"He who is steadfast in righteousness will attain to life, and he who pursues evil will bring about his own death"
This is the Hebrew word ken, which means substantial, firm, steadfast. The idea here is that the people who are "ken" are those who are not going to be swayed. They are the same all the time. They have made their decision to be and act a certain way. In this case it is righteousness. They have such a long history of being righteous that no one would expect them to act differently.
This is a fascinating way to talk about people. If people were talking about you, what would they say you were steadfast about? If your children or friends were to predict what you would do in certain situations, what would they say? "You can always count on Jim to do _______.” What would the blank be? The people around us find us predictable. It would be interesting to know what they think we are predictable about. Would it be that we always pursue the best interests of others as well as our own interests? Would it be that we always get angry? Would it be that we cut corners? What predictable behavior would people say about us?
This is the Hebrew word sedeq, which means justice or righteousness. The root meaning is conformity to an ethical standard. In this verse it means that the person consistently can be counted on to do what is right. This idea of doing what is right is more than just not doing the wrong things; it is a positive element of rising above the selfishness that is in each of us. Instead, the righteous person benefits those around them. God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. He gives His common grace to everyone on the planet. This is righteousness. Righteousness is a positive active force in a person's life which moves them to act like the loving God would. At some point in the pursuit of righteousness, one might realize that it cannot be done in one's own strength and there is a cry to God to sustain, to nourish, and to empower.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me – even the impossible task that God has given me to do. Even though it seems that my efforts are small and inconsequential against the vast amount of unrighteousness, I keep acting in a righteous way.
Conforming to God's standard is putting self in the third position, not first position. If we are not careful, we will conceive of righteousness as a person who doesn't make mistakes and accomplishes tasks perfectly. But righteousness is one who loves others as he loves himself. The righteous person is one who does unto others as he would have done unto himself. This steadfastly righteous person can be counted upon to pursue other people's interests as much as, if not more so, than his own.
The question that screams at us out of this text is: Would this loving others as much as yourself be what people notice about you? Would they notice righteousness as a consistent quality of your life? What would you have to do today to begin having this noticed about you?
In a bizarre way this is the truth that was shared with Scrooge in the Dickens classic. He was shown what people counted on from him and where that kind of money-grubbing selfishness would end up. What would your completely honest friends say you are steadfast about? It would be a shame if it was something evil or something stupid.
This is the Hebrew word hayah, which means life, to live, to have life, to live prosperously, to live vitally. It is not the wicked with their shortcuts to prosperity that really find it. It is those who make positive, righteous actions everyday their cause. The selfishness and sin that lives within us screams at us that we need to cheat, lie, steal, cut corners, get angry, be unfaithful in order to really start living and to get what we deserve. But Solomon says, no, this is not true. He says, after careful observation of all the people in his kingdom, it is those who are consistent in their positive actions of righteousness that are really living.
It is important to say at this point that there are three options in life. One can break all the rules and try to gain life by being immoral: sexually, financially, violently, religiously, enviously. This will not result in life – either in this life or in the next one. The second option is to stay within the negative boundaries of righteousness – trying to keep the rules and not be a bad person. Many religious people try this option. But this is not living either. The third option is the only one that really lives. This is the option where the person acts to love God and others every day. This person positively benefits God's glory and others every day. This person enjoys relational wealth and is living.
This is the Hebrew word raah, which means evil, misery, distress, injury. Clearly in this case these are the persons who choose to try and build their life by living outside of the boundaries of the Ten Commandments. They want to take a hold of life and have concluded – for whatever reason – that the way to do that is to step outside of God's moral boundaries and keep living out there.
Notice that Solomon says that the people who pursue evil as the solution to their problems will bring about their own death. Evil will present itself as the solution to your problems. Evil whispers in your heart: "Lying is the only way out of this mess." "No one will care if you take this home from work; they have plenty." "It isn't right that you didn't get what you wanted; you have the right to be really mad, violently mad." "Curse, swear, let them know that you are not happy and maybe they will do it your way if they feel threatened." "Maybe if I visit a fortune teller or get a spell, I can get what I want."
You have to decide if you will listen to this inner voice of evil or you will instead listen to the inner voice of righteousness and do right. I am not talking about just avoiding wrong. I am talking about actually doing something positively right. It is only that kind of righteousness that will win against the promptings of evil.
This is the Hebrew word maveth, which means death, dead, died. This idea here is not that they physically stop breathing and die – although that is usually the premature result of a life devoted to evil. The idea here is that evil separates a person from aspects of being alive. It deadens their emotional responses. It deadens their conscious. It deadens their spirituality. It deadens their relational life. The person who pursues evil becomes a walking dead man eventually and then dies. Have you seen those who have given their lives to drugs, gangs, stealing, sex, etc? They are so often like zombies waiting for the end. The wonderful thing is that even at that point God offers them a way back to life and forgiveness.
Solomon is making a clear contrast between the life of the person who constantly does positive righteous things and the person who consistently chooses the selfish, sinful path. The one is really alive and it keeps getting better. The other is dying and they keep getting cut off from another aspect of living.
Those who are pursuing evil are convinced that they will gain life down this path. They have found the secret elixir that will make life worth living. They have the shortcut. They "know" they are right for they feel alive while they are pursuing their dreams in this shortcut way. Eventually the feeling fades and all that is left is the destruction that they have done to others and to themselves.
Do not fall for either of the false paths. By faith pursue righteousness every day. It is this path that will blossom with life. Don't miss it because you tried to be smarter than God.