RAYMOND C. ORTLUND JR.
Does the Old Testament teach the sovereign freedom of God in his dealings with man, as classical Calvinism affirms? The purpose of this chapter is to argue afresh that the Old Testament does indeed contain such teaching. It is not the purpose of this chapter to explore the profound mystery of divine sovereignty interfacing with human responsibility. I aim rather to demonstrate that passages in the Old Testament can be shown to be agreeable with the confidence of Calvinism that, from his position of absolute supremacy, God rules over all things in a way which necessarily precludes his being limited by creaturely factors.
In pursuing this aim I am in no way insinuating a denial of the reality of human responsibility. Rather, I wish to follow Holy Scripture in its strong affirmation of the ultimacy of God over and in all things, including authentic human responsibility. I will leave to others the further question as to how divine sovereignty and human responsibility dovetail in such a way that the moral significance of human agency is safeguarded while, at the same time and in a deeper sense, human agency in no way whatever limits the freedom and efficacious power of God or renders uncertain the fulfillment of his eternal decrees. I believe that reality does indeed disclose the infallibly effectual unfolding of God’s will through responsible human agency, and I have a few thoughts on how such a wonder might make sense; but here I intend only to ground the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the bedrock of several specific Old Testament passages. For all who accept the biblical text as their major premise in theological thought, any other questions subsequently raised must be considered in the clear and glorious light of the doctrine of God’s unfrustrated sovereignty, once it is established exegetically.
The collections of essays entitled Grace Unlimited and The Grace of God, the Will of Man together devote only one chapter to the Old Testament. Regrettably, this chapter overlooks conspicuous Old Testament declarations of God’s sovereignty. For example, no mention is made of God’s decision to bypass Esau in favor of Jacob or of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, both of which are important in Paul’s New Testament exposition of the sovereign ways of God. Reading this essay, one would never know that the Old Testament declares:
“Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exod. 4:11)
“I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things.” (Isa. 45:7)
Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways
and harden our hearts so that we do not revere you? . . .
No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand. (Isa. 63:17; 64:7–8)
Who can speak and have it happen,
if the Lord has not decreed it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that both calamities and good things come? (Lam. 3:37–38)
His dominion is an everlasting dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?” (Dan. 4:34–35)
Such striking testimonies to God’s supremacy over us, which not only invite theological exploration but also demand bowed heads and humbled hearts, are disregarded in the Arminian presentation. Moreover, the discussion that is offered lacks the exegetical demonstration necessary to give the argument persuasive force. My point in making this critical observation is simply to explain why this chapter will not respond directly to the Old Testament argumentation put forward in Grace Unlimited and The Grace of God, the Will of Man. There is little to respond to.
I intend to show that the Old Testament contains passages which must, by any reasonable interpretative standard, be accepted as teaching a divine sovereignty operative in human life that is individual (rather than merely corporate), salvific (rather than merely historical), and effectual (rather than contingent). Let us consider three such texts.
Psalm 139 is divided into four paragraphs of six verses each. In verses 1–6, David affirms God’s intimate knowledge of him. In verses 7–12, he affirms God’s ubiquitous presence with him. In verses 13–18, he affirms God’s sovereign creation of him. And in verses 19–24, David responds to God’s love with open-hearted consecration. It is important to bear in mind that, as David composes this psalm, his life is at risk. He has taken a stand for God, but powerful and villainous people are opposing him for it. Their hatred of God leads them to hate David and threaten his very life, as may be surmised from verses 19–22. He does not yet know what will become of him, but his response is to flee by faith to God. There, in God’s presence, David takes stock of his life. “What do I have going for me? What can I count on right now?” And he finds assurance in the truths that God knows him searchingly, that God is with him universally, and that God created him sovereignly. Rather than feel threatened by such a God, David draws strength from his loving care and is renewed within to fight on.
Our interest here lies in the first and third paragraphs. Firstly then, in verses 1–6, David prays, “God, you know me.”
O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me. (v. 1)
In Job 28:3 the verb translated “search” is used of miners digging down into the earth. In Judges 18:2 it is used of explorers spying out a land. In Proverbs 25:2 it is used of kings inquiring into the depths of an intellectual problem. In an analogous sense, God has searched through David with the result that he knows him thoroughly. It is evident from verse 23, moreover, that David is not threatened by this all-knowing God. He gladly opens his heart to and finds reassurance in God’s penetrating scrutiny of his soul.
When the risen Lord appeared to the apostle John to address the seven churches of Asia Minor, he revealed himself as one “whose eyes are like blazing fire . . . who searches hearts and minds” (Rev. 2:18, 23). He began his message to each of the seven churches with the words, “I know.” And in the Book of Acts God is twice described as the “Heartknower” (Acts 1:24; 15:8). In the letter to the Hebrews we read that “nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). Therefore, what David affirms with regard to himself in Psalm 139 is no less true for all of God’s people. The psalm is paradigmatic of the ways of God.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar. (v. 2)
Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD. (v. 4)
In verse 2a David acknowledges that his outward behavior lies exposed before God, while in 2b David extends the divine knowledge even to his inner life, his secret thoughts, motives, and desires. God knows it all “from afar.” In verses 7–12 David makes the point that God is always present with him. The distance in view in verse 2, then, must be not spatial but temporal, as this word is also used in Isaiah 22:11, 25:1, and 37:26. Long before any impulse wells up from within David’s psyche, long before David himself knows what his next mood or feeling will be, long before he knows where his train of thought will eventually lead, God perceives it all.
Verse 4 makes the same point, only reinforcing it with respect to the very words coming out of David’s mouth. Before David said “Before,” God knew it. Before he said “a,” God knew it. Before he said “word,” and so on. God is never caught by surprise or thrown off balance by David. God also knows what David’s enemies are going to plot against him before they themselves know. No one gets a step ahead of this omniscient God, and David drinks this truth in as his theological fountain of youth.
You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me. (v. 5)
In the first line of this verse David uses a strong word, weakly rendered “hem in” by the New International Version. This verb is frequently used in the Old Testament of an army laying siege to a city, as when Joab besieged Rabbah (1 Chron. 20:1). David is confessing his vivid awareness of God’s unrelenting attentions bombarding the fortress of his soul from all sides. Wherever he turns, David is confronted by the all-seeing eyes of God. As a result, God has David under his control, as the second line implies. All David can do is yield. And neither may David’s enemies touch him, unless God allows it.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain. (v. 6)
Now David concludes, with relief and joy, that he is no match for this all-knowing God. Is it not interesting how David presses his theology to the limit, seeking reassurance that no conceivable extremity of distress could possibly push him out beyond the range of God’s watchful care? David’s whole point in verses 5–6 is that he cannot surprise God, he cannot anticipate God, he cannot move ahead of God. And so he collapses in a sort of glad defeat, overwhelmed by this inescapable and loving God. Everywhere he turns, every thought he thinks, every fear he dreads, David encounters God, and he joyfully surrenders.
How then can God be thought of as one who responds to man, in an Arminian sense? If God exercises such foreknowledge of us as we see in Psalm 139, then in what ultimate sense is God in a position of responding to us? How can we limit God’s choices or impose conditions upon him? And more to the point exegetically, for what purpose is David reviewing the truth of God’s intimately personal omniscience? To draw strength from this God who never loses sight of him, who understands what he is thinking and how he is feeling right now and who is always far out ahead of David’s current situation. Divine foreknowledge, one of the very things some Arminians seem anxious to minimize by qualifications, David glories in. There is more at variance between Arminianism and Calvinism than theological formulation. These systems also represent two disparate sets of values and affections. Arminianism rejoices in human autonomy and divine limitation, while Calvinism rejoices in human dependence and divine all-sufficiency.
Then, in verses 13–18, David prays,
“God, you made me.”
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well. (vv. 13–14)
The emphatic word in the first line of verse 13 is “you.” Behind, in, and through the natural process of fetal development, God himself was at work on David: “You made me.” To separate the work of God from the secondary causes and processes he employs to accomplish his will is highly artificial biblically and quite unnecessary logically. However events emerge and transpire, they are “your works,” according to verse 14. The Arminian impulse, so quick to distinguish the human from the divine in the unfolding of events—to guard the autonomy of human agency, presumably—seems a curiously misplaced concern. David feels no such urgency in his interpretation of reality, as one can see here. Indeed, it is the very presence of God within events which David finds reassuring.
David also confesses that God created his “inmost being.” The usage of this word (e.g., Prov. 23:16, “my inmost being will rejoice”; Ps. 73:21, “my spirit was embittered”) suggests that this is David’s psyche, his inner man responding freely to the realities of his experience. And David is saying that God created and shaped this very capacity for perceiving, thinking, and feeling. The only instrument David has for connecting with reality is David, and God crafted even that. Although his inner reflexes are authentic and morally significant—as their appearance in the psalm implies, to say nothing of biblical teaching generally—they cannot be thought of as functioning autonomously, for God made them by his own sovereign act to begin with. God and David, then, cannot be equal players in the operation of reality, however divine sovereignty and human responsibility interact.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be. (vv. 15–16)
The New International Version’s rendering of verse 16 obscures the force of the text, as if it were declaring that the total number of days in David’s life were recorded in God’s book. But that is not what the Hebrew suggests, nor is it as relevant to David’s controlling purpose in the psalm. That God has ordained the number of days David will live is not unimportant, but David’s actual point is more profound. The Revised Standard Version interprets the Hebrew text more plainly:
. . . in thy book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
David is affirming that God wrote the script of his life in the great book of God’s intentions before the actual events began to unfold, indeed, before David was even born. And, mixing his metaphors, David also says that the days of his life were formed or shaped, suggesting the action of a potter shaping clay. He means that his life, considered not only as a whole but also right down to his daily experience, was determined (what other word fits?) ahead of time. And why does David make this point? Because it assures him that he is not here in this present danger by chance. He is living out God’s will and plan for his life, and this faith gives David godly poise in the face of danger.
This deserves a moment’s reflection. David is thinking his way down to the bedrock of his existence, where his faith can find rest. The distressing hostilities around him threaten both body and soul. Everything around him swirls in uncertainty. He could lose his nerve. So what does he need right now? Certainty. It would not make sense for David to appeal to a contingency as he searches for a place to stand. It does make sense that David is reaching out to hold fast to that which stands immovable. And in his soul’s quest, where does David land? On God’s sovereignty, shaping the events of his personal life day by day and foreordaining even his present emergency. That puts it into a completely new, theocentric perspective, so that David can stand, serene, confident, and ready to face anything. This strong doctrine of a strong Sovereign has the power to make a strong believer out of otherwise frightened David.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand. (vv. 17–18a)
David feels overwhelmed by God’s detailed, constant, watchful care. The loving attention of God, hovering over his child, is so minute, so comprehensive, that David cannot fully grasp it. He sees by faith an invisible and powerful Presence with him, enveloping him, caring for him, orchestrating each day of his life, and he rejoices.
In this light, it seems odd that anyone would refer to Calvinism as “the determinist kind of theology, the type that subordinates God’s love to the ideal of absolute power.” Why must one create a dichotomy between God’s love and his absolute, determining power? Psalm 139 does not do that. One can see here in the text that God’s power over David’s daily life draws from him a response of deep gladness and wonder, precisely because God exercises his power in love. Reflecting upon God’s sovereignty over him, David feels loved. He understands that the almighty Determiner is no less the solicitous Lover. That is the very reason why David reminds himself of this truth at this time. David has his back against the wall. Violent men are moving in on him. He does not know whether he will live out the day. How does David fortify himself within? With the exhilarating truth that a sovereign God loves him, has always loved him, and will not therefore let him fall by chance into the abyss of human cruelty.
If Arminianism were true, then evil would exercise autonomous power. In that case, not only David but we as well would have something to worry about. Evil would operate outside the controlling love of God. It is at work. It is on the move. Its malice takes aim between our eyes. And God is not in full control of it? Dreadful thought, in this world of child molesters and drunk drivers and drive-by shootings! But Arminianism is not true. How could David have written Psalm 139, if his theology had been the equivalent to Arminianism? David’s reasoning in this psalm is premised upon the conviction that evil is fully subservient to God’s sovereign love. Without this virile theology, Psalm 139 would never have arisen out of David’s soul.
The call of the prophet Jeremiah also illustrates the operation of God’s sovereign grace effectually energizing, lifting, and strengthening an individual, to the greater glory of God. Upon some unspecified occasion, the Lord confronted Jeremiah by revealing to him the divinely chosen mission for which he had been born:
The word of the LORD came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (vv. 4–5)
God explains to Jeremiah that his life has a larger significance than he had ever known before. God has appointed him to lift a prophetic voice to the nations, for which mission Jeremiah has long been prepared. God formed him in the womb, shaping and equipping him in a way suited to the divine purpose. And even before his conception in the womb, God “knew” Jeremiah. In one sense, of course, God foreknew Jeremiah no more or less than God in his omniscience and eternality foreknows every human being. But that cannot be the point here, because mere foresight is no guarantee of special favor, which is the very thing timid Jeremiah needs assurance of at this moment. This divine foreknowledge must entail something special personally, or else God’s claim carries no force. The verb translated “know” (ydʿ) is used elsewhere of more than mere cognition:
“Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him [lit., known him] so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD. . . .” (Gen. 18:18–19)
For the LORD watches over [lit., knows] the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Ps. 1:6)
“But I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out of Egypt.
You shall acknowledge no God but me,
no Savior except me.
I cared for you [lit., knew you] in the desert,
in the land of burning heat.” (Hos. 13:4–5)
“You only have I chosen [lit., known]
of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you
for all your sins.” (Amos 3:2)
Such relational knowledge must be intended in Jeremiah 1:5, because only that kind of sense functions meaningfully as the follow-up announcement to “Before I formed you in the womb.” There seems to be a heightening in the progress of thought, moving from the lesser to the greater, so that “Before I formed you in the womb” followed by “I foresaw your existence” falls flat. By contrast, to complement “Before I formed you in the womb” with “I chose you” is rhetorically meaningful and personally powerful. The parallel ideas (“I set you apart” and “I appointed you”) corroborate the interpretation of “I knew you” as a sovereignly operative foreknowledge. And more principially, divine foreknowledge must entail divine purpose:
“I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” (Isa. 46:9b–10 RSV)
God does not foreknow events with bare prescience, so that he must look on as events unfold in history out of his control. He foreknows all things, actual and potential, “the end from the beginning,” including authentic human choices, precisely because “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” The import of God’s word to Jeremiah, therefore, amplified and paraphrased, is something like this:
I discerned which peculiar traits and characteristics, which special graces and virtues, would be ideal for the fulfilling of my purpose for your life mission. You now have them, for I devoted my personal attention to your conception and development in the womb, so that all the variables would concur for the actualization of my will. And that special care itself was only the implementation of my prior choice of you to play this part in the drama of redemptive history. I singled you out and set my affection on you before you even existed. You are, and always have been, surrounded by my personal care and purposeful guidance.
One wonders, therefore, why Calvinism is caricatured in the following manner: “Divine election [according to Arminianism] functions more like a love affair between persons than a preprogrammed computer operation [as in Calvinism].” This misrepresents the Calvinism that I, along with millions of others, believe in and cherish. Of course, the Calvinistic understanding of election is a love affair and not a Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes computer selection! The glory of sovereign election is that the One choosing us loves us with a love that will never let us go, unlike the helplessly pleading divine love of Arminianism which can offer no promise of consummation.
In reply to Jeremiah’s astonished and pained cry of reluctance, God does not deny the prophet’s inadequacy; but he does insist that human inadequacy cannot defeat the divine purpose:
“Ah, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”
But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD. (vv. 6–8)
The New International Version misrepresents the sense at one point. We read that Jeremiah “must go” to everyone God sends him to and “[must] say” whatever God commands him. This interpretation of the prefixed Hebrew verbs is not impossible, but neither is it the most apposite. How does it encourage fearful Jeremiah for God to insist all the more sharply upon what the prophet must go and do? Such an approach to this needy man is psychologically improbable. Another sense must be intended.
Consider the logic of the verses. Jeremiah is paralyzed with insecurity. His perspective and emotions are so thoroughly anthropocentric that he is defeated already. But God, in his wisdom, understands which spiritual remedy to apply to Jeremiah’s condition. The man needs a strong dose of security in God’s sovereignty. That is why an indicative construction of these verbs is more convincing:
“Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You will go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.”
Now Jeremiah has a satisfying reason to look beyond his own limitations. By the sovereign grace of God, he will go to whomever God sends him and he will speak whatever God commands him. Note the ambiguity in Jeremiah’s charge. God does not tell him where he will be sent or what he will say. Why? Because these words are not a command. They are assurance. “I will send you, and you will go. I will command you, and you will speak. It will happen, Jeremiah, even though you are no match for the task. All my intentions for you will be realized. This really is going to work out. So do not be afraid.” And, in fact, God kept his word. Jeremiah went on to live a life of rugged, persistent obedience “against wind and tide,” when any man without the support of sovereign grace would have shaved the radical edge off of God’s word and prudently adapted his message to the times.
Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” (vv. 9–10)
God’s instructions to Jeremiah remain general in nature. No particular message is imparted. No particular nations and kingdoms are identified. God does not command Jeremiah to do anything in particular. God simply tells him what to expect in general, namely, that he will use Jeremiah’s inspired words to overthrow and to restore nations. God only shows him how effectually powerful his ministry will prove to be, in the sovereign purpose of God.
It is striking that no response from Jeremiah is recorded, in contrast with Isaiah’s response to his call in Isaiah 6:8. There is a seam in the text between verses 10 and 11, creating the presumption that this episode concludes at the end of verse 10. We hear no more from Jeremiah at this time. The fact that the Book of Jeremiah exists at all witnesses, in a way, to Jeremiah’s affirmative reply to the call of God. Nevertheless, the passage concludes at verse 10 without any further registration of Jeremiah’s response. Why? Because the theological center of gravity in this passage is not Jeremiah but God—the sovereign initiative, providential care and effectual grace of God in Jeremiah’s life and ministry. The prophet’s personal response, while important, is not the point of the text. God is all.
Compare God’s role in the drama with Jeremiah’s role. According to the text, God initiated his revelatory word to Jeremiah. God formed him in the womb. God “knew” him. God set him apart. God appointed him as a prophet to the nations. God will send him so that he will go to everyone to whom he is sent. God will command him so that he will say everything he is to say. God will be with him. God will rescue him. God reaches out and touches his mouth, putting inspired words there. God appoints him over nations and kingdoms to herald as certain their destruction or construction. That is God’s role, according to the text. And Jeremiah’s part? He is to stop saying he is only a child and stop being afraid. Is this not suggestive? In this light, it is interesting to observe what one significant evangelical commentary argues concerning verse 5:
Although the verse may imply some form of theological determinism or predestination, that is hardly its purpose. From one perspective, the initial divine words to Jeremiah seem to present him with a fait accompli: he was set aside before he was born. Yet, in the dynamics of the dialogue, the opening words present Jeremiah with an overwhelming sense of God’s purpose, but they still require a response from him and subsequent acts of obedience. In fact, despite the deterministic tone of the opening statement, the undertones throughout the narrative are those of human freedom and the capacity to respond to the divine call.
This is eisegesis. I would not deny the vital importance of a proper response to the divine call, but is that the point of this text? The commentators’ theological predispositions are interfering with the burden of the passage. They deny that its purpose is “some form of theological determinism or predestination.” But does not the logic of the text, the weight of it, argue the other way by exploiting to full effect that very point? Jeremiah is frozen in fear. The whole purpose of the deterministic flavor of the passage is to lift him up out of himself into the fullness of God. What these commentators wish to minimize is the very thing God wants Jeremiah most to feel. And as for the subsequent narrative of the book, only God’s sovereign grace can explain how Jeremiah was enabled to keep on against all the odds.
And neither would I deny Jeremiah’s “freedom and capacity to respond to the divine call”—in a certain, duly qualified sense. Human passivity is neither required logically nor evident factually. Neither would I argue that Jeremiah does not matter in the unfolding of subsequent events. But the text does imply that God matters more, for he is the effective cause in all things. This passage is not a case of divine and human cooperation working together to effect a certain result, much less the divine will being frustrated by human opposition or even incompetence. It is a case of God’s sovereign all-sufficiency overwhelming Jeremiah’s natural timidity in the defining moment of his life, which marked him forever:
O LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived;
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the LORD has brought me
insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention him
or speak any more in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot. (20:7–9)
Jeremiah’s confession should sober both the Calvinist and the Arminian, lest we trivialize the doctrine of God’s sovereignty as a mere debating point. The one who has been gripped by it will pay a price for such holy possession, especially as our age becomes increasingly hostile to biblical principle.
One sees in Jeremiah a man whose sensitive temperament was formed by God for the purpose that God’s strength might be made perfect in Jeremiah’s weakness. I am not arguing that Jeremiah’s case holds for all believers in general or even for ministers in particular, although I could do so. My point is simply to show another clear illustration of the effectual operation of God’s sovereign grace in an individual life in the Old Testament.
The Book of Jonah provides an even more provocative illustration of divine sovereignty in the life of an individual, because the prophet displays a consistent failure to appreciate God’s will. If the purpose of God is accomplished here, it will be no thanks to the uncooperative instrument of “human cooperation.” The book is a case study in sovereign grace triumphing over human defiance.
Rather than recount the well-known story, I wish only to point out some of the features in it which display the sovereignty of God. In addition, two questions invite special attention. One concerns how Jonah’s disobedience figures into the larger equation of God’s work, and the other concerns the meaning of God’s repentance in 3:10 and 4:2.
But first, the book’s presentation of God’s sovereignty may be divided into two categories: explicit affirmations of divine sovereignty at work, and reasonable inferences of the same. The explicit affirmations of God’s sovereignty include the following:
The Lord initiates his word to Jonah (1:1)
He hurls a great wind upon the sea (1:4)
In the words of the ship’s captain and the Ninevite king, God is one who cannot be forced by the will of man, but man must wait upon God (1:6; 3:9)
In the words of the ship’s crew, the Lord has acted in these events just as he pleased (1:14)
The Lord appoints a great fish to rescue Jonah (1:17)
The Lord throws Jonah into the deep, even though it is done by the hands of the sailors, and it is his waves and his breakers that sweep over Jonah (2:3)
Jonah declares that “salvation comes from the LORD” (2:9), meaning that it is entirely his to give or to withhold
The fish obeys the command of the Lord (2:10)
The Lord initiates his word to Jonah a second time (3:1)
He appoints a plant and makes it grow up over Jonah (4:6)
He appoints a worm to ruin the plant (4:7)
He appoints a scorching east wind to blast Jonah (4:8)
The text also includes events which are clearly providential in their occurrence, even though they are not explicitly attributed to God. The author whispers to us of divine intervention when God confronts the fleeing prophet through the words of the pagan captain of the ship (1:6), when the lot falls on Jonah (1:7), when Jonah bears witness to his faith before the sailors on board ship, even though a witness to the pagan world is the very thing he is trying to evade (1:9), when the severity of the storm prevents the valiant sailors from rowing safely to land and thus sparing Jonah (1:13), and when the sea becomes calm immediately after Jonah has been thrown overboard (1:15). Both explicitly and implicitly, the book demonstrates that God has more ways of confronting Jonah than Jonah has ways of eluding God. Jonah has met his match.
The Book of Jonah teaches the compassion of God’s sovereignty. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked—even though Jonah relishes the prospect—and is able to draw them to himself. The book teaches the detail of God’s sovereignty. From the great fish of 1:17 to the little worm of 4:7, the whole of creation stands ready to do his bidding—unlike stubborn Jonah, who refuses to bow to God if doing so crosses his petty self-concern. The book teaches the effectiveness of God’s sovereignty. He controls the destiny of every soul on board that ship sailing out of Joppa harbor. He is able to put the ship in such danger that it is on the verge of breaking up, but only to separate one man out for redemptive recovery while sparing—indeed, saving—the rest. God not only confronts Jonah, but also adds to his redeemed community one ship’s crew of heretofore pagan sailors, in addition to the repentant people of Nineveh.
One wonders, therefore, how anyone could argue that “those who attempt to act on the position that God is in sovereign control of the events in their lives run into grave problems. At its best, this approach is unlivable.” I would not claim that Calvinism, as sometimes formulated, is problem-free, either principially or practically. But the Book of Jonah insists that the divine control of the events of our lives is our only hope. If any approach to life is unlivable, Jonah demonstrates it for us, namely, in trying to wrest the control of his life from the gracious Sovereign who cannot be outmaneuvered by Jonah’s grasping after autonomy.
One wonders no less how anyone could argue that a consistent Calvinism “cuts the nerve of moral endeavor and leads the Christian into a passive life of moral resignation.” The only passive character in the Calvinistic Book of Jonah is the nasty, sulky prophet, and clearly he is the bad example we are not to follow. By contrast, the Lord shows a pattern of ineluctable initiative drawing sinners to his mercy with transforming power, and clearly he is the hero we are to admire. That point is forcefully insinuated by the concluding speech in 4:10–11. The sovereign God is our model of caring action.
But two questions still press themselves upon us. One, how is Jonah’s disobedience related to God’s sovereign will? Does Jonah frustrate the fulfillment of the decrees of God? Or is he only living out those very decrees, even in his recalcitrance? And if the latter, then how does his disobedience serve the holy will of God? The text itself does not answer the question. The answer must be drawn out of our larger theological understanding of how reality works. The Bible does affirm that God retains ultimacy in all things. In addition to the passages quoted near the beginning of this chapter, the following may also be cited:
“To God belong wisdom and power;
counsel and understanding are his.
What he tears down cannot be rebuilt;
the man he imprisons cannot be released.
If he holds back the waters, there is drought;
if he lets them loose, they devastate the land.
To him belong strength and victory;
both deceived and deceiver are his.” (Job 12:13–16)
There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan
that can succeed against the LORD. (Prov. 21:30)
The LORD Almighty has sworn,
“Surely, as I have planned, so it will be,
and as I have purposed, so it will stand.” . . .
For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him?
His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back? (Isa. 14:24, 27)
Significantly, the Bible does not contain statements which reverse this theology. We do not read anything like, “There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan of God’s that can succeed against man.” The Bible does affirm the reality and authenticity of human participation in the purposes of God, but not on a par with God. We are subordinate to his finality. Grand statements such as are previously quoted provide the overall framework within which one makes sense of the more situation-specific perspectives of Scripture. The Bible does not trouble itself constantly to explain everything in terms of the ultimate. Very often it limits its horizon to that which is more immediate, leaving the larger questions up to our own biblically informed powers of systemization.
How then does Jonah’s disobedience serve the will of God? One may propose at least this. Jonah is a marked man. God is after him. God loves him and intends to win him. The drama of the book consists primarily in God’s saving pursuit of Jonah. And Jonah must first experience his own disobedience and God’s salvation, in chapters 1–2, to give the Lord’s actions and arguments in chapters 3–4, especially his gracious persistence with Jonah, morally persuasive force. If Jonah has been saved from the consequences of his disobedience, how can he begrudge the Ninevites’ being saved from the consequences of their disobedience? The power of the events—and the power of the book’s message to us—would be crippled without Jonah’s resistance to God. This becomes clearly evident if one edits the book to omit all the material relevant to Jonah’s hard-heartedness and includes only the remaining material concerned with his first call, his journey to Nineveh, his message to the city, and its repentant response. The entire book would then consist of 1:1–2 and 3:3–10 only. As such, it would accomplish so little as to be innocuous, and the person of Jonah would be incidental to the plot. As it stands, however, most of the narrative concerns Jonah’s struggle with God, while the remainder supports and enhances that central theme. Jonah’s disobedience, therefore, serves God’s purpose no less than his obedience. It is necessary to the drama of the book, which in turn is an inspired reflection of reality. And what is God’s purpose? To display his sovereign mercy toward sinners—most notably toward Jonah himself. Jonah’s own need for grace is at the heart of the drama, because underlying the events of the story is God’s determination to reveal the extent his mercy toward people like Jonah will go. We readers conclude chapter 4 marveling at the patience of this gracious God, whose longsuffering puts up not only with Jonah but also with us. And so we are humbled, and God is glorified.
The other question demanding attention is this. How does God’s repentance in 3:10, along with its theological confirmation in 4:2, cohere with his sovereignty? Certainly, human overtures cannot cause change in God. But still, how is one to understand the declaration that God “repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them”? Once again, the text is not intended to provide the answer. One may explore the question only in connection with the deeper theological substructure of the text, which one surmises from Scripture as a whole. That substructure insists that God is unchangeable:
“God is not a man, that he should lie,
nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Num. 23:19)
“He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.” (1 Sam. 15:29)
“I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” (Mal. 3:6)
God cannot be shown to have erred so that he must make a mid-course correction. He cannot be more fully informed or emotionally manipulated so that he alters his will. God knows the end from the beginning.
Still, the portrayal of God in Jonah 3:10 and 4:2 is no less truthful than other biblical disclosures of his nature—less profound, perhaps, but no less truthful. What then might be the positive exegetical function of God’s repentance in the Book of Jonah? It highlights this important point. In the course of the book, one observes significant changes in most of the characters. The pagan sailors convert to the God of Israel. The Ninevites turn from their sins in repentance before God. The Lord relents concerning the disaster he had threatened. All the characters of the book are presented with a measure of morally appropriate responsiveness—except Jonah. His complaint in 4:2 reveals that his deep antipathy for the Ninevites has not changed at all in the course of events. In fact, the book’s abrupt conclusion leaves unresolved the moral dissonance racking Jonah’s soul. And that is deliberate. The book is designed to shock us with the headstrong obstinacy of the human heart, including the heart steeped in biblical truth and rich with covenant privilege. It is designed to search us with its concluding question at 4:11, as a sovereign God full of pity shines his light on our hearts to discover traces of Jonah’s whimpering, whining meanness concealed under our own doctrinal correctness and impeccable evangelical credentials. And the book hints to us that, if we will repent, we will find God to be no less responsive to us than he was to the Ninevites. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8 RSV). That is the burden of the Book of Jonah, and one must always use a text according to its discrete purpose. This book is energized by a practical pastoral aim and is not meant to address more profound questions concerning God’s nature ultimately considered. Understood in this sense, the repentance of God in Jonah is no more or less problematic than the free gospel invitation in Scripture generally and requires no more or less vindication than that does. In view of God’s sublime immutability, therefore, one must presume that divine repentance in the Bible is meant to describe not some sort of existential reaction in God but rather his perfectly just moral reciprocity.
At the end of the day, however, one cannot fully explain, but can only adore, the mysteries of God’s sovereignty encompassing and employing human sin and of God’s mercy truly offering and freely giving grace to the penitent.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out! (Rom. 11:33, italics added)
Calvin describes the sovereignty of God as “a secret so much excelling the insight of the human mind that I am not ashamed to confess ignorance. Far be it from any of the faithful to be ashamed of ignorance of what the Lord withdraws into the glory of his inaccessible light.”
The narrative of Jonah urges upon us, then, a vision of God as both sovereign and compassionate. These two dimensions of God’s infinite and unknowable majesty do not work at cross purposes, according to the Book of Jonah. They mingle together for his glory and our salvation.
We have good reasons in the Old Testament to lay Arminianism aside as a wrong-headed and limiting system of biblical interpretation. And we also have good reasons in the Old Testament to rejoice in the strong, Calvinistic doctrine of a gracious God reigning without limitation over all things, ourselves included. We have a reason in Psalm 139 for moral courage in the face of opposition. We have a reason in Jeremiah 1 for bold truthtelling in hard times. We have a reason in Jonah for confidence that even our sins cannot defeat the gracious purposes of God. And in each case that reason is the individual (not merely corporate), salvific (not merely historical), effectual (not contingent) working of God’s sweet sovereignty in our lives. Soli Deo gloria!
. “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established,” according to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 3.1.
. I prefer “responsibility” to “free will,” since human agency is limited in many immutable ways, whether one is a Calvinist or an Arminian or a Hindu. Every one of us lives within the circle of a God-ordained existence, for his glory and our own joy, and we are morally accountable to respond to our limitations and possibilities, as set for us by God’s decrees and providences, with reverent trust. Moreover, the words free will often carry the connotative baggage of “autonomous and undetermined” will (to quote John Murray, Collected Writings [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977], 2:60), which concept I deny most emphatically. If we are created beings, then in what meaningful sense can we boast autonomy without pushing God away to some sort of deistical remoteness?
. David J. A. Clines, “Predestination in the Old Testament,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1975), 110–26. Pinnock surveys the primeval history from creation to Abraham on pages 95–109 of the same volume, but his purpose seems less to expound the narrative than to use it as illustrative of the authenticity of human free will.
. As one observes in the pattern of argumentation in Grace Unlimited and The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), these points are central to the difference between the Arminian and the Calvinistic readings of Scripture. Arminianism gravitates toward a diffused, corporate election of a people of God to play a special role in history, a calling which they may frustrate and perhaps even defeat. Calvinism gravitates toward an election of individuals to constitute the people of God, who are destined, far beyond their appointed historic mission, to their true inheritance in heaven, their sinful resistance to which is anticipated, compensated for, made to be useful, and effectually overcome by sovereign grace. The particular line of argument I have taken does not permit me to address the important question of the election of the nation of Israel. Paul’s commentary on God’s choice of Israel in Romans 9 is discussed, however, by Thomas R. Schreiner in chapter 4 of this work. (Please note that the word salvific, as used in this text, is not intended to mean “converting” sovereignty only but, more largely, “ministering” sovereignty in the fullest sense, including aspects of the whole of God’s gracious care for the believer.)
. Rather than survey broadly the Old Testament vision of God’s sovereignty, I prefer to open up a few select passages, since, at the end of the day, the argument will stand or fall at the exegetical level. For a more sweeping summary of this Old Testament doctrine, see D. A. Carson, “Broad Motifs in the Old Testament,” in Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 18–38—although the purpose of Carson’s work is to set forth the wholesome tension which exists between divine sovereignty and human responsibility in the Bible rather than to respond critically to Arminianism as such.
. I owe this observation to John R. W. Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 75.
. Cf. Jack W. Cottrell, “Conditional Election,” in Grace Unlimited, 64: “This is the very essence of Christianity: because man has sinned, God has provided redemption. Virtually every action of God recorded in the Bible after Gen. 3:1 is a response to human sin. The Abrahamic covenant, the establishment of Israel, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the death and resurrection of Christ, the establishment of the church, the Bible itself—all are part of the divine reaction to man’s sin.” To identify God’s responsiveness to human sin as the essence of the gospel, rather than God’s own intention to glorify himself through our redemption, marks a significant difference in basic orientation between Arminianism and Calvinism.
. J. A. Motyer writes, “The Bible does not exercise itself to deny chains of causation, but equally it is not accustomed to clog up its reasoning by giving them undue prominence. It leaps back directly to the divine Agent from whom come all things and by whose will they happen.” Quoted in Carson, Divine Sovereignty, 27.
. One notes with interest the interpretative footnote in The NIV Study Bible at this point: “The span of life sovereignly determined.”
. I say that the Revised Standard Version interprets the Hebrew text “more plainly” than the New International Version does, in that the New International Version intrudes more interpretation into its English rendering while the Revised Standard Version allows the Hebrew to speak for itself. Translated very woodenly, the Hebrew text reads, “And upon your book all of them were written, days were formed, and (there was) not one of them.” The Revised Standard Version, as one can see, smooths over the Hebrew text with minor embellishments necessary for elegance of English expression, but it retains the essential structure and sense of the Hebrew. The New International Version, by contrast, goes so far as to rearrange the elements of the unusual Hebrew syntactical equation in the interests of simplified English, and the net result misrepresents the precise sense intended by David. It is that sense, lost in the New International Version, which one must apprehend clearly to appreciate the force of David’s assertion.
. In Grace Unlimited, 18, Pinnock writes, “The idea that God’s will is something which is always and infallibly accomplished does not derive from biblical teaching. God’s purpose according to Scripture is not a blueprint encompassing all future contingencies. It is a dynamic program for the world, the outworking of which depends in part upon man.”
But does not David’s affirmation cast doubt on Pinnock’s assertion? David would have no incentive for clasping to his heart the thought of a “dynamic [whatever that means] program for the world” but only an infallibly operative and salvific divine plan for his own life.
. B. B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 1:383–84, illustrates the strengthening power of Calvinism with the following anecdote:
What is “the indelible mark of the [Westminster] Shorter Catechism”? We have the following bit of personal experience from a general officer of the United States army. He was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were overrun daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of mien, whose very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface: “What is the chief end of man?” On receiving the countersign, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever”—“Ah!” said he, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!” “Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,” was the rejoinder.
. To quote Pinnock, The Grace of God, the Will of Man, xi. On page ix Pinnock atticulates the question which The Grace of God, the Will of Man was written to answer, namely, “Is God the absolute Monarch who always gets his way, or is God rather the loving Parent who is sensitive to our needs even when we disappoint him and frustrate some of his plans?” Notice the language. Pinnock envisions an absolute Monarch “who always gets his way.” Such language implies a pettiness in the divine Monarch. Notice also that, according to Pinnock, this Monarch cannot at the same time be a loving Parent sensitive to our needs. On page x Pinnock states that “God is love, and therefore expresses his power, not by having to control everything like an oriental despot. . . .” But is it not possible for the God who is love to express his controlling power in some way more worthy of our worship than an oriental despot’s Machiavellianism? For what reason must controlling power and loving mercy work at cross purposes or be mutually exclusive of one another? Their harmonious union may be morally improbable for any one of us, but is God incapable of such largeness and complexity?
. Cf. Calvin, Institutes, 1.17.7, where he states that God’s providential care inspires “gratitude in prosperity, patience in adversity, and a wonderful security respecting the future.”
. On page xii of The Grace of God, the Will of Man, one reads that God decided to create a world “possessing relative autonomy, . . . in order to give it room to be.” Overlooking for now “relative autonomy”—a problematic concept, in my view— it is noteworthy that Arminianism even feels the need for the world to have its own “room to be.” One thinks of Calvin on Hebrews 1:3, which says that the Son “sustains all things by his powerful word.” There Calvin comments, “To ‘sustain’ is used in the sense of to care for and to keep all creation in its proper state. He sees that everything will quickly disintegrate if it is not upheld by his goodness” (The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, trans. William B. Johnston [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980], 9). Such “room to be” as Arminianism desiderates would expose us to quick disintegration if it were not for the moment-by-moment sustaining grace of our sovereign Lord. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Realizing this, who would want his own “room to be,” beyond the range of his powerful love?
. Cf. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Foreknowledge,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 420. See also chapter 7 by S. M. Baugh in this work.
. Richard Rice, “Divine Foreknowledge and Free-Will Theism,” in The Grace of God, the Will of Man, 134, frankly argues that God does not know some aspects of the future: “God knows a great deal about what will happen. . . . All that God does not know is the content of future free decisions, and this is because decisions are not there to know until they occur.” But does not history consist in large part of human decisions? And would that not, therefore, block out much of the future from God’s foreknowledge? This vision of God fails to reckon with his eternality, which requires that he be equally present to all points of time at once. We peer fearfully into the darkness of the future, but God is already there now. This vision of God fails to reckon with his wisdom, by which he is able to implement his sovereign will through human choices without violating their authenticity or jeopardizing the certainty of his intended outcomes. But most devastatingly, this vision of God fails to reckon with the biblical texts which affirm his foreknowledge of all things, including human decisions.
. John E. Sanders, “God as Personal,” in The Grace of God, the Will of Man, 177.
. Derek Kidner, The Message of Jeremiah (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1987), 7.
. Peter C. Craigie, Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard Jr., Jeremiah 1–25 (Dallas: Word, 1991), 10.
. In The Grace of God, the Will of Man, 113 and 291, it is asserted that such passages as we are considering should not be construed as paradigmatic for all believers. Interestingly, however, the biblical passages which might be interpreted as favoring Arminianism are accepted as normative for all.
. The New International Version, rather weakly, renders, “Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea.” The Revised Standard Version shows the more accurate, and the more robust, “The LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea.” Cf. usage of this verb (Hiphil of ṭwl) in Jonah 1:4, 12, 15.
. The New International Version reads “provide,” but the Revised Standard Version’s “appoint” is more apt. The Piel of mnh is also used in Daniel 1:11 in the sense of appoint or assign (to office or role). This is the sense of the Pual in 1 Chronicles 9:29 as well. The Qal is found in Isaiah 65:12 for destining (to destruction), in a clever play with “Destiny” in verse 11. Cf. also Jonah 4:6, 7, 8.
. The New International Version reads, “all your waves and breakers swept over me,” but the Revised Standard Version is careful to include both Hebrew possessive pronouns with its “all thy waves and thy billows passed over me” (italics added).
. Cf. Alexander’s observation in David W. Baker, T. Desmond Alexander, and Bruce K. Waltke, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988), 103: “The irony of the [captain’s] request can hardly have escaped Jonah: Get up and call on your god! After all, Jonah’s sole reason for being on board the vessel was to flee from the presence of his God. Moreover, by repeating the imperatives qum, ‘arise,’ and qerāʾ ‘call,’ the captain parodies closely Jonah’s initial summons from God (v. 2). Each word mocks him.”
. I thank my colleague, Dr. Dennis Magary, for articulating this for me.
. Randall G. Basinger, “Exhaustive Divine Sovereignty: A Practical Critique,” in The Grace of God, the Will of Man, 195.
. Cf. Augustine The Enchiridion 32, who observes that one could not take Paul’s statement, “So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy,” and reverse it to say, “So it depends not upon God’s mercy, but upon man’s will and exertion,” as if the divine and human factors in the equation of reality were equally significant and capable of cancelling each other out.
. The New International Version obscures the force of 3:10 at the crucial point: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” The Revised Standard Version represents the Hebrew more clearly: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.”
. Robert P. Gordon, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 146: “Too much can be made of the surface tension between the statements, in verses 11 and 29, concerning the possibility or impossibility of God’s repenting. When God issues a decree that is plainly intended as irrevocable, as in the rejection of Saul, then, says our text, there is no possibility of that decree being rescinded (cf. Nu. 23:19).”
. With “less profound,” I have in mind the Latin profundus, “deep, vast.” And I mean this. Every passage in the Bible reveals something true about God, but some passages take us further down into the mysteries of his being and works. No passage takes us all the way to the very depths of God, but some take us deeper than others. Those passages which point beyond immediate circumstances to final causation in God and which go beyond appearances to the inner reality and deeper meaning of things, I call “more profound.” I wonder whether Arminians may at times fail to make such a distinction, with the result that they try to explain the more profound in the light of the less profound, rather than the reverse.
. Hugh Martin, The Prophet Jonah (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1966), 292, makes this wise point: “For it lies at the foundation of all intercourse between God and man that God should Himself address us, and permit us to address Him, in expressions suited to our weak capacities and conceptions, rather than dictated by what were suitable to His infinite glory and searchless being. Does it then follow that in thus condescending unto the weakness of our nature, He does injustice to His own, or misrepresents it? That does not follow. God can speak of Himself after the manner of man, and what He thus speaks may yet be worthy of God.”
. Thanks are due again to Dr. Dennis Magary for his insight on this point.
. One can only guess, but it seems probable that God’s grace eventually won Jonah’s heart. God is still in control of the situation at the end of the story. He appoints a plant, a worm, a hot wind. What is next? Anything God wants to use to get through to Jonah, he may. The whole universe is at his disposal. Jonah, therefore, is cornered. How can he resist a God whose resources are as inexhaustible as his patience?
. Cf. J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1971), 100–104, on the free and universal offer of the gospel within a Reformed theological framework.
. John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, trans. J. K. S. Reid (London: James Clarke and Co., Limited, 1961), 124.
From Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace Thomas R. Schreiner, Bruce Ware Ed.