“The Blessings of Righteousness”
Proverbs 11:5 and others
September 9, 2018
The wise pursue happiness by pursuing righteousness.
I. The Law of Consequences
II. The Outcome of Righteousness
III. The Way of Righteousness
I have loved the Appalachian Trail for about 50 years. Beginning in Georgia and ending in Maine, it covers 2130 miles. Every year thousands set out to hike the length of the trail. Only one in four makes it. I never tried to do the whole thing, but during my Boy Scout and high school years I hiked over 300 miles of the trail in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and Maine.
One of the notable things about the Appalachian Trail is how it’s marked. Every few miles there may be a written sign, and that’s reassuring. But the typical mark is simply a white slash on a rock or a tree, meaning ‘go this way’. If there’s a sharp turn, or intersection, you’ll see two slashes. Then you look hard for the next single slash to be sure of the path. Occasionally you’ll find a triple slash meaning ‘don’t go this way.’ You’ll also have a guide book that says things like ‘proceed uphill 300 yards through mixed forest before emerging on rocky ledge at 1.6 miles. Turn left to parallel ridge for 0.3 miles before turning right at a fence line and hiking sharply uphill for 0.1 miles.” Between slashes and instructions you really don’t need GPS on the trail, though some guidebooks do include GPS coordinates. Wimps. We didn’t need that when I was young.
In real life, though, we all need help to stay on the right path. The book of Proverbs provides a good deal of that kind of help. It’s like a guidebook that tells us the path to get where we want to go. It’s also like the slashes on the trees, that tell us we’re on the right path and warns us when we’re getting off that path. But the goal of Proverbs is not just to get to Maine. The goal is to guide believers into right living before God. Proverbs is wisdom for right living.
The thing we want to notice this week as we look at Proverbs is that there is a benefit to right living. Right living is, in many ways the only satisfying way to live. Proverbs says that in the normal course of life those who follow the slashes, follow the guidebook, stay on the trail are truly happy, or as Proverbs would say, blessed. Proverbs teaches that blessedness comes to those who follow the path of righteousness. The wise pursue happiness by pursuing righteousness.
Do you believe you’ll be happier if you focus on righteousness rather than success, security, or sin? In other words, do you believe choices have consequences? Wrong actions have negative consequences. Right actions have positive consequences. There is a blessing for right living. But recognize that when I say “blessing,” I’m not primarily talking about material blessing, as a prosperity preacher would. Material blessing is only small part of the blessing of wise living. There are also consequences to heart, soul and relationships.
Proverbs reveals the law of consequences in many ways, some quite poetic. Let’s start with Proverbs 11:5 “The righteousness of the blameless keeps his way straight, but the wicked falls by his own wickedness.” Righteousness is a positive character quality. The underlying Hebrew word is tsedeq, which the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says has the root meaning of ‘to be straight’. It came to mean conformity to an ethical or moral standard. That standard is the nature and will of God who is “righteous in all his ways and holy in all his works”. Our righteousness is conformity to His standards.
His expectations of us are therefore very high. Next week we’re going to look at how Proverbs sees people’s hearts. Like the rest of Scripture, Proverbs sees us as having sinful hearts in need of a Savior. Our hearts do not conform to God’s moral and ethical standards without God’s intervention. That truth is central. We become righteous in God’s sight when the penalty of our sins is paid, by Jesus, on the cross. Only then can we begin to live the righteous life Proverbs calls for. So when you see the word righteous, recognize that the big story teaches that you are made righteous by faith in Jesus; only out of the strength of a relationship with him can you begin to live the righteous life.
With this background, Proverbs 11:5 tells us the righteous living of those who are declared blameless before God makes a straight way for them. To those living in the hilly and convoluted land of Israel, a road that had been leveled and straightened was a luxury. Righteousness, the verse says, is what gives us the luxury of a strait path. Righteousness, in Proverbs is very, very practical.
This is true, for example, in finances. Gail and I have always tried to run our financial lives by Biblical standards. Sometimes we’ve done better, sometimes worse. One of the things we’ve done right is mostly avoiding debt. The only thing we owe on is our house, and we’ve only bought as much house as we’ve needed at the time. The result has been increased equity and lower payments. That’s the straight path, the happy consequence. But if one of us had gotten sick, as has happened to so many, we might not have had the chance to reach those lower payments. Proverbs is wisdom for right living, not a guarantee of a crisis free life. But in the normal course of events, right choices make a straight path. They make things easier.
The other half of the verse is also a statement of the law of consequences: the wicked fall by their own wickedness. You reap what you sow: if you sow wickedness you reap wickedness. Isn’t it usually true? If you indulge in alcohol or drugs or any pre-occupation or addiction, you pay a great price physically, emotionally, spiritual and relationally. You find stress and turmoil in every area of your life because you have taken a wrong turn in that one area.
Take alcohol, for example. A recent study showed that any amount of drinking is probably bad for you. When you take into account the increased risks of cancer, liver disease, injury and other impacts, even if the one drink a day has some cardiovascular benefit the net statistical result is negative. Sometimes the law of consequences is painfully obvious. Drink. Drive. Die. Text. Drive. Die. Highly risky behavior carries a high risk. Sin has a price.
Let’s think briefly about a few of the ways Proverbs applies this truth: Proverbs 11:19 “Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live, but he who pursues evil will die.” As believers we’re called to pursue righteousness. Even unbelievers benefit from this pursuit. But pursuing evil is deadly. Think of gang violence, where shootings are often the result of retribution. Your guys did something to our guys. We’ll get you back, with deadly consequences. It’s true in every are of life. One of my favorite verses this week is Proverbs 26:27 “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.” Aren’t those perfect images? Remember, these are proverbs, not laws: sometimes the ungodly do prosper, but that’s not normal. Usually when you dig a pit you fall into it. If you try to roll a stone uphill it rolls back. For example, Americans have survived on credit cards and debt, borrowing what they cannot pay. But the economic collapse of 2008 showed, on both the personal and corporate level that if you dig the pit of debt you will fall into it.
Here’s another take, Proverbs 27:12 “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” Do you see the law of consequences? In Proverbs a prudent person is one who prepares for what might happen. The opposite person is not sinful but simple. He or she doesn’t think ahead. We all know people like this, those who plan ahead and often avoid trouble and those who stumble through life in a constant crisis. Most of us are someplace in-between, prudent about some things, neglectful of others. The market tumble of 2008 showed me again that I’m a simpleton in some financial things. Rather than take the time and energy to shift my retirement accounts into something conservative, I kept going with what I had, and my few accounts fared badly.
It’s the law of consequences. Proverbs 29:6 “An evil man is ensnared in his transgression, but a righteous man sings and rejoices.” To be snared is to put your foot into a trap that draws tight, with no escape. We make choices we tell ourselves are harmless: a little debt, a little drink, a little lust, a little anger. Suddenly we’re caught in a maze of escalating sin and lies. Ultimately sin, ruins relationships, ruins ministry and ruins peace. But there is joy in righteousness. When we live out the righteousness we receive from God in our choices, relationships and work, we can rejoice, sing and be glad. We can best express our thankfulness and joy to God when walking with him in purity.
So there is a law of consequences. Sin has evil and negative consequences for each of us, while living out the righteousness we have received has great benefit. Let’s pursue the outcome of righteousness a little further. Proverbs 12:28, for example, ties this to eternity. “In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death.” In the largest sense righteousness brings eternal life, no death. There is a path of righteousness, a narrow road that leads to life. We enter that narrow road by faith in the finished work of Christ. The path is never free from danger, but we can be sure that no matter what happens, the end of the story has already been written. Even if our path ends in physical death before Jesus comes, which it has for every saint so far, there is life and immortality beyond the grave. We rejoice on the narrow path because it’s the path of hope, the path that leads to eternal life.
But as we saw before, Proverbs is concerned not only with the life to come, but with our present life. There are positive, present outcomes to righteousness. Listen to Proverbs 13:25 “The righteous has enough to satisfy his appetite, but the belly of the wicked suffers want.” It doesn’t get more here and now than that. The righteous have enough money to put food on the table. The wicked don’t. You’ll say ‘wait a second, Bob, there are many cases where the righteous do go hungry while the wicked prosper.’ There are. But remember Proverbs isn’t the whole Bible and these are not binding laws. They are expressions of the way things usually, naturally work. Sometimes God does allow the righteous to be persecuted, while the wicked get the palaces and feasts. But for the most part the person who walks morally does OK, while the person living in sin, whether anger, drugs, gambling or sexual sin, pays. How often have we heard of the family living in poverty because the dad drank up his pay check.
Proverbs knows what it’s talking about. 10:24 “What the wicked dreads will come upon him, but the desire of the righteous will be granted.” One of the great downsides to sin is the fear of getting caught, getting justice. Criminals and other habitual sinners are among the most paranoid of people. They presume everyone is suspicious and malicious. Often they are right. The righteous, in contrast, often see their godly desires fulfilled. Take parenting, for example. When godly parents raise their children in the fear and knowledge of the Lord, it’s not a guarantee those children will walk with Jesus. At times the children of godly parents do walk away. It’s a choice. But being raised by believers who are walk in integrity is still the best place for children to learn the truths of grace and eternal life, which is what the true desire of righteous parents.
All this is not just natural consequence. God is involved in these blessings. Proverbs 10:29. The NIV says “The way of the Lord is a refuge for the righteous, but it is the ruin of those who do evil.”
God is a refuge or stronghold or place of safety for those who go the right way and enter his protection. But like a fortress bristling with cannons, for those who make themselves his enemies, his presence is dangerous, his holiness brings ruin. Those who flee to him find refuge; those who flee from him find danger. The same path is uphill or downhill, depending on which way you walk.
The final blessing I’ll mention is that the righteous have a firm foundation, deep roots that enable them to stand against the storms. Proverbs 12:3 “No one is established by wickedness, but the root of the righteous will never be moved.” As in Psalm 1, the righteous are like a tree firmly rooted and sure to stand. The unrighteous are like a tree with shallow roots that falls to the storm. Or as Jesus said, the wise man built his house upon the rock and it stood. The fool built his house on the sand and it was swept away. One of the great blessings of salvation and growth in righteousness is the ability to weather the storms of life without despair and without lashing out against those around you.
So the question is, do you believe this? Is there a benefit to righteousness, or do the wicked prosper? The Bible is willing to ask the question, and even invites you to examine the apparent prosperity of the wicked. But the answer the Bible gives is that God is on the side of those he has declared righteous, and he provides refuge, strength, eternal life and blessing to those who walk his paths.
But how do we walk his paths? Many verses in Proverbs give practical guidance for following the way of righteousness. Proverbs 18:10 “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” What does the righteous person do? Runs to the Lord, finds protection in the Lord. There is no shame in running to the Lord. It is the only sane thing to do when faced with sin’s strength and our own weakness. His name, his very nature, is a strong tower. There, by faith, in the face of temptation or grief or struggle or weariness we find protection and help.
The second practical step is to watch where we’re going, to stay on the path of safety, the one marked by the white blazes. Proverbs 22:5 “Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked; whoever guards his soul will keep far from them.” The action here is guarding your soul, and this is accomplished by staying far from the paths of the wicked. If you don’t want to get caught in thorns and snares, the outcome of sin, then don’t walk where the thorns and snares are. Stay off paths that are wide and easy but lead to unwanted consequences.
One of my favorite little stories illustrates this. “My Spiritual Life in Five Short Chapters. Chapter 1 - I walk down the street. there is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. I’m there forever before I finally cry out.
Chapter 2 - I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place, but it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time before I cry out. Chapter 3 - I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in . . . It’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I cry out as fast as I can. Chapter 4: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I teeter as I edge my way around it. I don’t fall in. Chapter 5: I walk down a different street.” In the path of the wicked is a pit, but he who guards his soul walks down a different street.
A few more verses to show how we pursue righteousness. Proverbs 15:29 “The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.” The action here is to pray. Prayer is a practical way of running to God and guarding our souls. By prayer and worship and the Word we stay in contact with God, in relationship with Him, and therefore find strength to follow the narrow road. God hears those prayers, answers those prayers, strengthens us against unrighteousness. He always gives what we need and often what we desire.
So ‘run to God’, ‘guard your soul’, ‘depend on him in prayer’ and next “make plans for good.” Proverbs 14:22 “Do they not go astray who devise evil? Those who devise good meet steadfast love and faithfulness.” Our thought life is key to righteousness. If our minds are taken up with the beauty of God, with what is true, honorable, just, pure, and lovely, that expels evil and untrue thoughts. If we are devising ways to serve God and love his family, we will not have as much mental space for serving and loving ourselves. This outward focus, looking at the needs all around us and devising ways to meet them is what the Spirit desires, not what the world wants us to want. As Hebrews says, “let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds.”
Finally, Proverbs 21:21 “Whoever pursues righteousness and love will find life, righteousness, and honor.” The blessing of righteousness comes not only when we pursue righteousness, but when we pursue love, Hebrew chesed. We imitate Christ who loved us and died for us while we were still unrighteous. His love is the model, so that on the path of righteousness we chose to love sacrificially, to love those in our families, our church, our neighborhood and community; to love those who desperately need this road to righteousness.
So you run to God, guard your heart, depend on him in prayer, plan good and love others as he loves them. These are the ways of righteousness. These things bring blessing, not the prosperity Gospel kind of blessing, but the kind that truly counts. On the one hand he keeps us from the consequences of evil. On the other he gives us life, righteousness and honor.
I remember the very first time I hiked on the Appalachian trail with friends from my scout troop. I learned two things about the right path. First, follow the blazes. The first two days of that trip were all low clouds and rain. But we had been told to follow the path, follow the blazes, and that’s what we did. A few years later I hiked the same section and realized that to the right of that path was a steep, steep drop-off that we didn’t even see in the low clouds. Second thing we learned was there are consequences for not taking wise advice seriously. It was so wet that we couldn’t get a fire started, so we ate our stew cold out of a pot and then cleaned it with dish soap. But we didn’t rinse it well, as we’d been told to. And the next time we ate . . . well, I’ll leave you to imagine the consequences of too much dish soap in the digestive system.
Ladies and gentlemen, we walk along a narrow path called righteousness, led by the Holy Spirit and leading to the refuge of God the Father and Jesus the Son. There are many opportunities to leave the path, to forget wise counsel, and walk in the way of the simple or fall into the snares of the sinful. But true satisfaction and blessing come when we remain on the path of righteousness. In the dozen verses we’ve looked at and in hundreds of others in Proverbs, God promises that there is a benefit to doing what is right. Let us so believe this truth that we strive to learn and follow all his ways.