Does Proverbs 21:1 Teach Calvinistic Determinism?

Very often Calvinists will cite Proverbs 21:1 as a proof text for God’s exhaustive control over the will and decisions of men.  Their use of the passage is not intended to demonstrate that God may at times override the will as Arminians would have little difficulty affirming, but that God is always in control of the will in such a way that we cannot will or do anything that God Himself has not caused us to do.  If man has any independent control of his will then God is not “sovereign” according to the standard Calvinist understanding of sovereignty (exhaustive determinism).  While there may be some Calvinists who do not hold to such a definition of sovereignty, it is the traditional Calvinist position held by John Calvin and most of his theological followers.  The subject matter of this post is concerned only with Calvinists who hold to exhaustive determinism and see Prov. 21:1 as a text that confirms this doctrine as Biblical.

The passage reads:

The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hands of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.

The heart is generally considered to be the seat of desire and the Calvinist maintains that one always chooses according his or her greatest desire [1].  So if God controls our desires then He also controls our choices.  In short, this passage apparently teaches that God completely controls the human will.  God alone determines our desires and choices, moving them in any direction He pleases.  The intentions of our hearts are not in our control but in God’s control and He alone is able to direct their course.  While the text speaks only of the heart of the king, the Calvinist feels justified in drawing a universal application based on the fact that the king represented his people and what is true of the king is surely true of everyone else [2]. 

There are several problems with this interpretation.  First, there is nothing that necessitates us universalizing this simple passage.  The passage speaks of the king’s heart and should be understood in that context (in fact, this specific verse was most likely written by King Solomon concerning himself). The passage also does not tell us that the Lord controls the king’s heart irresistibly, which is really what the Calvinist needs the text to say in order to support exhaustive determinism.  Indeed, the context would lead us to a different conclusion, a conclusion that would see the Lord’s control as resistible and the result of the king’s free surrender of his will to the will of God.

While it is true that the king represents his people to a degree, the greater and more relevant truth is that the king was to represent God to his people in his judgments and decisions.  This is plainly seen in Psalm 82 quoted by Jesus to the Pharisees and Jewish leaders in John 10:34-38.  In the Psalm the rulers and judges of the people are called “gods” (elohim) because they are to represent God to His people in their leadership and judgments.  In Psalm 82 God is seen to stand in judgment of the judges (“gods”) and rebuke them for their failure to represent God as they were called and elected by God to do:

How long will judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?  Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute.  Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.  They do not know nor do they understand; they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.  I said, “You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High.  Nevertheless you will die like men, and fall like any one of the princes.”  Arise, O God, judge the earth!  For it is you who possesses all the nations. (verses 2-8)

In John 10 Jesus appeals to these same passages when the Jewish leaders take up stones to stone him for blaspheme since Christ’s claims of oneness with the Father made Him equal to the Father (verses 30-33).  Jesus points them to His works as being the works of the Father.  Jesus was perfectly representing God in His earthly ministry.  He was doing what no man could do as the perfect expression of the Father.  Yet he pointed to Psalm 82 where even wicked judges were called “gods” due to the fact that they were to represent God to His people.  If the Scripture could call wicked judges “gods” for this reason, how much more does Jesus deserve to be equated with God since He is God’s true Son sanctified and sent into the world by God Himself? The proof of this is that unlike the wicked rulers who were still called “gods”, Christ is not only perfectly representing His Father on earth, but doing the very works that God alone has the authority to do (vss. 34-37).

Jesus’ appeal to Psalm 82 also served as a stern rebuke to the Jewish leaders.  They were to be God’s representatives on earth and were yet leading the people astray and failing in the most important judgment they could possibly make by not recognizing that Jesus was indeed their Messiah and King, the divine Son of God.  Just as God stood in judgment of the rulers in Psalm 82, so was Christ, having the authority of God Himself, standing in judgment of them.

Taking this understanding from Scripture that the king was to represent God to his people and exercise God’s justice to the people, we see that Solomon is proclaiming that he is fulfilling his divinely appointed role by allowing God to control his decision making so that his decisions would essentially be the decisions of God.  It is not a statement that God is irresistibly controlling his heart, but that the king has fully surrendered his heart and will to the will of God.  This is made clear in the following verses:

Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, But the Lord weighs the hearts.  To do righteousness and justice is desired by the Lord rather than sacrifice. (vss. 2, 3)

What sense could we possibly make of verse two if the Calvinist interpretation of verse one is accepted?  God controls the heart and then “weighs” (i.e. judges) the heart that He alone controls?  In verse three we see that Solomon is indeed concerned with pleasing the Lord in righteousness and justice just as our study of the king’s role and Solomon’s statement in verse one indicated.  Solomon is contrasting a heart surrendered to God with a heart that follows its own desires rather than the desires of God as verses two and three make clear.  He is not making a statement of God’s irresistible control over the king’s heart or the hearts of all people at all times.

Another important aspect to consider is the ramifications of the Calvinist interpretation.  If the passage really speaks of exhaustive determinism and God’s absolute control over the hearts of men, then we must accept the truth that God not only may control the heart to good but also to evil and sin [3].  Not only is this contrary to the overall self-revelation of God in Scripture, it is also inconsistent with the Proverb as a whole.  Again, it makes no sense to say that God controls the heart to evil and then judges (“weighs”) the heart for that evil which God directed it to (verse 3).  Furthermore, as we read the rest of the Proverb we see that Solomon goes on to contrast the desires and actions of men surrendered to God with those who are in rebellion to God and refusing to submit to Him.  For example, the hearts and actions of the wicked…

Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked is sin…The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor, the pursuit of death.  The violence of the wicked will drag him away, because they refuse to act with justice  (Notice especially this last verse as it focuses on the refusal to “act with justice” which is surely in contrast to the heart of the leader that is surrendered to God and for that reason acts in justice in verses 1-3)…The way of a guilty man is crooked…The soul of the wicked desires evil (desires which God alone controls according to the Calvinist interpretation of verse one); his neighbor finds no favor in his eyes…He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered…A man who wanders from the way of understanding will rest in the assembly of the dead.  He who loves pleasure will become a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not become rich…“Proud,” “Haughty,” “Scoffer,” are his names, who acts with insolent pride.  The desire of the sluggard puts him to death…The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination, how much more when he brings it with evil intent! (Again, notice the focus on the desires and intentions of the heart)  A false witness will perish…A wicked man shows a bold face.

…contrasted with the hearts and actions of the righteous (those submitted to God’s way rather than their own way):

The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes…To do righteousness and justice is desired by the Lord rather than sacrifice…The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage…But as for the pure, his conduct is upright…when the wise is instructed he receives knowledge.  The righteous one considers the house of the wicked, turning the wicked to ruin…The execution of justice is joy for the righteous (Again, note the focus on acting in justice and righteousness)…There is precious treasure and oil in the dwelling of the wise…He who pursues righteousness and loyalty finds life, righteousness and honor.  A wise man scales the city of the mighty and brings down the stronghold in which they trust.  He who guards his mouth and his tongue guards his soul from trouble (But how can one “guard” his own mouth, tongue and soul from trouble when God irresistibly controls his or her heart like channels of water?)…the righteous gives and does not hold back…the man who listens to the truth will speak forever…But as for the upright, he makes his way sure.

Throughout the entire Proverb we see these recurring themes of the difference between hearts committed to their own ways and hearts committed to the Lord.  From beginning to end Solomon is contrasting those whose hearts and desires are submitted to the Lord and to the justice which pleases God with those whose hearts and desires are committed only to rebellion and self satisfaction.  It is in this context that the opening verses of the chapter should be understood and it is in this context that the interpretation being suggested here makes the most sense.  The Proverb as a whole does not seek to teach that God irresistibly controls the hearts of all men at all times.  Rather, it seeks to extol the virtue of submitting one’s life and conduct to that which is pleasing to God rather than pursuing that which pleases our carnal natures…“The soul of the wicked desires evil” but “The execution of justice is joy for the righteous.”

Tragically, Solomon fell away from the Lord in his later years and was no longer concerned with surrendering his will to God’s will in the execution of justice as God’s representative to His covenant people.  Rather than being an example of godliness to his people, he became an example of idolatry and rebellion against God.  But when he wrote this Proverb Solomon was fully committed to the Lord and extolled the virtue of a heart surrendered to Him (a heart given over to the control of God) against the hearts of the wicked (those hearts who refuse to give God control and instead seek after their own ways, bringing disaster on themselves and leading others astray).  God’s control over the king’s heart was due to the king freely aligning his will with the will of God and yielding his desires to the desires of God for his life and his rule over God’s people.  In this Solomon fulfilled God’s desire for what the king’s role should be in contrast to those rulers described in Psalm 82 and John 10 who ruled the people in wickedness and partiality, concerned far more with their own selfish ambitions than the divine appointment to represent God by ruling the people of God in justice and righteousness (cf. Prov. 16:12).

This interpretation fits well with the context and overall testimony of Scripture while the Calvinist interpretation seems forced and out of harmony with the basic concerns of the Proverb as a whole.  The Calvinist interpretation also makes nonsense of much of the Proverb as described above, suggesting that God controls the hearts of many to evil and then judges (“weighs”) their hearts despite the fact that they had absolutely no control over their desires or subsequent actions.  In effect, the Calvinist interpretation makes a mess of justice with a passage that is intended to extol the virtues of justice by suggesting that God is just in irresistibly controlling His creatures to sin and then judging them most severely for what God irresistibly controlled them to do.

Thankfully, when the passage is considered in its proper context there are no compelling grounds for accepting the Calvinist interpretation.  Rather, we see evidence of man’s ability to freely surrender his will to the will and control of God, an act most pleasing to God and impossible to perform if man does not have some independent control over his own heart, will, and desires [4].  With this in mind, let us endeavor to fully surrender our hearts to the Lord so that we can say with Solomon that our hearts are like channels of water in the Lord’s hands, being fashioned and molded not according to what we think is best, but according to what God knows is best in perfect conformity with His holy and loving desire for our lives.

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[1] This is basic to Edwardsian determinism.  The claim is that we always choose according to our greatest desire or strongest motive force.  But this claim is not only mere assertion but essentially circular, not really giving us any useful information.  How do we know that we choose according to our greatest desire?  The Calvinists would say that the proof is in our decision.  Whatever we decide is in accordance with our greatest desire or strongest motive force at the time of choosing.  In other words, we choose according to our greatest desire and we know that we choose according to our greatest desire because our choice can be defined as that which constituted our greatest desire at the time of choosing, which is plainly circular.  Furthermore, such a claim essentially conflates choice with greatest desire or strongest motive force so that we would be right to say that “we choose according to our choice,” which is a mere truism (tautology) and can hardly be denied by either side of the debate.  The Arminian does not necessarily deny that one chooses according to his or her greatest desire/strongest motive force, but sees the agent as responsible for determining what that greatest desire/strongest motive force will be.  In other words, it is the agent himself that gives weight to one motive over another which constitutes the decision he makes.  Nothing irresistibly causes the will to choose one way or another since the will is itself a complete and adequate cause needing nothing outside of its own God given power and capacity to actualize any of several possible volitions in a given situation where alternatives are involved.    

[2] Strange that Calvinists would take a text that speaks of a particular individual and give it universal applications considering their usual tendency to restrict passages expressing universal language (e.g. John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:4; 4:10; 1 John 2:2; Heb. 2:9) to only a select number of particular persons (the “elect”).

[3] Consider such a doctrine in light of Proverbs 15:26, “The Lord detests the thoughts of the wicked…”

[4] Just a few passages from Proverbs that seem to clearly assume a measure of independent control over one’s own heart and desires would include Prov. 15:14, 28; 22:17; 23:3, 12, 19, 26; 24:1.  Proverbs 16:1, 9 have sometimes been cited by Calvinists to deny free will in a libertarian sense.  But there is nothing to suggest this in these passages.  Prov. 16:9 for example states, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”  Contrary to the Calvinist claim this passage suggests that man has the freedom to plan his own course, while God may not allow him to succeed in what he freely plans to do.  No Arminian would object to the idea that God may or may not allow us to succeed in what we set out to do.  In fact, Proverbs 16:3 tells us that if we commit our ways to the Lord then our plans will certainly succeed. But this says nothing of an inability to will or desire something freely.  Indeed, Prov. 16:9 seems to plainly assume and affirm such ability.

The idea is that while man may have his own ideas as to where his desires and decisions in life will lead him, the Lord is ultimately in control of whether or not his plans and desires will come to the expected fruition.  The wicked have many plans and surely those plans do not include their own destruction or judgment or the many calamities that will result from their rebellion, but such is their lot according to the Lord who will judge them and bring final disaster on them (e.g. Prov. 15:6, 10, 19, 22, 25; 16:4, 18, 25; 21:17, 25, 28; cf. Gal. 6:7-9).  The same general thought is conveyed in other Proverbs like 21:30, 31, though they are not as much concerned only with the destiny of the wicked but with the basic truth that nothing can ultimately thwart God’s overall sovereign plan.  God’s ultimate control over His universe is in no way threatened by the free will decisions of His creatures.  God is much bigger than Calvinists would apparently give Him credit for in their suggesting that without exercising exhaustive meticulous control over every human decision God would somehow be helpless to accomplish His purposes.