He that delicately bringeth up his servant from a child shall have him become his son at the length.
Here is good advice for managers. Wise and careful treatment of an employee can lead to a relationship with him similar to a family member. There is a great distance in the Bible between masters and servants, approximating employers and employees today. This significant difference in ability and position is to be preserved. But prudent managers also win affectionate loyalty from their employees in addition to diligent obedience.
The Bible teaches, defends, and promotes authority more than any other philosophy or religion, for the foundation of all human relationships is the sovereign authority of a creator God. Jehovah ordained the five spheres of human authority – husband, parent, master, magistrate, and pastor. Therefore their offices are not to be compromised (Eccl 10:5-7; Rom 13:1-7; I Cor 11:9; Eph 6:1-9; Col 3:18-25; Heb 13:7,17; I Pet 2:13 – 3:7).
But the Bible also restricts and penalizes abuse of this God-ordained authority (Ps 12:5; Eccl 5:8). Masters are limited in their authority over servants, and they are bound to treat them with a minimum level of fairness, kindness, and consistency (Lev 19:13; 25:39-46; Deut 15:12-18; 24:14-15; Eph 6:9; Col 4:1). And the doctrine of God further teaches love of neighbor, including servants, by the standard you seek to be loved (Luke 6:31; 10:27).
The older conservative and evangelical commentators understood this proverb very differently. They believed it condemned treating a servant too well in his youth, for he would be spoiled by the luxury, forget his proper place, and later presume to be equal to the heir. Since most commentators generally follow one another, they agreed with each other here. Their interpretation and application are wrong for the following reasons.
First, an ironical or sarcastic use of words should be obvious to the reader, which is not obvious here. A straightforward reading of the proverb indicates positive instruction for the wise management of servants. To take the words in the opposite sense of a sarcastic rebuke is difficult indeed, for there are no words or contextual hints to do so.
Second, “delicately” does not require a definition of pampering luxury, for it also means careful and tactful treatment, as in Agag coming delicately to Samuel (I Sam 15:32).
Third, Solomon taught elsewhere in Proverbs that a wise servant would, and therefore should, be promoted over foolish sons and given an interest in the family inheritance (Pr 17:2). And he taught that kings recognize and promote wise servants (Pr 14:35). Jesus taught that a wise and faithful servant would be highly promoted (Luke 12:41-48).
Fourth, Scripture warns against abusive treatment of servants and requires kind treatment of them. Moses commanded regarding servants, “Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God” (Lev 25:43). Maidservants were to be treated as daughters and given food, clothing, and the duty of marriage – regular lovemaking, or be set free (Ex 21:9-11). Moses allowed for servants loving their masters and staying with them for life (Ex 21:1-6). And Solomon admitted masters and servants ate the same (Pr 27:27).
Consider Job’s holy and perfect attitude toward servants. He said, “If I did despise the cause of my manservant or of my maidservant, when they contended with me; What then shall I do when God riseth up? and when he visiteth, what shall I answer him? Did not he that made me in the womb make him? and did not one fashion us in the womb?” (Job 31:13-15). Though slaves had no legal rights, Job granted them the right to appeal to him.
Abraham had such a close relationship with one of his servants – Eliezer of Damascus – he planned on making him his heir (Gen 15:2-3). He later entrusted another servant to pick a bride for his son Isaac, which resulted in Rebekah being the mother of Israel (Gen 24:1-67). And Paul told Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother-servant (Phile 1:16).
Fifth, Daniel, though a captive eunuch from Israel, was affectionately treated by Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, and Cyrus. Even Belshazzar promoted him to third in the kingdom (Dan 5:29). Though a war captive, he was promoted to the inner circle of several kings. Joseph was promoted over all Potiphar’s house and then over the land of Egypt by the wise management of Potiphar and Pharaoh (Gen 39:1-6; 41:38-45).
Sixth, the history of slavery in America and other nations includes examples of servants being treated like family members with deep and abiding affection and loyalty running in both directions. Paul did not admit much difference between young sons and servants (Gal 4:1-2). There were clearly masters that practiced the gentle wisdom of this proverb.
Seventh, those holding the other interpretation were a slave-owning generation that lost sight of this merciful possibility and gracious principle. Due to the outcry against slavery in 18th century England and 19th century America, greater rigor was required to keep servants in their place, so pulpit and pen were slanted to preserve domestic tranquility.
Beyond the proverb’s interpretation, what is the lesson for us? Considerate and tactful treatment of employees can result in a relationship with the affection and loyalty of a family member. A common proverb declares, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” You can attract greater devotion and effort with kindness than with meanness. Christian employers should conscientiously treat their employees with discreet and prudent care at all times. They should redress all grievances in a fair and equitable way, and they should communicate openly and honestly with those in their service.
“Might makes right” is a foolish invention of God-haters. Wise business owners and managers win the affection and loyalty of employees with careful and tactful treatment. Service from the heart is better than service from fear or a paycheck. Husbands, parents, magistrates, and pastors will also grasp that the principle applies to them as well. Right conduct is determined and defined by scripture, not by the might of those in authority.
You tempt the Lord your God, a very serious offence, if you seek to enforce your authority by power and privilege alone (Eccl 5:8; Eph 6:9; Col 3:19,21; 4:1). Let every Christian reader apply the same benevolent kindness to those under their authority as their heavenly Father does to even His enemies (Matt 5:43-48; Acts 14:17). Though He is Lord of all, He is also good to all and satisfies their desires (Ps 145:9-16).