“The King’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1).
What does this mean? Does this mean that every action of a king (or country leader) is directed by God? Was Solomon’s heart turned to idolatry by God (1 Kings 11:1-8)? Was Ahaz turned to human sacrifice by God (2 Kings 16:1-4 cf. 2 Chronicles 28:1-4; further – Ezekiel 23:36-39; Leviticus 18:21)? Was Adolf Hitler directed to do evil by God? Surely not! If God directs every action of kings, then why are kings instructed how to walk (e.g. 1 Kings 2:1-4; 3:14; 9:4-5)?
(1) It means that God is powerful. His doings humbled the heart of Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:10-13) and Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:28-36).
(2) It means that God can turn the hearts of a king for his own purposes, and to accomplish His will. He used Pharaoh (Exodus 7:2-5; 10:1-2; 14:17-18 – note, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart will be considered in a future writing). He used the king(s) of Assyria (Isaiah 10:5-7, 12-14; Jeremiah 50:18). He used the king(s) of Babylon (Jeremiah 27:6-11 cf. 25:12; 50:18; 51:24; Habakkuk). He used Cyrus (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1-3).
It should be understood that there is nothing in the wording, “He turns it wherever He wishes,” which implies that God does this directly, without means. Hearts can be turned by means. Solomon’s wives “turned his heart after other gods” (1 Kings 11:4). Consider the role of John, “He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17 cf. Malachi 4:5-6).
God has directed and turned kings by means. He provided information to David (1 Samuel 23:2, 4, 9-13; 30:7-8; 2 Samuel 5:18-19; 5:22-25). He provided the circumstances to humble Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:10-13) and Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:28-36). He stirred Cyrus to allow the Jews to return home (Ezra 1:1-2). How God stirred Cyrus, we are not told in Scripture. However, there is no reason to believe that this was done by directly changing the heart, without means. Josephus suggests that Cyrus was stirred to do this after reading his name from the book of Isaiah (Josephus Antiquities 11.1).
(3) It means that God is ultimately in control. His plans will be accomplished. Certainly not every action of every king is approved by God. Kings sin, and God allows this (e.g. Exodus 9:34; 1 Samuel 15:22-23; 1 Kings 12:28-33; 1 Kings 21:25-26). However, God, not earthly kings, is ultimately in control. His plans will not be thwarted. This ought to give us comfort.
“Whenever I am afraid I will trust in You… In God I have put my trust, I will not fear. What can flesh do to me?” (Psalm 56:4).
“The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6).
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do” (Luke 12:4).
“Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us” (Romans 8:34).