A Proverb for Today — Proverbs 24:19-20

“Fret not thyself because of evil men, neither be thou envious at the wicked;  For there shall be no reward to the evil man; the candle of the wicked shall be put out” (Proverbs 24:19-20).

Listening to His Father

Solomon frequently exhorts his son to listen to a father’s wisdom and instruction, and the very next Proverb after these verses begins with the words, “My son.”  But in these two verses, we see that Solomon took his own advice, for he draws here on the Psalms of his own father, David:

Psalm 37:1

Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.

Psalm 37:38

But the transgressors shall be destroyed together: the end of the wicked shall be cut off.

Psalm 18:28

For thou wilt light my candle: the LORD my God will enlighten my darkness.

“Fret not Thyself”

We typically think of “fret” as referring to “worry” or “anxiety,” but this is broader.  The Hebrew word charah, often translated “kindled” or “hot,” usually refers to anger or wrath.  There are exceptions — Nehemiah 3:20 talks about those who “earnestly” repaired.  The sense is of stirring up a hot fire, but it is used figuratively of emotions, usually anger.

This form occurs only here and in Psalm 37 (three times, verses 1, 7, & 8).  In each, the KJV translators chose “fret thyself.”  Some commentators read in “anger” because it often appears with charah, but it isn’t in this passage — for two reasons, I would suggest.  The first is that the warning is broader than anger.  The second is to emphasise the “fire” to enhance the poetic force of the Proverb.

The Warning is Broader than Anger

Solomon is teaching us not to stir ourselves up over evil — at all.  Certainly, we should not stir up anger in ourselves over evil people and the things they do.  The Bible talks about righteous anger, but it is not something we stir up in ourselves, it comes from God.  The anger we stir up is the “wrath of man” (James 1:20), and such anger doesn’t accomplish righteousness.  The more time you spend thinking on evil, the more you will stir up in yourself the wrong kind of anger.

Nor should we stir up worry (which “fret” usually brings to mind).  It is amazing how often Christians worry about what evil people do, about the decline of society and the decline of the church.  You would almost guess by the way they talk that some Christians think God is losing! 

Fear, anger, worry, none of these are the responses we should stir up in ourselves in response to evil.  God is in control.

The Poetic Force of the Proverb

Let’s look at the literary structure:

Fret not thyself because of evil men, 

Neither be thou envious at the wicked; 

For there shall be no reward to the evil man;

The candle of the wicked shall be put out.

The middle two statements are linked — don’t be envious, for the wicked will have no reward.  So also the first and last are linked. 

The poetic structure clarifies the focus.  Solomon leaves it to us to think through the different ways we stir ourselves up (anger, worry, fear, whatever).   He is setting the contrast of fire and candle, telling us not to stir ourselves (“fret”) into a raging fire over a feeble candle, melting away and soon to go out.  He uses the visual images of a raging fire and a wax candle to emphasise the fact that the problems of evil are temporary, and it is pointless to stir ourselves up over them.

*****

Christians are surrounded by voices that want to stir us up.  Politicians, the press, news commentators, even many Christian organisations and preachers, gain their power, influence, and even financial well-being by stirring us to anger, fear, or worry over the actions of the wicked.  Some of these people may say much which is right, they may have good motives, and it may be good and appropriate for Christians to help them at times in what they are trying to accomplish.

Nevertheless, we should always remember this:

In God’s eyes,
the wicked are merely a wax candle
soon to go out.

Update:  “Fret not Thyself” in Psalm 27:1-13.

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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