What do we do with a proverb that could have several translations and meanings?
That’s the case of Proverbs 20:5 which is translated by the New International Version as, “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.”
One reason that the meaning is not certain is that the word here translated “purposes” also has meanings of “counsel”, “advice” or “motives” depending on how it is used.
The result is that Bible experts are divided as to whether this is talking about something good and useful that lies deep in the heart, or something that is deceitful and evasive that a wise person will help to surface.
That brings us back to the question. What do we do with such a proverb if we can’t be sure about its meaning?
The answer that makes the most sense to me is that, as with many other wise sayings, the obscurity of the proverb is probably intentional. Its value lies not in one single thought, but in the many possible thoughts that a provocative saying like this can surface.
Because the big story of the Bible gives us reason to believe that good and evil are both rooted deep in the human heart (created in the image of God, but damaged by abuse and misuse), a wise saying like this gives us reason to reflect on a range of possible implications.
In the process we just need to keep in mind that any valid option needs to be considered in light of Christ and in the kind of love that proceeds from him. In other words, whatever we come up with while reflecting on such a proverb needs to be considered ultimately in light of (1) the One who does know the deepest motives and purposes of our hearts, is also the One (2) who uses proverbs to cultivate our love for one another (Rom 13:8), (Gal 5:14).
Does such an approach to the Scripture make sense to you? If not, how would you resolve the lack of clarity and certainty? If so, what thoughts does Proverbs 20:5 surface in you?