“Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox” (Proverbs 14:4, English Standard Version)

For some reason, the above verse in Proverbs has always intrigued me. I’m not sure why. My knowledge of animals and agriculture is limited at best. As a city gal, the biggest animals I see are the squirrels in my tree and the neighbor’s dog. To understand this verse, I decided to do a little research on oxen.

Oxen, I learned, are really cattle who are selected to work as draft animals. Since around 4,000 BC, they have been used to plow, pull wagons, thresh grain, and pull millstones. Usually a larger breed of cattle, they are strong work animals. They can pull a heavier load and work longer periods of time than horses. They also have a calm temperament and don’t mind repetitious work. You can imagine the value of such an animal to a farmer. Even in this day of modern equipment, oxen are still used by many.

In essence, Proverbs 14:4 is telling us a farmer can have a clean, empty barn, but without this sturdy work animal he will not enjoy the same abundant crops. With oxen, he will need to spend time cleaning stalls, providing feed and water, and caring for the animals—messy, smelly, hard work. But it will be effort well spent when he reaps a greater harvest.

In pondering this verse, I concluded it’s a commentary on life in general. Let me explain by putting this verse into my own words.

A productive life is often a messy life. Things only get accomplished when we are willing to invest our time and get our hands dirty.

  • Raising children is messy—in many ways. It’s hard work and long hours, but the blessing comes when you see your children turn into responsible, caring adults.
  • Soulwinning can be messy because you are dealing with messy, sin-stained lives. The reward comes when you see transformed lives surrendered to Jesus Christ.
  • Ministry of any type can be messy. You devote your time and talents to see God’s kingdom advance, but your efforts may go unnoticed, unappreciated, or misunderstood. The recognition comes when the Lord says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Yes, we can live neat, clean, uncomplicated lives and let someone else deal with the mess. We can keep a “clean manger” and never deal with the with smell and the dirt. But what will we have accomplished in life if we don’t take the risk and get our hands dirty? I assure you, it’s worth the work when we see the harvest.

Lord, I cannot choose the easy way that has no fuss and no mess. I want to use my time and my energy to touch the lives of others, to help them see there is life and hope beyond the mess of sin and bad decisions. I want to see a harvest of souls for Your sake.


Mary enjoys traveling, meeting new people, and spending time with old friends. Although directionally challenged, she would rather take the back roads with their discoveries than the boredom of the interstate.

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