What Good Is a Clean Stable?
“Where no oxen are, the crib is clean: but much increase is by the strength of the ox.” --Prov. 14:4
The Bible recognizes that there is no perfection in this world, and very often there is a tradeoff as we go through this world. A clean barn is desirable, but not at the expense of the work of the ox.
You Have to Shovel
If you want to enjoy the use and blessing of an ox, you will have to shovel some manure. The best Christians have things wrong with them. Even the Apostle Paul said, “When I would do good, evil is present with me.” (Romans 7:21)
God gives gifts according to His purpose. (I Cor. 12:6ff). Every gift has a downside. God called David to be a man of war, to kill Philistines and to consolidate the nation of Israel. David was very good at it; but it made him unqualified to build the temple at Jerusalem (1Chron. 28:3,4).
Squeamish People May Do Great Harm
The man with one talent hid it in the ground because he was afraid he would get into trouble for not using the talent to perfection (Matt. 25). Many people fritter away their whole lives, wishing for perfection, doing nothing for fear of messing up their clean stable. Every great man who ever lived, in the church or in the state, had people who carped and complained because he was not perfect enough to suit their tastes.
Your author has taught school all his life, and has lived long enough to see how many students have turned out. I have learned that it is usually, with rare exceptions, impossible to tell what a person is truly made of by observing him in grade school, or high school. Some students cause trouble and are hard to teach, because they have confidence in their opinions and desires. Those who teach them must be prepared to shovel a lot, but the strength of the ox is there and will accomplish much in God's kingdom. On the other hand, some students may cause no trouble because they lack confidence and simply desire to please.
The same is true in Christian ministers.
Strong men often have glaring faults that may embarrass those who do not like to get their hand dirty. Sometimes faithful ministers who preach the word and labor tirelessly in the kingdom of God are slandered because they do not come up to some perfectionistic standard. Some people seem to delight in nosing around until they find something that offends their overly sensitive noses, and then rejoice as if they had discovered something new in the world. Such people would have been terribly uncomfortable around men like Luther, Calvin, or Knox. Israel put the blood on the doorposts of their homes--it must have made a mess of their doors. (Ex. 12:22)
Does this mean that we approve of manure? By no means. It simply means that we are realists, and recognize that no men are perfect; that all have faults and failures. It also means that we recognize that we can obtain a clean barn in only two ways: by getting rid of the oxen and getting nothing done; or by doing a lot of shoveling.
It is unfortunate that some modern translations miss the point of this verse. The word “clean” does not mean “empty” in any other place that it is used in the Bible. In Job. 11:4 it stands for doctrine that is “clean” or pure in God's sight; in Psalm 73:1 it is used for a “clean” heart; In Ps. 19:8 it says that the commandments of the Lord are “pure”: the loved one of Song of Solomon 6:9 is “choice.” In this place to say the “manger is empty” is to take a secondary meaning, and to miss the main teaching of the verse.
On this verse the great expositor Matthew Henry says, “Where no oxen are, to till the ground and tread out the corn, the crib is empty, is clean; there is no straw for the cattle, and consequently no bread for the service of man. The crib indeed is clean from dung, which pleases the neat and nice, that cannot endure husbandry because there is so much dirty work in it, and therefore will sell their oxen to keep the crib clean.”
The Pharisees could not tell a gnat from a camel, or a mote from a two-by-four. It is no fun to have a gnat in your throat, but a wise man knows it is not a camel. A mote in the eye may feel like a two-by-four, unless you have had a two-by-four in your eye; then you might know the difference. The Pharisees had no judgment, no valid rule of measure to distinguish between great and little things. What was worse, they thought God was as trivial as they were. You can almost hear them say, “Well, sin is sin,” leaving the impression that they had a more finely tuned sense of sin than lesser mortals. They did not understand when Jesus said for them to pay more attention to the “weightier” matters of the law (Matt. 23:23).
It is true that men before God are either justified in Christ or are yet in their sins and rebellion. But a child of God does not sin as an unbeliever does (Deut. 32:5), and even the sins of unbelievers are not all equal. Sins are not all equal in God's eyes, and must not be esteemed so in ours, for wise men must discern between gnats and camels. As the Westminster Larger Catechism says,
“Q. 150. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, an in the sight of God? A All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.”
The Scripture evidences are John 19:11; Ez. 8:6,13,15; 1John 5:16; Ps. 78:17, 32, 56; Luke 12:47; I Sam. 2:25; Heb. 2:2,8; Heb. 10:29; Matt. 12:81 and many others.
The effect of equalizing all sins, is not to make us abhor small sins; but causes us to trivialize great ones. We strain at gnats, and swallow camels.
Pastor C. W. Powell
Trinity Covenant Church (R.C.U.S.)
6050 Del Paz Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80918