An examination of Proverbs 16, investigating whether it can reasonably be interpreted as teaching that man has libertarian free will.
It is sometimes contended by advocates of libertarian free will that Proverbs 16, and particularly verses 1 and 9, prove that man has freedom of choice relative to God’s sovereignty. For example, an American friend of mine with whom I have had much correspondence once asked,
I was wondering why we believe, biblically, that God directly causes all human thought/thoughts. Especially when we have scripture that seems to teach just the opposite? Like Proverbs 16, which has a couple of examples:
1. The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is
from the LORD.
9. The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.
Pro 16:1 The plans of the heart belong to man, But the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.
Man plans freely, but the Lord (re)directs his steps, in sovereignty.
Pro 16:9 The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.
This actually teaches freewill. Man plans freely, “his way”, but the Lord (re)directs his steps, in sovereignty.
Since this latter contention was very recently directed toward me, I determined to start the new year by sprucing up the replies I sent to the initially-quoted question, so as to post them as a resource for the future which thoroughly demonstrates how these verses actually deny libertarianism, and prove biblical determinism.
Firstly, let me quote in full Proverbs 15:31-16:-13, so as to establish a partial context for this discussion. I will highlight in bold the two pertinent verses:
15:31The ear that listens to life-giving reproof
will dwell among the wise. 32Whoever ignores instruction despises himself,
but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence. 33The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor. 16:1The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD. 2All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit. 3Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established. 4The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. 5Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished. 6By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the LORD one turns away from evil. 7When a man’s ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. 8Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice. 9The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps. 10An oracle is on the lips of a king;
his mouth does not sin in judgment. 11A just balance and scales are the LORD’s; all the weights in the bag are his work. 12It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness. 13Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right.
Now, the overall context of this passage is not really metaphysical at all—that is, it is not chiefly concerned with the ultimate causes and natures of things, as they appear from God’s point of view. It is not God-oriented. That is not the context. Rather, like most of the Bible, it is concerned explicitly with the human context: it makes commentary from our point of view, rather than from God’s. It is human-oriented; and here it is chiefly interested in the relationship between wisdom, faith, and righteousness; and an upright and successful life—and, conversely, the relationship between foolishness, faithlessness, and unrighteousness; and a downtrodden life of failure. So immediately I am circumspect about “cross-contextualizing”; that is, of taking a teaching from one context and applying it, without adequate conversion, to a totally different one. To do so would be like taking a discussion of how binary logic works in a computer chip, trying to apply it to the chip itself, and thus supposing that silicon gates are actually logical ones and zeros. This will either result in a very twisted understanding of what is really going on, or will just lead to incoherent nonsense (usually both).
So the primary teaching of Proverbs 16 is that faithfulness to the ways of the LORD “make your way prosperous” and yields “good success” (Josh 1:8); while following the ways of man and what seems right to our own minds results in the opposite. In other words, God, and not man, is the source of practical wisdom. However, sovereignty is nonetheless still affirmed to a reasonable degree, since as well as being the source of wisdom for successful and upright living, the LORD is also said to be the one who causes this success (vv 16:3 and 16:9). It is not simply that following God’s law results in success because he knows what’s best, but rather that, when we follow his law, he makes it what is best because of our obedience. God is on both sides of the equation. God tells us how to live, and he rewards us when we live this way. Therefore, I think it is not unreasonable to read at least some metaphysical commentary into this passage. That said, though, clearly the passage is focusing on what we do, and the way in which God responds. It is not attempting a metaphysical treatise; and so to treat it as implicitly metaphysical will result in confusion.
Indeed, this passage is typical of how God communicates to us, because what he is communicating is about us. God has decreed that this command-response, cause-effect system is the method in which he will interact with his creation; and so rather than presenting the situation from his point of view (which would be pointless because this would completely fail to address our situation) he addresses it from ours. Rather than speaking from his point of view, where I argue that he is always active, and we always passive, he rather speaks in a way we will better understand, with our being active and him responding. If, ultimately, only he is active, this fact is really neither here nor there to us in terms of our understanding the basic message of Scripture: that we are sinners and that we must repent and believe in his provision for our salvation: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
That said, however, Proverbs 16 does obviously affirm a high view of God’s sovereignty. And I should note that, when it says that “the plans of the heart belong to man” (v 1) and “the heart of man plans his way” (v 9), it does not in any way contradict the teaching of God’s complete control over all creation. In the human context, rather than the metaphysical one, determinism affirms exactly this. Speaking in a human context, we certainly do precisely as these verses say. We plan things according to our own thoughts and desires. To use my previous analogy, in the software context rather than the hardware one, silicon gates certainly are ones and zeros.
Nonetheless, if Proverbs 16:1 and 16:9 appear to affirm man’s free decisions prior to God’s own actions, a closer inspection reveals otherwise. These verses are parallelisms, and it must be stressed that their first clauses both lead to a “but”. But—who establishes my steps? The LORD does. But—who puts an answer on my tongue? The LORD does. Now, I haven’t studied Proverbs as extensively as I’d like, so I haven’t investigated its linguistic devices, but if the parallelization here is similar to the typical Hebrew usage it would seem that there is a very strong and direct relationship being drawn between “the heart of the man plan[ning] his way” and “the LORD establish[ing] his steps”. One leads directly into the other; it is not a dichotomy or contrast or comparison, such as that which is drawn in, say, Proverbs 10:8: “The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin.” Rather, it appears to be a unity, a premise followed by an explanatory conclusion, such as that in Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” In light of this structure, it can also be compared to similar parallelisms which involve and statements, such as Proverbs 24:5: “A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might.” Notice that “wise” and “knowledge” are made synonymous, and “strength” and “might” also.
So it seems to be in 16:1 and 16:9—a similarity is being drawn between planning and doing, and the explanatory power of the verse is in the second statement. Planning the way and establishing the steps seem to be set together, as with planning and answering. This is strongly supported by the semitic totality concept, wherein planning and doing were seen as part of the same action—as being indivisible parts of the same whole. It seems, therefore, that Proverbs 16:1 and 16:9 are not actually drawing a dichotomy or distinction or polarization or contrast between man’s actions and God’s, as it may appear given a plain English reading; but actually they are presenting a unity, a similarity, a sameness of activity, by making the two things mentioned synonymous—with the latter expanding upon the former. So it seems to me that a strong case can be made that, although the overall context of the chapter is the human one, there is a sort of metaphysical reminder injected in the first and ninth (and thirty-third) verses that, although we certainly do things, it is the LORD who ultimately causes them. The structure chosen seems to confirm this, in that it takes the total concept of an action (planning and execution), and puts the passive emphasis on man through planning, and the active emphasis on God through execution—and then God’s action is given the explanatory power of the verse. The two statements are part of the one whole, and they are separate not to show that man does one thing and God another, but quite the opposite: to show with poetry that man does one thing, and God does the same thing. Assuming that planning and executing are the same action under semitic totality, these verses do seem quite intentionally formed to emphasize the total involvement of both man and God in the very same action, and to further emphasize who is passive and who is active during this involvement. Thus: man does it, but God does it.
Obviously, this strongly supports determinism and the doctrine of God’s total causative sovereignty. It concurrently denies libertarianism and the doctrine of man’s total freedom of will. It is God who causes all of man’s actions, even though it is man who does them and is the secondary cause after God. However, a reader might object that much of this analysis is rather speculative—these verses could be taken as commentating purely from the human perspective, and meaning merely that God brings about that which man freely plans. After all, the rest of Proverbs 16 comports with such a view, since it speaks of the causes and effects of man’s own actions—not God’s. The metaphysical freedom of these actions is not directly stated, and so someone disagreeing with my thoughts about the parallel natures of verses 1 and 9 could still continue to affirm that libertarian free will is consistent with these passages. This is valid—but then consistency does not imply support. In such a case, Proverbs 16 would say nothing at all about libertarianism or determinism. The context would totally ignore these doctrines, and one or the other would have to be presupposed and applied to it during interpretation (which is the contention I make regarding libertarian advocates). Since either view can be shown to be consistent with Proverbs 16:1 and 16:9 in isolation (at least superficially), it is certainly futile to assert that they prove libertarianism, when what is meant is that if libertarianism is presupposed, then it can be found in them!
However, it seems to me that even if my analysis above is rejected, there is in fact ample content within these verses (taken together) to prove determinism and refute libertarianism. True, if verse 1 did not appear and verse 9 was all we had to go on, then the situation I describe above would hold. After all, one could interpret verse 9 as saying that a man’s mind freely plans what he will do, but the LORD organizes it so that these plans succeed or fail. A man may plan to go to Bethlehem, but the LORD may organize it so that something causes him to go to Jerusalem. I obviously argue that the LORD “establishing his steps” entails more than mere coercion or the cunning organization of various situations to cause the man to decide to go somewhere else. If nothing else, it is hard to see how God could make any definite prophecies in such a case. But someone could argue that such a passive involvement by God is indeed entailed, and without other considerations to tip the balance, I could not make a conclusive argument otherwise; nor even make any more compelling a case. Not from verse 9.
Verse 1, however, makes it impossible to affirm such a weak view of verse 9. It sets it in a totally different context. I have suggested that planning and acting should be considered more closely related than Western thought would have them, such that they are both the direct result of the man’s conscious thoughts—and that it is these which the LORD establishes. Consideration of verse 1 bears this out. It shows that no argument can be made wherein the LORD merely sets things up so that the man’s free conscious thoughts result in the desired course of action, and so on. This is because it is not describing a situation in which man can be passively directed—it is instead describing his very speech! “The answer of the tongue is from the LORD.” I submit that the answer of the tongue is directly and inevitably linked to a man’s thoughts at the moment of his speaking; and I take it that any sensible person would not disagree. No one would go so far as to say that a man plans to say one thing, and then opens his mouth to do it, but says something completely different because God has intervened. Certainly not the libertarian, at any rate. That would be a very confusing and ridiculous state of affairs. No; man plans what he will say, and then says it—his speech is directly related to his mind. Every single word and inflection is governed by the mind (compare Matt 15:18). Conversely, a man does not say that which he does not think to say. But if it is indeed true that “the answer of the tongue is from the LORD”, then it must also be true that the thoughts from which this answer stems, the thoughts which directly cause the speech in the first place, are from the LORD. Although the man thinks them, they are from the LORD; as much as, although the man speaks, his speech is from the LORD.
Any other interpretation of this verse would make it very silly. There would be all sorts of bizarre things going on between the supposedly free man and his thoughts, and the sovereign God who causes the speech—which is also somehow the result of this man’s free thoughts. One simply couldn’t make sense of the verse at all. This is what libertarianism always eventually results in: self-contradictory or non-existent explanatory power with regards to causation. By attempting to affirm free will here, the libertarian either denies the causal correlation between a man’s thoughts and his speech; or he denies that the speech is from the LORD, which is what the verse itself affirms. In either case, foolishness is the result. If the speech is from the LORD and it is immediately from the thoughts, then the thoughts must be from the LORD as well. But if the thoughts are not from the LORD, then the speech is not from the LORD either, since the speech proceeds immediately from the thoughts.
Since verse 1 and verse 9 parallel each other, the conclusion I have drawn here is equally applied to a man’s “steps”. Since God establishes these, and since they proceed immediately from the man’s plans, then it stands that God establishes the plans as well. But even if this meaning is rejected, verse 1 remains; and there is no point denying God’s total sovereignty here when it is affirmed there. Either way, libertarian freedom is refuted, and determinism is seen to be the only framework within which Scripture makes sense. Just as with the Lord’s Prayer, or any other part of Scripture, it is possible to read libertarianism into the passage, and suppose that it only makes sense this way. But, equally, it is simply impossible to read it out of the passage, or to make Scripture actually sensible if libertarianism is true.