The human mind plans the way,
but the Lord directs the steps.
Proverbs 16:9 (NRSV)
Proverbs is a hard book for us to get our arms around because it doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. It isn’t law. It isn’t history. It isn’t theology. It isn’t poetry. It’s “wisdom literature,” and we are hard pressed to find its equivalent in modern writing. That’s not supposed to be a joke.
Proverbs is even harder to define neatly because some of it seems like little, unrelated fragments (and this is probably how the book eventually got its name), while other parts seem more like a coherent, longer thought or even narrative, such as the portions describing Wisdom.
This particular verse is even trickier, because the eight verses before it seem to be talking about the benefits of living righteously. The verses after it seem to be talking about the importance of a king’s behavior and one’s relationship to the king. This verse occupies the space in between.
But as we look through this chapter and the chapters immediately before and after, we see a certain pattern that emerges – some of the verses seem to go with another verse later on. It’s almost like someone made refrigerator magnets out of a long treatise of wise sayings and mixed them all up. The sayings are still there, but not in an order that immediately lends itself well to connections.
It’s probable that this is exactly what happened. The book of Proverbs attributes itself to different authors and recipients, some parts repeat, and if you look at the book as a collection of wise writings that got put together into a single scroll over time, then Proverbs sounds more like a multitude of holy, wise voices speaking God’s wisdom to us from different times and places forming a coherent symphony out of the diverse notes. It sounds less like someone sat down to write a book of wisdom and had trouble keeping their thoughts together.
Rabbis typically couple 16:9 with 16:33.
The lot is cast into the lap,
But the decision is the Lord’s alone.
Proverbs 16:33 (NRSV)
In verse 9, we learn that although a person makes plans, the universe is the Lord’s and events work out according to His design. In verse 33, we see that a person casts a lot, but what that lot actually turns up belongs to the Lord. We perform an action, but the outcome is in the hands of God.
That in and of itself is wisdom aplenty and has plenty of applications. Trust and honor the Lord in the outcomes. Make your plans in a way that works in accordance with the way the Lord works and don’t stress about the fruition of those plans because you are such a very small piece of the puzzle.
But you have to ask yourself: why did the redactor of Proverbs choose to put passages like this in with the other material in chapter 16?
We can’t know for sure, but I would suggest that this fits into the larger theme of acting righteously reaping a rewarding harvest. We see it at an individual level, at a kingdom level, and even at a universal level in chapter 16.
Acting righteously in the Old Testament does not necessarily mean acting morally. Being “righteous” does not mean being “morally good.” Being righteous means that you have acted faithfully according to expectations. For example, if I agree to mow your lawn for $20, and I mow your lawn and you give me $20, we have both acted righteously. We made an agreement, and we both fulfilled it. If we make that agreement, and I refuse to mow your lawn or you refuse to pay, one of us is acting unrighteously.
This is important, because when the Bible talks about God’s righteousness or His response to a righteous or unrighteous individual, it isn’t directly talking about their personal sins or lack thereof. It’s talking about covenant faithfulness. Abraham’s belief in God’s promise is not counted to him as moral goodness – it’s counted to him as faithfulness. Although God is morally good, when we praise His righteousness, we are praising His faithfulness, His justice, His doing-what-He-said-He-would-ness.
So when we read Proverbs 16, we are not looking at suggestions that the things we do should all be morally good things (although that’s a great suggestion). There’s nothing particularly morally good about mowing your lawn. The moral goodness comes in by way of the fact that I was righteous – I did what I said I would – and that pleases the Lord.
Individuals in Proverbs 16 are exhorted to be faithful in what they do, and the Lord will see to the result. Kings are exhorted to be faithful to their subjects, and vice-versa, and when this arrangement is happening, you get a happy kingdom. If you set out in faithful, consistent, just dealings, God will see to the results.
One application of this is that we need to understand that being faithful to God is more than being morally good. That’s certainly involved, but are we also being honest, just, trustworthy, consistent. Are we honoring others by holding up our end of the bargain? When we pursue this way of living among people, we can be confident that the Lord will see to the end result. We are not commanded to be either competent or perfect – we are commanded to be righteous. We make the plans, but the Lord directs the steps. We cast the lot, and the result is the Lord’s.
But, like Proverbs 16, we have to look more broadly than our personal behavior. We are part of a kingdom, and this is a kingdom of righteousness. Are we dealing justly in our little kingdom? Are we prophesying against the rival kingdoms who are not practicing justice? If someone is being treated unfairly by a nation (or a church or a spouse), are we working to bring justice where there is none, and are we working to restore the person who has been harmed?
Why are we visiting prisoners? Why do we promote equality, within the walls of the church if nowhere else? Why is no special regard shown to the rich and no special shame saved for the poor? Because God loves righteousness in His kingdom. He loves for justice to flow, and the sister of justice is compassion. Why should we rule the nations if we cannot even accomplish righteousness among our own? Will God reward the church for ostracism, retribution, assisting nations in their injustice, or turning a blind eye to its victims?
Paul knew this. This is why he hated the idea of Christians having divisions and taking each other to court. How can we be judges if we cannot even create justice among ourselves?
This is a challenging, challenging idea, but the beautiful part is the hope – no, the promise – God holds out for a people who faithfully pursues this mission. The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps. The lot is cast, but the outcome is the Lord’s alone.
- What are the ways we can be faithful besides sinning less?
- Is it possible to be unrighteous in the name of morality? What would God have us do in those situations where doing what is just or compassionate might seem to violate something we believe is a moral command?