The proverbs are both too intelligent and too discerning to walk the fast path of easy description. The reader who lingers long over this anthology of accumulated wisdom learns to detect gradations rather than bold lines. Even those proverbs which appear at first sight to traffic in simple bifurcations of human character and deportment prove, upon further inspection, to do no such thing. Rather, they find their wisdom-giving context when placed alongside dicta that seem to prove their opposite. It is in the dialectical jumble and in the context of human minds careful enough not to name themselves among the wise that true discernment takes its low-profile shape.
Sometimes a single proverb will run this risk of simple bifurcation. Yet it dodges the lethal simplification that makes truisms of such declarations rather then employing them as the potent diagnostic tools they actually long to become in human hands. It is to be expected that the dialectic between human intention and the divine arrangement of things should be a proving ground for this kind of nuanced understanding:
The human mind plans the way,
but the LORD directs the steps.
A kind of seasoned ear hears this dictum best in its more ancient English style:
A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.
The interpretive key here is the word rendered ‘but’. The Hebrew conjunction ‘vav’ allows the reader wide discretion in detecting or constructing its meaning. ‘But’ is an adversative. It sets one statement against another. The English translators have done well in choosing the word to render the Hebrew conjunction.
Yet the proverb intends here a soft contrast, not a hard one. An interpretation—alas, too common in practice—that considers that the Lord’s direction empties human planning of all meaning is a mistaken one. It fails to attend to the dialectic that recognizes the determinative value of both human scheming and divine direction. The truth is in their intermingling and is, therefore, a complex and to some degree inscrutable one that does not fit well on a bumper sticker nor display its stature as it drops from the lips of a fool who believes that quoting proverbs makes him wise.
The proverb constrains the absolute claims of a person’s ability to shape her world. It also, oddly, constrains absolute divine freedom, for YHWH—so we are instructed here—directs this world’s actors in and through their own thinking and planning. His purpose is seldom obvious. It is more often than not embedded—one might say with a nod to anticipated Christian understanding, incarnated—in human activity.
In a world like this, one seldom knows exactly what God is up to. One finds out, rather more often that we might have surmised, by observing what human thinking brings forth, where it is frustrated, when it prospers, and the unanticipated outcomes that it time and again finds itself generating.
This is no simple wisdom, available in the early innings to any who place designs upon it. That is its credential.