"Ill-gotten gains do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death"
The three-word phrase translated ill-gotten gains here in the New American Standard Bible is actually in the Hebrew two words: wicked treasures. The idea is that there is a treasury of wickedness or material gains that can be had from the storehouse of wickedness, but it does not profit a person.
This is such a valuable lesson to learn. The younger that a person learns it, the better it will be. All of us will be tempted to gain money, wealth, possessions, power, prestige, popularity, etc., in ways that are just not right and we know it. But we can see how what we want can be had by just a little cheating, by just a little lie, by just a small theft, by just a little sexual license, by just a little greed or anger or intimidation. Riches and prosperity look like they are there for the taking, and in many ways they are there and they can be had. But they do not really profit. They will, at some point, destroy you. They will at some point – if not immediately – suck out your soul so that the very things you wanted are no longer enjoyable.
I think of politicians who plagiarized others' speeches and were never prominent on the national stage again. I think of football coaches who lied on their resume and had to give up dream jobs they had just won. I think of executives who are behind bars today because they played fast and loose with the books and lied to investors. I think of pastors who had huge churches and incredible ministries and then were selling used cars because they committed adultery. I think of stockbrokers who made billions of dollars using illegal schemes and were drummed out of their profession. I think of accountants who went along with schemes to fool investors who destroyed their whole company. I think of bankers who cheated in investment schemes to line their own pockets and who, in the process, brought down companies that had been in business for hundreds of years. I think of sports heroes who took steroids and other drugs to win and when exposed, lost everything.
Remember, in the game of life you will be given opportunities to cheat. It does not matter what field of endeavor you find yourself working in. There will be chances to cheat and shade and take shortcuts. Don't do it. For even if you do gain, it will not profit. It is better to be poorer and have your integrity. For the life of a person who makes withdrawals out of the treasury of wickedness is not the life you think it will be.
but righteousness delivers from death
Doing the right thing instead of the cheaty, wicked thing causes you to escape the death that is stalking the one who has profited by the treasury of wickedness.
Notice that Solomon uses the word death. He is saying that some form of death is following those who play on the wicked side of the street. There may be profit there, but there is also death. What is death? It is separation from: Physical death is separation from our bodies. Spiritual death is separation from God. Emotional death is separation from our emotions or from our feeling; going dead in the sense of enjoying our feelings or having real joy. Mental death is separation from coherent thoughts and logic. Each of these forms of death stalks the person who uses the treasury of wickedness as their personal bank account. When anyone crosses the lines of righteousness and makes a profit by doing what is against God's Ten Commandments, they ask death to follow them and cling to them. They may not die physically for a few years or a few decades; but emotional, mental, or spiritual death is also following them and attaching itself ever deeper to their lives.
Notice that one of the benefits of righteousness is that it delivers from death. When we act righteously and refuse to go along with wickedness, then life wins and death loses. I think of the businessman whom I heard was involved with a business that unbeknown to him was cheating people. When he discovered what this business was doing, he told the person what he had discovered and said you will either quit or I will completely pull out. The wicked person refused to stop, so the righteous businessman withdrew from the arrangement at considerable cost to himself. In a few short months the government came and arrested the wicked man and was amazed that the righteous person had removed himself from that business. The wicked person went to jail and the righteous person received a commendation and escaped jail and fines because of his refusal to participate in wickedness.
This proverb is a way of saying to us: Don't be tempted to gain in the wrong way. It is not worth it. Gain in the right way. Make progress on building up a pile of goods for yourself the right way. You may be tempted to cheat at school or lie about your age to get into a place or be tempted to lie on a job resume or be tempted to be wicked in a thousand other ways that this world, your own selfishness, and the Devil will come up with. DON'T. It is not worth it to have the milky film of death begin to coat your life, your emotions, your mind, and your spirit.
I must say at this point that the only thing or form of righteousness that will deliver from the spiritual death – that is the condition of all of us – is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The New Testament tells us that Jesus Christ lived a perfect life and was perfectly righteous, completely satisfying God's demands for entrance into heaven. He willingly gave up that perfect life and submitted to death on a cross to be able to substitute His perfection for the sins of all who would embrace Him as Savior. Each one of us is being stalked by spiritual death and, in fact, are already separated from God because of our sins. But Jesus Christ and His righteous life and sacrificial death makes a way back to a living relationship with God.
If you are willing to pray and tell God that you know that you are a sinner but that you would like to be forgiven and have a vital and active relationship with Him, tell God that you accept Jesus Christ's death as the full substitute for your sins, mistakes, misdeeds, and wrongs. Invite Him to come into your life and make you the kind of person He wants you to be.