The concept of judgment is very broad. Judging whether it is safe to cross the road, is on a different level to judging someone for murder. Yet the word we use is the same for both (never forget words have uses as well as meanings, and we must strive to ensure that when we communicate with people, especially hostile people that they understand and accept our use of a word).
There is an attitude which is prevalent today which takes upon itself the right to determine for itself what is right and wrong (and, by implication, what we judge), and then to measure God up against that standard.
This is what I think this passage this morning speaks to, clearly. Paul is anticipating and answering those who feel they have a right to judge and question God. This is revealed in Paul’s first question/answer couplet…
Romans 9:14 – “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!”
Richard Dawkins, in his book “The God Delusion” said this of God:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Which, of course, is neither a scientific nor a rational statement, it is an irrational, philosophical one.
The late Christopher Hitchens, a particularly influential and well-known atheist, wrote a book with a title which echoes this view and revealed his internal irrational hatred of God. It is titled, “God is not great: How religion poisons everything”.
But the universe atheists believe in is like this (another Dawkins quote):
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
So, the atheist’s worldview is internally inconsistent, because if atheists are right, and God doesn’t exist, then then He isn’t the kind of God Dawkins describes, He isn’t any kind of God at all, and all Dawkins, or Hitchens, or Stephen Hawking, or Sam Harris or any atheist can do is criticise actions they don’t like, but since they don’t believe in moral absolutes, just (and I quote) “no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference”, all they are doing is making a preference statement, not one of absolute right or wrong.
I reference this because Dawkins and Hitchens and the other “new atheists” epitomise a world view today which is a very real modern-day example of what Paul is talking about. You will encounter people who will question God’s goodness, making moral judgments about Him. Frequently they will cite Old Testament passages from the taking of the promised land as evidence for their position.
You can, as I’ve just done, point out the internal inconsistency of their position, but there are other implications from their judgement of God.
Their judgment of God in this fashion reveals something about them, whether people recognise it or not, judgment implies a number of things.
- The person subject to judgment is subservient to an authority beyond them.
- The judge is adopting that authority for himself, or at least the right to make a pronouncement for (on behalf of) that authority.
So Dawkins, Hitchen and anyone who claims to judge God are claiming for themselves an authority over God which gives them the right and authority to judge God himself. This is the height of hubris and arrogance.
Paul makes a couple of comments to answer this charge against God.
Firstly, I want to note that what Paul does not do is try to justify God’s actions, he doesn’t try to answer the charge. he makes two basic statements.
- In v15, Paul quotes Exodus 33:19 saying, God is God and He will act as He sees fit.
- In v 20, He quotes from Isaiah saying, you are not God and have no authority to judge Him anyway.
I wonder if, when we talk to people who are critical of God and particularly of the actions which they say God approves of, should we start trying to justify those actions? Or should we, like Paul, make those two statements?
- God can do what he wants to do – He’s God.
- You’re not God, so you’ve no right to judge Him anyway.
Let’s look at these two responses and unpack them a bit.
Romans 9:15 – “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”.
The first response to someone who presumes to judge God is to point out the absurdity of their position.
As I’ve already said, Paul is quoting Exodus 33:19 here which says, “Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:18–19).
Psalm 2:4 says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” – sounds derisory doesn’t it?
Although Psalm 2 speaks of plotting and scheming and rebellion of people, rather than accusing him of injustice, the point holds. He is completely un-phased by the actions, attitudes and accusations of people. They don’t surprise Him, AND He knows that ultimately they are futile. People can say and think what they want, kingdoms may rise and kingdoms may fall and the Lord is constant throughout. He can look down from heaven at the positioning and “raging” of people, nations and kings of nations and know that ultimately their efforts are futile.
God laughs, not at the nations, but at their confused thoughts about power. It is the laughter of a father when his three-year-old boasts that he or she can outrun him or beat him in a wrestling match. The father knows the limited strength of his little child, and God knows the boundaries of power of the nations. Every nation is limited, but God is omnipotent. If you have to choose between confidence in God and confidence in any person, any worldview, any system, any kingdom or nation, choose God!
Job 12:23 says this, “He makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and leads them away”.
He also says:
“Behold, in this you are not right. I will answer you, for God is greater than man.
Why do you contend against him, saying, ‘He will answer none of man’s words’?
For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it. (Job 33:12–14).
My point is this, God is God. He is all-powerful. He created the world and knew about the empires of the earth long before they came into being. When Daniel describes the rise and fall of kingdoms to Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2:26–45, he attributes the cause to God, so for example we have
- Daniel 2:37 “You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory”, and
- Daniel 2:44 “in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed”
It is God who causes nations to rise and fall, it is God who determines their boundaries, and any power they have comes from Him. God, being God can do whatever He wants. The creator of all things who “oh by the way also made the stars” (my paraphrase of Genesis 1:16) has the right to do with his creation whatever He wants to.
This is the crux of Paul’s second response which flows from the first …
Romans 9:20 – “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”
Suppose two of us were in a pottery class or art class or some kind of other creative endeavour. Suppose we both drew or created something we thought was not quite up to par. If I was to tear mine up, or discard it and start again, people might say “oh don’t do that! It was really good!”, but no-one would question my right to do that with my own creation. If, however, I was to do that to YOUR creation, your would rightly be miffed. I have the right to do that to my own creation, but not to someone else’s.
The point is that, because God is the creator of the universe, only He has that right. Everything else is part of the created order – whether spiritual or physical. In every sense we are God’s creation. As Paul says “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
Can the created thing criticise its creator? Clearly, the instinctual and obvious answer is a resounding, NO!
And this is Paul’s essential argument, he says: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use?” (Romans 9:20,21).
Isaiah makes three separate comments about the potter and the clay, I wonder if Paul had these in mind when he’s making this comment.
Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’
Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?
You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?
Does the ax raise itself above the person who swings it, or the saw boast against the one who uses it? As if a rod were to wield the person who lifts it up, or a club brandish the one who is not wood!
This is an apologetic towards people who will say “God is unjust”. Interestingly, Paul doesn’t try to justify God’s actions, he doesn’t try to defend Him, or rationalise or understand whether God is being moral or not, he simply says, “Who do you think you are?”, “Will you answer God?”
This is a real echo of Jonah who goes to the hillside to watch God destroy Nineveh, then gets angry at God for not doing it.
“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
But the LORD replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the LORD God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?””
this is an aside, but I have heard no end of preaches about Jonah about his fleeing from God’s mission in fear. This passage seems to suggest that wasn’t the case. Jonah ran away because he wanted God to judge and destroy Nineveh. He didn’t want them to have a second chance!
Anyway, whatever the reason, Jonah gets cross when God forgives the Ninevites. In effect he’s judging God. Saying, “you’re unjust! You should have destroyed them!”
God’s response is interesting, and we read it Jonah 4, this question God asks of Jonah is the last verse of Jonah, the prophet leaves us with the question and the implied (if not expressed) answer … “you feel you have a right to get concerned about things that are not your responsibility”, I have more right. “I made this city and its people, and I have the right to be concerned for it”.
God’s question to Jonah and Paul’s referencing Isaiah reverberates through time to us, today, here in Somerset in the 21st century…
It seems to me that we can take a couple of things home. We live in a time of real turmoil, we have the war in Ukraine and the aggression of Russia which seems to be escalating. At least the rhetoric towards the UK and other supporters of Ukraine is being ramped up. We have political turmoil, with leadership battles in parliament, riots and demonstrations over the last couple of years, Corona virus and monkey pox are a constant undercurrent of whispering about how safe we might be.
Is God even there? Doesn’t he care about us? This is all proof that God is (judging the earth / doesn’t exist / doesn’t care about us – you can insert whatever rhetoric you want to depending on your worldview).
What is our hope?
- God is God. When we understand that, we can get to the place, where like Abraham, we can look around us and say “will not the judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Genesis 18:25). We can know that our creator God stands above everything that happens around us and everything that happens TO us.
- God is creator. In any event, being the creator of the heavens and the earth, God has the right to deal with His creation any way He sees fit. WE don’t own creation, God does. This is a trap of the earth worship brigade. Greta Thunberg screaming “we will never forgive you!” Totally misses the point and couldn’t be more opposed to the gospel if it tried. The bottom line is this, it’s not Greta’s forgiveness we all need – it’s Gods!