Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sovereignty in Action

Our Calvinist friends tell us God is sovereign, and I would be the last to disagree with them. Of course, we define “sovereignty” a little differently.

I think it’s possible to believe that God is King of Everything without believing he personally ordains every act that takes place within his kingdom. John Calvin, on the other hand, was convinced that “all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God” and that “nothing happens without his counsel”. Words like counsel and government imply not just knowledge but personal direction.

But if God is behind every single event that takes place in the universe, then why do the scriptures constantly single out certain events to assure us that it was God who did them? I mean, he does EVERYTHING, right?

Everything, Sure, But ESPECIALLY This Stuff

To take but one lengthy example, the writer or writers of 1 Kings (tradition says it was the prophet Jeremiah, but we cannot be sure) seem quite conscious of God’s sovereignty; so much so that a special note is made whenever God acts, whether he does so personally or through agents. Expressions like “thus fulfilling the word of the Lord”, “the Lord gave Solomon wisdom” and even “the jar of flour shall not be spent” draw our attention to 32 different instances of God’s sovereign will (give or take) on display over a period covering roughly 120 years and over a huge swath of Middle Eastern geography.

To be fair, these are only the acts attributed to God directly by the writer of the book or by one or another of the characters found in it. (I concede that just because a particular event is not recorded for our benefit does not mean God was not directly involved in it, and that God surely did many other things during this period of history both directly and indirectly.)

The problem for the Calvinist remains, though: why make such special note of only a few events? For that matter, why note God’s sovereignty at all if it is a foregone conclusion?

A Variety of Options

It will not surprise us to find that God has a variety of options at his disposal when he decides to carry out his sovereign will:
  • Animals are a favourite: ravens feed Elijah, dogs lick up Ahab’s blood and lions strike down the disobedient (the dogs prediction could just be evidence of foreknowledge, but the ravens and lions pretty much had to be divinely commissioned).
  • The elements are subject to God: Israel sees no rain for three years, then is abruptly deluged at the request of Elijah. A mysterious and miraculous cloud fills Solomon’s temple to celebrate its inauguration. Fire from heaven consumes Elijah’s sacrifice.
  • Life and death themselves are subject to God’s will: he strikes down Jeroboam’s son and two sons of Hiel of Bethel, who had defiantly undertaken to rebuild the city of Jericho. A random bowshot from a Syrian kills King Ahab in his chariot. On the other hand, the desperate prayer of Elijah brings a widow’s son back to life.
  • The acts of men are attributed to the judgment of God. After sending Benaiah the son of Jehoiada to strike down Joab and Shimei, Solomon remarks that God has brought back their deeds on their own heads. Abiathar’s expulsion from the priesthood by King Solomon fulfills God’s prophetic judgment on the house of Eli.
  • The human body acquires miraculous properties when God so desires: Elijah is mysteriously able to outrun the chariot of Ahab.
  • Politics are subject to God’s rather indirect influence. On the advice of his peers, Rehoboam rejects the will of the people and inadvertently fulfills God’s prophecy against his father Solomon, splitting the kingdom. Ahab decides to go to war against Syria because a lying spirit inhabits the mouths of 400 Israelite prophets.
There are others, but taken together, these 22 chapters of holy writ comprise one of the more impressive witnesses to divine sovereignty found anywhere outside of the Gospels.

Once Every 1400 Days or So

But let’s put this series of divine acts of sovereign will into perspective for a moment, shall we?

Bear in mind we are talking about an average of one personally-God-directed event every four years or so, not some ongoing daily display of spiritual pyrotechnics. These events also took place in front of different audiences in different locations in and outside Israel.

Further, few of these sovereign acts are what most people would call miracles. Many would have been taken for completely natural occurrences by their unsuspecting audiences, even if their timing was a little convenient. Rain, after all, is just weather. Dry spells happen, as do sickness and death. Lions strike people down (though they don’t usually just stand there afterward without eating the body). Improbable military victories have happened before, and stupid political decisions always cause civil strife: there’s no call to bring God into it. And nobody notices the contents of a poor widow’s larder even when they seem to mysteriously last forever.

It’s quite possible that many — even most — of these acts completely escaped the attention of the Israelites who lived through them. But to the man or men who contributed to 1 Kings, these particular events are special — not because of the events themselves, but because God was uniquely and purposefully behind them.

Here’s a complete list if you’re interested:

The Sovereignty of God in 1 Kings

Solomon fulfills prophecy against house of Eli by expelling Abiathar
Solomon attributes his judgment of Joab to the Lord
Solomon attributes his judgment of Shimei to the Lord
Solomon says God will establish his throne and bless him (2:4)
Solomon says God chose him to be king; so did Adonijah (2:15)
Solomon says the Lord has given him rest on every side
God gives Solomon wisdom (3:5-14)
God fills the newly-built temple with a cloud
Solomon fulfills God’s promise to David by completing temple
The people attribute the state of the nation to the goodness of God
Queen of Sheba attributes Solomon’s reign to God’s love for Israel
God raises up Hadad and Rezon against Solomon
Rehoboam fulfills God’s word to Jeroboam by refusing the people
God sends a lion to kill his disobedient prophet
God strikes Jeroboam’s son with sickness and ultimately kills him
God is said to have chosen to put his name in Jerusalem
God is said to have driven out the Canaanite nations before Israel
God maintains evil Abijam’s kingdom for the sake of David
Baasha fulfills the prophecy against Jeroboam’s house (14:14)
God strikes down Hiel’s sons to fulfill Joshua’s prophecy re: Jericho
God feeds Elijah via ravens
God fills a widow’s jar and jug
God raises a widow’s dead son
God withholds rain from Israel for 3 years, then sends it
God sends fire from heaven at Elijah’s request
God enables Elijah to outrun Ahab’s chariot
God reveals himself to Elijah at Horeb
God gives Ahab two victories over Syria
God sends another lion to strike down a man who refuses his prophet
God sends a lying spirit to entice Ahab to his death
God kills Ahab via random bowshot for releasing Ben-Hadad (20:42)
Dogs lick up Ahab’s blood to fulfill Elijah’s prophecy (21:19)

Lying Spirits and Trumpian Politics

Perhaps every time someone makes a bad political decision it is because there has been a counsel in heaven and a lying spirit has gone out from the presence of God to set earthly events in motion. Calvin believed something along these lines (though he may have meant something a little more practical and expeditious when he used the word “counsel” than did the writer of 1 Kings). Who knows? President Trump may be dealing with the whispers of lying spirits right now. We can’t completely exclude the possibility, can we? It seems awfully labor-intensive, but God dwells in eternity. Time and space do not limit him.

But if so, why draw attention to only one solitary occurrence of a “heavenly counsel” in a 120 year period?

Yes, we agree that God is sovereign. The Son “upholds the universe by the word of his power”. None of us could draw our next breath without him. Wow. In a very extended sense, I suppose, that makes him “responsible” for every single event in the universe, good and bad.

But when we talk about sovereignty, let’s use language the way scripture uses it rather than importing our own definitions of terms. The writer of 1 Kings makes God personally responsible for considerably fewer events on earth — several orders of magnitude fewer, if we’re honest — than John Calvin did.

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