God does not suffer unsolicited advocates gladly. The principle is: If God didn’t say: “This is why I’ve done it,” don’t say it for Him.
The book of Job amply demonstrates this fact. In the face of Job’s seeming self-righteousness, his friends stood up for God. They spoke of His righteousness, fairness, justice, mercy and God’s inability to do or countenance evil. Surely there couldn’t possibly be any angle on God truer than these. It’s no more than we would, and do indeed say of God today. And why not? The Psalmists said so. The prophets echoed it. Why then could it be a bad thing to say that God is always good?
Yet His view was that Job’s friends did not say of Him “the thing that is right”. 1Job 42:7 Though much of what they said seemed right, but didn’t fit into the context of Job’s suffering; nor were they likely to fit. How could they? How were Job’s friends to know that it was God’s faith in Job that was on trial and not Job’s faith in God? St Paul said we see in part and prophecy in part. Moses said the secret things belong to God. Biblical revelations at various points give us different angles to the picture God is painting, and that’s what they are at the best of times: angles. As Donald Rumsfield would say: “There are things we know we know, there are things we know we do not know and there are also things we do not know we do not know.”
In our passion to play advocate for God, there is a slope down which we must not slither.
I believe that from our perspectives, much of the motive for what God does fall into the ‘unknown unknowns’ category and a minefield for the most ardent defenders of the causes of divinity.
When one insists on explaining God with a partial knowledge of His ways, such might find a not so approving God in his or her face. For instance, in Numbers, we are informed the children of Israel went round in circles for 40 years because of rebellion. In Deuteronomy 8:2-3 we find that it was all in the plan of God to humble them and discover the content of their character, whether they would on the long run be obedient or not. In Genesis 37:20 we learned that Joseph’s brothers tried to abort his destiny out of jealousy. In Psalms 105:12-22 we are informed that it was the word of God all along trying the reins of Joseph’s heart. Without revelation specific to the issues we explore, finite minds discussing the motives of a transcendent God will fall short.
In our passion to play advocate for God, there is a slope down which we must not slither. There are lines no one should cross. When we contrive a complex theology about an attribute of God’s and decide that any attempt to debate our logic amounts to questioning the prerogative of God to be God, that would be stretching divine prerogative beyond the heavens. A number of such arguments abound in Romans 9. The first (verses 11-14) had to do with the prophecy about Esau and Jacob, and which would serve the other.
Whereas the epistle was constructed to imply the prophet spoke concerning the children, the prophecy actually spoke concerning nations that would come out of these children. As far as biblical accounts go, Esau enjoyed far greater material prosperity than Jacob and it was Jacob that bowed his head to the floor seven times before Esau, and not the other way round. To include in the same breath, as St Paul did, that God hating Esau and loving Jacob was all part of God’s prerogative to shower mercy on whom he would, flies in the face of scripture.
Central to God’s expectation of Abraham was that the patriarch would teach his children the way of the Lord. The way of the Lord in that verse was “to do justice and judgement”. Abraham was not called to raise his children to hate the innocent. If you asked, as he did, if there was unrighteousness with God in the face of that part of his epistle, I would say “yes”.
But thankfully what St Paul wrote did not come close to the picture in scripture. Malachi’s prophecy 2Malachi 1:3-4 (from which that epistle drew) said God felt that way about the descendants of Esau because Edom (descendants of Esau) became the ‘border of wickedness’.
And of Edom, Prophet Amos said in 1 vs 11:
“Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because he did pursue his brother with the sword, and did cast off all pity, and his anger did tear perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever.”
All these were directed at the children of Esau. As for Esau the man, it’s on biblical record that God gave him an inheritance with which Israel was forbidden to interfere. And while the children of Israel were in servitude in Egypt, Esau had built a kingdom for himself. That was hardly a man that God hated.
But St Paul would not have his audience critically address that epistle. Having put forward a rather debatable theory about divine prerogative, he goes on to forbid us to question it, because that would amount to man questioning his maker. 3Rom 9:20
Does God really mind us taking issues with His decisions? In Genesis God confided in the patriarch he was going to confirm if what he heard concerning Sodom and Gomorrah were true. In the ensuing exchange about the fate of the people, Abraham asked: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” 4Gen 18:25
A human being couldn’t get any bolder with God. And did God mind? Not a bit. In fact, Abraham succeeded in negotiating his nephew out of the destruction visited on that country. More than that, he left a legacy for his descendants, a legacy that God was happy to exhort Israel to emulate. 5Isaiah 51:1-2
A number of Abraham’s descendants took that exhortation to heart. When God decided he would destroy Israel and start afresh with Moses, Moses said he wasn’t having any of that. In fact, he asked God to blot him out of His book if God insisted on going ahead with His decision. God climbed down. 6Exodus 32:32
Habakkuk 7Habakkuk 1:13 followed suit:
“Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?”
He lived to tell the story.
God went a long way to engage those who questioned his sense of justice. He did not thunder on them. For six verses He justified why only the soul that sinned ought to die. 8Ezekiel 18:25-30
The answer shouldn’t be:
After all he said: come let us reason together in Isaiah 1:18.
What St Paul needed to do was to improve his argument and not raise his voice.
St Paul knew these stories as well as anyone. He was raised under the tutelage of a Jewish sage, Gamaliel. He was nurtured in a culture of robust scholarship. He understandably had a difficult job laying down the theology for a new and despised faith. What he needed to do as (Bishop Desmond Tutu’s father would say) was to improve his argument and not raise his voice.
There are levels to which one should not drag God in the name of speaking for God.