Wednesday, January 04, 2023

A Finger on the Scales

Let’s start with one of my favorite quotes from John Calvin:

“Those who have learned from the mouth of Christ that all the hairs of his head are numbered (Matthew 10:30), will … hold that all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God.”

If I say to you, “Your days are numbered”, I could be saying no more than that I know exactly how long your life will last. I could also be threatening it. That is much like what Calvin wants the Lord to have said: that God personally determines the number of hairs on our heads. And if God exercises personal control over something so miniscule and insignificant, then he surely exercises personal control over all other matters in the universe both great and small.

Your Days are Numbered

Unfortunately for Calvin, “Your days are numbered” is an English idiom for which there is no comparable expression in the Greek New Testament. Its writers use the verb arithmeĊ and its related noun exclusively in their literal senses, meaning to count, or a total. So the scripture Calvin cites simply does not prove his deterministic conclusion. It only proves God is limitlessly knowledgeable.

More importantly, the idea of awareness (rather than control) is consistent with the context in which the Lord uses the word. He begins, “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Human beings can hide nothing from God. He goes on to add, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.” It is clear the Lord is not talking about God’s sovereign control over events, but about God’s infinite awareness of even the most trivial matters in the operation of his universe. He is saying God maintains an accurate count of sparrows and hairs, no matter how numerous they may be, not that he kills sparrows or causes men’s hair to fall out, which would be decidedly less comforting to the disciples.

Still, despite its theological problems, the quotation does have the virtue of being a clear and concise statement of Calvin’s belief that Divine determinism is in play in every single transaction in the universe, presumably right down to the subatomic level. Calvin’s modern followers certainly believe that, and they are most vocal about including individual salvation and damnation among the events God is said to determine.

Divine Sovereignty at Work

Now let’s consider a few scriptures on the theme of God’s counsels and his influence on the choices made by men. Here are some situations in which we can say with confidence that God put his finger on the scales, because the Bible tells us so explicitly.

Firstly, there is Pharaoh’s hard heart, and how it got that way:

“But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go.”

Secondly, the Canaanite tribes consistently attacked Israel first despite failure after failure. Why?

“For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses.”

Thirdly, Samson’s Philistine bride, chosen in clear violation of the will of God:

“But Samson said to his father, ‘Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes.’ His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines.”

Fourthly, Absalom’s moment of bad judgment that led to his downfall:

“Absalom and all the men of Israel said, ‘The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel.’ For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom.”

Fifthly, Rehoboam’s obduracy when his people asked for relief:

“So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word.”

Finally, Amaziah’s inexplicable determination to pick a losing fight with Joash:

“But Amaziah would not listen, for it was of God, in order that he might give them into the hand of their enemies, because they had sought the gods of Edom.”

We could find more of these, but six will do for now. The wording is different in each case, but we are left in no doubt that God directly influenced the bad choices made by human leaders.

Tempting vs. Giving Over

I have no difficulty with the idea of the Lord being behind such events. I can’t and shouldn’t because the scriptures themselves plainly insist on it. But because scripture is a unity, we cannot think for a moment that these scriptures are teaching that God made himself a source of temptation to these men, or that he forced them to do unwise, forbidden or hurtful things against their better judgment. James writes that God tempts no one, but “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire”. So let’s assign the responsibility for Pharaoh’s stubbornness, the violent impulses of the various Canaanite tribes, Samson’s lust, Absalom’s strategic blunder, Rehoboam’s pride and Amaziah’s desire for greatness squarely where it belongs: to the individuals involved.

These things were “brought about by the Lord” or “of God” only in the sense that God gave these men over to their own patterns of wrong thinking in order to accomplish his purposes for their nations. We might say he took off the brakes in a process similar to the one Paul details in the first chapter of Romans: God “gave them up”. All the normal faculties employed in leadership ceased to operate: common sense, humility, perspective, logic, pattern recognition, conscience, caution, fear. Every God-given impulse that ever causes men to pause and give an important choice some sober second thought went right out the window. God let these men be wholly themselves for once. The results were not pretty.

Some Commonalities

Let’s look at some of the common features of these scriptures:

  1. These incidents are remarkably rare, taking place years and sometimes hundreds of years apart.
  2. None of these Divine interventions has anything whatsoever to do with individual salvation or damnation. They have to do with stubborn leaders and their effects on the fate of nations.
  3. Each of these leaders received an opportunity to do things differently before being given over to their own baser impulses. Pharaoh hardened his own heart at least twice before God began to harden it. The Canaanites got four generations to repent of their immorality before attacking Israel to their own destruction. Samson blithely ignored the godly counsel of his parents. Absalom and his counselors got the sound advice of Ahithophel, but ignored it despite his proven track record and Hushai’s questionable loyalty. Rehoboam was assured Israel would be willing to serve him if only he would lighten their yoke, but would not listen. Amaziah got a prophetic warning as well as a word of caution from the king he was about to attack.
  4. These incidents come from Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, six different writers through whom the Holy Spirit made editorial comments about God’s purposes. They are sprinkled all through scripture and not confined to any particular historical era. We can safely say they represent a consistent pattern in God’s dealings with men.

Exceptions and Rules

So tell me, why would the Holy Spirit bother to note that God put his finger on the scales in these particular situations if God is in the habit of doing it all the time? What would be the point? If the consistent teaching of scripture is that “all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God”, why would the writers of scripture single out certain events for special note?

One explanation is that the writers of scripture were inconsistent in their theology. A better answer might be that in many or most choices made by men, God plays no part at all. The vast majority of our decisions are conscious choices for which we alone are completely accountable, and justifiably so.

I believe these incidents are specially noted because they are exceptional and can only be explained by the sovereign God doing something he doesn’t normally do.

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