We have learned to be cynical about both leaders and leadership, and so we are slow to capture the rich blessing that a good leader produces for the fortunate community that surrounds him. To modern eyes and ears, the biblical account of kings and princes is sometimes embarrassingly lavish. Yet this impression fades when the relative restraint of the Hebrew Bible with regard to human leaders is contrasted with the sometimes slavish hyperbole that characterizes Israel’s ancient neighbors when they set to chronicling—and lionizing—their kings.
In the biblical proverb before us, the king’s heart is not autonomous. Rather, in good Israelite style the royal heart is both recognized a more elevated organ than the heart of your average Joe and constrained, in this case by being found ‘in the hand of the LORD’:
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1 ESV)
Probably, we are to see YHWH standing behind his human vice-regent, directing and even controlling the monarch’s will.
Almost certainly we are also to recognize streams of water (פלג־מים) as a refreshing, irrigating, slaking abundance of water in an otherwise dry and threatening place. If this is right, the two halves of the proverb do not say the same thing, nor does the second merely restate the first with greater specificity.
Rather, the king’s heart as rivers of water speaks of the capacity of a good ruler to refresh and sustain his people, a matter that is stated just once. Immediately this special potential is twice recognized to be something other than an autonomous human trait. It is, rather, YHWH’s blessing, written deep into the rhythms of human deliberation and decision.
The king’s desire and his unique ability to effect that desire are in fact both authored by YHWH, who holds that heart in his hand. With his hand firmly placed around that heart, YHWH directs it against little resistance or friction: wherever he will.
The king deliberates, decides, decrees. Yet all along he is merely realizing a higher will than his own for a greater good than he might imagine. His heart is both held and directed, as human decision finds its context in divine purpose.
In its broader context and according to its persistent realism, biblical wisdom does not commit the callow error of suggesting that a ruler’s influence is always this benign. Rather, wisdom speaks aspirationally. It is not that things always are this way, but that they can be this way.
The emerging leader, the youth just beginning to dream of a life dedicated to something larger than itself, the mother or father with a family to build, glimpses this vision of divine-human cooperation and wonders if things could be thus, even with me.