From Theology to Doxology. Romans 11:33-36
These verses are a fitting and delightful and exultant conclusion not only to Romans 9-11, but to all of Romans 1-11. They are a doxology. A doxology is an oral or written expression of praise – in this case, praise to God. This is not just fitting, but in some sense inevitable for anyone who has had his or her eyes opened to see the glory of God. Just as you would think something was wrong with someone who stood before the Grand Canyon without being moved by its majesty, even so a person must be spiritually blind who receives God’s word and yet remains unmoved.
Doxology isn’t just a song that we sing in church. Doxology, properly understood, is the delight of the soul in the things of God. What we have in these verses is not the forced and obedient repetition of a formal liturgical rule of worship, but the spontaneous bursting forth of the apostle’s soul in expressions of joy in God. The apostle cannot just be a viewer of God’s plan to redeem and save fallen and broken people, he must overflow in worship. Theology that does not lead to doxology is a dead faith. True faith must express itself in doxology and worship, and that’s what Paul does here.
To see this, consider the following analogy. Suppose you set before a starving man a sumptuous meal. If that man refuses even to eat, you would know something was wrong with him. But suppose he eats, and then spews out the food he has just eaten in disgust. Again, you would know that something was wrong with him. Why? Because it is not only appropriate and fitting but also expected that a starving man who eats a sumptuous meal will not only eat it, but enjoy it. However, something is still lacking. If he eats it with obvious delight but then says nothing about the food or those who provided it – would that also not seem both weird and wrong? The appropriate response of a starving man to good and tasty and healthful food is to receive it with thanksgiving and to enjoy it and to praise it to others.
That is how we should receive the feast of God’s word of redemption. Salvation doesn’t mean walking away from happiness. That’s the way it is sometimes caricatured. Rather, salvation in Jesus means receiving from the Lord that which will give us true joy and happiness both in this world and in the next. It is receiving rich food for starving souls, which only the Lord can provide. And by the way, this is exactly how God himself represents it. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken” (Isa. 25:6-8). But that’s not all – note well how the people of God respond to this feast which takes away tears and death – “It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:9; note also verse 1). Think of it: being saved is like sitting at a feast with rich food and well-aged wine! God is not a cosmic kill-joy – he only wants to kill those joys which are poisonous and will ultimately empty our hearts of all real and lasting happiness. And so the way to respond to the gospel is not with a frown but with a song of praise.
When we say that life is about worship, we don’t mean something that is forced from us because it is what we are supposed to do. Worship is artificial and fake if it is not the overflow of our lives. It is not what we do on Sunday merely. We shouldn’t have to make a transition in our hearts between Saturday and Sunday. God made us to know him and to worship him and this is the most exciting and the most wonderful news that could ever be given mortal men and women. And therefore it is not only fitting but natural that we should worship him. So the verses before us should not come as a surprise to us. In fact, it would be surprising should the apostle make the transition from doctrine to application without this transition of devotion.
But why are our hearts not filled with praise to God? Why is it that so often we feel dead to the things of God, cold and hard to eternal joys? Is it not the unfortunate reality that so often we come to God’s word and find ourselves unfeeling? Why is this? And how do we rid ourselves of it?
First of all, I think this happens to us because our minds do not dwell on God. In other words, we sometimes tend to go through life as if God weren’t there. We would never call ourselves atheists, but we often live that way. We need to see everything in relation to God. God is not just the one who forgives our sins so we can go to heaven when we die and in the meantime ignore. God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. All the surprising and delightful and wonderful things we encounter in this world are God’s surprising and delightful and wonderful things. They are shadows of the greater reality that is God. We need to walk before God (Gen. 17:1). If we do, we are going to be more likely to turn our moments into worship.
Second, I think this happens to us because we may have picked up some wrong ideas of God. When this happens, we inevitably move God down to our level. And of course when we do that, we are going to rob ourselves of a view of God that is worthy of worship. When are thoughts of God are too small, our praise to him will be diminished. This is why it is so important for us to fill our minds with the truths of Scripture. God’s word to us not only tells us about himself, but it also tells us about ourselves, and how we relate to the one true God. We are dependent upon God for our knowledge of him and ourselves, not only because we are sinful but because we are human. We should beware of the idea that we can gain true and saving knowledge of God apart from God’s gracious revelation of himself to us through his word.
Third, I think this happens to us because we have filled our hearts with other things. You may have a delicious steak in front of you, but if you have filled your belly with jelly-beans, you are not going to enjoy the steak. You cannot fill your heart with this world and have room for God. You cannot love this world and love the Lord. But it doesn’t have to be bad things that we fill our hearts with: we can fill our hearts with things that are good in themselves. It happens when God’s gifts become replacements for God. For example, when food becomes the thing that our joy depends upon, then it has become our God and we won’t see the glory of God because we are covering it up with our obsession with our stomachs.
Fourth, this happens to us because of sin. Sin in its very nature blinds us to the beauty of God. Sin warps our view of reality. If we are hiding or giving aid and comfort to the enemy of our souls then we cannot expect to have hearts that are ready to be deployed for worship. Good theology is not the only component necessary for heart-felt worship; we must also be pursuing holiness with all our might. If there is sin in the life that we are not repenting of, then we should not be surprised if we find our hearts dead and cold to the things of God.
So we want to be people who are like Paul. We don’t just want to embrace true things about God, we should want to be people who love these true things and who overflow in exultation over these true things. We want our theology to lead to doxology.
Very well. But let’s look more closely now at the text. How does the apostle give expression to his delight in the being of God and the works of God? As we look at these verses, we will notice that there are two exclamations (33) about the greatness of God’s wisdom and the inscrutability of his judgments. This is followed by two questions (34-35) which are a ground for verse 33 by contrasting God’s greatness with man’s weakness. Finally, Paul grounds the whole doxology with an acclamation of the centrality of God in all things (36).
Two exclamations (33)
“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (KJV)
There are two ways to read the first exclamation: “Depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God …” or “Depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God.” The former points to one thing, the wisdom of God, whereas the latter points to two things, God’s riches and wisdom (I take wisdom and knowledge here to be basically synonymous). Though both are legitimate translations of the Greek, the KJV is surely right in translating the verse as “both . . . and.” For if “riches” is allowed to stand by itself, the question is, riches of what? It is not clear what it would be referring to. Paul also never uses the word “riches” with respect to God without defining it, unless this verse is the only exception. Therefore, we take it to reinforce the idea of the greatness of God’s wisdom and knowledge. It’s not just the riches of his wisdom but the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God. Its not just that God is rich in wisdom, but that his wisdom is unfathomable. That’s the idea that the apostle is trying to get across here.
Because God’s wisdom is unfathomable, his judgements and his ways are inscrutable to us, and hence the second exclamation. That doesn’t mean that we can never know anything about God’s ways in the world, but it does mean that we will never be able to truly discern what God is doing in history on the basis of our feeble understanding unless God reveals it to us (cf. 11:25). What this means is that we cannot rely upon our own view of what is happening to us and around us and interpret God’s purpose in the world and our lives on that basis. It’s not just that our perspective is limited by time and space (though it is), but that our perspective is limited in our very imagination and intellectual resources. Even if we had all the time in the world and could see all that was taking place from every angle, we would still not be able to necessarily understand what God was doing. His ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts, because they are above us as the heavens are above the earth (Isa. 55:8-9).
Now how deep is this wisdom and knowledge of God? It is unfathomably deep in the sense that God knows all that will come to pass. He knows our thoughts before we think them. He knows the names of every star. He know the number of the hairs on our head. He knows when a sparrow hops on the ground or when it falls to the ground. He knows the secret things, and the things we can hide from others we cannot hide from God. His plans encompass and shape all of history (cf. Ps. 139).
It also means that God executes all his plans perfectly. His plans are flawless and faultless, and they are without wickedness or wrong. We can make mistakes because either we don’t know all the facts or we misunderstand the facts. But neither of these flaws can be attributed to God.
Someone may retort and argue that this is all just so much cold comfort. How could it be encouraging, they may ask, for God to be such that we could not understand his ways? Wouldn’t we be better off if we could understand his ways? We ask those kinds of questions because we want to be in control. But the reality is that we are not! Only God is in control. Any control that we think we have is really an illusion. And the comfort comes from the fact that we don’t have to know how things are going to turn out because God is in control. We can trust in him because he is good and wise and loving. He is working all things out for the good of those who love him and who are called according to his eternal and unchangeable purpose. In the Proverbs, we read that “A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can a man understand his way?” (Prov. 20:24). The answer is that we cannot. But that’s okay, precisely because our steps are in his hand.
Two questions (34-35)
Question 1: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (34). This is a quotation from Isa. 40:13. The context of that passage is that Israel was faced with Babylonian captivity, and the question that naturally arose was how could they be delivered from Babylon when they were so weak and Babylon was so strong? The same question could be asked in light of what the apostle said about the salvation of the Jews; it was a seeming impossibility. The answer came back that we should never look at the situation we are in in terms of our own limitations but in light of the greatness of God. The same was true in the apostle’s day, and it remains true today as well.
Here we have the immeasurable greatness of God’s wisdom compared with our own finite knowledge. And this is so important. It is a step in the apostle’s argument. He is not only grounding the reality of verse 33 by a quotation from the OT, but he is also illustrating it by comparing God and man.
When our daughter Emma was born, she was only 12 inches long and 1.7 lbs. It is hard really to imagine how small that is, especially when you are used to having big babies! And we quickly found out that just taking a picture of Emma could never communicate her smallness by itself, unless we put things in the picture by which people could use to judge her size. For example, it was helpful when a picture had of one of our hands next to her, and then you could really see just how small she was. In the same way, you are not going to appreciate God’s knowledge unless you put it up next to your own and realize just how small your knowledge is compared to God’s. In fact, God’s knowledge and wisdom is so great, that it is not really comparable! As the prophet would go on to say, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One” (Isa. 40:25). The question is rhetorical of course: there is no one who is comparable to God.
We cannot counsel God. There is nothing you could say to him that would give him any new information. There is no advice you could give to him that he could not already know. It reminds me of an exchange between a famous scientist and a student. The student was disagreeing with the scientist, and eventually harumphed, “Well, that’s just your guess, and your guess is as good as mine.” To which the scientist correctly responded, “No, young man, my guesses are much, much better than your guesses!” But God of course doesn’t even have to guess. He knows everything immediately. Our best knowledge is but a poor guess compared to the knowledge of God. We cannot know the mind of the Lord or come into his presence as if we could give him advice.
Question 2: the next question is another OT passage, and comes from Job 40:11: “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” The basic point here, of course, is that God owes nothing to anybody (cf. Acts 17:25). No one can put God in their debt, because all we have comes from him in the first place. We are dependent upon God, but God is dependent upon no one. God is self-existent and self-sufficient. He is God Almighty.
Now the OT background to this passage is also important to understand. Job thought that God had mistreated him. God’s answer was that Job really didn’t understand or have the right to question God’s wisdom. The point of the verse was that Job could not put God in his debt by giving him advice – and neither can we.
Like Job, we often want to tell God how to do things. We often imagine that God has done something wrong. With Jacob, we say, “All these things are against me.” But we say such things in ignorance. It’s not that we know better than God that we complain as we do; we complain this way because we are stupid. We need to learn and relearn these two lessons again and again: that God is not dependent upon us for wisdom and that we are completely dependent upon him for all true wisdom.
Three foundational realities (36)
All of this is grounded upon the truths of verse 36: “For of him and through him and to him are all things.” God needs no one for his counsellor, he needs no one for advice, and he is dependent upon no one, because of these three things. What are they?
God is the origin of all things. If there were one part of the universe that did not come from God, there might be room in that corner to exist independently of God. But there is no such corner. All things come from God. Everything comes from him, and therefore everything is under his dominion and control. Note that God is not the universe. The verse doesn’t say that God is all things, as in pantheism. It says that from God are all things. There is no room for pantheism or atheism here.
God sustains all things. If the first phrase differentiates Biblical theism from pantheism and atheism, this phrase differentiates it from deism. Deism is the idea that God wound the universe up like clock and then lets it run on its own. It imagines a God far-removed from everyday concerns. There is no room for anything supernatural or miraculous for the deist. There is no room for prayer. But Paul says that not only did God create all things, he also sustains all things. Through him are all things. There is also no corner of the universe that can exist or continue to exist on its own. “And he [Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). In this sense, everything is supernatural, because nature is not self-sustaining! God holds the breath of every living thing in his hand.
Another way to put this is that God is not only the God of creation, but that he is also the God of providence and salvation. He is holding this universe together, and one day through Christ he will restore all things and bring about a new heavens and a new earth.
God is the goal of all things. “And to him are all things.” Why does anything exist? Why do you and I exist? We exist for the glory of God, as does everything else. And if you have seen the glory of God, if you have an idea of the greatness of the Lord, this is a most thrilling thought. To know that the most glorious of all beings, the God of infinite majesty and glory, is the goal of creation and providence and redemption is wonderful because it means that we all exist to reflect his glory. It means that our life has meaning and importance and significance– not because we are important or significant but because God is!
This is especially true of the believer. All things and all people will bring glory to God – including people like Pharaoh. But Pharaoh will glorify God in his destruction. However, the saint will glory God, not in his or her destruction, but in his or her salvation. They are like the moon. The moon is beautiful, not because it shines its own light, but because it reflects the light of the sun. In the same way, the people of God will be eternally beautiful and radiant, not because they shine their own light and goodness and glory, but because they will forever reflect God’s glory in the richness of mercy and grace through praise and endless delight.
God is the beginning and the end, he is the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, and everything in between. What then should be our response? It is, with the apostle, to give God the glory: “To him be glory forever. Amen.” It is to live lives of worship and to bring honor to his name.
Can you say amen to that? Can you say it from your heart? The only reason why any of us can say amen to that is through Christ. Apart from him there is no hope, and only a dreadful looking for of judgement and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. If you want to be able to say amen to God’s glorious redemptive purpose, you must be in Christ. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20). If you will say “Yes” to Jesus Christ, then you will be able to say “Amen” to God for his glory. May the Lord make it so of all of us! Amen!