Sovereign Over Our Speech
“The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.”- Proverbs 16:1
Proverbs is remarkable for its practicality, and that makes its teaching on divine sovereignty all the more incredible. Many people believe that if God is fully sovereign—if He ordains whatsoever comes to pass down to the tiniest details of what happens in creation—then our choices do not really matter. After all, such people think, if God has ordained it, it is going to happen anyway regardless of what we do.
To reason in such a way, however, is to misunderstand what the Bible has to say about divine providence. Certainly, the Lord does ordain all of the particulars of His creation, for He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Yet this sovereignty does not ignore the decisions and actions of the agents within creation. Even though there is great mystery in how divine providence operates, the biblical authors have no problem in believing that what people think, feel, and do really matters—that they remain fully responsible even though the Lord’s decree is comprehensive and establishes everything that ever happens. If we think that exhaustive divine sovereignty negates the importance of human actions, that demonstrates our stubborn and sinful refusal to arm the true understanding of reality—which is given by those inspired by the Lord to reveal His truth—and not the incoherence of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
As noted, the practicality of the book of Proverbs is persuasive evidence of the compatibility of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, particularly in texts where they are juxtaposed. Proverbs 16:1a describes what we all experience, namely, that we make plans, set goals, and pursue certain ends. The verse speaks of well-thought-out plans, courses of action formulated after much consideration. We plan, we purpose—when we anticipate and determine the steps we will take, we are the ones actually doing such things. We are not puppets on a string or possessed by God so that He is the only true actor in creation.
On the other hand, however, the realization of these plans is from the Lord (v. 1b). The thought here emphasizes success. In other words, our plans only come to fruition—we only do what we intend to do and say what we intend to say—if our Creator grants it to us. However, the verse has a broader application to everything that we say and everything that we do. Ultimately, everything that we do is the result of God’s comprehensive decree. As Paul so memorably puts it, “From him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:36).
Matthew Henry comments: “Man cannot go on with his business without the assistance and blessing of God, who made man’s mouth and teaches us what we shall say. Nay, God easily can, and often does, cross men’s purposes, and break their measures. It was a curse that was prepared in Balaam’s heart, but the answer of the tongue was a blessing.” It is comforting—and humbling—to know that we can accomplish only what God has ordained.
Passages for Further Study