Is Proverbs 3:5–6 about Finding the Will of God?

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will ____________.”

How you complete the above verses (Proverbs 3:5–6) will depend on which English version you memorized them from. They’re frequently presented as a promise of specific, divine guidance for decision making, especially because the King James Version renders the latter part of verse 6, “....and He shall direct your paths,” instead of the more accurate translation of the verb, which means “to make straight” or “to make smooth.” Garry Friesen, in Decision Making and the Will of God, quotes Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke recounting a colleague’s difficulty coming to terms with this:

All of us have had the shock of discovering that a favorite verse in the King James Version was inaccurate…. I recall the astonishment of one of the committee members assigned to translate the Book of Proverbs for the New International Version when he discovered that Proverbs 3:5–6 had nothing to say about guidance…. [W]hen confronted with the linguistic data he had to admit reluctantly that the verse more properly read “and He will make your path smooth.” (p. 57)

One of the reasons I dare to recommend Garry Friesen’s 400+ page tome is its fourth chapter, “Does Scripture Teach the Dot?” in which he examines the biblical passages most frequently offered as proof texts for the teaching that God has a personalized plan which we must discern through various means in order to be “in the center of God’s will.” This chapter is, in my opinion, worth the price of the book because in each instance Friesen models sound interpretive methods, paying careful attention to the literary and thematic contexts of the verses that are often ripped from their surroundings to support the notion of an individualized will we must discover in order to make God-pleasing choices.

Concerning the significance of the imagery of a “path” in Proverbs 3:6, Friesen writes:

The noun “path” is frequently employed in the Psalms and Proverbs. But it does not have the idea of an individual will of God. Hebrew writers use it to describe the general course or fortunes of life (see Proverbs 4:18–19; 15:19). When the verb “make straight, make smooth” is connected with “paths,” the meaning of the statement is, “He shall make the course of your life successful.” This meaning is clearly indicated in Proverbs 11:5:

The righteousness of the blameless will smooth his way,
But the wicked will fall by his own wickedness.

This verse contrasts the righteous man who experiences true success in life with the wicked man who brings trouble upon himself by his devious behavior. This is a common theme in Proverbs (4:18­–19; 11:5; 15:19; 22:17–21). (pp. 56–57)

Friesen notes that the first ten verses of Proverbs 3 are a series of two-verse couplets. Each couplet contains a command to obey the Lord followed by a description of the blessing that generally accompanies godliness. “The true intent of Proverbs 3:5–6,” he concludes, “is to set forth a pattern the believer should follow to experience true success in life—a pattern in which he demonstrates his trust and obedience to God by following the directions of God’s moral will” (p. 58). Given this understanding, the imperative to not lean on our own understanding is not a call to abandon the processes of fact-finding and deliberation as though they were somehow antagonistic to following the Lord. God is not prohibiting the use of our minds to evaluate the various options before us and settle on a course of action. What is prohibited is an evaluative process that operates independently of the fear of the Lord. Instead of relying on my own understanding, I am to trust the understanding that comes through God’s interpretation of, and instruction about, life (see Proverbs 2:6 and 9:6).

The popularity of what Friesen calls “the dot theory” of God’s will (the idea that God’s individualized will is like a bull’s-eye that we must hit) is due to a number of factors. Among them is our tendency to approach the Bible atomistically. We tend to focus on individual verses with a zoom lens, and at times that’s necessary. However, we can’t stop there; we must also use a telephoto lens in order to understand their relationship to the big picture. 

Keith Plummer (@XianMind) is a member of the School of Divinity faculty at Cairn University in Langhorne, PA. He previously served in pastoral ministry. 

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Keith Plummer

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