AT AN EARLY STAGE, I WORKED through Proverbs and categorized most of the individual proverbs according to topic. Some fitted into more than one topic. I recognized that there was a disadvantage in this approach: I would lose the thematic connections in some large blocks of material. Still, there was also a gain. I could see at a glance all that Proverbs had to say about poverty, for instance, or about the family, or about human speech.
One of the themes thus clarified is God’s sovereignty, worked out in sometimes mysterious providence. There is one verse on this topic in this chapter: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21). By itself, of course, this might mean no more than that the Lord proves to be a superb chess player! Yet this verse is linked to an important set of passages (e.g., Prov. 20:24) that demand we think more deeply than that. For instance:
(1) “The LORD works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Prov. 16:4). We should not seek to evade the sweep of this utterance. This is not a dualist universe in which two autonomous principles operate, one good and one evil. While there is a basic distinction between good and evil, yet God’s sovereignty reigns, through whatever mysterious means, so that even the wicked serve his purposes—not least his purposes in judgment. Paul reflects on the same theme (Rom. 9:22).
(2) “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Human beings are responsible for what they choose and what they do; the entire book of Proverbs maintains this perspective, for otherwise the fundamental chasms between wisdom and folly, good and evil, the fear of the Lord and haughty arrogance, could not be sustained. Yet at the same time, even with all the plotting in the world a mere human cannot escape the sweep of divine sovereignty. Elsewhere we are told, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Prov. 21:1).
(3) “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Prov. 16:33). This is a bit like saying that you can throw the dice as many times as you like, but which numbers come up is determined by the Almighty. This is why Christians have spoken of “the mystery of providence.” One cannot determine the moral excellence of an occurrence by the mere fact that it happens, since God’s providence rules over both good and evil, over every number that comes up. For moral distinctions, one needs God’s own pronouncements, his words, his law.