Growing up, you may have been warned by a relative against making mischief with the words “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” You may have even read this phrase in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
This well-known adage has been used for centuries as a cautionary message about the consequences of being slothful or inactive. And it’s true: we are more likely to do something bad or get ourselves into trouble when we have nothing productive to do.
The wise wordsmith behind this adage is unknown. Many believe that it originates from the Bible, Proverbs 16:27 to be exact; however, the exact same word usage of this message as we know it is not found in almost any biblical translation. Others insist that it has Latin roots.
Therefore, what is the origin of “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” and what does it have to do with Proverbs 16:27?
The Origin of ‘Idle Hands are the Devil’s Workshop’
The argument that this adage has biblical origins is to some extent correct. It is the verbatim translation of Proverbs 16:27 that is found in the Living Bible that was first published by Kenneth N. Taylor, the creator of the Living Bible in 1971:
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop; idle lips are his mouthpiece (Proverbs 16:27, TLB)
Taylor was inspired to paraphrase Proverbs 16.27 based on the American Standard Version of this Scripture:
A worthless man deviseth mischief; And in his lips there is as a scorching fire (Proverbs 16:26, ASV).
The repetition of the word “idle” in the Living Bible translation emphasizes the negativity attached with possessing this characteristic.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “idle” as being “shiftless,” “lazy,” “lacking worth or basis,” and “having no evident lawful means of support.”
These interpretations match well with the Hebrew translation for “idle” beliyyaal (בְּלִיַּעַל), which is defined as “worthlessness.”
What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (2 Corinthians 6:15).
Although this famous proverb is found in one biblical translation, it does appear in earlier, secular works.
In the late fourth century, St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, wrote “fac et aliquid operis, ut semper te diabolus inveniat occupatum” in one of his letters, which translated means to “engage in some occupation, so that the devil may always find you busy.”
However, the most popular reference is found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s magnum opus The Canterbury Tales, more specifically, “The Tale of Melibee,” which was written around 1386.
The Devil’s Workshop
What does Kenneth Taylor mean when he refers to our idle behavior as being the “devil’s workshop”? And does the Bible give examples of this?
The devil attacks us through our thoughts. Therefore, when we don’t occupy ourselves productively, and we don’t engage our minds with fruit-yielding thoughts, it gives the devil free access into our minds — “his workshop” — which ultimately affects our behavior negatively.
Another term that is used is “the devil’s playground:” like a child who is overjoyed at discovering an unoccupied playground and knows that he or she can play uninterrupted on any piece of equipment, so too does the devil delight in manipulating our thoughts, knowing that he won’t find resistance.
The Bible provides many examples of the manifestation of the devil’s tampering with our thoughts. The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy about not putting young widows on the widows’ list.
For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to (1 Timothy 5:11-13).
Paul also criticizes the Christian community in Thessalonica for not employing their time well. “We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies” (2 Thessalonians 3:11).
Look to the Bible to Combat Idleness
So how can we ensure that we direct our minds, and by extension, our actions to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives, to glorify Him and simultaneously prevent the devil from manipulating us?
Yet again, the Bible provides us with the answers.
The following are some examples of scriptures that encourage us to fill our minds with excellent and God-purposed thoughts.
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things (Philippians 4:8).
Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:2).
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).
Additionally, there are numerous scriptures that instruct us in adopting behaviors that are wise, fruitful, and align us with God’s plans for us:
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters (Colossians 3:23).
Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is (Ephesians 5:15-17).
Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives (Titus 3:14).
The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent, and their lips promote instruction (Proverbs 16:23).
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:7-8).
God’s Word Comes in Many Forms
Though the biblical origins of adages and proverbs such as “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” may have been forgotten over the centuries, what’s most important is that the significance of their messages are still remembered and are actively in use today.
God works in many mysterious ways — if He could talk to believers through a donkey or a burning bush, why can’t He talk to us through an adage?
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Madeline Kalu is an Australian Christian writer and the co-founder of Jacob’s Ladder Blog and The Proverbs 31 Home. She is also the co-author of the “My Year of Miracles 2024” journal, which encourages a daily reflection on the miracles that God performs in our lives throughout 2024. Madeline lives in Germany with her husband Solomon and the family’s two cats, who were rescued from the Ukrainian war zone.