The Thrilling and Mysterious Ways of God
Most serious Bible students concede that the book of Romans is one of the more difficult compositions of the New Testament — at least in some places. One of these is the section that embraces chapters 9-11. There, the inspired Paul discusses the sovereignty of God (i.e., his right to exercise his will in human affairs), in terms of how he used both the Jews and the Gentiles for the accomplishment of his grand plan for the human family.
The Hebrew nation was chosen by Jehovah to be the instrument through which his Son would enter the world, thus initiating a wonderful scheme for the potential redemption of fallen humanity. Though the inauguration of that system was thrillingly successful, nonetheless, the Jews, at least many of them, rejected the opportunities afforded them. Accordingly, God broke off some of those faithless “branches,” and, in their place, grafted in some “wild” branches (the Gentiles). In any event, the divine plan was not frustrated. The fact is, the call of the Gentiles very well may work to the saving of many of the Jews (11:11ff).
As Paul concludes his complicated argument, so roughly sketched above, his soul seems to have been overcome with the realization that God, who initiated and worked such a breathtaking plan across the centuries, is wonderful beyond description. The apostle thus was led to write: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!” (11:33 ASV).
It is the initial sentence of this expression that will serve as the focus of this article. An analysis of the exclamation reveals several constituents. There is:(a) the apostle’s emotion in contemplating the divine procedure; (b) the object of his wonder — God; (c) the attributes of Deity, and; (d) the plenitude of his majesty.
Grammatically, the sentence begins with an interjection (represented by the Greek letter, omega. This type of construction expresses a reactionary emotion, which could be either positive or negative (cf. Matthew 15:28; Luke 24;25); the context must determine which. In the present case, it reflects an exultation of profound admiration.
The descriptive which follows had penetrated the very soul of the great apostle. He is stunned by a contemplation of the Creator’s marvelous workings. O, that we could be moved when considering Heaven’s interest in us!
The Great God
The ultimate focus of Paul’s emotion is God himself. In the Greek text, the term theos (God) is in the genitive case, hence, the rendition “of God.” There are, however, numerous senses in which the genitive is employed. In this instance it could suggest a descriptive (i.e., the wisdom, etc.) that is characteristic of God. Or, grammatically, it is at least possible that it also denotes the wisdom, etc., that proceeds from the Lord. The context will be the deciding factor. In this case, most likely it is Jehovah’s personal nature that is in view — though an extended application could be made that stresses those qualities that may be received by man as a consequence of fellowship with his Creator.
There are a couple of additional grammatical matters that need brief explanation. First, there is the issue of whether two or three attributes of God are in view. Is the apostle emphasizing simply the riches of “both the wisdom and knowledge” of the Lord (KJV, ASV, NIV), or is Paul underscoring three aspects of Jehovah, i.e., his riches, his wisdom, and his knowledge (NEB, RSV)? Grammatically, both are permissible. I am inclined to the view that three qualities are being stressed (see Cotrrell p. 298).
Second, the attributes of God are depicted as those of “depth,” which suggests absolute plenitude. The expression highlights man’s inability to fully appreciate the magnitude of the marvelous qualities of Jehovah. Let us now, with our limited perception, contemplate these unfathomable attributes of our Maker.
Based upon an accumulation of biblical evidence, theologians have coined the term “omniscient.” God is omniscient, i.e., he knows everything there is to know. Jehovah has never learned one thing. He has never entertained a theory. He has never “wondered” about any matter. His knowledge is complete and perfect. Let us bring this matter into sharper focus.
(1) God knows all things physical and/or material. When Job, due to his great suffering, became confused, and challenged the Lord concerning the propriety of his activities upon the earth, God responded by subjecting Job to a rigorous examination relative to the planet’s environment. With more than 70 profound questions (most of which cannot be answered even today), Jehovah bludgeoned the patriarch to his knees. Job finally confessed that God’s knowledge was simply “too wonderful” for him to grasp (42:3).
(2) The Lord has knowledge of all events past, present, and future. He declares the “end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10), and speaks of those things that have not yet happened as though they have (cf. Romans 4:17). All things are laid open before his all-seeing eyes (Proverbs 15:3; Hebrews 4:13).
(3) Deity intimately knows the very recesses of every person’s thoughts. He looks into the heart (Acts 1:24), where no mere human gaze can penetrate (cf.1 Corinthians 2:11).
(4) Our Maker intimately knows our every need — even before we ask (Matthew 6:8), and he is anxious to provide for us (John 15:7), though we must solicit him (James 4:2).
Finally, it is worth noting that all knowledge ultimately is derived from God. The famous astronomer, Johann Kepler, confessed that he was only “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” A knowledge of everything else, without a knowledge of God, is nothing but sheer ignorance (cf. Romans 1:18ff). It is incredible that many who designate themselves as “scientists” (knowing ones) have a knowledge vacuum that is void of the most fundamental facts of existence.
“Wisdom” may be defined as the ability to use knowledge for the achievement of a particular goal. The wisdom of God, in bringing to fruition his wonderful plan of salvation — from the Creation to Calvary — is astonishing.
(1) Heaven’s wisdom, as displayed in the selection of the Hebrew nation, and in the cultivation of Israel — both in granting favors and in disciplinary action — is riveting. The sojourn of the patriarchs (Abraham, etc.), the role of Joseph in Egypt, the selection and conquest of Canaan, the rigors of captivity — all these remarkable events were interwoven into the unfolding of God’s thrilling plan for mankind.
(2) The providential contributions of the Gentile nations, preparatory to the arrival of that “fullness of time,” when the gospel system was ripe for introduction (Galatians 4:4), is no less remarkable.
The Romans provided a law code, transportation, and communication. The Greeks contributed a love for learning, and the most precise instrument for the conveyance of human thought ever known to man — the Koine Greek language. All these things delightfully facilitated the first century success of the kingdom of Christ. One can only stand in awe of Heaven’s wisdom in such planning; which even angelic hosts found intriguing (cf. 1 Peter 1:12).
In this connection, we must rehearse the fact that true wisdom, of which the human family is in such dire need, is from him in whom all wisdom resides. The inspired James describes the “wisdom that is from above” as “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without variance, without hypocrisy” (3:17). Those lacking in wisdom [and aren’t we all?] may ask a measure of it from God who, through means consistent with his plan, will generously supply such (James 1:5).
The Riches of God
If our previous conclusion is correct, namely that the “riches” of this passage represents an independent term, then it stands for a certain quality of God’s nature.
“Riches” is from the Greek ploutos. The term derives from a root meaning “to flow,” hence, to “be filled,” or to have a “fullness” of resources (Bromiley, p. 873). A modern expression, “filthy rich,” catches the spirit. What are the riches of God?
There may be an emphasis upon certain qualities that are innate to the very essence of the incomprehensible God. Let me mention four things.
(1) The Scriptures speak of the riches of God’s goodness, as manifested in his forbearance and long-suffering (Romans 2:4). “Goodness” is the term chrestotes defined as “goodness, kindness, generosity” (Arndt, p. 894). The Lord’s “forbearance” is his disposition to “hold back,” i.e., delay a justly deserved punishment. Heaven’s “long-suffering” suggests a patience in the face of provocation (Vine, p. 482). This passage stresses the kindly demeanor of God in response to human rebellion. Isaiah pictures the Creator in graphic language: "I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, that walk in a way that is not good, after their own thoughts; a people that provoke me to my face continually. . . " (65:2-3).
(2) In a context that is brutally frank, relative to the devastation that sin has wrought upon the planet, Paul speaks of the fact that God is “rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us” (Ephesians 2:4). “Mercy” describes the pity that the Lord feels for foolish man, who has so ruined his life with violations of sacred law. It is part of the motivation in the divine plan for man.
(3) Inspiration also mentions the “riches of [God’s] grace” (Ephesians 1:7; 2:7). Grace is the favor bestowed by the Father in the gift of his Son. It is offered in complete absence of “merit,” or the ability to “earn” it (Ephesians 2:8ff; Romans 4:4). Can any concept be more humbling than that of God’s grace?
(4) Finally, there are those references to the “riches of [God’s] glory” (Romans 9:23; Ephesians 3:16). One could speak of God’s glory as the sum of what he essentially is and does (Vine, p. 344); or, in the texts cited above, the significance may center upon the wealth of divine blessings that transform our present lives (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18), and lead ultimately to the glorified state (Romans 2:7,10). Moses Lard described the “riches” here contemplated as “the infinite resources which God has at [his] command to effect the salvation of the world” (p. 376).
In a micro-exclamation of praise, Paul has captured the whole of redemptive history — Heaven’s operations on behalf of Adam’s fallen children. It yet leaves us stunned!
While it is the case that we are not privy to all of the complex determinations and workings of Deity, we can savor enough of them, by means of Scripture, to be filled with a sense of wonder — a feeling of awe so profound as to motivate us to surrender all to the will of our Creator. May we be reminded of this need frequently.
- Arndt, W.F. & Gingrich, F.W. (1967), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago).
- Bromiley, G.W., ed. (1985), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
- Cottrel, Jack (1998), Commentary on Romans (Joplin: College Press), Vol. 2.
- Lard, Moses (n.d.), Commentary on Romans (Cincinnati: Standard).
- Vine, W.E. (1991), Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Iowa Falls: World).