It is not difficult to understand why the biblical compendium of sayings that we call The Proverbs has been considered a most secular book among its overtly religious compeers.
The collection’s logic pivots upon the human capacity to be sensible. It presumes that people will make proper calculations about behaviors and their presumed outcomes in the interest of both self and community. It displays, in the language of conventional theology, a ‘high view of man’.
Paradoxically, one of its most quotable dicta professes just the opposite.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
It is not unlike the Proverbs to lay apparently contradictory statements alongside each other, depending upon the very analytical capacity of the hearer or reader to discern in which context this saying bears its fruit and in which moment that one. Yet the tension between the warp of the Proverbs’ teaching and this stunning woof is seldom as violent.
Understanding is here not to be leaned upon. It will not bear one’s weight. Instead, whole-hearted trust in YHWH is the thing.
Further, the ability that the Proverbs attempt to hone—that of choosing the correct path, the one among its alternatives that leads to life rather than death—is here not promoted. The statement does speak of paths. But it assumes that one is already and by unspoken circumstances on a given path. The thing is to acknowledge YHWH as one walks that (unchosen?) way in the expectation that he will straighten out its harsh turns, fill up its ankle-twisting holes, level off its steepness. So will the one who goes that way not only find his journey bearable but will discover, in time, that it has a destination.
For a moment, the proverbial compendium lays aside its constant summons to decide and to choose. For an instant, one steps back to consider that he does not make his own way. For a breath or two, one glimpses life’s awkward determined-ness.
Then, we insist that we have chosen and tilt the Proverbs’ major trajectory into an absurd angle. Or, we trust YHWH, murmur quiet recognition of his company, and take the next step on a trail we do not know.