I read something today that made me stop and puzzle over it:
Evildoers do not understand what is right,
but those who seek the LORD understand it fully.
I’d seen that verse many times before, but I never really saw it.
Getting several bites at the apple is one of the advantages of my reading plan, which includes a chapter of Proverbs as a morning devotional. This advantage comes from its other advantage, which is that you can easily keep track of where you’re at. Since the book of Proverbs has 31 chapters, you can read a chapter a day, and when the next month begins, you just start over again, instead of trying to keep track what chapter you’re reading.
Anyway, I started to think about this line: “Evildoers do not understand what is right.”
What does that even mean?
Is the problem that they can’t understand what’s right, or just that they don’t?
Is that why some people do evil: because they can’t understand what is right? That evildoers are morally warped so they can’t distinguish right and wrong? (I think of the assassin played by Tom Cruise in the movie Collateral, and Jamie Foxx’s question, “Are you one of those institutionalized-raised guys? Anybody home? The standard parts that are supposed to be there in people, aren’t.”)
Or does it mean that if they did understand what is right, they wouldn’t do evil? In other words, the evil they do is proof that they lack understanding about what is right.
What is it they fail to understand? Is it the bare facts of right and wrong (“don’t be mean”), or is it the way they work over time? (“Don’t be mean because people won’t like you, they’ll be mean back, and what goes around comes around.”) The long-term consequences are certain, but people who cannot perceive them do evil for lack of understanding.
How does it relate to the rest of the verse: is seeking the Lord the means of attaining understanding? Or are people who understand the right attracted to God, as the perfect example and source?
Whenever I start to puzzle over a verse like this, one of the first things I do is compare translations. (Which is easier than ever before, because of the Internet. I talk more about how to do that here.)
A quick comparison showed that where my translation (the TNIV) says “what is right,” others say “justice.” I sort of like “what is right” better, because it seems to me that English-speakers tend to reduce justice to criminal justice. It’s interesting that while the 1984 NIV used “justice,” the 2011 NIV, like my TNIV, says “what is right.”
It turns out that this word is flexible enough to cover both criminal justice (“what is legal”) and ethics (“what is right”). Or, more accurately, I should say that the ancients didn’t distinguish “wrong” and “illegal” the way we do today.
Ultimately, though, my exploration of the word (“justice” or “what is right”) never did answer my questions. Is evil a cause or an effect? Is the problem a failure to understand, or a failure to try? Is the second half of the verse a promise or an observed fact? It beats me.
But just because I didn’t find an easy answer doesn’t mean my effort was wasted. See, it got me engaged enough to start really thinking what the writer meant. And eventually, I realized I was looking at the wrong end of the verse.
Look at the contrast in the first and second half of the verse. The parallel doesn’t make sense; it’s not symmetric. If I was writing that proverb, I’d contrast evildoers with people who do good. “Wicked people don’t, but virtuous people do.” But instead, the proverb contrasts evildoers with people who seek the Lord.
And that’s the key to understanding the verse. It’s not a contrast between good people people who do good versus bad people who do evil. Which is a good thing, because it’s really hard not to do evil. (If you doubt me, read what Jesus says about it in Matthew 5.)
Let me illustrate it this way. Not doing evil is like not speeding in your car. If the speed limit is 65 m.p.h., how fast should you drive? If you drive 65, everybody will pass you, and besides, I heard they overengineer the roads so they’re safe at higher speeds. Also they won’t write a ticket unless you’re 8 miles/hour over the limit. We can all agree that you shouldn’t speed, fine, but how fast should I drive? Not dong evil is the same way. But what if the cop needs to meet their quota? Maybe you better drive 55 m.p.h. so you have some leeway. Or at least 60.
This verse isn’t about not-doing evil. It’s about seeking the Lord.
It changes the question from “how bad can I be without adverse consequence” to “how near can I get to God?” It invites finding out how much is me moving toward God, and how much is God moving toward me?