The meaning of some words are obvious. Others represent such deep concepts that language fails us at times. This is one reason that some Bible verses appear to convey different meanings based on the words chosen during the translation process. Some translators take a more literal approach, whereas others use longer phrases in an attempt to capture the depth of meaning as intended in the original language.
A passage that’s meant a great deal to me over the years serves as a good example of the difficulty in translation. Proverbs 3:5-6 in the NIV reads as follows:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
The same two verses are translated quite differently in other versions of the Bible. For example, the ESV reads:
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 make straight your paths.
The difference centers around the word translated as “submit” in the NIV, and as “acknowledge” in the ESV. The original Hebrew word is yâḏa‘. This word is translated into English in various ways in a number of verses throughout the Bible. It appears over 900 times, and is most often translated as “to know” someone or something. You can see how it would be awkward for Proverbs 3:6 to be translated as “In all your ways know him, and…” With this in mind, various translators have sought to use a number of words that they think best conveys the original meaning in a way that makes sense.
As I was praying recently about how to apply Proverbs 3:5-6 to my life, I looked up the original Hebrew word. I thought a great deal about the translations. Does God want me to submit to him, or to acknowledge him in order for my paths to be straight? Obviously many other verses speak to the need for us to both submit to and acknowledge God in various ways, yet I really wanted to know what God was trying to say to me through this passage.
I’m certainly not claiming any special insight, and it’s often the case that the Lord uses different ways to speak to the hearts of different individuals. As I thought about how to apply this word to my life, however, I sensed that for me the most used translation, “to know” made the most sense. For me, the passage reads:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Know him in all your ways, and he will make straight your paths.
In other words, I sense God teaching me that I am not to go my own way and try to depend on my own limited view of things. Instead, he wants me to fully trust in him and his wisdom, and when things become unclear I am to look to him for direction. It’s easy to do so because knowing him in all my ways, he is at all times very close by. As I turn and look to him, he will guide me to the right path.
Looking to God rather than in this case submitting to or acknowledging him may seem like a minor difference in translation. To me, however, the distinction is quite significant and profound. One can submit to God in a distant way. I can learn about what he desires, and choose to submit to that without being close to him. Likewise, I can acknowledge God to myself and others from a distance. I can do so by saying, “This is what God expects of me, and so I will acknowledge him by following what I think he would say is best.” Again, this can be done from a distance.
In contrast, the way I picture Proverbs 3:5-6 for my life is that God wants me to “know him” by living in his presence. Like Enoch in Genesis 5:24, God wants us to walk with him, or to live moment by moment in his company. In this way, when something is unclear we can simply look over and say, “Which way would you have be go, Lord?” This is quite different than living one’s life at a distance from God and only calling out to him from afar when trouble comes. The closer we walk with God on a regular basis, the more we “know him in all our ways,” the more clear his direction is for us when we simply turn, look, and quietly ask.
Life is a series of decisions. One of my favorite poems that speaks to this reality was written by Robert Frost. You’re likely familiar with it. It’s called, “The Road Not Taken.” It speaks of a Traveler in the woods who comes to a point where two roads lay before him. Pondering which to take, he eventually chooses the one that far fewer other travelers had chosen. The poem ends with the famous line:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I suspect that the same is true with regard to how people relate to God. Life in the modern world is busy and complex. Our tendency is to go our own way until we get into a difficult spot, and to then call out to God from a distance. It’s not that this is wrong, yet my sense is that God wants a deeper relationship with us than this allows. Rather than calling out alone from the deep woods as we face two roads, I suspect that God would have us walk with him through life, or to “know him in all our ways.” As we do so, when the roads diverge it’s a matter of listening to the still, small voice that we recognize so well as he makes clear which path is the one that he deems to be best.
As is true for everyone else, life often crowds in on me. It’s when I take time to quietly reflect on the Word and listen that I sense a closeness that I long to be present at all times. The more I focus on being near to God, the more clear things get. I have a long way to go, yet I love verses like Proverbs 3:5-6 that remind me that to the degree I choose to draw near, God desires me to know him in all my ways.