In continuing our summer series of reflections in the Book of Proverbs, Mackenzie Gardner shares a message about the sovereignty of God and invites us to familiarize ourselves with who God is in the book of Proverbs chapter 20, verse 24.
Mackenzie Gardner works as the Administrative Assistant for the Centre of Academic Excellence at Tyndale University.
Hello everyone. My name is Mack and I work as the Administrative Assistant for the Centre for Academic Excellence, and I’d like to welcome you to our continuing series of reflections on the Book of Proverbs. The Proverb I want to consider today touches on the Sovereignty of God in our lives, and the peace that we can receive when we have faith in His sovereignty.
We have lived through (and are currently living in) very uncertain times. We are coming out of a pandemic, there is war in the Ukraine, the cost of living is getting higher, and some of us may be facing difficult circumstances on a personal level (whether it is significant loss, distressing news about our health or the health of someone we love, or important decisions we must make). There is no shortage of adversity in this world; and whether the strain is felt by everyone (such as the war or the pandemic) or is felt individually in ourselves or with family and friends, it’s natural to want to understand the purpose behind the challenges we face, or to see how those challenges will end ahead of time. I know for me, trying to understand the purpose behind any personal hardship can be very therapeutic. Unfortunately, we don’t always get an answer to our questions; and the distress that we feel can have an impact on our faith.
So, it is my hope, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to unpack the meaning of the proverb I’ve selected for this devotion and consider the comfort it offers to the saints when they face times that are difficult and uncertain. I also want to present some thoughts on how we are to live in the light of this awesome truth: that everything which happens to us either comes from God or is allowed by Him.
The verse for this devotion is Proverbs 20:24, is taken from the English Standard Version, and reads:
“A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?”
In this verse, the Hebrew word for steps can also be found in Psalm 37:23 (when the Psalmist writes “The steps of a man are established by the LORD, when he delights in his way;”) and in Daniel 11:43, when the prophet receives a mysterious message about the King of the North who, conquering in battle, will lead the “Libyans and the Cushite’s in his train” (that is, behind him, but following closely). The meaning of this word implies actions and decisions; but it can also mean heading in a certain direction, the path laid before oneself, or (taken figuratively) the course of one’s life.
This meaning is further supported by the Hebrew word for “way” which can translate as road, a distance or journey, a manner of living (our habits and customs) even the trajectory of our life based off the tendencies of our character. We can see this in Genesis 32:1 where, departing from his Uncle Laban, Jacob takes his family and his possessions and heads “on his way”, that is, an actual journey away from his former place of living to a specific destination. But in Jeremiah 26:3, the word takes on a moral tone, as we read about God’s hope that Judah will in repentance “turn from his evil way”, forestalling disaster.
The connotation of these words is like the popular phrase “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Literally speaking, this is true – a journey of a thousand miles can’t begin until we take at least one step in the right direction. But the meaning can also be applied metaphorically; we refer to it at the beginning of some great and large endeavour. We cannot accomplish anything without taking a step (that is a decisive action); but our steps are directed towards something – a goal, a path – which will in turn take us on a journey.
Therefore, the idea presented in this Proverb is that our path, our journey, our decisions, and the direction we head in life (even our very selves), is never beyond the Sovereignty of God. There is nothing (not our mistakes, not our wise decisions, not our joys or our sorrows, our successes, or challenges and failures) that is outside the scope of who God is or what He has planned for us. All of these come from Him.
Another idea presented in this proverb is that because our path is from the LORD, it is impossible for us to understand what it will look like ahead of time. When the proverb states “how then can man understand his way?”, the word for understand can mean to mentally distinguish or discern something. The idea here is that because our path belongs to the secret counsel of God, we can neither anticipate what will happen to us or have a full understanding of the purpose of those events that come our way. There is a gulf fixed between what God has kept hidden, and what God has revealed. Amongst all our comings and goings and joys and sorrows, not only are we unable to know what events will happen, we cannot truly discern what the purpose or the deeper meaning of those events will be.
There are two ideas at play, here: two theological themes at balance in this proverb. First, this proverb is reminding us that God is sovereign over every person – over every path, every decision, and every journey. The path set before us is not solely the product of what we decide; neither is it random or without meaning. What happens to us in the future is already seen by God and under His control. Currently, I am recording this devotional in the wake of the school shootings of Uvalde, Texas. That horrible event is a reminder that in this life, we live in a place of immense tragedies and seeming uncertainties. But this proverb shows that God is not unaware of any of it and remains sovereign and unconquered over all of it.
The second theme at play is the acknowledgement of our ignorance – that we cannot know what will happen, why it happens, or what it will lead to. The parable of the Chinese farmer can illustrate this point for us. The story goes that one day a Chinese Farmer is told that one of his horses has run away.
“What terrible luck!” his friends say.
“Maybe.” the Farmer replies “We shall see.”
A few weeks later, the horse returns to the farm, leading seven more horses with him.
“Your horse has returned and brought with it seven more horses!” the friends of the Farmer exclaim.
“What luck!”. “Maybe” says the Farmer, “We shall see.”
The next day the Farmer’s son is training the new horses. In the process of breaking them in, he breaks his leg.
“How unfortunate,” say the friends. “Maybe,” replied the Farmer. “We shall see.”
Several days later the military comes to the Farmer's town, seeking young men to conscript into their army.
The Farmer’s son is disqualified because of his broken leg and avoids the draft. The Farmer is wise because he understands his own limitations. He does not have the ability to know where the paths of life lead; neither can he understand why they lead where they do.
We typically don’t bother with the questions of why in moments of joy or success. It is usually only in moments of tragedy, suffering, or loss when the human spirit desperately wants to understand the meaning of things (as if knowing the answer could somehow justify those difficult moments). This proverb brings to our attention that there is no guarantee of knowing that answer. As God says in the Book of Isaiah “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…”.
The Book of Proverbs was crafted to guide its readers into practical wisdom – that is, wise action. We are not meant to simply know wise truths, but to live in the light of them and to have our actions reformed by them. So, what are we to take from this proverb? There are two themes at play – but what is the message behind those themes that we are meant to live out? On the one hand we have the sovereignty of God over every action and every life. Then, on the other, we have the humbling reminder that we may never know what will happen to us, nor is there any guarantee will we understand why it had to happen once it does. I believe that this proverb is not simply telling us that God is in control and that we are ignorant about the deeper meaning of things; rather, God’s sovereignty and our ignorance are ideas that are closely related to each other – there is an underlying message behind these words. I believe that when we reflect on this verse, we are not meant to isolate one theme from the other but infer the intended meaning. The principle to employ from Proverbs 20:24 is this: God is in control, and we are unable to know what will happen to us, or why – so we should stop trying to figure it out.
Stop trying to understand why. Stop fretting over decisions that must be made as if God was unaware they had to be made or was unprepared to deal with their outcome. During tragedy, grieve – but don’t expect to know why what happened had to happen. During trials and disappointments, don’t just recall that God is in control; remember that the path set before you comes from Him - so how will you understand it? We certainly must practice any due diligence and be wise with our time and resources. But Proverbs 20:24 is a call to embrace our ignorance and rest in God.
So, what can we do to rest in the way this proverb suggests? The answers must draw on the themes that reside in this verse.
- We begin with the first fragment of the text: A man’s steps are from the LORD. We ought to remember that because the journey of our life is from God, nothing that happens is meaningless. There is a reason for what we experience, even if that reason is hidden from us. The implications of God’s total sovereignty is that nothing is without meaning; and although we don’t always see it, we can have faith that whatever God has brought or allowed into our life is there for a reason. The path that comes from God is paved with Divine intentions. Our steps come from (are ordained by) God. Ultimately God will decide what happens and what doesn’t happen. The affirmation of some events (or their allowance) and not others strongly imply a purpose behind the scenes.
- The second fragment: how then can man understand his way? That is, we need to stop trying to ‘see ahead’ as if we could discern what will happen to us. We should also stop reading into events, generating specific reasons that explain the meaning of our circumstances. We need to stop trying to comprehend the why’s of life or assume things before they happen. God, in His own time and own way, may reveal to you the reason for what it is you went through; but for yourself, based on your own investigations, you will never truly know the purpose of your path, where it will lead, what the outcome will be, or why. This is undoubtedly the hardest step to take; it’s normal to want to see ahead and understand. But, just like the Chinese farmer, we must learn to accept our limitations. Job was never given an explanation for his sufferings; and it was his three friends who stood condemned, despite trying to explain all that had happened to Job, as if they could discern what God was up to and justify His ways.
- Finally, we must remember that God is our Father, and that because of Christ, He is constantly working for our good. If we forget this point, we open ourselves up to bitterness against God, and from bitterness, disobedience. Because we fail to trust His heart and intentions, we might look at the challenges of life and infer that God is uncaring and cruel. But, if you belong to Christ, you have the promise that all things work for the good of those who love God. Because of Christ, you are secured in the favour of God.
The story of the farmer contains wisdom – but it’s incomplete for those who are in Jesus. It is good to recognize our limitations – but Christ has given us more than this: He has secured for us the certainty that no matter what happens or what we decide, it will work out for our good. Even in our limitations, we have the promise of His favour. We can look at life recognizing that despite our ignorance, what has happened or will happen will be inexplicably used for our benefit.
Lord willing, I have shown the comfort we can take from Proverbs 20:24. God is in control of our journey here on Earth. It is not left to us only; but the sovereignty of our loving Father is watching every step and in control of every path. Because of our limitations, we should stop trying to figure things out. Instead, we should rest, knowing that it is our Father who works everything for the good of those who love Him.
When the veil of our ignorance keeps us from discerning our journey, we need to understand it as God’s invitation to press into Him and to familiarize ourselves with who He is. When we are tempted to try and figure things out and steal comfort, we should not preoccupy ourselves on those things that God has hidden from us. Instead, we should look at what He has revealed, and consider its meaning and purpose. What God has revealed is Christ crucified and resurrected; that God is for us and, for those who love God, everything works out for good.
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