“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your pathways straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
This is the third in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. Today’s blog contains my rendering of Proverbs 3, preceded by a brief reflection.
The bad news about the Covid-19 pandemic just keeps coming. The daily statistics on the virus are, frankly, more than most of us can process. Healthwise, there are the number of people infected, the number on respirators, and the number who have died. Financially, there are falling stock prices, business failures, and shrinking retirement savings. All this along with job losses, empty grocery shelves, and closed stores. Never in our lifetime has anything so impacted the entire world as this virus. No nation, no people group, no ideology, no religion is exempt. While the virus itself is particularly harmful to the elderly and those with underlying health issues, even the young can succumb to it. And regardless of the state of our health and finances, all of us are impacted by quarantine orders and social distancing. Against this backdrop, Proverbs 3 has much to ponder.
The Wisdom of Proverbs Is Not Our Hope
The wisdom of Proverbs is not our hope, although there are many verses that seem to suggest the opposite. I am referring to verses that say that the way of wisdom leads to well-being. For example, Proverbs 3 promises: long life, peace, and prosperity (verse 2); health and nourishment (verse 8); barns and vats that overflow (verse 10); and long life, riches and honor (verse16). Those of us who follow Christ and seek the wisdom found in Scripture might be excused if we are confused by these verses. Particularly if for years we have lived wisely in terms of our health, investments, and work ethic – but now are facing illness, dwindling savings, and/or job loss.
It is certain that these verses contain practical truths for good living, namely, that there is a correlation between following the way of wisdom and a better life. It is similar to the correlation between following the best medical wisdom and avoiding infection from the Covid-19 virus. If we are vigilant in our hand-washing, social distancing, wearing facemasks, etc., we will likely remain healthy. But it is not a guarantee – some people who do all these things will still contract the virus; and some who foolishly do nothing will remain healthy. But overall, if we do these things it is more likely than not that we will be safe. If you are skeptical of this interpretation and believe that the way of wisdom in Proverbs guarantees prosperity, you need look no further than Psalm 73, which indicates that the righteous do sometimes suffer while the wicked do indeed sometimes prosper. “This is what the wicked are like – always free of care, they go on amassing wealth. Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.” (Psalm 73:12-14) Jesus himself affirmed this principle when he declared to his disciples, “in this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33)
The Lord Is Our Hope
However, not all Proverbs are premised on following the way of wisdom per se. Consider Proverbs 3:5-6, which are premised on trusting the Lord, with the concomitant promise that that our pathways will be straight. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your pathways straight.” We might well ask whether these verses are also correlative as are the verses that promise health and wealth? In other words, will the Lord sometimes, but not always, make our pathways straight if we trust him? Or is “trusting the Lord with all your heart,” deeper than simply following the way of wisdom? Is it possible that these two verses contain something closer to a guarantee?
2013 was a difficult year for me – much more than what I am experiencing during the Covid-19 pandemic. In August of that year I lost my father to prostate cancer. In his final months I traveled frequently to his home in Maine to be with him and my mother, and to help with his final affairs. When he finally died, I didn’t have a lot of time to mourn his passing because I was also dealing with my own medical problem. Despite a lifetime of vigorous physical exercise, I had developed a faulty aortic valve and aneurysm on my ascending aorta. In October, I underwent open-heart surgery to replace these. The surgery itself went well; and by God’s grace, the surgeon’s skill, and great care, I came home four days later. Throughout the experience, I remember very little physical pain. In fact, the pain was so well controlled at the hospital that by the time I got home, I did not need pain medication. The emotional and spiritual battle though was just beginning.
Nighttime was the hardest. I was “sleeping” on the living room couch so that I would not disturb Pat. Although I did not have a lot of physical pain, I often felt my heart beating, which caused great distress. When this happened, I would sit up in a panic and start to pray. And what did I pray? Well, many things, but first and foremost was Proverbs 3:5-6. With apologies to my present translation, the NIV version will forever be imprinted on my soul. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your pathways straight.” I prayed this hundreds of times in the weeks following the surgery. Occasionally, I would alternate it with Psalm 23, but always I returned to Proverbs. And the more I prayed, the more I realized that more than physical healing, I also desperately needed emotional healing from the awful fear that struck in the darkness of the night. There is something about fear in the night that is a lonely place, where pride and self-sufficiency are stripped away and all that remains is despair. At such times the only hope is to trust in the Lord, and like the Psalmist to cry out to him – “When in distress I begged the Lord to listen to my plea; and he responded to my cry and set my spirit free.” (Psalm 118:5)
One night, several weeks into my recovery, something unexpected happened. As I prayed, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of goodwill and love towards everyone I had ever known – friend and foe alike. It was like a wave washed over me, and for the first time in weeks I felt at peace. Scripture tells us that, “perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Perhaps it was the perfect love of God that came over me as I prayed, perhaps not. Nonetheless, it was an inflection point in my recovery. From then on, while at times I still experienced fear, it had lost its death grip on my soul.
When Proverbs 3:5-6 speaks of straight pathways, it does so as metaphor. A metaphor that does not represent so much a life of health and wealth; as one marked by freedom from anxiety and fear. This life is captured well by the Psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46:1-3) Things around us may be giving way, our world may be turned upside down by Covid-19, but if the Lord is our hope, we need not fear.
In these trying and uncertain times, these are words to live by – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your pathways straight.”
1 My child, do not forget my words –
the teaching that I share;
But fill your heart with my commands,
and keep them always there.
2 By holding on to all these things,
you’ll find your years increase;
And they will bring prosperity,
well-being, health, and peace.
3 Cling tight to love and faithfulness,
and don’t let them depart;
O bind them firm around your neck,
and write them on your heart.
4 If you will do these things I say,
then you will win acclaim,
As God and people everywhere
speak highly of your name.
5 O trust upon the Lord your God
with all your heart and mind;
On understanding of your own,
don’t lean or be inclined.
6 Acknowledge God in all your ways,
forever let it show;
And he will make your path more straight
than you could ever know.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes,
and think that you’re okay;
But reverence and fear the Lord,
from evil turn away.
8 These things will surely bring you health,
and make your body whole;
The nourishment that you receive
will satisfy your soul.
9 O honor God with what you have –
your wealth and all it yields;
Give him the best of what you grow –
the firstfruits of your fields.
10 For then your barns will nearly burst
with everything you grow;
And wine will surely fill your vats
until they overflow.
11 My child, when God reproaches you,
don’t treat it with disdain;
Do not despise his discipline,
no matter what the pain.
12 The Lord reproaches those he loves –
those cherished in his sight;
Just as the parents discipline
the child of their delight.
13 How blessed are the ones who find
the way that makes them wise;
For understanding rightly gained
brings joy that’s like a prize.
14 For wisdom is more valuable
than silver goods untold;
She yields a gain far better than
a treasure trove of gold.
15 Yes, wisdom is a precious jewel –
no ruby is so rare;
There’s no desire of the heart
that ever can compare.
16 For wisdom holds in her right hand,
a life of many years;
While in her left she offers wealth
with accolades and cheers.
17 Now wisdom is a pleasant way,
where all good things increase;
Her pathways are in harmony
with gentleness and peace.
18 For wisdom is a tree of life
to those who hold her best;
And everyone who clings to her
will certainly be blessed.
19 By wisdom God created earth,
and put it in its place;
By understanding formed the sky,
and set it into space.
20 By wisdom God split land from sea,
and caused the streams to flow;
He made the clouds to give forth dew,
that falls on all below.
21 My child, keep wisdom ever close,
hold understanding tight;
Don’t let discernment get away,
or judgment slip your sight.
22 For they will surely give you life,
and animate your soul;
And like a garland for your neck,
they’ll make your spirit whole.
23 Then you will safely walk along
with no concern at all;
There’s nothing that can trip your foot,
or ever make you fall.
24 When lying down you’ll not be scared,
your slumber will be deep –
A time of sweet serenity,
while drifting into sleep.
25 You’ll never fear calamities
will strike you unaware;
Like storms that blow the wicked down,
and leave them in despair.
26 Indeed, the Lord will keep you safe,
he’ll never leave your side;
He’ll keep your foot from being caught,
no mishap will betide.
27 Do not refrain from doing good
to those whose needs are great;
But help in any way you can,
and do not hesitate.
28 Do not tell neighbors in their need,
“Come back another day”;
For when their need is in your hand,
it’s no time to delay.
29 Do not cause neighbors any pain,
or plot to do them harm;
For those who live in trust near you,
have no grounds for alarm.
30 Do not accuse just anyone
when you do not have cause;
When they have done no harm to you,
or broken any laws.
31 Do not be envious of those
who act with cruelty;
Don’t match the violence of their ways,
or copy what you see.
32 The Lord detests perversity,
and those who go astray;
But those who walk in righteousness,
he counsels everyday.
33 The Lord puts curses on the homes
of those who live in sin;
But blesses those of righteous souls,
and all who dwell within.
34 The Lord mocks everyone who scoffs,
he’s scornful of the proud;
But shows his favor to the meek,
the beaten and the cowed.
35 The wise inherit accolades
with honor and acclaim;
But fools get only high contempt,
embarrassment and shame.