Treasures Gained by Wickedness
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
Proverbs 10 verse 2 says, “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” Proverbs 11 verse 4 says a similar thing: “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.”
I want to look at several examples of both these points, so that we can learn from them and gain encouragement from them. Treasures and riches were of no benefit to many wicked people in the Bible. There was the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath in Numbers 15, Gehazi, Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 5, and Ananias and Sapphira, who withheld money from the early Church in Acts 5.
There are many examples of righteousness delivering from death as well: Noah and his Ark, Hezekiah’s sickness, and Paul’s many sufferings, including his shipwreck.
My concluding two examples will be Judas and Christ. Judas certainly gained treasure by wickedness, and Christ’s certainly righteousness delivered him from death.
I’ll begin then with the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath. Please turn to Numbers 15, verses 29 to 36.
“If one person sins unwittingly, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who commits an error, when he sins unwittingly, to make atonement for him; and he shall be forgiven. You shall have one law for him who does anything unwittingly, for him who is native among the people of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD, and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him.” While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made plain what should be done to him. And the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp, and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses.
On the face of it, it does sound quite harsh to stone a man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. However, if you take it in conjunction with the preceding verses you can see that this isn’t simply about gathering sticks; it is about something much more serious. “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD.” This man who could see the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day, who almost certainly was among the Israelites when they went through the Red Sea, who would have eaten the manna, decided to go against a direct commandment of God. Even though the sticks were a modest treasure, they were gained by wickedness, and they cost him his life.
Lets look at another example now, Gehazi, Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 5. Please turn to 2 Kings 5 verses 15 and 16. Naaman has just been miraculously cured of leprosy by bathing in the Jordan.
Then Naaman returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him; and he said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; so accept now a present from your servant.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will receive none.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused.
The purpose of the cure was to reveal God to Naaman and his company. It was not for Elisha to get material benefit from. As an aside, I think there is a lesson there for us. We shouldn’t expect to be paid for work that we do for God, because we shouldn’t be doing it for money, or glory, or whatever. We should be doing it for God, because we are his servants.
Gehazi, Elisha’s servant had different ideas. 2 Kings verses 19 to 27:
But when Naaman had gone from him a short distance, Geha’zi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said, “See, my master has spared this Naaman the Syrian, in not accepting from his hand what he brought. As the LORD lives, I will run after him, and get something from him.” So Geha’zi followed Naaman. And when Naaman saw some one running after him, he alighted from the chariot to meet him, and said, “Is all well?” And he said, “All is well. My master has sent me to say, ‘There have just now come to me from the hill country of Ephraim two young men of the sons of the prophets; pray, give them a talent of silver and two festal garments.'” And Naaman said, “Be pleased to accept two talents.” And he urged him, and tied up two talents of silver in two bags, with two festal garments, and laid them upon two of his servants; and they carried them before Geha’zi. And when he came to the hill, he took them from their hand, and put them in the house; and he sent the men away, and they departed. He went in, and stood before his master, and Elisha said to him, “Where have you been, Geha’zi?” And he said, “Your servant went nowhere.” But he said to him, “Did I not go with you in spirit when the man turned from his chariot to meet you? Was it a time to accept money and garments, olive orchards and vineyards, sheep and oxen, menservants and maidservants? Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cleave to you, and to your descendants for ever.” So he went out from his presence a leper, as white as snow.
Quite apart from the fact that Gehazi lied for personal gain, think about how his actions made Elisha, and God, look. Elisha refuses to accept anything from Naaman, knowing that it is inappropriate. This, no doubt, had an impact on Naaman. Elisha’s God had saved his life, and Elisha wasn’t making anything out of it. It was providing a very clear message that God performed the cure for His reasons, and not by Elisha for personal gain.
This whole message was tainted by Gehazi’s actions. Suddenly it was no longer clear that the cure was not financially motivated. Gehazi’s treasures were gained by wickedness, and he did not profit by them. God struck him down with leprosy.
Gehazi got off comparatively lightly. The man who gathered sticks was executed and the two people in my last example, Ananias and Sapphira were struck down. I’ll read the first five verses of Acts chapter 5 to remind us of what happened.
But a man named Anani’as with his wife Sapphi’ra sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Anani’as, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Anani’as heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.
We don’t know why Ananias and Sapphira acted as they did. They may have kept back some money so that they could have left the church at some point in the future, not yet fully convinced that it was the place to be. They may just have been greedy. Whatever the reason, what they did was wicked. They lied not to men but to God. Their secret wealth was of no benefit to them because they died before they could use it.
These three examples could be regarded as almost blood thirsty, but I think there is a much deeper message in them than “Obey God or else”. Psalm 37 verse 1 exhorts us to “Fret not yourself because of the wicked, be not envious of wrongdoers!” Think about the incident of the man collecting sticks on the Sabbath from the point of view of the other Israelites. They made a sacrifice by resting on the Sabbath. That probably involved working doubly hard on the previous day. That sacrifice would have been harder if people were allowed to ignore the Sabbath with impunity. If Gehazi had been able to tarnish the message form God without punishment then his actions would have caused distress to his God-fearing associates. Imagine how strained the fellowship in the early church would have been if Ananias and Sapphira had not been struck down. It wouldn’t be exactly jealousy, but their wealth would have been a stumbling block to other followers of Christ.
These stories teach us that we don’t need to worry when somebody benefits from wickedness. God will sort it out. He doesn’t usually do it in as dramatic a way he did in the three examples, but ultimately he will. Fret not thyself because of the wicked, be not envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.
On a more positive note, let’s now consider the second half of Proverbs 10 verse 2 and Proverbs 11 verse 4: righteousness delivers from death.
Once again there are many examples of righteousness delivering from death, but I’m only going to talk about three: Noah, Hezekiah, and Paul.
I’ll just read a few verses from Genesis chapters 6 and 7, starting at Genesis 6 verse 8:
But Noah found Favour in the eyes of the LORD.
Verses 13 and 14:
And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood
Verses 17 to 19:
For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.
Chapter 7 verse 1:
Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation.
That is a very direct, explicit delivery from death by righteousness. Noah was a righteous man, and so he was chosen by God to build the ark, and he obeyed the instructions, and because of him human and animal life was saved from the flood. Righteousness delivered from death.
The story of Hezekiah’s delivery from death is in 2 Kings chapter 20, verses 1 to 11:
In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Set your house in order; for you shall die, you shall not recover.'” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the LORD, saying, “Remember now, O LORD, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in thy sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him: “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the prince of my people, Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will heal you; on the third day you shall go up to the house of the LORD. And I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.” And Isaiah said, “Bring a cake of figs. And let them take and lay it on the boil, that he may recover.” And Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “What shall be the sign that the LORD will heal me, and that I shall go up to the house of the LORD on the third day?” And Isaiah said, “This is the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do the thing that he has promised: shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or go back ten steps?” And Hezekiah answered, “It is an easy thing for the shadow to lengthen ten steps; rather let the shadow go back ten steps.” And Isaiah the prophet cried to the LORD; and he brought the shadow back ten steps, by which the sun had declined on the dial of Ahaz.
Hezekiah was saved from death by his prayer, a prayer that came straight from the heart of a righteous man. Righteousness didn’t deliver from death in as obvious a way as it did with Noah, but it delivered from death just the same. Throughout his life Hezekiah had been a good man and when faced with death he prayed to God and asked for an extension to his life.
As an aside, this implicitly shows that we do not go to heaven at death. Hezekiah would have been as good a candidate as anybody for heaven, but he knew that death meant oblivion, not bliss.
Please turn to Acts 27, verses 21 to 25. We all know the incident well. Paul is on a ship on his way to Rome, and it has been caught in a storm for some time:
As they had been long without food, Paul then came forward among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me, and should not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. I now bid you take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.
Paul’s righteousness delivered him from death here, and it saved his shipmates too.
Noah and the other people on the Ark are now dead. Hezekiah is now dead. Paul and his shipmates are now dead. Righteousness only delivered them from death temporarily. There is one example of righteousness delivering from death and leading to eternal life. We read about it this morning in Luke 24. Before I talk about that I want to talk about the ultimate treasures gained by wickedness.
Judas Iscariot was a thief. This is made clear to us in John chapter 12, verses 4 to 6:
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.
That was a truly wicked thing to do. Stealing from the coffers of Christ himself. What happened to that money that he stole? With some of it at least, he bought the field in which he hanged himself. We know he returned the infamous thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests, but in Acts chapter 1 verse 18 we are told Judas “bought a field with the reward of his wickedness”. The reward of his wickedness must have been the money he was stealing. Judas certainly did not profit from the stolen money. Ultimately, all he got was a place where he could kill himself.
Having considered the ultimate wickedness, let us consider the ultimate righteousness. Christ s the only man who has lived who never sinned. He is the only truly righteous man ever to have been on the earth. The wages of sin are death, but Christ did not sin, therefore he could not be held by the grave.
Peter’s words on this subject are recorded for us in Acts chapter 2 verses 22 to 24:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know– this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
That is a beautiful thing in and of itself, the fact that one man could be perfectly righteous. It doesn’t stop there. Through baptism we, and countless others throughout history, have repented and been baptised, and our sins have been forgiven, and will be forgiven.
“Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.”
Both of those verses can also be applied to us. We all sin, and I am sure that we all have treasures gained by wickedness. We all have riches, and I imagine most of us are very fond of them. Through Christ’s work, his righteousness, we can all be delivered from death and granted immortality.
I’d like to finish with one verse from the first letter of John chapter 5.
First John 5 verse 20:
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, to know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.