It's Not About You

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I had a friend who used to conclude from his conviction of God's sovereignty and the fact that a young woman he was attracted to happened to cross his path that day that God was sending him a message about his future with that young woman. It was hard to convince him that just because it was part of God's plan that he run across her path that doesn't mean it was for the reason he might think God had them cross paths. It could be because his running into her reminded her of something she needed to be reminded of that day. It could have been because of something unrelated to the two of them, though, for instance maybe because God wanted them each to be at separate locations shortly after that, and the best way to achieve that at the precise times he wanted them to arrive was for them to walk right by each other. It could have even been so that he could have this conversation with me and be reminded that it's not always about him and what he wants.

I Kings 20 is an interesting case study in a chapter we don't look at all that often. Ahab, the King of Israel, engages in continual conflict with Ben-Hadad, King of Syria. It goes on for a while until Ben-Hadad decides he can get the better of Ahab's forces by fighting in the valleys, claiming that the gods of Israel are gods of the hills, and the gods of Syria are gods of the valleys.

At that point God sends a prophet to Ahab to tell him that Ben-Hadad's statement is the reason he's going to hand him over to Ahab. Interestingly, he quotes it as a statement that God is a god just of the hills, where Ben-Hadad seems to have used a plural verb, indicating plural gods (the noun, I believe is the same in either case, so I believe you have to go by the verb to know which it is, because 'Elohim' is a plural name for God; someone who knows some Hebrew should correct me here if I'm wrong, but that's what I think is going on here). If that's right, then Ben-Hadad was referring to God even though he thought he was referring to several gods of Israel (and the evidence of the surrounding chapters is that Ahab did worship other gods), because there is only one God for Israel even if they pretend otherwise.

The result is sobering. Ahab is handed this amazing victory, basically because God thought it was a good time to bring Ben-Hadad down. It's not about Ahab at all. I think it's a natural human tendency to take things going well for us as a sign that God approves of what we're doing, but here's a clear counterexample to that. This has nothing to do with Ahab, and it's clear from the surrounding chapters that God absolutely disapproves of the defining characteristics of Ahab's life. This is about judging Ben-Hadad. Just as Rehoboam was judged by God via Jeroboam's rebellion and subsequent separation of more than half the kingdom, so here we have Ahab benefiting from God's judgment on Ben-Hadad, when it has nothing at all to do with Ahab.

In both these cases, the King of Israel was judged for something else later, Jeroboam for how he ruled once he had his own kingdom and Ahab most immediately for not completing the task and letting Ben-Hadad go, just as Saul had done with Agag and the Amalekites at the very beginning of the Israelite monarchy. Something similar occurs in Isaiah 10, where we see judgment on the God's for doing it for the wrong reason (in that case the king of Assyria gets judged for how he caries out judgment on Israel, since he does it for his own glory and while thinking it's his own power that achieves it).

One interesting part of all this is that God delivers a real blessing to Ahab, one of the wickedest of Israel's many wicked kings. God chose to give him victory with serious odds stacked up against him -- but the reasons God gives for this choice were very clearly nothing to do with Ahab. It's a nice instance of the general principle given to Israel at its founding. They were chosen not because they were large or strong but because God wanted to demonstrate something.

A passage in Thomas Aquinas' discussion of predestination often reminds me of this biblical principle. Aquinas wonders what basis God might use to single out particular people to be predestined for salvation or damned. He can't imagine God does it by something akin to flipping a coin or some such arbitrary method, because God isn't arbitrary, despite how a lot of Calvinists sometimes want to think of God. At the same time, it can't be based on the actions people do to deserve salvation, because everyone at the most basic level does not deserve grace, or it wouldn't be grace. It has to be an unearned gift. [For those stumbling over how a Catholic can say this, see the footnote. This is the official Roman Catholic doctrine, even if it doesn't sound like it to Protestant ears.] So whatever leads God to choose particular individuals to be saved must have nothing to do with their earning it in any sense. It must have to do with other things. In effect, he concludes that God's reasons for choosing certain people to be saved or damned would be for something like artistic reasons. It makes for a greater providential plan to choose someone like Paul, coming out of his Pharisaical training and resistance to the gospel and having his skills to be used in developing the canonical epistles. It makes for greater spread of the gospel for God to work through certain people. It shows God's mercy and grace in special ways. There's plenty of room for God to have purposes that aren't arbitrary that are in some sense about you but not in the sense of the title of this post. It's not about you in that sense.

It should catch our attention that this same pattern recurs in scripture. It's not just Saul, Jeroboam, and Ahab. You see it in different ways with Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson in the book of Judges, to name three other examples. People receive God's grace because of reasons having nothing to do with their own deserving, and in some of these cases having nothing to do with the person at all. They then proceed to take God's grace as a sign of God's favor, or at the very least they aren't grateful enough for God's blessing that they proceed to live in a way that honors the God whose blessing they've received without deserving it. In some of these cases, that vastly understates how significantly they slight God and insult his gracious bestowal of favor. It must be particularly fearsome to receive such blessing only to end up in a place of severe judgment, as Ahab certainly did.

But isn't this the story of the whole Bible? Humanity as a whole has continually rejected God's favor and spat in his face, and his patience and love is shown all the more for his willingness to pursue those he is bringing to salvation even amidst their constant rejection of many of the opportunities God gives to pursue holiness and reject inferior substitutes for God. We would do well to remember the lessons of these figures, because God will bring to completion the good work he started, and he calls us to participate in his transformation of our hearts and wills to serve him as we work out the salvation he's working out in us.

[Footnote: Aquinas does not hold the caricature of Roman Catholic theology that has Christians straightforwardly earning their salvation. Salvation is a gift of grace and totally unearned initially. He does think God, at the end of your life, evaluates the actions you did through the Holy Spirit as being righteous actions, and only in that sense is your salvation merited because the God-produced works you did do match up to what God wants of you in that they were produced by the Holy Spirit. But even this isn't meant to cancel his claim that you don't earn the initial grace that puts you in a position to be transformed by the Spirit to do good.]

12 Comments

You know, it's really easy to assume that God's saying what we want Him to. I know I've done that a lot in my life. One of the most notable times would be when I took a job offer because I was sure that God wouldn't have had me receive such an offer that looked so good if it wasn't His will that I take it.

Three months later, I could just about write a book on what it's like to be an utter failure as an insurance salesman.

So, at least I can relate to your friend's error.

Great points.

Excellent post, Jeremy. Well said.

Regarding the singular/plural issue of "God/gods," we know the prophet was using the singular because of his pronoun choice, "he" (he is not a god of the valleys), there is no verb here in Hebrew. But I'm not sure there is a grammatical reason to assume Ben-Hadad was referring to "gods" as opposed to "God." There are no verbs or pronouns (the "they/them" in these verses is more naturally taken to refer to the Israelites) to give us a clue. My guess is that the translators (and I looked at 5 on Bible Gateway) assume that the pagan king would be referring to plural gods rather than using the plural Elohim to refer to God (YHWH) as the prophet does. But there is no grammatical reason for this choice, as far as I can tell.

Side note: Could you tell us where Aquinas covers that?

Danny: I don't think it's just what the pagan king would do. There's also the fact that the Israelites did in fact worship more than one god during this period.

Chris: It's probably covered in several places, and I'd be surprised if it didn't come up by the time he gets to grace in the biblical exegesis portion of the Summa (Part III). But the part I'm familiar with is in the section on predestination in Part I of the Summa, questions 22-23.

Jeremy- I understand that. But contextually, the prophet himself talks about YHWH, using Ben-Hadad's own words for that matter.

I'm just saying I don't see a grammatical reason to understand it as "gods." You said in your post that you normally go by the verb, which is true. In this case, there is no verb. You can also use pronouns, which is how we know the prophet is referring to God (YHWH) rather than "gods." So, my original intention for commenting was to clarify a point in the Hebrew which you bring up.

When the prophet quotes Ben-Hadad, he refers to God, not "gods." If Ben-Hadad was referring to "gods," then why does the prophet change it to the singular? There may be a good explanation, I'm not saying it should necessarily be "God." But even if Israel did worship other gods, which is certainly true, Ben-Hadad could have been referring to YHWH, the God of Israel. At the moment, admittedly without studying this in depth or giving it more than 10 minutes of thought, I'm not sure why we would take Ben-Hadad's words to be "gods." There's no grammatical reason. And what is more likely, that the prophet would change Ben-Hadad's referent, or that the original referent was YHWH?

And let me be clear, I realize the translations all have Ben-Hadad as saying "gods," so I may be (probably am?) missing something. So I'm not necessarily arguing that I must be right, just that I'm not sure why all the translations take it that way.

Um, nice shot at Calvinists, but none that I know would say that God is arbitrary. Otherwise, nice post. It to an extent reminds me of Christless Christianity, where Horton says that a lot of bad theology nowadays is man-centered and not really about God at all.

I looked at a bunch of commentaries, not one of them helpful (but Kings commentaries generally aren't, in my experience, which is why I have to have so many just to have halfway decent coverage). Provan and House took the view of the translations but didn't give any reasoning or suggest that there is an alternative. DeVries took the alternative, translating with the singular, but he also gave no reason and didn't give any indication that there's any alternative, even though all the translations disagree with him. Wiseman, Konkel, and Leithart had nothing at all to say about this issue, as far as I could tell from a quick skim.

The one that was most helpful was Keil, but even he doesn't address the translation issue. He does provide an explanation of what Ben-hadad means when he says the gods of Israel are gods of the mountains. He's referring to the high places, which Ben-hadad would have taken each as a place to sacrifice to the god of that mountain. I have no idea if this is based on what we know Syrians doing or just some assumption that it must have been something like that, but I do think it serves to explain why he would have said that and the prophet would have corrected his mistaken thinking on that.

Sean, I'm a Calvinist, so I'm not sure why you're taking my comment as a cheap shot at the view I myself hold. I would have thought my Calvinism would be obvious from the strong view of divine sovereignty in human choice that I assume in the post, but I guess not.

There are indeed a lot of Calvinists who speak as if God must have chosen the elect and the reprobate for reasons that have nothing at all to do with any facts about the people being chosen. I remember being inclined toward saying that sort of thing myself during my college years, and yet that conclusion never sat right with me. It became clear to me over time that it's a false dilemma. You don't have to give up on God having reasons for choosing people just because you reject that God's reasons have to do with anything the person earns or deserves. But I've encountered a fair number of Calvinists who seem to take God not to have any reasons at all for preferring those who end up being the elect over those who end up being reprobate.

Yeah, the only commentary I have on Kings is Brueggemann, and he doesn't address it either. I wish I had a more technical one, but I've never found one worth spending the money on.

Like I said, I understand why they went with "gods," I guess I'm a little surprised there isn't a footnote or anything. And I figure the "hills" was because of the high places that Israel used, but part of me wonders if they would have really thought each one was for a different god. After all, weren't there more than one shrines/temples to various Canaanite gods? Anyway, in the end it doesn't really matter. But maybe the translators could have put a footnote in, or something.

I'm sorry to drag this out even more, but the NET Bible uses the singular in v23.

The WBC on II Kings is actually pretty good, but the I Kings one hasn't been all that helpful to me. If I had enough funds, I'd have the Anchor set on Kings. That's probably the best thing available. But it's hard for me to justify the purchase right now, given that I can just get it from my school library if I really want to look at it (and I will pretty soon, as it happens, since we're starting a sermon series on Kings in a few weeks). I'll have to see what they say about this verse when I manage to pick that up.

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