GOD'S SOVEREIGNTY
VERSUS MAN'S FREE-WILL
© 2008 John H Mattox

"The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever he will."

This verse (Proverbs 21:1) is one of the most positive statements concerning the sovereignty of God to be found in the Bible. Other passages also teach that God controls the affairs of men, with regard to even the smallest particulars. Yet, it is made very clear in the Bible that man is a creature possessing the power of choice and that he is able both to distinguish good from evil, and to choose for himself whether he will do the one or the other. For example:

"For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings."
Isaiah 7:16.

In addition, every passage of Scripture which affirms that a man will be judged according to his actions implies that he has the capacity for free choice, and is therefore responsible to God for choosing the evil rather than the good. But how can both propositions be true? How can God, on the one hand, govern men's actions, and on the other hand, hold men responsible for their actions? Is a man a sort of robot, manipulated by God, and yet forced to account for his actions to God? Or is there some way in which God does indeed control men's actions, while at the same time men act as free moral agents, and are therefore properly accountable for their deeds? The usual way of dealing with this question seems to be to dismiss it as being unanswerable; and to state simply that since the Bible teaches both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man, both must be true even if we seem to be unable to harmonize them.
    However, the writer believes that our text, when rightly understood along with a bit of background information, goes very far toward bringing into harmony these two seemingly irreconcilable doctrines. In short, the text not only asserts God's control of men's affairs, but reveals the principles by which he does it without infringing upon a man's free will.
    The key to understanding the passage is the proper meaning of the word translated rivers. The Hebrew word is peleg, and while Gesenius gives its meaning as river or stream, the Lexicon of Koehler and Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, which is one of the most recent of Hebrew lexicons, gives the meaning of peleg as artificial channels, or canals. This meaning is reflected in most of the later translations and is also noted by many commentators.
    According to the Pulpit Commentary, loc. cit., "We are to think of the little channels used for irrigation." The commentary goes on to describe the system of irrigation used in Biblical times and still to be seen in Eastern lands:

"Flower beds and gardens of herbs are always made at a little lower level than the surrounding ground, and are divided into small squares, a slight edging of earth banking the whole round on each side. Water is then let in, and floods the entire surface till the soil is thoroughly saturated, after which the moisture is turned off to another bed, by simply closing the opening in the one under water, by a turn of the bare foot of the gardener, and making another in the same way with the foot, in the next bed, and thus the whole garden is in due course watered."

This description is quoted by the Pulpit Commentary from Geikie's Holy Land and Bible.

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God's Sovereignty (cont)

    We must remember that our text compares the Lord's manipulation of the king's heart (seat of motivation, or source of action) to the gardener's manipulation of the irrigation streams. If, then, we may regard the Lord as a sort of divine gardener or irrigator and the hearts (and therefore the actions) of men as the streams which he controls, and turneth whithersoever he will, we need only ponder the principles according to which the gardener and the water work in order to understand how the gardener does indeed direct the water, yet allows it to follow its own inclination.
    The extent (as well as the limitation) of man's free will is represented by that of the water. The water's tendency is to follow the easiest path available to it, and it does so without any compulsion. Yet it flows in the path desired by the gardener because he has made that the easiest for the water to take, and has blocked off all others. What child of God cannot look back over his life and not recognize the fact that here a door of opportunity had been opened and there an insurmountable obstacle had arisen in his way, causing him to seek another direction? It is therefore clear that, although we act in free will, we do so within limits set by the divine Gardener.
    Water's only will or desire is to go downward. In accomplishing its downward course, it does not matter to the water whether it goes In one horizontal direction or another. The will of the irrigator, however, is that the water go in certain horizontal directions before it fully accomplishes its downward course. In the act of irrigation, then, the water is allowed to go downhill, according to its will; but is guided in a horizontal direction according to the will of the gardener. Since these two wills operate in planes which are perpendicular to each other, neither actually interferes with the other, and both wills are accomplished without hindrance. The desire of the water to go downhill must be granted if more than one spot is to be watered. If it is not allowed to do its own will, it will not do the gardener's will. The gardener does not cause the downward course of the water - this is due to the nature of the water itself (liquid) and its response to the pull of gravity.

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God's Sovereignty (cont)

    These principles, according to which both the wills of the water and the gardener are satisfied, without any collision between them, are declared by our text to be analogous to those according to which God, as a divine Gardener, guides the affairs of men. It is by opening a way here, while closing one there, so that a man chooses of his own free will to follow the course which has been made the easiest for him, while the other possible choices are blocked off. Like the water, man has an inherent tendency to go downward which is the result of his sinful nature and its response to the attraction of the Evil one. And, as the gardener uses the downward tendency of the water to accomplish his will, just as surely God uses the downward tendencies of men to accomplish his will for their lives.
    Illustrations in the Bible are numerous. For example, when Joseph's brethren sold him into Egyptian slavery, their act was certainly a manifestation of their downward tendency, or sinful nature. Yet, at the same time, their act was, unbeknownst to them, the first step in accomplishing God's primary purpose for Joseph's life (which was to make him prime minister of Egypt). Their sinful act got him into Egypt where he must be in order to become Egypt's power behind the throne. Needless to say, the beneficent outcome of the brothers' act did not excuse them, for their motive was clearly evil; and they certainly had no idea that they were helping to accomplish the will of God. See Gen. 50:15-21.
    Another example may be seen in David's adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband. Certainly, David's sinful nature is evident here. Yet it must have been a part of God's purpose for Bathsheba, in some way, to become David's wife, for she became, as David's wife, the ancestress of both the natural line into which Jesus was born (Mary's line), and the royal line into which he was adopted (Joseph's line). Solomon, who was Bathsheba's son by David, was the ancestor of Joseph, husband of Mary; while Mary, herself, was descended from Nathan, another son of David and Bathsheba. Certainly God used David's sin to bring about his purpose; though, of course, David is not thereby excused for his sin.
    The crucifying of Christ is yet another example of God's using the downward tendency of men to accomplish his purpose. Note in this connection. Acts 2:23:

"Him (Jesus) being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain."

The determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God delivered him to men whose wicked hands did what God had from the beginning decreed must be done. No coercion needed to be placed on those who did the deed, however; their downward tendency was sufficient.
    Continuing to use the analogy of the water, it can be seen how God can, in his sovereign will, save a man without interfering with that person's free will. As we have noted, water (in its liquid form) has a downward tendency just as does man, by reason of his sinful nature. But suppose that one could suddenly apply a powerful source of heat to a stream of water, so as to vaporize it. It would still be the same water, but it would now have a new and opposite tendency. It would desire to go upward instead of downward. As a concrete example, consider what happens to the waters of the Jordan. After rushing downward for some two hundred miles, they reach the Dead Sea where the surface temperature is so high that great quantities of water are constantly being evaporated. This is a picture of what happens in an individual's salvation. He goes on his downward course until God suddenly applies to him the power of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. Thereafter his tendency is upward, rather than downward!

John H Mattox

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