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Proverbs 16:33

" The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the Lord."

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3 Answers 3

The Hebrew word used in Psalm 16:33 is גּוֹרָל, which refers to stones which were cast to get a decision. Garments were also used sometimes. The word can also be used as a metaphor for 'destiny.'1 The IVP commentary explains that casting lots "is a form of divination in which the assumption is that God will determine the cast and thus provide the answer (usually yes or no) to the question that is posed."2

The clear implication from this verse is that 'the LORD' decides the final outcome of the cast lot(s) - it is not left to chance.

Footnotes

1 Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1999), 185.

2 Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

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One tradition they had then was the casting of lots, just small items such as stones, to reach decisions on important matters. Once the decision had been made they didn’t argue anymore.

Just beyond that Proverbs 16:33 is Proverbs 18:18’s “The lot puts an end to disputes, and is decisive in a controversy between the mighty”. (Proverbs 18:18).

Another point using “lot” is in Acts 1:23-26. There the remaining 11 apostles needed a new 12th to replace Judas. They'd decide via a prayer and the casting of lots.

Acts 1:23-26: So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place”. Then they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles.

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while the example in Acts is a similar cultural practice, it comes from a text written in another language from the word in question and another time period, author, and faith. Please connect the dots a little more as this question is about the lot in a specific Hebrew Bible passage. –  Dan Dec 2 '13 at 19:15
    
You have provided another use of the word from the Old Covenant. Though the passage in Acts is written in another language, the culture about which it was written was the same--Jewish. The acts passage demonstrates that the Hebrews believed this verse in Proverbs to be true. The dots connect nicely; perhaps you could edit your answer to show it. –  user2027 Feb 6 at 5:38

The "lot" is a form of gambling, as when the Roman soldiers at the cross of Christ gambled for Jesus' garments by "casting lots" (see Mt 27:35; Mk 15:24; Jn 19:24). Perhaps they threw specially shaped or colored stones, or cubes of wood with numbers on them.

The lot can also be a way to make a difficult decision, as when the sailors on the ship in which Jonah was a passenger cast lots to determine whom to throw overboard. Evidently the sailors blamed someone on board for the storm that threatened to sink their boat, so they cast lots to determine who the jinx was (see Jonah 1:7). The lot fell to Jonah, so overboard he went. God, of course, provided a great fish to swallow Jonah and deposit him on land three days later, alive and repentant.

In the Near Middle East, to this day men and women wear long, flowing garments. In Arabic, they're called gallabaya (I'm spelling it phonetically). When a person sits down, therefore, he can then throw the dice (or stones, or whatever) into his lap, and his gallabaya functions as a table for the dice. When the dice are thrown, someone wins and someone loses or an important decision is made by the shear randomness of the casting of lots. "The die is cast" is an expression you do not hear much today, and it means the decision has been made and that there are no do-overs.

The "magic eight-ball" of today, which can probably still be purchased at some novelty stores, is a form of casting lots. You ask it a question, such as "Should I attend the party I've been invited to on Saturday night?" Inside the eight-ball is a device with various answers on it, and when you turn the eight-ball over, a random answer is displayed, such as, "Most definitely" or "No way, Jose."

What the writer of Proverbs 16:33 is saying is simply this, and I paraphrase:

You are free to toss the dice into your lap to gamble or to help you make a decision, but in the end, only the Lord's purposes will prevail.

When you think about it, the greatest levelers of all are God and His decrees. Yes, we humans have a free will, and when we have a hard time exercising that free will to, for example, take or not take a job that is offered to us, we are free to toss the dice, cast lots, blindfold ourselves and throw a dart, flip a coin, consult a magic eight ball, or perform any action to make the decision for us. Regardless of the outcome, God's purposes cannot be thwarted, at least in the "big picture," especially for His children.

The Bible does not generally condone the casting of lots as the preferred means of making a decision. While the Tanakh had its Urim and Thummim, which were gemstones used to determine God's will (see Nu 27:21; 1 Sam 28:6; Ez 2:63; Neh 7:65), and the "Eleven" used the casting of lots to determine who should replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:26), in general the people of God are to seek God's face and wisdom in the making of important decisions, and not to rely on a toss of the dice. God is honored when we limit our guidance in matters that are of importance to Him to the following:

  • Prayer, individually and corporately

  • Fasting

  • Godly counsel, from God's word and from other believers

  • Inner peace, settled-ness, or full assurance of faith, and

  • Circumstances

Books have been written on each of the above elements. At this point, however, suffice it to say the casting of lots, in whatever form it takes, is likely the least reliable means of decision-making and guidance.

There are perhaps times when in our predicaments we, like Gideon of old, feel led to put out a fleece as a means of confirming what is or is not God's will for us (see Judges 6:37-40). There have been times for all of us, I imagine, when on the brink of making a decision we say, for example, "If the next person to walk in the door has short red hair, then I'll take that as a sign that God wants me to move to Timbuktu to be a missionary."

This scenario (or one of your own invention) is similar to casting lots in that there is an unpredictable randomness to it. Since the future is largely veiled to all of us, and in the absence of clear guidance from God, we sometimes feel we need a little helping hand to push us in the right direction. I suggest, however, that the times when we resort to such tactics should be few and far between and used only as a last resort. After all, God has promised to guide us with His eye (Ps 32:8 and 33:18) and that

"The steps [and stops] of a good man are ordered by the LORD: and he delighteth in his way" (Psalm 37:23).

I added the words and stops to the above verse, because there are times when God needs to put our plans on "hold," for whatever reason(s). We then need to stop, exercise patience, and wait upon the Lord until He gives us the go-ahead (see verse 34).

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