It’s the day after the election as I write this. No winner has been declared and it is not yet clear when one will be. Emotions are running high. Many feel waves of excitement at every news report favorable to their candidate and fear at every report favorable to the other. (Others, who are displeased with both candidates, feel a more constant sense of dread.) Once a winner is declared, the mixed feelings felt by many will be replaced by a more constant sense of joy or fear. In either case, God’s Word has something to say to us. Two verses in particular came to my mind today as I tried to sort through my own feelings.
“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov 21:1).
One of the temptations we face is to feel and believe that human leaders are sovereign in an ultimate sort of way. As a result, when there is a person appointed as ruler that scares us in terms of their politics or beliefs, we can respond emotionally as though all is lost.
Certainly, rulers do make a difference and can do great damage. For this very reason we are exhorted to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2). The Bible is not naïve about the importance of good rulers who will make just and wise decisions. Nor is it wrong to feel apprehension or fear at what a human ruler might do.
But the Bible is also clear that any human ruler is just that: human and therefore under the authority of a much higher Sovereign. As Prov 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he wills.” And because that is true God’s people do not need to feel as though all hope is ever lost.
At different points in their history, the Israelites saw Prov 21:1 in action. Consider Ezra 1:1 – 2: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: ‘This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah.”’” Here God works in the heart of a non-Israelite king to have his temple of worship be rebuilt! Bear in mind, too, that Israel is not living in a democracy at this point. In fact, they’re not even living in their own land. They’re in exile under a foreign king, yet even there the Lord showed his sovereign power at work. The Lord is not limited by the political system in place (democracy vs monarchy) or by geography (the holy land or a foreign land). He is King over all systems and all places and ensures his sovereign will comes about. That’s what God’s people rest in.
We see the same again a few chapters later in the book. “And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel” (6:22). Once more, the Lord moves in the heart of this foreign king to aid in building a house where God’s name can be praised. Truly the hearts of rulers are in his hands and he directs them wherever he wills.
What this means is that while our fears and concerns about human rulers are not wrong by themselves, they can become wrong if they begin to rule us. We need to bring our fears and worries to the feet of the Lord, place them in the light of his sovereign power and care, and experience the peace that comes from knowing he still sits on his throne—and no human leader will ever change that.
Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save (Ps 146:3)
The flipside of having too much fear of a human ruler is placing too much trust in one. If the first temptation leads us to think that all hope is lost at the election of one candidate, the second leads us to think that heaven has come to earth in the election of the other.
This is where Ps 146:3 comes into play: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.” It is a reminder again of any human ruler’s limits. The very next verse in fact cuts all rulers down to size: “When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing” (146:4).
It reminds me of an article I read a few years ago. The title was something like, “What kills billionaires?” The article’s answer was fairly simple: cancer, old age, vehicular accidents, pneumonia, etc. In other words, the same things that kill all people. We are all but dust with no ultimate control whether our heart keeps beating tomorrow—and this includes presidents of the United States.
As with Prov 21:1, the Israelites also saw Ps 146:3 in action. Their first king, Saul, was someone they very much put their trust in. And it seemed for good reason. He was (literally) head and shoulders above everybody else and thus looked the part of someone with a strong and commanding presence (1 Sam 9:2). But then one day he met a man a head and shoulders above him—Goliath—and Saul’s weakness was shown for what it was. Things went better with David, the man after God’s own heart, but even his story is marked by serious failings, not least of which was having one of his loyal soldiers killed in order to cover up his own adultery (2 Sam 11).
This is not to say that feelings of hope about a leader are necessarily wrong, any more than fears about a leader are necessarily wrong. But just as fears can become wrong is they begin to rule us, hope become wrong if a leader becomes the ultimate object of it. The psalmist shows us a better way, and so continues in Psalm 146:
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD.” (Ps 146:5 – 10)
“The Lord reigns forever.” That is what calms our fears. That is where our ultimate hope lies. May it be so for us.