33 Sovereignty of God. The Lord controls the decisions that are submitted to him. The passage concerns the practice of seeking divine leading through casting lots. “Every decision” (kol-mišpāṭô) is from the Lord (see also “Amenemope,” ch. 18; 19:16–17 [ANET, 423]). So Proverbs 16 ends as it began, with a word about God’s sovereignty.
33 Verse 33 adds a necessary caveat. Ultimately, the Lord, not the disciple’s self possession alone, rules his destiny, as illustrated by “the lot.” Verset A presents its secret handling by people, and verset B the divine judgment behind it. The proverb emphatically matches in the bosom (ḥêq, see 5:20) and “from the Lord” as the first phrases in the synthetic parallels. Heq here denotes the secret holding area in the fold of the garment above the belt where hands were placed and the lot remained covered and uninfluenced (cf. Prov. 17:23). The lot (gôrāl, see 1:14) was a small stone used to reveal God’s selection of someone or something out of several possibilities where he kept people in the dark and desired their impartiality in the selection. Is hurled (yûṭal) means to cast someone or something violently away from someone. This unexpected verb contrasts to other texts that use neutral terms for the human manipulation of the lot.17 The unexpected verb may suggest the selection of an offender is in view as the Targum and the Syriac perceived (see n. 4). However, the proverb should not be restricted to retribution.18 The lot’s selection was final because it was ultimately “hurled down” by God (cf. 18:18). The conjunctive can be glossed by and or but because verset B both contrasts human and divine activity and combines them (see 16:1). From the Lord (see 16:1) traces the mediated action of “hurling (down)” to Israel’s covenant keeping God. All underscores there are no exceptions. Its decisions (mišpāṭô, see I: 97) refers back to the masculine topic, gôrāl, not the Lord, because that would be tautologous. [Come] from the Lord (see 16:1) traces the mediated action of “hurling (down)” back to Israel’s covenant keeping God. Even when the pagan sailors used the lot, the Sovereign ruled through it (cf. Jon. 1:7; Est. 3:7; 9:1, 2). After the outpouring of the Spirit the practice of casting lots does not occur in the Church. The pagan use of the lot, however, may suggest its appropriate use by the State (e.g., in drafting its warriors) and other secular institutions (e.g., in selecting candidates for organ transplants).
16:33. The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the Lord.
The chapter ends where it began, with the theme of God’s sovereignty (vv. 1–4, 9). This time His control is said to extend even over the ‘lot’ (Prov. 18:18). In both Testaments, the Bible speaks of the use of the ‘lot’ by both believers and unbelievers (Lev. 16:7–10, 21, 22; Josh. 14:2; 1 Sam. 14:41; 1 Chron. 25:7, 8; 26:13ff; Neh. 10:34ff; Jonah 1:7; Matt. 27:35; Acts 1:26). Some believe that the high priest’s use of the Urim and Thummim (Exod. 28:30; Deut. 33:8) was a form of casting lots. Here, the reference, as often in the rest of Scripture, is to the more general population.
The exact form and mechanics of using the lot is not entirely clear. Here, it was ‘cast into the lap.’ That is to say, into the fold of the garment created as one sat down. Presumably, it provided some kind of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer to the dispute in question and was, thus, akin to our practice of drawing straws or flipping a coin.
It is worth noting that the Bible does not command us to use the lot in making decisions. In fact, it is significant that the final use of the lot (Acts 1:26) came just prior to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. While not prohibiting its use, this does remind us that we are privileged, above all other generations, to possess both the completed written revelation of God and the indwelling Spirit of God who authored it.
Nevertheless, there may be rare occasions when the use of some form of lot is not unwarranted. When might that be? ‘There is a lazy, superstitious use of the lot and other such means that is not recommended here. The use of the lot … ought never to supersede biblical commandments and the application of scriptural principles.… When, having followed biblical injunctions to their limit you are left with several options, all of which are acceptable to God, the lot may be used to decide among them.… But where there is biblical direction, the lot should never replace obedience to it.’
What is robustly affirmed here is that, in such legitimate situations, God is in absolute control, even over what may appear to be mere chance events. God’s providence extends even to the tumble of the dice. We should look to this God for our direction (Prov. 29:26).
16:33 / Antithetic. The presupposition is that nothing escapes the divine will. Hence even the casting of lots, which seems so casual (they are thrown into the lap—i.e., the fold of the garment) is determined by God. Lots are referred to frequently in the ot (cf. Urim and Thummim, Num. 27:21).
16:33. Though the exact nature of the lot is unclear, it was probably something like dice used to determine God’s will in decision-making (e.g., Lv 16:8; Nm 26:55; Est 3:7; 1Ch 25:8; 1Sm 14:40–42; Pr 18:18; Ac 1:26). This proverb explains why: its every decision is from the Lord. “The underlying belief is that the Lord, who determines all things, also determines the way the lots turn out” (Murphy, Proverbs, 124). The wise recognize and trust in God’s sovereign providence.
16:33. God, not chance, decides
The Old Testament use of the word lot shows that this proverb (and 18:18) is not about God’s control of all random occurrences, but about his settling of matters properly referred to him. Land was ‘allotted’ (Josh. 14:1, 2), likewise temple service (1 Chr. 25:8); probably the Urim and Thummim were lots. But God’s last use of this method was, significantly, the last event before Pentecost (Acts 1:26); thereafter he has no longer guided his church as a ‘servant’ who ‘knoweth not what his lord doeth’: cf. Acts 13:2; 15:25, 28.
Ver. 33. The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.—All contingencies under the direction of God’s providence:—
- Consider the result of a “lot” in reference to men. Why suspend the decision of some dubious case upon it? It implies something future, and something contingent. It is something absolutely out of the reach of man’s knowledge, and equally out of reach of his power. A contingent event baffles man’s knowledge and evades his power.
- Consider the result of a lot in respect of God. All contingencies are comprehended by a certain Divine knowledge, and governed by as certain and steady a providence. God directs the greatest casualties under His providence to certain ends, in reference to societies and to particular persons. In the latter case, touching their lives, their health, their reputation, their friendships, and their employments or preferments. Since the interest of governments and nations, of princes and private persons, notwithstanding all the contrivance and power that human nature can exert about them, remain so wholly contingent, as to us, surely all the reason of mankind cannot suggest any solid ground of satisfaction, but in making that God our friend who is the sole and absolute disposer of all these things, and in carrying a conscience so clear towards Him as may encourage us with confidence to cast ourselves upon Him, and in all casualties still to promise ourselves the best events from His providence, to whom nothing is casual, who constantly wills the truest happiness of those that trust in Him, and works all things according to the counsel of that blessed will. (R. South.)
Grounds and limitations of human responsibility:—
Define the provinces of human and Divine agency. Our duty is commensurate with our power. We are responsible for the moral character of what is done just so far as it depends upon ourselves. Within the circle where man has the power to will and to do of his own pleasure is the field of human agency. Here man is held responsible. All beyond this province of human responsibility is done by the power of God. This thought of Divine providence is the most consoling and inspiring that ever visits the heart, though it cannot give joy to the heart where it is not welcomed. Our knowledge of human and Divine agency is constantly extending. We are continually opening upon new views, which show us that many things which are called acts of God come within the sphere of our own responsibility, and are, in truth, our own actions springing from our own doing or our own neglect; and the consequences of them we must expect to bear. Moreover, the arts and improvements of civil life are continually investing men with new powers, and given him a mastery over nature which in former days he never dreamed of possessing. Then is not the sphere of Divine providence getting lessened? Nay, the more we feel our own responsibility, the more shall we recognise the agency of Heaven in all things. What is it we adore in the providence of God? It is its vast reach of vision, and its ever steadfastly pressing on to that which is right. (W. B. O. Peabody.)
The general doctrine of providence derives support from sources independent of Divine revelation. It is another term for the government of God, by which all events are made to concur with His wise and holy purposes. Look at providence—
- In the mode of its operations.
- In the vastness of its range.
- In the punishment of the wicked.
- In its aspect on the Church. The doctrine of Divine providence is full of consolation. All must be right when God controls and reigns over all. (John George.)
God’s providence even in trifles:—
God’s providence may be seen not only in the whirlwind and the hurricane, the lightning and the storm, but also in the very least of natural manifestations. Surely, without unduly pressing our text, we may bring forward a familiar illustration of the way in which even trifles, as man calls them, have been made to work out mighty results. Take, for instance, the discovery of the laws of gravitation, and the great results in which that discovery has issued: how it opened the way to the understanding of the courses of the heavenly bodies; how the orbits of the planets, and their distances, and their relative positions at various periods came to be clearly defined; the influence of these discoveries on the laws of navigation, and the consequent facilities for communication between places separated by thousands of miles upon the ocean. We are daily in the enjoyment of the conveniences and luxuries which spring from these discoveries. We may be ignorant of the laws which have been deduced, or even of the practical applications of these laws; of their results in adding to our comforts we cannot be ignorant. Now, is it too much to say that these discoveries are the result of God’s providential government? But, if this be granted, we cannot stop here; it follows that the means by which this knowledge was acquired were not beyond the Divine control; nay, rather were subservient to it, and governed by it. And so, at last, we see by manifest logical conclusion that the finger of God may be traced even in that trifle, as it might have been called, which led the wise man’s mind to excogitate the mysteries among which we live. And whether we endeavour to trace the working of the finger of God in the intricacies of the human mind, or in the external influences which affect the mind, or in the coincidences by which great events are deduced from small beginnings, yet in each alike we may say, and say with reason, “It is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.” Apply this lesson in another way, to the case of sickness—for here, again, we may attain to very practical results. Now, I apprehend that the generality of men do certainly look upon sickness as a casualty—a mere matter of accident or chance. If you were to question them strictly you might at last extract from them in general terms a confession that God is the author of life or death, of health or sickness; but it has no practical effect. It is not a really powerful religious principle, for they are ever speaking of proximate causes, and not of the great First Cause. Take now a particular case, in part illustrative of my meaning; it shall be the case of the blind man, recorded in St. John 9. I adduce this case to illustrate the general principle that sickness cometh not by chance, but by God’s will and permission, and that its results are known by God, and that it comes to accomplish the purpose for which He hath sent it. Again, the same order and regularity are observable in the kingdom of grace. All the profit and advantage which men receive from the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is of God. An eloquent sermon may be delivered, but the preacher cannot tell whose heart it may reach or whose mind it may affect. The lot is cast, as it were, into the lap; the preacher knoweth not the issue thereof, for the whole disposing of it is of the Lord. Now, I think that these considerations may have a very practical effect upon us; they touch our every-day life; they console us in failure, when failure results from no lack of diligence on our part; they humble us in success. But does this lead us to believe in any doctrines like those of the fatalists? By no means. Every man is a free agent, working out for himself future weal or woe as he will. His mind is fixed in a certain course, and his thoughts tend to that direction. God often checks him if he is going astray, and pleads with him, and throws hindrances in the paths which lead to evil. And though a man’s course of life may be evil, yet there are influences which are running counter to that evil course, and checking him, and compelling him to pause and think. And why is this—but because, though the lot be cast into the lap, yet the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord? (W. S. Simpson, M.A.)
The Lord’s disposing:—
After all, what silly and short-sighted children we are! Only spelling out the alphabet in God’s infant school, and yet aspiring to a seat in His cabinet! How differently our life-stories will read when we have a chance to correct them in the clear light of heaven! Then we shall discover under the head of “Accidents” there was written as in invisible ink, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the disposing thereof is of the Lord.” On the page that we had surrounded with black lines, and inscribed it “Obituaries,” we shall see how distinctly a Divine finger has written, “Whom I love I chasten.” (Theodore L. Cuyler.)
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 Waltke, B. K. (2005). The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15–31 (pp. 37–38). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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 Murphy, R. E., & Carm, O. (2012). Proverbs. In W. W. Gasque, R. L. Hubbard Jr., & R. K. Johnston (Eds.), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (p. 84). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Finkbeiner, D. (2014). Proverbs. In M. A. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (Eds.), The moody bible commentary (p. 929). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Kidner, D. (1964). Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 17, p. 115). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Exell, J. S. (n.d.). Proverbs (pp. 445–447). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.