Buckle up, as this Proverb gives us some important biblical truths we must understand rightly according to Scripture.
One of the major things Solomon brings forth in Proverbs 16 is the sovereignty of God. The result of our sin causes us to reject or push back on the idea that God is sovereign, meaning that He ultimately rules over everything in creation (nothing happens without His sovereign will (or ordination)). Mankind, in our sin, likes the idea of being in control, and so we push back on the idea that ultimately God is the one in control. As we look to Scripture, and as the Holy Spirit works in us to bring about sanctification, my prayer is that we begin to value this reality: God is in control because God is God. And because God is good; whatever He decrees is ultimately good and for His glory and our good. Proverbs 16 gives us three foundation pillars to understand the width of God’s sovereignty over all things.
1. Even the wicked are created for God’s holy purpose
Proverbs 16:4 The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
The important clarity is that God does, indeed, rule over all things including evil and Satan, and He uses them to fulfill His eternal purposes. He does this in such a way that He is not to be blamed for evil, nor does His righteous ruling over these things in any way change that He is holy and perfect in every way. It also does not mean that sinful man or demon is not guilty of the evil our sin causes us to do.
Scripture is full of examples that prove that God is sovereign over evil. Let me remind you of a few:
We know that because of the hardened heart of Pharaoh, he did many evil things, including not submitting to God’s command to let His people go. But the Scriptures tell us that this was ultimately God’s plan.
The reason God hardened Pharaoh’s heart is revealed to us in Exodus 9:16: “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”
We must see that God ordained Pharaoh to set the table so that God could show His power through some of the most historic moments in human history. These events mankind testified of for generations and still today.
We must see that Scripture affirms that God is the one who hardened the heart of Pharaoh:
God says, "I will harden his heart" (Ex. 4:21); "I will harden Pharaoh's heart" (Ex. 7:3); "the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh" (Ex. 9:12); "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart" (Ex. 10:20, repeated in 10:27 and again in 11:10); "I will harden Pharaoh's heart" (Ex. 14:4); and "the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt" (Ex. 14:8).
It is sometimes objected that Scripture also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34), and that God's act of hardening Pharaoh's heart was only in response to the initial rebellion and hardness of heart that Pharaoh himself exhibited of his own so-called “free will.” But it should be noted that God's promises that he would harden Pharaoh's heart (Ex. 4:21; 7:3) comes long before Scripture tells us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (we read of this for the first time in Ex. 8:15).
B. Joseph’s brothers:
A very clear example is found in the story of Joseph. Scripture clearly says that Joseph's brothers were wrongly jealous of him (Gen. 37:11), hated him (Gen. 37:4, 5, 8), wanted to kill him (Gen. 37:20), and did wrong when they cast him into a pit (Gen. 37:24) and then sold him into slavery in Egypt (Gen. 37:28).
While it looks like God is not in play here, later Joseph says to his brothers, "God sent me before you to preserve life" (Gen. 45:5), and speaking of the sinful things that the brothers did to Joseph, he says, "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Gen. 50:20).
Here we have a combination of evil deeds brought about by sinful men who are rightly held accountable for their sin and the overriding providential control of God, whereby God's own purposes were accomplished. Both are clearly affirmed.
C. Satan against Job:
In the famous story of Job, though the Lord gave Satan permission to bring harm to Job's possessions and children, and though this harm came through the evil actions of the Sabeans, the Chaldeans, as well as a windstorm (Job 1:12, 15, 17, 19), Job looks beyond those secondary causes and, with the eyes of faith, sees it all as from the hand of the Lord:
"The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).
The Old Testament author follows Job's statement immediately with the sentence: "In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong" (Job 1:22). Job has just been told that evil marauding bands had destroyed his flocks and herds, yet with great faith and patience in adversity, he says, "The Lord has taken away." He says that the Lord had done this, yet he does not blame God for the evil or say that God had done wrong. Instead he says, "Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
To blame God for evil that He had brought about through secondary agents would have been to sin. Job does not do this, Scripture never does this, and neither should we.
D. Most importantly, the evilest deed of all history, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, was ordained by God--not just the fact that it would occur, but also all the individual actions connected with it.
Acts 4:27-28 testifies, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
All the actions of all the participants in the crucifixion of Jesus had been "predestined" by God. Yet the apostles clearly attach no moral blame to God, for the actions resulted from the willing choices of sinful men.
Peter makes this clear in his sermon at Pentecost: "this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23).
In one sentence, Peter links God's plan and foreknowledge with the moral blame that attaches to the actions of "lawless men." They were not forced by God to act against their wills; rather, God brought about His plan through their sin--their willing choices, for which they were responsible.
To be clear, Scripture nowhere shows God as directly doing anything evil but rather as bringing about evil deeds through the willing actions of moral creatures. Scripture never blames God for evil. Neither should we!
So when your newborn dies, or planes fly into the world trade center, or Isis beheads Christians, or cancer overcomes your loved one, you don’t say, “God you did this. This is your fault.”
You don’t blame God for evil. He is not guilty of any sin. These things are the result of sin, of man’s selfish heart, of the curse on mankind.
What you can and should say is that God is at work in these things.
You say, “God is on the throne and not thwarted or surprised.”
You say, “God has us in His grip.”
You say, “God is sovereign and at work in all these things.”
Why do you say these things? Because they are true!
Because they are beautiful and needed reminders that when great evil is at work, death is at work, injustice is a work, that God is at work in a greater way.
When evil comes into our lives to trouble us, we can have from the doctrine of providence a deeper assurance that "we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28).
So, I pray this helps you understand what Solomon means when he says, "the Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble "(Prov. 16:4).
To help us navigate and understand this, let me share the difference between the will of God’s command and the will of God’s decree.
Things God commands us to do and not do are the will of His Command.
Things God decrees to be done and not done are the will of His Decree.
Many times, the things God commands us to do or not do are in direct opposition to the things that God decrees to be done or not done in his Sovereignty. Remember, He is God, and we are not.
If you think about it, this is not a foreign concept for any of us who grew up with parents or who have been parents. There are many things that are right and appropriate for Mom and Dad to do that are not right and appropriate for the kids to do.
For the same reason we fought this when we were kids, we fight it now when it comes to God’s sovereignty, but let me try to explain it like this:
God’s “will of decree” ordained that His Son be betrayed, ridiculed, mocked, beaten, forsaken, pierced, and killed.
But the Bible teaches that God’s “will of command” is that we should not betray, ridicule, mock, beat, forsake, pierce, or kill innocent people.
We do not look at the death of Jesus, clearly willed by God, and conclude that killing people is good thing that we all can and should do.
So we are obedient to God’s commands and aware that those commands for us are different, many times, than what He, in the end, will decree to happen.
This does not make God inconsistent. It just highlights how we are not God and He is.
And despite how He will decree it to be in the end, we are to remain faithful and obedient to His commands!
Let me show you why this is GOOD NEWS for us today!
God commands us not to sin, or we will be rightly separated from Him in death.
Thank God that He didn’t leave it at that, but He decreed to intercede through Christ’s blood and makes atonement for us by imputing the righteousness of Christ upon us and putting our sin and deserved wrath upon Jesus.
What we have seen today and will see all throughout the Bible is that God often decrees that evil things come about to fulfill His purposes and bring Him glory. But, in no way, does this relieve us from being obedient to His commands.
We should hate injustice and violence and sin, even though God will use these things as He governs this world to see through His perfect and holy will.
Now, should this understanding cause us to pray less, or serve less, or preach less because God ultimately will do what He will do? NO. By no means.
We should keep on praying, love and serve the marginalized, keep making disciples, and keep testifying of the gospel and fighting sin.
WHY? Because God has saved us, it brings Him glory, and He has command us to do so!
We should be active and obedient to the commands of God, all the while watching God perfectly work His will into fruition.
2. Free will and the sovereign control of God
Proverbs 16:9 The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.
Much of modern Christianity has adopted an unbiblical view of what is often called “free will.” We must be so careful to think biblically about these things and be willing to allow Scripture to shape our thinking, so we understand what God has said about these things.
John 8:32 “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”
The Scriptures are constantly talking about the freedom Christ gives us. This is because without Christ, we are not free. We are enslaved to sin. In the book of John, we see Jesus himself bring this clarity to the Jews to whom He is talking:
John 8:34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”
Our Lord is saying to them, "The gospel truth will give you spiritual freedom, which is freedom from slavery to sin, from sin’s total power, sin’s total control of your life. Gospel truth will give you freedom from spiritual blindness, spiritual oppression, Satanic dominion, the fear of death, the fear of judgment, the prospect of eternal hell-- it is freedom in the purest and truest sense.”
But we must not miss what Jesus is highlighting here about true slavery to sin. All of us are born slaves to sin and desperate for the freedom only Christ is. Because of the fall, every part of natural man has been corrupted by sin: his mind, will, emotions and flesh. Sin affects the whole person; we sin because we are sinners by nature. All men are conceived in sin, dead in sin, slaves to sin, and deserving of God’s wrath. This is the doctrine of total depravity.
Total depravity recognizes the Bible teaches that even the apparent “good” things unregenerate man does are ruined by sin, because they are not done out of faith in Jesus for the glory of God.
The Bible says in Titus 1:15, "to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted."
Romans 3:9-12 For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
Many people, myself included, were taught growing up that man has the ability, is free enough, to choose God and believe in His gospel. But as we have just seen, the Bible speaks often and clearly that man's will is not free, as many commonly think of “free will.” Instead, man is opposite of “free” in our nature and will. We are “enslaved” to sin. We are totally depraved.
We are bound in sin.
The question often comes up, “If I inherited my sinful nature and I don’t have a will or motive or ability to do anything that pleases or worships God, do we still make real choices?”
The answer is absolutely. Unsaved people choose every day and all day to do the things they do.
This is what Proverbs is telling us. A person’s desires and choices are from within them:
Proverbs 16:1 The plans of the heart belong to man…
Proverbs 16:9 The heart of man plans his way…
Proverbs 19:21 Many are the plans in the mind of a man…
And we see this in James as well:
James 1:14 each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.
What we must see is that we make choices out of the sin nature that we are enslaved in.
Paul says it clearly again in Romans 6, saying the unregenerate are “slaves of sin” (Romans 6:17, 20).
Therefore, the pagan concept of “free will” must be rejected for God’s clear teaching in Scripture.
As slaves to sin, mankind‘s natural will is not free, and it is unable to seek, love, or trust God. It is bound to only do sin. Romans 8:7 says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”
It cannot because it is bound in sin. It is not free to choose because it is enslaved to sin.
But the good news for those who are saved in Christ is we are freed from our bondage to sin and empowered to honor God in righteousness in the Holy Spirit.
Romans 6:17-18 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
Before we are given saving faith, we are enslaved to sin, and we will choose to sin because it is all we know; it is all our nature is inclined to.
After we are given saving faith, we are enslaved to Christ, and we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to grow in obedience to God and fight sin. The key is: We who are in Christ are no longer enslaved to sin!
What this means is that God works in the saved to produce real fruit so we may honor Him with our lives.
When we choose obedience, it is a real choice from us that God works in us, just as Phil 2:13 says: “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”
It is truly good news that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
At the end of the day, we are either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. (See Romans 6)
We are bound to sin and death or bound to Christ and life. The freedom we experience is freedom from sin and death. It is freedom to enjoy God and serve Him the rest of our days. This is truly good news. We are never free in the way modern man wants to declare that we stand apart from anything affecting our will and get to choose. This is a view that makes mankind too high and God too low. It is a view that doesn’t understand the fullness of the fact that we are always bound either to sin or to Christ.
So, back to our verse, in sin or in Christ, “The heart of man plans his way” (Proverbs 16:9). This is true; man has desires, plans, and a real will.
But what is also true is the sovereignty of God. As the verse says next: “but the Lord establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
One more verse we find here in Proverbs 16 about the sovereign control of God over all things, even the little things.
3. Every little thing is under God’s control
Proverbs 16:33 The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.
This tears apart our modern idea of “luck.” When society says, “You were lucky,” this is their unbiblical way of removing God from His sovereign control of all things. It is the culture’s way to say God doesn’t exist, so they believe in things like fortune telling and lucky trinkets. Luck depends on chance… on randomness. To think it fell your way and therefore you were “lucky” is to give credit to randomness. This method of thinking falls in line with sinful mankind’s idea of Mother Nature, the Big Bang theory, and other random assurances of life and existence. But the Bible informs us of a different reality, whereby all things are in the hand of the sovereign God. Nothing happens outside of His sovereign will and without His sovereign permission. Nothing is random or the result of superstitious luck; everything is under God’s control--even the roll of the dice.
In this last verse of Proverbs 16, we are given a huge truth that needs to shape our thinking and shape our hearts to acknowledge a God that is in total control. He is never out of control. He is never thwarted by the actions of His creation. He never has to duck or react to something which surprised Him. He is all knowing. He is reigning all the time over all things.
Colossians 1:17 says that God “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Every moment of every aspect of all of creation is being held together and continued only by the sovereign will of God.
He is at work in all things. He is God and worthy of our praise. We trust in Him because He is good, even when we don’t understand why these things are happening, why evil prevails or great loss comes our way. God is at work in all these things, for His perfect plan and eternal glory, for our good, and for those who will come to saving faith’s eternal joy.
Let us rightly understand how big God is and how small we are. Let us think of Him not in the ways that make sense to us but in the ways that He reveals to us through His word. May God’s word inform us and instruct us, and may we wholly give ourselves to it. Praise God for His saving grace that sets us free to know Him and enjoy Him forever.
I will leave you with a great quote from William Perkins: “We must not think that God does a thing because it's good and right, but rather the thing is good and right because God does it."