The Mystery of God’s Ways by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Why does God allow war” published in 1939 with the present impression in 2003.
“Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, 0 God of Israel, the Saviour.” Isaiah 45:15
THIS MAGNIFICENT EXCLAMATION, this outburst of devout worship and adoration, breaks from the lips of the prophet as the result of God’s revelation to him of His plans and purposes. It does not record a complaint. It is the expression, rather, of amazement and astonishment at the wonderful ways of God. Whether the prophet himself had shared the views of the people in general, and was guilty of the same lack of insight and of faith we cannot tell, but God’s answer to the thoughts and murmurings of the people overwhelms him in its magnificence and grandeur. The state of mind of the people is portrayed in vivid and striking terms in the earlier verses of the chapter. They were perplexed and baffled, nay, more, then were full of doubts and of questionings. All this, of course, as the result of the situation in which they found themselves, and because of the events that were taking place. Added to these was the announcement of the way of deliverance that God proposed and intended to employ. The facts were these. The children of Israel, as a nation and people, were experiencing a constant series of reverses and humiliations. They knew that they were the chosen people, the special people of God, and yet they were becoming weaker and weaker, and their enemies—heathen and strangers from the commonwealth of Israel—were constantly gaining in strength. The land of Israel had been repeatedly attacked, and their armies defeated. The enemy had carried away some of their most valuable treasures, and indeed had carried away as captives a large number of the people. At the moment, it was clearly but a matter of time before Jerusalem herself should be conquered and destroyed, and the remainder of the people carried away captive to Babylon. Everything had gone wrong, and the enemy was increasingly powerful. And in the meantime God was apparently doing nothing. He had in no way hindered or restrained the arrogant enemy. God did not seem to be concerned at all. Certainly He had not intervened to deliver His people and to destroy the enemy. They were baffled and amazed, and began to ask questions. Why did God behave in this manner? Why did God allow the enemy to flourish and to prosper? And then certain darker questions were asked. Could God stop it? Had He the power to do so—had He “the hands” to do so?
All this was accentuated when the announcement was made, through the prophet, that ultimately deliverance was to come through Cyrus. That seemed to be the very last straw. Deliverance through a Gentile, and not through an Israelite and one who belonged to the seed of David? It was surely impossible. What did God mean? Was it just and righteous? Should God do such a thing? How could it be reconciled with all He had done and said in the past, and with all His promises and plans? Such was the state of the people mentally and spiritually, and such were the questions that they asked, or, rather, the statements they made.
In this mighty passage God answers the people by reminding them of His nature and His power, His knowledge and his purposes. He rebukes them, and, through the prophet, gives them a glimpse into the future into which He proposes to lead them. The prophet can no longer contain himself. Forgetting the people, and turning from them, he addresses God directly in these words of wonder and of praise—“Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, 0 God of Israel, the Saviour.”
It would be good and most instructive to consider this matter in its own precise context and setting, and to show how it all actually worked out in the story of the children of Israel. But, while we shall be doing that in a sense, we must concentrate on it, rather, as it applies to us, and speaks to us, in the midst of crisis. It is scarcely necessary to point out that here we have a consideration of one of the problems that perplexes many minds at the present time, a problem that has also worried many for a number of years past. In a word, the problem is the difficulty of reconciling the world in which we live, and especially what is taking place in it, with our belief in God, and especially with certain fundamentals in that belief. At first, the perplexity caused by this problem expresses itself as a general statement, more or less to this effect. For years it has been evident that the forces of evil and wrong have been increasingly in the ascendancy. Materialism, godlessness, irreligion, sin and evil, vice and wrongdoing have been on the increase. The whole religious basis on which the life of the country has been founded in the past has not only been questioned, but also ridiculed and derided. The Church, from being patronized, has been dismissed. Far from being persecuted, she has just been ignored and forgotten, and her story from year to year has been one of continued decline and difficulty. The more arrogant the worldling has become, the more successful apparently has been his life. Everything seems to be on the side of evil and wrong; all that is most hostile to God and His Church, and to the view of life denominated Christian, is rampant, and flourishing on all sides. The decline in religion and morals, and in every uplifting and ennobling view of life, has continued at an alarming and terrifying rate. The world has gone from bad to worse with evil men “waxing worse and worse,” and the whole of life seems to be heading straight for the abyss. The world has more and more become the very exact opposite of everything that God would desire it to be, and all seems to be lost. The situation has become steadily more and more hopeless. Now while all this has been taking place, and is taking place, God has appeared to be strangely silent and inactive. He seems to have done nothing and has in no way intervened to arrest this process. He does not seem to be in evidence, or indeed, in existence at all. The only activity in the world appears to be the activity of evil. God seems to have been absent and altogether outside the course of events. He has done nothing, and the enemy has prevailed. Such is the statement; and it leads inevitably to the question that is asked so frequently—Why does God allow such things to happen? Why does He not intervene? Why does He not restrain evil and evildoers? Why does He not revive His work and rescue the Church from her impotence and her shame? Why does God not hearken to the prayers of His people, and destroy evildoers and all their ways, and restore the world to a right and to a true way of life? How is it that He can, as it were, stand aside and do nothing, and allow everything that is worthwhile and noble to be destroyed and desecrated? Such are the forms taken by the one general question of why does God behave in this manner, and apparently allow everything that He hates to develop and to flourish?
But the questioning never stops at that point. Having reached so far, it seems to be carried along by an inevitable momentum to a series of further questions which are more serious and ominous. These further questions are dealt with in this passage. We must consider them individually and separately, remembering as we do so, that we are not engaged in an academic study or psychological analysis of people who lived nearly three thousand years ago, but in a study of ourselves and of the errors to which we are as prone as the children of Israel were.
1. The first question can be put in these terms—Is God indifferent? Is it the truth that He does not care as to what is happening to us, and in the world? That, certainly, is the question that is implied in the whole of this passage which we are considering. The children of Israel felt that God was neglecting them, and that He was no longer looking after them, and caring for them, as He had done formerly. They felt that He had become indifferent and unconcerned, that He had definitely turned His face away from them, and was allowing events to follow their own course. That seemed to them to be the most obvious and the most ready explanation of what was happening to them, and of God’s strange silence and inactivity. How often have men come to that conclusion! How many are tending to do so at the present! It is not that they have adopted the view propounded by the deists of old. They taught that God, having created the world, had then ceased to be actively concerned about it. God, they said, having made the world as a watchmaker makes a watch, and having wound up the watch, was now allowing it to run on and to run out in its own way. God had finished with it in the sense of an active concern and interference. I do not know that there are many who actually hold that view today. The view, rather, is that, for some reason or other, God has ceased to be actively interested. They know that He has been interested in the past, through His works, even as the Israelites knew that. His silence and inactivity therefore, they argue, must denote an indifference, as if God had lost patience with the world, and, abandoning it to its fate, had turned His back upon it. The faithful pray and strive and work, and yet there seems to be no response from the side of God. How easy it is to argue from this that God is indifferent! Is that not the implication in most of the questions that are asked as to why God allows certain things to happen? And, often, the implication is more in the tone of voice than in the actual question itself. The feeling is, that if God were truly a God of love, He could not allow the righteous to suffer as they sometimes do, and the unrighteous to flourish and succeed, that He could not allow calamities and wars and all the other afflictions and tribulations that come to try us. Why does God allow it? they ask. Yea, more, how can He allow it? And in spite of the sufferings and the prayers of the people? Yea, as a psalmist once put it, “Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will He be favourable no more? Is His mercy clean gone for ever, doth His promise fail for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Hath He in anger shut up His tender mercies? The charge, in the first question, is that God is indifferent.
2. But another question insinuates itself also, and partly as a possible answer to the first question. It is—Is God impotent? Can He do anything? That is the question mentioned in the last phrase of verse 9. Having asked, “Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, what makest thou?” it goes on to ask “or thy work, He hath no hands?” which Moffat translates “does what he makes tell him that he is powerless?” As if the clay could tell the potter that he lacked skill or power to mold and to make a vessel, so men query and question the power and capacity of God to control events in the world, and to hearken to their prayers. They feel that this conclusion is inevitable. They have no doubt that if God could arrest evil and stem the tide of iniquity He would do so. His love, they argue, would insist upon that; it is inconceivable that it would not. Therefore there can be but one conclusion. It must be that God lacks the power, that the might of evil is greater than the power of God. It must be that the world has got “out of hand,” and beyond the power of God to control and to save it. Darkness and evil are perchance outside of and beyond the power of God. That is the second question.
3. But there is a third question, which arises on account of what God proposes to do and announces as His future action. This use of Cyrus as a deliverer—does not that mean that God is inconsistent? How can that tally with all the past? A Gentile to deliver Israel? One who was not of the seed of David to be the savior of the people? An outsider? Why, it seems unthinkable. It would be adding insult to injury! It would be unrighteous on the part of God. God must not do it, because it would be quite out of line with all that He had said and had promised, and out of line with all that He had done in the past. They felt that to employ the Gentile Cyrus was something that could never be reconciled with the holiness of God. It appeared to them to be tantamount to expecting good to come out of evil, that anyone outside the commonwealth of Israel should he used by God to bring His purposes to pass. They could see no possible explanation. It seemed to them to be altogether and entirely wrong. Have we not all known something of that feeling and of that state of mind? How can this thing which is happening to us, we have asked, possibly be for our good and to the glory of God? What possible justification of God can there be for allowing us to suffer? How can trials and tribulations conceivably be a part of God’s plan or scheme? Can that which is patently wrong and evil be brought anyhow, or by any means, within the ambit of God’s love and God’s sovereign purpose with respect to us and to mankind?
Such are the questions that are considered here, even as they are the questions that are still being asked by men. Have you asked them? What is to be said about them? What is the answer to them?
Let us consider the mighty answer of this word of Isaiah. The matter divides itself very simply into two main statements.
I. The arrogance displayed in this attitude towards God. This is what is emphasized in the various comparisons of man in his relationship to God, to potsherds and the clay, and the infant newly born. It is something which, looked at objectively, is almost unbelievable; and yet, how often is this the attitude that we take up before God! We do not hesitate to assume, and to take it for granted, that we are capable of understanding everything that God does. We have such confidence in ourselves, and in our own minds and understandings and opinions, that we question and query God’s actions in precisely the same way as we question the actions of fellow human beings. We feel, and we believe, that we know what is right and what is best. Our self-confidence is endless and boundless, and we refuse to believe that anything can possibly be beyond the reach and the grasp of our minds and intellects. This, surely, is the impertinent implication in all our questions, and in all our expressions of doubt. God is to conform to our ideas, and He is to do what we believe He should do. But the arrogance does not stop at that point. As we have seen, it does not hesitate to condemn God’s actions and to say that they are quite wrong, and quite indefensible. In other words, we, and our ideas, are the standard and the judges. We are the ultimate court of appeal; and our ideas of, right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair, are the last word. We do not hesitate to express our opinions about God, and to judge His actions. This is something of which the children of Israel were constantly guilty. As we read of them in the Old Testament we are at times amazed and astonished at them. But how difficult to realize that we ourselves are guilty of precisely the same thing! We may not express it with the same bluntness and rudeness, we may be more guarded and circumspect, and express it in the form of a question rather than in a direct statement. But all that is quite immaterial. In a matter like this, to harbor the thought for a moment is as reprehensible as to make the statement. It is not that I am saying that we must not think and reason in connection with religion, or that I am arguing that Christianity is irrational. We are meant to think and to reason and to grasp the truth. But that does not mean that our minds are equal to the mind of God, or that we can claim equality, and demand a full understanding of everything. Still less does it mean that, morally and spiritually, we are in a position to question and to query God’s motives, and to pass judgment upon His character as expressed in His actions. And yet, that is precisely what men do. Failing to understand the actions, they proceed to attack and to question the very character of God. Our pride of intellect and of understanding leads us in reality to regard ourselves as gods. That is why I chose the term “arrogance” to describe this attitude. Oh! the enormity of it all, the impertinence, the insolence! There is but one explanation of it; and that is, utter failure to realize Who and what God is, accompanied by utter failure to appreciate the truth about ourselves. If we only realized Whom we were questioning. If we but had some faint conception of the might, the greatness and the holiness of God! And if we could realize our own utter nothingness, and insignificance, and helplessness. Try to consider it and to see it in the light of this passage. The relationship between God and ourselves is that of the Creator to the creature. He made us and gave us being. We had no part in the matter at all. We are the work of His hands, indeed we are to God what the clay is to the potter. Do you doubt it? Well, let me ask you certain questions. What control have you really over your life? You have no control over the beginning and you will have no control over the end. We have no idea as to how long we shall be here. Our lives are altogether in God’s hands. We cannot control health and sickness, accidents and disease. We know not what a day may bring forth. Who could have foretold the present state of affairs? Men have failed to prevent it. We are the creatures of time, and entirely subject to forces over which we have no control. We are quite helpless. As our Lord put it, we cannot “add one cubit to our stature.” And yet we venture to try to measure God. How monstrous! Yea, how utterly mad! It means that our whole attitude is false and wrong. And it will remain such until we realize that God’s “thoughts are not our thoughts” and that His “ways are not our ways,” and until we accept His further statement that “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Of necessity, there must be things therefore that we cannot understand and cannot fathom. Why, that is the whole glory of God’s way of salvation; and that is why it holds out a hope for all. You cannot understand? You are tempted to question, and to argue, and to query? The reply to you is, in the words of St. Paul, “Nay but, 0 man, who are thou that repliest against God! shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, why hast thou made me thus?” “But that,” you may say, “is not fair argument. It is rather a prohibition of argument, and the exertion of an unfair authority.” To which I reply, that we were never meant to argue with God, and that we should never have started from the assumption that it was to be a discussion between two equal disputants. God is in heaven, and we are upon earth. God is holy, and we are sinful. God knows all things, and sees the end from the beginning. We are ignorant and blind as the result of sin, and are the miserable slaves of time! Ultimately, that is the only theodicy that is necessary. A man who does not believe in God cannot possibly believe or understand the actions of God. But the more we believe truly in God, and realize increasingly, His holy nature and character, the more shall we understand His ways. And even when we cannot understand, we shall be more and more ready to say with our blessed Lord “nevertheless not my will but Thine be done.” There is a sense in which any attempt at a justification of God and His ways appears to me to be almost sinful, and I am tempted to say to any man who comes with his questions and criticisms, that his first business is not to try to understand God, but rather to understand himself and the life he is living. And having said that, I want to tell him that he had better consider the fleeting nature of his existence here on earth, and his entire dependence upon God Who is not only his Maker, but will also be his Judge. God needs no defense, for He is on The Throne. He is the judge of all the earth. His Kingdom is without end. Cease to question and to argue! Bow down before Him! Worship Him! Get into the right attitude yourself, and you will begin to understand His actions. Oh, the arrogance of sin!
II. But such is the amazing love of God that He does not leave it at that. In spite of our sin and all its enormity, He deigns and condescends to reason with us, and to explain Himself to us. Nothing but Eternal Love could have such patience with such perverse and obstinate creatures. Here, we have a typical instance of such reasoning. It takes the form of an exposure of the ignorance displayed in this attitude towards God.
We have seen, already, that it is due to a fundamental failure to realize the nature of God, and our true relationship to him. But there are other ways in which our ignorance tends to lead us astray. We can illustrate them by showing how this passage answers the various questions that have been raised, and gives knowledge which solves the various problems that tend to perplex the minds of men.
(a) The Children of Israel were questioning the power of God and wondering whether He could do anything to save them, and to save the situation, even as men tend in the same way, today, to query the power of God. What unutterable ignorance! Listen! “I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.” That is the measure of His power. The God whom we worship, the God who is the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is also the Creator. By a mere word He made all things. He spoke and it happened. Read of His actions in the Old Testament, His mighty marvelous deeds. His very name “El” means The Strong or The Mighty One. Are you doubtful of His power to control men? Isaiah has already given you the answer. “Behold the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.” “All nations before Him are as nothing: and they are counted to Him less than nothing, and vanity.” And these are not mere words, nor merely the result of a flight of poetic imagination. If you desire to be certain of their truth, read the secular history books which confirm the history and the teachings of the Old Testament. When Isaiah uttered those words the plight of Israel appeared to be hopeless. They were conquered, and were to be carried away to captivity by the greatest power the world had ever known. It seemed impossible that they should ever return. Nevertheless they did return. It was not their own action, they could do nothing; it was simply a manifestation of the almighty power of God. But is not evil as a principle more powerful? you may ask. The reply is: “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil, I, the Lord do all these things.” “Creating evil” does not mean creating sin. It means that He made sorrow and misery and wretchedness to be the consequences and the results of sin. But even beyond that, the Bible teaches that sin and Satan are not beyond and outside the control of God. He permits them, but limits their activity, and, ultimately, He will destroy them. “Why does He allow them now?” you ask. The answer, there, is “Nay but, 0 man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” We cannot tell, but this we know, that when death and hell and evil exerted their maximum, their full power against our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they were completely routed and defeated, and by the mightiest manifestation of power the world has ever known He rose triumphant from the dead. “With God all things are possible.” He is the Almighty; there is no limit to His power.
(b) But what of His love, his concern for us? The more we emphasize His power the more acutely does this second question arise. Does He love us? Is He concerned about us? Why then does He not do something? Such were the questions asked by Israel; and men and women today ask the same questions. God answers the questions by revealing to the prophet what He was doing, and what He proposed to do. He corrected the terrible ignorance with respect to His love and His concern for the people. He showed how He was working quietly and unobtrusively all the time. “I have raised him (Cyrus) up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build My city, and he shall let go My captives, not for price nor for reward, saith the Lord of Hosts.” They thought He was doing nothing. The whole time He was working and bringing His purposes to pass. Had He forgotten Israel? Was He not concerned about them? He had a great and a glorious future in store for them, and to that end He was making provision for them. In spite of their disobedience and their sin, in spite of all that had been true of them and their attitude towards Him, God still loved Israel and was planning her salvation. Isaiah can no longer control himself. He cries out “Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, 0 God of Israel, the Saviour.” He saw that God was still the God of Israel, and that as He had saved them from Egypt and the Red Sea, from the wilderness and their enemies, He would still save them from all calamities. And if you have believed on Him through Jesus Christ, if you have repented and accepted His great salvation, I assure you, that whatever may be happening to you, and however dark and difficult it may be, and however impossible to understand—I assure you that He is still your God, that He still loves you and cares for you, and that the promise still holds: “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” Yea, as Peter put it so perfectly to those who were suffering tribulations and who could not quite understand, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you.” Never doubt that He careth.
(c) But perhaps our ignorance is greatest with respect to “the ways of God.” This is a great theme in Isaiah as we have seen already in some of our quotations, and as we see so strikingly in our text. “His ways,” are not “our ways.” Because we cannot understand, we tend to doubt and to question. Oh! how foolish. “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” He appears to do the exact opposite of what we should expect. He used Cyrus, a Gentile, to save the chosen people. At times He appears to do nothing. Years and long periods pass and God seems to be inactive, and in our impatience we begin to cry out “How long?” God seems to have lost control, and all seems to be going wrong. Oh! the folly of such thoughts. He seemed to have forgotten the people in Egypt, but He, in His own way and His own time, eventually brought them out. He allowed them to be seventy years in Babylon, but He had planned their return to Jerusalem before they were ever taken captive. For four hundred years the voice of the prophet was still. Not a word after Malachi. But “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” And so He has continued to act throughout the ages. With God “a thousand years are but as one day.” In His own time, and in His own way, He acts, He works. Everything, all things, have been planned “before the foundation of the world.” The scheme is perfect, the plan is complete. Nothing will fail. Read the story of the past and see how it confirms the prophecies. Then read the prophecies with respect to the future. Having done so, you will laugh at your fears and alarms, your evil forebodings and your questions, and you will cry out with Isaiah, “Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, 0 God of Israel, the Saviour.”
What else can you say? What else can be said? Is there any other comment that is adequate to the situation? There is but one, and it is even greater, that mighty word of St. Paul as he contemplated God’s future plan for Israel and the world: “0 the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been His counselor? Or who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever, Amen.” And let us add, Amen and Amen! (59-77)