During my Bible study this morning, the Holy Spirit drew me to explore a small Bible verse of Proverbs 14:4 which reads ”Where no cattle are, the stall is clean, but much gain is by the strength of the ox.” As I worked, I felt compelled to compare it with the common English expression, the common saying: “cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Is this saying, from the Bible? The answer is No. This saying, this expression, is not contained in the Bible. What then, does it mean, or seek to infer? Well, other than the obvious literal interpretation, it seems it is also intended to mean “that the only thing of more value than righteousness is being clean.” I searched for the origins of the expression and found the first usage in English seems to be in the 1605 Bacon Advancement of Learning which reads (paraphrased in modern English): “cleanliness of body is admired and proceeds from proper reverence to God.” It was also used in the 1791 Wesley Works (1872) VII. 16, expressing the conviction that: “’Slovenliness is no part of religion’ and therefore ‘Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness’.” However, the most interesting and instructive comment on the expression was that it “has a message which has less to do with being clean or any religious notion, and it’s simply this: When someone quotes an aphorism to you and it sounds wise, don’t just accept it! Question it!” The caveat for this man-made expression seems to be that it is void of Truth, or depth of meaning, and it may be construed in any way we wish, in order to answer or support any proposition or theory which we wish to put forward. In other words, it is a verbal “paint job”.
Let us now look at Proverbs 14:4 by comparison, and see what truths are contained therein.
The Life Application Study Bible puts it very clearly and succinctly: “When a farmer has no oxen, the stable will be clean but he will be unable to make a living. The only way to keep your life free of people problems is to keep it free of people. But if your life is empty of people, it is useless; and if you live only for yourself, your life loses its meaning. Instead of avoiding people, we should serve others, share our faith, and work for justice. Is your life clean but empty? Or does it give evidence of your serving God wholeheartedly?”
What Solomon is teaching here in Proverbs 14:4 is that the purchase of an ox will be a great benefit to a farm, for the ox will greatly improve production. However, the ox will have a direct effect on the state of the stable, as the stable will become unclean; having an ox in a stable will result in a mess. Having an ox in a farm will result in greater production and “more fruit”, to use a New Testament analogy. But Solomon is telling us here that the increase in strength and production which the ox provided, is worth the mess which it brings. Looking quickly at this “more fruit” analogy we see the Bible is clear as John 15:8 tells us that “In this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, so you shall be My disciples.” We are therefore measured by the fruit we bear. But not only that, John 15:2says that any branch, any Christian who does not bear fruit, will be cut out and discarded while all those Christians who do bear fruit, will be pruned by the Father to bear even more fruit.
What the Bible, is telling us here is that fruit is more important to God than the method employed to obtain the fruit. This is an important lesson for leaders, especially Ministry leaders, who long for smooth and trouble free times and clean and clear stables. The Lord is saying here, and very clearly: I judge the fruit, the results of the work; I do not judge the messiness of the process. Matthew 7:15-20 expands further on this message as Jesus tells us in His own words: ”Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruits, nor can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you shall know them.”
Jesus warns us, the temple of God, against false prophets; those who put the “means” before “fruit”. This is not a proper biblical standpoint. This was the sin of the Pharisees, who put the Talmud, the traditions of the Jews, before the Torah, the Word of the Lord. As a result, when Christ came to earth, when the Messiah for whom they had waited for centuries eventually came, they were unable to recognise Him. To the Pharisees, Jesus was a rebel and lawbreaker for He did not keep the traditions of the elders as specified in the Talmud. While the Torah told of a Kingly Messiah, it also told of a suffering servant. The Pharisees, however, with their eyes and minds on the Talmud and their own traditions, could not conceive of the idea that the Kingly Messiah could be a suffering servant at one and the same time; for it is obvious – Kingly Messiah’s are not servants and they do not suffer.
So finally, how does “cleanliness is next to godliness” stack up against the Bible teachings? It does not. Not only is the saying not in the bible, it is non-biblical in essence and misleading in practice.
Matthew 23:25-28 tells us what Jesus thought about outward cleanliness as he lambasted the Pharisees “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of extortion and excess. Blind Pharisee! First cleanse the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which indeed appear beautiful outside, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so you also appear righteous to men outwardly, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” His view is the same here as it is in Matthew 15:2-20 as Jesus answers the Pharisee’s question “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
God looks at the inside, the heart, the intention; not outside. This has always been the case; for in First Samuel 16:7 we read as Samuel searched through the sons of Jesse for the Lord’s anointed: “But Jehovah said to Samuel, Do not look on his face, nor on his height, because I have refused him. For He does not see as man sees. For man looks on the outward appearance, but Jehovah looks on the heart.”
Cleanliness, organisation and the outward appearance, is certainly not what is in the mind of the Lord when He looks at us. Cleanliness is not, and cannot, therefore, be next to godliness. Instead, we may aver that this saying is not of God, but a lie of the enemy. Instead of bringing us closer to God, the lie instead, takes us further from Him and points us inward to our own pride and self satisfaction. If we accept the lie we begin to believe all the other lies which follow on there from: If it all is neat and tidy, it must be of God; if it is nice and clean, it must be of God; it if is easy and smooth, it must be of God; it if looks good, it must be of God; if I look good, it must be of God. If we believe this lie, we let outside appearances deceive us and rule our decision making. It we believe this lie, we can have no part in God’s plan for us and for His Kingdom.
No. If it is of God, it will produce Godly fruit and by that fruit, we and it, will be judged. Matthew 12:33b is clear:“for the tree is known by its fruit.”
Amen and Amen.