At Luke 9:62 (RSVCE) we read:

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

This saying of Jesus has become a proverb in all prominent languages. I'm curious to know if Jesus was quoting an already existent proverb.

Some further explanation of the saying would also be welcome, regarding what the farmer would have been looking back at. For instance, would he be seeking someone else's assistance to hold on to the plough, or would he be looking at the 'smooth land' he was leaving behind?

  • 1
    Too many sub questions.
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 12, 2016 at 13:45
  • Not an answer, but I would expect it's unlikely. Jesus was unusual in talking about the 'Kingdom of God' at his time. Feb 12, 2016 at 14:12
  • 1
    @DJClayworth I took the question as referring to the "puts his hand to the plow and looks back" part. As if Jesus was taking a common format for his own uses. Like if I said "An apple a day keeps the Pastor away" as a joke, you would be familiar with the format and meaning and possibly with the original form (doctor).
    – Joshua
    Feb 12, 2016 at 23:01

4 Answers 4


Background for the "proverbial" language used by Jesus here can be found in the Septuagint and in ancient Greek literature. The Septuagint does not provide a verbal parallel to 9:62, but it does offer a strong basis for understanding Jesus's invocation of agricultural imagery. This draws on the previous verses in Luke 9 when two men respond to Jesus's command, ἀκολούθει μοι ("Follow me."):

[κύριε,] ἐπίτρεψόν μοι ἀπελθόντι πρῶτον θάψαι τὸν πατέρα μου .... ἀκολουθήσω σοι, κύριε· πρῶτον δὲ ἐπίτρεψόν μοι ἀποτάξασθαι τοῖς εἰς τὸν οἶκόν μου.

"Lord, let me first go and bury my father" ... "I will follow you, Lord, but let me say farewell to those at my home."

Their responses echo 1 Kings 19:20 (= 3 Reigns 19:20) when Elijah finds Elisha, καὶ αὐτὸς ἠροτρία ἐν βουσίν ("and he was plowing with oxen"). Elijah casts his mantle upon him, eliciting the following response:

κατέλιπεν Ελισαιε τὰς βόας καὶ κατέδραμεν ὀπίσω Ηλιου καὶ εἶπεν Καταφιλήσω τὸν πατέρα μου καὶ ἀκολουθήσω ὀπίσω σου·

Elisha left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, "I will kiss my father and will follow after you."

Thus, one of the most memorable "following" paradigms in the Hebrew Bible is introduced as a choice between plow and leader. This is probably the reason that Jesus's response to the men in Luke 9:59-61 turns to plow imagery.

As for the "proverb" itself, commentators consistently identify the closest parallel in the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer. In his "Works and Days", a musing on the necessity of labor, Hesiod emphasizes the benefits of a worker,

ὃς ἔργου μελετῶν ἰθεῖάν κ᾽ αὔλακ᾽ ἐλαύνοι, μηκέτι παπταίνων μεθ᾽ ὁμήλικας, ἀλλ᾽ ἐπὶ ἔργῳ θυμὸν ἔχων

who will attend to his work and drive a straight furrow and is past the age for gaping after his fellows, but will keep his mind on his work. (Greek, English)

In these "well-known lines" (Bruce), the concrete dichotomy presented is between immaturity hankering after leisure on one side, and resolute dedication to profitable work on the other.* This serves to drive home the point:

the demands of Jesus are more stringent than those of Elijah....A person who harks back to the past way of life is not fit for the kingdom or its work. (Marshall)

*This is better seen with a bit more context:

Get two oxen, bulls of nine years; for their strength is unspent and they are in the prime of their age: they are best for work. They will not fight in the furrow and break the plough and then leave the work undone. Let a brisk fellow of forty years follow them, with a loaf of four quarters and eight slices for his dinner, one who will attend to his work and drive a straight furrow and is past the age for gaping after his fellows, but will keep his mind on his work. No younger man will be better than he at scattering the seed and avoiding double-sowing; for a man less staid gets disturbed, hankering after his fellows.

1. Alexander Balmain Bruce, The Gospel of St. Luke (EGT, Hodder and Stoughton 1897), 537.
2. Joseph A. Fitzmyer. The Gospel According to Luke (AYB, YUP 1974), 837.
3. Alfred Plummer, A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel according to St. Luke (ICC, Schribner's 1902), 268.
4. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 412.
5. Translation of Hesiod is by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914. Greek NT is NA28; translation is ESV. LXX is Rahlfs, translation mine.


εἶπεν δὲ [πρὸς αὐτὸν] ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Οὐδεὶς ἐπιβαλὼν τὴν χεῖρα ἐπ᾽ ἄροτρον καὶ βλέπων εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω εὔθετός ἐστιν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ. Luke 9:62 GNT UBS4

ἐπιβαλὼν τὴν χεῖρα (puts his hand to) it means to have the possession to imprison, to destroy, to kill, etc.

Gen. 22:12 Gen. 46:4 Exod. 7:4 Deut. 12:18 Deut. 15:10 Deut. 28:8, 20 1 Ki. 21:6 1 Es. 9:20 Est. 6:2 Ps. 80:15 Prov. 23:2 Isa. 5:25 Isa. 11:15 Matt. 26:50 Mk. 14:46 Lk. 9:62 Acts 5:18

Agrarian were concerned with land grooves:

How will people become wise when they take hold of a plow or pride themselves in how well they handle an ox prod, when they drive cattle and are absorbed with their work, and their conversation is about bulls? Their hearts are given over to plowing furrows, and they lose sleep because they’re concerned about supplying heifers with food. Sirach 38:25-26 Common English Bible (CEB)

To look backwards:

Gen 19:17; 19:26, Sl 44:18, Mar 13:16; Luk 17:31; John 6:65-66;

The destruction of the plow for adoration. 1 Chr. 21:23

To launch hand of the plow, is to lose the life itself to inherit the eternal life.

Jesus Christ plows the world for the God's children.

He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world and the good seed are the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. (Mt 13:37-39 [NET])

I wait to have helped. Betho, Brazil, Little fluency in English.


I do remember a slight variation to this... This speaks very pictorially in the same manner - Proverbs 4:18-27 (KJV).

  1. But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.

  2. The way of the wicked is as darkness: they know not at what they stumble.

  3. My son, attend to my words; incline thine ear unto my sayings.

  4. Let them not depart from thine eyes; keep them in the midst of thine heart.

  5. For they are life unto those that find them, and health to all their flesh.

  6. Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.

  7. Put away from thee a froward mouth, and perverse lips put far from thee.

  8. Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee.

  9. Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established.

  10. Turn not to the right hand nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil.

Now as proverbs go, it is always way more about the lesson learned, and that's why this one popped up in response to the one in Luke 9.

I personally believe that this has more to do with work to be done (future tense), vs. the prestige of past accomplishment (past tense). The reason I believe this so wholeheartedly is that there is so much more teaching regarding this "root" attitude in mankind within all of scripture, both Old & New Testament.

For instance Jesus taught about what attitudes should and should not be present when giving for instance... The ones who gave with the wrong attitude (to be seen of men) already had his reward. In comparison Jesus said to seek those things that are above (reserved in heaven - Future Blessings).

Paul taught how we aught to be diligent to press toward the mark of the high calling of God, and that we should be very careful (in similar proverbial fashion) to build with Precious Stones, Gold, Silver vs. Wood, Hay, or Stubble when it comes to looking forward in prudence to the days of importance (Judgment Day).

In summary - I can't help but look throughout scripture, and not see this continual "doctrine" of looking forward.

The teaching in Hebrews paints it pretty clear for those who have faith, by stating that Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.

It is forward looking at all times, and is tied to so many parts of scripture, that I would have a hard time narrowing it down to just this statement in Luke 9.


A master at teaching Jesus was. He used many illustrations to make his teaching easier to understand. A good illustration has to be about something the audience is very familiar with. His audience would have been very familiar with a man plowing a row behind an Ox or bull. Not keeping focused on the place ahead that he was aligning his row with would make for erratic crooked rows.

The audience understood walking in God's favor required each one to keep focused on the kingdom promise in order to make straight paths for their spiritual journey. Today a similar sermon encouraging Christians to focus on keeping themselves in God's favor might liken our spiritual journey to driving a car. Don't be texting your friend while driving or you could end up in a wreck.

It may have been a common saying in Jesus time or he may have made up the illustration on his own. You could ask on the Judaism site if you want to know if old writings from other Hebrew publications use the same words.

However the lesson we take is not to be distracted by diverting our spiritual eyes away from our goal. And to be aware of our audience when preaching or teaching and use illustrations that will be readily understood.

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