9 Sovereignty of God. The Lord sovereignly determines the outworking of our plans. The Bible in general teaches that only those plans that are approved by him will succeed. The verse is antithetical; the human heart “plans his course,” but the Lord fulfills or “determines his steps” (yākîn ṣaʿadô). The verb kûn with ṣaʿadô (and similar expressions) means “to direct” (see Ps 119:133; Jer 10:23). The point is the contrast between what we plan and what actually happens—God determines that. As Paul later said, God is able to do abundantly more than we ask or think (Eph 3:20; see Pr 16:1; 19:21; 20:24; see also “Amenemope” ch. 18 and 19:16–17 [ANET, 423]).
9 This concluding sub unit’s frame again carefully balances the interplay between divine activity in directing human initiative (see 16:1–9), giving God “not only the last word but the soundest.” The heart (see 16:1) of a human being (ʾādām, see 16:1; cf. Ps. 140:2; Isa. 10:7; Zech. 7:10; 8:17; Prov. 19:21; Jer. 4:14; Ezek. 38:10) plans (yeḥaššēb, see 6:3, 18), a poetic word for the result of human thought processes in strategizing that issues in actions. Apart from its four uses in the Psalms, ḥšb pertains to negative undertakings (Hos. 7:15; Prov. 24:8). His way (darkô, see 1:15) extends the frame from his words to his entire life view and behavior. Because (wa) means both “and” and “but,” it was left untranslated, allowing the context to signal both senses. The Lord (see 16:1–9) both complements and contrasts the Lord with ʾādām. (see 16:1). Arranges (or orders, yākîn, see 6:8) is one of the meanings of kûn in Hiphil, which is glossed “established, established, anchored” in Niphal in 16:4. His step (ṣaʿdô, see 4:12) denotes metaphorically, as here, the course of one’s life, a synonym for “way,” its parallel in Jer. 10:31 and of miṣʿadê in Prov. 20:24. The singular suggests that not a step is taken apart from the Lord’s superintendence. “A man may plan his road to the last detail, but he cannot implement his planning, unless it coincides with Yahweh’s plan for him. He is deluded if he supposes that he has unfettered control and can impose his will on every situation without limitation in order to make his plan a reality, for it is). As Shakespeare expressed it: “there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”
16:9. The mind of man plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps.
With the first verse of the chapter, this one completes an inclusio that emphasizes the sovereignty of God over the ways of man. Again, the human heart is in view in the first line. Here the emphasis is upon his ‘plans.’ The word describes not so much an understanding or insight, but the generating of new ideas. The notion of planning and devising is in view. We are adept at dreaming of what we would like to do. We chart our course. We set forth a plan. We pursue our goals. ‘Many are the plans in a man’s heart’ (Prov. 19:21a).
The second line, however, sets forth the antithesis that each man must bear in mind. It is the sovereign Lord who ‘directs his steps’ (Prov. 20:24). The verb is the same one found in verse 3. It is a word used to describe God establishing the heavens and the earth in creation. The idea is not just that the Lord ‘directs’ one’s steps, but that He is the only one who can take our flighty dreams and plans and make them reality. When we entrust our aspirations to God, (v. 3) and seek to bring our lives in line with His sovereign will, He will establish, as a part of settled reality, His divine will for our individual lives. When we stubbornly push our agenda over God’s, there is no guarantee He will bring our plans to reality, not even if we are the king (Prov. 16:12, same verb). This is not a note of fatalism, but of freedom through submission to God (Ps. 37:23; Jer. 10:23). Our prayer should be ‘Establish my footsteps in Thy word’ (Ps. 119:133a).
Ver. 9.—A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps (ver. 1). “Man proposes, God disposes;” or, as the Germans say, “Der Mensch denkt, Gott lenkt” (comp. ch. 20:24). The word rendered “deviseth” implies, by its species, intensity of thought and care. Man meditates and prepares his plans with the utmost solicitude, but it rests with God whether he shall carry them to completion or not, and whether, if they are to be accomplished, it be done with ease or with painful labour (comp. Gen. 24:12, etc.). We all remember Shakespeare’s words in ‘Hamlet’—
“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.”
Septuagint, “Let the heart of man consider what is just, that his steps may be by God directed aright” (comp. Jer. 10:23).
9. The rightness of God’s leading. This companion to verse 1 makes its particular point by the word directeth, the Heb. (cf. ‘established’, 12) implying that God has not merely the last word but the soundest. See on 20:24; cf. the confession of Jeremiah 10:23, and the prayer of Psalm 119:133.
Ver. 9. A man’s heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps.—On the government of human affairs by providence:—
The efforts of our activity, how great soever they may be, are subject to the control of a superior, invisible power. Higher counsels than ours are concerned in the issues of human conduct. The line is let out to allow us to run a certain length, but by that line we are all the while invisibly held, and are recalled and checked at the pleasure of Heaven. Among all who admit the existence of a Deity it has been a general belief that He exercises some government over human affairs. In what manner providence interposes in human affairs, by what means it influences the thoughts and counsels of men, and, notwithstanding the influence which it exerts, leaves to them the freedom of will and choice, are subjects of a dark and mysterious nature. The secret power with which God controls sun, moon, and stars is equally inexplicable. Throughout the sacred writings God is represented as, on every occasion, by various dispensations of His providence, rewarding the righteous or chastening them according as His wisdom requires, and punishing the wicked. The experience of every one bears testimony to a particular providence. Accident and chance and fortune are words without meaning. In God’s universe nothing comes to pass causelessly or in vain. Every event has its own determined direction. But this doctrine of a particular providence has no tendency to supersede counsel, design, or a proper exertion of the active powers of man. Man, “devising his own way,” and carrying on his own plans, has a place in the order of means which providence employs. The doctrine of the text is to be improved—
- For correcting anxious and immoderate care about the future events of our life. The folly of such anxiety is aggravated by this consideration, that all events are under a much better and wiser direction than we could place them. To the unavoidable evils of life do not add this evil of thine own procuring, a tormenting anxiety about the success of thy designs. The great rule both of religion and duty is—Do thy duty and leave the issue to Heaven.
- The doctrine of the text is calculated to enforce moderation of mind in every state; it humbles the pride of prosperity and prevents that despair which is incident to adversity.
- This doctrine places the vanity and folly of all sinful plans in a very strong light. All sin, in every view of it, must be attended with danger.
- It concerns us to perform those duties which a proper regard to providence requires, and to obtain protection from that power which directeth and disposeth all. An interest in God’s favour is far more important than all the wisdom and ability of man. Without His favour the wisest will be disappointed and baffled; under His protection and guidance the simple are led in a plain and sure path. (Hugh Blair, D.D.)
The infallible Director of man:—
The doctrine of the text is matter of uniform experience. Little indeed does any one know what lies before him.
- The guidance of God may be traced in the dispensations of His providence. No natural causes can explain the wonderful events that occurred from the call of Abraham to the time of the Redeemer. In every scene, not only the miraculous, but the ordinary, the hand of the Deity is visible. We can often see clearly the traces of that hand when its work is done.
- The sentiment of the text receives its fullest exemplification in the dispensation of grace. In a way the most improbable, and at a time the least expected, the God of all grace has laid hold upon the soul. Illustrate from the woman of Samaria, and from Zaccheus. The means, no less than the time and occasion, are of God. Some striking providence, some simple truth repeated for the thousandth time, some whispered admonition of a Christian friend, awakes attention, excites to immediate consideration, and bows down the soul in true contrition and prayer. The teaching of the text is also illustrated in the removal of the fear of death when the death-time comes. (W. E. Schenck.)
Man proposing, God disposing:—
We cherish hopes, we make plans; but there is a higher power that directs our steps. The ideas of fate and chance have been entertained by men in all ages of the world to account for these experiences. Scripture knows nothing of fate or chance. It is the Lord who is directing our steps. Look at this directing work of God overruling our purposes—
- In the success or failure of our daily business. Man uses what discretion and judgment he has, but when he has done all much is left to circumstances over which he has no control. Generally it may be said that the diligent and persevering are the most successful, but there are many cases in which the rule will not apply. Success will sometimes come to the careless. Failure will sometimes come to the most diligent. Perhaps almost the last place in which we should look to find the hand of God is the business of the world.
- In the choice of our occupations in life. What an amount of selecting and rejecting goes on in the mind of many a boy! He little thinks his choice will rest at last with One who knows better far than he knows for what he is adapted. There are few who, in choosing their occupations in life, have not had wishes of their own, and there are few who, in looking back, do not find that those wishes have been overruled. God is working out some kind and wise purpose by putting us where we are.
- In the choice of our friendships. An unexpected meeting with a person may alter our whole career. God is as certainly working in the minor as He is in the greater events of our lives. (S. G. Matthews, B.A.)
The plan of man, and the plan of God, in human life:—
- Man’s own plan. “A man’s heart deviseth his way.” Every man forms a programme of his daily life. When he moves rationally, he does not move by blind impulse. That man’s history is self-originated and self-arranged is manifested from three things.
- Society holds every man responsible for his actions.
- The Bible appeals to every man as having a personal sovereignty.
- Every man’s conscience attests his freedom of action. If the sinner felt himself the mere creature of forces he could not control, he could experience no remorse. Man feels that his life is fashioned by his own plan, that he is the undisputed monarch of his own inner world.
- God’s own plan. “The Lord directeth his steps.” God has a plan concerning every man’s life—a plan which, though it compasses and controls every activity, leaves the man in undisturbed freedom. This is the great problem of the world’s history, man’s freedom, and God’s control. “Experience,” says Mr. Bridges, “gives a demonstrable stamp of evidence even in all the minutiae of circumstances which form the parts and pieces of the Divine plan. A matter of common business, the indulgence of curiosity, the supply of necessary want, a journey from home, all are connected with infinitely important results. And often when our purpose seemed as clearly fixed, and as sure of accomplishment as a journey to London, this way of our own devising has been blocked up by unexpected difficulties, and unexpected facilities have opened an opposite way, with the ultimate acknowledgment, “He led me forth in the right way” (Psa. 112:7; Isa. 42:16). After all, however, we need much discipline to wean us from our own devices, that we may seek the Lord’s direction in the first place. The fruit of this discipline will be a dread of being left to our own devices, as before we were eager to follow them (Psa. 143:10). So truly do we find our happiness and security in yielding up our will to our heavenly Guide! He knows the whole way, every step of the way: “The end from the beginning.” And never shall we miss either the way or the end, if only we resign ourselves with unreserved confidence to His keeping, and the direction of our steps. (Homilist.)
The folly of self-confidence:—
“A man’s heart,” that is, his mind, his inward powers of reflection, anticipation, skill, prudence, “deviseth his way”—a term implying the application of all possible consideration, invention, and precaution—but the “Lord directeth his steps.” The words express and expose the folly and presumption, on man’s part, of self-confidence—of his thus assuring himself of success, as if he had the future under his eye, and at his bidding; regardless of that hidden but ever-present, ever-busy superintending power that has all under complete command; that can at once arrest his progress in the very midst and at the very height of his boasting, and “turn to foolishness” all his devices. The sacred oracles are full of this sentiment, and of the most striking exemplifications of its truth. And what is the sentiment of revelation cannot fail to command the concurrence of enlightened reason. It must be so. If there is a God at all it cannot be otherwise. It were the height of irrationality as well as impiety for a moment to question it—to imagine the contrary possible. How otherwise could God govern the world? Were not all human schemes under supreme and irresistible control, what would become of the certainty of the Divine? All must of necessity fulfil the plans of Infinite Wisdom in the administration of God’s universal government. “God will work, and who shall let it?” (R. Wardlaw, D.D.)
Orderings of providence:—
Young Clive is shipped off, to get rid of him, in the East India Company, and he becomes the founder of England’s empire in India. The Duke of Wellington seeks of Lord Camden in early life a place at the Treasury Board, and becomes the military hero of Europe. There are many to-day occupying positions very different to those which they set before themselves in early life. Some are preaching the gospel who were destined to practise at the English bar. Some are lawyers who started to be physicians. Some are business men who started to be artists or musicians. David Livingstone starts as a hand in a Glasgow factory, and he becomes the pioneer of missionary work in Africa. William Carey makes shoes, and he becomes the most successful missionary in India. Looking back on life, we say it was this or that event which impelled us on another course. We are apt to forget that the event was no chance accident, but a distinct factor in God’s government of our lives.
9. A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps—(note, v. 1; Jer. 10:23.) In contrast to man’s anxious devising of his own way stands the Lord’s sovereign disposal of his steps. Though in one sense man’s will is free, yet in another he is overruled by God’s all-ordering providence. Man proposes, God disposes. Nay, more; God has at his control our very thoughts (Exod. 34:24). Our wisdom is to “commit our way unto the Lord” when we set about anything (Ps. 37:5, 23).
 Fausset, A. R. (n.d.). A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical, on the Old and New Testaments: Job–Isaiah (Vol. III, p. 467). London; Glasgow: William Collins, Sons, & Company, Limited.