“Evil eagerly pursues.” Here in Proverbs 13:21, “Evil” is both a personification and literal, as is “goodness.” As a personification, the concept of evil is spoken of as if it is a person and thus has human attributes, including the ability to want and seek revenge. As a personification, the verse is saying that evil things happen to sinners, just as good things happen to the righteous (for more on the figure of speech personification, see commentary on Prov. 1:20, “wisdom”). However, we also believe that “Evil” is literal, and is the name of a demon or category of demons who attack people, and, as this verse points out, especially people who open themselves up to demonic (or angelic) attack by sinful lifestyles; that is, “Evil” attacks consistent, unrepentant sinners. The verse is ironic in that it turns the circumstances of the wicked person upside down. Wicked people “eagerly pursue” evil so they can get what they want in life (Prov. 11:19), but when they eagerly pursue evil, then Evil turns around and eagerly pursues them (Prov. 13:21).
The word “Evil” can be the figure of speech personification, but the text allows for, but does not demand, a second interpretation—a literal interpretation. This is important because people have always had different degrees of understanding of the spirit world and spiritual warfare. Ancient beliefs ranged from fools who did not even believe in a God (Ps. 14:1; 53:1) to people who believed in both angels and demons and the conflict between them (Acts 23:8). Those who have eyes to see the spiritual world will have understanding that others do not have.
The Old Testament is not nearly as clear as the New Testament when it comes to making a distinction between good angels and evil demons. The Old Testament mostly portrayed the spirit world as generally overseen by a God who protected the righteous, while the unrighteous were afflicted by spiritual powers—some of which were said to be from God and others simply described as “evil.” Thus, there are some other verses that are somewhat similar to Prov. 13:21 in that they support the conclusion that “Evil” literally attacks sinners. For example, Proverbs 17:11 says, “Surely a rebellious person seeks evil, so a cruel messenger [or “angel”] will be sent against him” (the English word “angel” is “messenger” in both Hebrew and Greek). In that same general context, Proverbs 17:13 says that a person who repays good with evil will have “evil” (or “Evil”) in his house. Also, Scripture makes the point that sinners open themselves up to curses because their sin provides a reason or cause for the curse to come. Proverbs 26:2 (NET) says, “a curse without cause does not come to rest.”
Not only are there verses stating that Evil, or evil “angels” (messengers) will come against sinners, the biblical text has historical cases where evil people are attacked by “messengers,” including both God’s angels and evil spirits (demons). For example, God’s messengers (angels) destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:13), and they helped the Israelites conquer the Canaanites (Exod. 33:2). Evil spirits tormented Saul after he hardened his heart against God (1 Sam. 16:14). God’s messenger (angel) struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers when they tried to attack Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35).
In contrast to the Old Testament, the New Testament much more clearly presents the spiritual warfare between good and evil. It shows that believers are supported by God, Jesus Christ, and angels, and that they battle against the Devil and demons who afflict anyone they can. The New Testament has many examples of people being afflicted by demons (cp. Luke 4:33-35, 41; 8:27-33; 9:38-42; 11:14; 13:10-13; Acts 16:16-19), but also has an example of a messenger of God (an angel) fighting against evil and destroying an evil person (Acts 12:23).
It has long been recognized that consistently wicked people often have troubles that seem “out of the ordinary” or “beyond coincidental,” and are of spiritual origin. Many ancient people knew that behavior that offended God (or “the gods”) opened a person up to attacks from evil spirits. Although demons are known to attack good people too, their attacks on the ungodly are consistent enough to have been recognized by many different cultures. While most modern “educated” people deny or misunderstand the demonic world and thus attribute demonic attacks to “really bad luck,” most ancient societies recognized that there were evil spirits that caused harm, so they developed rituals, spells, and charms to ward the evil spirits off.
One of the Greek goddesses said to attack people who sinned was Nemesis (Νέμεσις). Nemesis was the goddess of divine retribution. The name Nemesis basically means “distributor of what is due.”a In Greek mythology, she is portrayed as a winged goddess carrying a dagger or whip.
The Furies were also goddesses in Greek mythology. Wikipedia says, “In Greek mythology the Erinyes...also known as the Furies, were female chthonic deities [goddesses of the underworld] of vengeance. A formulaic oath in the Iliad invokes them as ‘the Erinyes, that under earth take vengeance on men, whosoever hath sworn a false oath.’ They correspond to the Dirae in Roman mythology. The Erinyes are crones [old women]…described as having snakes for hair, dog’s heads, coal-black bodies, bat’s wings, and blood-shot eyes. In their hands they carry brass-studded scourges, and their victims die in torment.”b
While Nemesis and the Furies are not described in the Bible, demons that torment and kill people are, and many ancient people knew that such demons existed. Contrary to the theory of evolution, life is not just a bunch of random physical and material occurrences dictated by chance. Life was given by God and is now enmeshed in a huge spiritual war between Good and Evil, with Evil doing its best to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). A person who eagerly pursues evil to get what he wants out of life will instead find himself pursued by Evil. Psalm 140:11 is another verse that speaks of “evil” hunting violent people, and Proverbs 17:11 is another supporting verse.
“reward.” The Hebrew verb is shalam (#07999 שָׁלַם), and in the piel aspect, as it is here, it means to be rewarded, repaid, recompensed. We chose “reward” because although salvation is not by works but by trusting God (having “faith”), believers will be rewarded for the good works they do for God. Also, however, because the reward is reward for work done, it can be considered a payment. God will reward or repay believers for the work they have done for Him. There are many times that knowing that fact gives believers the mental fortitude to keep on obeying God in the face of great trials or temptations. The wise believer looks for an everlasting reward, not a temporal pleasure here on earth.
[For more information on the rewards believers will receive for obeying God, see commentary on 2 Cor. 5:10.]