What does Proverbs 21:1 mean?
ESV: The king 's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.
NIV: In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him.
NASB: The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He pleases.
CSB: A king’s heart is like channeled water in the Lord’s hand: He directs it wherever he chooses.
NLT: The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the Lord; he guides it wherever he pleases.
KJV: The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.
NKJV: The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.
Verse Commentary:
This verse credits the Lord with sovereign control over kings. Other proverbs note the tremendous power kings and rulers hold in this world (Proverbs 19:12). Yet the most powerful person is still subject to God's power and His will (Proverbs 21:30). If or when God chooses, He can shape a person's inner desires (Exodus 10:1–2). The Lord can use even secular government leaders to serve His purpose.

In 538 BC the Lord moved King Cyrus of Persia to pass an edict allowing the Hebrew captives to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Cyrus said, "The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem. which is in Judah" (Ezra 1:2). Centuries later, God used Caesar Augustus to cause Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born in fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah 5:2. Luke records the fact that Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome, passed a decree that all the world should be registered. Therefore, everyone went to his own town to be registered (Luke 2:1–3). The decree caused Joseph to go to Bethlehem, his ancestral town, and to take Mary with him (Luke 2:4–5). While they were in Bethlehem, Jesus was born (Luke 2:6–7).
Verse Context:
Proverbs 21:1–16 continues Solomon's wise observations (Proverbs 10:1) by acknowledging the Lord's control of kings. He also mentions what the Lord despises: pride, love of money, violence, the conduct of the wicked, the withholding of charity, bribery, and apostasy. On the other hand, he commends righteousness and justice, pure conduct, wise acceptance of instruction, and charity.
Chapter Summary:
This chapter begins and ends with a declaration of God's sovereignty. He alone judges the heart; the Lord considers intentions just as important as physical actions. Other comments include statements about unpleasant spouses, proper perspectives on wealth, work ethic, and the essential nature of godly wisdom. Human wisdom is no match for the sovereign Lord, who alone is ultimately responsible for victory in battle.
Chapter Context:
This is part of the second major section of the book (Proverbs 10—22) featuring nearly four hundred statements. Most of these are two-line comments presenting common sense and general wisdom. The vague theme of chapter 21 is God's control. Man may believe he is in control of his circumstances, but God superintends everything. The chapter begins and ends by assuring the readers that God holds ultimate sway over all things.
Book Summary:
Proverbs is best understood in context with the books of Ecclesiastes and Job. In Proverbs, “wisdom” is given in short, simple, general terms. Ecclesiastes represents wisdom based on observation and experience. This often shows how the general principles of the book of Proverbs don’t apply in absolutely every circumstance. Job represents wisdom based on the experience of suffering and injustice. All three come to the conclusion that God does indeed know best, and the most sensible course of action is to follow His will.
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