No cattle, no crops; a good harvest requires a strong ox for the plow. (MSG)
Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox. (ESV)
Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox come abundant harvests. (NIV)
Without oxen a stable stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest. (NLT)
I like the way the NLT expresses this verse the best. The concept in an agricultural economy without mechanization is simple. Animals are messy, and those messes must be cleaned up. Without the animals, especially the beasts of burden, there will be few crops. A person might be able to cultivate a small garden with a shovel and hoe, but it takes something much stronger to pull a plow and cultivate a field.
Life is this way. Achieving anything worthwhile requires effort. Solomon talks about prosperity often and he generally connects it with demanding work. God designed us to work. Adam and Eve had a garden to care for before the fall. Some people have work to do that they genuinely enjoy. I was one of those people, but even then, there were tasks that had to be done that were either difficult or tedious. Without those tasks, the joy that came from completing a project would not have happened.
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2 NIV)
I think this is Paul’s take on Proverbs 14:4 from a spiritual perspective. God intends for us to live in relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The difficulty is that we are not perfect. The messes the oxen make in the barn can be cleaned out with a shovel. Yes, it takes physical effort and the smell is unpleasant, but it can be done. The truth we don’t want to accept is that just as the oxen mess up the barn every day requiring everyday cleaning, we make messes in all our relationships all the time. We have several choices. We could ignore the relational messes, but eventually, the smell will get to us and we’ll move away from the mess. We could try to avoid relational messes by intentionally withdrawing from people, but we still must live with ourselves. If we want to experience the joy that comes from healthy relationships we will be continually cleaning up messes.
For my grandchildren:
Life is messy. Don’t try to avoid them, just clean them up.