"Do not devise harm against your neighbor, while he lives securely beside you."
This is one of a series of basic prohibitions that Solomon includes at the beginning of our training in wisdom. There are five major "do not’s" from verse 27 through verse 31. Solomon seems to be saying: Here are basic and fundamental issues that need to be stated as we are getting started in wisdom training. Don't do these things. What is interesting about these things is that they don't seem earth shattering, but they are crucial in the development of a positive orientation to the world. There is a much longer three chapter list of prohibitions near the end of Solomon's instruction on wisdom. But these five catch our eye because they are of such a fundamental nature. Will you be a positive actor in the drama called life or will you take a negative part? It is your choice: the positive one is wise; the negative one is foolish.
This is the Hebrew word charash which means to engrave, to devise, plot, plow. It involves a planned process. In this case it is some planned action or process that involves or will impact your neighbor in some negative way. This could be your neighbor where you live, where you work, where you worship, in your family. There are people all around you who are impacted by your actions and plans.
In a roundabout way Solomon is saying that you have to think through what you are planning on doing; what you want and your goals. Do any of them negatively impact the people around you? Unfortunately this type of thinking is almost unheard of in our day and age. People have been told that they should just pursue what they think they want with no thought about how it will impact their family, their friends, their neighborhood, their colleagues, etc.
In reality this is a basic ethical principle of which there are only two at the most basic level. Does your goal or action harm anyone? Who does your goal or action benefit? If you are the only one who benefits and others will be harmed, then your proposed action is unethical. This is basic training in ethics and morality.
I have watched, however, people pursue their desires or goals with little or no thought to the wider ramifications of what they are doing. Let me give you some examples:
Men, and now even women, who take promotions or jobs that require significant amounts of travel right at the critical stages of their children's development with the result that their children are significantly psychologically harmed by their absence.
Neighbors who want to make alterations to their home which are completely at odds with their neighbors’ homes and may reduce property values or enjoyment of the area. These folks just do what they want because "it is my property" without regard to the harm that will come to their neighbors.
Men and women who want a particular promotion at work, so they either purposely or even unintentionally put their competitor in a bad light so they will get the promotion.
People who pursue a sport or activity that will put one of their friends in danger or the position of major embarrassment. They do not think that Bill cannot handle this; they only think that they want to do that and if Bill is dumb enough to try, then that is his problem.
This is the Hebrew word raah which means evil, misery, distress, injury. This is either the intended or unintended result of a particular action. Most of the time it seems that harm is the unintended result of their desired action.
Although there are times when people actually devise harm against those they know. This may be because you think they have slighted or wounded you in some way or because it will allow you to have more of what you want.
This happens at all ages, but it is especially tempting early in life – the teens and the twenties. It doesn't seem that big a deal to shame, embarrass, put down, slight, and disrespect people that are all around you when you are young. Solomon is screaming: Don't start down this negative path! Make a positive contribution to everyone you can. It may cost you a few cool points in the short run, but you will have a much better life in the long run.
This is the Hebrew word rea which means friend, companion, neighbor, mate, etc. – those who are connected to you by location, activity, relation, goal, etc. These are the people in your life. Don't use them or harm them to advance your goals in life.
This is the Hebrew word betach which means securely, unsuspecting. These are the people who do not expect you to gossip about them; who do not expect that you would take advantage of them; who do not think that you would purposely harm them to advance yourself. These are the people who trust you. Solomon is saying that you should make sure that people who do trust you keep on trusting you because you reject possible actions that could harm them.