It’s not often that a book title tells the whole story. Usually titles are chosen because they are catchy, not because they are informative. But occasionally you stumble on a title that both catches your attention and also tells you exactly what the book is about. A generation ago J. B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God Is Too Small. The title says it all. So many of us struggle because our God is much smaller than the God of the Bible. We have him neatly defined and kept in a box of our own making.
If your God is too small, perhaps you need to take another look at the God of the Bible. Over the centuries theologians have used certain words to describe His essence: Sovereign, Almighty, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, Infinite, Eternal, and Immortal, to mention only a few. But no list of adjectives could ever adequately picture the immenseness of God. He is so big that we don’t even have the proper words to describe his bigness. He is bigger than our biggest words and grander than our grandest conceptions. Because he is God, no words or thoughts of mortal men and women could ever compass his greatness. He is far bigger than we imagine, his presence fills the universe, he is more powerful than we know, wiser than all the wisdom of the wisest men and women, his love is beyond human understanding, his grace has no limits, his holiness is infinite, and his ways are past finding out. He is the one true God. He has no beginning and no end. He created all things and all things exist by his divine power. He has no peers. No one gives him advice. No one can fully understand him. He is perfect in all his perfections. Our best efforts fall so far short of his divine reality that we flatter ourselves to think that we truly understand him at all.
It is against that backdrop that we must consider the meaning of verses such as "The secret things belong to the Lord our God" (Deuteronomy 29:29) and “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
There is a fundamental category difference between God and his creation. His thoughts are “higher” precisely because he is God and we are not. Therefore it shouldn’t surprise that God does many things we don’t understand. Or that most of our questions about life will go unanswered. Job discovered this when God engaged him in a long series of questions starting with “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4) and ending with “Who dares to open the doors of his mouth, ringed about with his fearsome teeth?” (Job 41:14). The answer to the first question is no, the answer to the second is “not me.” And the answer to every question in between is also in the negative. It’s as if God is playing a game of Celestial Jeopardy and has managed to sweep the board before Job can answer a single question.
In dealing with our deepest struggles it helps to remind ourselves of who God really is. The greater our view of God, the more strength we will have to face the trials of life. Similarly, the lower our view of God, the more likely we are to be blown away when tragedy strikes.
With that background, let’s take a look at Romans 11:33-36. Of all the passages in the Bible that speak to God’s greatness, perhaps none contains so much truth compacted into only four verses. This passage has been called a “doxology of theology” and an “explosion of praise.” The words are bracing, hopeful, and breathtaking. No Bible expositor ever feels adequate when faced with a marvelous paragraph like this. It contains depths of truth no one can hope to fully explore, much less to understand. For our purposes we can arrange the major thoughts of these four verses around simple statements.
First of all, these verses teach us...
Three Facts About God
1. He Knows Everything There Is To Know
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (33a) The Apostle Paul was as well acquainted with God as any man ever was, yet he confessed himself at a loss to know the depth of God. How deep is God? So deep that Paul could only stand at the edge and peer into the deep. When a man wades into the ocean, he feels safe as long as he can feel the sand beneath his feet. But let him proceed farther out, and he will feel the sand disappearing. Eventually a wave comes and hurls him into the surf where he is tossed this way and that. As the current carries him outward, he cries out, "Oh, the depth." This is what Paul felt as he came to the end of his contemplation of God's sovereignty, man's sin, and God's eternal plan to shut up all men in the prison house of sin so that he might show mercy to all. Finally, he says, "Let us stop reasoning and simply praise our God for his incredible plan of redemption." Theology must eventually become doxology or else we will be guilty of thinking that we truly understand God.
Oh, the depth of God's wisdom.
Oh, the depth of God's justice.
Oh, the depth of God's grace.
Oh, the depth of God's forgiveness.
Consider this hymn from the pen of Samuel Francis:
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!
The best and brightest men and woman must eventually come to the same conclusion. The astronomer gazes at the stars that fill the night sky. As the most powerful telescopes take us to the edge of the universe, the wise man bows his head and exclaims, "How great Thou art!" Robert Jastrow founded NASA's Goddard Institute. In his book God and the Astronomers, he comes to this conclusion:
This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth... [But] for the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; [and] as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
Though Jastrow is no creationist, his words remind me of Psalm 19:1, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork" (ESV).
Those who know most must confess how little they actually know. If a man claims an intimate knowledge of God, we must suspect that he knows God no better than he knows himself. For God is deeper than our minds can fathom. Not only is His wisdom and knowledge deeper than we know, it’s deeper than we can even imagine. We have no mental category for the depth of God’s character. We simply know that it is, and that we know nothing about it except what God has chosen to reveal. Trying to understand God is like trying to empty the ocean with a tiny bucket. Dip your bucket in a thousand times and you haven’t made a dent in the vast expanse of water. Your bucket is too small, your arms too weak, and the ocean is too large, too wide, too deep. So it is with God. We can’t begin to comprehend the depths of his being. When I was preaching in Kentucky several years ago, I heard a Southern gospel song on the radio. It went like this: “Has it ever occurred to you that nothing has ever occurred to God?” That sounds odd at first because things occur to us all the time, but it’s true: Nothing has ever “occurred” to God. He never wakes up and says, “A great idea just occurred to me.” In the first place, he never sleeps, therefore he never wakes up. In the second place, all his ideas are great. In the third place, nothing ever occurs to him. He knows all the great ideas all the time from the beginning of time.
Our text suggests that he knows everything that could ever be known. Not only his knowledge deep, it is also wide. He knows everything that has been, everything that is, and everything that will be. He even knows everything that could have been, or could be, or could ever be. Not only does he know it, but he has known it all from the beginning of time.
Several years ago I came across an article about "the prevenient grace of God." The phrase -- which was new to me -- refers to “the grace that goes before.” Here’s a working definition: "In every situation of life, God is already at work before I get there. He is working creatively, strategically and redemptively for my good and His glory." Wow! So many times I limit my thinking to the fact that God’s presence goes with me as I move through life. That’s true, but it’s only part of the story. He’s not only with me now, he’s already way up the road ahead of me. Think about this way. While I am struggling with the problems of today, God is at work providing solutions for the things I am going to face tomorrow. He’s already there, working creatively in situations I have yet to face, preparing them for me and me for them.
Or to say it another way: While I’m in Tuesday, he’s clearing the road for me on Friday. That’s what Proverbs 3:6 means when it promises that "he will make your paths straight." God is already at work providing solutions for problems I don’t even know I have yet! Are you worried about next week? Forget it. He’s already there. What about that crucial meeting next Monday? Don’t sweat it. He’s already there. What about that surgery your oldest daughter faces in a few days? Fear not. He’s already there.
It would be enough if God simply walked with you through the events of life as they happen. But he does much more than that. He goes ahead of you, clearing the way, arranging the details of life so that when you get there, you can have confidence that God has already been there before you. That’s the prevenient grace of God. He goes before his people. He’s at work in the future while we live in the present. He can do that because he knows everything there is to know.
2. He Makes Plans We Can’t Understand
“How unsearchable his judgments!” (33b) Other translations use the word “inscrutable”, which means “beyond human understanding.” Eugene Peterson (The Message) offers this version of verse 33: "Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out." I like that phrase--"It’s way over our heads." Not only does God make plans we don’t know about, even if we did know about them, we couldn’t understand them. That explains why some things remain unexplainable forever. It’s not that God is unwilling to explain, it’s that our little minds can’t begin to comprehend the infinite purposes of God. John Wesley said it this way: “Show me a worm that fully comprehend a man, and I’ll show you a man that can comprehend God.” It can’t be done.
3. He Alone Knows Why Everything Happens
“And his paths beyond tracing out!” (33c) Matthew Henry has a helpful word about this. The main things God wants us to know are clear and plain. They are, he said, like a highway open for all to travel. But the judgments of his hands are dark and mysterious. That road is closed forever to us. We must not pry into the mysteries of God, but rather bow before him in adoration for things we don’t understand. Then he added this sentence: “God leaves no footprints behind him.” You can’t tell where he’s been or where the Almighty is going. He leaves no track or trail that we can follow. That means that in life many things will happen that we simply do not understand. Sickness, accidents, violent crimes, sudden financial collapse, divorce, crumbled dreams, cancer, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, famines, war, broken promises, evil triumphing over good, lost jobs, ruined lives, children dying, others promoted while we are passed, our ideas stolen and used by others, and good works we do that others take credit for. The list is endless and heartbreaking.
A few years ago Michael Gartner wrote in USA Today about the sudden death of his 17-year-old adopted son Christopher. “He died on Thursday. He was a healthy, robust boy on Tuesday. He got sick on Wednesday. And he died on Thursday.” Then he said, “You would have liked him. Everyone did.” Father and son didn’t look alike at all. Michael Gartner is five-foot-eight and weighs 160. Christopher was close to six-four and weighed around 300 pounds. “He looked like a cement block with a grin.” He died of a sudden attack of juvenile diabetes. Despite heroic medical efforts and fervent prayers Christopher was suddenly gone. “It is awful and horrible and sad, and no words can comfort his four grandparents, his brother and sister, his friends or his parents.”
The day after he died, a friend called and said the only thing that helped get him through the terrible tragedy: “If God had come to you 17 years ago and said, ‘I’ll make you a bargain. I’ll give you a beautiful, wonderful, happy and healthy kid for 17 years, and then I’ll take him away,’ you would have made that deal in a second.” “And that was the deal. We just didn’t know the terms,” Michael Gartner said. He’s right. That’s always the deal. And we never know the terms in the advance. God gives us life, health, happiness, our children, our friends, and says, “Enjoy it while you can. Someday I will come back for them.” And we never know the terms in advance.
Only God knows why things happen. Most of the time we can only wonder.
Second, this text tells us...
Three Things No One Can Do
Verses 34-35 contain three rhetorical questions, each one expecting a negative answer. They all begin with the same two words: “Who has... Who has... Who has?” The answer is always the same: “No one... No one... No one.”
1. No One Can Explain God
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (34a) Lots of people think they know what God is like, but the only thing we know about God are things he has chosen to reveal to us. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the six blind men who were trying to describe an elephant. The first man felt the tusk and said, “An elephant is sharp, like a spear.” The second man touched his massive side and exclaimed, “No! An elephant is like a wall.” The third man stroked his wiggling trunk and concluded that an elephant was most like a snake. The fourth man tried to wrap his arms around one of the elephant’s legs. When he couldn’t, he said, “He is like a tree.” The fifth felt the expanse of his huge ears and said, “It’s easy to see that an elephant is much like a fan.” The last man felt the tiny tail and said, “You’re all wrong. An elephant is shaped like a rope.” Who was right? They are were. Who was wrong? All of them. We are all like those blind men when it comes to knowing God. Who among us can claim to fully understand the infinite and Almighty God of the universe? No one knows enough to fully explain God.
2. No One Can Counsel God
“Or who has been his counselor?” (34b) I love the way Eugene Peterson puts it: Is there “anyone smart enough to tell him what to do?” He needs no counselor for he is infinitely wise. In high schools there are trained professionals called guidance counselors. They help students make wise decisions about the future. They gather data from report cards, test scores and detailed interviews, combining the student’s strengths and weaknesses with the available opportunities. Such counselors are indispensable because life is filled with so many possibilities. But God needs no guidance counselor. Indeed, he is the ultimate Guidance Counselor. He guides every being in the universe, but no one guides him. He counsels all creation, but no one is his counselor. For a mere man to counsel God would be like a candle trying to give light to the sun.
An ill-prepared college student was struggling through his final exam in economics. He happened to be taking the test just before Christmas. In desperation he scrawled across the bottom of the paper, “Only God knows the answer to these questions. Merry Christmas!” When he got the paper back, the teacher marked it: “God gets 100. You get 0. Happy New Year!”
No one knows as much as God does, no one can explain God, and no one can be his counselor.
3. No One Can Accuse God of Unfairness
“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” (35) This question comes from Job 41:11 where God asks Job, “Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.” No one can ever say, “God, you owe me something,” because the Lord will be no man’s debtor. No one can say, “You cheated me,” because God cheats no one. No one can say, “I’ve earned your favor,” because everything this side of hell is mercy, and everything this side of heaven is grace. Consider what our God does:
1) He restores rebels by granting them his righteousness.
2) He redeems transgressors and takes away their rebel hearts.
3) He promotes his own glory by saving those who ought to go to hell.
Let us be very clear on this point. God saves those he is in under no obligation to save. He could have destroyed the human race and started over again with better raw material. But he didn't. What he did was quite literally unthinkable.
The Infinite became finite.
The Almighty became a tiny baby.
The Deity was wrapped in diapers.
Luther put it this way: "He whom the worlds could not enwrap, yonder lies in Mary's lap." No one but God himself would ever have dared to think of that. And then in the Father's wisdom, the Son died a miserable, humiliating, excruciating death on a Roman cross -- the just dying for the unjust, the Sinless One bearing the sins of the world. In order for Christ to be our Savior, three conditions must be met:
1) He must be a man. An angel could not die for our sins. He must truly share our humanity.
2) He must be an infinite man. A mere mortal could not bear the infinite price that must be paid for our sins.
3) He must be an innocent man. A sinner could not die for the sins of others.
God has done everything necessary for you to go to heaven. No one can accuse God of unfairness because his offer of salvation goes out to the entire world. No one who believes in Jesus will ever be turned away.
No one will end up in hell except those who truly deserve to be there.
No one will end up in heaven except those who have been saved by God's grace.
Everything this side of hell is mercy, and everything this side of heaven is grace.
Finally, this text gives us...
Three Reasons to Praise God
It is as if Paul can contain himself no longer. He means to show that God is all in all. Everything comes from him, everything exists by his power, and everything will ultimately answer to him. James Montgomery Boice calls this verse the secret of a “Christian worldview” because it dethrones man and puts God on the throne of the universe. He makes his point by asking a trivia question: What was the last song recorded by the Beatles before they broke up? Answer: “I, Me, Mine.” Dr. Boice comments that the Beatles’ last song is also the first song as well as the last song of the unregenerate heart. But the song of the redeemed is Romans 11:36!
1. He is the Source of All Things
“For from him” (36a) He is the source of all things, which mean that all things flow from Him. I saw a wonderful illustration of this truth when I spent a few days at Camp Nathanael in Emmalena, Kentucky. The camp itself is something of a miracle. A man named Garland Franklin was the first director. Back in the 1930s he was driving along the dirt road next to Troublesome Creek when the Lord spoke to him and said, "I want you to build a camp here." The land wasn't for sale right then, but Mr. Franklin began praying about it. Several years later the land came up for sale and the mission raised the money to buy it. This of course was in the heart of the Great Depression when money was scarce everywhere, but nowhere scarcer than in the coal-mining country of eastern Kentucky.
Then in 1936 they decided to dig a well on the property. After saving up their money, they found that they only had $75 to pay for the well--the digging, the installation of equipment, and any other associated expenses. When the man came to dig the well, Mr. Franklin asked him where he would like to dig. The man said, "Mr. Franklin, I can see into the ground as far as you can." So Garland Franklin pointed to a spot and said, "Dig right there." So he started to dig and hit water after going down only 75 feet (most of the other wells in the area go down at least 200 feet). After putting in the pump and the permanent casing, enclosing the wellhead and attaching the pipes, the contractor totaled up his bill and presented it to Mr. Franklin. The exact amount was $74.99. They had one penny left over!
But that's not the end of the story. The well they dug in 1936 is still there and still pumping water. But that’s not the most amazing fact. In 70 years the well has never run dry. Never. Not even for a moment. "It's like there's an ocean of water under there," the camp director told me. Several years ago when a severe drought hit the region, most of the local wells went dry, but not the one at Camp Nathanael. They had so much water that they let the local people come and fill their water barrels.
The well is still pumping water, and it shows no signs of running dry. Is that a miracle? Yes, but behind the miracle well stands a miracle-working God who can speak a word and an ocean of water comes gushing up through the ground. He is truly the source of all things.
2. He is the Sustainer of All Things
“And through him.” (36b). Not only do all things flow from Him, but he is the reason for the continued existence of the universe. He alone understands the purpose for everything that he created. One of my favorite stories involves George Washington Carver, the man who discovered 255 different things you could do with the lowly peanut. Dr. Carver is revered for his years of work at the Tuskegee Institute in my home state of Alabama. Because of him, the South began to move away from a cotton-based economy to one based on other crops. George Washington Carver was a devout Christian who had a deep knowledge of God. When he was asked where he came up with so many uses for the peanut, he told this story. He said that when he was a young man, he went for a walk in the fields and while he was there, he and the Lord had a conversation. When he asked the Lord to show him why he had created the universe, the Lord said, “Son, that’s much too big for you. Ask me for something you can understand.” So he tried again. “Lord, show me why you created the world.” “Still too big for you. Try again.” George Washington Carver dropped his eyes to the ground and happened to see some peanuts on the vine. “Lord, could you tell me why you created the peanut?” “That’s a good question. Now we’ve found something you can understand.” The Lord showed Dr. Carver the secrets of the peanut, and he used what God showed him to change the world.
All things come “through him.” All knowledge, all wisdom, everything we have comes “through him.” He is the Sustainer of All Things -- even the peanut!
3. He is the Supreme Purpose of All Things
"And to him are all things” (36c). This is a breathtaking statement because Paul includes “all things” in his exclamation. Nothing is left out, no part of creation excluded. God is the beginning, the middle, and the end of “all things.” Everything comes from him, everything continues by him, everything finds it ultimate purpose in him. Life is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and we are like children trying to put the puzzle together with only a handful of pieces and someone took the box that has the picture on the cover. So we’re left trying to fit our little handful of pieces together and trying to figure out the big picture at the same time. No wonder we struggle to figure out what life is all about. As the years pass we pick up more pieces to the puzzle and things that once troubled us now seem to fit into place. And we have a new appreciation for the wisdom of God because nothing is ever wasted. Everything “fits” somewhere.
Or we are like ants crawling across a painting by Rembrandt. When we come to the darker colors, it seems as if the entire painting is dark, somber, forbidding. Everything around us is dark brown or dark blue or midnight black. But if we could only stand back from the painting, we would see that the darker hues are offset by lighter colors — red, green, yellow, blue and orange. It is the darkness of the darker hues that makes the brighter colors stand out so vividly. So it is with life itself. We may spend days or weeks or years in the dark tones of life. Sickness, heartache, tragedy, mistreatment and betrayal may cause us to think that there are no lighter tones. But God is painting a masterpiece in your life and before he is finished, he will use every color on his palette. If you do not see the final product on earth, you will see it clearly in heaven.
I am reminded of Augustine’s famous words, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” All things are made by him, and through him, and for him. He is the source, the means, and the goal of all creation. They are part of the “all things” of Romans 11:35.
To Him Be the Glory Forever!
What is left for us but the words of Paul in verse 36? “To him be the glory forever! Amen” (36d). The mysteries of God lead us in one of two directions. Either you give up your faith altogether and become a skeptic or you bow the knee before the God who is too great, too vast, too awesome for you to fully comprehend.
God always leaves us with a choice, doesn’t he? You can believe and be saved or you can doubt and be damned. But either way many of your questions will never be fully answered. If you choose to believe, then we are left with these final words: “To him be the glory forever!”
In life and in death--To him be the glory forever!
In joy and in sorrow--To him be the glory forever!
In good days and dark nights--To him be the glory forever!
In sickness and in health--To him be the glory forever!
In your career and in your home--To him be the glory forever!
In your marriage and in your children--To him be the glory forever!
In your prosperity and in your poverty--To him be the glory forever!
In days of peace and in times of war--To him be the glory forever!
In gentle breeze and in gathering storm--To him be the glory forever!
In the classroom and in the boardroom--To him be the glory forever!
In moments of victory and in darkest defeat--To him be the glory forever!
In prayers answered and in prayers unanswered--To him be the glory forever!
In yesterday’s tears, today’s rejoicing, and tomorrow’s adventures--To him be the glory forever!
In heaven and on earth--To him be the glory forever!
Whatever comes, whether tragedy or triumph, in the midst of the years, with the changing of the seasons, when we know enough or nothing at all, when hope is gone and all we have left is God,
To him alone be the glory forever! Amen.
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Dr. Ray Pritchard is the president of Keep Believing Ministries. He has ministered extensively overseas and is a frequent conference speaker and guest on Christian radio and television talk shows. He is the author of 27 books, including Credo, The Healing Power of Forgiveness, An Anchor for the Soul and Why Did This Happen to Me?