“In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps” (Prov. 16:9, NIV).
This verse points out the contrast between what man actually plans, on the one hand, and what God DIRECTS on the other. “Man proposes; God disposes.” Or, as Shakespeare put it, “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”
With this verse we may also compare Jer. 10:23: “I know, O LORD, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps” — in both verses, exactly the same Hebrew words are used for “determine/direct” (“kuwn”) and “steps” (“tsaad”).
On this point James offers his own commentary: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (Jam. 4:13-15). We human beings, blessed by God with such wonderful brains, delight in putting to use that mental faculty in laying out our whole lives — education plans, marriage plans, career plans, business plans, five-year plans, retirement plans.
But in the midst of our elaborate planning sessions, we so easily forget, or neglect to give sufficient weight to, the Divine Hand that shapes our destinies.
On the other hand, however, such verses as these do not encourage some kind of fatalistic, unthinking acquiescence: “Que sera, sera!” — “What will be, will be!” Even as the Proverbs verse appears to be a contrast, it may also contain a comparison — of escalating control. In other words the “but” of the NIV (and the KJV) may just as easily be translated by “and”! A man may, in his heart, plan out the most godly of lives, with all expectation of doing the LORD’s will at every opportunity. This is good, so far as it goes. Then, beyond this, the LORD Himself “determines his steps” — that is, He works out what even the most righteous man cannot arrange: the confluence of events and circumstances that points to a different path, or a new challenge, perhaps a new “door” opening while an old “door” is closed. All of a sudden, the best-intentioned man may find himself in an entirely new and unusual situation. Can he continue to believe, and trust, that God is directing his steps? Can he go forward, even — like Abraham — into a “strange land”, still knowing that his God walks with him?
It is not that human plans and divine plans are inevitably at cross-purposes. Very often, human plans (and not just divine plans) will be established if they are committed to the LORD: “Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed” (Prov. 16:3).
Thus on Proverbs 16:9 one commentator has said, “‘A man’s heart deviseth his way’ — that means his freedom to make plans and act them out, to live his own life. ‘But the Lord directeth his steps’ — that points us toward another sort of freedom, namely God’s right to be God, to have His way with us in all our downsittings and uprisings, our comings and goings. And Providence, whatever else it may mean, also means the structuring of a rapport between these two freedoms, God’s and man’s. It expresses the faith that God has what might be called a controlling interest in the course of our living from day to day, an interest on which we can rely and with which we may in some real measure cooperate” (Roger Hazelton, Bibliotheca Sacra 115:460:373,374).
Many wander — and wonder! — their ways through life, wishing they knew God’s will for their lives, hoping that they might find that “will”, in one marvelous and all-consuming revelation, somewhere around the next bend. But God’s will is not a mystery, and much of the answer is in this proverb. “Commit your works to the LORD” (Prov. 16:3; Psa. 37:4,5); make plans to achieve your desired objectives (Prov. 16:1; 15:22; 20:18); but at the same time believe, particularly, that God Himself will take care of the details (Psa. 37:23; 84:11). It is as simple as that!
In this life, now no more nor less than in Bible times, there is no “perfect” will of God for your life — ready-made and pre-packaged. You shouldn’t look for it! We live in a sinful world; everything is imperfect. God has not revealed perfect choices for us. You cannot see even the future of the next five minutes. You will waste your life searching; and you will always be frustrated. Practically any job will do, if you let both parts of this verse have their effect: i.e., (1) prayerfully make your best Bible-informed plans, and then (2) be open to the changes that God may put in your way.
The same advice holds true with marriage, deciding where to live, house-hunting, business deals, and so forth.
Ruth devised in her heart to glean in the fields — to pick up the scraps left by the reapers (Ruth 2:2). It was the poorest job imaginable, but it was available, and she took it! But the LORD directed her steps to the field of Boaz, a rich man who married her, and together they continued the royal lineage that led to their great-grandson King David (Ruth 2:3; 4:17). “The LORD determines!”
By wicked scheming, Haman brought about the Persian Jews’ condemnation! Esther devised in her heart to invite King Ahasuerus and Haman to lunch, though she feared even asking the king (Est. 4:16,17). But the LORD turned his heart toward her; and after she told him of Haman’s evil plans, the king found Haman begging for his life upon her bed, and that was the end of that wretched evil man (Est. 7:7,8)! “The LORD determines!”
And so it will always be for the believers. The final outcome may not be what they had planned, nor what they would have chosen, but it is the last and the best part of a believer’s life — not his or her well-meaning plan, but God’s overriding determination.
“Predestination” and “freewill”
This blending of human counsel with divine counsel, human effort with God’s guidance, may defy logical analysis, just as do our periodic examinations of the “contradictory” principles of freewill and God’s “predestination”.
But those who seek God’s will, and God’s guidance, know it to be real through their experiences. It may not come — probably, it will NEVER come — in one blinding “Damascus Road” experience. It may come in brief insights, or in little unexpected events, here and there, but it is no less real, and no less from God!
As individuals, or ecclesias, or committees in the brotherhood, we may develop our “plan” for a better life, a better family, a better ecclesia, or even a better ecclesial “world”. And our plans — even with the best of desires, the most well-informed of intentions, and many, many prayers — may take a “left turn” we never imagined. We may even feel that we have failed, or that we are being punished by God, when our own “plans” fall apart.
But here is where this verse (Prov. 16:9) and other similar verses offer us great reassurance and encouragement. “The LORD determines…” — we do not! He has chosen, and He is right.
There is a trap into which intelligent, high-achieving, “Type A” brothers (and sisters) may fall. This is in thinking, for the moment, and contrary to the Bible evidence, that the success or failure of this venture or that plan all depends on them. It does not! It is in God’s hands.
In this there is a rebuke to pride: as when God asked the righteous but somewhat presumptuous Job: “Were you there when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:4).
But in this there is also a wonderful assurance. “God is in control. You are not! Do your best. And then… trust in Him.”
In His own time — and not often by OUR timetable — the Judge of all the earth will do right (Gen. 18:25). We may, with faithful hearts and faltering hands, help Him along that way. On the other hand, He may not need our hands at all. And either way, we may still give Him thanks, and rejoice that He is in control.
At the age of forty, a relatively young Moses “thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them” (Acts 7:25). He was wrong. At the age of eighty, after deprivation and exile and his own wilderness wanderings, an older Moses — all too well aware of his own shortcomings (“Who am I that I should go?”: Exo. 3:11; “I am slow of speech”: Exo. 4:10) — was, in God’s eyes, now ready for his life’s work! Who are we to tell God how and when He performs His sovereign will, and whether or not He uses us?
So, when we find ourselves (as we will!) prostrate in our own “Gethsemane” of suffering and seeming failure, or of doubt and confusion, let us take comfort in our Master’s own prayer: “Not my will, but Yours be done!” (Luke 22:42; cp. Matt. 26:42; Mark 14:36).
Take fresh courage in that prayer, and rest all your trust upon the loving God to whom it is addressed.
Such a prayer will never fail.