“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
The proverb first appeared in the mid-1600s. Perhaps it originated as a Puritan excuse for recreation. I don’t know. Originally, it was used against parents who did not give their children playful relief from their scholastic studies.
The proverb seems like a justification for playfulness, but in God’s world play needs no more justification than work does. Both are built into creation. God created both work and play.
Indeed, God embodies playfulness. His wisdom creates with delight, joy, and play. Personified divine wisdom in Proverbs 8 not only describes herself as a “master worker” but also as one who daily rejoices (shahak) as she delights in the creation (Proverbs 8:30, 31). This is the wisdom of God: not all work and no play.
For example, God created his own aquarium.
There are living creatures in the sea no human being has ever encountered and some have only recently been discovered. For centuries the oceans and their depths were visible only to God. They were his personal aquarium. God alone has enjoyed them, but as we develop the gifts God has invested in us—underwater travel, cameras, etc.—the glory of these creatures are visible to us as well.
Psalm 104 calls attention to God’s aquarium. The vast sea is “teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small” (v. 25). This wonderful meditation on God’s creative work—in the past and present—rejoices in God’s works. Moreover, as Psalm 104:31 sings, God himself rejoices over the works of creation.
The creation is the glory of God (v. 31). God gives his glory, majesty, and awe to creation. We were crowned with “glory and honor” (Psalm 8 ) and the earth, which is full of God’s creatures (Psalm 104:24), is also the glory of God. Their splendor is God’s own work. The wonder of creation mirrors the wonder of God.
With the eye of faith I see God smile as he watches the playfulness of the ocean’s creatures. When humpback whales rise out of the water with majestic awe, God smiles. When dolphins race through the water skimming the tops of the waves, God smiles. When schools of fish move back and forth in unison, God smiles.
God enjoys the playfulness of his aquarium. He smiles, and so do I.
The Hebrew word shahak has a wide variety of meanings, from playing on an instrument to laughing. And it is a term used to describe the playfulness of creation, both the fish of the sea and the beasts of the field.
In Yahweh’s description of the Behemoth (perhaps an oversized hippopotamus—Egyptian iconography pictures Horus fighting such an animal), God declares sovereignty over the animal (Job 40:19, 20, New Revised Standard Version). “Only its Maker can approach it with the sword.” Part of this sovereignty is that “the mountains yield food for it where all the wild animals play” (shahak). The land that feeds the Behemoth is also the playground of God’s natural zoo.
In Psalm 104 the Leviathan (also pictured in Job 41) is Yahweh’s proud example of the creatures of the sea in his aquarium. Wherever ships go upon the sea—wherever humans go—God has already created sea animals (particularly the Leviathan) to “sport” (shahak) in it” (v. 26, NRSV) or “frolic” there (New International Version). God created the Leviathan to play in the ocean. Whatever the Leviathan is—something akin to the poetically mythic Moby Dick, I would guess—playfulness is God’s intent.
God enjoys, as we do, the playfulness of his creatures. Who cannot smile as they watch otters play in the water or penguins march across the ice?
Certainly work—priestly service in God’s temple of creation—is part of God’s intent for us. We see it in the Garden of Eden. This is the dignity of work, careers, and jobs. Through the various jobs we have chosen, we participate in the mission of God that includes the stewardship of and care for the creation.
For example, most Christians are involved in the mission of God in their careers and perhaps don’t even realize it. Teachers are doing the kingdom work of equipping young people for productive lives; health-care workers are doing the kingdom work of healing and caregiving; lawyers (we hope) are doing the kingdom work of justice; and so on.
This is where we need a deeper theology of vocation. Our identity is that we are the image of God and our vocation is to participate in the mission of God. Our careers should express our vocation; our “work” life serves the kingdom of God, the mission of God. Can we identify how our career—our jobs—participate in the mission of God? When we do, we are on our way to recognizing how the church has already left the building as church.
But play is also part of creation. Creation is not only a workplace but a playground. There is a time to “weep,” says the preacher in Ecclesiastes 3, but there is also a time to “laugh” or play (shahak). Playfulness is also part of the kingdom of God.
I got the idea early in my life that “play” was a waste of time, energy, and money for adults. We are supposed to be about kingdom business 24/7, aren’t we? We are called to work while it is still day and rest only in death.
But I have learned this ignores the cycle of rest that God has embedded within creation; it is built into the seven-day week—six days of work and one day of rest. And rest includes play—delighting in God, creation, and recreational renewal.
God smiles not only when the Leviathan “sports” about in the ocean, but also when we play within the creation. Whether it is sports, camping, or sitting on the deck to enjoy the view, God smiles when we are at playful rest.
Even the eschatological vision—the restoration and renewal of the heavens and earth, the return of God to Zion in the New Jerusalem—includes play. When God again dwells with his people in Jerusalem, “the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing (shahak) in its streets” (Zechariah 8:5, NRSV). On that day, according to Jeremiah 31:4, God will rebuild Jerusalem, and the people of God will take up tambourines and enjoy the city in playful dance (shahak; literally, “the dances of play/sport/laughter”).
All work and no play makes creation a dull place. All work and no play saps the joy out of kingdom living.
John Mark Hicks serves as professor of theology at Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee.