Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 21:31

War HorseProverbs 21:31
The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the Lord.

Should this verse be read in terms of an overarching divine providence in which every outcome is understood in terms of divine will and causality? Or might it be read as a piece of common sense wisdom which has observed that no matter how thorough the preparations made, one cannot always anticipate the results of one’s decisions and actions?

In favour of the first interpretation are some contextual features. The immediately preceding verse reads, “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30). God’s purposes stand even when human wisdom is ranged against him. So, too, the first verse of the chapter contains a strong affirmation of God’s overarching determination of human events: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). Who is greater than the king? Yet even he is subject to the overriding power and wisdom of God who turns his heart this way or that. Ranging further afield, a text like Proverbs 16:1-4, 9 shows that the kind of theological vision held by those who wrote the Proverbs:

The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit. Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. … The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.

There is an inescapable sense of divine determinism in these verses, yet it is softened somewhat by the devotional appeal of verse 3 (“commit your work to the Lord”). Roland Murphy’s comment is insightful:

It is a well-established fact that in the Old Testament view YHWH is the agent or cause of all that happens, even in the mysterious area of human activity. But it is equally clear that human beings cannot evade responsibility for their actions. They cannot, as it were, blame the divine activity. The entire thrust of the prophets, the condemnation of the people collectively and individually, rules this out. The Bible does not speak of free will, but that idea is presupposed. … But the interesting fact is that Israel never really struggled with the problem of human freedom and divine determination. This was an issue for later theologians, both Jewish and Christian, and it still remains without an adequate “explanation.” Both sides of the question are affirmed equally in the Bible, almost without awareness of the problem (Murphy, Proverbs (WBC), 125).

Murphy is certainly correct to note that this discussion continues even to the present day. Providence remains mysterious in the full sense of the term, an impenetrable conundrum that has defied our best attempts at resolution. The great temptation is the attempt to resolve it in either one direction or the other. The first is to assign divine causation simplistically to all that occurs, often with a glib “God is in control” response. I should note that those caught in the midst of grief or suffering sometimes or even often do find comfort in the thought of God being in control even in the midst of their hurt; even in the midst of their suffering they are not out of God’s hands, as it were. The problem with the glib response is that it implicates God also in the evil which occurs. If God is the ultimate “cause” of all that happens, he is responsible also for the wicked actions of thieves, rapers and murderers; such a position is untenable.

Equally problematic from a biblical point of view is the attempt to resolve the conundrum in the opposite direction by writing God out of the picture entirely and assigning responsibility for all that happens to human freedom, or worse, to fate or chance. Not only does this dispense—often in a peremptory manner—with numerous passages of Scripture, but it cuts the world adrift from God, the creation from its creator. Further, it undermines the assurance of the believer in the reality of God’s presence and purpose as a faithful creator, while at the same time loading her with the crushing weight of being ultimately responsible for her life.

While the ancient Israelites may not have pondered the relation between divine determinism and human responsibility, in our day and context the question is unavoidable. The power of Proverbs 21:31 lies in holding both sides of the conundrum together without an attempt at resolution, but placing the whole matter within a context of devotion and responsibility. How, then, might we approach this verse with all its difficult implications?

  1. Recognise that Proverbs is proverbial wisdom, general expressions of truth distilled from the observation and experience of life in the everyday world, all cast within a religious worldview. As such, the proverbs are not absolute truths revealed from heaven that apply in each and every circumstance regardless of context.
  2. Note also the difficulties of moving from an ancient text to the modern world. It is often the case that contemporary believers must discern the theological and religious significance of a biblical text while rejecting the form in which that message is conveyed. For example, the ancient Hebrews believed in a geo-centric universe; modern astronomy has shown that view to be incorrect. Modern readers of Scripture must have a sophisticated enough hermeneutic to disentangle the message of the Bible from the ancient form in which it is given. This is easier said than done as modern theology testifies. Nevertheless, the question must be put: are modern readers in a scientific age required to follow the ancient Israelites in believing that YHWH is the divine cause of all that happens?
  3. It is clear that verses 29-30 condition verse 31: one cannot foolishly or arrogantly set oneself against the Lord and anticipate success; rather one must consider their ways. Further, Proverbs 24:6 suggests that “by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counsellors there is victory.” By addressing the same topic, the two verses mutually condition each other. One must plan, prepare, and take counsel, and in so doing one will more likely succeed in their endeavour. But one cannot guarantee that this will be the outcome. As Robert Burns observed, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…”
  4. Finally, Proverbs 16:3 quoted above, indicates the overall orientation of Proverbs: “Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established.” All life occurs within the overarching providence, presence and direction of God and proper human response consists in the fear of the Lord and the acknowledgement of his sovereign rule and will.

In the end, Proverbs regards providence as a mystery to be lived rather than a problem to be solved. The horse is prepared for the day of battle: preparations have been made, forethought, planning, the taking of counsel, the gathering and marshalling of resources; all these and more have occurred. Yet, having done all we can to prepare ourselves, our success or failure, victory or defeat is not within our hands, but in God’s. Therefore, we also must pray, trust, listen, and live humbly, obediently, righteously and wisely in the fear of the Lord.

Years ago I read somewhere in John Haggai’s Lead On: “Work as though the results are entirely up to you; pray as though they are entirely up to God.” This advice, of course, does not even begin to plumb the mysteries of providence, but perhaps the practical nature of the advice is not entirely foreign to the counsel of Proverbs.

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