READ : Proverbs 23:17-18
Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day. Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.
Proverbs 23:17-18, RSV
Here, as we stand on the threshold of another year, is a priceless word from God. Graciously, He warns us about what to avoid, charges us with a task for each day, and encourages us with a sure promise.
First, the warning: “Let not your heart envy sinners.” This is a message to God’s people about the attitude they have toward those outside the fold. “Sinners” here is a term for those who live their lives as though there were no God. They show no reverence for His name, no gratitude for His gifts, no intention to obey His will. The word to all the faithful is: don’t envy such people.
Why, we wonder, should such a warning be needed? Why would godly people ever envy the godless? If people truly know the Lord, would they ever feel badly about the strutting and successes of those who do not? Would they wish for the fun and the fame that sometimes come to those who live without giving God a thought? The answer, sadly, is yes. Sometimes the servants of God do feel that way. Especially it bothers them that things go so well for many who are plainly rebels against God. They’re healthy. They’re prosperous. They seem to be having such a good time! Believers, seeing that, tend at times to become discouraged, self-pitying, bitter, especially when they themselves are under pressure, going through pain and loss. In their better moments, they know that such feelings are wrong. They wish they didn’t have them. But that grating uneasiness keeps coming back. “Why do these people have it so good,” they say, “when my life is so tough?”
Listen to the psalmist, honest enough to admit that he himself struggles with these painful emotions. “As for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had well nigh slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps. 73:2-3). He almost hated himself for feeling that way, but the sight of wicked people, living it up, laughing at God, getting away with flagrant evils, was almost too much for him.
Maybe you have felt that way at times. You trust in the Lord and you’re trying to live a life that pleases Him. But lately it seems that you’ve had nothing but trouble. You’re short of money, perhaps; you’re experiencing tensions at home; you have a nagging physical problem that’s getting you down. Some cherished project of yours has just collapsed or you’ve had a huge, terribly painful loss in your life. But as you look around you, you see all kinds of people who make no effort to serve God. They don’t have to face the turmoil and trouble that you’re going through. Some of them seem to be on top of the world, with everything their hearts could wish. You wonder, “What’s going on here? A lot of good it does me to try to live a decent, dedicated life!” And maybe, every now and then, you begin to hanker for what those others have.
The Lord knows how vulnerable we are to this. We have to catch ourselves when we’re feeling that way, to remind ourselves how crazy it is, to stand against the self-pity and short-sightedness that can make such a life-style look desirable. We need to hear the word that speaks to our inmost self, “Don’t let your heart envy sinners.”
But there’s more than a prohibition here, more than a “don’t.” The Word offers an alternative, something to do instead. Here it is: “Continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.” The answer, the antidote, is the fear of the Lord. Instead of focusing on what those people have and what we don’t have, on their benefits and our burdens, we need a different perspective. We need to “set the Lord always before us.”
That’s what the fear of the Lord principally means. It’s not fright or terror. God has no interest in our being afraid of Him. It surely doesn’t mean that we need to be solemn, gloomy, and apprehensive all the time. The fear of the Lord is simply an awareness that He is real and that He is there.
The opposite of fearing the Lord is forgetting all about Him. When we remember that God is, that He’s our Creator and King, that He’s our Savior, Guide, and Friend, that we have to do with Him in everything, and that we’re always under His eye, that’s the fear of the Lord. Every time a thought like this comes to your mind, “I’m responsible to God,” you’re experiencing something of what it is to fear Him. Every time you measure your conduct in the light of His revealed will, every time your heart turns toward Him in gratitude and trust, you’re tasting this wonderful reality which the Bible calls “the beginning of wisdom.”
Now the goal of a godly life is to have that consciousness become more and more constant in our lives. I suppose that even the most irreverent among us occasionally have a thought of God, about turning toward Him. Maybe they dismiss it quickly, arrange conveniently to forget. But the idea at least occurs to them now and then. But for a believer this is to be not only a passing thought but a steady awareness. And apparently that has to be cultivated. The fear of the Lord is not something that sort of “hits” you, permanently overpowers you. It’s something, rather, that can be learned. Listen to the psalmist: “Come, my son, listen to me and I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” You can grow, in other words, in this dimension of your life. You can take those fleeting thoughts of your responsibility to God and hold on to them, focus on them.
The word here is “continue in the fear of the Lord all day long.” It’s obvious that the people addressed here are already God-fearing people. If you’re urged to continue something, you must already be doing it to some degree. It’s as though God says, “You’ve made a beginning in this matter of having the Lord in your thoughts. Now keep going. Hang in there. Continue in the fear of the Lord all day long.”
If there’s anything in the Scriptures that challenges my heart, it’s this word. God knows His people, their weaknesses, their limitations, their struggles. He doesn’t mock them with impossible demands. He never calls us to do anything without offering the resources to make it possible. As someone has put it, “All His commands are enabling.” They bring with them the power of accomplishment. So it must be possible, they say, to live in the fear of the Lord “all the day.”
I like that emphasis on one day. That’s the way everyone has to live, isn’t it, one day at a time? To talk about living a whole lifetime in the fear of the Lord is a grand thought, but it’s really a kind of abstraction. No one of us is ever living a whole lifetime. We’re only living through present moments. We’re in the midst always of one particular day. We only have to tackle life’s assignments in day-size installments. And, according to God, it’s possible for His people to get through a day fearing Him, walking before Him all the way.
That doesn’t mean that every moment of your waking hours will be spent thinking directly about God. We all have lots of other things to think about during the course of a day. We can be aware of someone else’s presence, aware that we are in relationship to them, full of love to them, even when we’re not speaking to them, or absorbed in thought about them. A husband and wife, for example, sit in their living room, together for an evening. He’s reading; she’s knitting. Or she’s writing checks and he’s resting. Each is aware that a loved partner is there. That makes a kind of warmth pervade the room. They understand each other. They’re ready when any need arises to affirm and support each other. And though each is busy in his or her pursuits, neither feels alone.
Or here’s a mother, busy about household chores while her baby sleeps in an adjoining room. She’s concentrating on what she has to do, but that little boy or girl is never far from her thoughts. She’s prepared to react instantly if that child is in danger, pain or need. Day and night she never stops listening, loving, even though she’s busy with a thousand duties. Friends, I believe that we can practice the presence of God in a way something like that. We can be aware that He’s near, listening to His voice, responsive to His will, right in the midst of an active life. We can rejoice in God’s love even when we’re not talking to Him or thinking about Him.
But all the sages of the spiritual life remind us that it takes practice. The constant awareness of God’s presence grows out of numberless little decisions to remember Him and keep Him in our thoughts. If you spend some time each morning listening to what He says to you in the pages of the Scriptures, you’ll be much more likely to listen to His voice during the rest of the day. If you call upon Him in your daily prayers, focussing upon Him in thanksgiving and praise, the sense of His grace will tend to linger with you through the remaining hours. Little disciplines like grace at the table, prayers at bedtime, memorizing scripture, moments for meditation, all help.
So when you keep the Lord before you, when you have a growing awareness of Him and all that He means to you, that’s a bulwark against all kinds of envy. It banishes our self-pity. It makes us feel in all kinds of circumstances, favored and blessed. So concentrate on that this year – living before God, setting Him always before you, continuing in His fear.
Now for the promise: “Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.” The psalmist got over his inward unrest about the prosperity of the godless when he went into the sanctuary of God and began to think about the future. He realized that the prospects for those who leave God out of their lives are not at all enviable. Listen: “Truly thou dost set them in slippery places; thou dost make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!” (Ps. 73:18-19). “For lo, those who are far from thee shall perish” (v. 27).
And on the other side, when he thinks about what God will be to him in the future, he has a deep sense of joy and contentment. “Thou dost guide me with thy counsel,” he writes, “and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory.” This God who guides him now will then welcome him to glory. The one who even now satisfies his heart and makes him strong will always be his inheritance, his portion, his cup.
I hope you feel the power of that promise today. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if today you are trusting Him for forgiveness and release, I hope you can rejoice in the knowledge that He is forever for you and will receive you on the last day.
Whatever your struggles and sorrows now, your defeats and disappointments, there is a future for you. There’s a marvelously long future beyond death, of course; we’ve been talking about that, and that’s the ultimate anchor of our hope. But it’s not only that. God wants you to be able to say as the psalmist once did, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” There’s a future for you in this world, this year – yes, this day. That’s what focussing on the fear of the Lord assures you about. You don’t have to wait for the age to come to have the Lord as your portion, to know Him as the strength of your heart. You have an indestructible hope for the rest of your life here. Whatever else you have or don’t have, you have the Lord, and His grace will always be enough for you. Hang on to that. Those who make Him the treasure of their hearts are never, never disappointed.
But now let me speak to you who may be listening without a sure knowledge of Christ. If you’re honest, you’ll have to confess that you’ve been going through life pretty much without any thought of God. Do you realize that that way of living is a dead end street, a road that leads nowhere? Well, today I want you to know that you don’t have to stay on that road. There’s another way. Jesus Christ said, “I am the way.”
He came among us to free us from sin, from death, and from emptiness. If we will trust in Him as our Savior, and surrender to Him as Lord, we can begin a life filled with this marvelous reality of the fear of the Lord, the miracle of day-by-day fellowship with the living God. I covet that for you. And I promise you, on the authority of God’s Word, that in Christ you have a future unimaginably bright.
PRAYER: O God, for this year, be right at the center of our lives. Help us not to focus on our problems or what’s going on in the lives of others, but on Your grace and faithfulness. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.