“As in water the face is to face, so the heart of man to man.” Proverbs 27:19
There are so many levels of beauty and meaning in this verse. Let’s begin on its surface and then go deeper to its heart.
When we see our reflection in water, we see our face. And, usually, on that face is “written” much about our attitudes and emotions. Are we joyful? Are we angry? Are we in love? We can read a lot into the look of a reflected face.
The same is true with the heart. If one loves, despises, or has any sort of emotion or feeling toward another, it likely shows not only in the face but also in the many expressions that come from the heart.
It is also true that emotions can change. This truth is reflected in the ephemeral nature of seeing a face in water. We see it, but then, after departing, we don’t. So, the proverb may also be teaching us about the impermanence of emotions.
But let’s explore the more important question: is it merely the reflection of one’s heart that is at issue here? As we’ve discussed, it may be. At the simplest level, one’s heart reflects certain attitudes, as does one’s face.
Or, is this more about the relationship between one’s heart and that of another? If one person, for example, loves another person, the heart of the first may experience the heart of the other, in returned love.
Let’s explore this possibility a bit further; but, again, in the context of the face.
Recall that when we see the Hebrew word for face, “panim,” it should, if you’ll pardon the pun, bring us face to face with other important verses in the Bible.
Though Moses could not see God’s face, God did speak to Moses “face to face as a person does to a friend.”
When Jacob saw Esau as they approached possible reconciliation, Jacob said, “When I saw your face it was like seeing the face of God.” This is crucial because it was just moments earlier after Jacob was wrestling with God (or an angel or a man) that he named the place, Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and my life was spared.”
Seeing and speaking with another, face to face, connotes relationship. We know truths about another when we see the other face to face. And we’re drawn to support both the other’s interest as well as our own.
It may be to wrestle through to a deeper understanding of who we are. It may be to secure peace. It may be to forge a deeper partnership for the future, or it may be merely to achieve the best sort of reconciliation that is possible.
As to the proverb, here’s my main point: I think that seeing the reflection of our own face in God and the face of others makes possible a knitting together of hearts.
I believe this idea is core to what Martin Buber taught about I-Thou relationships. We look at each other, face to face, trying to create a relationship as we would with Thou. In the case of Jacob and Esau, their positions had previously been uncaring, selfish, and manipulative, I-It, if you will. Now, face to face, if perhaps only for a moment, the brothers struggled to create an experience of mutuality and shared interest.
Here are words of Buber: “When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.” “He is no longer…a dot in the world grid of space and time – nor a condition that can be described…(H)e is Thou and fills the firmament.”
Perhaps the proverb may best mean: face to face with others, we can grow heart to heart, in pursuit of Thou.