Work and Our Labor in the Lord

Work and Our Labor in the Lord


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Well-known biblical scholar James Hamilton explores the theme of work throughout the whole Bible—its original purpose, how it was affected by the fall, and how we should think about it today. Part of the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433549953
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 01/31/2017
Series: Short Studies in Biblical Theology Series
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

James M. Hamilton Jr. (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church. He is the author of God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment and the Revelation volume in the Preaching the Word commentary series.

Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) serves as senior pastor of Naperville Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is an editor for the Knowing the Bible series and the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, and is the author of several books, including Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Dane lives with his wife, Stacey, and their five children in Naperville, Illinois.

Miles V. Van Pelt (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Alan Belcher Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages, academic dean, and director of the Summer Institute for Biblical Languages at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson. He also serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Reformed Church in Madison, Mississippi. He and his wife, Laurie, have four children.

Read an Excerpt



Work in the Very Good Garden

The stories we tell reveal our understanding of the world, with our hopes and fears, and the songs we sing are poetic crystallizations of the deep longings of our hearts. The deep longings of our hearts correspond to what we envision as the good life. Our vision of the good life can be understood as our vision of "the kingdom."

God's Design for Work

The soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? includes the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain." The lyrics celebrate handouts that grow on bushes, trees that sprout cigarettes, and bulldogs that have rubber teeth so their watchdog bites are harmless. This song's idyllic landscape includes streams of alcohol beside a lake of stew, and whiskey too, because those who sing it want to escape reality by means of intoxication and to be fed though they have not worked. They want mountains made of rock candy. They want no tools such as shovels, axes, saws, or picks. They want to sleep all day, and they want to hang the jerk that invented work. I wonder if the songwriter realized that would put the noose around God's neck!

The song's sentiments fall significantly short of the glory that God intended when he created man in his own image and gave him work to do. Life at the Big Rock Candy Mountain would not result in true and lasting happiness or satisfaction. The Bible says there is a primal mountain that is our destination, but it's not one that will rot teeth and indulge character deficiencies. Contrast "Big Rock Candy Mountain" with Psalm 128:

A Song of Ascents.

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.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.
The Lord bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life!
May you see your children's children!
Peace be upon Israel!

This song is addressed to a man who works, and the blessing comes to him because he fears Yahweh and walks in Yahweh's ways. The blessing of Yahweh takes the form of this man enjoying the results of his work, which he has done to provide for his wife and children. Psalm 128's depiction of the good life, then, entails hard work done to provide for others, dependents, whose growth and fruitfulness are evidence of God's favor and blessing. Prosperity here includes godliness, responsibility, stewardship, and awareness of God, prompting fear and obedience and virtue.

The man blessed in Psalm 128 is a God-fearing man (v. 4), and in the context of the whole book of Psalms, the mention of Zion in verse 5 evokes the Davidic king Yahweh set there (cf. Ps. 2:6). The references to the prosperity of Jerusalem and children and grandchildren in verses 5 and 6 hint that what has resulted in this individual blessed man experiencing the joys of Psalm 128 has spread to the wider culture. Jerusalem prospers because its men fear God, obey his Word, and work with their hands for the benefit of their wives and children. Psalm 128 is a poetic depiction of the blessings of the Mosaic covenant (cf. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28).

"Big Rock Candy Mountain" and Psalm 128 sing different versions of the good life. In the Bible, the land of promise is not the place sought by freeloaders and slackers who long for an El Dorado where theft is easy, the hills are made of sugar, work is abolished, and handouts are freely distributed to tramps and bums who have neither responsibilities nor families.

The Bible's songs are rooted in hopes seeded by its wider story, watered by God's promises. What is the role of work in that story? We begin our answer to that question by looking at what God created the good life to look like, when the world was without sin. We will start with work in the garden in Genesis 1–2. From there we will seek insight on what life in Eden could have been like from the blessings of the covenant in Deuteronomy 28:1–14. We will then consider how the judgment on God- given tasks in Genesis 3:16–19 subjects work to futility (cf. Rom. 8:20).

Work in the Garden (Genesis 1–2)

The Bible's story of the world opens with God doing work, six days of it. Once completed, not from weariness but because the work was done, God rested on the seventh day (Gen. 1:1–2:3; Heb. 4:3–4). Given that man is made in God's image and likeness (Gen. 1:27), with Christians called to be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1), the fact that the Bible opens with this scene of God doing the work of creation by his powerful word calls for reflection. God works by speaking words. Among other things, this validates all kinds of knowledge work in which the hard work of thinking and communicating accomplishes what those made in God's image have set out to do. But what words are like God's words? What words could make worlds?

In addition to being able to marshal his army of words to accomplish his purposes, then, we see from this vast and splendid universe that God is a skilled worker who completes his tasks with unparalleled excellence and creativity. Work is neither punishment nor cursed drudgery but an exalted, Godlike activity. Nor should we think that once God completed the work of creation he was finished with work — as though he made the watch then simply left it to tick away the seconds. As a justification for his right to heal on the Sabbath, Jesus declared, "My Father is working until now, and I am working" (John 5:17). The Bible opens with a depiction of God at work, and the operational understanding throughout the Bible is that God continues to work, guiding, upholding, loving, judging, and saving.

The first thing the Bible shows us about God is that he is a creative, competent, efficient, caring worker, whose work provides for others, blesses others, meets the needs of others, and makes life possible for them. Surely this is meant to inform readers of Genesis as they confront the idea of man made male and female in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26–28).

The creation of man and woman is accompanied by a blessing and a task, a charge and commission, which spring from God's intention for man as he made them, male and female. Genesis 1:26 presents God intending to grant dominion, royal rule, over the animal kingdom from the moment he decides to make man in his own image and likeness — indeed, dominion because made in God's image and likeness. God made male and female in his own image (Gen. 1:27); then he blessed them and told them what he wanted them to do (1:28).

Man was created not for passive observation of the world but for an epic task, a worldwide venture. Genesis 1:28 recounts,

And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth."

God commands the man and woman in Genesis 1:28 to be fruitful and multiply and thereby fill the earth — the whole thing. Then they are to subdue it — the whole thing. God next charges them to exercise dominion over the animal kingdom — the whole thing. The tasks in Genesis 1:28 are interrelated and interdependent. Man is to be fruitful and multiply so as to fill, subdue, and rule. It is interesting to observe that in order to subdue and rule, man will have to be fruitful, multiply, and fill. This makes the fact that man was made male and female (1:27) indispensable.

The marriage of the man and the woman (Gen. 2:18–25) will make possible the fruitful multiplication, which will enable the filling, subduing, and ruling. This tells us that the work God gave the man to do is not to be disconnected from marriage and family. In fact, marriage and family enable the man to accomplish the work God told him to do. These foundational realities in Genesis naturally give rise to songs such as Psalm 128, where the blessed man enjoys the fruits of his labor in the context of his family.

In the very good world as God created it (Gen. 1:31), prior to the entrance of sin (cf. 3:1–8), God gave man marriage to enable the completion of God-given and God-sized responsibilities. This is true in merely logistical terms — without the woman the man cannot be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. What the narrative draws our attention to, however, is the more significant relational blessing that God's gift of the woman was designed to be. God said that it was not good for the man to be alone (Gen. 2:18), and he created a very good companion in the woman (2:22). This means that the fellowship and companionship and soul-deep oneness in the marriage of the man and the woman (2:23–25) were given to make the filling, subduing, and ruling over the world a delightful adventure undertaken together.

In the true story Genesis tells, God gave marriage not only to enable the great task but also to enrich the life and work God gave to man.

Again, the multiplying is for filling, and the filling is for the image of God to cover the dry lands as the waters cover the seas so that all the earth will be subdued by those who image forth God's likeness, and thus all animals will be ruled by those who exercise godly dominion. The subduing of the earth seems to call for wild tangles of vegetation to be transformed into places where humans can live and cultivate gardens. The dominion over the animals suggests a stewardship of all living creatures so that all enjoy God's goodness.

To summarize: God built a cosmic temple when he called creation into being. In that temple he placed his own image and likeness. He then blessed his image and likeness and charged them with a responsibility. Their job was to make the world that God made good (Gen. 1:31) even better (!) for both plant and animal life. Being in God's image and likeness, mankind was to cultivate the world of vegetation and living creatures in ways reflecting God's own character and creativity.

Humans were made and put on earth as the visible representations of the character, authority, and rule of the invisible God.

A fundamental answer to the question of why we are here, therefore, is that we are here to reflect the character of God in the way we subdue the earth and exercise dominion over the animal kingdom under the blessing of God. Doing these things as the image and likeness of God means that our task is to bring the nature and character of God to bear on all living things in the world that God made.

Work is therefore built into the created order, right from the start. God gave man stewardship of the land and all life on it. All tasks man undertakes in God's world can be seen in relationship to that original commission. Some jobs deal directly with plants and animals. Other jobs enable the stewardship of land and life. All jobs relate to those great tasks. The making of roads and markets enables us to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over the animals. The tasks related to helping other humans to flourish intellectually and spiritually enable people to deal with the land and living creatures. Arguably every righteous task in the world — from that of the farmer or rancher to that of the engineer, the software developer, or the nuclear physicist, from that of the ditchdigger to the physician (or veterinarian), from the coach to the pastor, the zookeeper to the politician, the sergeant to the mailman — every task in the world can be seen in relationship to the subjection of the earth and the exercise of dominion over the animal kingdom.

Not all jobs are righteous, of course. Sometimes wicked people hire others to commit sin: people are paid to commit murder, to bear false witness, to corrupt justice, or to commit adultery. Such jobs not only transgress God's commands; they image forth the character of the usurper rather than the likeness of the Creator.

At its most basic level, a righteous job is one that does not exist to commit or promote sin but to accomplish the tasks God gave to humanity at the beginning: fill, subdue, rule. Such work affords everyone who does it the opportunity to image forth the likeness of the one living and true God.

Genesis 1:26–28 tells us who we are as human beings and what God put us here to do. Who we are as the bearers of the image and likeness of the Creator is inherent in what God has given us to do. The filling, subduing, and ruling are to be done for God's sake and in God's way to display God's own character. There is to be no disconnect between what a man is and the way he does his work. How a man understands himself, his fundamental assumptions about the world, God, and his own sense of purpose will be made manifest in the way he does his work.

We get more insight into what God made man and woman to do in the Genesis 2 interpretive expansion on the Genesis 1 creation narrative. The connection between man and the working of the land can be seen in Genesis 2:5: "When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground ...?" Here Moses is not directly discussing man's role, but man's function is clear from the explanatory comment that God had not yet made man, so there was not yet a man to work the ground. This unexplored explanatory comment shows that Moses assumes that his audience will understand what he declares in the near context (e.g., 1:28; 2:15): that man was made to exercise stewardship over God's world by working the land.

The idea that man was made to work the ground is elaborated upon in Genesis 2:15, which states, "And Yahweh God took the man and caused him to rest in the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it" (AT). This is the first instance in the Bible of the term I have rendered "rest" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), but the root will appear again in the naming of Noah ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in Genesis 5:29, where Noah's father articulates the hope that Noah will be the seed of the woman who will roll back the curse on the land (cf. Gen. 3:17–19 and 5:29). Earlier in Genesis 2 a different term was used to describe the way God "rested" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) from his work on the seventh day. When God completed his work, he took a Sabbath, as it were (our word Sabbath being derived from the verb used to describe God resting on the seventh day, shabbat). When God put man in the garden to work, by contrast, he caused him to rest (???) there. John Piper once said on a panel discussion, "Productivity is restful to my soul." God caused Adam to rest in the garden that he might work it and keep it. Genesis 2:15 seems to point to a restorative rhythm of work and rest, even a restful work.

Significant, too, is the fact that God put the man in the garden to work and keep it. This language, "work and keep," could also be rendered "guard and serve," and these terms are found together elsewhere in the Pentateuch only when they describe the duties of the Levites at the tabernacle, which they were to guard, where they were to minister (e.g., Num. 3:7–8). Once Moses's audience has gotten as far as Numbers, subsequent encounters of the use of this language in Genesis 2:15 cast a priestly hue over the work that God put Adam in the garden to do.

God charged man with the tasks of filling, subduing, and ruling in Genesis 1:28, and this same task is restated as working and keeping the garden in Genesis 2:15. Working the garden (2:15), thus, elaborates on the charge to subdue the earth (1:28), even as the tasks of filling and subduing the earth indicate that the man and the woman were to work together to make all the land that God made like the garden of Eden. Keeping the garden (2:15) would seem to overlap with the exercise of dominion over fish, birds, and land animals (1:28). Fruits and flowers can be delicate things that need to be protected from the unwieldy bulk of an elephant or the overenthusiastic puppy. Given the fact that serpents and other animals will later be declared unclean, the man's work of keeping the garden may have included the task of keeping snakes out (cf. Gen. 3:1).

The narrative of Genesis 2 proceeds to show God guiding the man through what it will look like for him to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over the animals. We also see what working and keeping the garden entails, as the man is to keep himself from the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, on pain of death (2:17).

Reinforcing the interconnectedness of marriage and family with work, for the man cannot be fruitful and multiply by himself, God says that it is not good for the man to be alone. God then purposes to remedy what is not good by making a helper for the man (Gen. 2:18). Just as the man was made to work and keep the garden (2:15), the woman was made to help the man (2:18). These roles are built into the nature of man and woman by the one who created humanity male and female as his own image.


Excerpted from "Work and Our Labor in the Lord"
by .
Copyright © 2017 James M. Hamilton Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Creation: Work in the Very Good Garden,
2 Work after the Fall: Fallen, Futile, Flourishing,
3 Redemption: Work Now That Christ Has Risen,
4 Restoration: Work in the New Heavens and the New Earth,
For Further Reading,
General Index,
Scripture Index,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Embracing a robust theology framed in the four-chapter narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, Jim Hamilton skillfully handles the scriptural texts, displaying how human work is a central thread in the biblical storyline. No matter the present depth of the reader’s understanding of the integration of faith and work, the insights gained will prove inspiring and transformational.”
—Tom Nelson, Senior Pastor, Christ Community Church, Kansas City; President, Made to Flourish; author, Work Matters and The Economics of Neighborly Love

“The Bible has much more to say about work than we often think! Hamilton shows us just how central work is to the biblical storyline and God’s plan to fill the earth with his glory. This is a profound book that dives deep into the Scriptures yet remains highly accessible. There are surprising insights on almost every page. This is now one of the best books on the biblical view of work today.”
—Matt Perman, author, What’s Best Next  

“People’s lives get turned upside down when they realize God cares intensely about their daily work. This short book walks us step by step through the big story of the Bible to show that God’s purpose for our daily labor is one of Scripture’s deepest and most important themes.”
—Greg Forster, Director, Oikonomia Network at the Center for Transformational Churches, Trinity International University; author, The Joy of Calvinism

“If you want to fully grasp the depth of the biblical theology of work, you will not be disappointed by James Hamilton’s short but powerful book. As he walks you through the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, you will develop a deeper appreciation of God’s plan for his redeemed images to truly flourish, both in this world and the world to come.”
—Hugh Whelchel, Executive Director, The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics; author, How Then Should We Work?

“There is no shortage of quality books on the connection between faith and work. But James Hamilton’s Work and Our Labor in the Lord is in a class all its own: a thorough, yet concise, examination of the place of work in biblical theology. This is a must-read for all Christians.”
—Joe Carter, Editor, The Gospel Coalition; contributor, NIV Lifehacks Bible

“This book may be short, but it is extremely rich. Hamilton is a surefooted guide to the scriptural material and provides a highly valuable and stimulating discussion of the entire sweep of the biblical theology of work.”
—J. Gary Millar, Principal, Queensland Theological College, Australia; author, Calling on the Name of the Lord and Now Choose Life; coauthor, Saving Eutychus

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