Formations 08.11.2019: The Best Laid Plans

Workroom yearly planner at Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire, England. Photo by Daderot.

Proverbs 16:1-9

There’s an old quip that if you want to make God laugh, all you have to do is show God your planner. When we say something like that, I hope we understand that God isn’t out to get us, poised to intentionally thwart our plans. Rather, the point is that the universe is so vast and complex that only God could account for every variable. We can make all the plans we want, but something unexpected could always derail them. “The best laid plans of mice and men,” Robert Burns reminds us, “often go awry.”

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We’ve plotted out the course we expect our life to take, either in the short term or the long term. In X number of years, I’ll have that promotion—but then somebody buys out the company. My new spouse and I want to have a big family—but the doctor says it’s not going to happen. I’m on track to make that deadline—but suddenly I come down with the flu!

It’s good to make plans, but in this world it pays to hold onto them loosely. Today’s passage warns us against arrogance or presumption in our planning because God, not us, is ultimately in control.

Our plans may fail, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t to make plans at all. Since human insight is by nature limited, the wisest course of action is to weigh our options carefully and not leap onto the first thought that comes to us. The humility the author of Proverbs exalts is an important virtue in this regard.

How can we acknowledge our limitations and remain open to the possibility that God’s plans may be different from ours?

Discussion

• Are you more likely to make a detailed plan or just go with the flow? Why do you think this is?
• How can we discern the deeper “purpose” (if there is any) that our problems serve (v. 4)?
• How might arrogance and humility be present in ways that we work and plan?
• What practices bespeak humility and trust in God as we make our plans?

Reference Shelf

Seeking Order

The many topics in the Book of Proverbs find their center in one dominating theme: the origins and maintenance of “order” in creation, society, and individual life. For the sages, God permeated creation with a just and beneficent “order” in which everything has its place, time, and function. The major social institutions also owe their origins to God and have their proper “order,” that is rules and functions that are just and life-sustaining. The task of the sages was to observe this “order,” place their observations into teachings (sayings and instructions), and transmit them to youths who sought to enter government and temple service. Eventually the teachings were democratized and used as moral instruction for people in various social groups.

The sages specified the norms and appropriate behavior for the institutions of kingship, marriage, economic production and trade, law, education, and religion. These made up the social order that was believed to be grounded in the larger order of creation. Proper decorum within these institutions led to well-being, while unruly and undisciplined behavior led to misfortune, for the individual but also for the larger community. While an occasional “voice” questioned the validity of this understanding and pointed to the limits of wisdom (e.g., Agur), most of the teachings of the Book of Proverbs affirm the goodness of life and the possibility of living in harmony with God, the world, and other people.

Leo G. Perdue, “Proverbs, Book of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 721.

Yahweh and Human Limitation

Both vv. 1 and 9 make a similar observation: there is a limit to human understanding. Both contrast a person’s planning and arranging with Yahweh’s implementation. In addition to being Yahweh sayings, the two share the vocabulary of “heart” (leb) and “humankind” (‘adam). These semantic connections suggest that the two verses function to mark the boundaries of the cluster of sayings within, and possibly to declare the central thematic idea. Verse 2 elaborates on v.1 by offering an example of the differences between the human and the divine point of view. Humans see externalities; Yahweh tests the spirit. The ensuing v. 3 has a similar contrast between externals and inter- nals—human works versus human plans. Opening with an imperative implies that the saying functions as an instruction based upon the conclusions of the preceding two sayings. Since the mortal perspective cannot appreciate the outcome of an action, it is best to trust that outcome to Yahweh. Yahweh establishes the planning. Verse 3 is also of interest because of the idiomatic Hebrew expression for “commit” (gol). The word gol literally means to “roll.” Thus one who is “committing” oneself to the Lord is to “‘roll’ unto the LORD your works….” This figure of speech also occurs in Psalms 37:5 and 22:8. The idea is perhaps to turn one’s way over to Yahweh.

The next three sayings, vv. 4, 5, and 6, focus on the motif of Yahweh’s judgment. Verse 4 justifies the admonition of v. 3: all phenomena within the Lord’s creation have a purpose; the existence of wicked people is justifiable as the cause of the day of trouble. Verse 5 opens with an abomination formula (cf. 11:20; 12:22; 15:9, 26) and asserts that the “arrogant” will not go unpunished. The term “wicked” is left open-ended in v. 4, until v. 5 focuses upon the problem of the wicked person’s arrogance. Verse 6 seems to respond to the preceding claims about judgment by offering an observation on atoning for sins. The language of atonement, yekuppar, is priestly language, recalling images of sacrifice and sacred ritual. However, the language of 6a derives from the moral ethical sphere. “Loyalty” (chesed) and “faithfulness” (’emet) are here offered as the means of atonement. By paralleling these two moral behaviors with the “fear of the LORD” in 6b, the implication is that these human activities take the place of the ritual sacrifices in the temple (cf. 20:28). Of even greater significance is the role such assertions play in maintaining theodicy, the very question that falls under the scrutiny of Ecclesiastes (e.g., 3:16-17; 8:17). By shifting the contingency of atonement to human faithfulness, the creator of the universe is less likely to be challenged for suffering and evil. In this saying the Lord’s word makes sense: all phenomena fit into an appropriate place, even the wicked. Their appropriate place is the day of judgment.

Verse 7 might well be paired thematically with v. 6. Both open with the Hebrew preposition be, “in, with, or by”; both speak of human moral behavior. In v. 6 such behavior yields atonement for sin; in v. 7 such behavior, expressed by the phrase “ways of people” (darkê ’ish), yields the Lord’s delight and eventually peace with one’s enemies. As such, v. 7 continues the response to the assertion on atonement. Verse 8 comments further with a better-than statement, here defined with the word “righteousness,” sedaqâ. The thrust of the statement is that poverty with righteousness is better (more profitable, beneficial) than “large income” without justice, mishpat. Readers may take pause to consider from whose point of view such a saying might be valid. People who have ample income would hear this quite differently than people who are impoverished. Verse 9 closes the group by reminding readers of the starting point, v. 1: ultimately, Yahweh determines all things. Humans make plans; Yahweh establishes actions.

Milton P. Horne, Proverbs–Ecclesiastes, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 202–203.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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