord," as the writer to the Hebrews put it (Hebrews 12:14).
The heavenly wisdom of Proverbs should not surprise us. If we are expecting Proverbs to be a book of little maxims and tips to help us get along in life, we are fundamentally misreading Proverbs. Proverbs is teaching us about the grace of God that has come to us, and how to live in the light of that grace. If you don't believe me, believe our Lord's apostle, Peter:
"Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look." (1 Peter 1:10-12)
The Old Testament, including Proverbs, was written for the new covenant people of God (1 Peter 1:10, 12)! "The Spirit of Christ," himself, was "in them," as they wrote. Jesus was revealing to the Old Testament writers wonderful truths about "the grace that was to be yours," i.e., ours! If we learn that Proverbs teaches things that sound quite similar to what our Lord Jesus taught, should that really be a surprise to us? Should we not rather glory in the fact that as Augustine said, "The New is in the Old concealed." Therefore, seek first, seek wholeheartedly, seek diligently, and not with a slack hand, Christ's righteousness and kingdom, and then you will be rich indeed!