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We Didn’t Start the Fire

Wisdom in seeing God's sovereignty over kings and leaders 

Proverbs 21:1

1 The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord,
Like the rivers of water;
He turns it wherever He wishes.

Proverbs 21:30

30 There is no wisdom or understanding
Or counsel against the Lord.


On September 18, 1989, pianist and American singer-songwriter Billy Joel released the song “We Didn't Start the Fire.” It was a frenetically-performed, almost breathlessly sung compilation of the nearly fifty years of world and domestic culture news and events that made up the last half of the 20th century. It both dazzled and confused audiences as it was a departure from other more typical works of Joel that included the melancholy “The Piano Man” and the pop favorite “Uptown Girl.”

“We Didn't Start the Fire” takes you from the 1950’s to the late 1980's with the lyrics:

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio…

And concludes with:

Hypodermics on the shore, China's under martial law
Rock and roller, cola wars, I can't take it anymore…

Although it eventually “went platinum” in sales, it only topped the music charts for a short time. It connected with audiences in a visceral sort of way, but seemed not to have the same playability that Joel’s other songs–and most other contemporary hits–required for true popularity. 

Since then, “We Didn't Start the Fire” has been subject to numerous parodies and covers by more contemporary artists. When asked by Oxford University about the possibility of recording a sequel, Joel reportedly declined stating that he never liked the melody and that the song “wasn’t really very good.” 

Joel stated in a 1996 interview that he had been inspired to write the song after a young colleague mentioned the miserable state of the world as he turned 21. Wars in the middle east, the Cold War, terrible social issues, and rampant commercialism had left the young man depressed. Joel tried to sympathize by saying that times had been hard when he turned 21 in 1969. 

The young man reminded Joel that he had grown up in the 1950’s when times were great. Joel responded by reminding him of things like the Korean War and the Suez Canal Crisis–and the lyrics for “We Didn't Start the Fire” began to form.

Both the young man and Billy Joel seem to have something there. This past week, a short video appeared on social media celebrating the great times of the 1980’s. It is titled “Tribute to the 80’s” and joins a thousand others like it, filled with nostalgic clips of the popular movies, TV, and music that marked a generation. 

My wife (and fellow Generation X’er) joined me in watching it, happily pointing out favorite movies and TV characters of our childhood. My two teenaged sons were unimpressed, and I think one of them even mentioned something like “it wasn’t all that good.” Doubtless he was referring to his own history studies (the years of my childhood are part of history books now!) that referred to wars and other events. 

Like the young man and Billy Joel, the same is with my young man and me, like Solomon writes: 

9 That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.–Ecclesiastes 1:9

The state of the world today seems to be a flashback to the 1980’s in realtime does it not? There is trouble in the middle east, the threat of war with Russia, and consumerism is as rampant as it ever. This sinful world will never learn. In Proverbs 21, Solomon reminds you that although this is true, God is still sovereign, and nothing happens outside of His will:

1 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

In this passage, Solomon is seeking to teach the young people of Israel ( including his own son Rehoboam–who will one day succeed his father to the throne) the moral instruction that God’s blessings can come through His anointed king. As the heart of a person directs his own actions, so too, the heart of a king directs his own actions and the actions of his kingdom.

The lesson here, is of course, that wisdom is to be found in understanding the relationship between God and the kings of earth–and that those who live under the reigns of such human rulers, also live under the reign of the Eternal King. 

In the modern west, where you live under Democratic Republics and profess a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” you are tempted to either disregard these verses of kings and princes as somewhat antiquated, or pay extra close attention to them during election years. 

Regardless of your political persuasion, as a believer you know that your ultimate loyalty lies with the King of Kings and with your Heavenly Father, the King of Creation. Solomon reminds you that He is ultimately in control of the hearts and actions of earthly rulers. Verse 1 of Proverbs 21 illustrates this beautifully.

The king’s (or president’s) heart is in the hand of I AM, for whether a political leader is a benevolent dictator, an ineffective governor, a tyrannical despot, or a wise president, he (or she) us never outside the bounds of Providence. 

There can be great comfort in this passage, for it is a reminder that God works within the bounds of His creation. He has not set up the order of things and then retired to Arizona to play golf. No, your Heavenly Father is sovereign over all–even evil and the good kings.  

“Like rivers of water” is an image of flowing blessing, just like we sing in Thomas Ken’s “most famous hymn in history,” the Doxology:

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him, all creatures here below…

The blessings of a nation or kingdom come, not simply through good economic policy or domestic growth, they come from God. As commentator Bruce Waltke says:

The king, who steers his people, is himself steered by the just God–Bruce Waltke, “Proverbs”

God is at work in the governing decisions of the heads of state–as well as in their personal actions. “He turns it wherever He wishes” is an image of agricultural and engineering significance. Like the Corps of Engineers can divert even the mightiest river through levees, locks and dams, a farmer can divert water from a stream or canal to irrigate his crops. 

God is the farmer, the king’s heart is the irrigation channel; and, as Waltke writes, “God’s well-watered garden is the godly and needy.”

This image is found throughout the Bible. Like water from the rock in the time of Moses, God cares for Israel throughout the Old Testament:

15 He split the rocks in the wilderness,
And gave them drink in abundance like the depths.

16 He also brought streams out of the rock,
And caused waters to run down like rivers.–Psalm 78:15-16

Through kings of old, such as Cyrus the Great, God allowed judgement:

1 “Thus says the Lord to His anointed,
To Cyrus, whose right hand I have held—
To subdue nations before him
And loose the armor of kings,
To open before him the double doors,
So that the gates will not be shut:–Isaiah 45:1

And through Darius (who conquered the lands of the brutal Assyrians), God brought blessing:

22 And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy; for the Lord made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.–Ezra 6:22 

The One who comes to be the living personification of the “water from the rock” knows His own power before the great kings of earth. As the giver of the very “water of life,” Christ stands even before the mighty Roman administrator Pontius Pilate and hears his threats. The Son of the Most High speaks quietly through split lips but with eternal thunder:

11 Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”–John 19:11

World leaders today, like nearly all world leaders throughout history, forget their place before the Lord of Hosts. They believe that blessings come to their people by good foreign and domestic policy, and providing benefits to their friends, lobbyists, and political allies. 

If they only knew how little power they truly had they would surely be humbled. For even their mistakes, or the works of terrible kings fall under God’s sovereign rule. This proverb is a reminder that, as Tim Keller says: 

…if you set yourself against God to defy His will, you will end up only accomplishing His will–at your own expense.–Timothy Keller, “God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life”

Are your national, state, or local leaders wise and just, or are they corrupt and despotic? A little of both, perhaps? What God is telling you here, is that there is no wisdom, insight, or plan that can succeed against the Lord:

30 There is no wisdom or understanding
Or counsel against the Lord.–Proverbs 21:30

The simple truth is, the people of a nation or kingdom are directly affected by the moral behavior of their leaders. There is tremendous comfort in knowing that blessing can come from this, but also the sober reminder that curses can also result. 

When a national (or other government leader) is immoral or unjust, this can result in a culture that reflects his or her moral degradation–as well as resulting punishments. In many ways, the problems in the modern west are the consequences of selfish, man-centered civic leaders and their actions. The moral relativism, the personal grift and lax morals are bearing fruit in growing social chaos.

When we think of the “rain falling on the just and unjust" (Matthew 5:45) we like to think of the good aspects: how the wicked benefit from Gods grace. We should not forget the negative: sometimes the just suffer for the consequences of wicked leaders.

What then are you to do? As a righteous person and a Christian, how do you navigate such times? Could you really find yourself suffering alongside your fellow countrymen in such time as these? The sobering fact may be yes. But all hope is not lost. Here is what you must do:

Stand for righteousness. Someone may be waiting to hear your godly voice in their wilderness of despair. Your neighbors need Christ, and you are called to proclaim Him to them, to be the comfort He provides (Romans 10:34). Now, more than ever, is the time for the church, the community of believers, to shine.

Second, you must lay your plans before God, even if your leaders will not. Even if society crumbles around you, or your nation is plunged into war, you must acknowledge God’s sovereignty over your life and all of the universe. Even as Jesus’s disciples despaired in the middle of the storm, Jesus was there for them:

25 Then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing! 26 But He said to them, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.–Matthew 8:25-26

Therefore the next time fear grips you, it may be you are fueled too much in your own plans. You “didn’t start the fire” of the turmoil of this world, and though you may suffer for the foolishness of your leaders, your savior has not forgotten you, for He who made the storm will calm the storm in your heart.  



The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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