Some people say that for a certain price people are willing to do things that they might not otherwise consider. This suggests that everybody has a price, but that it may not always be about money. People are willing to make incredible sacrifices for people they value or ideas that are more important to them than life itself. We know that human beings are capable of enormous acts of selflessness enriching others in the process, but we also need to understand that human beings can do some of the vilest things imaginable. It is not just the vilest of people who do evil. In many extreme circumstances, people have committed terrible atrocities. In the book of Lamentations, we read five poems attributed to the prophet Jeremiah explaining the nature of the destruction of Jerusalem by the hands of the Babylonians. God had sent his prophets over hundreds of years, but the people of God had failed to listen and now judgment was upon the people. As the city was besieged by the Babylonian army, they refused to surrender believing the false prophets, that they would be delivered by God. Meanwhile the city was suffering extreme food shortages. Extreme situations can bring out the worst in people. Things we would never consider or imagine can happen in the desire to survive at all cost. Jeremiah describes the indifference that suffering revealed in the hearts of people who were trying to stay alive:
Even jackals offer their breasts to nurse their young, but my people have become heartless like ostriches in the desert.
Because of the thirst the infant’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth; the children beg for bread, but no one gives it to them.
Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field.
With their own hands compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed.[i]
What is striking is that even the most compassionate of women were eating their own children. What a shocking picture! It revolts us to even consider such a thing, to ponder such a horrific time. It is stunning to consider that people can do both amazing acts of kindness, generosity, and self-sacrifice on the one hand, and yet have the capacity to do barbaric things on the other.
In Proverbs 28, we are once again challenged by the contrast between two groups of people. The first group are those who walk in wisdom, which according to the wisdom writers in Proverbs is described as ‘living in the fear of God’ (cf. Proverbs 1:7). The contrast to the wise are those who are considered ‘fools’ because they have no concern or consideration for God and His ways. When a people abandon God, morality and ethics quickly vanish. Proverbs 28 gives us many pictures of what starts to happen in times where people are no longer concerned about serving God. “To show partiality is not good – yet a person will do wrong for a piece of bread (Proverbs 28:21).” To pervert what is right for very little benefit speaks of the issue of moral bankruptcy. If we are going to live in a healthy society, there is a desperate need for certain values. When we lose values like integrity, honesty, and fidelity we will find life itself being diminished, demeaned, and despised. People no longer find meaning and purpose, joy or hope but simply struggle. Survival becomes the name of the game.
Throughout Proverbs there is a picture of two ways to live or paths to walk on. The path where the wise or righteous walk is one in which God’s blessings will be experienced. The other path is where the fool, defined as the morally deficient, and in Proverbs 28 is also synonymous with the wicked, ultimately leads to sorrow.
In Proverbs 28, we find contrasting behaviors and outcomes as a result of the path we are walking on. Three significant realms of life that shape us are addressed in this chapter.
THE FIRST REALM OF LIFE WHERE WE SEE THIS CONTRAST OF THE WISE/FOOLISH IS IN LEADERSHIP
Good character is critical in the formation of healthy and godly leadership. People who are morally corrupt bring disintegration into the lives of the people they lead.
A. Leaders set the moral tone of those they lead.
Leaders can help guide a people either towards what is right or what is wrong. This was certainly true in the southern kingdom of Judah, which had both godly and ungodly kings and their influences were quickly seen in God’s blessings or judgments upon the nation.
When a country is rebellious, it has many rulers, but a ruler with discernment and knowledge maintains order. A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.[ii]
Richard Clifford points out the irony of verse two “…the paradox that rebellion, far from doing away with rulers, actually multiplies them by introducing new factions or ensuring a succession of leaders in unstable times.”[iii]
Tremper Longman agrees with this assessment:
Basically, the point is that the offense of a land will lead to a proliferation of leaders, which is not a good thing. Long lived benevolent rulers are the best circumstances for a nation, providing security. The offense may well be a rebellion, which itself could inject instability into a country. The many leaders point to the fragmentation of a previously united land or perhaps to a succession of leaders as they violently jockey for power.[iv]
What is being suggested here in verse two is the need for wise, discerning leaders who distinguish between what is the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do. When leaders gain power to enhance or enrich themselves at the expense of the people they serve, they help create the context for instability in the land. In verse three we see the tyranny of a leader who exploits those they should be helping. The metaphor is that of a driving rain destroying the crop. The irony is that rain usually enriches a crop. So, what is the role of leadership? It is to lead for the benefit and not the expense of those they lead.
When leaders, which includes civic, religious and parents, lack integrity and endeavor to lead people along a path that is not considered wise and is therefore harmful, we see the following warning: “Whoever leads the upright along an evil path will fall into their own trap, but the blameless will receive a good inheritance (Proverbs 28:10).” In this text we find the principle of reciprocation at work. What a person sows, they will ultimately reap. The upright are delivered while the person trying to exploit them falls into their own trap. God does look out for those whose lifestyle is blameless (lived according to His ways).
B. Blessings flow from godly leadership.
There are a number of proverbs that explain the value of moral integrity in leadership and its impact upon those they lead. The result is a benefit to those who they are leading. It brings stability in the lives of others. “When the righteous triumph, there is great elation; but when the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding (Proverbs 28:12).” People are glad when the wise are leading as it not only benefits people individually, but also collectively as a society. However, when the wicked rise to positions of authority, people are seen keeping a low profile concerned about being the targets of oppression. Proverbs 28:28 repeats the proverb but closes with a hopeful ending. “When the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding; but when the wicked perish, the righteous thrive (Proverbs 28:28).” The point of these parables is that when the wise or righteous are in the roles of leadership the community benefits and what is right is encouraged:
A strong stable government ruled by honest leaders is a wonderful blessing; far too many people in this world labor under the tyranny of unjust rulers. Perhaps those who ‘go into hiding’ when wicked men reign are doing the wisest thing. They hope that the seeds of the regime’s undoing which it carries within itself will soon germinate, sprout, and effect its overthrow.[v]
To reinforce this concept the imagery of dangerous animals attacking prey is utilized as a metaphor for oppressive leadership:
Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a helpless people.
A tyrannical ruler practices extortion, but one who hates ill-gotten gain will enjoy a long reign.[vi]
THE SECOND REALM OF LIFE WHERE WE SEE THIS CONTRAST OF THE WISE/FOOLISH IS IN FINANCES
The wisdom writers are not opposed to wealth, but rather trusting in wealth and acquiring it improperly. There are a number of warnings against get rich schemes and the exploitation of others in order to enrich oneself.
A. Better to be poor and godly than rich and ungodly.
“Better the poor whose walk is blameless than the rich whose ways are perverse (Proverbs 28:6).” Someone might argue, but would it not be better to be both rich and walk blamelessly? Though it does happen that there are godly people who are wealthy, one of the great dangers of riches is that it can deceive the recipient into trusting in riches rather than God. In Proverbs 28:6 we see that the blameless life is superior to the life of wealth. In Proverbs 28:8 we are warned against the exploitation of those who are struggling financially. “Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor (Proverbs 28:8).” In the Law (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 23:19-29), it was forbidden for Israelites to charge interest on loans for their own people. However, we find that this was a perpetual problem when the moral state of the nation was at a low ebb. This was one of the things that Nehemiah addressed as the governor of Judah after the exile (cf. Nehemiah 5:1-7).
B. Riches can blind us to our true spiritual condition.
One of the subtleties of wealth is that it becomes the source of our confidence and trust rather than God. In keeping with the wisdom tradition, the wise or righteous poor are in a better moral condition than the rich person who is trusting in themselves because of their economic advantages. In this particular state, the rich person is actually in a position of peril. “The rich are wise in their own eyes; one who is poor and discerning sees how deluded they are (Proverbs 28:11).” The problem with riches is that they can be removed, whereas walking in the ‘fear of God,’ is a greater security. This proverb is revealing that these particular rich people are unable to see their true spiritual condition. The classic example of this is found in the book of Revelation when Jesus is speaking to the church at Laodicea:
To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!
So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing. But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.[vii]
To understand this rebuke, we need to realize that Laodicea was built on the great Roman road, and became a great fortress, but with one significant weakness – its water supply was compromised. It had an aqueduct that brought water from Denizli, six miles south. These hot springs, were filled with minerals, and by the time they reached Laodicea they were no longer hot, and needed to be purified, for it was not fit to drink. This tepid water caused stomach discomfort, nausea, and vomiting. Further down the valley was the community of Colossae with its cool, refreshing waters. Since the water at Laodicea was neither refreshing, nor did it have medicinal purposes like the hot springs from Hierapolis, its untreated water had no value, and only made one sick. Jesus’ assessment of their spiritual condition was in direct opposition to their understanding of themselves. We can also be lulled into an apathy by allowing God’s blessings in our lives to blind us to our true spiritual condition.
C. Wise or godly living is a call for diligence in work rather than unrealistic expectations for provision.
One of the great problems in our current affluent context is the development of an entitlement mentality. The expectations today are that others are responsible for our needs (from parents to government). The wisdom writers entreat diligence and hard work rather than looking for other ultimately unsatisfactory means of acquiring the resources for life. “Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies will have their fill of poverty (Proverbs 28:19).” The idea that some are entitled rather than realizing we have a responsibility to be diligent in our work and save little by little for the future is part of walking in wisdom. This is in contrast to those who are trying to gain riches quickly. The get rich schemes deceive us. “A faithful person will be richly blessed, but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished (Proverbs 28:20).” “Learning how to handle money is an art learned through long, slow experience. Those who have not learned it may find wealth is more of a burden than they ever expected.”[viii]
Here in the above two proverbs that chasing after ‘get rich quick schemes’ are actually empty and lead to nothing or worse, can lead to exploitation of others. That’s why pyramid schemes are so evil. They are predicated upon greed and taking advantage of others.
D. There are other improper attitudes toward acquiring wealth.
The first group are those who hoard rather than learn to trust God. Saving is good but hoarding as described by Jesus in the parable of the foolish farmer in is detrimental when we are not rich toward God and others (cf. Luke 12:16-21). God wants us to learn to be generous, just like Himself. God’s goal for our lives as believers is that we will grow up to become like Him.
“The stingy are eager to get rich and are unaware that poverty awaits them (Proverbs 28:22).” Another improper attitude is taking advantage of our parents either through ultimately taking what they have accumulated or not caring for them when they are unable to care for themselves.
“Whoever robs their father or mother and says, ‘It’s not wrong,’ is partner to one who destroys (Proverbs 28:24).’ One example of this wrong thinking was addressed by Jesus:
And he continued, ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!
For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curse their father and mother is to be put to death.
But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father and mother.[ix]
E. Greed is a heart issue that creates relational conflict.
“The greedy stir up conflict, but those who trust in the LORD will prosper (Proverbs 28:25).”
The antidote to being greedy is a law of displacement. The opposite behavior is learning to become generous. “Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses (Proverbs 28:27).”
III. THE THIRD REALM OF LIFE WHERE WE SEE THIS CONTRAST OF WISE/FOOLISH IS IN RELATIONSHIPS
Here we find that the overall value of living a life is having a right relationship with God, which helps us in our relationships with others. This is the nature of biblical wisdom.
A. The wise/godly live courageously rather than fearfully.
“The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion (Proverbs 28:1)”.
Bruce Waltke explains the psychological aspect of living life basically free from the wrong kinds of fear:
Paradoxically, because the wicked do not fear God, they live in fear of people, but because the righteous fear God (1;7), they do not fear people. These different psychologies are due to their consciences, backed up by the threats and promises of God’s word.[x]
What we discover here is that those who are walking in a relationship with God experience certain dynamics in their lives. In verse one we find that courage is a part of the believer’s life. We may struggle at times, but the admonition throughout Scripture is that we are to be courageous. This is in contrast to what Revelation explains to us regarding those who are not walking with God, they are cowardly. They allow fear to dominate their lives. Fear keeps us from experiencing God’s graces in our lives, and ultimately keeps us from God’s presence. It is interesting that one of the categories describing the ultimate judgment and what keeps us from experiencing God’s eternal presence is fear.
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.[xi]
In the King James Version, the word cowardly is translated the ‘fearful.’ As we read through the list of moral transgressions, the idea of fearfulness seems incongruent in many people’s minds. However, a careful consideration as to the nature of the wrong kind of fear reveals that fear is in actuality a lack of confidence or trust in God. Throughout Scriptures we are admonished to ‘be strong and courageous.’ We are also told not to fear. We are reminded by John that perfect love casts out fear (cf. 1 John 4:18). One of the more exciting examples of this kind of boldness in the face of threat is David coming on the scene where Goliath has been taunting the armies of God for forty days. What the rest of the people were focused on was the threats of the giant. What David was aware of is how this giant was defying the true and the living God, and by God’s power his end is predetermined.
David said to the Philistine, ‘You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.
This day the LORD will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head….
All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’S, and he will give all of you into our hands.[xii]
B. The wise/godly live with a teachable and understanding heart.
Those who forsake instruction praise the wicked, but those who heed it resist them.
Evildoers do not understand what is right, but those who seek the LORD understand it fully.[xiii]
When we do what is right, we are actually resisting evil; not only in our own lives, but by example we are modeling the right behavior for others to follow. In v. 5 we see that people who do what is wrong, just don’t get it. They don’t understand how sin is detrimental to themselves and others. In Psalm 36 in the New English Translation it explains that the problem of sin strikes at the very core of our being.
An evil man is rebellious to the core. He does not fear God, for he is too proud to recognize and give up his sin. The words he speaks are sinful and deceitful; he does not care about doing what is wise and right.[xiv]
C. The wise bring honor rather than shame upon those who love them.
“A discerning son heeds instruction, but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father (Proverbs 28:7).” When we do what is right we bring honor to others. When we understand that the cultural context of these writing are in a shame/honor system, the issue of shame and honor are significant to the hearers.
D. Our unwillingness to listen to God’s instructions hinder our prayers.
“If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable (Proverbs 28:9).” Robert Alden points out this important understanding from the language in the text:
‘The ‘deaf ear’ of verse 9 becomes more significant if we realize Hebrew [language] does not have separate words for ‘hear’ and ‘obey.’ To do one is to do the other. This proverb simply says that if we don’t listen to or obey God he won’t listen to us when we pray.[xv]
E. The wise/godly address the sin issues in their lives in the right manner.
Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.
Blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.[xvi]
In verse thirteen we see that the foolish are in denial about their true condition. They do not see the need for change in their lives and they live in self-justification and denial of sin. One might think that the opposite of this behavior would be for the righteous or the wise to walk blamelessly or without sin, but the proverb doesn’t juxtaposition the proverb this way. Rather, it points out that all sin. The distinction then between the righteous and the unrighteous is that the righteous acknowledge their sin, renounce it, and find mercy in God.
John tells us in his letter:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.[xvii]
Harry Ironside encourages us with this reflection:
When a man attempts to cover his own sin, he is but adding to the dreadful list, for he is refusing to heed the command which goes out to all men everywhere, calling them to repent. But when God covers sin, it is done effectually and perfectly, and shall never be interfered with for eternity.[xviii]
There is no greater joy than to know that one’s sins are forgiven. It creates within a person’s heart a desire to walk humbly and obediently before God. The fear of God within the heart empowers a person to make different choices based on new and healthy values. It was this type of attitude that gave Joseph the ability to say no to the temptation of his master’s wife in Egypt. Joseph’s response was simply, ‘How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God? (cf. Genesis 39:9b)’.
Our walk with God powerfully affects three realms of life. It raises a myriad of questions that cause us to examine our lives: How are we leading or following? How are we managing our finances? Are we trusting God or trusting in what we acquire in this life, no matter how we get it? What is the state of our soul before God and others? Are we living a courageous life, or is our life filled with fear? Do we have a teachable and understanding heart? Do we bring honor and shame to our heavenly father and the community of faith by our lives? Do we hear and obey God’s instructions or are our prayers hindered? How do we address the sin issues in our soul? All of these things tell us something about our soul’s condition. All of them tell us something of the price we are willing to pay to do what is right or what is wrong.
We are left to choose: “Those who trust in themselves are fools, but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe.”[xix]
[i] Lamentations 4:3-4, 9-10, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] Proverbs 28:2-3.
[iii] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 243.
[iv] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 487.
[v] Robert Alden, Proverbs: A Commentary On An Ancient Book Of Timeless Advice, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983), 196.
[vi] Proverbs 28:15-16.
[vii] Revelation 3:14-17.
[viii] Robert Alden, Proverbs, 198.
[ix] Mark 7:9-12.
[x] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 406.
[xi] Revelation 21:8.
[xii] 1 Samuel 17:45-47.
[xiii] Proverbs 28:4-5.
[xiv] Psalm 36:1-3 New English Translation, Biblical Studies Press, 1996-2006.
[xv] Robert Alden, Proverbs, 198.
[xvi] Proverbs 28:13-14.
[xvii] 1 John 1:8-9.
[xviii] Harry A. Ironside, Proverbs and Song and Solomon, An Ironside Expository Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 247.
[xix] Proverbs 27:26.