A recurring topic in the 28th and 29th chapters of Proverbs is the disparity between the righteous (Proverbs 28:1, 12, 28, 29:2, 6, 7, 16, 27) and the wicked (Proverbs 28:1, 4, 6, 10, 12, 15, 28, 29:2, 6, 7, 12, 16, 27). The section begins with a vivid picture contrasting the cowardice of the wicked with the boldness of the righteous (Proverbs 28:1).
The wicked flee when no one is pursuing,Even the verse’s verb-subject agreement is antithetical. “Wicked” is singular while its verb (“flee”) is plural but “righteous” is plural while its verb (“are bold”) is singular.
But the righteous are bold as a lion. (Proverbs 28:1 NASB)
According to the sage, there is a positive correlation between wickedness and fear and righteousness and courage. In fight or flight terms, the wicked flee while the righteous fight. Fear paralyzes but faith mobilizes. From the perspective of the conscience, right makes might.
In some ways, the cowardly villain has become a clichéd stock character. The Coen brothers’ 2010 remake of the John Wayne (1907-1979) classic True Grit (pictured) intentionally illustrates this proverb. The film even begins with an epigram of the King James Version’s rendering of the first half of Proverbs 28:1.
The verse’s syntax accentuates “the wicked”. Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) notes:
The wicked flee...Literally “They flee and there is no pursuer–the wicked (man).” The unusual delay of the subject, “the wicked,” until the end of the verse gives the line the feel of a riddle: “They flee with no one pursuing.” Who is that?–“The wicked.” (Fox, Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible), 343)
The sage depicts not just anxiety but paranoia. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) connects Proverbs 28:1 to Leviticus 26:36 where the wicked are prone to flee even at the sound of a windblown leaf.
Some attribute this paranoia to practical concerns: evil people accrue many enemies and have reason to be perpetually looking over their shoulders. Others look to psychology: the wicked realize that their evil deeds are going to catch up with them and live in constant fear of divine retribution or legal punishment. Like a child seeking the discipline she knows she deserves and instinctively desires, the wicked imagine the pursuit they know they merit.
The consensus explanation for the angst is that the wicked are plagued by a guilty conscience. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) conveyed a similar concept when he wrote, “Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind” (King Henry VI, Act 5 Scene 6). This interpretation fits the Hebrew as one of the primary meanings of the term rasha` (“wicked”) is “guilty one”. The wicked have a reaction similar to drivers who become alarmed when seeing a squad car even when they are not presently violating the law.
Some have seen the phenomena described in Proverbs 28:1 as ingrained in the human psyche and assured in the Bible. Richard J. Clifford (b. 1934) connects:
The phrase “flees though none pursue” occurs in Leviticus 26:17, 36 in a curse for disobedience to the covenant. In Leviticus the phrase means flight that continues even when the enemy has ceased pursuing; the terror is so profound that one cannot stop running. It is the opposite of the lion-like confidence mentioned in colon B. Wicked behavior sets in motion a chain of ills that leads to a life of fear. (Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 243)A biblical example of this phenomenon occurs as Adam and Eve instinctively flee from God after eating the forbidden fruit in Eden (Genesis 3:8). Likewise, after killing his brother, Cain assumes that everyone wishes him dead: “Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me (Genesis 4:14 NASB).”
John Henry Newman (1801-1890) speculates that the nothing the wicked run from is only nothing that is visible:
Inanimate things cannot stir our affections...If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear...‘The wicked flees when no one pursueth’ [Proverbs 28:1]; then why does he flee? Who is it that he sees in solitude, in darkness in the hidden chambers of hid heart? If the cause of these emotions does not belong to the visible world, the Object to which his perception is directed must be Supernatural and Divine. (Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 109-10)In contrast to the wicked, the righteous are lion-hearted. The word for lion (k@phiyr) is, more specifically, a young lion; i.e. in the prime of its life. Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) illumines:
The contrast between the wicked and the righteous could not be stated more clearly or in more contrastive terms. The wicked are afraid and thus run away from conflict, so much so that they even run before there is a fight. This may indicate their bad conscience...They know they don’t have a leg to stand on. On the other hand, the confidence of the righteous is likened to a lion. The comparison implies that they are well prepared to take care of any assault that comes their way. They do not fear any person, only Yahweh (Proverbs 1:7). (Longman, Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 487)The wicked’s reality is created in their head. The righteous’ reality is defined by God. This produces courage. Though the Hebrew word batach is most commonly translated as “bold” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), it is best understood as “confident”.
Derek Kidner (1913-2008) explains:
‘Confident’ is nearer the meaning. The straightforward man, like the lion, has no need to look over his shoulder, What is at his heels is not his past (Numbers 32:23) but his rearguard: God’s goodness and mercy (Psalm 23:6). (Kidner, Proverbs (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries),168)The New Testament likewise affirms the courage of the righteous:
For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. (II Timothy 1:7 NASB)The gospel also asserts that wicked people can acquire a righteousness through Christ that makes them as bold as a lion.
Why do the wicked flee when no one is pursuing? What cowardly villains can you think of? Is the inverse true: is one who runs from nothing inherently wicked? When have you fled? When should you flee? Have you ever felt paranoid? Why are lions associated with bravery? Do you think most Christians today are bold?
A problem with Proverbs 28:1 is that there is often a disconnect between its characterization and our experience. The wicked often appear bold and just as frequently, the righteous act like The Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion.
Proverbs speaks in generalities and does not claim that there are no exceptions to its axioms. There are likely bold wicked people and timid saints. Proverbs 14:16 uses the same word for “bold” as does Proverbs 28:1 only it describes a fool rather than the righteous. There the term is presented pejoratively, translated as “careless” (HCSB, NASB, NSRV, RSV) or “reckless” (ESV, MSG, NLT). Though there may be outliers, typically, wickedness leads to fear and righteousness to boldness.
Cecil Murphey (b. 1933) finds more meaning when taking a less literal approach and a broader definition of fleeing:
The problem comes because we don’t see much evidence of the wicked fleeing. In fact, we tend to see the reverse—Christians running and unbelievers standing boldly. But if we move beyond the mere words and think of the implication of the saying, it may help us understand what the sages wanted us to grasp...We live in a more sophisticated world, where we’re able to hide those things a little better...Today people still run, but they may not know why they’re running. Augustine [354-430], one of the great thinkers of the fifth century, made the famous statement that we’re restless until we find our rest in Jesus Christ. That’s a form of running—just being restless, on the go, unable or unwilling to pause and reflect, to examine our lives, to ponder the things that really matter. In short, it’s a picture of those who continually reject God. Carl Jung [1875-1961] once said that people don’t really solve the issues of life until they make their peace with God. That’s flowing in the same direction as this proverb. (Murphey, Simply Living: Modern Wisdom from the Ancient Book of Proverbs, 44-45)Do you know anyone who fits either of the descriptions in Proverbs 28:1? What gives the righteous the strength to be as “bold as a lion”? Would you categorize yourself as “bold”?
“A guilty conscience is the mother of invention” - Carolyn Wells (1862-1942)