Read: Proverbs 27:1-2
Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth. Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips. (Proverbs 27:1-2, RSV)
What it Means
What does it mean to boast about tomorrow? What kind of behavior is this ancient proverb warning us against? The snare is surely not in trying to anticipate the future. The Bible encourages us to do that. Jesus criticized some of His contemporaries, you remember, because they could not read the “signs of the time.” They could look at the sky and forecast the weather but they couldn’t look around them and evaluate the events of their day in a way that would help them to grasp what lay ahead. In the Old Testament, those men were praised who had “understanding of the times” so that they could know “what Israel ought to do.” It’s not wrong then or presumptuous to hold conferences on the future in which we try to study trends and envision what kind of circumstances we may be facing, say, in the next decade. No institution can prosper, no business can long survive, no church can minister effectively without seeking to read prevailing trends and to anticipate change.
Nor is there anything amiss in long-range planning. When we’ve done our homework and formed our expectations, then it is eminently wise to plot our course well in advance. Readiness is always a good thing. Listen to the proverb, “Prepare your work outside, get everything ready for you in the field and after that build your house” (Prov. 24:27). Our Lord was frequently reasoning with would-be followers about what He called “counting the cost.” “For which of you desiring to build a tower,” He said, “does not first sit down and count the cost whether he has enough to complete it. Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, `This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ For what king going to encounter another king in war will not sit down first and counsel whether he is able with 10,000 to meet him who comes against him with 20,000? And if not, while the other is still a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace” (Luke 14:28-32). There is nothing godly or even prudent about failing to prepare, neglecting to plan.
No, what is forbidden here is anticipating and planning with a certain arrogance, forecasting with self-assurance our future achievements, successes, and victories. James, the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ, gives an illustration of this in his New Testament letter. “Come now you who say, today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain” (James 4:13). Here, apparently, are people who set forth their long-range plans with smug confidence. Picture a little group of first century merchants, studying a map of the Mediterranean world. They are the prototypes of executives in our multi-national corporations today. They have in mind a large-scale expansion of their business. They will set up a string of markets stretching all the way from Jerusalem to Rome. “Here’s the schedule,” they say, “We’ll get things started in Antioch and after two years, we’ll move on to Ephesus. After another two, we’ll have a thriving enterprise going in Athens. Give us ten years and our products will be in use all over the empire. We will have made it big!” There it is—all planned out. “This and this and this we’ll manage – according to our timetable. It’s as good as done.”
How many warriors, how many athletes have done something like this in advertising their future conquests? Listen to Goliath, the towering Philistine, before his fight with young David, “Come to me,” he vaunted, “and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” In other words, “When you and I do battle, David, that’s going to be the end of you!”
Goliath, of course, was a giant. He was over nine feet tall. With his armor on he must have resembled a modern battle-tank. No one had ever been able to stand up against him. It seemed natural for him to predict what was going to happen to his stripling opponent. For us too, it is often our perceived strengths that lead us to boast about what we’re going to do: our money, perhaps, our cleverness, our talent, our connections. With these things going for us, we reason, how can we miss? Our future success seems to us like a “sure thing.”
Why It Is Unwise
Why is all that unwise? The answer of the proverb is simple, “You do not know what a day may bring forth.” It’s dangerous to boast about tomorrow because you have no idea what tomorrow may bring. There may be circumstances that will frustrate your best designs. One American boxer who had prepared for years for an opportunity to fight in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, was disqualified because he failed to appear for his weigh-in at the appointed time. The problem? The bus he was supposed to take to get him to the fight arena on time was full and he couldn’t board. Think of it—because of an over-crowded bus, he missed the chance of a lifetime for Olympic gold.
Further, we don’t know about the people who may oppose us, do we? Goliath didn’t reckon on David’s courage or on his skill with the sling. The giant had only one exposed spot on his whole body. How could he know that a smooth stone would strike him there, right between the eyes? Sometimes the opponents we scoff at are more formidable than we think. They listen to our boastings, but ask in response, “Yeah, but what am I gonna be doing while you’re doin’ all that?”
But beyond that, none of us can be sure about the condition we’ll be in tomorrow. James asks of the proud boasters, “What is your life, for you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). It’s like the breath that vaporizes on a cold day. Your health, even when you’re in your prime, is surprisingly fragile, your life span notoriously uncertain. What would it take to carry you away? Not much. Justinian, one of Rome’s mighty emperors, died by entering a room that had been newly painted. Adrian, a pope, was said to have strangled by inhaling a house fly. People have been choked on the seeds of a grape, poisoned by a few drops of water, even carried off by a whiff of foul air. In our time, it takes no more than a nod at the wheel of a speeding car, a weakened bolt on the mounting of an airplane engine, or any one of a thousand machine malfunctions to snatch away our lives in a matter of seconds. And what do we really know of what may be transpiring now in our own bodies? We have all known people who seemed to be in perfect health but who then were suddenly and fatally stricken.
Boasting of any kind is universally obnoxious, except to the boaster himself. We always despise it when others do it, don’t we? The more they advertise their glories, the less we think of them. Lord Bacon once told a bombastic friend of his, “The less you speak of your greatness, the more I shall think of it.” How good for all of us to hear this further charge from the proverb, “Let another praise you and not your own mouth, a stranger and not your own lips.” We’re always wrong when we boast. We either magnify what isn’t really exceptional or we take credit for what comes to us as sheer gift. And when we boast about tomorrow, we add to the sin of pride that of presumption.
And how often those vauntings of ours come back to haunt us! Let one football team hold another in contempt and brag about how badly they’re going to beat them next weekend. That’s just what the coach of the opposing team is looking for. He takes that article full of braggadocio and posts it prominently in his team’s locker room. Nothing so motivates them to give their best as the smug predictions of an opponent. Don’t boast about tomorrow because you don’t know what a day may bring forth. And further, you don’t know how much your arrogance may contribute to your fall.
A Better Way
What should we do instead? The proverb doesn’t say, but James has some sage advice in this connection. Listen: “Instead you ought to say, `if the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” He seems to say, “Go ahead and plan. Try to project the future; try to envision what’s ahead. But as you do, keep God in your thoughts.”
It used to be a common practice among Christians to say with regard to some announced future plan, “the Lord willing.” The initials “D.V.” at the end of a letter were used to abbreviate the Latin phrase Deo Volente which means “if God wills” or “God being willing.” The custom seems to be out of fashion now. I don’t notice that on many letters. Maybe that represents a significant loss. Maybe we ought still to say and write that. But there’s no magic, of course, in merely verbalizing it. James wants from us most of all a certain attitude of heart, a characteristic way of looking at the future. He wants us to reckon seriously with the fact that our lives are totally in God’s hands.
That’s a part of what the Bible means by living in the fear of God. God wants that from us. That “fear” surely isn’t terror or fright, but a kind of reverent awareness, a recognition of what’s really true, that we have to do with God in everything.
Everything depends ultimately on His gracious will. Not a hair can fall from our heads without God’s knowledge. No breath of harm can touch us without His permission. Nor can any project of ours prosper without His attendant blessing. James is saying here: recognize your dependence on the Lord and give expression to it. When you talk about your future plans, don’t act or speak or even think as though God did not exist. Let Him be in all your thoughts. Reckon with Him above all in your planning.
What does that mean for us practically? It means that when we try to anticipate the future, we need to remember that it is in His hands and to pray for light from Him upon all our reflections. When we plan for the future, we need to submit our minds to His direction, depending upon Him for it. And we need to look toward Him with the settled confidence that, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it. Unless the Lord keeps the city, the watchman wakes but in vain” (Ps. 127:1). We need to know in our bones that what the Lord has said to His people is the truth, “Without me you can do nothing”—that is, nothing weighty, nothing lasting, nothing that has the life of God in it.
It’s obvious that we need to prepare for an uncertain future. We need to be ready for anything. I know of only one way to do that, and that is to anchor your life in the loving purpose of God. If you want to be able to face the future serenely, begin by receiving God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. He died for you and rose again. He lives now to grant forgiveness and new life to all who trust Him. Receive Jesus Christ as your Savior. Invite Him with a prayer of faith to enter your life. Submit yourself entirely to His lordship. In worship, in faith, in prayer, keep the Lord always before you. Don’t boast about tomorrow, but rather glory in this, that the One who holds tomorrow in His hand is through Jesus Christ your Father and your friend. Let all of your boasting be in Him!
PRAYER: Lord, we’ve all been guilty of it. Forgive our boasting about ourselves, our pride and presumption about tomorrow, and teach us what your Word is saying, that our future is in Your hands. And help us to glory only in Your saving love and keeping power. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
About the Author
Dr. William C. Brownson was the President Emeritus of Words of Hope. Dr. Brownson served Reformed churches in Lodi, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Preaching at Western Theological Seminary, a position he occupied for ten years before serving at Words of Hope. In addition to a widespread speaking ministry in churches, on university campuses and at conferences, Dr. Brownson wrote extensively for the Church Herald, other Christian periodicals, and authored many books. Dr. Brownson died April 1, 2022.