Lord Over the Hearts of Men

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”

- Proverbs 21:1

Divine control and foreordination of whatsoever comes to pass, the Reformed tradition has argued, is among the most comforting of all the doctrines revealed in the Bible. In light of the chaos and unpredictability of so much of life, we come to understand why this doctrine is so important. If there is no sovereign Lord directing all things, we are without hope in this world and life has no transcendent meaning. But if the only wise God is truly in control of absolutely everything that ever happens in the universe, we know that even apparently random events have purpose, and that He can work all things together for good for those who love Him (Rom. 8:28).

Given the practicality of the doctrine of divine sovereignty, it comes as no surprise that Proverbs, perhaps the most self-evidently practical book in the entire canon of Scripture, contains some of the most important teaching on God’s rule over His creation. Today’s passage, for instance, is a strong armation that the Lord is in control not only of physical forces but even of the final dispositions and plans of the heart. Even rulers, who have fewer constraints upon them and what they can do than “ordinary” people have, are finally directed by the Creator (Prov. 21:1). They are not ultimately sovereign; God is. Kings and other national leaders can accomplish only what the Lord wills for them to accomplish.

The metaphor of the king’s heart as being like a God-directed stream borrows from common ancient Near Eastern life. Due to the arid conditions of the region, farmers in the ancient world—and even today—had to redirect the natural flow of rivers and streams to supply their gardens with life-giving water. This was no easy task for human beings, but the Creator who set rivers and streams on their courses can with ease direct water where He wants it to go (Ps. 78:15–16). It is a similarly easy task for Him to direct the hearts of kings to accomplish His purposes.

Given the importance of water for life, the emphasis in today’s passage seems to be on the Lord’s direction of the hearts of kings to do what is right and to bless His people. However, God’s control extends even to the evils committed by rulers. Scripture is clear that God exercises His sovereignty over wickedness more indirectly, for “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Nevertheless, the Lord is no less in control of evil than He is of good, and no sin takes place apart from His sovereign will.

Coram Deo

The manner in which God exercises His providential rule is a mystery, but we know that He never directs us in such a way that we cease to be morally responsible for our actions. Though the Lord ordains whatsoever comes to pass, those who do evil are still held accountable for it. This is comforting, for it reminds us that God is working even the worst things for our good. Yet it is also sobering, reminding us that we cannot take for granted His grace in restraining us from sinning with abandon.

Passages for Further Study

Job 38–39
Proverbs 16:33
Romans 11:36
Revelation 6:9–11

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