Proverbs: God’s Sovereignty and Wisdom (Thomas Schreiner)
Small matters matter. The little things in life can make a big difference. George Will writes, “Suppose the car had hit the pedestrian slightly harder. What car? The one on Fifth Avenue the evening of Dec. 13, 1931, when an English politician on a lecture tour momentarily forgot the American rules of the road and looked the wrong way when stepping into the street. Winston Churchill could have died. Then, perhaps in 1940 or 1941, a prime minister less resolute . . . than Churchill might have chosen to come to terms with Germany before Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Imagine the hegemony of a National Socialist Germany stretching across the Eurasian landmass from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” Not only is God sovereign over world wars, but he is sovereign over car accidents and everything else as well.
In the same way, details have fallen together just so and led you on the path you have traveled thus far. This is true of everyone, even if we don’t see how this is so. If the private high school I was enrolled in hadn’t closed due to lack of funds, which at the time was a huge disappointment to me, I would not have met my wife, Diane, and meeting Diane changed the course of my life forever. Not only did we get married, but she shared with me the saving message of Jesus Christ.
It won’t work, then, to say that God is sovereign over the big picture but not the details. We only get the big picture from the details. To say God doesn’t determine the details of life is to say he doesn’t really determine the big picture. Saying God is only sovereign over the big picture but not the details is like saying a person directed a movie but didn’t direct the specific scenes of the movie, it doesn’t make sense. So too, if God isn’t sovereign over the details of life, he isn’t really sovereign over our lives.
But God is sovereign over all of life, and his sovereignty expresses itself in various ways; in this article we will examine five themes in the book of Proverbs. First, nothing is hidden from the Lord. Second, every good gift is from the Lord. Third, the Lord shows his sovereignty in punishing the wicked. Fourth, the Lord’s sovereignty is complete and comprehensive. And fifth, our decisions matter, but the will of the Lord stands.
Nothing is hidden from the Lord
We know nothing is hidden from the Lord because he is the creator of all things. We read in Proverbs 20:12, “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the LORD has made them both.” Our capacity to hear and to see comes from God. If that’s true, he knows what we hear and what we see. All of life is lived before God. He is not a far-off God, but is near to each one of us. As Proverbs 15:3 says, “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” The comprehensiveness of the Lord’s knowledge is also clear from Proverbs 15:11. “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the LORD; how much more the hearts of the children of man!” God knows our hearts, and he knows our actions.
I read a story about how the IRS harassed one couple in Texas belonging to the Tea Party. The story was chilling and frightening, a clear example of government oppression. Though what the IRS was doing was hidden for some time, once people found out, they were shocked to learn about their malfeasance. Such evil however isn’t restricted to government only; it is a common problem in the human race. Certainly there are other evils in our own cities and states which are hidden, and which would shock us if we learned of them. But let’s get personal, what about you? Are you rationalizing some hidden evil? Do you really think you will get away with it? The Lord knows, he sees! Your heart is an open book before him. The Lord will bring into the light all that has been done.
Now, let’s consider the other side of this. The Lord watches over both the evil and the good. Perhaps you are faithfully doing what is good. You are faithfully following the Lord and trusting him every day. You’re doing your job to God’s glory, you’re raising your family in a way that pleases him, you’re trusting him in sickness, and so on. But you get discouraged because you wonder if being faithful makes any difference. Sometimes you feel lonely and left out. Or, it seems like those who are politically ambitious and worldly wise advance. Remember this: the Lord sees the good you are doing. He is watching, and he will reward you. He is pleased with your faithfulness, and you will shine like the stars on the last day. What matters is not what the world thinks and says, but what God says. God turns upside down the wisdom of the world. This also applies in the Christian world, doesn’t it? What I mean is that those who are celebrated in our Christian culture and who are advancing are not necessarily those who are faithfully doing God’s will. God knows those who are faithful. God smiles upon those whose hearts are his. God always honors those who honor him.
Solomon actually gives us a specific example of the Lord’s goodness. Finding a good wife is ultimately a gift from the Lord. Proverbs 18:22 says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.” Finding a wife (or a husband for that matter) isn’t finally or ultimately our work. We can’t take any credit for it. It is due to the Lord’s favor. It is the Lord’s grace and smile upon us. I am too much of a fool to choose a good wife, but how gracious the Lord was to bring me Diane. Indeed, Proverbs 19:14 says that “a prudent wife is from the LORD.” If you have a wise and sensible and godly wife, then the Lord has given you such a wife. Thank the Lord for giving you such an amazing gift, such an amazing helpmeet. Let us dare not boast that we have chosen our spouse.
Realize if you have a prudent wife or husband that God has given you the spouse you have. And of course every good gift is from him. James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Every time you enjoy running, walking, biking, swimming or hiking it is a gift of God. Every laugh or good meal comes from him. Every day the sun shines on you is from him. Every friendship, every encouragement, and every day of health is a gift from him. How we thank him for his love for us and praise him for his many blessings! But the Lord doesn’t show his sovereignty only in blessing, he also does so in judging.
The Lord shows he is sovereign in punishing the wicked
Punishment for evil cannot be attributed to natural causes. It isn’t merely cause and effect. Punishment comes from a personal God. Proverbs 17:3 says that the Lord “tests hearts.” He examines and assesses our lives. Proverbs 11:21 says, “Be assured, an evil person will not go unpunished, but the offspring of the righteous will be delivered.” We read in Proverbs 15:25, “The LORD tears down the house of the proud but maintains the widow’s boundaries.” The proud may mistreat widows for many years, but the day is coming when the Lord will vindicate widows and judge the proud. As Proverbs 15:29 says, “The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.” Those who give themselves to evil and fail to repent will not escape. Proverbs 16:5 says, “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished.” This verse tells us that the Lord hates those who give themselves to evil and will destroy them. We read in Proverbs 21:12, “The Righteous One observes the house of the wicked; he throws the wicked down to ruin.”
We could read more from Proverbs on this matter, but the point is clear. Proverbs teaches us repeatedly that the Lord’s sovereign rule over all things will manifest itself in the final judgment. Evil will not triumph, but God will. The apostle Paul speaks of the “day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” When we think of our secret sins, our private evils, our evil thoughts, there is no hope for us on the day of judgment. And yet there is hope while there is life. Jesus Christ came to save sinners. He surrendered his life and died for the ungodly and those who were his enemies. He gave his life as a ransom for many. If you put your trust in him and turn from your sins, you will be saved on the day of judgment from the wrath of God. Your secret sins and all your sins will be removed from you as far as the east is from the west. But for those who don’t repent and turn from their sins, a day of judgment is coming. And on that day, the Lord will manifest his sovereign rule over the entire world. Those who are evil who prosper in this world will face the final judgment of God.
Consider with me the way in which Joseph Stalin died. It serves as a parable of God’s righteous judgment. Stalin was ruler over the Soviet Union for many years, but he was wickedly evil. He murdered millions and millions. When Stalin was dying, he was filled with paranoia and heard the howling of imaginary wolves. He knew something terrible was coming upon him. He knew he was being judged by God. God was closing in upon him to send him to hell forever. God reigns over all. And he shows his sovereign rule in judging the wicked.
The Lord’s sovereignty is complete and comprehensive
The smallest things in life, even the seemingly random events, i.e., so-called secular events like how a lot comes out, are determined by the Lord. Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” The things that seem to be chance events in life aren’t chance events. They are ordained by God. If the roll of the dice is ordained by God, then everything is. As Lamentations 3:38 says, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” Or, we read in Isaiah 46:9-10, “I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” God ordains and rules over all things, and yet the Lord never does evil. He always does what is good and right.
Of course, this is different from saying that we understand why things happen the way they do. There is a mystery here that we can’t fully understand. None of us understand why tornadoes hit the suburbs of Oklahoma City last year and devastated the town of Moore. We weep with those who weep, especially over the death of children. God doesn’t give us a complete and final answer to the problem of evil. When we read the book of Job, we see that the Lord calls upon us to trust him even when we are heartbroken and baffled over what is happening. But we don’t deny the sovereignty of God. We affirm that he is in control over all things and that he is good.
We see another example of the Lord’s comprehensive sovereignty in Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” If God controls the heart of kings, the most powerful position in the ancient world, then he controls the hearts of all. Vladimir Putin isn’t ultimately in control of where Russia is going, and Barack Obama isn’t in control in the USA. They are responsible for their actions, but God ultimately rules. He turns kings’ hearts wherever he wishes. The course of history is set by the Lord. Life is not careening out of his control. God is not panicking in heaven. His wise plan for the world will be accomplished. Those who give themselves to evil will not outfox the Lord.
Proverbs 16:4 says that the Lord “has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” The wicked think they are resisting God, and in one sense they are, since they aren’t doing what he commands them to do. But in a deeper and more profound way, they are fulfilling God’s purposes. Just as God used the King of Assyria as his axe to judge and cut down Israel, according to Isaiah 10, so he uses the wicked to fulfill his designs and his plans. But the wicked will also be judged for the evil they perpetrate. God will fulfill his purposes and make everything right in the end.
How comforting and strengthening this is. No one can outwit and defeat us. Since the Lord is sovereign, we understand why in Proverbs 18:10 it says, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” Human intelligence can never match or defeat the Lord. Proverbs 21:30-31 says, “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD. The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD.”
We have no need to fear if we are on the Lord’s side, or even better, we have no need to fear if the Lord is on our side. No matter how gifted or strong our opponents are, they can never overcome us. We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. No one can prevail against the Lord, no one! This brings us to the fifth and last point, where we consider the intersection between divine sovereignty and human decisions.
Our decisions matter, but it is the Lord’s will that stands
The life of human beings, in a way that surpasses human comprehension and understanding, is planned by the Lord. Proverbs 20:24 says, “A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?” God’s sovereign rule over our lives is clearly taught here. Our steps, i.e., the day by day events of our lives, are planned by the Lord. God determines the course of our lives.
This leads the author to ask a question; if the Lord plots out our lives, how can we understand our way? How can we understand the course of our life if the Lord is ultimately in control? The answer is we can’t. Yes, God rules over lives, step by step by step. But the path of our life, the arc of our life, exceeds our understanding. We can’t chart it out and necessarily make sense of it. In other words, instead of writing a master plan for our lives, we entrust our lives to the Lord. We don’t know what will happen, and when it will happen. I never dreamt that Diane would have a serious bike accident, but he was with us every step of the way, and continues to be.
We trust the Lord because he has planned every step, even if we can’t predict what will occur. What will tomorrow bring? We don’t know. It could be tragedy or great joy, but whatever it is, the Lord has planned our steps and he loves us so we should give ourselves entirely to him. But what does it look like to live everyday under God’s sovereignty? Should we make plans or do we just sit back and wait for God’s plans to unfold? Proverbs 16:1, 16:9, and 19:21 provide helpful insight.
First, Proverbs 16:1 tells us, “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.” And in Proverbs 16:9 we see that, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” Then, quite similarly we find in Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Human responsibility and God’s sovereignty are emphasized in these verses. All three of these verses emphasize the plans we make as human beings. Plans are birthed deep in our hearts. Indeed, as human beings we have many dreams where we consider the future, and that is just as it should be. Living under God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean that we don’t plan, strategize, and think carefully ahead.
It is clear from Romans that Paul carefully planned out his missionary journeys. David put a great deal of thought and planning into building the temple. Some people think they are super spiritual because they don’t plan. They think it means they’re trusting God more. But they aren’t super spiritual, they’re just wrong.
Some may wonder if planning contradicts James 4:13-16,
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’– yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”
James is not criticizing planning when he condemns merchants who think they will go into towns and make a profit. He criticizes people for their pride, for arrogantly thinking that they know what the future holds. Planning is good, but these verses from Proverbs remind us that ultimately God’s plans stand, not ours. As we just saw above, Proverbs 16:1 says that the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. In other words, what happens in life comes from God’s mouth, from God’s decision. We plan but God decides. We propose but God disposes. It is the Lord who establishes our steps. As Von Rad says, “God is there precisely in the incalculable element, and at a single stroke which you have scarcely noticed, he has taken the whole affair out of your hands.” It is his counsel which stands.
Human planning, as all of Proverbs demonstrates, is part of what it means to live wisely. Fools plunge ahead without any forethought or consideration. Planning and strategizing are commendable. None of these proverbs criticize a careful assessment of future possibilities, nor do they criticize the decision to pursue a particular direction. What Proverbs emphasizes, however, is that ultimately it is what the Lord decides, not what human beings plan, which will come to pass. It is wise to plan the size of your family, but the Lord either opens or closes the womb, or supplies the funds to adopt. It is wise to plan your course of study or what kind of work to pursue, but the Lord ultimately chooses the job for you. It is wise to be on the look-out for a godly spouse, but it’s the Lord who may give you the strength to be single or bring into your life someone you wouldn’t expect. What a comfort to know that our God reigns. He rules over all things, and he loves us. Even if we don’t understand or like what is happening to us, he is with us. He will never leave or forsake us. And no one will ever foil his plan for us. Again, as God tells us in Proverbs 21:30-31, “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD. The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD.”
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.