Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established. Turn not to the right hand nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil.
~ Proverbs 4:26-27
An Exposition of Hebrews 12:13, by John Owen.
And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed.
~ Hebrews 12:13
Hebrews 12:13 — The first part of this exhortation concerns the inward frame of the minds of men, with respect unto themselves and their own souls. That which follows, verse 13, looks unto their ways, walking and conversation, with respect unto others, that they may receive no damage, but benefit by it. And therefore the apostle doth not herein direct us to strengthen our feet, as he doth our hands and knees; but to “make straight paths” for them, wherein we may walk. And the conjunctive καί, “and,” denotes an additional duty.
There are two things in the words:
1. A duty prescribed;
2. An enforcement of it from an evil consequent of its omission; both in terms metaphorical.
1. Our feet are those members of our body which carry us on in our course; which is the ability and activity of our minds for spiritual duties. These feet must have a path to walk in, or they can make no progress. According as that path is right and straight, or crooked and uneven, so will our course be. It is therefore highly incumbent on us to look well unto the paths wherein we are going. And this is here prescribed unto us.
The direction seems to be taken from Proverbs 4:26, “Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established;” or rather, “all thy ways shall be ordered aright;” which is the sense of this place.
In order unto a discovery of the duty here prescribed, we must consider,
(1.) What are the paths of our feet;
(2.) How we are to make them straight.
(1.) Our “paths,” τροχιαί. τροχός is “a wheel;” and τροχιά is τῶν τρόχων χάραξις,” the mark made by wheels;” “or bits.” So, though it be taken for “semita,” “a path,” yet it is such a path as is marked out for others, that leaves a track wherein we may be followed. The Vulgar renders it by “gressus,” our “steps;” but it is rather the way wherein we tread, which is said to be made straight.
Our obedience unto God is called our “walking before him,” namely, all that obedience which he requires in the covenant, Genesis 17:1. The first divine testimony given unto any man, was unto his faith in sacrifice, Genesis 4:4; that is, as expressed with respect unto the atonement to be made by Christ. And the second was unto obedience, under the name of walking with God: “Enoch walked with God,” Genesis 5:24. In these two, thus exemplified from the beginning, faith and obedience, doth the life of God in the church consist. And as this obedience is called our walking, so it is called our path, Psalms 27:11; Psalms 119:35; Psalms 119:105; Isaiah 26:7; Psalms 23:3; Psalms 25:4; Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:4. And these paths are distinguished into the “paths of the righteous” and the upright, and the “paths of the wicked” and the froward; — that is, every one’s course of actions, with respect unto God and his will, is his path.
And this is called our path,
[1.] Because it is that wherein we are continually conversant.
[2.] Because it is that whereby we tend unto the end which we aim at, and that which will certainly bring us thereunto.
[3.] Because all the circumstances of our observation of a path, and walking in it, do illustrate the way and manner of our obedience and duties of it, as might be declared.
This path of our obedience may be considered either objectively only; and so it is nothing but the will of God revealed unto us, the canon or rule which we are to walk according unto, that we may have peace, Galatians 6:16. And in this sense the path of all men is one and the same, absolutely invariable; nor can we make it straight or crooked: it is absolutely and perfectly straight in itself. Or it may be considered with respect unto them that walk in it; and so there are degrees of its straightness. Men may continue in it, yet fail variously as to its universal rectitude: they may fail in it, though they do not utterly leave it, or fall from it. So it is affirmed of Peter, and those with him, when they failed in the matter of compliance with the Jews, that they did not ὀρθοποδεῖν, Galatians 2:14, — “walk with a right foot.” They continued in the path of the truth of the gospel, but they stumbled in it, they warped in one instance from it.
(2.) And hereby we may understand what is here enjoined in way of duty, namely, “to make these paths straight.” For there are two things herein:
[1.] That we walk uprightly in the paths of obedience. Then are our paths straight, when we walk uprightly in the paths of God. And as this respects our universal obedience, as it doth everywhere in the Scripture, so I doubt not but regard is had unto halting, or taking some crooked steps in profession during trial. Deserting of church assemblies, forbearance of sundry necessary duties that might be provocations to their adversaries, irregular compliances with the Jews in their worship, are things that the apostle intimates them to have been liable unto. Where these things were, though they forsook not utterly the path of the gospel, yet they walked not in it with a right foot; they failed in the way, though they fell not from it. These things the apostle would have rectified.
[2.] That we walk visibly in these paths, This is included both in the signification of the word τροχιαί, and in the precept to make our paths straight; to wit, that they may be seen and known so to be. For this is necessary unto the end proposed, namely, the preservation of others from being turned out of the way, or their recovery from their wandering.
And therefore I do grant, that the duties especially intended in this precept are, courage, resolution, constancy in profession, with a diligent watch against all crooked compliances or fearful relinquishment of duties. And therefore, —
Obs. 1. It is our duty not only to be found in the ways of God in general, but to take care that we walk carefully, circumspectly, uprightly, and diligently in them. — Hereon depend our own peace, and all our usefulness towards others. It is a sad thing when some men’s walk in the ways of God shall deter others from them, or turn them out of them. Yet so it falls out in the negligent, careless profession of many.
Obs. 2. To make halts or baulks in our way of profession, or crooked paths, in neglect of duty or compliances with the world, in time of trial and persecution, is an evidence of an evil frame of heart, and of a dangerous state or condition.
2. The enforcement of the duty required is the next thing in this verse: “Lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed.” The apostle continues in the use of metaphors, according as he began this discourse. And having described our careful obedience, by “making straight paths for our feet,” he calls that or those which are defective therein, “lame;” “that which is lame.” The Vulg. reads the words, “ut non claudicans qui erret;” which the Rhemists render, “that no man halting err,” without any good sense. The Syriac, “that the member which is lame.” The principal internal hinderance from walking is lameness. He that is lame can make but slow progress, and is often ready by his halting to stumble out of the way. Lameness, therefore, is some defect that is distinguished from external hinderances, and from mere fainting or weariness, (whereof the apostle had spoken before, which may befall them that are not lame,) which obstructs men in their progress, and makes them be easily turned out of the way: besides, it includes an inward disease and distemper in particular, whence the apostle says, it is to be “healed”
And by the way we may observe, that sundry diseases, weaknesses, and lamenesses, are apt to fall out in the flock of God. These he promiseth himself to be tender toward, and to heal, Zechariah 11:15-16; as he severely threatens those shepherds by whom they are neglected, Ezekiel 34:4, etc.
Considering what at this time was the state of the Hebrews who had received the doctrine of the gospel, as both this epistle and the story of them in the Acts of the Apostles do declare; as also what fell out afterwards among them; I do judge that by this τὸ χωλόν among them, “that which is lame,” the apostle peculiarly intends those that would retain the Judaical ceremonies and worship together with the doctrine of the gospel. For hereby they were made weak and infirm in their profession, as being defective in light, resolution, and steadiness; as also, seemed to halt between two opinions, as the Israelites of old between Jehovah and Baal.
This was that which was lame at that time among these Hebrews. And it may, by analogy, be extended unto all those who are under the power of such vicious habits, inclinations, or neglects, as weaken and hinder men in their spiritual progress.
The caution concerning this sort of persons is, that they be not “turned out of the way.” To be “turned out of the way,” is to be turned off from the profession of the gospel. This those who were “lame,” as before described, were very liable and subject unto; a small matter would turn them aside, as afterwards many of them were turned off from the truth. The apostle doth not thereon declare a displeasure against them; he is not angry with them, but adviseth others to deal carefully and tenderly with them, avoiding every thing that might give occasion unto their turning aside.
And this the apostle extends to their healing: “But rather let it be healed.” “To be healed,” is not opposed to “to be turned aside,” as though that word should signify a ‘further breach or luxation of that which is lame; but it denotes the cure of him that is lame, by a continuation of the same metaphor. ‘Be so far from doing or omitting any thing, which might give them occasion to turn from the way, as that you endeavor the removal of those causes of lameness which you see in them.’And the sense of the words may be included in the ensuing observations.
Obs. 3. A hesitation or doubtfulness in or about important doctrines of truth, will make men lame, weak, and infirm in their profession. And,
Obs. 4. Those who are so, are disposed unto a total defection from the truth, and are ready on all occasions to go out of the way. Also, in general, —
Obs. 5. Every vicious habit of mind, every defect in light or neglect of duty, every want of stirring up grace unto exercise, will make men lame and halt in profession, and easy to be turned aside with difficulties and oppositions,
Obs. 6. When we see persons in such a state, it is our duty to be very careful so to behave ourselves as not to give any occasion to their further miscarriages, but rather to endeavor their healing.
Obs. 7. The best way whereby this may be done, is by making visible and plain unto them our own faith, resolution, courage, and constancy, in a way of obedience becoming the gospel. Hereby we shall both excite, promote, and direct them, in and unto their duty. For, —
Obs. 8. The negligent walking of those professors who are sound in the faith, their weakness and pusillanimity in times of trial, their want of making straight paths for their feet in visible holiness, are a great means of turning aside those that are lame, weak, and halting.
Obs. 9. It is good to deal with and endeavor the healing of such lame halters whilst they are yet in the way; when they are quite turned out, their recovery will be difficult, if not impossible.