Sunday, June 02, 2019

The Divine Memory

“I will not remember your sins.”

Some people teach that God’s knowledge is limited. They rely on verses like the one I have just quoted to make the case that there are boundaries to the Infinite, self-imposed or otherwise.

We may disagree with them, but they bring up a point worth examining, and that is this: What does it mean that God does not “remember” the sins of his people?

After all, it’s a promise, and we know we can put our confidence in God’s promises. That being the case, we might be wise to figure out what exactly it is that God is promising.

To be specific: Does God literally forget the evil his people have done when they place their faith in his Son? Is God offering to reboot the Divine memory such that even he will have no recollection of the many failures, faults and transgressions of his people?

I think not. Here’s why, and why that shouldn’t bother us at all.

A Populated Heaven

God is not alone in heaven. The spirit domain is heavily populated. We cannot number the angels, but we know that sending “more than twelve legions” at a moment’s notice would have been a trivial matter for the Father. At a bare minimum, that’s 72,000 incredibly powerful spirit beings. We know from the Lord’s statement that there are more than this, and it’s implied there are many more.

A populated heaven is not merely an interesting tidbit of information offered us in scripture. It is actually highly relevant to the way we view the language of the Old Testament. Some people interpret certain hotly-disputed OT passages as if God makes every decision unilaterally ... maybe even spontaneously and emotionally. And yet the population of heaven is often involved both in the process of executing the will of God, and in deliberating it beforehand.

Several OT scenarios follow.

The Sons of God

In Job, probably the oldest book of the Bible, we find the “sons of God” presenting themselves before the Lord in the spiritual realm. Though fallen and cast out of heaven, Satan is among them, confirming that he continues to exercise his dominion notwithstanding his opposition to God. God does not withdraw delegated authority on a mere whim.

Why not? We don’t know, but he demonstrably hasn’t rescinded Satan’s office, even though many thousands of years have passed since his rebellion.

In 2 Chronicles, the prophet Micaiah saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing on his right hand and his left. That must have been an overwhelming sight. God required a means by which King Ahab would deceive himself, and one of the spirits in attendance stepped up and offered it. So there we have God consulting created beings about the best way to move forward on a particular agenda.

Why? Could not the Almighty reach a conclusion on his own about the most effective means of executing the Divine will? Surely he could. And yet he incorporated the suggestion of a created being into his plan.

A Book of Remembrance

In the prophecy of Malachi, God saw something he liked: devout Jews respectfully discussing God’s recent critique of Israel’s behavior, and wholeheartedly agreeing with God about it. He commanded that a “book of remembrance” be written before him, presumably by angels, which would document what these men and women had done, in order that they might be rewarded for their faithfulness at a later date.

Why on earth would he do that? Does God have memory lapses such that he needs a written record to refer to? Again, surely not.

What we are seeing throughout the Old Testament is repeated evidence that God does not act in a high-handed, unilateral, autocratic manner. He could, of course. He is God. He can do whatever he pleases. And yet he doesn’t. He governs his universe in an orderly fashion, letting his ministers perform the jobs he has assigned them. He lets the scenarios he has set in motion play out with very little interference.

Heaven is not a democracy. We might not call the convocations in heaven a “parliament” exactly. But what we can say is that God does everything he does in the presence of his created witnesses, and he takes great pains to involve them in what he is doing. At no point in scripture do we ever see him leaping into action on his own, disdaining the due process he himself has instituted.

“Let Us”

Even at the beginning, when the decisions about God’s creation began to really matter, we read, “Let US make man in our image.” That plurality is really there in Hebrew. Whatever else that implies, it means that God does not act unilaterally, emotionally, or arbitrarily. There is a system in place by which he makes and ratifies his decisions.

How does this relate to God’s memory, or lack thereof? We need to recognize that when the writers of scripture refer to God “remembering” or “not remembering”, they are speaking legally or administratively, not literally. They are employing a figure of speech. They are trying to tell us that God acted officially, decently and in order, according to the rules that he has established in heaven, and according to the expectations he has established with respect to his dealings with his creatures. Many times when it is used in the Bible, the word “remember” has nothing to do with actual memory. A whole host of witnesses are observing everything God is doing, and he is operating for their benefit as well as that of the human beings under consideration. The word “remember” evokes all that.

God “Remembered” Abraham

Consider these verses:
  • “God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow.” Remembered Abraham? How could God forget him? He’d just had an extended conversation with the man in the previous chapter, only days or weeks prior. If God’s memory needs help, it apparently needs a LOT of help. But that’s not it at all. What the passage is saying is that God acted consistently with his discussion with Abraham. He behaved himself as he had pledged to do.
  • Among King David’s officials is listed one Jehoshaphat the son of Alihud. Jehoshaphat is said to have served as the zakar, or in Hebrew, “memory”. Translators go with the title “recorder”. He was the guy who wrote things down so the officials of later kings would act consistently with the decisions taken during David’s reign. His function had little or nothing to do with human synapses and everything to do with legality. The U.S. constitution serves a similar purpose.
  • In Psalm 87, the word “remember” is used effectively as a synonym for the words “record” and “register”. When the psalmist says, “Among those who know me I remember Rahab and Babylon,” it is not that he could possibly have forgotten them. He means that he is making mention of them.
A Divine Memory Lapse

When God says he will remember our sins no more, it is not that there has been some kind of Divine memory lapse. Some might feel it would be nice to have all our sins literally forgotten, but I’d find that more than a little disconcerting. If God could literally forget sin, could he also forget his promises to you and to me? That would pose a serious problem.

No, that’s not what “remembering” and “forgetting” mean in this context. They are legal terms that have nothing to do with awareness or cognizance, and everything to do with judicial ruling. God is not oblivious to our sin. He never will be. But legally speaking, my sin and yours are off the books. The heavenly records have been rewritten to exclude our failures, transgressions and faux pas, and God will never again demand they be held against us.

I prefer that to a literal interpretation of “remember”. You may or may not, depending on your theology. Regardless, the scriptures teach it.


  1. Good to know but how far would you take that? Perhaps even to the point where you would say that there is even trial by jury 8-) ?

  2. Maybe not by jury, but it sure is a public display and an organized, predictable process:

    "Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done." (Rev. 20:12)

    Sounds official to me.