A Matter of Life & Death
LIFE AND DEATH
Good morning River City!
Well, today, we wrap up our series from the book of Proverbs by bringing the whole book to a close with a discussion around what I would say is the key idea or theme in the whole book. We’ve seen that the fear of the Lord is a major thread that runs through the book, and that no matter what topic the author is addressing, the fear of the Lord, wisdom, humility, the openness to correction are all major themes. But what does those threads hold together? What do they point to? Or to use a different word picture – if the fear of the Lord is the key to the proverbs, what then is the door that the key unlocks?
The key verse today is Proverbs 14:27 - The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, turning people away from the snares of death.
What I’m arguing from this verse is that the door that the fear of the Lord opens, that water that the fear of the Lord produces in abundance is the door to LIFE – the door to more living and less dying.
Sound good? Let’s close with prayer and sing a closing song.
What we want to do today is take a look at several scriptures that help us to unpack that proverb. The discussion today is Life and Death, and we need to define what we mean by more living and less dying. So we’ll come back to that verse, but first let’s look at a couple more proverbs that talk about life and death.
Here is our first verse, which provides the foundation for our discussion.
- Proverbs 12:28 - There is life in the path of righteousness, and in its path there is no death.
Now, if you’re new to the Bible, you might think that verse says being righteous means you never have a funeral. You just keep living. That’s what it says, right? There is no death!
But that can’t be what it means. New to the Bible or not, we all know there are plenty of godly people buried all over the world, including those who faithfully wrote scripture. There is a whole book of the Bible called Ecclesiastes that is frustrated with the fact that righteous people die. So it can’t mean that when you are righteous you don’t ever stop breathing.
Let’s take another verse:
- Proverbs 19:16 – The one who keeps commands preserves himself; one who disregards his ways will die
Again – new to the Bible, you’re thinking “oh my goodness – I’d better keep some commands, or else BOOM, God will drop me dead!”
And again, we all know lots of people who aren’t obedient to the Lord’s commands and they seem to be happy, living an otherwise enviable life, and doing just fine. In fact, Psalm 73 is all about the worship leader of the Temple looking at disobedient, wicked people doing just fine, and he’s having second thoughts about why he is bothering so much with obedience. So it can’t be that just because you’re disobedient you stop breathing.
On top of that, Romans 3 tells us that ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, so if disobedient people die instantly, there shouldn’t be any of us in the room.
So what does he mean, “he will die”? One more proverb and we’ll get to the point.
- Proverbs 14:12 – There is a way that seems right to a person, but it’s end is the way to death.
Proverbs seems to suggest that fearing the Lord, listening to his word and acting on it, is not just a good idea – it’s a matter of life and death. But because righteous people still die and people who don’t give two cents for God’s commands keep doing fine, what we’re seeing in these four proverbs is that this thing of living and dying is more than simply having a pulse or not having a pulse.1
Proverbs uses the words “death” and “die” between 20 and 30 times and refers over a dozen more times to Sheol, destruction, and departed spirits, yet very few times do any of those reference the actual moment of literal death. Scripture sees death as more than just a one-time event. Death is the whole realm before your heart stops and after your heart stops that is in conflict with life.
We experience this all the time. Death is constantly pushing in on us…
CREATION: We watch our yards die in the summer without rain. Flowers droop and wither, corn leaves curl up and start to brown. We see hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, floods, mudslides, etc all bring destruction. Trees die. Pets die. Creation is groaning, Romans tells us that creation longs for Jesus to return so it too can be restored and renewed.
PHYSICALLY: Sickness. The Psalmist in Psalm 116 said “The ropes of death were wrapped around me…” Some of you who’ve had COVID probably felt that way. Disease. Cancer. Injuries. I am now at the age where I can get hurt sleeping. I wake up thinking, “that did not hurt when I went to bed.” We get more frail as we age. Then of course, death rears its head as soldiers die. Grandparents die. Friends die. As one of my prayer books puts it, “We were not made for mortality, but for immortality; our souls are ever in their prime, and so the faltering of our physical bodies repeatedly takes us by surprise…The impositions of vexing disease and worsening condition are the unwelcome evidence of our long exile from the Garden of Eden.”4
SIN: And of course death pushes in on us through sin. That was the warning in Genesis 2:17 – when you don’t act on the Lord’s commands, you will surely die. And we experience this kind of death all the time. Sins of anger, hatred, racism, and aggression; sins of the tongue – lying, manipulating, crude jokes, belittling or condescending talk; sins of fear and anxiety – We currently are living in a world wrapped in the fear of a virus, fear of sickness, fear of dying. Then there’s the fear that I’m failing. Anxiety that I’m not enough as a parent, a spouse, in my job. Sexual sins like sex outside of marriage, gender fluidity and gender reassignment. Hiding behind our screens to say what we would never say face to face. Divorce, separation, bitterness, abuse, murder, abortion, greed, jealousy, and on and on we could go.
- Romans 6:23 - The wages of sin, what sin brings home after a long day of work is death.
- Death to relationships with others; separation in our relationship to God; death in the ways we look at ourselves and what it means to be human!
- Proverbs 5:22-23: A wicked man’s iniquities will trap him; he will become tangled in the ropes of his own sin. He will die because there is no discipline, and be lost because of his great stupidity.
- Sin doesn’t make us bad – sin makes us dead.
- When we sin, we are not making simple “mistakes” – we are bringing death into the world, and the real tragedy of sin and death is that we are completely missing out on true life!3
And what we learn from these three proverbs is that the quickest way to die before you die is to carelessly live your life, only doing what seems right to you; only what makes sense to you; only what feels good or feels right. Don’t repent or listen to any instruction or teaching, and stay focused on yourself; what you want, what you feel; what you determine truth to be.
This word “to be lost or astray” carries the picture of sheep or cattle who sort of eat one bite here, another here, another here, another here until unintentionally, they have ended up lost, with no idea where they are. And what has led them is their own stomach. Their own desires. Their own hunger for more. They are being led by their own refusal to turn around.
When we refuse to change our ways, repent of our sin, listen to correction, Proverbs says that is stupidity, it’s great folly, and it’s going to get you tangled up in your own sin, and there will be all kinds of unintended consequences that go along with that. As Ray Ortland says, it’s the hell before Hell.2
Look at the progression of an unrepentant life: Trapped – tangled – Death – lostness. And that is the kind of death Proverbs wants us to stop dying.
So the proverbs invite us to walk on the path of righteousness. On that path, there are no traps. There is no one tangled in their own sin. They may feel the pressing of death, but they are not dying – they are actually being made more alive by the fountain of life, being renewed day by day as 2 Corinthians says. On the path of righteousness, there is no lostness – only “found-ness.”
So what is righteousness exactly, and how do we get it?
Ray Ortland describes righteousness like this: We don’t use this method of commerce anymore, but if you went to the marketplace and wanted to make a purchase, the payment was made by weight. So if something cost 20oz of silver, you’d put your money on one side, and there would be a 20oz weight on the other side…at least you hoped it was 20oz. Right? An unfair scale would say it’s 20 but maybe 25 so that when you weigh out your silver they pick up a couple extra oz. But in order to keep the weights accurate, there was an official 20oz weight that all the others would be weighed against.
That is the righteous weight. It’s the standard for all the others. It's the perfect, legal, right, standard that all others are weighed against. So, then, righteousness would refer to the action of using a weight that meets that standard. You are conducting business righteously when you use a weight that meets the 20oz standard – it’s legal, it’s right, it’s good, it’s perfect.
Now, we’re talking today, not about weighing out silver, but about life and death. So, if righteousness means meeting a standard, what is the standard we must live by? Well, God says in Leviticus 11:45 – “Be holy, like I am holy,” and Jesus clarifies that standard in Matthew 5:48 by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
In other words, the standard for righteous living is not some sin, or less sin, or minimal sin – it’s NO sin. It’s not “are you better than your neighbor or coworker or ‘well at least I’m not like my mom’?” The standard for righteousness is not, “Have you done more good than bad in your lifetime?” The standard to be righteous in God’s eyes, that will get you the blessings of God in your life here and in the life to come is: “no sin.”
1 John 1 says if you think you’ve hit that standard, you have no idea what truth even is. Romans 3 lets the air out of any confidence you might have in yourself: No one is righteous. All have turned away. Sin is not a mistake. It is a turning away. And as a result, when we stand before God at the end of our lives, the only thing we bring to the table is death.
For us to have any hope at all, for us to ever experience any of the blessings of heaven, God has no choice but to either overlook or excuse our sin, or do something about it himself. If he says, eh, it’s not that big of a deal, or, well, you did the best you could - you were close enough, that would disqualify him from being righteous. He would no longer be acting by the very standard he set. So he cannot overlook or excuse sin and stay holy himself.
So out of his great love for us, and his desire to see us live more and die less, he did something about our lack of righteousness – he made himself human.
Hebrews 4:15 says that as a human, Jesus was tempted in all of the same ways you and I are tempted every day, but he never sinned. He never brought death into the world. Though he was 100% God and 100% man, He never allowed his mind to be set on his own human “needs” or wants. He completely obeyed his Father in every single second of every day.
Hebrews 1:9 says that Jesus loved righteousness and hated lawlessness, and God honored that by giving him joy, even in his sufferings.
Then in Philippians 2, one of my favorite sections of scripture, we read that Jesus didn’t play the God-card even when he had the chance. He didn’t cheat the system. He didn’t demand that everyone fall on their faces and worship him, although he knew he was worthy of it. He humbled himself, and obediently glorified his Father by becoming a servant to the very people who had rebelled and fallen short of the standard. And when he returned to heaven having done it perfectly God exalted him!
So far that is not good news for us. God says be perfect, and no one is. So he came to earth, lived the life we were supposed to live, and said, “see, this is what I mean.” That’s not good news at all. That’s even more condemning to us! But that’s not the end of the story. After Romans 3:23, where all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory comes Romans 3:24-26
They (the ones who have sinned and fall short) are justified (that is made righteous; brought up to meet the standard) freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented him [Jesus] as an atoning sacrifice in his blood, received through faith…
What does redemption mean? It means that in Jesus’ death, a transaction took place. 1 Corinthians 5 says that Jesus climbed on the scales in our place. Weighed against the perfect standard that God had established – not some sin, or minimal sin, but NO sin – Jesus perfectly balanced the scale, purchasing sinners out of their hell before hell, their dying before their death, and gave them HIS righteousness.
That word “atoning” in verse 26 means that Jesus himself met all the requirements necessary for God to interact with us in love and blessing and give us life without God being inconsistent or disqualifying himself. In other words, the price was paid IN FULL! There is no part of those requirements that YOU must fulfill.
Then Titus 3:5 adds that God didn’t do this for us because we had somehow been good enough, or deserved it, but because he is merciful! . And the way we get that atoning work of Jesus, the way it is applied to specific people like you and me, is through faith. Faith in what? Faith that God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day – that when Jesus walked out of that grave, the check for your sin cleared. God accepted the payment, and in great joy, transfers you out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his Son; out of the ways of living whose end is death, and onto the path where there is life.
The reality is that Jesus’ death on the cross does not erase all of your sins and give you a clean slate to start over trying to walk the paths of righteousness. That would be a relationship with God based on our efforts to try again and do it better the second time.
I’m sorry for what some of you may have heard, but God is not a God of second chances, or third or fourth chances. We don’t need more chances – we need “it is finished!” So instead of a clean slate when you come to Jesus – you get a new slate preloaded with everything JESUS did to meet God’s requirements, and THAT is how you become righteous! That’s how you get on the path of righteousness where there is life before heaven and no death before death.
The reality is, we will give our lives to something. We will either give our lives to sin, and die slowly before we die, or live for righteousness and live slowly before we truly Live.
One of the most beautiful lines of the resurrection story happens in Luke 24 as the women who followed Jesus showed up at his tomb to find it empty. And while they are looking around trying to figure out what happened, two angels show up and say “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”
Isn’t that question still relevant for us today? Why are you looking for a Savior in politics? Why are you looking for a savior in medicine? Why are you looking for a savior in education? Why are you looking for a savior in religion? In finances? In ministry? Why are you looking for a savior in yourself? Not that politics or finances or education are bad in themselves, they are all necessary and useful. But when we look to them for hope, we are looking for the living among the dead.
I’ve been there. I’ve looked in the empty tomb of other people’s approval of me; the empty tomb of having to be everything to everyone; the empty tomb of being better than the guy before me at my job; the empty tomb of self-righteousness – and they only led to anxiety. Anxiety is not a spiritual gift. Fear, anger, jealousy are not spiritual gifts. They are markers that you’re digging around in an empty grave looking for hope.
I hope you don’t hear Proverbs saying the person on the path of righteousness never sins, never experiences loss or hardship, never gets cancer, never gets anxious or lonely. We will still experience the presence of sin and death until the day Jesus returns to renew all things, which he will.
But until then, the book of Proverbs encourages us to drink deeply from the fountain of life. There are many snares of death, but there is only one fountain and his name is Jesus.
Those who have been looking for the living among the dead (Grant repentence)
Those who have experienced death - sickness, injury, suffering, loss (grant strength)
Those around the world who experience literal death for their faith (grant courage, patience, endurance)
- Ray Ortland, Proverbs (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 181
- Ibid, 182
- Derek Kidner, Proverbs (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1964), 51
- Douglas McKelvey, Every Moment Holy, Volume 1 (Nashville, TN: Rabbit Room Press, 2019)