The Beauty of the Sovereignty of God at Psalm 33

The Psalmist calls for followers of the God of Israel to rejoice in Him (Ps. 33:1-3), noting that the word (or promise) of the LORD is upright; His works among fallen human beings are faithful; He loves righteousness, justice, and "the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD." (Ps. 33:4-5) He then grants us examples of God's faithfulness and steadfast love: "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth. He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses." (Ps. 33:6, 7) This theme of God as omnipotent Creator is unmistakable and used to elicit wonder and awe in the one worshiping the beauty and majesty and unspeakable glory and integrity and holiness of God.

This manner of response ought to be typical of any finite mortal: "Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm." (Ps. 33:8-9) Who can speak nothingness into somethingness? Who could create the colors with which we are familiar? Who could originate the Bush Viper, the Chameleon, the Sea Horse, the Toucan, and millions upon millions of other species of animals, birds, reptiles and insects? Who could sovereignly govern over one hundred billion galaxies in the universe? Who could sustain all of existence merely by His word? (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3) "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?" (Ps. 8:3-4) Simply stated: God is wonderfully sovereign.

Let us examine the word "sovereign." We offer a social definition: "One that exercises supreme, permanent authority, especially in a nation or other governmental unit." (FreeDictionary) This definition helps us perceive of God as one with supreme and permanent authority over all that happens in the universe as well as all that happens on the earth among fallen mortals. We must concede the truth of this statement if we are to be faithful to statements within the scriptures that corroborate with such an understanding: "The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps." (Prov. 16:9) Jesus' half-brother, James, teaches us humility in light of God's sovereignty:
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money." Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wishes [θέλὴ, wills, desires], we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. (James 4:13, 14, 15, 16 NRSV)
We must never neglect this vital truth: God "accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will." (Eph. 1:11, emphasis added) Though the word "all" does not always indicate every single unit within an imagined component, as in "all" people (cf. Matt. 2:3; 3:5, 6; 4:24; 10:22; 26:52; John 3:26; 8:2; 11:48), the context here demands that not one element of reality be exempted: God accomplishes (ἐνεργοῦντος, works out: present active participle, lit., is constantly working out) all components of reality according to "the counsel of His will," βουλὴν, deliberate wisdom or decree.

The Psalmist agrees: "The Lord brings the counsel [etsah] of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans [machashabah] of the peoples. The counsel [etsah] of the Lord stands forever, the thoughts [machashabah, lit., plans] of his heart to all generations." (Ps. 33:10-11) Notice two uses of the word "counsel" and two uses of the word "plans" in these two verses. The Hebrew word for "counsel," etsah, refers to consultation or advice. The Hebrew word for "plans," machashabah or machashabeth, refers to designs, inventions, thoughts and intentions. The "nations," goyim, here may refer to the Gentiles in contradistinction to the Jewish people of YHWH. The Gentiles may advise and plot and scheme but they cannot defeat the counsel and plans of the LORD. We are reminded here of the Psalmist's declaration regarding the Gentiles against God:
Why are the nations [goyim] in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying, "Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us [i.e., reject their authority and sovereignty]!" He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them. Then He will speak to them in His anger and terrify them in His fury, saying, "But as for Me, I have installed My King Upon Zion, My holy mountain." (Ps. 2:1-6 NASB)
Note that the Gentiles devising wicked plots, counseling together against the LORD, is deemed a vain attempt at overthrowing the sovereign God of the universe. Our sovereign God frustrates all such plans of the peoples (lit. Gentiles). God's counsel and God's plans shall "stand," shall be forever established in heaven and on earth, forever. He cannot be dethroned. God is sovereign. What shall we conclude?

The Psalmist helps us properly contextualize the sovereignty of God:
The LORD looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men; From His dwelling place He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, He who understands all their works. The king is not saved by a mighty army; a warrior is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a false hope for victory; Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength. (Ps. 33:13-17 NASB)
Considering all of the tools that fallen men assume as great for victory -- kings and great armies and strong horses -- all are as nothing when compared to the sovereign power of Almighty God. He is, by divine virtue of His being, Creator of all: He sees all that happens, understands all their works or accomplishments, given that, as Creator, he "fashions" (creates, forms, ordains, plans, makes as a potter) the hearts (the mind, the will, the inner being, the conscience) of all. What is the Psalmist not suggesting?


Regarding God "fashioning the hearts of them all," Calvinist Wayne Grudem suggests that "God influences rulers in their decisions . . . But it is not just the heart of the king that God influences, for he looks down 'on all the inhabitants of the earth' and 'fashions the heart of them all.'" How does God's act of creating mortals suggest that God also influences the desires and decisions of those mortals? Where in this text is even the implication, to lack mention of explication, that God has, from eternity past, a) established that mortals shall, by His design, fall from original righteousness and forfeit their freedom to render their own decisions; b) sovereignly decreed what each mortal shall think, feel, say and do; c) planned to bring the same about using various means; and, finally, d) decided to hold each individual responsible for thinking, feeling, saying and doing that which God has necessarily decreed for them?

The error of the determinist is to take hostage a passage like Psalm 33:10-17 and others with similar truth-statements and constrain a deterministic understanding of God and His actions and plans on the whole of the scriptures to the obvious neglect of other passages which not only undermine determinism but properly contextualize a theology of the sovereignty of God. For example, Solomon gives instructions to the one willing to be wise, stating: "Keep the king's command because of your sacred oath. Do not be terrified; go from his presence, do not delay when the matter is unpleasant, for he does whatever he pleases." (Ecclesiastes 8:2-3 NRSV, emphasis added) The Psalmist writes a similar confession, but on behalf of God, stating: "Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases." (Ps. 115:3) (See the post: "The Beauty of the Sovereignty of God in Psalm 115.") If we assume the phrase "he does whatever he pleases" indicates exhaustive, meticulous, divine determinism for God then the same can be inferred to an earthly king (Eccl. 8:3). Or, perhaps, the determinist is in error.

Consider also a statement from the LORD to Hosea: "They [the Jewish people] chose their own kings without asking my permission. They chose their own leaders, people I did not know [Heb. yada, acknowledge, indicate, bring forth, choose, know experientially]." (Hos. 8:4 NCV) Here we learn from the very lips of God Himself that people not only have the ability to make their own decisions but actually do make decisions based upon their own reasoning, their own will, and that such is not exhaustively influenced by God toward fulfilling an eternal decree of God. The Jewish people, in this discourse, chose their own kings, set up their own princes, and did so apart from inquiring the LORD for His guidance, or wishes or will, and He acknowledges as much to His prophet. God, in this one verse, undermines and exposes as false the notion of exhaustive meticulous divine determinism.

If God exhaustively and meticulously influences our desires and decisions, and the Psalmist is attempting to indicate as much in his Thirty-Third Psalm, then not only does he fail miserably to accomplish this feat -- which is actually an indictment on the superintendence of the Holy Spirit in failing to inspire such a message -- but he would then, allegedly, undermine and contradict Solomon (Eccl. 8:2-3), the prophet Hosea (Hos. 8:4), and also himself (Ps. 2:1-6) -- assuming that King David is the author of both Psalm 2 and Psalm 33 (which has been contested).

The beauty of the sovereignty of God in Psalm 33 is demonstrated not in hues of divine determinism but in God's almighty and creative power to rule the universe, the nations, and His people within the framework of relative free will. Why else encourage and call people to shout for joy in the LORD (33:1), give thanks to Him (33:2), sing to Him and to play skillfully on one's instrument (33:3); to fear or revere the LORD (33:8), with a promise for the nations whose God is the LORD (33:12); insisting that the eye of the LORD is on those who choose to fear or revere Him (33:18), those who hope in His steadfast love (33:8)? The Psalmist is certainly not teaching us that God influences each person toward these spiritual realities.

Nor is he suggesting that God determines who will and who will not comply with God's moral, ethical, or spiritual standards. The beauty of the sovereignty of God is that no fallen mortal can thwart God's plans for the ages; if we are to rely on victory, whether in this life or for the next, then our only hope is in the LORD; He deserves our utmost respect, loyalty, and love merely by virtue of who He is, what (good) He has done, and what He offers to undeserving sinners. David concludes: "Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you." (Ps. 33:20-22 ESV) We recall a key verse of this Psalm: "He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord." (Ps. 33:5) Since God "loves righteousness and justice" then we can be certain that He has no vested interest in decreeing unrighteousness and injustice in our human experience.

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Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 321.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.