Lean Not on Your Own Understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6)


Audio (8:56)

Eric Enstrom and Rhoda Nyberg  'Grace' (1918, 1940s), colorized photo, oil.
Eric Enstrom and Rhoda Nyberg  'Grace' (1918, 1940s), colorized photo, oil.

One of the most beloved -- and useful -- proverbs in the Bible consists of two verses tucked in the middle of a father's advice to his son.

"5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight." (Proverbs 3:5-6, NIV)

It is as brief as it is profound.

Hebrew Parallelism

As we begin, it's good to review the Hebrew poetic form known as parallelism -- typically, two lines (or "colas") that say about the same thing, with the second often taking the thought a bit further. For example:

"Discretion will protect you,
and understanding will guard you." (Proverbs 2:11)

Sometimes you'll find three lines in parallel, as in our passage: a "tricola."

"5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways acknowledge him...." (Proverbs 3:5-6a)

Trust, Lean, Listen (Proverbs 3:5-6a)

Let's look at each of these in turn:

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart...." (Proverbs 3:5a)

The word "trust" here "expresses that sense of well-being and security which results from having something or someone in whom to place confidence."1 The object of that trust is Yahweh. The extent of that trust is "with all your heart."

The next line is similar, but looks at it from the negative -- what not to do. It gives us a powerful mental picture.

"Lean not on your own understanding." (Proverbs 3:5b)

The verb has the idea of putting your weight on something, trusting that it will not give way.2 We are to trust in God, but not put our weight on our own limited understanding, insight, or discernment.3 It is so easy for us to miss a key piece of the puzzle and thus completely misunderstand or misconstrue a situation. We seek wisdom! We desire discernment! But we must realize that our understanding is imperfect. Verse 7a underscores this:

"Do not be wise in your own eyes." (Proverbs 3:7a)

The third line of our passage fills out the idea.

"In all your ways acknowledge him...." (Proverbs 3:6a)

Most of the standard English translations render the Hebrew verb yādaʿ as "acknowledge." In English, "acknowledge" means "to recognize the rights, authority, or status of,"4 which, in practice, often amounts to giving a nod in God's direction and hoping for his approval. But the word in Hebrew is much, much broader and richer than "acknowledge." Yādaʿ, "to know," can describe God's knowledge of man, a person's knowledge, one's skill in hunting, one's ability to distinguish between, etc. But it can also express acquaintance with a person, describe the most intimate acquaintance, even a sexual relation, and finally one's relation to God.5

So perhaps it's better to read this line as, "In all your ways know him." It involves much more than an acknowledgement. Rather, a seeking to know, an earnestness to find his will. Eugene Peterson in The Message paraphrases the idea this way:

"Listen for God's voice in everything you do, everywhere you go." (Proverbs 3:6a)

A casual acknowledgement of God can mask an arrogance that doesn't really desire to know. We can develop a practiced deafness towards God when we actually only want him to rubber-stamp our own plans with the word "Approved." But when we seek to know God and listen for his voice, there is a humility, an openness. That very humility allows us to listen to him and discern his way. Without humility we will never have wisdom.

The Promise (Proverbs 3:6b)

If we will trust, lean, and listen, the promise is grand:

"He will make your paths straight." (Proverbs 3:6b)

Verse 6a begins, "in all your ways," referring to one's path or road, figuratively, one's way or llifestyle.6 Verse 6b uses a close synonym.7 KJV translates the verb as "to direct," but it is better rendered, "to make straight, level," the opposite of "crooked, bent." The verb can also suggest the idea of being ethically upright.8

When we patiently and faithfully seek God, he will respond by straightening our paths and leveling them out, so that we can actually live in his presence and pleasure.

Seeking the Lord

These verses are often looked to as a key to receive guidance and direction from the Lord, especially because of the KJV translation "direct your paths." And certainly, they are a guide to seeking God's will. But even more, they are a guide to straightening out our lives. What is our part in this?

  1. Trust, rely on, cling to the Lord. Do your best to come to him with an undivided heart, a heart that casts all its cares upon the Lord and is not motivated by fear, but by faith. Like the desperate father whose son was troubled: "I believe. Help my unbelief!"9
  2. Surrender your insistence on understanding. Sometimes we demand answers from God before we'll obey. "I have to understand. After all I am a sovereign human being responsible for all my actions." No. We are servants, foot soldiers, not generals. He is the general. Only He needs to comprehend the overall plan.
  3. Seek to "know" the Lord deeply. Spend time before him listening, silent. So often in prayer we seek some goal, some "thing" -- and that is valid. But so often, we fail to seek the Lord himself and become acquainted his ways. Let every path you find yourself on be bathed in prayer and trust. He cares about you and all the details of your life. Don't seek God's approval for your plans; rather seek to discern his plans for your life and then follow them.

The promise, of course, is wonderful! Yes, he will guide us. But he will also straighten out and level up our paths as we seek him and live our lives in him.

Endnotes

References and Abbreviations

[1] "Trust" is the Qal imperative of bāṭaḥ, "trust in, feel safe, be confident" (John N. Oswalt, TWOT #233). He notes, "It is significant that the Septuagint never translates this word with pisteuō, "believe in," but with elpizō, "to hope," in the positive sense "to rely on God." This would seem to indicate that bāṭaḥ does not connote that full-orbed intellectual and volitional response to revelation which is involved in "faith," rather stressing the feeling of being safe or secure.

[2] "Lean" (NIV, ESV, KJV), "rely" (NRSV) is the Niphal of šāʿan, "lean on, trust in." The word means primarily "to lean on something or someone, as on a staff, a spear, or an arm or hand. The latter use probably refers to the relationship of a king to his confidant or second in command. Most importantly the verb is used figuratively of an attitude of trust" (H. J. Austel, TWOT #2434).

[3] "Understanding" (NIV, ESV, KJV), "insight" (NRSV) is the noun bînâ, "understanding." The background idea of the verb bîn is to "discern." It includes the concept of distinguishment that leads to understanding, of knowledge which is superior to the mere gathering of data (H. J. Austel, TWOT #2434b).

[4] Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary.

[5] "Acknowledge" is the Qal imperative of yādaʿ, "to know." The verb expresses a multitude of shades of knowledge gained by the senses. Its closest synonyms are bîn "to discern" and nākar "to recognize" (TWOT #848). Kidner says, "'Acknowledge' is quite simply 'know,' which contains not only the idea of acknowledging, but the much richer content of being 'aware of' and having 'fellowship with'" (Derek Kidner, Proverbs (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; InterVarsity Press, 1964), pp. 63-64). Longman says, "In acknowledging one's own innate lack of resources, one becomes open to God's power and wisdom, which is a better guide to life... If you know (in the sense of 'recognize' or acknowledge') God in your paths, then you will certainly be on the right ones" (Tremper Longman III, Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms; Baker Academic, 2006), p. 133).

[6] The Hebrew noun is derek, "road, path," a path worn by constant walking (from dārak, "tread, trample"). It is often used metaphorically for the actions and behavior of men, "way, lifestyle" (Hermann Wolf, TWOT #453a).

[7] ʾŌraḥ, "way, path," from ʾāraḥ, "to journey, keep company with, be on the path with" (Victor P. Hamilton, TWOT #161a; Holladay, p. 27).

[8] "Make straight" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "direct" (KJV) is the Piel imperfect of yāšar, "be level, straight, (up) right, just, lawful." In the Piel it means ""to make (a way) straight," i.e., direct and level and free from obstacles, as when preparing to receive a royal visitor (Donald J. Wiseman, TWOT #930; Holladay, p. 148). Kidner says, "The promise that closes the verse offers more than guidance, though it includes it" (Proverbs, pp. 63-64).

[9] Mark 9:24.

Copyright © 2021, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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