The way of the LORD is a refuge for the man of integrity,Proverbs 10:29
but it is ruin for troublemakers.
מָעֹוז לַתֹּם דֶּרֶךְ יהוה וּמְחִתָּה לְפֹעֲלֵי אָוֶן׃
māʿôz lattōm derek YHWH ûməḥittā(h) ləpōʿălē(y) ʾāwen
- A maʿoz is a place of safety, a refuge. A harbor in Hebrew is called a maʿoz hayyam – a refuge of the sea. It is often translated as “stronghold” or “fortress”. In Nehemiah 8:10, Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites tell the people, “Do not grieve, for the joy of Yahweh, it is your maʿoz – your strength or refuge”.
- The word tom, which is how the Masoretic Hebrew vocalizes the word, is technically an abstract noun that means “integrity”, “wholeness”, “completion”, or “perfection”. So literally the first two words of this proverb translate, “A refuge for the perfection” or “for the integrity.” Syntactically, it sounds a little awkward, but it is possible that the abstract noun “integrity” is standing in for the man of integrity via metonymy. On the other hand, the exact same Hebrew consonants can be vocalized in a subtly different way so that it reads not lattōm “to the integrity” but lattām “the man of integrity” or “the complete man”. Phonetically, the two vowels are very similar. Syntactically, the adjective works better, not just in translation but in the Hebrew, too. However, the meaning of the saying does not seem to be dramatically affected by the difference.
- Both tōm and its adjective form tām invoke the image of structural completeness and wholeness as a metaphor for moral uprightness. It is similar to the way we use the word “integrity” to talk about someone who has principle, who is consistent and honest. But the word “integrity” literally has to do with structural soundness, and something that is structurally sound has no missing parts – it is complete and completely well constructed. So what we see is that in both English and Hebrew, the same kind of connection is made between a person’s wholeness of character and their moral uprightness. A good and honest person is complete and has a well constructed character. There’s no critical part of their character lacking. There is something solid and immovable about a person who has integrity or tom, perfection. They seem entirely reliable and trustworthy, even though they may be reserved in their speech. There is nothing twisted about them. On the other hand, the person who lacks tom or integrity does not strike you as trustworthy. There is something missing or something not entirely well formed about their character. They may even strike you as one who keeps secrets, even while speaking lots of words, because somehow all those words seem to be covering up a glaring lack in their character or honesty.
- Perfection in the sense of tam is not perfection as we tend to use the word today.
- The Bible has a lot to say about the person of integrity or the person who is perfect. Often it is connected to covenant faithfulness (Genesis 17:1; Deuteronomy 18:13).
- The NT and OT show there to be a close connection between the ideas of holiness, perfection/integrity, and mercy (cf. Lev. 19:2; Matt. 5:48; Luke 6:36).
- Integrity (tom) and uprightness (yashar) seem to be a conventional pair of ideas (cf. Job 1:1; Psalm 37:37).
- In Paul, we are progressing towards perfection. In James 1:4, perfection is what is achieved through steadfastness or patience.
- So this proverb says, “A refuge for the perfect man is the derek YHWH or the way of the LORD”. Or it can be flipped around, “The way of the LORD is a refuge for the perfect man.” But what do we mean by “way of the LORD”? Are we talking about something God does, meaning God’s ways of doing things? Or are we talking about a path that men are intended to walk, so that “the way of the LORD” means essentially Torah obedience or righteous behavior? In Psalm 138:5, the “paths [pl.] of the LORD” refers to his wondrous deeds. Psalm 145:17 also talks about the LORD being righteous in “his ways”, meaning his actions and decisions. On the other hand, there are several passages, also in Psalms, where the LORD’s ways are things that the Psalmist expresses a desire to know and to walk in. So “the way of the LORD” can be either what we would call in Greek a subjective or an objective genitive, it could be either God’s own righteous actions or the righteous ways that humans are supposed follow. We might even combine these two ideas and talk about the way of the LORD as the footsteps of the LORD. The footsteps of the LORD show us where he has walked and what he has done, but it is also intended that we will walk in those footsteps and imitate is righteous deeds.
- There is another very similar proverb, Proverbs 21:15, whose basic structure is identical to 10:29, and whose latter half is verbatim identical: “A gladness to the righteous one is the doing of justice, and a ruin to troublemakers.” Or “To do justice is a gladness to the righteous one, but it is a ruin to troublemakers.” Here again we have a kind of ambiguity. Is it the doing of justice by the righteous and the troublemaker that is either a gladness or a ruin, or is it the doing of justice in society or by a judge or king that is gladness to the righteous and ruin to the troublemaker? Again, we might say both. It doesn’t really matter who is doing the justice. To be forced to do justice can be catastrophic for a wicked person whose wealth is all tied up in unjust gain. So which is it in Proverbs 10:29? Let’s come back to that question after we’ve looked at the last half of this verse.
- mehittah is ruin, dismay, despair. It is both the physical destruction of a stronghold and the emotional response of those who depend on that stronghold. And it is contrasted more than once with words that at least sound related to maʿoz or refuge. Earlier in this chapter, Proverbs 10:15 says that the wealth of a rich man is qiryat ʿûzzô – “the tower of his strength” or “his strong tower” – where as the meḥittah (or ruin) of the poor is their poverty. So in Proverbs 10:15 there is a contrast between ʿûz, which has some of the same letters and sounds like maʿoz, and meḥittah, or ruin which also occurs here in 10:29. And even though we know that ʿûz, which means strength, is etymologically not from the same root as maʿoz, which means refuge, it would not surprise me if the ancient Israelite who composed this saying either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were technically from different roots. When a language is in active use, the connections the speakers make between words often has little or nothing to do with etymology, or the ancient history of the words. I mean we saw just a little while ago Nehemiah 8:10’s use of maʿoz in a way that is typically translated as “strength” rather than “refuge”, so maybe they were conceived of as related words. The point I am getting to is this: the contrast between meḥittah and something that sounds like ûz or maʿoz happens more than once, which makes it start to look like they are a conventional contrasting pair of concepts.
- The last two words are ləpōʿălē(y) ʾāwen, or literally, “to workers of ʾāwen. What is ʾāwen. It is a word that has a range of uses. It is sometimes used to mean “trouble” without necessarily implying wickedness, as in Rachel’s original name for Benjamin, which was benʿoni, or “son of my trouble”, referring to the difficult and troublesome labor she endured in giving birth to him. On the other hand, sometimes it seems essentially synonymous with “iniquity” or “wickedness”, where “trouble” is interpreted as reflective of wicked intent, as when we talk about people making trouble. Finally, ʾāwen sometimes seems to becomes code for “idolatry”, as in Hosea’s name for Bethel which was Beth-Aven, which means house of trouble or house of wickedness rather than Bethel’s “House of God”. My sense of pōʿălē(y) ʾāwen here and in Proverbs 21:15 is that it means “workers of trouble” or “troublemakers” as a term for wicked people, especially in their capacity to make life difficult for others and to complicate things through their wickedness.
- So now at last we can look at the whole saying together: the way of the LORD, meaning either God’s deeds or the righteous path men are supposed to follow or both, is a refuge, a safe place, for the perfect or the man of integrity, but it is ruin and dismay for the troublemaker. So we have several contrasts. We’ve already talked about the contrast between maʿoz and meḥittah, which contrasts the images of a sound and sturdy refuge or stronghold and a crumbling, ruinous structure as well as the emotions of those who depend on the contrasting structures. We also have a contrast between the tam, the man of integrity, and pōʿălē(y) ʾāwen, troublemakers. This contrast says things about the affect of the man of integrity on his community. In contrast with the troublemaker, a person of integrity makes things better for the people around him or her. The troublemaker makes things more troublesome and complicated for everyone around them, either in pursuit of unjust gain or just because of sheer mindless malice, and this causes society to crumble. But a person of integrity strengthens society, making relationships stronger, providing reliability and honesty. Our integrity is not just for our own sake or just because God mandates it. A person’s integrity has a beneficial effect on that person’s community, and a person’s lack of integrity has a negative effect on their community.
- So how is the way of the LORD both a refuge for the person of integrity and a ruin for the troublemaker? Well, we can look at it from a couple of different directions. First, we can see “the way of the LORD” as God’s righteous judgments, his making sure everything works out in a just way. For the person of integrity, God’s righteous judgments are safe refuge. They are the guarantee that integrity is actually worth the cost, because it does cost something to be honest and reliable and perfect. To have integrity, you give up the easy paths to wealth and power that go through wickedness and deception. When you have integrity, you can be trusted with sensitive data, or with the handling of large amounts of money for your company, and your employers know that you will not steal that money or misuse that data. On the other hand, for the person who eschews integrity and makes trouble in society, who builds a life of luxury on ill gotten gain and deception, God’s guarantee of justice can only bring about the ruin of such a person. So in this sense, it is the certainty of God’s eventual just judgment that is the focal point of this proverb.
- But we might also look at “the way of the LORD” as the righteous path that we are commanded to walk in. For the person of integrity, to walk in the righteous footsteps of the LORD is a refuge. When all the world around them seems to be chaotic and festering with wickedness and foolishness, a person of integrity finds refuge in the simple virtue of walking in the footsteps of the LORD. I don’t have to worry about the cesspool that is the Internet. I don’t have to worry about the foolishness and wickedness of every single person in Washington D.C. I just focus my attention on loving God and loving my neighbor as myself, and in this simple path of virtue I find peace and joy. I find refuge. On the other hand, for the troublemaker, the worker of iniquity, this lifestyle of simple virtue seems ruinous. How can you afford not to read the news every single day? How can you afford not to spend your money on lobbyists to bribe Washington politicians to privilege your business or political interest? It is utter foolishness to keep your head buried in the sand, and it is counterproductive to live self-sacrificially in service to the people around you. The way of the LORD is incomprehensible to the worldly mind. How could it possibly work? How could it possibly produce a better life? But to the mind that is awakened by the Holy Spirit, the mind that is attuned to the Godly wisdom whereby God laid the foundations of the earth and created everything that is, the way of the LORD is lifestyle of peace, fulfillment, and total harmony with the Creator and his creation.
- I kind of wonder if there isn’t perhaps even a third way to look at this proverb. What if we understand the way of the LORD as just life in general, as the path that we all must walk. It is not unbiblical to view all life as one long process of God’s judgment. What I mean is that our entire lives are like a fire that purifies us and separates out what is good and perfect and redeemable from what is bad and poorly formed and only worthy of destruction. Whatever we suffer and whatever good we receive in this life ultimately serves to judge us – will we honor God in our suffering and in our increase, or will our hearts grow proud or calloused because of everything and turn away from God? And the fact is that what judges us more than anything is how we respond to the mercy of God expressed in Jesus. That mercy itself is like a purifying fire, because to behold it and to accept involves the very painful act of admitting your culpability, your need for mercy. By the very act of beholding and receiving God’s mercy, your sinful nature is gradually burned away, leaving only what is of value. And this is a refuge for those who can accept it, because you give up all claim to having a right to righteous standing before God. You just rest in his unmerited and really unreasonable mercy. His mercy is not based on any reason in you or me, so no reason we produce can nullify it either. The only reason for his mercy is his own loving character, which cannot be contradicted or changed.
- On the other hand, the hardened worldly heart cannot bring itself to see God’s mercy as truly merciful, because it cannot admit that it needs mercy. The worldly heart continually affirms its own righteousness and continually proclaims God to be absurd or tyrannical or petty. So the worldly heart’s reaction to God’s mercy judges it – it cannot accept God’s mercy, and in its refusal, all that it is is judged and burned away in the fire of God’s merciful judgment. The heart of the troublemaker cannot rest in God’s mercy because it cannot accept it, so all that is left is ruin and despair. So in this sense, the way of the LORD is like a purifying fire of merciful judgment that only the tamim, the people of integrity, have a hope of enduring. For the troublemakers, that fire is nothing but ruin. It burns away everything, because without a humble acceptance of God’s mercy, there is nothing redeemable within us. But the reward of endurance through life’s judgment and acceptance of our painful salvation is a great safe place, a refuge in the loving mercy of God.