The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD (Proverbs 16:1 ESV)
לְאָדָ֥ם מַֽעַרְכֵי־לֵ֑ב וּ֝מֵיְהוָ֗ה מַעֲנֵ֥ה לָשֽׁוֹן
One of today’s most popular sports cheers was first chanted in 1999 during the fourth quarter of an Army-Navy football game. The six-word cheer—I believe that we will win!—has been called the “epitome of classic American optimism.” Yet in real life, this overly confident attitude tends to backfire.
For instance, a 2002 study found overly optimistic grad students have a tougher time finding jobs. Students in their last year of grad school were asked to rate how likely they thought they were to land a good job shortly after leaving school.
Two years later, those who had admitted to frequent positive fantasies about life after grad school were less likely to succeed in their job search. The daydreamers sent out fewer résumés, and earned less than students who had a more realistic take on their post-university lives.
Positive thinking has its place, but we can mistake daydreaming about achieving our objectives for actually attaining those goals. To make things worse Christians will pull God into our daydreams and assume He’s dreaming the same dreams right along with us.
In Proverbs 16:1 Solomon helps us examine the way we reach decisions for the future. However, the usual interpretation of this proverb is “the Lord will show us what to do and what direction to take without much human effort.” Why think or plan if God has already done the designing for us?
Christians who fail to grasp the teachings of Solomon in this proverb can spend their lives walking in circles. This is not because they “missed God’s will”, but as the result of failing to follow the directions found in Proverbs 16:1 on how to properly plan for the future.
We start with inner reflections as part of a process
Harvard psychologist and researcher Daniel Gilbert opens his best-selling book Stumbling on Happiness with what he calls “The Sentence.” “The Sentence” begins with these eight words: “The human is the only animal that ….”
How did Gilbert finish The Sentence? What is the defining feature of our humanity? He said, “The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future . . .”
Solomon starts off Proverbs 16:1 mentioning the human tendency to plan for the future: “The plans of the heart belong to man . . . “ From the Hebrew we learn the “plans of the heart” (מערכי־לב, from ערך) means “to arrange or to place together.” The wise king of Israel observes the heart as the place where we arrange our thoughts and put things together as we contemplate our decisions.
In normal situations, the intentions of the heart about our futures should be straightforward, but life is not that simple. Events take place to upset our plans or cause us to rethink the direction we have contemplated.
There are several options people choose when planning for the future:
Refuse to make plans and “trust the Lord” Many commentators see Solomon making a contrast between the thoughts of the human heart and the plans of God. They go along with the translation, The plans of the heart belong to man, BUT the answer of the tongue is from the LORD (Proverbs 16:1 ESV). However, the word “but” is not in the original Hebrew. The conjunction can be translated “and.” “The plans of the heart belong to man, AND the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.”
The present maxim by Solomon is not saying our thoughts and reflections are in contrast to the Lord’s will. It would be foolish to say we cannot plan for the future when the Book of Proverbs is filled with statements that encourage us to contemplate our future and put in hard work to make it happen.
Nowhere does Solomon say, “Commit your future to the Lord. No need to plan. For God will tell you what you need to do.” This position leaves us with a major problem: it discourages a person from thinking, planning or assessing his life.
If you are planning a trip to New York City, will you plan ahead? Will you land at JFK, and trust God will provide a stranger to transport you into Manhattan, offer to let you share his apartment for a week and feed you? I don’t call this behavior “trust in God,” but irresponsibility.
Make plans realizing you do not possess every bit of information. When we plan, we may find ourselves going in several directions at once. There is a point at which we do need the aid of the Lord. We do not know everything nor can we anticipate every potential change of events. We need a plan that God has authored.
In the recent film “Hands of Stone” legendary trainer Ray Arcel comes out of retirement to coach world class Panamanian fighter Roberto Durán. Arcel instruct Durán that to win a fight he needs to master many boxing techniques – punch combinations, body blows, footwork, jabs etc. However, in addition to skills, a boxer must have a strategy how he is going to win.
God has blessed us all with skills and talents. Yet we cannot forget life itself can be an opponent that can knock the wind out of us and defeat us with a knockout punch. We need more than techniques. We must have a strategy to win, so we can absorb the unexpected blows in life and remain standing on our feet until the fifteenth round.
Solomon tells us we are responsible to arrange our thoughts to come up with a blueprint God will hopefully bless. Yet since life is filled with unexpected blows, we cannot always come up with that plan or “answer” (מַעֲנֵ֥ה) on our own.
The rest of Proverbs 16:1 points us to the goal of wise thinking: to bring forth an answer (ענה) or a game plan. Yet we must recognize our need of the Lord to arrive at that resolution.
We end with the design of the Lord as our ultimate goal
Everything about baseball is built on precision and predictability, especially pitching. Conventional hurlers deliberately try to spin the ball a certain way. Depending on that spin, the ball will sink or curve, break left or right.
But there’s one notable exception to baseball’s predictability—the knuckleball. A good knuckleball hardly spins at all. Because a knuckler doesn’t spin, it might break two or three different times on the way to the plate. As a result the hitter has no idea where the ball is going.
Life too is unpredictable. We can plan all we want, but when the ball of opportunity comes our way, despite our skills and plans, we sometimes have no idea which way the ball is traveling. We are left standing with a bat in our hands at the plate ready to take a big swing.
Our plans, as good as they are, need guidance that is bigger than we are. Yes, bigger than our skills, years of experience and expertise.
To Solomon, this is where we need the aid of the Lord – to be able to articulate our plans and find a confidence in the direction we are to take.
Our plans are to be articulated by the tongue. Solomon wisely chooses the words, “but the answer of the tongue . . . “ We as people seeking wisdom are responsible to think through issues we face and speak forth our thoughts.
However, there are times we cannot verbalize our inner reflections especially when we attempt to make our plans in the midst of the storms of life.
I’ve had to make decisions in the midst of howling winds, constant distractions, and while other urgent matters were demanding my attention. However, we are assured of God’s participation when we try to verbalize our final plans.
Solomon assures us the “answer” will be from the Lord only to those who seek God’s guidance as we attempt to come forth with our strategy.
Our plans are partnered with the wisdom of the Lord. The first part of the proverb is not to be taken as a condemnation of human thinking. Rather, we are to see it as a co-partnering with God as part of the process of making wise choices.
We are to use our inner thought processes to think through our dilemmas. However, we are also to trust the Lord will take our thinking and sovereignly provide the solution after we’ve done our mental homework.
Perhaps all this proverb is telling us to do is to study hard for the exams of life and God will use the information stored in our brains and bring the right answers to mind when we need them.
The answer that comes to the wise person is not self-discovered despite all his thinking. It comes from the Lord (וּ֝מֵיְהוָ֗ה). To sum up Proverbs 16:1 I would say, “ A person makes plans (placing things in order) in his heart and God guides what comes out of the heart in man’s words (the reply of the tongue).”
The Boeing 747 Dreamlifter is the modified plane that can haul more cargo than any plane in the world. It weighs nearly 600,000 pounds and usually requires a runway of 9,200 feet. But in November 2013, a wayward Dreamlifter missed its intended destination of McConnell Air Force Base near Wichita, Kansas. Instead, the jumbo cargo plane landed nine miles north at the wrong airport—the city owned Jabara Airport. Jabara has no control tower and a 6,100-foot runway.
A spokesperson at McConnell Air Force Base—the right airport—said, “The tower was in contact with the pilot … [but] the guy had no clue where he was landing.” The pilot told the McConnell radio tower, “Apparently, uh, we, uh, have landed at Beech Factory Airport” (a THIRD airport located between McConnell and Jabara).
We too can be in contact with God for guidance, but have no idea where we are supposed to land. What’s missing are not the instructions from God’s control tower, but our responsibility to apply our own expertise, knowledge and to do our homework and then, and only then, seek the Lord’s guidance.
Christians who merely wait for instructions from God’s control tower, but fail to follow Solomon’s advice to think about our plans are in danger of landing at the wrong field. Yet God can always redeem a situation we have managed to complicate and transport us to the right destination.