Proverbs 14:4 ESV
Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.
No food means no people, so we have to get food. The process of getting that food, however, has some icky bits. For ancient Israel, it was the ox, with its perpetually messy stall; for us, perhaps, it could be the tractor, loud and rumbly, or another means of production. The fool, looking at these pieces divorced from their purpose and context, asks if we could not just get rid of the ox, so as to clean the manger, or get rid of the engine, so as to spare his nose (we’re not going to get into the silliness that is environmentalism today). Getting rid of the ox would indeed remove the mess from the stall; getting rid of the tractor would indeed make the immediate locale a good deal nicer smelling. It would also get rid of the food, a point the fool has apparently neglected to consider. The simplest solution isn’t always the correct one, and we must be careful that when we throw out the bathwater, we choose a time postdating the bath and not preceding it.
Actually, that’s a really good metaphor. Bathwater is messy and (being dirty) not all that useful. There’s a reason we send it down the drains as soon as we’re done and without a second thought (whereas you might consider for a moment before dumping out a glass of drinking water). If we were just looking at individual products, bathwater would seem to be an unmitigated downside, something to remove from the bathing process. On the other hand, have fun taking a bath without any water. I hear the success rates are mighty low. The bathwater is part of the process for a reason.
G.K. Chesterton approached the topic from another angle (please forgive the quote’s length):
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it” (Chesterton).
In other words, know what a thing does before you decide what to do with it. Even if, as in the case of the ox and the tractor, it produces rather a lot of mess, unless it produces the mess without gain, unless its role can be fulfilled better by something else, all you’ll be doing by fixing the problem is causing a bigger one. The difference between a messy stall and starving in the winter is considerable.
I do not say that the oxen should never be replaced, of course. A messy stable is a problem, and oxen can be a pain to deal with. A tractor will do the job much better (and, though it may require as much or more time and expense to maintain (I’ve never cared for either personally), it will do the job much more effectively, in most circumstances). The key consideration here is that just removing the ox may clean the stall but it also cleans the larder. The tractor, meanwhile, even if it introduces a whole new type of mess, can be quite helpful in filling that larder. We can’t just get rid of our problems; pressing the ‘delete’ button every time something irritates us is a surefire way to end up with worse than irritations.
Today’s proverb has obviously been a little more practical, a little more about concrete facts than morality (especially when I’ve tried to keep the politics out of it). Moral application does exist, though this moral is an indirect application of the proverb, focusing on the necessity of understanding the complexities of a problem in order to fix it rather than the nature of the problem itself (oxen, unlike human sins, are not immoral). When we’re dealing with problems- say, a personal moral failing, a temptation you or I consistently fail to deal with as well as we ought, something we dwell on too much and succumb to too often-, we can’t just try to solve it on our own. We don’t know ourselves well enough to figure it all out; we don’t control ourselves well enough to fix even what we can figure out. God alone can change man’s heart, and He has promised to do so in ways we cannot even conceive of (1 Cor. 2:9). We ought therefore to seek the solution to our sins not in ourselves, not in our own strength, but in the strength of God.
Chesterton, G.K. The Thing. The Society of G.K. Chesterton, https://www.chesterton.org/taking-a-fence-down/.
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