Part 8 – Principles of wisdom.
Proverbs 14:4 – “Where no Oxen are the Barn is Clean.” To those who serve the church – especially in the capacity of pastor – this scripture says serving God will not be easy, neat, and tidy. “Where no oxen are, the barn is clean, but much increase is by the strength of the ox.”
This is an obscure verse I’d never noticed before. But the message is an interesting one. Basically, what we see in the Proverb is a tension between the desire for a clean barn and the need for a “filled” barn. I’ve noticed, through the years, that certain tensions are always a part of church life. The tension between being inclusive or exclusive is one example. Are we more like a rescue station or a country club? There’s the tension between “inreach” and “outreach.” How much effort should we put into discipleship and how much into evangelism? Should we focus on getting closer to each other in our “holy huddle” or on bringing in new people? What about the tension between teaching the word of God and the importance of social outreach? In all these cases, both are needed. The secret is to find a BALANCE that includes both.
Proverbs 14:4 illustrates the tension between keeping the church organized and tidy and keeping the church full and growing. If you want a sweet-smelling, picturesque little show-place of a barn, you’d better not put any oxen in there! On the other hand, if you want a FULL barn, you’ll get some oxen. And you’re going to have to put up with the mess they’re going to make. Clean barns are nice looking. But if you think about it, the purpose of a barn is not to be CLEAN, but to be FILLED. The best time of the year for the farmer is at the end of harvest time when the barns are full of grain. For a farmer, that’s their payday!
So what does that have to do with the Ox? Well, when Proverbs was written, the ox was the farmer’s tractor. He plowed with it, he watered his crops with it, he harvested with it, he ground his flour with it. The more oxen, the more product-ivity! But on the other hand, the ox was also a source of trouble to the farmer. The ox had to be fed daily, and it took a lot of feed to satisfy the appetite of the working ox. The ox had to be sheltered from the wet and cold in order to stay healthy. He had to be penned in so he didn’t wander off and get into trouble. He had to be doctored when sick or injured; and oh, the smelly mess found in the ox stall!
Do you see the tension here? Dealing with an ox is worth all the trouble if you care about filling the barn. But if what you care about is a clean barn, then by all means, don’t take care of the ones you have and for heaven’s sake don’t bring in any more oxen.
What is the symbolism of the Ox? It’s interesting to notice that the ox has special significance in scripture. For one thing, the ox is used as an example of what it means to be a servant. An ox was not especially beautiful or entertaining. In fact, he was awkward and smelly. But an ox was always useful. He pulled the plow to prepare the soil for crops. He pulled the carts to transport the produce. He was used to grind grain into flour. He was used in drawing large amounts of water from the well. Basically, he was used for anything too hard for a human to do.
In the book of I Corinthians, Paul twice uses the ox as a symbol for the preaching ministers. (I Cor. 5:18 & 9:9) Paul says those who preach the gospel are worthy of their hire and not to be muzzled — like the ox who treads out grain and is allowed to eat some of it in the process. (Naturally, the Ox is not the symbol I might tend to choose to illustrate the preacher. An ox is not the brightest creature on earth, but maybe that’s part of the point Paul was making!)
Well, anyway, the ox always represents power, and productivity. Our proverb reminds us “much increase is by the strength of the ox.” The ox was the ancient equivalent to the tractor, or the pickup truck, the bulldozer, the wench, and the electric motor, all wrapped up in one package. And, if that wasn’t enough in itself, the ox also represents liquid capital. A healthy ox can always be sold for a good profit. Most important of all, the ox is used as a symbol of a savior. In the Old Testament oxen were used in sacrifices as peace and sin offerings.
There’s an interesting example of this in Judges 6:25-28. Gideon was told to take his father’s oxen and do two things: He was to use them to break down his father’s altar to Baal, and he was to sacrifice them on a new altar, to atone for his father’s sin. So Gideon used oxen as heavy machinery to remove idols, and then used them as sacrifices to save his own father from God’s wrath. In this way, the Ox represents two things Christ did for us on Calvary. He broke the bonds of sin and death, and he made atonement for our sin. The ox is used to do things humans can’t do by themselves. In a similar way, Jesus accomplished something no human can do. He paid the price for sin with his redemptive work on the cross.
Second, there is the symbolism of the Barn. While we are dealing with the symbol of the ox, we might also want to pay attention to the symbol of the barn. The Proverb reminds us “Where no oxen are, the barn is clean.” (Some versions say “crib” or “manger.) If you take the barn as a symbol of life, the tension is between aesthetics and productivity. Repeating the question, “Would you rather have your barn clean or filled? Knowing what the purpose of a barn is, — namely — to store a big harvest, the answer should be obvious.