Contextualizing the positive through the negative

Contrasts illustrate the truths of the Bible more clearly.

Core of the Bible podcast #59 – Contextualizing the positive through the negative

Today we will be looking at the topic of integrity, and how we can learn about God’s expectations for positive ethical behavior by looking at the results of bad ethical behavior.

Proverbs 11:3 – “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.”

The book of Proverbs provides a wealth of God’s wisdom in brief statements. The juxtaposition of positive and negative characteristics help to illustrate each other, causing them to stand out in bold relief to one another. When we understand the characteristics of the negative quality, we look to its opposite in order to understand the positive quality more fully. This is the beauty of the proverbs that contrast good and bad qualities.

In this verse, the integrity, the completeness or wholeness, of someone who is righteous or upright is contrasted with the twisted ways of those who are deceitful, or who act covertly in order to accomplish their own ways, even if it means overthrowing the actions of the righteous.

Many Bible versions will list this negative quality as “perverseness.” While this is not technically incorrect, the word “perverse” tends to have a different connotation in our modern vernacular. Relating the underlying Hebrew word as “crooked” brings out some of the meaning of the original: the idea of twisting or distortion of something by acting covertly in an intentional manner. This is an apt description of how someone who is treacherous would act in order to accomplish their own ends. In the end, it destroys them.

This brings out an interesting facet of what the Bible teaches: the consequences of one’s own actions. While we may come to the Bible to learn about eternal answers to questions we may have, I believe that many times we tend to skip over the simpler, obvious teaching because we are looking for deeper or more significant meaning in a passage. It may also be that we don’t have a complete recognition of the cultural underpinnings of these ancient writings, which is one of the reasons I find exploring this type of literature so fascinating.

For example, in Psalm 35, David implores God to come to his aid and defend him against his enemies.

Psalm 35:1-8 – Oppose my opponents, Yahweh; fight those who fight me.  Take your shields ​– ​large and small — and come to my aid.  Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers, and assure me: “I am your deliverance.”  Let those who intend to take my life be disgraced and humiliated; let those who plan to harm me be turned back and ashamed.  Let them be like chaff in the wind, with the angel of Yahweh driving them away.  Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of Yahweh pursuing them.  They hid their net for me without cause; they dug a pit for me without cause.  Let ruin come on him unexpectedly, and let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it ​– ​to his ruin.”

This is what is known as an “imprecatory” psalm, one in which the writer calls down curses or imprecations on their enemy. These writings have confounded Christians over the years because we in our modern days try to read back into these passages the teachings of doing good to enemies for their good, not calling down God’s wrath upon them. Therefore, this type of writing seems out of place with the overall purpose and plan of God in desiring us to overcome evil with good.

However, it is helpful to understand that what may appear to be a psalm or prayer of vindictiveness is more likely a statement of allowing the natural consequences of their enemies actions to fall upon them. This is very typical in the writings of that time.

In ancient Jewish thinking, since God is just, the Creation itself is imbued with a mechanism of justice. Sometimes the forces of nature are blended with concepts of angels or messengers of God. In this psalm we see David asking God to “take your shields…and come to my aid,” and asking that the “angel of Yahweh” pursue his enemies. To our Western way of thinking, these concepts appear to be spiritual forces that David is requesting God to provide to protect him and to rout his enemies. However, these are more likely literary expressions as to how it would appear to his enemies when the consequences of their actions were to fall upon themselves. David is simply asking God for those consequences to come to fruition.

Some other instances where this type of literary design is seen include other representative psalms:

Psalm 104:1, 4 – “My soul, bless Yahweh! Yahweh my God, you are very great; you are clothed with majesty and splendor. … and making the winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.”

Psalm 148:8 – “lightning and hail, snow and cloud, stormy wind that executes his command…”

In one of Elihu’s responses to Job, he also mentions the will of God being accomplished through the natural elements:

Job 37:11-13 – “He saturates clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them. They swirl about, turning round and round at his direction, accomplishing everything he commands them over the surface of the inhabited world. He causes this to happen for punishment, for his land, or for his faithful love.”

These examples merely illustrate how that, to the ancient way of thinking in middle Eastern culture, the will and purpose of God blended seamlessly with the natural elements, and one served only to highlight and magnify the other.

Psalm 8:1, 3-4 – “Yahweh, our Lord, how magnificent is your name throughout the earth! You have covered the heavens with your majesty. … When I observe your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you set in place, what is a human being that you remember him, a son of man that you look after him?”

Additionally, besides the proverbs, there are other examples of how the wickedness of the wicked comes back to them in time. In one of Bildad’s responses to Job:

Job 18:5, 7-8, 21 – Yes, the light of the wicked is extinguished; the flame of his fire does not glow.  … His powerful stride is shortened, and his own schemes trip him up.  For his own feet lead him into a net, and he strays into its mesh.  … Indeed, such is the dwelling of the unjust man, and this is the place of the one who does not know God.

Here Bildad explains it as a common understanding that the wickedness of the wicked leads themselves to ruin.

Another example is this additional psalm of David:

Psalm 9:15-16 – The nations have fallen into the pit they made; their foot is caught in the net they have concealed.  Yahweh has made himself known; he has executed justice, snaring the wicked by the work of their hands.

So in this instance, is God causing this “snaring of the wicked” to happen directly or only indirectly as being the architect of consequential just recompense? We also see a hint in this passage that through this natural consequence of their own actions, Yahweh has “made himself known.”

In a psalm attributed to Asaph, we see a similar representation.

Psalm 73:11-12, 16-19 – The wicked say, “How can God know? Does the Most High know everything? ”  Look at them ​– ​the wicked! They are always at ease, and they increase their wealth.  … When I tried to understand all this, it seemed hopeless  until I entered God’s sanctuary. Then I understood their destiny.  Indeed, you put them in slippery places; you make them fall into ruin.  How suddenly they become a desolation! They come to an end, swept away by terrors.

According to Asaph, until he “entered God’s sanctuary,” or came to understand the spiritual reality behind the natural events, it appeared unfair that the wicked lived in relative ease while he, attempting to be righteous had the sense in v. 13 that he had “purified his heart and washed his hands in innocence for nothing,” being “punished every morning” and “afflicted all day long,” (v. 14). But once he took God’s perspective on the wicked, he realized the relative ease with which they were living was really a slippery path to destruction if they were not to repent from their ways.

The biblical idea that God has created the universe to act in a certain fashion, or to react to our actions in a certain fashion, is itself a slippery slope of sorts, as it can lead one to a form of fatalism or consequentialism. Fatalism is the belief that all events are predetermined or inevitable, therefore, people have no ability to influence the outcome of their lives. Consequentialism regards all actions as justifiable as long as the consequences are favorable; i.e., the ends justify the means.

However, what the Bible actually describes is a system of justice based on the consequences of actions also known as “reaping what you sow.” In this view, people still are influencing their circumstances, so it is not fatalism. People are also held accountable for the “rightness” of their actions, so it is not strict consequentialism. In the Bible, people do receive the consequences of their actions, but they also have the ability to change their actions from negative and hurtful to positive and ultimately self-sacrificial. If fatalism were true, there would be no calls to repentance, and if consequentialism were true, there would be no accountability for doing bad things as long as the immediate result was good. No, the Bible teaches that God desires people to do what is right simply because it is the right thing to do, even if the immediate consequences are unfavorable for us. But the Bible also warns us if we continue to do the wrong things, even with the best of intentions, the end result will be bad.

It is from these ethical theories of men that God desires to free us. When we act at all times with integrity, we can avoid those twin traps of fatalism and consequentialism and we can stand assured before God that our actions are based on the truth of his Word and not just our assessment of our own circumstances.

Going back to our anchor verse for today:

Proverbs 11:3 – The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.

We can see here that the righteous or upright can be guided in the correct way to walk by recognizing the opposite of the crooked, twisting, covert ways of the treacherous. Here are some other similar examples from these contrasting proverbs:

Proverbs 11:5-6 – The righteousness of the blameless clears his path, but the wicked person will fall because of his wickedness. 

Proverbs 11:6 – The righteousness of the upright rescues them, but the treacherous are trapped by their own desires.

Proverbs 11:18 – The wicked person earns an empty wage, but the one who sows righteousness, a true reward.

Proverbs 13:6- Righteousness guards people of integrity, but wickedness undermines the sinner. 

Proverbs 13:20 -The one who walks with the wise will become wise, but a companion of fools will suffer harm.

Rather than seeking to define our own ethical behavior, God has defined it for us. In these types of proverbs, the contrast between the right way and the wrong way is the method of highlighting the differences and end results that God desires us to recognize in these alternative paths. The righteous are guarded or protected by their righteousness; it clears a path for them when the way is unsure or blocked with obstacles. It rescues them and provides them an eternal reward. The wicked will lie and cheat, they are trapped by their own desires; they will be undermined by their own sinfulness which provides only an empty wage, and will ultimately cause their own downfall.

Which path seems more compelling to follow? When viewed in its larger context and cultural setting, I believe this becomes self-evident. This is why this type of contrasting teaching throughout the proverbs is such a powerful method of conveying truth.

Contrasted with the “crookedness” of the wicked, there is no covert or hidden agenda with a righteous person; what they say, they will do. They are known as a “straight shooter,” someone who can be trusted because they are faithful and loyal. Everything is open and above-board in dealing with a righteous person, and you will always know where you stand.

In Matthew 5:33-37, Yeshua encourages believers to exhibit these characteristics in all of their outward relations: “Be a person of your word, not requiring any oath to substantiate your actions. Simply say yes or no, and do what you say.” When we act in this way, we can honor God and magnify the positive characteristics and ethical characteristics that are displayed, and contrasted, in his Word.

If you enjoy these daily blog posts, be sure to visit the growing archive of the Core of the Bible podcast. Each week we take a more in-depth look at one of the various topics presented in the daily blog. You can view the podcast archive on our Podcast Page, at Core of the Bible on Simplecast, or your favorite podcast streaming service.

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