“Wealth is not profitable on a day of wrath, but righteousness rescues from death. The righteousness of the blameless clears his path, but the wicked person will fall because of his wickedness. The righteousness of the upright rescues them, but the treacherous are trapped by their own desires.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What benefit is there in being right with God? If you’re a follower of Jesus, before you jump all over yourself offering a litany of answers to that question, pause for just a minute and think on it. What benefit is there in being right with God? Let me ask that another way. What benefit is there in righteousness? It’s amazing how changing just a couple of words there puts a whole different spin on that question. Righteousness is a theological word. Being right with God and being righteous are generally two different concepts in our minds. Let me add one more element to this: What benefit is there in being right with people? Now, that’s a totally different question. Except it isn’t. I have been journeying through the book of Proverbs with my deacons for the past few weeks. This morning I want to reflect with you for just a minute on something that caught my attention in our passage for this week. Let’s talk about the benefits godly living.
Before we dive right in, I should offer a word on studying the book of Proverbs. For most of the rest of the Scriptures, context is king in understanding what we are reading. You absolutely cannot take a single verse and treat it without taking into consideration the verses around it, the passage it is in, and even the whole book where you found it. This is why even when a particular blog is focused on a single verse, I don’t ever treat it without talking about its setting. But when you come to Proverbs and get past the ninth chapter, all of a sudden just about every verse can stand alone. Each verse is true in and of itself, and doesn’t need the rest of what’s around it to be understood properly. In other words, all of a sudden, context isn’t king anymore.
Still, while the context of an individual proverb doesn’t need to be quite the same concern as it does for something out of, say, Romans, there are a couple of things to know to make sure we don’t run off in directions Solomon never intended for us to go. The first thing is getting our minds around understanding the truthfulness of a specific proverb. The Proverbs offer reflections on reality, all things being equal. They describe how the world works when it is working like it should. The trouble is, the world doesn’t always work like it should. This doesn’t mean that if you find an example where one proverb or another proves inaccurate to your experience in that moment we should reject it as untrue. Rather, it means you are encountering a situation where sin is unleashing its inherent destruction and the Gospel needs to be applied to bring things back to their proper place and order. For instance, there are several proverbs talking about the wicked meeting their just deserts, but we can probably all point to times and situations when someone wicked seemed to get off scot-free. That doesn’t mean the proverb is wrong. It means God’s justice is simply delayed in being applied for one reason or another.
Two more quick things. Even though proverbs are fairly contextually independent, they still have to be considered in the context of the Scriptures as a whole and what they reveal about the character of God. For instance, we know God is just, but we also know He is loving and patient. That means He sometimes delays the application of His justice to allow room for repentance. That can be frustrating when we are the ones waiting for justice, but when we are the ones in need of repenting, some extra time to get our hearts right again before getting smote is awfully convenient. Also, because of the nature of the proverbs, of all the material we find in the Old Testament, they are the most directly applicable to our lives. They generally are not rooted in old covenant thinking and are timeless in their application. Because of this, their study will be some of the most fruitful we do in the Old Testament.
Now, let’s finally get to these three proverbs. There is a theme running through the three of them. As I have been reading through the proverbs more broadly, this is one of the more consistent themes throughout the collection. Many proverbs talk about the contrast between the righteous versus the wicked. Specifically, they call readers to embrace righteousness. Being proverbs, though, they don’t just come right out and say it. They offer descriptions of how life goes for people who are righteous intended to spur us on toward that end. In these three proverbs we see righteousness providing rescue from trouble and a clear path through life. On the contrary, choosing a path other than righteousness leads only to trouble.
Seeing all of this prompted a question and the need for an explanation in my mind. Let me start with the explanation. We touched on righteousness briefly a couple of days ago when talking about the breastplate of the armor of God. Just in case you missed that, though, righteousness means right relationships. Someone who has hit the mark of righteousness is rightly related to both God and people. Those are two sides of the same coin and cannot exist independently of one another. This, of course, begs a separate question than the one I’ll ask about these proverbs. If righteousness means being rightly related to God, how can we manage to achieve such a thing? How can we get right with God?
For Solomon’s original audience, their minds would have immediately gone to law keeping. Obeying the law perfectly made one righteous. Except it didn’t. The failure of that system to accomplish what it promised had to already be glaring by the time Solomon was serving as king of Israel. The solution to that tension would come in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We can be right with God in Christ. There is no other way to do it. And this is not a righteousness that begins in us either. When we place our trust in Him, He shares with us His right standing before God. Theologians call this an imputed righteousness. It is given to us. Jesus wraps His arms around us such that when the Father looks at us, He sees Jesus, and pronounces us righteous. On our own, though, we aren’t. And then, once we are right with God in Christ, we begin to live out of that righteousness. Indeed, as long as we go where Jesus goes and do what Jesus does, righteousness will remain wrapped around us like a coat.
When our oldest was little, I would carry him around in a Baby Bjorn carrier all the time. In the winter, I would put him in the carrier, put my coat on, and zip the coat over him. With his little hat on his head sticking up out of my jacket, he was awfully cute. Consider the warmth of that coat to be like the righteousness of Christ. As long as he stayed zipped within that coat, he was warm. And he stayed within the warmth of that coat by going where I went and doing what I did. If he had tried to go somewhere else, the warmth wouldn’t have gone anywhere, but he wouldn’t be benefitting from it any longer. He would then simply be out in the cold. (Of course, he was strapped in and couldn’t go anywhere, so the analogy breaks down, but hopefully you get the point.)
Here’s where I’m going: As long as we are going where Jesus goes and doing what Jesus did, we are going to be right with the people around us as far as that depends on us because Jesus is right with the people around us. This is why being right with God and right with people go together. We can only be right with God in Christ and as long as we are in Christ we are going to be right with people because He is right with people. If we aren’t right with people, then we aren’t in Christ, and if we aren’t in Christ, then we aren’t right with God. It’s a both-and affair.
This, though, leads back to my real question on these verse: Really? Is this really what righteousness accomplishes? Is righteousness really worth the effort it takes to maintain it? (The effort being remaining in Christ; once we are in Him, righteousness is natural.) Or, to put it the way I did at the beginning: What benefit is there in righteousness?
There could probably be a whole book written on this question. That just means I’m not going to give as full an answer here as perhaps you want. Spending more time in the proverbs on your own would be a good place to start to get that. What I can offer, though, is perspective. Here’s what I mean: the worth of righteousness depends on your perspective. The particular perspective I have in mind is your view on whether or not this life is all there is. If you believe that it is in fact all there is, the benefits of righteousness become limited very quickly. While, yes, there are good arguments to be made that cultivating right relationships with people can certainly be a benefit in this life, the justification for those relationships and the character you bring to the rest of your life do not necessarily have to fall even remotely in line with the ethic of Christ to gain many of the benefits. For instance, a mob boss may cultivate right relationships with many people, but only for the ends of expanding his criminal empire and further enriching himself and his family. Or, you could take more of a Survivor approach and foster good relationships as long as they are beneficial to the ends you are pursuing, cutting them loose the moment they become an impediment to that. You may have a whole field littered with broken relationships in your past, but as long as you are getting what you want, there are always more relationships to be had with people who don’t know your past and don’t care about it.
If this life is not all there is, though, and if the choices we make in this life determine the nature and quality of what comes next, all of a sudden righteousness takes on a new seriousness. More specifically, if there is a Heaven and a Hell, and if our access to one or the other is determined in any way by the amount of righteousness we cultivate in this life (which, again, only comes in Christ, so don’t think I’m drifting down some sort of a works-based righteousness path), we’d better give it a whole lot more attention than we might otherwise be inclined to do. Perspective matters.
So, yes, there is great benefit in righteousness. It rescues us from the eternal death of Hell. When we are found in Christ, we’ll gain in Him the rewards He earned. At the same time, righteousness is not only beneficial in this longer sense. Being right with people can benefit us more directly in this life. Being known as someone who is right with people can open the door to opportunities in this life we might not otherwise get. Such a reputation may remove obstacles to accomplishing things we want to do. When people know and trust us, they are more likely to work with us. Someone who has developed a reputation as being mean or lazy or untrustworthy will not get such a benefit of the doubt like this. When our desires are constantly for evil things, including evil done to others, we will eventually become trapped by those desires. Righteousness will save us from that kind of mess.
Now, will this always work this way in this life? No, but that’s not what the proverbs promise. It often will, but life doesn’t always go the way we want which makes keeping that bigger perspective in place so important when understanding the proverbs. Still, but for a few exceptional circumstances, they’re usually pretty on target. So, pursue righteousness. Seek to be right with God in Christ and right with others because of that. It isn’t always easy, but you’ll always, eventually, be glad you did.