Providence and Wisdom – Proverbs 21

Read the Passage: Proverbs 21

Providence, Plans, and Work (21:1–8)

As with the other chapters in the current section of this book (cf. Prov. 10–29), Proverbs 21 contains a wide variety of proverbs that apply wisdom to many different areas of life. This chapter is interesting in that it both begins and ends with proverbs related to the doctrine of providence. Providence can be simply defined as the manifestation of God’s sovereign will in the world. It incorporates everything that happens, whether good or bad. Prov. 21:1 reads, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water, He turns it wherever He wishes.” Similarly, this chapter ends with Solomon’s teaching, “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but deliverance is of the Lord” (Prov. 21:31). In these proverbs God’s providence is not contrary to man’s free will; rather, it incorporates man’s free will. God usually works though means, not miracles.

While Prov. 21:2–8 addresses a variety of issues, a reoccurring theme is the plans and work of man. As Prov. 21:1 taught, God is providentially over the plans of man, as He can direct man’s heart. Indeed, our volitional efforts are God’s instrumentality. While God’s providence is a mysterious doctrine, it ought to be comforting, for “every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the hearts” (Prov. 21:2). Recall that Jeremiah taught, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9; cf. Prov. 28:26). Paul affirmed this idea, too (cf. 1 Cor. 4:3–4). Only God can truly know the depth of the hearts of men, as image-bearers of God; yet, Scripture reveals certain acts and traits that mankind can exhibit—such as being diligent, avoiding haste, and telling the truth—that will result in his flourishing (cf. Prov. 21:5–6).

Marriage, Poverty, and Pleasure (21:9–19)

As we’ve seen throughout the book of Proverbs, Solomon frequently speaks of wisdom in the context of a family, as he addresses husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. In accord with this approach, Prov. 21:9–19 is a unique passage in that it both begins and ends with proverbs about wives. Prov. 21:9, 19 read, “Better to dwell in a corner of a housetop than in a house shared with a contentious woman. . . . Better to dwell in the wilderness than with a contentious and angry woman” (cf. Prov. 19:13; 25:24; 27:15–16). To be clear, as he has already communicated in this book, Solomon is not a chauvinist, nor is he opposed to wives (cf. Prov. 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; 31:10–31). Rather, in the verses just cited, Solomon is speaking against a contentious spouse. Throughout this book, it is repeated that two things will grieve a wise man: a foolish son and a contentious wife.

In Prov. 21:9–19 there are several themes that reappear in Solomon’s proverbs. One teaching that is reiterated in this section is the sure ruin and judgement of the wicked, as well as the blessing and flourishing of the righteous. For instance, this passage notes that the wicked desire evil, contend with their neighbors, will be punished, will be destroyed, will die, and will be a ransom for the righteous. In contrast, this section also notes that the righteous will be made wise, will be instructed, will receive knowledge, and will rejoice over doing justice. A second repeated theme in Prov. 21:9–19 is poverty. Prov. 21:13 teaches that the wicked will not care for the poor, which will result in God not hearing their pleas. Poverty is also cited at Prov. 21:17, which reads, “He who loves pleasure will be a poor man; He who loves wine and oil will not be rich” (cf. Prov. 28:19; 1 Tim. 6:9).

Wickedness, Greed, and Speech (21:20–31)

Prov. 21:20–31 addresses a wide range of issues, but three themes are prominent in this passage. First, as is the case in much of this book, the foolishness of sin is highlighted, as Solomon notes that fools squander treasure, are arrogant, offer abominable sacrifices, and are hardened. Second, the importance of right speech is emphasized. Prov. 21:23 teaches, “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles.” Furthermore, we read, “A false witness will perish, but the man who hears him will speak endlessly” (Prov. 21:28). This proverb shows the effect that our words, whether they be wise or foolish, have upon others. Third, as was emphasized earlier in this chapter, Prov. 21:25–26 addresses the importance of work. Here Solomon writes that the fool will be in want because he refuses to labor. In contrast, the righteous man has enough to freely give.

Application Question:

  1. What is the doctrine of providence? How does providence relate to man’s free will and God’s sovereignty?
  2. Can you think of any examples in Scripture where God worked through the free will of a leader or a king to accomplish His divine purposes?
  3. If man’s heart is desperately wicked and deceitful, how can man truly know when he is acting with a pure motive?
  4. How important is a stable and quiet home for spiritual growth and kingdom progress? How can a man best deal with a contentious wife?
  5. If foolishness, sin, and evil do not produce lasting joy and flourishing, why does mankind continue to sin?

Published by

David W. Jones

David W. Jones is a professor and author working in the field of Christian Ethics. You can following him on Twitter @ethicist.