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I was asked recently to comment on Proverbs 20:24 so I thought I’d make a blog of it. So here we go.
First, I will cover a few overall things with Proverbs in general. Proverbs can be divided up between chapters 1-9, and 10-31. 1-9 have a more thematic or narrative style. 10-31 are a bit more of a collection of individual proverbs. Clearly, the overall theme centers on the choice between following Yahweh or following the surrounding false gods.
My own view of Proverbs is that it is inspired and should be included in the canon. There was some early debate mostly due to its apparent contradictions. However, the way I view inspiration and inerrancy (which I should blog on someday) there are no problems at all. I view Proverbs to be insightful and full of good observations and advice. Over time, insights, observations, and advice can become “true” in a culture. For example, we say “patience is a virtue.” True. However, we also say “No time like the present.” Also true. However, if simply lined up side-by-side, which is sometimes done purposefully in Proverbs, they obviously contradict one another. So there you have it. The bible contradicts itself and should be tossed out as uninspired and all the rest, correct? Not so fast. Even in everyday life, proverbs are “true” with qualifications. So, what are those qualifications?
First of all, proverbs in everyday life, and I think Proverbs in scripture, are “true” at certain times and in certain circumstances. If we think back to hermeneutics, we remember that “context is king.” So, we really never think about the proverb “patience is a virtue” when we have an urgent deadline to meet at work. However, in tons of other situations, with the right timing, we generally recognize this proverb to be true. So, if the author of Proverbs is intending to give general popular sayings that have come to be recognized as “true” then there are likely no contradictions that cause the book to become disqualified as a candidate for inspired Word.
Second of all, the proverb must be “true” in a large number of circumstances. Certainly both proverbs mentioned in the previous paragraph have a great number of circumstances where they are applicable.
Finally, it sure helps if they are used a lot in people’s everyday life. Proverbs are more effective when they are widely recognized. Have you ever hit someone with a real zinger of a proverb only to have them say “What? I never heard of that saying. What does that mean?” Well, there goes the effectiveness of your proverb.
So, let’s look at this particular proverb.
A mans steps are of the Lord; How then can a man understand his own way? (NKJV)
(I wouldn’t normally use this version but since that’s the version I received the request from I’ll go with it.)
The first word for man here does not refer to the gender man and really refers to all of mankind. Because of that, I prefer the NRSV here. However, it isn’t just any person in any situation, which is largely the reason for the huge preface in this blog. If we don’t recognize first how proverbs in general work and how this Proverb here is working we’ll run into huge theological problems. For example, are all steps directed by God? Even evil ones? Fast-forwarding a bit, do we never understand what God is doing in our lives? Doesn’t God specifically ask us to have understanding? Again, I don’t have these troublesome theological issues because I simply don’t try to make this Proverb fit in all times and circumstances.
Steps refers to the path or course of our life. A real literal and hard translation would have “From the Lord a man’s steps” since the first part actually has no verb (So, can it really be a Proverb? Ha!). So, we have to do some interpretive translating to fill in that our steps are directed or guided by God.
The second part seems to be a rhetorical question. How do you expect to always know exactly what God is doing in your life? Literally it would be “How mankind discern the path.” Adam is used here for mankind without the qualifier “the” but the context informs us that mankind is in view. Once again, in keeping with the way proverbs should be treated I would suggest that there are times that we do see what God is up to in our lives but that the author is not, at this time, drawing on those times of clarity.
There are many times in our lives, when we’re following His will, where we don’t see the big picture.
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