A haughty look, a proud heart, And the plowing of the wicked are sin. (Proverbs 21:4, N.K.J.V.)
It’s easy to understand why God classifies a haughty (conceited) look as sin. It’s equally easy to understand why He classifies a proud (arrogant) heart the same way. For that matter, these two sins walk hand in hand, with the outer haughty look arising from the inner proud heart. But what’s this business about God classifying the plowing of the wicked as sin? How can the time-honored (even Bible-honored) act of plowing ever be sin? Well, let’s talk about that.
The key to understanding the classification is to understand who is doing the plowing. It’s not the righteous. It’s not the godly. It’s not the spiritual. It’s the wicked.
The Hebrew word translated as “wicked” is rasa, and it occurs in well over 200 places in the Old Testament. According to Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, the most narrow meaning of the word deals with the legal system. The “wicked” are law breakers, people who despise the law and praise those who ignore it. Vine’s also notes, however, that in the more general usage the word refers to people “who have done wrong, are still living in sin, and are intent on continuing with wrongdoing.”
Now we’re getting at the crux of the matter. The person doing the plowing in our text verse is a thoroughly unrepentant sinner who, even if he isn’t a professing atheist, doesn’t fear God, has no interest in doing God’s will, certainly doesn’t serve God, and has no intention of ever operating any differently. This person is so self centered, egotistical, and full of himself that the idea of submitting to God is nothing less than a foreign concept. That’s why our verse links the plowing of the wicked up with a haughty look and a proud heart.
Hebrew scholars tell us that rasa (“wicked”) is very similar to the Hebrew word for “lamp.” For this reason, some translations incorporate this idea into their translation of Proverbs 21:4. Here are some examples:
- “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin.” (Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version)
- “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, The lamp of the wicked, is sin.” (New American Standard Version)
- “The lamp that guides the wicked — haughty eyes and an arrogant heart — is sin.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
Think of it this way: what we might call the “inner light” of the wicked is marked by haughtiness, pride, conceit, arrogance, and ego. This is the engine that propels them through each and every act each and every day. God doesn’t get to factor into their planning. He doesn’t get to sign off on their doing. Even if the person isn’t a literal atheist, he is certainly a functioning one.
John Phillips, in his Exploring Proverbs commentary, describes this type of person as follows:
A wicked person has no thought of God. He plows and plants as if he himself can make the rain fall, cause the sun to shine, and produce the miracle of germination and growth. That is the height of presumption, the ultimate abuse of God’s mercy. God causes the sun to shine on the good and bad alike, but He writes the word sin over the lifestyle of a person who lives as though He does not exist. Such a person is ignorant of the fact that God looks upon all that he does — even his ordinary routines and mundane activities, such as plowing his field — as sin.
In case you think this is taking the interpretation too far, let me point out that there are some parallel passages that offer this same teaching. For example, Proverbs 15:8 and 21:27 both say that the sacrifice (nothing less than a religious act) of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord. Similarly, Proverbs 15:26 says that the thoughts (including thoughts that wouldn’t normally be considered evil or impure) of the wicked are an abomination.
This is extreme language. God is telling us that there is a certain type of person walking this earth whose very existence is nothing less than the embodiment of sin. This person can’t do anything that God doesn’t label “sin” because everything about him is anti God. Conceited motivations rise from deep inside him and become outward, arrogant actions. Really, such a person is his own god and operates as such with each breath he takes. Therefore, even when this person is plowing, bringing a sacrifice, or just sitting around thinking, it’s all sin in the eyes of God.
The antithesis of such a person is the Christian who is 1000% submitted to God in every nook and cranny of life. This is the person who seeks God’s will in everything from buying a candy bar to changing churches. Even more than seek God’s will, he submits to that will, whatever it is. He submits to God’s will about: when to plow, when to mow the yard, when to wash the car, when and where to go on vacation, what shirt to buy, who to marry, where to live, where to work, where to send his kids to school, what Christmas gifts to purchase, how much money to put in an offering plate, what cable or satellite provider to use, what internet provider to use, etc., etc., etc.
The point is that God dominates this person’s every motivation, intention, thought, and action. Like a little child who won’t dare take a step without daddy firmly holding his hand, this person won’t dare do anything if it means letting go of God’s hand. These are the Christians that God is looking for as His eyes scan the earth. These are the ones He can use to accomplish His most impacting works. These are the ones He can reward with His highest levels of heavenly treasure. Tell me, are you such a Christian? Am I? It’s definitely a high calling, but it’s one that we can live if we want it badly enough.