Tuesday, June 13

Isaiah 10 and Reconciling Friends

This is an old post from November of 2004, but I'm reposting it today because the same principles that apply to the event in Isaiah 10 apply to Christ's crucifixion and the question of who killed Jesus. Maybe tomorrow I'll flesh out my thoughts on the specifics of Christ's death, using this post as background. If you have posted on the subject of whether or not it can rightly be said that God put Jesus to death, why don't you leave your link in the comments and I'll put a collection of links at the bottom of tomorrow's post?

We may have a hard time understanding how God's sovereignty and human reponsibility can coexist, but here they are, side by side...
There seems to be quite a bit of discussion round the sphere about free will and God's sovereignty--what they are and if and how they can (or do) coexist. I was trying to resist commenting, but by now you probably know that these are the sorts of discussions that I just can't stay away from. So I've decided to have a little look at Isaiah 10 and see what it can teach us about the coexistence of God's sovereignty and human responsibility.

Here's the passage from Isaiah 10 that I want to look at:
Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger;
the staff in their hands is my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him,
and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.

But he does not so intend,
and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
and to cut off nations not a few;
for he says:

"Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
Is not Hamath like Arpad?
Is not Samaria like Damascus?
As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
as I have done to Samaria and her images?"

When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. For he says:

"By the strength of my hand I have done it,
and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I remove the boundaries of peoples,
and plunder their treasures;
like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.
My hand has found like a nest
the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing
or opened the mouth or chirped."

Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!
Therefore the Lord God of hosts
will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,
and under his glory a burning will be kindled,
like the burning of fire. (5-16, ESV)
This is a prophetic passage, telling Isaiah's hearers what is going to happen. God is going to send Assyria up against Israel in judgment of Israel for her godlessness. Assyria is going to be an instrument in God's hands--the "rod of my anger". And when God is finished using them for his judgmental purposes, he is going to punish the king and the kingdom of Assyria for what they have done. The NET puts is this way:
But when the sovereign master finishes judging Mount Zion and Jerusalem, then I will punish the king of Assyria for what he has proudly planned and for the arrogant attitude he displays (verse 12).
Whatever means he uses, they can correctly be called sending and commanding...
God is going to be sovereign in all that is done, for the king of Assyria will be doing what God is planning for him to do; and yet, the king and kingdom of Assyria will be held responsible for their acts. In this passage, the coexistence of God's absolute sovereignty and human responsibility is clearly displayed for us. We may have a hard time understanding how they can coexist, but here they are, side by side in the same passage of scripture, and side by side in regards to one single event. As Spurgeon put it in his famous quote, the two are "friends".

If scripture tells us that they are both true in regards to a single event, then we must come at the problem of how they might fit together with the assumption that they are compatible. We must assume that even if we cannot develop a theory that fits them neatly together, they still mesh perfectly. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to seek ways to bring the two together in our system of thinking, but what we can't do is take away from the full strength of either side in order to get rid of the tension between them.

We can't reconcile them by saying that God isn't really going to direct the activities of the Assyrian nation of the Assyrian king. The text uses the words "send" and "command" and the metaphors of a rod being wielded, an axe being used to hew, a saw being used to cut, and a staff being used to lift. The picture we get of God's involvement in what will take place is that his role will be a large and powerful one; in fact, that he will be the one who controls all of what will occur. To be sure, much of the language is metaphorical, but the particular images chosen are chosen because they express truth about the situation to us. If the images make it seem that God will be the one doing the job, and Assyria and the Assyrian king are merely tools he will use to accomplish his work, this is probably the right way to think about this act. We can't back away from the strength of this statement in order to fit the sovereignty of God and true human responsibility together in our minds.

Secondly, we can't square things by saying that Assyria can't be rightly be held responsible since God will be the one directing what happens. If God will punish the King of Assyria, there will be right and just grounds upon which to do so, because we can be assured that God always acts justly. This may seem obvious, but I've known people who have argued that God can do as he pleases--which is true enough--so it doesn't really matter whether there are specific grounds on which a particular punishment rests. God can simply punish because he feels like punishing. God, however, is a just God, and he only desires to punish where punishment is rightfully warranted. Even if we don't understand fully what the grounds for punishment are, we can know that since God is going to punish the king and his country, those just grounds will certainly be there alongside God's control of the events.

...we need to be careful that we don't diminish either one of the two friends in order to fit them together...
We do get some clues from the text as to what the grounds for the punishment of Assyria will be. It seems that even though God will be in complete control of what is happening, the king of Assyria will act from the true attitude of his own heart and from his own sinful motives. He is boastful and arrogant, and his intent is to be as destructive as possible in order to prove how powerful he is. He is desiring to show that he is more powerful than the gods of the nations he conquers, so in going up against Jerusalem he is planning to establish himself as more powerful than Israel's God. Although God will be using him to perform the righteous judgment of God, the king will not be intending to do what God wants. He will not be obedient to God; but rather, he will be thumbing his nose in God's face. And when it's all over, he's going to boast that he accomplished it all by his own strength and smarts, when in reality, his ability to carry out his plans will come only because he is being used by God to accomplish God's own purpose. So the king's destructive act will be punished justly, even though it is part of God's intentional plan.

What the passage doesn't tells us is the exact means by which God accomplishes his sending of Assyria. Whatever means he uses, they can correctly be called sending and commanding, and yet at the same time they must allow for the king's sinful attitudes and motives to remain intact, so that the king is a free agent acting out his own plans. It may be (and here I am wandering over into the realm of speculation, so take this with a grain of salt) that God brings this about by unrestraining previously restrained evil. Perhaps the Assyrian king had been plotting to destroy Jerusalem, but circumstances (controlled by God) had prevented him until God's appointed timing. I can't really know for sure how God works this out, but I can be sure that he does.

Friends they are--human responsibility and God's sovereignty. We don't have to know exactly how they get along; we just have to understand that they do. Of course, those of us who like pondering these things can't help but try to find ways to put them together, but when we do, we need to be careful that we don't diminish either one of the two friends in order to fit them together in a way that suits us. It's important to continue to hold onto both points, accepting their compatibility even if we can't reconcile them in our minds.

Does this passage tell us anything about free will and whether human beings have it or not? I think it does. I believe it tells us that we either have it or not depending on how you define it. If by free will you mean that human beings have the ability to choose and act free of external influence, then we don't have free will. Our choices and actions are influenced by circumstances and forces beyond us. If by free will you mean that we have the ability to make choices and act based upon our own motives and in hopes of accomplishing our own goals, then we have free will.