How do you respond to Proverbs 21:1?

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

Calvinists sometimes argue that this passage teaches that everything every government official ever does is the result of the Lord turning their heart. In light of the hideous things many government officials have done (e.g. Hitler’s program of ethnic cleansing), and in light of the fact that Scripture frequently depicts God as being outraged by government officials, we should seriously question this conclusion. Fortunately, this conclusion is not required by this passage. Two things may be said.

First, we must consider the genre of this passage. This passage is a proverb. Hebraic proverbs often state general principles in unequivocal terms for emphasis. It was their way of putting an exclamation mark at the end of a teaching. We misinterpret them if understand them as universal laws.

For example, Proverbs 12:21 states:

No harm happens to the righteous,
but the wicked are filled with trouble.
(cf. 13:21, 25)

If read as an absolute universal law this passage is nonsense. History and our own experience demonstrate that righteous people frequently suffer great harm while wicked people often live in peace. Jesus, the supremely righteous one, suffered harm! Scripture repeatedly notes the suffering of the righteous. As a general principle, however, righteous living helps one avoid harm while wicked living tends to lead to trouble. The author states the principle in absolute terms to emphasize its importance.

Another typical example of how Hebraic proverbs state things in absolute terms for emphasis is Proverbs 22:6:

Train children in the right way,
and when old, they will not stray.

Many godly parents who have had children “stray” from the path they taught them have been needlessly indicted by a misreading of this passage. As we all know, when children grow up they become free moral agents who determine their own destinies. There are no absolute guarantees when raising children. Still, as a general rule it is true that consistently training children in the right way will increase the likelihood that they will not stray when they grow up. Again, the author states the principle in unequivocal terms for emphasis.

It is thus not advisable to interpret Proverbs 21:1 as an absolute law. The author is not suggesting that every decision made by every king throughout history was orchestrated by God. He is simply emphasizing God’s general sovereignty over kings. We see this sovereignty dramatically depicted elsewhere in Scripture.

For example, as an act of judgment (viz. not an eternally predestined plan) God stirred up the wicked hearts of pagan kings against Israel (e.g. 1 Chron. 5:26; Isa. 10:5–6). Conversely, when he wanted his people to return to their homeland, he influenced Cyrus’ heart to let them go (Isa. 44:28; 2 Chron. 36:22–23). He is sovereign over earthly kings, but we read too much into this passage if we conclude that he meticulously controls everything they do.

Even when God “turns” the hearts of kings in the direction he desires, he doesn’t determine the nature of the heart he turns, and this is my second point. People resolve their own hearts and make their plans either in accordance with God’s will or against God’s will. This is their domain of irrevocable freedom. But even when they set themselves against God, God still “directs their steps.” God steers the way they live out their choices so that they further God’s good purposes for the world as much as possible. God is always at work to bring good out of evil (Rom 8:28). But God does not himself work the evil he brings good out of.

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