There are several accounts of super-high achievers in the biblical narrative, with figures such as Joseph, Moses, and David raised up by God to do great things for God’s great purposes. But what about ordinary people? As we see the kingdom of God foreshadowed in the Old Testament, is there a place to consider achievement in the lives of normal people living in the kingdom?
The book of Proverbs is written exactly for the purpose of giving a snapshot of what a good life lived in the kingdom will look like. Belonging to the collection of wisdom literature in the Old Testament, Proverbs details the ways in which wisdom—which begins with the fear of the LORD (1:7)—will shape the lives of those who listen to her call. Proverbs addresses several themes that are related to our topic of achievement, including success, work, discipline, and character.
The first thing to note is that “success” is regarded as an inherent good, which is often cast in terms of wealth. While there are qualifications about it—for example, it is better to be poor with integrity than to be rich without it (28:6)—success is generally seen as a blessing from God, and is one of the goals of living wisely:
“For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding. He stores up success for the upright.” (2:6–7)
“The one who understands a matter finds success, and the one who trusts in the LORD will be happy.” (16:20)
“A house is built by wisdom, and it is established by understanding; by knowledge the rooms are filled with every precious and beautiful treasure.” (24:3–4)
Work and diligence
Some obvious factors in bringing about success (alongside wisdom) are work and diligence. These are contrasted with laziness:
“Idle hands make one poor, but diligent hands bring riches.” (10:4)
“A lazy man doesn’t roast his game, but to a diligent man, his wealth is precious.” (12:27)
“The plans of the diligent certainly lead to profit, but anyone who is reckless certainly becomes poor.” (21:5)
“Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand in the presence of kings. He will not stand in the presence of unknown men.” (22:29)
And virtually the whole of Proverbs 31:10–31 praises the capable wife and all her work, discipline, and achievements, culminating in 31:31:
“Give her the reward of her labor, and let her works praise her at the city gates.” (31:31)
While there is much in Proverbs that deals with character, some of it relates directly to work and success. For instance, love of pleasure is not good:
“The one who loves pleasure will become a poor man; whoever loves wine and oil will not get rich.” (21:17)
Concern for “success”—in this case, wealth—should be kept in perspective:
“Don’t wear yourself out to get rich; stop giving your attention to it.” (23:4)
And upon success, bragging and boasting are a definite no-no:
“Don’t brag about yourself before the king, and don’t stand in the place of the great.” (25:6)
“Don’t boast about tomorrow, for you don’t know what a day might bring.
“Let another praise you, and not your own mouth— a stranger, and not your own lips.” (27:1–2)
Having said all this, Proverbs is also clear that work, success, and wealth do not determine our ultimate humanity:
“The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD made them both.” (22:2)
Whether rich or poor, a success or failure, diligent or lazy, all are God’s creation and all share in equal dignity as his image-bearers.
The picture of life in the kingdom that Proverbs provides will need to be tweaked by the gospel in due course. Life in the kingdom of Christ alters priorities and redefines “success” in some important ways. But for now we can note that success—however it is defined—alongside work, diligence, and character are all part of God’s intention for living according to wisdom.