“The Lord's Purpose Prevails”
Proverbs 19:21 and others
September 2, 2018
The God of Proverbs is the sovereign creator who watches the hearts of men.
III. Heart Watcher
Did you ever notice that daily life is made easier by the presence of signs? Signs help us decide what to do and give us information we need. Every business we has its sign, from the donut shop to the multi-million dollar corporation. They are a key form of advertising. Even more important are the warning and instruction and information signs we use while driving. Traffic signs tell us how fast to go, what street is coming up, what lane to be in and they try to tell us how to be safe. Of course, some communicate this information better than others. Some signs make things crystal clear and leave no doubt as to their intent. Others are more obscure, leaving us wondering what was really meant.
The book of Proverbs is a book of road signs which give us warnings, instructions and information to use while living. Along the road of our lives they tell us which way to go, what’s coming and the perils of a wrong turn. The signs in Proverbs, like road signs, come one after another almost randomly. Like road signs, they are brief and to the point. And like road signs, some are a little hard to understand. But they provide practical guidance for getting where you want to go, and that’s why we will be studying Proverbs for the next several months. Here we will find wisdom for right living. We’ll find practical help on topics such as relationships, diligence, communication, and the care of our hearts. We’ll be told what’s right and what’s wrong and the blessings of doing right and the consequences of doing wrong.
In fact, at times, you and I may argue with this book, because it makes everything so clear cut it seems to miss the randomness, chance and unexpected evil we experience in life. We’ll have to remember that Proverbs is not the whole Bible. Even Solomon, who wrote Proverbs to say “things make sense” also wrote Ecclesiastes, which says “things don’t always make sense.” We also have to remember that proverbs are in fact, proverbial. They describe with wisdom and common sense the way things normally work, not the way things always work. Proverbs says “all other things being equal, you ought to do this, because this is what’s most likely to give the result you’re looking for.”
But to gain this understanding, we first need to understand the world view of Proverbs. Just as you have to have an underlying knowledge of driving before road signs make sense, so we need to embrace the underlying assumptions about God that shape the individual instructions of this book, We need to adopt the world view and the God view of the authors of Proverbs so we’ll know what to think about the many truths we will encounter.
Who is the God of Proverbs? That’s today’s question. In one sense, he’s simply the God of the Bible. Nothing in Proverbs contradicts or questions the truth about God taught from Genesis to Revelation. Yet certain aspects of his character are emphasized, certain truths about his nature are most important to this book. First, his sovereignty. God controls the affairs of men. The Lord’s purposes prevail. Second, Proverbs emphasizes that God is man’s creator. That impacts our view of people and God. Third, Proverbs affirms that God is a personal God, not just a remote force. He watches over each heart. Finally, Proverbs knows that God is the one who brings judgment and justice.
Each of these truths is supported by many verses. First, Proverbs asserts, with all the Bible, that God is sovereign. Proverbs 19:21 “Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” God’s purpose prevails. That’s the core truth of Proverbs on the subject of sovereignty. No matter what plans for evil a man may make, God will achieve his purposes. And those purposes will be greater than the greatest good we can conceive. This truth was well expressed by Twila Paris in a song we’ve often sung: “God is in control; We believe that His children will not be forsaken. God is in control; We will choose to remember and never be shaken. There is no power above or beside Him. We know God is in control.” That’s the attitude of Proverbs.
Many Proverbs reinforce this truth. Proverbs 16:9 “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” We have free will. The heart is free to choose its own course. But we are not big enough to control the outcome: only God can do that. Proverbs 16:4 “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” God is achieving his purpose, taking into account even evil choices, not overriding, but weaving them in to his plans for our good and his glory. That doesn’t meant that God isn’t just. He holds us accountable for our choices and judges wickedness.
Proverbs 16:33 “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” God works through what seem to be random events. I’m convinced that Jesus holds the universe together by his powerful word, as Hebrews tells us. He is controlling the seemingly random behavior of every particle in every atom in every molecule of creation. There is no randomness in a universe where God is sovereign. Therefore, Proverbs 21:30 “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord. 31The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” God is sovereign and omnipotent, more powerful than any human or combination of humans can possibly be. No plot of man can overthrow his plan, or change the outcome of his purposes. Yet he does this without contradicting our free choices for good or for evil. Proverbs simply teaches that he is God and we are not.
One of the other authors of Proverbs wrestles with this. Proverbs 30:1-4 “The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle. The man declares, I am weary, O God; I am weary, O God, and worn out. 2Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. 3I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. 4Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name? Surely you know!” What is his name and his son’s name? I believe this prophetically points to God the sovereign Father and his son Jesus.
Proverbs knows a sovereign and powerful God who is also the creator of mankind. As the NIV says, “Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all.” The word ‘maker’ can mean to ‘do’, ‘accomplish’ or ‘fashion’. It’s used in Scripture of God fashioning man and forming the universe.” It’s not the same word as Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created,” but it does imply his creative power. The God of Proverbs is the one who fashions and forms the universe, and also fashions and forms you and me.
Proverbs builds truth on this. Proverbs 14:31 “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” 17:5 “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker; he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.” These two verses show forms we’ll see throughout Proverbs, two kinds of parallelism. Proverbs 14:31 is a contrasting parallel. The second half is a contrast to the first. He who oppresses the poor won’t recognize the truth that God is the creator of all people, but in contrast he who is generous to the needy honors God. Proverbs 17:5, on the other hand, is a synonymous parallel. The second half amplifies and augments the first: He who mocks the poor is really mocking the God who made them in his image, and, to amplify, the one who gloats over the calamity of the poor will be punished.
Proverbs 29:13 “The poor man and the oppressor meet together; the Lord gives light to the eyes of both” Often when God is spoken of as Creator it is to remind us that all people are at the same level. If the same God made you and me, one of us cannot be lord over the other or god to the other. No one can say “I’m better than others. I have a natural right to rule.” No one has the right to oppress. Don’t miss this. The fact that God is the maker of all people is used in Proverbs to bring home an ethical truth: that we must not be trapped into thinking of ourselves as better than others, whether because of economic status, culture, ethnic background or even religion. If we lose this view, we open ourselves to one of the greatest dangers in world history. We talked about it this summer: dehumanization. The evils of oppression and racism and genocide and war have at their root a “we’re better than y’all are,” mentality.
Proverbs calls us to examine our heart attitudes and remember that God is the creator and all people bear his image. He has made every nation and culture. He is the loving creator of every Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist in the world, and we are called to see them as people God loves. He wants us to love them. Proverbs says He wants us to care for them. He wants us to show all people kindness and compassion. I also believe he wants us to bless them by sharing the best truth in the world: that Jesus loves them and died for them. When we do so, the author says, we honor God. Do you see how practical Proverbs is going to be? It takes a lofty truth like ‘God is creator of all’ and applies it at the level of kindness to the next person we meet, to practical changes in our behavior.
So the God of Proverbs is sovereign, he’s omnipotent, he’s our maker. But he’s not ‘The Force’. He is anything but an impersonal God out there who wound up the universe and let it go. He is intimately involved on the heart level with his creatures. This third key truth is found in many places. Proverbs 17:3 “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.” One of the familiar images in the ancient world was the metalworker, who needed to test the gold he’d collected. The material would be melted in a clay crucible in a refiner’s furnace. In the crucible the craftsman would place lead and gold would melt and the impurities would float to the top and be removed. Then the lead would burn off and only the precious metal would pass the test.
The image in the proverb is that God both tests and purifies the heart. He does it by the heat of the fire of our circumstances. Throughout Proverbs we find God looking at, testing, assessing and guiding the hearts of his people. Proverbs 15:11 “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord; how much more the hearts of the children of man!” Sheol and Abaddon, the place of death and the place of destruction. These are Satan’s empires, yet all that goes on there is plain to the Lord. How much more the hidden thoughts of our hearts? No thought of yours, righteous or unrighteous, is hidden from his knowledge. For me that’s a sobering truth, because many of my thoughts are not worthy to be shared with people, let alone with God. I’m far too petty, far too sinful in my thinking. God sees this. It is only his grace that keeps me from judgment.
Proverbs 20:27 “The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all his innermost parts.” The English Standard Version implies that the lamp of the Lord is the conscience, which God has placed in us to inwardly guide us. But the NIV says “The lamp of the Lord searches the spirit of a man; it searches out his inmost being.” Here the lamp of the Lord might be God’s Word, which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. In a sense this is God himself as a lamp bearer bringing light into the dark places of our souls through our consciences, revealing the hidden thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Whether you know or not, whether you like it or not, God is intimately interested in your heart. Proverbs 15:3 “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” This verse could have been included in the first section. It’s a great proof of the omnipresence of God, his presence everywhere, which is as much a part of his sovereignty as his omnipotence. But I put it here because of what God does by his presence. He keeps watch. The word is used of the watchman guarding a city, even of a spy searching out the secrets of the enemy. It implies diligence in focusing on something. God is not distant. He diligently focuses on us, whether we do evil or good.
Finally, Proverbs 24:11-12 “Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. 12If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?” Verse 11 may be familiar to you as a key verse of the pro-life movement. “Rescue those being led away to death.” We’ve already seen that this active compassion for the oppressed is a strong theme of Proverbs. We’re going to spend a whole week on that compassion later in the series.
But our author has a realistic knowledge of human nature. Verse 12: If you say, "but we knew nothing about this!” as so many Germans and others did after the holocaust of the Jews in World War II, “does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?” In other words can you lie to God? No. He doesn’t judge based on your words but on your heart. He is involved with us not just out here where we live and work and worship, but in here where we feel and think and act. He is the Sovereign God of the heart, and as we read the road signs of Proverbs, we need to take them to heart, not just give them lip service. This is really the foundation for getting something from Proverbs: deal with these truths on a heart level, leading to changed behavior, not just mental assent. If you’re driving down a street and you see that sign “children playing 20 mph” its not enough just to say ‘Oh yea, children playing’. You’ve also got to take your foot off the accelerator. Proverbs is intended to bring change to our lives because the God of Proverbs is a sovereign creator who knows our hearts.
Ultimately, in fact, he judges our hearts, justly. Proverbs 16:5: “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished.” The acts of the wicked can’t deter God’s sovereignty. They will be punished, and the basis of judgment is an evaluation of the heart. The proud of heart, who are selfish, self-centered and hard hearted toward God and others are the ones who receive this judgment. Of course, from the perspective of the whole Bible we know this describes each of us until we’re saved by Christ. We deserve punishment and it’s only by God’s grace we escape judgment.
Part of the purpose of Proverbs is to show us, by means of these road signs, that right living is impossible without God. There are many benefits to right living. We’ll see them. But we have to remember that those benefits are a gift to those “in Christ,” those who have trusted Christ and received from the heart watcher a new heart, an ability to do what’s right. In Exodus and Leviticus we see our need for God in our inability to keep His law. Our inability to follow the wisdom of Proverbs shows us the same need. I am the fool of Proverbs. I am the wicked, I am the oppressor. Only the free gift of Jesus’ sacrifice can rescue my sinful heart, as I trust in him. Only after you and I have been given a new heart and the gift of the Spirit can we really live out the wisdom of Proverbs.
Because the God of Proverbs is a God of justice. Proverbs 11:20 “Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the Lord, but those of blameless ways are his delight.” Proverbs 21:12 “The Righteous One observes the house of the wicked; he throws the wicked down to ruin.” Proverbs 29:26 “Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the Lord that a man gets justice.” Our God is righteous. He delights in righteousness, judges wickedness, and also gives justice to those who cannot get it from men.
This truth is intended to impact our behavior. Proverbs 20:22 “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.” Because God is a righteous judge we leave justice in his hands. That’s both Old Testament and New Testament teaching. And it’s practical. Don’t take revenge. Let God be the judge. Similarly, Proverbs 22:22 “Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, 23for the Lord will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.” Proverbs 23:10-11 “Do not move an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless, 11for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.” Who is the rescuer of the fatherless, the lover of widows and orphans? It is our righteous God. We should be afraid to oppress or misuse, because the Lord is the defender of the downtrodden. He tells us, as we would say today “I’ll see you in court.” He’ll take up his case against us: and He never loses at the bar of justice.
So what have we learned? That the God of Proverbs is the God of the whole Bible. We don’t see every aspect of his character here, but we do see several key things. We see that he’s sovereign. We can trust him to work out his purposes. We also see that he is the one who made each of us. Therefore we ought to care for one another rather than oppress anyone. Finally, we see that he is a personal God who looks on the state of every person’s heart. He cares about our hearts, he is close to our hearts, and yet he also judges our hearts and he does not let any of us live in a moral vacuum. He is not remote from anybody.
But how will we respond to this? I believe that throughout our study of Proverbs we will be confronted by road signs. Go this way and live. Do not enter this way. These signs are wisdom for right living. If we heed them we will both improve our circumstances and please the heart of God. My hope is that all of us will pursue this outcome. But not, not, not in our own strength. If we try we will find ourselves, not always but often, choosing the wrong way. Choosing anger instead of peace, choosing harsh words instead of a gentle answer, choosing selfishness rather than generosity, choosing our way instead of God’s. Do not start this study of Proverbs, as so many have over the years, in the delusion that you can do this. Start the the study of Proverbs in the reality of your dependence on God for rescue from the wrong choices you’ve already made, and for a new heart that can more consistently make right choices, that can truly live in this wisdom for right living.