Turning the Stream

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Proverbs 21:1

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.

Proverbs 21:1, RSV

That word from Proverbs 21 is an amazing claim about God’s involvement in the affairs of this world. Not only does He work in a sovereign way to over-rule human actions — God’s hand over man’s hand — He even has access to the hearts of those in power. He moves upon them, influences them, even redirects them as He may choose.

The “stream” in this passage might better be translated “water course.” What is in view is a kind of irrigation canal, shaped by a farmer’s design. Every stream there seems to choose its course, but the farmer directs it according to his plans to insure a good harvest.

The living God, we are told, does something like that with those in power, with their inmost purposes, their secret design, their thoughts and motives. He so shapes the issue of their lives that the hearts of kings are like streams of water in His hands.

When we hear that, it sounds at first as though kings and all the rest of us are merely puppets, passive objects to be manipulated by the Almighty. But the Bible never draws that conclusion from this kind of teaching. It states in an unequivocal way that God is the sovereign Lord. Listen:

He does his will in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth and none can stay his hand nor say to him, `What are you doing?’ (Dan. 4:35).

His lordship over history is that complete. But at the same time, the Bible always pictures human beings (and especially in this context, rulers), as fully responsible for what they do. They act for their own reasons, according to their own desires. They’re held accountable for their decisions and actions. But at the same time, in a way that transcends our power to understand, they serve God’s holy will.


Think of Pharaoh, for example, the monarch who ruled Egypt in Moses day. He was stubbornly unwilling to let the people of Israel go out of his land. He defied the command of God through Moses. He hardened his heart repeatedly (Ex. 8:15), even when severe judgments fell upon the land. He stands for all the proud, willful, autocrats who have ever ruled.

But we read also repeatedly in the Scriptures that God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 10:1,20; 11:10), that his heart “was hardened” (Ex. 8:19). In other words, from one point of view, it was Pharaoh did. From another, it was something God did. Pharaoh acted. He also was acted upon. He chose his course; God mysteriously shaped it too.

The New Testament affirms the same truth about the first century rulers who arranged to have Jesus crucified: Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin. Listen to the prayer of the apostles at Jesus’ resurrection:

Truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan predestined to take place (Acts 4:27-28).

Did you note that? The rulers gather together; they plot and conspire against God’s Messiah; they engineer His crucifixion; and yet what they bring about is what God’s hand and plan had predestined to take place. They act out of unbelief, fear, envy, malice. God acts in holy love, in saving mercy. Their hearts are bent on evil, while God’s heart seeks to save.


Sometimes God turns the hearts of rulers so that they act in another way: wisely, redemptively. Think of Cyrus, the Persian king, who ordained the return of the Israelites from their captivity. Just as the Assyrians had been the rod of God’s anger in taking his people captive, Cyrus became the instrument of his restoring mercy. Listen to these words from Isaiah, chapter 45:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and ungird the loins of kings, to open doors before him that gates not be closed: “I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron, . . . For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name. I surname you, though you do not know me” (45:1-5).

Cyrus is not himself a believer. He does not know the Lord. And yet God can call him His own “anointed one” and deliver His chosen people through Cyrus’s edict. Israel later rejoices in the same way about King Artaxerxes:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem (Ezra 7:27).

These were heathen kings whose hearts God yet turned for the sake of His chosen ones.

Thus far, we’ve been talking only about ancient history. What about today? What about substituting for these ancient monarchs the names of Reagan and Gorbachev, Thatcher and Mitterrand, Khomeini and Khadafy? Suddenly the ancient teaching takes on new force. Can it be said of people like these in our time that their hearts are as streams of water in the hand of the Lord, turned by Him wherever He wills? That is precisely the message of the Bible.


If we take that seriously, if the Bible’s vision of history captures our minds and hearts, we will respond in several ways. For one, we will be moved to awe and worship. “Great is the Lord,” says the Psalmist, “and greatly to be praised” (Ps. 145:3). Great is His majesty in creating and upholding the universe, great is His sovereignty in the realm of history. A chastened King Nebuchadnezzar, after his kingdom had been restored to him, confessed in wonder:

I Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven and my reason returned to me. Blessed be the Most High and praised and honored be him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are counted as nothing and he does according to his will (Dan. 4:34-35).

How can we fittingly adore the grace that creates us free, and yet delivers us from the consequences of our abusing that freedom? The same sovereignty that gives us room to choose also finds a way to work even through our worst choices His purpose of grace.

Contemporary scientists are gaining glimpses in the created universe of a mystery akin to this. Everywhere there are evidences of order and design. A breathtaking space program can be planned and carried out because the mass, gravity and motion of objects in our solar system are so predictable. And yet in the study of subatomic particles there seems to be at work a principle of indeterminacy — what we would almost call chance. How, we wonder, can phenomena in the galaxies be so orderly when what goes on within a tiny atom seems so chaotic? Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised. He creates order. He ordains also freedom. All things serve His sovereign will. Who is like the Lord? Blessed be His name!

Next, the awareness of all that should call us to hopeful faith. The events of our time are so turbulent and fast-moving, the currents so complex that we often search in vain for any meaning in it. All around us scenes of suffering and tragedy unfold. Hosts of little children are neglected or abused. Many endure extremes of physical pain and anguish. Addicting drugs blight the lives of millions of our youth. Multitudes are hungry and homeless and masses more live under cruel oppression. The nations, forever arming themselves, seem bent on a course of mutual destruction. Murderous enmities persist and one vengeful blood-bath follows another. It seems that almost every day brings fresh expos?s of corruption in high places, of the abuse of power and privilege. Often the forces that rule in this world seem bent on opposing the coming kingdom of the Lord. Suffering believers groan within themselves and cry, “How long?”

But to the eye of faith, the course of history is not meaningless. What we read of in the headlines is not a confused nightmare. The living God is still on the throne. Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the great initiator, opening the seals of the book, working out God’s gracious design. And the hearts of the mighty are still like streams of water in His hand, turned by Him as He may choose.

That shouldn’t foster indifference to the horrors all around us, nor should it distract us from the urgency of our present task. But the vision of the sovereign Lord restores in us the confidence that God’s kingdom will surely come and frees us to toil and suffer in triumphant hope.

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan His works in vain;

God is His own Interpreter.

And He will make it plain.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds you so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Finally, we realize that the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord, and thus see our calling to pray. The Bible teaches throughout not only that God influences the hearts of people but that He does so through the prayers of a believing remnant. The apostle Paul assumes that the prayers of Christians for those in authority will make a profound difference, both in how they rule and in the welfare of their subjects. Listen to him:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way (1 Tim. 2:1).

Did you hear that? Prayers for kings and all who are in high positions open the way for us to lead quiet and peaceable, godly and respectful lives. Again and again, we are told that we should pray for our rulers that God will respond to our prayers and move upon their hearts and influence their lives. Oh, I hope you believe that. If you have come to know the living God through Christ and rejoice to be one of His children, realize, dear friend, that you have a calling to pray, that your prayers can shape the course of history beyond your wildest dreams. You have a duty toward those in authority over you to bring them regularly before God’s throne, to ask for His gracious intervention in their lives, that they may have a wisdom greater than their own and may serve His holy purpose. Let’s bear them up before God, all of them, that they may rule in His fear, that they may administer justly, that they may value the persons whom they serve and treasure the things that make for peace. Above all, let’s pray that God will so move their hearts that they will act in ways that serve His coming kingdom, that doors may be opened for the gospel of His Son.

If you are not a Christian today, this sovereign, seeking God issues His invitation to you. When you hear the good news that Jesus Christ was crucified for your sins and has been raised from the dead to give you new life, a new possibility opens up for you. You can repent. You can turn from your sins to Him. You can believe this gospel. You can welcome Christ into your heart. You can receive the gift in Him of eternal life. You can have a new heart. Oh, we pray for you right now that God by His gracious Spirit will incline you to turn to Him with all your heart.

PRAYER: Father in heaven, God of majesty and grace, we pray today that You will do just that, that You will turn the hearts of those who share this broadcast to repent and believe in Christ and to serve Your gracious purpose in this world. Do that also in all the hearts of kings and rulers. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.