Proverbs 22:3 & 27: 12 A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself; but the simple pass on, and are punished.
Sometimes when you read scripture you might encounter a verse and think that it sounds familiar. This can apply to well known verses as well as less familiar ones. For example, if you read John 3:15, that would sound very familiar indeed, because John 3:15 says 15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. That no doubt sounds like something you’ve heard many times before, something that comes one exactly one verse later. The verses we read from Proverbs are of course not so well known. Some time ago when reading Proverbs I read chapter 27 and thought that verse 12 sounded like something I had read a few chapters earlier, which of course it did. It didn’t just sound similar, it was in fact the same. The two verses are a word-for-word match. To be sure of this checked and confirmed that the same Hebrew words are used in both verses.
This is not a sermon about repeated verses, although that could be an interesting topic for another day. This is a sermon about the verses we read, and what it means to be prudent, and what it means to be not so prudent.
The phrase caught my attention when I read it recently, as it must have caught my attention when I read both verses many years ago. I say this because although I read it recently in my study Bible at home, both verses are underlined in this Bible, my “road Bible” that my mother gave to me when I turned 12. When those verses were underlined I can’t tell you exactly, but it was many years ago. It caught my attention then, as it did recently.
What about this scripture caught my attention? It’s hard to put your finger on that. This proverb follows the common pattern of so many of the proverbs, where there is contrast between item A and item B. That is not remarkable. It presents a good option, a wise course of action, which brings about a favourable outcome, along with the corresponding poor option, ill-advised action, and the unwelcome result. Like so many other proverbs, it is obvious that you want to follow the first one, and avoid the second. Avoiding evil is good; receiving punishment; not as good. In general, being prudent is a good idea.
Maybe what caught my attention is that when I first read it, I wasn’t sure how to interpret it. Seeing evil and hiding from it did not seem like the right course of action. That’s not how we are supposed to deal with evil. That’s not how God deals with evil. But of course, you and I are not God. Far from it. Sometimes hiding from evil, simply avoiding it, is the best option we have available to us.
Here’s an example that should be pretty easy to understand. The other day a friend of mine posted something on Facebook that applies remarkably well here. Not that he intended to provide an example for my sermon today, of course, he was instead trying to provide a warning. He posted something to the effect of “A few enterprising fellows have set up shop on the Charlottetown bypass near the Oak drive overpass, and they are collecting donations.” It was a warning about a speed trap, of course. The police were set up to stop speeders. Anyone going through that area too fast that morning was going to find the red and blue lights in their rear view mirror. Of course, if you passed through at a reasonable, safe, and most importantly, within the legal limit rate of speed, or if you simply avoided that area entirely, then you had nothing to be concerned about. Come bombing along at 100 in the 70 zone, and, well, much as the verses we read earlier both say, the simple pass on and are punished.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the police are evil, certainly not. I appreciate that we have competent law enforcement in this country. But getting a speeding ticket, I think we can all agree that is not something good. The word evil as we have it translated here is more of a general word meaning bad in a wide number of senses, some stronger than others. Trouble might be a good translation for our context here. The prudent man sees trouble ahead and avoids it. Making sure to not go speeding by a radar trap, that would qualify. It’s prudent to not get speeding tickets, and it’s unwise to drive in a manner that would incur fines and demerit points.
Avoiding traffic infractions is of course a rather minor application of this verse. It’s an easy example to understand, but it’s not all that serious in the grand scheme of things. It’s trouble we would all like to avoid, but it’s not the end of the world if you get pulled over for speeding. There are some far more serious examples of trouble to be avoided that further illustrate this. In the 1930s when the Nazi party came to power, there were more than half a million Jews living in Germany. As it became more and more obvious that the Nazis were strongly anti-Semitic, so say the least, more than half of the German Jews left the country. Sadly, many of them immigrated to countries like Belgium and France that would be invaded and overrun a few years later. We know what happened after that. They foresaw the evil, and they made an effort to hide from it.
Only those who actually made it out of mainland Europe, though, were actually safe. It is a sad fact that the US and British Commonwealth nations did not admit very many of the Jews seeking asylum. It is another sad fact that right now refugees from another war are having a difficult time finding safe and welcoming countries to let them in. That’s not my topic for this morning, although I will say that the notion of keeping desperate people out because there is a very slim chance a few of them might be terrorists is a poor excuse for doing nothing to help in solving a vast humanitarian crisis. But I digress.
The verses we read are not about people fleeing from trouble when it occurs. The prudent man foresees the evil and hides himself. To be prudent is to see the trouble well before it arrives, and to take preventative action. That is sensible, that is prudent. Doing something about a problem when the situation has already happened is a good idea, probably a necessary idea, but it’s not especially prudent. It’s not proactive, it’s reactive. There’s a difference.
At work we have a quality management system. The idea behind it is that we follow processes that allow us to consistently deliver high-quality products to our customers. As part of this system, there are three related types of reports that we use. As part of my job I get to complete these reports at times, and as I think about them, these illustrate the differences I’m talking about. I won’t go into all the acronyms and details, but in short, the first report details any problem that has happened. Some product or some part has a defect, the first report describes what that problem is, and what was done about it. You do these reports when something has actually gone wrong.
The second report is a corrective action report. This is detailing how something went wrong, why it went wrong, and how to stop it from happening again. Let’s say a part was painted the wrong colour. The immediate fix is to paint it the right colour. The long term fix is to make sure the instructions are clear and plain so that the next time it’s done in the right colour. That’s a step in the right direction, of course, but it’s not as good as the third type of report.
The third one is preventative. What’s a problem that could happen, is likely to happen, and what can be done to stop it from happening? To use my paint example, you make sure the instructions are clear, and you train the people who do the painting so they know to use the instructions, and you do it before they do something in the wrong colour. That’s prudent. That’s getting ahead of the problem, before the problem even occurs. That’s what our verses from Proverbs are talking about. Anticipate trouble, see trouble coming down the road, and instead of waiting for it to show up, get out of the way.
It’s easy to see how we can apply this to our work lives, and to our personal lives, and of course to our spiritual lives. It’s easy to see how to apply this principle, and how it would be tremendously beneficial to do so. For example, I have diabetes, and so it would be prudent for me to avoid foods that cause my blood sugar to spike. That would be minimizing the possibility of that particular trouble. That’s a specific, physical problem, but you can find all manner of applications across the gamut of situations we might have to deal with. If you have a problem with drunkenness, it would be prudent to stay away from establishments where alcohol is served. If you have a problem with gossip, don’t spend your time with people who enjoy talking about other folks’ business. It’s pretty obvious stuff, and it’s only common sense. If you are highly flammable, maybe don’t play with matches. We all know this.
The prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished. It’s easy to understand this concept, it’s easy to see how much we would benefit from doing it. If you watch out for trouble, if you know where trouble is likely to come from, then stay away from it. Easy to say, easy to understand, but so often we fail to do that. So many people, instead of taking preventative action, instead of being prudent, are very often instead like the ‘simple’ described in the verse, who pass on, and are punished.
This world is filled with people who are simple. That is not intended to be demeaning, it is simply stating fact. We very often like to have simple solutions to our problems, straightforward answers to our questions. We like to have things categorized neatly, we like yes and no answers, without complexity and nuance. That’s easy and not challenging, and much of the time we like to have things that way. Looking further down the road is more challenging, and looking out for possible bumps and potholes, that is more challenging still. People, countless people, blunder on into trouble instead of anticipating it and being proactive. Yes, sometimes problems happen that we would have no way to prepare for, no way to anticipate. But I would suggest that the vast majority of troubles we all experience could have been avoided.
When I was preparing this sermon, I stayed up too late a couple of evenings working on it. And yes, each time I was tired at work the next day. That’s not a major problem, but if I had managed my time more wisely, that problem could have been avoided. So often it’s the easy way out to simply continue on our present course, and hope that the problem may not come, or hope that it will be manageable, or minor. So often we do that instead of taking the wise course of action, the prudent course of action, and changing direction before it’s too late.
Why is the simple, non-prudent approach so commonplace? Well, here are a few reasons. The first is false optimism. We like to believe that problems will not actually happen. That’s the simple approach, to keep moving forward and hope that everything will work out okay. It worked yesterday, it’s been working today, so here’s hoping it will work tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. That might work for a while, but sooner or later, it stops working. That’s like ignoring the oil in your car. Yes, it’s probably fine right now, but if you never check the oil level, and you never take it in to the garage to change the oil and replace the filter, the oil will eventually degrade, or burn, or leak out, or become so dirty that it no longer does its job. Engine failure comes sooner or later with that approach. It’s simple to leave that alone and hope that it will just be fine indefinitely, but at some point it won’t be. The simple pass on, and are punished.
Another reason that the simple approach is popular is that we like to minimize our problems. Sometimes the problems that we encounter, problems which could easily have been avoided, are small. Sometimes they are easily manageable. When the problem is not serious, sometimes we might feel that it is not worthwhile making the effort to be proactive, to be prudent and avoid the problem. If we can manage a problem, then it’s not really so much of a problem, is it? If you only encounter small problems, and only ever have to deal with manageable difficulties, then that’s not so bad. If you can handle every problem that comes your way, then there is no reason to be prudent and avoid those problems.
Of course, not every problem is manageable. Many might be, but sooner or later we all have problems that we can’t just handle, can’t simply climb over and move on. We might like to believe otherwise, tying in to the same false optimism from the previous point, but given enough time, we all run into problems that we can’t deal with. Don’t believe me? Take a look at suicide rates. It’s tragic, it’s downright brutal to think of, but that’s one of the choices people make when they can’t handle their own problems, when they feel like they can no longer cope. When our difficulties are too big to manage, something has to give.
One more reason why we are not often prudent is because that takes work. It requires effort. And what’s more, it demands work right now. Yes, being prudent is all about being prepared for the future, but the work has to be done before the future gets here. If you see the evil coming, and you want to head it off at the pass, well, you gotta get on that. You can’t passively wait for it to come to you. That means work has to be done right away. Changes have to come now, while there is still time. And that’s a lot harder than being lazy. Remember, planning and foresight bring future rewards. Laziness pays off now.
Taking the simple approach is easy. It demands little to no effort right now, it chooses to look for best-case scenarios, and it takes pride in being self-reliant, on being able to handle whatever problems come up. But the walk of the simple is doomed. The prudent man foreseeth the evil and hideth himself, but the simple pass on, and are punished.
Ultimately, we all have trouble coming our way. We all, and that’s not just you and me, but every person ever born on this earth, has a problem with sin. We might like to look the other way and pretend it’s not out there, but it is. No matter what we may try to do, we can’t fully manage it. And if we are lazy, well, then that’s not even going to matter, because our default setting is to sin. That’s the way we will inevitably drift if left to our own devices. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
That’s an evil that we need to foresee. And it also brings with it the promised punishment. As it says in Ezekiel chapter 18, the soul that sinneth, it shall die. Sin is an evil that waits for us on the road of life, and death is the punishment. Harsh, but true. And we know this to be true, from what it tells us in God’s word, and from what we have lived and seen and experienced. We all have sinned, and we all have come short of the glory of God. Everyone we know has sinned, and everyone that they know has sinned, and so on and so forth no matter how wide you extend the circle.
For that matter, everyone is slated to die some day. That’s you, that’s me, that’s the person sitting next to you, that’s the cashier who waited on you at the store the other day, that’s everyone. If the Lord does not return, and it is our hope that He will soon, but until the time that he does, we are all going to die. We might be able to keep it at bay for a while with healthy living and good luck, but that only lasts so long. Even the most long lived of us barely hits the 100 mark. And even then, even the best of health isn’t much use if you happen to fall down a flight of stairs, or you choke on a piece of steak, or you have some sort of unknown medical defect. Last week, I received word that my stepmother’s nephew had died. He had a massive heart attack, and so far as I know he died before they could get him to the hospital. Not sure there was anything they could have done anyway. He was 28. I didn’t know him personally, I may have met him one time, but he’s gone now. He’s gone into eternity, and without warning. Sobering, but true. None of us knows if we are going to end up with a similar, sudden demise. It’s unexpected, because there is no way to anticipate it. He died because of unanticipated medical distress, but we all die. The timing is not something you can be sure of, but the inevitability is. One out of every one person dies.
What’s more, as it says in Hebrews chapter 9, verse 27, while it is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgement. Not only are we all going to die, but we will all face our creator afterwards. That is part and parcel with death. Sin leads to death, and death comes before judgement. That is something that we all should be able to foresee. If it’s going to happen to everyone, then to fail to anticipate it would be very simple-minded indeed. The prudent thing to do would be to prepare for it.
Once again, our verse says a prudent man foresees the evil, and hides himself, but the simple pass on, and are punished. Now, of course while you can anticipate the inevitability of death and judgement to come, you can’t hide from it. As much as you might want to pretend that that no death is coming, as much as you might want to minimize the impact, as much as you might deny that there really is any judgement to be worried about, there is no hiding from death. That is an evil you can foresee, and frankly, that you should foresee, but no amount of prudence can avoid. But just because you can’t avoid death, and by extension, judgement, that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for it.
That would actually be the most prudent thing that any human being can actually do. If death is inevitable for us all, then being ready for it is absolutely necessary. Being ill-prepared for death and judgement is the action of a simple person indeed.
It’s baffling why so many people refuse to prepare for eternity, why they feel that they need not do anything to be ready for what is in their future. Perhaps it is because looking forward to death is unpleasant, perhaps it is because being prepared takes effort, and it’s so much easier to do nothing. Perhaps it is a matter of denial and wilful ignorance. But every day people pass into eternity without being prepared for it.
There is no good reason to pass into eternity without being ready for it. Because as prudent and as prepared as you might want to be, God is far more prepared, and far more prudent. Our verse says that the prudent man foresees the evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished. God foresaw the evil that awaits each and every one of us, each and every person who has ever been born on this planet. He could have allowed us to pass on and be punished, which was the fate we all were headed for. But instead, He did something else. He didn’t hide Himself from the evil, and from the punishment, quite the opposite, in fact. Instead of hiding from the problem, He took it on Himself. He sent His Son to pay the price for our sin. He did this instead of ignoring it, or minimizing it, or trying to somehow manage it. That was very prudent for our sakes. That gave us a way out. We can’t hide from our future, but we can be prepared for it because Christ cleared a way of salvation. To accept this and to live accordingly is the most prudent and wise thing any of us can do.
As much as it worked out for us, it was not convenient, or easy, or pleasant, or safe for Him. Let’s read a few verses from John chapter 12 to illustrate this. Reading from verse 24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. 25 He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. 26 If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour. 27 Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. 28 Father, glorify thy name.
Christ saw the evil ahead of Him, and instead of hiding from it, instead of seeking deliverance from it, He accepted it. He did this because He saw the evil ahead of us, and knew that we had no way of doing anything about it on our own. Not that He enjoyed it, far from it, no one enjoys suffering and pain, no one enjoys rejection and abandonment, but He endured it, He went through it to buy our salvation, to pay the price for our sins, to deal with our judgement to come.
For this cause came I unto this hour we read at verse 27. People point to Christ and say that He came to teach us how to live, how to treat one another, and while that it is true, it fall far short of why He came. He came not only to show us how to live, but He came as well to show us how to die. Not clinging to our mortal lives as if they were the most prized possessions we could ever own, but instead being willing to give up ourselves in this world so that we might be prepared for the next.
If we are prudent, that is what we must do. To simply pass on will bring punishment, that is true, and that is not something to ignore. What’s more, we should know that even if we have taken action, if we have accepted Christ’s work on the cross, there are many more that have not. Christ did not chose to remain safe, He chose to die so that we might live. Not prudent for His own safety, His own comfort, but it surely was necessary for us. If we say we follow Him, then we might need to sacrifice our own safety and comfort to do likewise. It wasn’t prudent as far as their own safety was concerned for Jim Eliot and Nate Saint and the other missionaries to travel to Ecuador to preach to the tribal peoples, it cost them their lives, but their action saved countless other lives. Not that I’m asking you to be a martyr this morning, but it might be prudent to put the wellbeing of others higher on our list of priorities, certainly ahead of our own comfort.
I don’t know your heart this morning, but I know that if you’re here today, you’d probably heard the gospel preached many times in the past. It’s not my intention this morning to explain how salvation works, but rather to express how important it is for each and every one of us to recognize our need for salvation and to be prepared for death and for judgement.
God’s standard to pass judgement is high. It is far above what any of us can hope to achieve, no matter our best efforts. It is only through Christ’s death on the cross that we can hope to pass judgement, to have the price for our sins paid for. This is something that we have all heard before, and will no doubt hear again, because it is true, and it is important. To be prepared is to be prudent, to do otherwise is to be simple. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. The time to get prepared is today.