Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Unquestionable Sovereignty of God

The sovereignty of God refers to God’s exercise of power over His creation (GRUDEM, 1994:217). God did not only create the universe; in His providence, He is directly and continuously involved in its existence and maintenance, and also governs it in such a way that every occurrence in history is directed towards fulfilling His intended purposes. Nothing is out of His control; neither does anything happen by chance. Truly “the LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Psalm 103:19). In the Old Testament God mainly deals with the nation of Israel, His chosen people. His sovereignty is experienced in delivering them from Egypt, and eventual occupation of the Promised Land. But His sovereignty is not limited to a specific locale or people group, and is better viewed through His dealings with the nations of the world as well. Several passages support this: Job 12:23, “He makes the nations great, then destroys them; He enlarges the nations, then leads them away.” Psalm 22:28, “For the kingdom is the LORD'S and He rules over the nations.” “The God of Israel is not the God of a single nation. The power of His word is not confined within the borders of Israel; His word effects His will at any time or place it is addressed. He orders the history of nations.” (CRAIGIE, 1976:440). Below is an example of how God displayed His sovereignty at a time when Babylon, under its mighty king Nebuchadnezzar, was the global superpower and seemingly sovereign of all nations. 

Because of Israel's history of rebellion against God, He sent them a series of prophets to warn them of impending judgment. The Israeli kingdom had long been split into two after Solomon died in 970 BC. The northern kingdom, Israel, with its capital in Samaria, was ultimately judged by God when they were taken into Assyrian captivity in 722 BC. The southern kingdom, Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, would later be taken into captivity in three rounds of deportation under Babylon, the kingdom that eventually took over as world super power from Assyria early in the seventh century BC. Daniel was one of the deportees from Judah taken in the first round of Babylonian captivity under Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BC. After the second (597 BC) and third (586 BC) rounds of captivity that led to the destruction and of the temple and city of Jerusalem, the inevitable question arose: “Who, indeed, is sovereign – Nebuchadnezzar… or the God of Israel who had either allowed [the judgment] to happen or was powerless to prevent it?” (MERRILL, 1991:387). God was faithful to give an irrefutable answer.

Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which none of his diviners could interpret (Dan 2:27) so he ordered their destruction (2:12). But “the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a night vision” (2:19). He confirmed to the king that though his diviners had failed, “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (2:28, 29). This is a remarkable display of God’s sovereignty even over knowledge and wisdom. Man has no ability within himself to acquire revelation outside of God exposing it. To Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, “God gave them knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom; Daniel even understood all kinds of visions and dreams” (1:17). Further, in “every matter of wisdom” and “understanding”, the king “found them ten times better than all the magicians and conjurers who were in [his entire] realm” (1:20). Such was the intelligence of Daniel that he served even the Persian government when they took over Babylon (1:21). Only God could and had done this. “Nebuchadnezzar and all Babylon were therefore to be confronted with unanswerable proof that only Israel’s God was real, sovereign, and limitless in His power.” (ARCHER, 1985:43). And after Daniel interpreted the king’s dream Nebuchadnezzar himself acknowledged that, “Surely your God is the God of gods and a Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries” (2:47).

Concerning the king’s dream, Daniel confirmed to him that due to his power he was indeed “king of kings”, but it is “the God of heaven” who had given him “the kingdom, the power, the strength and the glory” (2:37). So his dominance was a divine act under God’s control, and not his own. To demonstrate this further, an inferior kingdom to his mighty one would rise as the next super power (the Medo-Persians) (2:39). So clearly it was within God’s ability, and not man’s, to enthrone and dethrone world rulers; and in this example, he did not need a militarily superior entity such as Babylon or Assyria to accomplish this.

But the pagan king quickly forgot his own confession that the Lord is “a God of gods and a Lord of kings” (2:47). He set up an image to be worshipped by all nations (3:1-7). He became enraged when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to worship it, and threatened to throw them into “a furnace of blazing fire” and retorted that, “What god is there who can deliver you out of my hand?” (3:13-15). But the three confessed that God was able to deliver them from the fire, and even if He did not, they would not worship the image (3:16-18). Here is an often overlooked revelation on God’s sovereignty. God’s sovereignty doesn’t always dictate that His control and protection over His people would be such that no harm would ever befall them. Everything indeed will work out together for their good (Rom 8:28), but not necessarily that everything that happens to them will be good. The three understood this very well. So they were prepared to face any trial because they knew that the sovereign God would never allow a trial beyond what they could handle (1 Cor 10:13). The Lord eventually delivered them from the furnace that was heated up seven times more than normal (3:19). This left the king “astounded” (3:24) such that he confessed “there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way” (3:29).

The king had another dream which only Daniel could interpret. In the interpretation, the king would “be driven away from mankind and [his] dwelling place be with the beasts of the field… until [he] recognize[s] that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (4:25); “it is Heaven that rules” (4:26). “All this eventually happened to Nebuchadnezzar” (4:28) when in pride he sung his own praises instead of God’s (v30). A voice came from heaven and declared to him that, “sovereignty has been removed from you” (v31). Not only was his kingdom taken away from him, but his human dignity as well. God created man in His image, distinct from the rest of creation (Gen 1:26). But this was taken away from Nebuchadnezzar when his reasoning capacity was withdrawn and “he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle” (4:33).  In contrast, after his judgment period was over he was restored and “surpassing greatness was added to [him]” (v36). So he acknowledged that God “is able to humble those who walk in pride” (v37). After this experience, he fully understood and acknowledged God’s sovereignty, such that he personally gave one of the most profound descriptions of it in Scripture. Contrasting his pagan and prideful background, he confessed that, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (4:34, 35).