“Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it. Say not unto thy neighbour, Go, and come again, and to morrow I will give; when thou hast it by thee ” (Proverbs 3:27-28).
Many of the proverbs are “stand-alone”, but these verses appear to begin a unit which runs through the end of the chapter. The first four verses prohibit mistreatment of our neighbours (we should view “neighbour” in the broader sense which Christ taught in the parable of the good Samaritan). Verse 31 then links these bad behaviours with “the ways of the oppressor”. The rest of the chapter gives the reason we must not choose such ways — because the Lord sees, and He will bless righteousness and curse evil.
There is an interesting “blip” in the Septuagint at the end of verse 28. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew which was (according to Jewish tradition) translated perhaps 200 years before Christ. At the end of verse 28, the translator added the words, “for you do not know what the morrow will bring forth.” There is no basis in the Hebrew for adding these words.
This addition may give an interesting insight into Jewish traditionalist thinking around the time of Christ. The Septuagint translator provided a utilitarian motivation for doing the right thing by your neighbour — “Give your neighbour what you owe him when he is there and you can do it, because you might not be able to do it tomorrow.” In effect, the teaching is, “Do the right thing because it might not work out well if you don’t.”
The original Hebrew, which our translation follows, gives a very different focus. God tells us to do the right thing, because otherwise we are choosing the ways of the oppressor (the Hebrew word suggests that this is a cruel or violent oppressor). He is making clear that we should not treat our neighbours wrongly because to do so is simply evil — and the chapter closes out by making clear that we answer to Him, for good or evil deeds.
The Septuagint tells us this is simply a matter of doing what works well. The inspired text tells us this is a matter of right and wrong, for which we answer to God.
Proverbs is full of practical guidance for life, and it repeatedly warns of the bad consequences of evil and foolish actions and thoughts, while also reminding us of the blessings of righteousness and wisdom. It is important for us, as we read Proverbs, not to fall into the trap of pragmatism/utilitarianism.
Righteousness and wisdom “work” well in life. God made us to live by those standards, and obviously the machinery works better if we operate by the user’s manual — but that is the wrong motive. If we try to live righteously and wisely just because “that works better”, we are living by a standard that, when we strip it down to its bare essence, is mere selfishness.
That is not true wisdom or true righteousness. True wisdom is God-focused. We do that which is right and wise because it pleases God and shows forth His glory.
Utilitarianism (or its cousin, pragmatism) is a pervasive philosophy today, not just in the world, but within the church. I’ll write more on this from time to time. It is a perversion of Jesus’ command: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). We do right because it is right and we love Him.