I come from a cavalry family, as in horse soldiers. My great-grandfather was a cavalry scout in the frontier West. My grandfather commanded the Army’s last horse cavalry regiment (in 1938, believe it or not). At that point, our family switched from horses to tanks, and both my father and I served as tank officers. Suffice it to say that I possess a fair amount of cavalry paraphernalia. In fact, I am writing this at a desk beneath a print of a horse cavalryman firing from his saddle.
Of all the great cavalry movies, none holds a dearer place in my heart than John Wayne’s classic, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Portraying Captain Nathan Briddles, a grizzled Civil War veteran who is facing the end of his career, the Duke is a walking cornucopia of manliness. When I was a young armored cav officer, I not only watched this movie roughly a thousand times but absorbed much of its ethos. Anyone who has seen this movie can tell you that Captain Briddles’ approach to manliness can be summed up in two words: Never apologize! Over and over again, he grills his hapless lieutenants, always with the same emphasis: “Never apologize, Mister!” I am afraid that I took this counsel a bit too much to heart, with the result that my early 20s were a little more obnoxious than they needed to be.
When I became a Christian, however, I learned that not every manly saying in John Wayne movies should be adopted. “Never apologize” may sound great in theory, but in practice it can combine with a man’s sin nature to make him overbearing and arrogant. As I became more familiar with Scripture, I learned about two different words that do a far better job of summarizing how a man should live. These are: “work” and “keep.” Taken together, these two words serve as a summary of the Bible’s mandate for masculine behavior. Men are called to be men, fulfilling our calling before God in this world: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Our calling in life really is this simple (although not therefore easy): We are to devote ourselves to working/building and keeping/protecting everything placed into our charge. What exactly do these two words signify? Let’s take a few moments to look more closely.
Work: To Cultivate as a Gardener
First, let’s consider avad, the Hebrew term translated in Genesis 2:15 as “work.” This is an extremely common word in the Old Testament, and can appear in a verb or noun form. As a verb, it most often means “work,” “serve,” “labor,” “cultivate,” or “perform acts of worship.” As a noun, it usually indicates “servant,” “officer,” or “worshiper.” Because the context for Genesis 2 is the Garden of Eden, we should first consider how avad applies in an agricultural sense. Adam was called by God to till and cultivate the garden so it would grow and bear an abundance of fruit. Thus, the command to “work” links up with the earlier mandate to “be fruitful . . . and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). What does a gardener do to make his garden grow? He tends the garden; he works it. He plants seeds and prunes branches. He digs and fertilizes. His labor makes living things strong, beautiful, and lush. As he works, he is able to stand back and see that he has accomplished good things. There are rows of tall trees, rich fields of wheat, bountiful vineyards, and colorful beds of flowers.
My favorite summer job in college was working for a landscaper. Every day we would drive out to a job site—often someone’s home—to plant trees, build garden walls, and put in rows of bushes. It was hard but satisfying work. The thing I liked best was looking in the mirror as we drove away to see that we had accomplished something good and growing. According to the Bible, this kind of work describes one of the two main planks in a man’s calling. Not that men are all literally to work as gardeners. Rather, we are called to “work” whatever “field” God has given us. Men are to be planters, builders, and growers. A man’s working life is to be spent accomplishing things, usually as part of a company or other grouping of people. We are to invest our time, our energies, our ideas, and our passions in bringing good things into being. A faithful man, then, is one who has devoted himself to cultivating, building, and growing.
Take a Christian man’s professional life, for example. Our calling to work means investing ourselves in accomplishing things of value. Men should be using their gifts, talents, and experiences to succeed in worthwhile causes that (if they are married) provide for their families. This can be anything that accomplishes good. A man can make eyeglasses, do scientific research, or manage a store; the examples are almost endless. But in each case, our mandate to work means we should be devoting ourselves to building good things and accomplishing worthwhile results. There is nothing wrong with a man working simply to earn a wage, but Christians rightly want their labors to yield more than money for themselves and their families. Christian men should also desire to cultivate something worthwhile for the glory of God and the well-being of their fellow men.
Of course, our “garden” includes not merely things but people. Man’s calling to cultivate means we are to be involved in the hearts of people placed under his care—people who work for him, people he teaches and mentors, and most especially his wife and children. A man’s fingers should be accustomed to working in the soil of the human heart—the hearts of those he serves and loves—that he might accomplish some of the most valuable and important work of this life.
This biblical mandate to work—here with the emphasis on cultivating and tending—explodes a great misconception regarding gender roles. We have been taught that women are the main nurturers, while men are to be “strong and silent.” But the Bible calls men to be cultivators, and that includes a significant emphasis on tending the hearts of those given into our charge.
A husband is called to nurture his wife emotionally and spiritually. This is not a sideshow to his calling as a husband but is fundamental and central to his masculine calling in marriage. Likewise, a father is called to be intentional about plowing up and nurturing the hearts of his children. Any counselor who has dealt with childhood issues can tell you that few things are more injurious to a child than emotional distance from his or her father. There is a reason why so many people are hung up over their relationship with their fathers: God has given the primary calling of emotional and spiritual nurture to men, and many of us fail to do it well.
It is the male arm around the shoulder or pat on the back that God allows to have the quickest access to the heart of a child or employee. Men who are seeking to live out the “masculine mandate” will be nurturers.
Keep: To Protect as a Sword-Bearer
The other half of the masculine mandate is found in the word “keep.” Here, the basic meaning is to “guard” or “protect.” This is captured in another common Hebrew word, shamar, which is translated by such English terms as “watch,” “guard,” “protect,” “take under custody,” or “exercise care.” The word is used of soldiers, shepherds, priests, custodians, and government officials. I especially love the way God uses this word regarding Himself. The Lord frequently states that He guards and keeps those who trust in Him. In fact, shamar is the idea behind the powerful biblical image of the Lord as a tower or strong fortress.
Take, for instance, the great words of Psalm 121, which begins: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (vv. 1–2). As we continue the psalm, we see that most of the help God gives us comes in the form of “keeping,” the very same word used of Adam’s calling in Genesis 2:15. The psalm says, “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber” (Ps. 121:3). This says that God is watching over His people so that we will not fall down. “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4). The Lord is always on the job, guarding His people. The psalm concludes, “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Ps. 121:7–8). God watches over believers at all times, to protect us from harm and especially to preserve our immortal souls for Himself. What a wonderful description of God’s keeping ministry. His calling to Christian men is similar: we are to watch over and keep safe all that the Lord has put under our care.
This calling to keep rounds out the masculine mandate of the Bible. A man is not only to wield the plow but also to bear the sword. Being God’s deputy lord in the garden, Adam was not only to make it fruitful but also to keep it safe. Likewise, our basic mandate as Christian men is to cultivate, build, and grow (both things and people), but also to stand guard so that people and things are kept safe—so that the fruit of past cultivating and nurturing is preserved.
To be a man is to stand up and be counted when there is danger or other evil. God does not desire for men to stand by idly and allow harm, or permit wickedness to exert itself. Rather, we are called to keep others safe within all the covenant relationships we enter. In our families, our presence is to make our wives and children feel secure and at ease. At church, we are to stand for truth and godliness against the encroachment of worldliness and error. In society, we are to take our places as men who stand up against evil and who defend the nation from threat of danger.
What Greatness Looks Like
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15), and He is still calling on men to cause good things to grow and to keep precious things safe. If we reflect a moment, these are the commitments we tend to admire in great men, and this should not surprise us. Truly great men are servants who give themselves to a worthy cause and leaders who stand for what is right. Come to think of it, this is what we admired in all those John Wayne movies. Take away the dumb saying, “Never apologize,” from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and we see that practically everything Captain Briddles did fell into the categories of building up or keeping safe. If we want to be the men God is calling us to be—men who are rightly admired and respected by those we love, men who faithfully fulfill our duty before God—then we will make as our motto and watchword the masculine mandate that we as men have received from God: We will work and keep.
Richard D. Phillips is senior minister of the historic Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C. He is the author of several books, including Jesus the Evangelist, What’s So Great About the Doctrines of Grace? and Hebrews in the Reformed Expository Commentary Series.
Reprinted from The Masculine Mandate: God’s Calling to Men, by Richard D. Phillips, copyright © 2010. Used by permission of Reformation Trust Publishing, a division of Ligonier Ministries. All rights reserved.