“The fool closes his hands and eats his own flesh — better is full hand of rest than two full hands of anxiety and exasperating the spirit.”
The contrast to working and competing to grow in competence is to be lazy and complacent, perhaps only ever doing the most basic minimum to sustain oneself. It is the belief that the world entitles you to a living and to pleasure, so let them work while you relax and be entertained at their expense. Not only is such a mindset ungodly (see Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:10) but it is self-destructive. You end up consuming your own flesh. And while, in most cases, this does not degrade into literal cannibalism (though such has taken place in history), how often do such folks end up consuming all that their family has and all of their worldly goods, living like a leech off of those around them.
This is not to suggest that there are not times when one must rely on friends, family, church, or even social programs to get by. Indeed, hard times will befall us all and it is humbling being on the receiving end of such Christian charity. At the same time, such things are designed to be temporary and not perpetual states of being. Then, when one gets back on his or her feet, the idea is to turn around and assist others as you have been assisted. Such is a mark of Christian character.
There is a little discussion about the figure of speech that Solomon employs around the idea of the closed hand and then the single hand-full of rest or the double hand-full of anxiety. Commentators seem in more or less agreement that the folding of the hands or the closing of the hands is a reference to sloth — wishing to not “put one’s hand to the plow.” The discussion comes with respect as to how one handles the single and double hands full. Some commentators suggest that Solomon is saying that some rest (one handful) is better than lots of anxiety (double-hands full).
As I read this, though, given Solomon’s repeated use of the word עָמָל (amal) to refer to hard work in this book, I would suggest that verse 6 contains the words of the sluggard who is closing his hands. Basically he is saying, look folks, I know that I could have both hands at work, but there is a chance that all I will receive is toil and hardship under the sun, so I will be content with only a handful of rest. In the end, the final message is much the same: it is honorable to work and dishonorable to be slothful.
The sad thing, as I observe society around us, is that sloth calls loudly to those in the streets. People are promoting socialism in the American society and the government seems to be creating more and more social programs to satisfy the people’s outcry. People say that education should be free, food should be free, medicine should be free, and the list goes on and on. Solomon would say that those who champion this cause are fools. And indeed, whatever label one gives them, they are poor students of history as socialism has created some of the greatest human tragedies in all of history. One only need spend time in eastern Europe and the impoverished state of many of the former eastern bloc countries. Woe to us if we repeat their failures.
Yet, I do not wish to stop there as the move toward social welfare is largely being driven by a young and poorly educated segment of our society. There is also an older segment of our society that has embraced the notion that at the age of retirement, they can stop working and contributing to society altogether. Instead, many just simply resign themselves to watching television almost all day long. This too is unhealthy and self-destructive. The notion of a retirement age where one stops working altogether is not a notion with Christian roots. For the Christian, retirement from a given vocation is nothing more than an open door to work in the community, the church, and the family. Paul speaks exactly this way when he calls on older men and women to mentor those coming behind them (Titus 2:2-9).
Perhaps think about it this way. Think about how beneficial it would be to our congregations if every retired person in our flock would spend just 10 hours a week working either at the church (doing maintenance and repair) or in the community (visiting our shut ins!) or both. Think about how beneficial it would be if retired members in our congregation took to studying seminary-level classes to be better teachers in Sunday School or other kinds of teaching ministries of the church. Think about how beneficial it would be if a church had the foresight to retain a retired minister on their payroll to be a trainer and theological teacher of younger men seeking the ministry as well as to assist the church’s pastor in his daily activities. God has made mankind to work (Genesis 2:15) and he has made Christians to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). Why would we seek to rest and slumber all the day long?