Proverbs: God and Man

Proverbs 21:1-3

9 May 2010

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


I wonder how your recent studies in the book of Proverbs influenced the way you voted last week, or whether you voted at all.

I know one chap who, a few years ago, was reading Ecclesiastes on election morning. He felt he received very direct guidance from Ecclesiastes chapter 10 verse 2, The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.ref

If his reading had been from Proverbs, perhaps he would have voted differently. Proverbs 4 verse 27, Do not swerve to the right or the left...ref

The serious point is that Proverbs is an intensely practical book. As Derek Kidner puts it, "Proverbs' function in Scripture is to put godliness into working clothes."

It is not a book of full of doctrine or closely reasoned arguments. It is a book designed to affect our lives in practical, nitty-gritty ways. It should affect our vote, and I hope it did.

Having said all that, this morning I've got what sounds more like a purely theoretical theme, "Proverbs: God and man" — What has the book of Proverbs to say about the relationship between God and man?

A survey of all the book's teaching from a height of 40,000 feet (which is where I was over Siberia this time yesterday) has the danger of being a bit dry and academic. So I want to ground this topic in three verses from Proverbs 21. It will be up to you to decide if these verses fairly represent the teaching of Proverbs about God and man.

[Read Proverbs 21:1-3, p655]

God rules over man

The first truth about God and man in Proverbs that I want to look at is in Proverbs 21:1, God rules over man. Verse 1, The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.ref

Amid all the negotiations to come over the next few weeks as to how the country will be run going forward, the candidates for Prime Minister would do well to remember this verse: The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.

Proverbs reminds us that ultimate power always resides with God. Even the most powerful person in the country — the king in Bible language —, even the most powerful person in the world, is subject to the will of God. He is sovereign, he runs the Universe, and he directs the flows of world affairs as simply and easily as a farmer directs water around his fields.

I saw an illustration of this in Japan last week. It's a very built up country, even outside the big cities. But a striking feature if you take a long-distance train ride is that, crammed into every available tiny space are little paddy fields for growing rice, each about the size of a large allotment in this country. You can see them everywhere.

Now, you need a lot of water for growing rice, and running around and through the grids of fields are little channels with gates to control the flow. If the farmer wants to flood his field he just lifts a gate; when the water level is just right, he closes it again. He can just as easily drain it. He quite simply directs the flow of water just as he likes.

The forces that shape world history might seem immense to us — world wars, global banking meltdown, general elections, the collapse of currencies, — but God directs the ebbs and flows of world affairs as easily a farmer directs a flow of water.

God's sovereignty applies both on the large scale — in the decisions of kings, rulers and Prime Ministers —, and to every one of our lives. Proverbs 16 verse 4, To man belong the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue.ref Proverbs 16 verse 9, In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.ref

This teaching is sometimes summarised in the phrase "man proposes, but God disposes" .

So the world of Proverbs is a world where God is utterly sovereign. He is ruler over, and in control of, all creation, including you and me.

This is why the book of Proverbs works, of course. If there were no God; if God were not bringing order and control to the world, then one set of rules is as good as any other set of rules, wouldn't it?

Proverbs works, because each individual proverb reveals a truth about the way God has actually ordered the universe.

So, to pick a random example, when Proverbs 11:2 says When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdomref, it works like this because God has made the universe like this. You can imagine worlds where being proud gets you further than being humble. In fact, many people act like that is how our world today works, don't they? But they are out of touch with reality.

Or when Proverbs 11:22 says, Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretionref, you could imagine a world where that isn't true, where beautiful women without discretion become successful celebrities. Actually, that's not so hard to imagine, is it? Just turn on the television. But these people are out of touch with the true reality.

Proverbs teaches us about the real world. Not the fake, godless worlds we'd rather make up to live in, but the real world where God is sovereign and rules over man. A world that works according to his rules not our rules.

The book of Proverbs puts us back in touch with real life: God is the ruler, and we are the subjects.

God is at odds with man

The second truth about God and man in Proverbs I want to look at is in verse 2: God is at odds with man. Verse 2, All a man's ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart.ref

Our judgement of ourselves and God's judgement of us are at odds with each other. We look at what we have done, and what we are doing, and we can always justify ourselves. We will rarely admit to being in the wrong.

We saw it during the MP's expenses scandal, didn't we? The constant self-justification about why the MP in question deserved to spend our money like that: All a man's ways seem right to him.

And we see it in our own lives. When is the last time you apologised to someone? I don't mean a quick "sorry" for getting in someone's way in the street, I mean a truly heartfelt, "I'm sorry, you are right and I am wrong" apology. If you are anything like me, I suspect it wasn't very recently.

We don't do it very often, because to apologise properly is to admit that we are wrong. But All a man's ways seem right to him. I'm sure each of us has many apologies we ought to make, but we're not going to do it, are we? All our ways seem right to us.

So we see the truth of the first part of the proverb.

But when it comes to God, we cannot hide. We cannot rely on our own self-justifications. God sees through it quite easily: he weighs the heart. Like a jeweller weighing gold to see if it is pure or contaminated, God weighs our hearts.

Actually, God's examination of our hearts is even more exacting: Proverbs 17 verse 3, The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.ref He goes much deeper than our self-justifications, our excuses and delusions: he weighs and tests our hearts for purity and genuineness.

And it is our hearts that reveal our true selves: Proverbs 27:19, As water reflects a face, so a man's heart reflects the man.ref Perhaps you remember that last time I visited you, I preached on the verse Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.ref

Our hearts are what matter most; it is our hearts that God will weigh. Frankly, our own judgement on our actions is irrelevant.

No doubt, on the day when we all have to stand before God, there will be many who will say to him: "look at what I did; look at what I achieved; isn't it good?" I suspect there will be very few who will be prepared to say "Lord, look at my heart." But that is what he will do; that is what he is doing.

Proverbs teaches us that our evaluation of ourselves, and God's evaluation of us, are at odds. The word "but" in the verse is very suggestive. The implication is that God's ultimate evaluation of us will be very different from our own. All a man's ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart.

God desires relationship with man, but he cannot be bought

The third truth about God and man in Proverbs I want to look at is in verse 3: God desires relationship with man, but he cannot be bought. Verse 3, To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.ref

It is striking that, of the hundred or so times that the book of Proverbs mentions God, it almost always uses his covenant name, Yahweh. We see it in our three verses here: where the name "the Lord" is printed in capital letters, it refers to the Hebrew letters YHWH which we read as Yahweh.

This is God's covenant name, and is used by people in relationship with him.

So we see that the book of Proverbs understands itself not as a general manual on how to behave well, but as rooted in and expressing relationship with God. Although it teaches us truths about all mankind, it is primarily a book for God's people. For those who already know him.

On the one hand, the fool who says in his heart, there is no Godref, will never understand the book of Proverbs. It doesn't work apart from relationship with God. On the other hand, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdomref, because this is right relationship with the holy God.

So, fundamentally, the book of Proverbs is about man's relationship with God. The big question the book asks is, how do we live out that relationship with him?

Our verse is clear: God cannot be bought. We cannot simply live just as we please, and then come to God with some sacrifice, whether it be an animal in the Old Testament context, or money or possessions or some kind of penance in our context. Proverbs 15 verse 8, The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wickedref.

Yet this is how many of us live. We spend the week living just as we please, and then, come Sunday, we are pricked with a guilty conscience. We feel that if we make some sacrifice — such as praying extra earnestly, or giving extra generously, or resolving extra firmly to do better next week — that it will mend our relationship with God. And the next week we go round the loop once again.

No, Proverbs teaches us that relationship with God is expressed in a real change of heart. If we are in right relationship with God, we will actually try to live to please him by doing what is right and just.


So here are three truths about God and man from Proverbs: 1. God rules over man; 2. God is at odds with man; 3. God desires relationship with man, but cannot be bought.

Now, these three truths leave us with something of a puzzle that is never really resolved in the book of Proverbs. Verses one, two and three don't quite sit comfortably together.

Verse 1 says that God is in charge, but verse 2 says that we act like we are in charge.

Verse 1 says that God is sovereign over the affairs of mankind, yet verse three expresses his desire for relationship with us, that we should live acceptably to him. It's not easy to be friends with a king.

Verse 3 says that God wants us to do what is right and just, but verse 2 says that we cannot do that in our heart of hearts.

There is a tension here. A tension that the book of Proverbs never really resolves. How can mankind live in relationship with a sovereign, holy God? We cannot be good enough, verse 2, but our sacrifices are not what God wants either, verse 3.

Do you see the problem? As we read the book of Proverbs, we find that we cannot live up to the standard it sets us — in the context of Proverbs we are all more like the fool than the wise man — yet it gives us no alternative. In this respect it is a bit like the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus sets us an astonishingly difficult goal: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfectref.

The book of Proverbs holds up a pen portrait of the life of the godly man.

If you read it and think, "yes I can do that if only I try a little harder" , then you haven't understood it at all.

If you read it and despair, and become discouraged and disillusioned with the demands of the godly life, then you haven't understood it at all.

But, if you will read the book of Proverbs and come to God saying, Lord, my ways are not right and I have no sacrifice to make. But please work in me by your Spirit to make me more like your Son — then, I think, you have understood it well.


Lord, when you weigh our hearts you find them corrupt. Lord, we have no sacrifice to bring that could please you. We come to you, sovereign Lord, only because your Son made it possible. He lived the life of perfect wisdom, yet he died our death, the death of fools. Please make us like him; please forgive us our pride and give us hearts that want to do what is right and just. In your great mercy, Amen.