“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
Have you ever heard or used this expression?
While the exact origin of the phrase is debated, some think it became a common saying during the English occupation of Scotland and Ireland (think Braveheart). It expressed a fear held by some of the Scots and Irish about the leadership vacuum that would have been created if they successfully overthrew the English king. They thought: Sure the king is bad, but at least we know what we’re dealing with. If the king is vanquished, it is possible that a far worse, far more brutal leader could rise up and take his place!
Even though this phrase may have been coined around the 14th century, it seems it’s been a common, fear-driven way of thinking for a much longer time. In Isaiah 30, the prophet rebukes the people of God for seeking protection from Egypt (a nation that formerly enslaved them). Now free but fearful of new foreign invaders, they decided to turn to their previous oppressors and captors for help. This blows my mind. Rather than turn to the Lord who demonstrated His power over the nations repeatedly, the people of God returned to the darkness they were familiar with.
You see, their tunnel vision only allowed them to consider two options: the devil they knew, Egypt, and the devil they didn’t know, the foreign invaders creeping at their borders. They were working in a completely false dichotomy, but just couldn’t see it.
The real choice was not between the devil they knew and the devil they didn’t, but rather between worldly solutions and true heavenly security. They just missed it.
Regardless of the great enemies they saw at their borders, and regardless of what we see, the most fruitful, life-giving, soul-replenishing choice is to walk in the way of God’s mercy, which is lined by His commands. Isaiah called the people back to the path. He encouraged them to listen to the voice of God, which would lead them to safety, security, and wholeness (30:20-21). When they turned astray, they were to heed the call of God: “This is the way, walk in it.” Only then would they be truly saved from their enemies and free from their captors.
How many times have you tried to cut a deal with Egypt? How many times have you placed your happiness, health, and hope in the hands of previous sins and masters you know won’t ever provide the serenity you seek?
We must confess with our mouths and our lives that the commands of God exist to lead us to mercy. We sit in this season of Lent, confessing that we are dead to the old ways and open to the Spirit and the newness of life that comes with Easter. We are saved by grace through faith, not by anything else.
Heed the call of Isaiah with me. Return to Egypt no longer. Return to your enslavement no more. You are free! The God of Exodus who freed the Israelites from bondage came to earth and gave His life so that our lives could be lived to the fullest. When you feel yourself straying to the left or the right, pause and listen for the voice of God. He is there whispering to you: “This is the way, walk in it.”
Written by Andrew Stoddard