by Matthew W. Bassford
"But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, that shines brighter and brighter until the full day. The way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know over what they stumble" (Proverbs 4:18-19).
Look with me at Proverbs 4:18-19. These are two short verses, but they encapsulate everything I love about the word of God. They are simple, they are beautiful, and they are profound. Indeed, they are so profound that I intend to spend all of my time in the pulpit this morning without citing another verse. Let’s see, then, what we can learn from a close examination of the path of the righteous.
There are three key elements in this proverb that help us to understand it, and the first of the three is the path. Note first of all that Solomon says that there is both the path of the righteous and the way of the wicked. In other words, everybody is on a spiritual path.
This seems simple, but it’s quite meaningful. Sometimes, you run into people who think they are spiritually neutral. They’ll tell you that they leave all that God stuff to somebody else and mind their own business. Well, they might think they’re neutral, but God doesn’t think they’re neutral, and the devil doesn’t think they’re neutral either. Their feet are on a path, and they are headed to a destination.
Second, it’s worth noting too that everybody’s path starts out dark. Yes, Solomon says that the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, but what’s it like before the light of dawn shows up? It’s dark!
In other words, both the righteous and the wicked start out without a spiritual clue. When first we hit that age of accountability, none of us have any sense. We may be blessed with godly parents or other mentors, who are sort of like a spiritual flashlight, but those without help are blundering around in the woods at midnight. Max Dawson likes to say that if you haven’t wrecked your life by the time you turn 22, you probably won’t, but sadly, lots of people do wreck their lives before that. Sometimes their bad decisions leave them with a criminal record or a drug habit; sometimes they cost them their lives and their souls.
Finally, as the above implies, everybody’s path is dangerous. This isn’t like one of those “trails” in the national parks that are four feet wide, paved, and wheelchair-accessible. Instead, it’s more like a deer path in the woods in the middle of nowhere. That’s the way life is for all of us. It’s filled with all kinds of trials and temptations and traps. The devil hopes that we will come crashing into every one of them.
The Light of Dawn
However, the difference between the path of the righteous and the path of the wicked is that the former is illuminated by the light of dawn. This we should understand not literally, but metaphorically, as referring to spiritual enlightenment. The Bible speaks of many ways we can become enlightened. We can study the word, which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. We can benefit from the instruction of older, more mature Christians. We can pray for wisdom. We can observe the lives of others.
Regardless, this is the key difference between the righteous and the wicked. This is what determines the course of our lives and our eternal destinies. The righteous seek enlightenment and benefit from it. The wicked don’t.
Second, because the enlightenment of the righteous is like the dawn, this tells us that the process is gradual. How many of you have ever been outside waiting throughout the time from pitch blackness to a full day? It’s not like God flips on a light switch, is it? It’s sloooow! At any given point in the process, the change that is occurring is imperceptible.
So it is with our spiritual enlightenment. There are lots of people who want wisdom without Bible study and meditation and prayer. Guess what? It doesn’t work like that. If we want God to illuminate our world for us, we have to seek Him day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, decade by decade. There are no quick fixes. If we want our path to get brighter, there is no substitute for time and effort.
However, as slow as it is, the light of dawn is transformative. You start out in pitch blackness, then you start seeing dim outlines, then a black-and-white vision of reality. Finally, everything fills in with color, and there’s no sign left that such a thing as night even existed.
This is how the illumination of spiritual wisdom is. It changes everything. We see life and the things of eternity in vastly different terms than the people of the world do. The more enlightened we become, the greater the difference between us and everybody else becomes too.
Knowing or Not
This difference consists of knowing or not. The path of the righteous gets brighter and brighter until the course of their lives is fully illuminated. This doesn’t mean that the path of the righteous is safe. I have scrapes on my shins right now because I tripped over a branch in the woods in broad daylight.
So it is for us spiritually too. No matter how wise and spiritually enlightened we become, the devil still trips all of us up occasionally. However, we are able to avoid most of the sins that would entangle us, and even when we do get entangled, at least we know what happened and can learn from it.
It is not so for the wicked. The wicked aren’t hiking through the woods in the daytime. They’re still out there in the dark. Again, this may not be something that we experience normally. The streets of my neighborhood all have streetlights. If I want to, I can go wandering around in reasonable safety.
However, that wasn’t the experience of the ancient Israelites, and if we’re out in the boonies, even today, on an overcast night, it can get can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face kind of dark. That’s what life is like for the wicked, but they’re trying to go down the path anyway, and, as you would expect, they end up tripping over all kinds of stuff. The sins and troubles that the righteous see and avoid are the most prominent features of the lives of the wicked. Spiritually speaking, their shins look like somebody’s been whaling on them with a golf club!
Worse still, the wicked don’t even know why they’re stumbling. They don’t get it, they don’t learn, and they go on doing the same dumb stuff. You ever known somebody like that? It seems like their life is playing the disaster song on repeat. Over and over and over again, it’s the same mistakes. These are people who don’t learn because they refuse to learn.
It might seem hard to be righteous. It might seem hard to make that effort to be here Sunday morning and Sunday evening and Wednesday evening. It might seem hard to make time for that Bible reading every morning. It might seem hard to remember to constantly seek wisdom from God in prayer. Do you know what’s a lot harder? Not doing any of those things.