The Anatomy of Evil

A sermon on Proverbs 4 and 6:1-19 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 10/2/2005

Three weeks ago (see sermon) we discussed the path of life and the path of death, particularly as Proverbs 2 describes them. To help us take the image to heart, we pictured the two paths as diverging from the point where you stand. One path looks easy, attractive, and enjoyable, while the other looks hard, mountainous, and dangerous. You are tempted to take the easy path. But your father and Wisdom herself warn you, “The easy path is the path to death! You can ‘t see around the corner, and there are grizzly bears there! The other is the path to life. It looks hard, but true joy and eternal life are at the end of that path.”

We will see the image of the two paths again and again in Proverbs. This is a common image, especially in the prologue, chapters 1-9. Today’s section is unique, however, in providing the most details on the path to death. So that will be our focus today. We’ll use 4:10-27 as our outline, and look at the other verses as they relate to these:

First steps on the path to death: 4:10-15

Last Steps on the path to death: 4:16-19

How to avoid the path to death: 4:20-27

First Steps on the Path to Death

Note the way that 4:10-15 make use of the image of the two ways or paths.

Avoid it. Do not go on it. Turn away from it and pass on. Proverbs 4:15

As we have seen before, this is a life or death choice. That’s why the father is so adamant, repeating his commands again and again.

But there is a problem: How do you know when you are on the wrong path? We are not always presented with a case such as the one we considered three weeks ago, being at a fork with a decision about what path to take. Sometimes we just find ourselves on a path, going somewhere rapidly. In that case, how can we tell if we are on the path to life or the path to death?

The situation is similar to one I found myself in about ten years ago. At that time our children were young, and the seven-hour drive from our home in western Massachusetts to my parents’ home near Washington, DC, was much easier if we drove through the night. So several times we left home about 11 at night. On one of these occasions, we crossed the George Washington Bridge in New York City, intending to get on the New Jersey turnpike. I was just driving along, a good distance past the bridge, when I noticed a sign that said “I-80”. I was heading west towards Pennsylvania, not south. I hadn’t even noticed the fork. I was moving quickly in light traffic – but all the time I was headed in the wrong direction.

Just so in life. Sometimes we don’t notice the fork. We might be on the path to death and not know it.

In order to keep this from happening, we need to identify the early steps along the path to death. If we understand what these early steps look like, we should be able to identify that wrong path early on.

Proverbs 6:1-11 describe two such early steps. These are examples of such steps, which help us to draw inferences about all such early steps. Let’s look at the first example in verses 1-5:

1 My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor, have given your pledge for a stranger, 2 if you are snared in the words of your mouth, caught in the words of your mouth, 3 then do this, my son, and save yourself, for you have come into the hand of your neighbor: go, hasten, and plead urgently with your neighbor. 4 Give your eyes no sleep and your eyelids no slumber; 5 save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the hand of the fowler.

This seems like a strange warning. How is this the first step on the path to death?

Recall what Jesus says about our use of money:

If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? Luke 16:11

Jesus is pointing out that whatever money you have – whether inherited, received from another, or earned – belongs to God. All you have is a loan from Him. You are a steward of those resources, which have been entrusted to you in order to bring glory to God. Thus, how you use those resources is indicative of who you are – and what path you are on.

Here, the father warns against one misuse of money: Being a guarantor of a stranger’s debt. The situation is this: Someone comes to you making a request: “I really need this loan. And the lender won’t accept my collateral. I am perfectly able to pay back the loan, as you can easily see. But the lender is requiring that I get someone to co-sign the loan, guaranteeing that I will pay it back. It’s just a formality. Look, there’s absolutely no risk for you – all you have to do is sign. Will you please sign – right here? I’ll give you $100 if you will.”

What is the temptation here? It might be the easy $100 he offers you. Or it might be simply desiring to help the person out. But in either case, it is wrong to co-sign the loan. Why?

By co-signing, you are risking God’s resources in a way God condemns. You are putting assets that belong to God at the mercy of the performance of this other person. If you want to be kind, if the person is truly in need, give him money. But don’t co-sign the loan.

We must be faithful with the resources God entrusts to us. This is a huge failure in the church in the US.

The misuse of money is one first step on the road to death.

Another first step is described in verses 6-11:

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. 7 Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, 8 she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. 9 How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? 10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, 11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.

What is the first step here? In Proverbs 1:22, we saw that danger to the gullible of filling life with mind-numbing activities, never even considering what is most important. In that case, the gullible becomes wicked – because he never thinks about what is most important.

This dangerous first step is somewhat similar. Here, the first step is a love of ease, of sleep, of rest, of laziness. Ants aren’t told what to do – they just work, preparing and storing up food. But the sluggard just lies in his bed.

Have you done that? The alarm goes off; you turn it off and think, “Oh, I’ll get up in five minutes.” But ten, then twenty, then thirty minutes pass and you’re still in the bed. You don’t get up until an hour after your alarm.

Verse 10 gives a very important warning: Even a little sleep, even a little resting when you should be up is a problem. We are tempted to argue, “Hey, it’s only ten minutes. I deserve it. This is no big thing.”

But this is the key point: Disobedience is disobedience. There are no small deviations from the path.To deviate from path of life is to be on the path of death. All decisions are consequential.

One commentator says:

[The sluggard] does not commit himself to a refusal, but deceives himself by the smallness of his surrenders. So, by inches and minutes, his opportunity slips away.

Where in your life are you making small surrenders? What corners are you cutting?

Your first steps on the path to death may not be in the area of handling money, or laziness. Perhaps your first step on the road to death is in the area of:

Waltke comments on these first steps:

The one who becomes security and the sluggard are not wicked, but in the naiveté of the former and the sluggishness of the latter lie the beginning of that which all too easily can lead to the evil of the wicked.

There are no little sins. Every deviation from path of life is a step on the path to death

Last Steps on the Path to Death

Chapter 4:16-19 and 6:12-19 lay out the results of many little surrenders to temptation. Look first at 4:16:

For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble.

What is the author describing here? When are you unable to sleep unless you do something? He is describing an addiction. The one walking on the path to death has become addicted to evil, addicted to harming others.

Note: at this point, the man is not doing evil in order to get money or power. He simply loves evil. He does evil in order to do evil. He does evil because he can get away with it. Evil has become an end in itself.

Verse 17 describes this further:

For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.

Their sustenance comes from doing evil, from being violent.

These verses describe the last steps on the path to death. Sin so stains them that they desire sin itself. They can’t live without wickedness.

Chapter 6:12-15 describe more fully the character of the person near the end of the path to death:

12 A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech, 13 winks with his eyes, signals with his feet, points with his finger, 14 with perverted heart devises evil, continually sowing discord; 15 therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing.

This wicked man is working with co-conspirators – to whom he signals – to demean or harm others. Evil has so infected him that his body parts are working together to do evil: his speech, eyes, feet, fingers, and heart. His inner being, his heart, focuses on devising more and more ways to stir up trouble.

But: verse 15 tells us that punishment is coming. While the evil man thinks he can get away with doing anything he wants, he will be broken. And he will receive not a slap on the wrist, but a complete breaking of all his powers. Justice will be done. By whom?

Verses 16-19 reveal the One who brings about these consequences: The Lord Himself:

16 There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, 19 a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

Once again, the evil man’s body parts are used for evil: Eyes, tongue, hands, heart, feet. They exhibit pride, falsehood, murder and hatred; they plot evil and are eager to do wrong. They have no reluctance, no vestiges of conscience to hold them back from such actions. Not at peace themselves, they stir up others to ensure that no one is at peace. So this is the end of the path to death: Being hated by the Lord.

The first, seemingly insignificant steps on the path to death lead this direction. So at the end of the path, every person is broken beyond healing.

Once again, there are no little sins, no little compromises. The path to death is the path to death. It sucks us in, like quicksand. When we toy with sin, we first engage in it with some repulsion. But over time we come to love the sin itself. And this leads to our destruction. As Alexander Pope wrote:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen.
But seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

Avoid the path to death. Stay off of it. Don’t go near it. Do not take those initial, small steps onto the path.

How to Avoid the Path of Death

The question, then, is how to avoid such a path. All depends on our staying off that path. Chapter 4:1-9 and 20-27 help us in this regard. The first nine verses of the chapter emphasize lessons we have seen earlier in Proverbs: We can avoid the path to death by listening to the godly advice of your father and mother, by desiring wisdom above all else, by holding fast to it.

But there is a twist in this passage. Consider verses 3 and 4a. The father is speaking:

When I was a son with my father, tender, the only one in the sight of my mother, 4 he taught me and said to me . . .

Do you understand who speaks the following words? The father is quoting his father – that is, the son’s grandfather. The father says, “This is what my Dad told me – and you need to hear it also.” Wisdom is passed down from generation to generation, as God intends. God’s revelation should be taught in the home.

Paul says the same:

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4

As each generation fulfills this command, each father passes on the wisdom and instruction taught to him by his own father, helping the son to avoid the path to death.

Verse 13 gives us another method of avoiding the path to death: “Keep hold of instruction.” We looked at the word translated “instruction” here and in chapter 1:2 four weeks ago (see sermon), noting that the Hebrew word is broader than simply information passed on in a lecture. Discipline is included also. One definition of this word is “correction which results in education.” Thus we could translate this exhortation, “Keep hold of correction. Keep hold of discipline. Love it. Delight in it.” This is similar to what we saw last week in chapter 3:11-12: “Do not despise the Lord’s discipline.” When we know the danger of the path to death, we are delighted when people point out to us our deviations from the path to life. We are not defensive, but welcoming of corrections to our path.

Verses 20 to 23 highlight a third, vitally important method of avoiding the path to death: Keeping the heart. Recall that the ancient Israelites included not just emotion and will as part of the heart, but also intellect and mind. Chapter 3 had much to say about the heart:

Then in chapter 4:4, the father quotes the grandfather as saying, “Let your heart hold fast my words.” The second half of verse 21 makes a similar point: Keep the father’s words within your heart.

Verse 23 adds a new twist:

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

The phrase “the springs of life” is a poetic way to say “all that you do.” That is, everything flows from the heart. Your mind, will, and emotions produce your actions.

Jesus says the same in Mark 7:20-23 

"What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,  22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

So how do you avoid such defiling? How do you stay on the path to life?

By keeping your heart with all vigilance. By keeping your heart from being enticed by evil, by keeping it focused on what is right and good, on the commandments of God, on love for the Lord.

Do you see how this relates to the need to stay free of even little sins? To commit even a minor sin requires taking your focus off of the commandments, off of God. And that deviation leads to more and more lack of focus on God.

So how do you do this? How do you keep your heart focused on the path to life? You stay focused by feeding your heart with what is right. As Paul says in Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-- think about such things.

Thus, we are to focus our thoughts and desires on such things. Thought control is key to keeping the heart. We are to see the true, noble, and right in others, and credit them with those qualities whenever they appear. We are not to focus on the negative in others, but to praise God for whatever is excellent and praiseworthy in them.  

There is much more we could say here about keeping our hearts, but let me make a few simple points from Scripture:

Those are all ways we keep our hearts directly. But there is also an indirect path to keeping the heart. Look at verses 4:24-27. Once again the author highlights the role of parts of our physical bodies. But in this case, as opposed to chapter 6:12-19, the body parts are controlled and led so that they stay focused on accomplishing what is right:

24 Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you.  25 Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.  26 Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure.  27 Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.

Now, consider: Why give instructions about controlling the parts of the body parts when the author just said, “From the heart flow the springs of life”? Don’t all actions flow from the heart? So why can’t we just focus on the heart, and expect that all actions will be taken care of?

Because there is an indirect way to keep the heart, through controlling our external actions. This is a key concept, a key way we keep our heart:

Understand that the relationship between the heart and actions goes both ways. What is in our heart – what we think about, what we desire, what we focus on - will flow out into our actions. But also, what we allow ourselves to do has an impact on our hearts. As James Sire writes, “Our actions act to form and re-form our heart.”

So we guard our speech; we focus our eyes on the path ahead, the path to life; we don’t let our eyes wander to look at evil; we think about where our feet are going, and walk carefully in that direction; we avoid walking toward evil. And all this diligence, all this discipline of our actions, is one way we keep the heart.

Acting as if our hearts are right helps our hearts to become right. This is not hypocrisy; this is discipline.

In the early nineties, when I was only preaching on Sunday morning about five times a year, I regularly spoke at the Sunday afternoon services our church conducted at area nursing homes. This basically meant going home after church, grabbing a quick bite to eat, and then leaving again. I almost never felt, “Oh boy, I have nursing home ministry this afternoon! I can’t wait!” Instead, I usually felt, “Oh, my. I have to be in the office by 6:30 tomorrow morning. Can’t I take this afternoon just to enjoy my children?” My heart was not right. But nevertheless, I stepped out in discipline, in obedience. And I never came back home with the same attitude. I trust God blessed some of those elderly folks through those services; I know he blessed me. Our actions can serve to change the heart.

So avoid the path to evil!


Verses 18-19 describe the end result of walking on each of the two paths:

But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. 19 The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble. Proverbs 4:18-19

The path of the wicked leads to gloomy darkness. It looked bright, clear, easy at the beginning. You got on this path through thousands and millions of little, seemingly insignificant decisions. But after walking way down this path, you come to love evil. You walk in gloomy darkness. So you fall, and don’t know what tripped you. Calamity comes upon you suddenly. And there is no hope.

The path of the righteous is the opposite. It may seem obscure at first. It is challenging, and difficult to travel. Yet the further you go on that path, the brighter and brighter it becomes. That is, as you keep your heart and do actions that are right, your heart becomes purer and purer. You conscience becomes more and more sensitive. Satan is able to deceive you less and less. You treasure Christ more and more. And the end result – the end of the path – is full day. As Paul writes:

For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6

That’s the light. The light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. As we keep our hearts, He is our ultimate focus; He is the one who shines His light in us. He is the one who by His death on the cross paid the penalty for all our steps on the path to death. He is the one who enables us to guard our hearts. For left to ourselves, left to our own resources, we would walk on that path to death.

So where are you? On the path to life? Or the path to death? Jesus calls you, saying, “Come to me! No matter how far down the path to death you have walked, I can redeem you! I can put you on the path to life! I can give you true joy! So repent! Turn from sin! Those sins lead to death! The path of life, the path of obedience, the path of discipline is the path of joy. My Holy Spirit will enable you to walk that path, and bring you safely into my eternal kingdom.”

So lean on Him! In all your ways acknowledge him! Always desire His presence! Focus on Him, on His Word! And so keep your heart that you might love Him with all that heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 10/2/05. Bruce Waltke’s The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 (Eerdmans, 2004) was exceptionally helpful throughout. Apart from this commentary, I would have taken a completely different approach to preaching this series. The quote from Waltke is found on page 329. The quote from a commentator is from Kidner, as quoted by Waltke on page 339. Waltke misquotes the Alexander Pope couplet on page 291; the correct couplet is available from multiple sources on the internet. The James Sire quote is from Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept (InterVarsity, 2004), p. 47.

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