“A prideful spirit goes before destruction casts its pall; an arrogant and haughty heart before a mighty fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)
This is the sixteenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 16, preceded by a brief reflection.
Choosing wisely is one of the central themes in Proverbs. Whether it is the words we speak, the actions we take, or the company we keep, wisdom is reflected in our choices. And we are told in various ways that this can be a matter of life and death. For example, in Proverbs 16 we find that wise choices can lead to success (v3), peace (v7), and life (v17). Whereas poor choices lead to discipline (v22), destruction (v18), and death (v25).
There is a lot riding on our choices. But choosing wisely, as we all know, can be very hard at times. And according to Proverbs, even when we think we are choosing what is right, we may be heading toward disaster. In the NIV translation, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 16:25) Some have interpreted this verse to mean that bad things sometimes happen despite the best laid plans. This is the view of Tim Keller who writes about verse 25, “Sometimes … you can follow the ways of wisdom and make your plans as well as can be and things can still go terribly wrong. The wise know that sometimes all paths run ill.” (God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life, page 226) This interpretation is a helpful corrective of a flawed theology that says that if something bad happens to me, I must have done something wrong. Indeed, Jesus himself refuted such an automatic nexus when he said that a man was not blind because he had sinned, but so that “the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3)
However, I believe that most of us understand Proverbs 16:25 is referring to following a way that is wrong even though initially it appears to be right. Just because our heart feels our way is correct, does not make it so. For as the prophet tells us “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Relying on our feelings and what comes naturally to us can lead to disaster. There can be no doubt that our feelings are not an infallible indicator that we are on the right path. As Christians we know that we are to follow God’s way and not our own.
Most of us don’t start out to select a wrong path. Indeed, our natural tendency is to choose a path that “feels right.” But feeling right is not the same as being right. So how can we know if the way we are choosing is going to lead to death?
One answer is found elsewhere in this chapter, “A prideful spirit goes before destruction casts its pall; an arrogant and haughty heart before a mighty fall.” (Proverbs 16:18), or in the NIV translation, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” The Hebrew word for destruction is transliterated sheber, which like the word “death” in verse 25, has a figurative meaning of ruin. Thus, while verse 25 tells us that certain ways lead to ruin, verse 16 identifies a specific way, which is pride.
Proverbs 16:18 may be the most quoted verse from Proverbs, at least in its common paraphrase, “pride goeth before a fall.” I always understood this to mean that when we start to brag about something, that failure is almost certain to follow. In other words, bragging is a way to jinx oneself. I’ll leave the validation or refutation of this to your own empirical experience. But one thing that’s for certain – pride in the Bible is much deeper than simply bragging about things. Biblical pride is the sin that caused Satan to fall, and the sin that CS Lewis referred to as the Great Sin. Throughout the Bible, pride is seen as something God hates. For example, in the present chapter, we read, “The Lord detests the arrogant and all whose hearts are proud.” (Proverbs 16:5a)
As Lewis describes pride in Mere Christianity, “there is no fault that we are more unconscious of in ourselves.” And it is because of its hiddenness that pride causes so many difficulties in our lives. One of the primary ways that pride manifests itself is by the excessive emphasis we attach to ourselves and the events around us. It is a view of the world that frames events from their impact on us and exaggerates their significance – all with predictable consequences.
Henri Nouwen refers to this as eternalization. To eternalize something is to give it undue weight and importance. In other words, we invest things with eternal significance by exaggerating their significance in relationship to ourselves. He writes of the impact of eternalizing events. “Small, seemingly innocent events keep telling us how easily we eternalize ourselves and our world. It takes only a hostile word to make us feel sad and lonely. It takes only a rejecting gesture to plunge us into self-complaint. It takes only a substantial failure in our work to lead us into a self-destructive depression. … Aren’t the many feelings of sadness, heaviness of heart and even dark despair, often intimately connected with the exaggerated seriousness with which we have clothed the people we know, the ideas to which we are exposed and the events we are part of? This lack of distance, which excludes the humor in life, can create a suffocating depression which prevents us from lifting our heads above the horizon of our own limited existence.” (Reaching Out, pages 116-117)
I believe that most of us understand how pride puts enmity between us and God, because over and over we read that God detests the arrogant and proud. It is also self-evident that pride destroys relationships, because pride is inherently competitive, which means that it seeks to prevail over the other, and when it loses, it refuses to forgive. But perhaps less obvious is how pride damages our own souls, because it feels only “natural” for us to see the world through our own wants and needs. But here is the great paradox of pride – the more we seek to protect ourselves, the more we suffer. When we expect the world to revolve around us, inevitably we end up disappointed and discouraged, which leads to anger, unforgiveness, and depression. Doomed to forever live in a state of unsatisfied demands, our souls are gradually crushed.
It is a great step forward when we simply recognize the extent of pride in our lives, and when we resolve to make choices consistent with humility. This is not simple or without its own pain. Indeed, Jesus refers to it this way: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) But Jesus also said that, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12). And that, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
1 While people make elaborate plans,
conceived within the heart;
The proper answers come from God,
through words that tongues impart.
2 While people think their ways are right –
correct in all they do;
Their spirit will be weighed by God,
their motives he’ll review.
3 Commit your efforts to the Lord,
entrust him with each deed;
Then he’ll establish all your plans,
ensuring they succeed.
4 The Lord has worked out everything,
to reach its proper end;
He’s even planned a day of woe,
the wicked can’t transcend.
5 The Lord detests the arrogant,
and all whose hearts are proud;
So be assured that punishment,
will fall upon that crowd.
6 Iniquities and guilt are purged,
through love and faithfulness;
While fearing God provides the way,
to turn from evilness.
7 When ways that people choose to live,
are pleasing to the Lord;
He quiets those who are their foes,
so peace will be assured.
8 Much better to have little wealth,
and live a righteous life;
Than having money garnered through,
injustices and strife.
9 While people plan within their hearts,
the course to guide their way;
The Lord establishes their steps –
the path they go each day.
10 While kings can speak like oracles,
with words that are divine;
Their mouths must not betray what’s right,
with justice on the line.
11 The Lord wants honest balances,
correct and faultless scales;
For he’s concerned with every weight,
and trivial details.
12 A righteous king won’t tolerate,
what’s evil in his sight;
Because a throne is founded on,
what’s virtuous and right.
13 A righteous king takes pleasure in,
both honest and sincere;
He values those who speak what’s right,
and to the truth adhere.
14 The anger of a king predicts,
that death will have its day;
The wise will mollify the king,
to turn his wrath away.
15 A king whose countenance is bright,
brings life to his domain;
His favor’s like a welcome cloud,
that brings the springtime rain.
16 Now wisdom that’s obtained is worth,
much more than any gold;
While insight gained surpasses all,
the silver you can hold.
17 The highway of the righteous turns,
from evilness and strife;
For everyone who guards their way,
preserves and keeps their life.
18 A prideful spirit goes before,
destruction casts its pall;
An arrogant and haughty heart,
before a mighty fall.
19 Far better being poor in heart,
with those whose hopes are quelled;
Than sharing in ill-gotten gains,
with those whose hearts are swelled.
20 The ones who listen when they’re taught,
discover what is best;
And those who put their trust in God,
will find that they are blessed.
21 The wise in heart are known to be,
discerners of what’s right;
Their gracious lips help others learn,
and in their words delight.
22 Insight is like a spring of life,
for those who mark its way;
But folly leads to discipline,
for fools who disobey.
23 The hearts of those whose ways are wise,
give guidance for their speech;
And make their words persuasive when,
they’re offered up to teach.
24 Kind words are like a honeycomb,
that helps to make one whole;
A healing touch to weary bones,
and sweetness to the soul.
25 There is a way that seems correct –
a way perceived as true;
But it deceives, and in the end,
it’s death it’s leading to.
26 The appetite of laborers,
For it’s their hunger driving them,
so that they do not shirk.
27 Ungodly people make their schemes,
with evil as its name;
The slander on their lips is like,
an all-consuming flame.
28 An evil person stirs up strife,
and generates a fray;
A gossip separates two friends,
as unity gives way.
29 The wicked stir their neighbors up,
enticing them to wrath;
They show a way that is not good,
then lead them down that path.
30 Whoever winks their eyes is one,
who plans dishonest things;
Whoever tightens up their lips,
has evil in the wings.
31 Gray hair can be a splendid thing –
a crown of dignity;
When gained along the narrow way,
of living righteously.
32 Far better being patient than,
a fighter of renown;
And better having self-control,
than capturing a town.
33 While some throw lots into a lap,
or dice upon a board;
Still all decisions that are made,
come wholly from the Lord.