In the path of righteousness is life,
and in its pathway there is no death.
Life and death are a major theme in the book of Proverbs. The words “life” and “live” occur around 56 times in this book, and the words “death” and “die” around 20 times. And for us, when we say that something is “a matter of life and death,” we mean that it matters above all else. We never forget the birth of a child. We never forget the funeral of a friend. I don’t have to ask you to consider whether the questions of life and death are relevant to us.
But life is more than having a pulse, and death is more than not having a pulse. The book of Proverbs gives us depth perception. Wisdom sees death as not just the physical event of a moment; wisdom sees death as a whole realm, a domain of human existence, in conflict with life. Think of it this way. You have a birthday. You know that day. It’s on the calendar. You also have a deathday. You don’t know that day. But it too is on the calendar. You have an appointment out in the future. And beyond that moment of death, further on, the Old Testament sees the realm of death called Sheol. According to the book of Proverbs, death is both an event and a state beyond that event. Still more, death casts a shadow over on this side, on us today. Death is encroaching on life right now in the forms of sickness, aging, suffering, fear, guilt, anxiety, confusion, boredom and, above all, sin. Any weakening of our vitality is death even now. Real life is more than a beating heart; real life is the vitality only God can give. And he does give it, gladly and freely, through the finished work of Christ on the cross. We receive it as we press the gospel into our hearts by faith. The risen Christ said, “Fear not. I am . . . the living one” (Revelation 1:17-18). We sinners stray into the territory of death every day. But in the book of Proverbs, God is counseling us, alerting us to where death lurks. When the sage warns his son against sexual sin, for example, he says, “The dead are there” (Proverbs 9:18). There is a hell before hell. But there is also a heaven before heaven. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Jesus said, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). So this is what God wants for every one of us today: to die less and live more right now through Christ. He alone can set our consciences free from the past, free from regret, free from dread and all forms of heart-death. Christ spreads new life to sinners, and on terms of grace. Life pours out of him. Let’s open up.
How Christ moves us further into life
In the path of righteousness is life,
and in its pathway there is no death.
There is a way that seems right to a man,
but its end is the way to death.
—Proverbs 14:12; 16:25
Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit,
but righteousness delivers from death.
Whoever keeps the commandment keeps his life;
he who despises his ways will die.
The wage of the righteous leads to life,
the gain of the wicked to sin.
The key metaphor here is “path,” “way” and “end.” There is a road, and there is a destination. The question is, Where are we going with our lives? Everyone is on a journey. We can choose our own path, but we cannot choose our own consequences, our own destination. “In the path of righteousness [only] is life.”
Two questions here are obvious. One, what is righteousness? Two, is this legalism? The proverb says, “The wage of the righteous leads to life.” Is that a legalistic pay-as-you-go plan?
But first, as for this righteousness, what is it? In Deuteronomy Moses tells us about the weights people used in the marketplace to measure the goods they were selling. He says, “A full and fair weight you shall have” (Deuteronomy 25:15). So if the weight says 16 ounces, it really is 16 ounces, and there’s no cheating. The weight is fair, because it’s true to what 16 ounces really are as an objective reality. And the word translated “fair” is our word “righteous.” A righteous weight represents the true standard, the reality. Even so, a righteous person sees a standard outside himself, he sees outside himself what a human being should be, and he acknowledges that the standard is Christ. A righteous person bows down before Christ and says, “I want to be true not to myself but to you.”
We modern people should have no problem, therefore, with external standards. We all know what it’s like to groom an image, because we want to look cool. The standard of coolness controls how we dress, and more. We’re adjusting to a standard. So is it really unacceptable to see a moral order outside ourselves? The gospel says that Christ is the standard we should adjust to. Not an abstract ethical ideal, but a person. Christ is the true human being. This week on The Gospel Coalition website Tim Keller blogged about a new book profiling the beliefs of young adults from around 18 to 23. The author of the book relates how he asked people “if their moral convictions (some of which were very strong) were mainly subjective feelings or really true to reality. He found that most had difficulty even understanding what he was asking.” We are being taught in our world today to see ourselves as our own moral authority moving through a series of life episodes and making decisions on the fly in terms of personal cost-benefit. We are being taught that there is no moral order out there to take into account. But that pathway leads into more and more death. How can a marriage be stable that way? How can you trust your mate, or anyone for that matter? Do you even know who you really are or who you’re going to be an hour from now? Righteousness is becoming truer to Christ, because in his path is life. The New Testament calls it sanctification.
Two, is this legalism? Is the book of Proverbs saying that a high-quality life is something I earn by obeying Christ? I ask this, because the gospel says we are not under law but under grace, in Romans chapter 6. And then the Bible asks the obvious question, “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (Romans 6:15). In other words, does rejecting legalism and coming under grace make sin no-big-deal any more? Does free justification make sanctification non-urgent? Paul’s answer there is practical, like the reasoning in the book of Proverbs: “When you were slaves of sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. And what gain did that bring you? Things that now make you ashamed, for their end is death. But now . . . you have gains that lead to holiness, and the end is eternal life” (Romans 6:20-22, REB).
Here’s the insight. We will give ourselves to something. We just will: “When you were slaves of sin . . . .” Let’s never think that the further we move from God, the more freedom we gain. When we hear that whisper inside saying, “You want to be free. So be careful. Don’t give too much of yourself to God” – the instant that thought creeps in, stop and ask yourself, “Where did that come from? What is the hidden motive behind that thought? Hey Mr. Thought, where did you come from? If I follow your path, where will you take me – into more life or into more death?” There are many paths to choose from, but there is no possibility of no consequences. The only question is, Do we want to stay slaves of sin? The law of God can’t get us off that path, but the grace of God won’t leave us there.
If you’ve had your bellyful of sin and you feel wounded and nobody who has used you cares any more and your heart is broken because you’re experiencing the bitter aftertaste of death, Jesus Christ does not say to you, “I told you so.” He says, “Come to me, and I will give you rest.” There is nothing degrading or shaming in Christ. If we will come to him, he accepts us as we are, he loves us into obedience, and we find that obeying him really is the path of life.
Frank Laubach was a missionary to the Philippines. He created a way of teaching literacy that helped about 60,000,000 people around the world learn to read. He is the only missionary to be honored with a U.S. postage stamp. In 1984 our Postal Service put out a 30¢ stamp with Frank Laubach’s picture on it. He helped a lot of people.
But more deeply, Frank Laubach longed for God. So one year he tried an experiment. He spent 1930 on a daily journey going deeper with God. He was a busy man. But he wanted to live his busy life with God. Here’s what he wrote to a friend on 26 January 1930:
Do not try this, unless you feel dissatisfied with your own relationship with God, but at least allow me to realize all the leadership of God I can. I am disgusted with the pettiness and futility of my unled self. If the way out is not more perfect slavery to God, then what is the way out?
Too often we are not enslaved to God. We are enslaved to ourselves in our pettiness and futility. Deep inside us is a committee of competing selves sitting around a board room in our heads – the work self, the married self, the parent self, the secret self, the dating self, whatever. Our different selves sit around this big table, each one shouting out its demands and staking its claims and fearful of being overlooked. When the committee votes, it’s rarely unanimous.
If you are divided and frustrated like that, if you are not wholehearted for Christ, you are dying more than you have to. Today can be a turning point for you. Admit to yourself who you really are. Turn to Christ, the Friend of sinners. Become honest with him, moment by moment: “Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:2). If you are out of control, admit it to him, and he will help you, he will bring you under his control. He will teach you his path of righteousness. If you will give yourself to him, he promises you more and more of the life you long for.
How the life of Christ spreads to more people
The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,
that one may turn away from the snares of death.
The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,
that one may turn away from the snares of death.
The fear of the Lord is internal, private, personal. The teaching of the wise is external, public, shared. And we need both, to satisfy our thirst at the overflowing, ever fresh, reviving “fountain of life.” How does that actually work? A tender heart toward Christ and a gospel-centered church – both together keep us refreshed and safe from the snares (or land mines) of death. So let’s keep our eyes peeled for two dangers. One is our own hearts saying, “I’ve heard all this before.” Theologically aware people can become arrogant, and not even notice it. Let’s always remember that life is not in theology; life is in Christ. He is not a concept. He is a living person. Let’s treat him that way, and he will keep us from stepping on the land mine of theological pride, which is death. Let’s also be careful to keep our church in hyper-focus on the gospel – good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross. There is only one fountain of life (singular), and there are many snares of death (plural). The fountain is Christ. And he flows out whenever humility and wise teaching converge. That’s revival, and we want it for everyone in this city.
A gentle tongue is a tree of life,
but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,
and whoever captures souls is wise.
Did you know there is a way for people in this broken world to re-experience the tree of life in the Garden of Eden? It happens through words, of all things: “A gentle word is a tree of life.” What is the sage talking about? You can see in your margin that “a gentle tongue” can also be translated “a healing tongue.” Perverse words break a person’s spirit. They are powerful. But wise words soothe and heal. They are more powerful. And the most powerfully healing words are gospel words: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2), “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5), and so many more. These are the divine words that heal the perverse words that have broken our spirits. And these are the words Christ wants more people to hear through us. It is not our mission to tell people how sinful they are but how life-giving Christ is. That’s healing.
And it works. The “fruit” of the righteous in 11:30 is their influence. God wired us to find righteousness attractive. True righteousness is humane and beautiful. We move toward it and find ourselves captured. We want it for ourselves and for others. And Christ spreads his tree of life through us. You and I are his strategy – our fruit, our influence. Again, it is not our mission to prove people wrong but to show them Christ. He cares so deeply for everyone we know. And as we join him in caring, his power and influence enter in. When the gospel goes out of your mouth, the power of God is going out, creating new life in everyone who listens with an open heart.
What is your next step with Christ?
My son, eat honey, for it is good,
and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.
Know that wisdom is such to your soul;
if you find it, there will be a future,
and your hope will not be cut off.
Do you realize what the sage is saying? He is saying that pleasure awakens us to how good wisdom is. So here is what you should do this afternoon. Go home and bake some cornbread, take it hot out of the oven, cut out a big piece and open it up, put on a dab of real butter and watch it melt over the steaming cornbread, take the plastic honey bear and squeeze the honey all over that cornbread, then put a forkful in your mouth, followed by a big drink of milk. And as you savor that delight, “know that wisdom is such to your soul.” Your soul has senses too. And God’s wisdom is sweet to your deepest self. You enjoy it by eating it. You can’t enjoy his wisdom just by looking at it. But if you’ll take it and chew on it and swallow it – as we all know, eating and joy go together. So it is with Christ. And the pleasures he gives do not wear out. They are your future, the proverb says, and your hope cannot be cut off. In fact, enjoying Christ personally is your only future. Look what happens if we refuse:
He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck,
will suddenly be broken beyond healing.
When God rebukes us, he is only calling us away from death back into life and pleasure in Christ. He is patient. But if we stubbornly refuse and refuse and refuse, then every heartbeat is more rebellion against a God of love, and his patience will end. His patience ended toward a whole culture at Sodom and Gomorrah. It can end toward individuals and churches. Isn’t God pleading with every one of us right now? Here we are together in this moment of mercy right now – if we’ll bow low enough to receive it. Will we? Will we obey the promptings of the Spirit and step out in new obedience beginning today, however God is speaking to you? He is ready right now to do a new work in you and me. If we are not believing and eager, what are we thinking? That is God is obligated to wait until we feel good and ready? How can we assume that tomorrow, or even this afternoon, God will still be holding the door open for us? If we don’t take advantage of right now, why should he give us more? He has already waited. This is our moment with the Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us every gracious incentive to humble ourselves and become decisive for him:
Fear not, for I am… the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
I am the way, the truth, and the life. —John 14:6
He didn’t say, “There is a way.” He said, “I am the way.” Will you follow him? Will you take your Spirit-prompted next step into new obedience to Christ? He welcomes you. New life awaits you right now.