“When calamity comes, the wicked are brought down, but even in death the righteous have a refuge”
When bad things happen in the world, the wicked will most likely suffer. But even when the righteous ‘suffer’ by experiencing the worst possible ‘bad thing’ (that is, death), they will at the same time find a refuge — a shelter or protection — in God.
In the proverb, “calamity” is the Hebrew word “ra”: evil. Used in this sense, “evil” does not necessarily mean sin; rather, it refers to misfortune, catastrophe, or trouble. Sometimes these circumstances come upon the world to punish the wicked (cp also Prov 24:16).
The fate of the wicked
The Book of Proverbs tells us about the fate of the wicked:
- Their reputation will be like rotten wood (10:7).
- God will reject all their desires (10:3).
- All their hopes will come to nothing (10:28; 11:8,10).
- Their worst fears will be realized (10:24).
- The wicked person will know nothing but trouble, or calamity (12:21), which is depicted as a relentless hunter (11:19).
- The wicked will also experience contempt and reproach (18:3).
- They will flee even when there are no pursuers (28:1).
- They will be driven to death (14:32).
- No future dwelling place awaits the wicked (10:30).
- God will overthrow them (21:12).
- They will be swept away like chaff (10:25).
Notice that, for the wicked, there is absolutely no mention of eternal torment in a burning hell, or anywhere else, for that matter.
Illustrations of the fate of the wicked provide cautionary tales by which we may examine ourselves:
- Dathan and his associates rebelled against the authority of God, and were swallowed up in an earthquake (Num 16:33).
- Others in Israel, who turned their backs on the LORD’s counsel and worshiped other ‘gods’, were destroyed at His command (Exod 32:28).
- Balaam and the Midianites, who sought to draw Israel away from the LORD, were rejected by the LORD and then destroyed by His vengeance (Num 31:8,10; cp Rev 2:14).
- Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s sons, treated their priesthood with contempt, and misused their positions of responsibility for personal gain and gratification. They lost their positions and died in battle when the Philistines captured God’s ark (1Sam 1:3; 2:34; 4:4,11,17).
- The false prophets of Baal, and of other false gods, were ridiculed for their pretensions, and then slaughtered at Elijah’s command (1Kgs 18:40).
Death comes to all
All the foregoing defines the most fundamental of first principles: the wicked will perish.
The wicked, of course, are not the only ones who die. The most righteous of men and women die also. But there is an incalculable difference between the fate of the wicked and the fate of the righteous (meaning those who trust in the LORD). Extraordinary as it may sound, even in death the righteous find “refuge”. “Refuge” signifies a place where one might flee for protection in time of trouble. In his wilderness sojourn, David found refuge in valleys and caves where he might hide from the murderous Saul. That is one sort of refuge, and we need to look for it when necessity demands.
When we are in extreme trouble or danger, we will do almost anything to escape death — or to hold it off even for a while. Nevertheless, the Bible teaches us that the righteous need not fear death. For them, death may become a refuge; there is no greater assurance in this life. Through faith, the righteous may actually come to see the worst imaginable ‘evil’, death, as a cause of hope:
- Simeon, a just and devout man who waited for the consolation of Israel, was at last blessed to take the baby Jesus in his arms. Then he thanked God with the words: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word: for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29,30).
- The prophet Isaiah spoke of death, for believers, as a welcome haven: “The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death” (Isa 57:1,2).
- In his best moments, the righteous Job could look at his God and see at the same time the Bringer of Death, and the Only Source of Help: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15; cp 19:25-27).
- The words of the Lord in the Apocalypse pronounce a special blessing upon those righteous ones who die: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Rev 14:13).
- For the best example of death being a refuge, we turn to Isaiah again:
“But your dead [O LORD] will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy… the earth will give birth to her dead. Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by” (Isa 26:19,20).
The righteous may “hide” themselves, or take refuge, in the “rooms” or inner chambers of the grave. There — where nothing else can harm them in any way — they may safely wait, until God’s “wrath” (trouble, distress or danger upon the wicked) has passed. Then they may come forth to endless life.
In this lovely little prophecy of Isaiah, the grave itself becomes an ark of safety, like the one that sheltered Noah and his family during the Great Flood. The grave also becomes a “house” sprinkled with the Passover blood (cp Exod 12), while the last and greatest plague ravaged Egypt. In both instances, the doors were shut, while the protecting wings of the LORD overspread them, and all outside was hopelessness and death.
In the prophecy or parable, the righteous are seen entering gladly into their “houses” of death. They know that, even there, they are protected by the Angel of His Presence and the blood of the true Passover Lamb (John 1:29; 1Cor 5:7; 1Pet 1:19, Heb 13:20), and that their God and Savior will remember them when the time of wrath has passed, and call them forth to glorious life.
‘Why is no one crying?’
After a long life in the Truth, the old brother died and was laid to rest alongside his faithful wife. At the funeral and immediately after, some of his children, who had never been in the Truth, talked quietly with one another. Then one of them approached a Christadelphian with their question: ‘Why is no one crying?’
It seemed to her and her siblings that her dear father must not have meant very much to his fellow churchgoers, since there was so little visible expression of sorrow at his death. She was most kindly reassured, however, by the Christadelphian: ‘We dearly loved your parents. But we know that death for them is truly just a peaceful sleep. We know we shall see them again, and in the most wonderful circumstances. They are at rest now, and one day — perhaps very soon — they will wake up to receive immortality in God’s Kingdom.’
Thus began to dawn upon the daughter, and then others in her family, a profound realization. What they had heard over the years, but paid little attention to, was much more than empty words. It was, for those who truly believe, the only reality. The death of the righteous will surely bring some sorrow to those who love them, but much more it will bring to them peace and hope. A night of weeping, yes; but also a morning, and many further mornings, of joy in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection (Psa 30:5).
There could be only one response from the daughter who saw, for the first time with real clarity, that a spiritual hope could triumph over a natural death. ‘Please tell me more about this kind of hope.’ And she and other relatives were ultimately baptized into the same hope that her parents possessed.
Let us so live that we have no fear of death — that we fear it no more than our bed at the end of a tiring day. Others will recognize that. At first, they may wonder what is wrong with us. But then, when they understand better, they may say, ‘I want to live my life in hope too.’