By W. T. Purkiser, Richard S. Taylor, Willard H. Taylor

The following is from the book by W. T. Purkiser, Richard S. Taylor, Willard H. Taylor, God, Man, and Salvation, chapter: Old Testament Ethics, Kansas City: Beacon Hill, copyright 1977.



 The Old Testament assumes that right conduct is within the power of man. He may repent, wash his hands of the blood of violence, help the widow and the orphan, substitute justice for bloodshed, and shape his life to please his divine Lord.

Just as the Bible balances the collective and individual aspects of human life, it balances the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man. The sovereign will of God establishes the limits and consequences of human choice. But within those limits and in the light of those consequences, that same sovereignty guarantees the responsibility of human choice.

The sovereignty of God is not arbitrary. God does what He pleases, but what He pleases is right and morally good. Both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are recognized clearly by Old Testament writers. Schultz writes:

 "The most difficult side of this question is to understand the relation of the divine activity to personal beings conscious of their own actions. Piety demands such an emphasizing of God's action as would logically take away man's freedom. Moral consciousness, on the other hand, demands a freedom which, looked at by itself, would exclude all divine co-operation and order. It may be impossible for philosophy to solve this contradiction, based, as it is, on the inability of finite thought to comprehend a divine activity that works in a way unlike anything in the present world. But the Old Testament knows nothing of this dividing gulf--or, indeed, of this whole difficulty--as invariably is the case with simple faith. It holds fast to the moral claim. The emphasis it lays upon moral duty, and the prominence it gives to the responsibility which every one has for his own destiny, are clear enough proofs of this.

 What is not stated in so many words is everywhere assumed throughout the Old Testament. Men are commanded to choose. They are treated as morally responsible. While their freedom is a freedom within limits, and the limits are drawn by the divine will, the freedom within those limits is real. As Albert C. Knudson wrote, "Had the Hebrew felt it necessary to choose between human freedom, on the one hand, and the divine sovereignty on the other, it is possible that his choice might have fallen on the latter. But no such necessity presented itself to his mind."


A. The Symbolism of Sovereign and Subjects

 While there was no attempt at reconciling the terms of the paradox, the Hebrew concept of God as King is helpful. That God is King even when His rule is not recognized (2 Chron. 20:6; Ps. 22:28) is a fact asserted some 50 times in the Old Testament, most frequently in the Psalms (5:2; 44:4; 68:24; 74:12,843,98.6,145.1, cf. I Sam. 12.12, Isa. 33:22; 43:15; Ezek. 20:33). Although God is particularly Israel's King, in truth His kingdom is worldwide: "Thine, 0 Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, 0 Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from thee, and thou rulest over all" (I Chron. 29:11-12; cf. Dan. 2:44; 4:31, 34).

 The Oriental monarch was an absolute sovereign. Yet often he had to deal with rebellious subjects. Sovereignty was not conceived in the fashion of a puppeteer with his puppets or a mechanic with a robot but in terms of a king and his people. The ruler who can overcome rebellion and win the love and loyalty of his people is more truly sovereign than one who could control puppets.


B. Freedom and Responsibility 

God's sovereignty is such that He uses the free and responsible choices of men to work His purposes in human life. An early example of this is found in the story of Joseph. When Joseph was made known to his brothers, he said to them concerning their betrayal of him: "As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Gen. 50:20).

Pharaoh in his confrontation with Moses acted on his own in hardening his heart (Exod. 8:15, 32; 9:34). As a result, it was said that Pharaoh's heart "was hardened" (7:14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35) and "God hardened" Pharaoh's heart (7:3;9:12; 10:1,20,27; 14:4,8). These are three ways of describing the same fact. But God said He would use Pharaoh's decision "to show . . . my power, so that my name may be declared throughout all the earth" (Exod. 9:16).

The Assyrians were driven by their own lust for plunder and power, and their choices were consciously their own (Isa. 10:7). Yet they were the rod of God's anger, the axe and the saw in His hand, working out His moral purposes in the history of Israel (vv. 5-6, 12, 15).

"The wrath of man" is man's own wrath, and for its results he is fully responsible. Yet the sovereign God causes that wrath to "praise" (derived from a Hebrew root which also means "confess" or "serve") Him (Ps. 76:10).

Such passages as these have been interpreted in favor of an arbitrary sovereignty on the part of God exercised without respect to human choice. These, together with similar expressions in the New Testament, rather describe "the law of habit-the law that a good man grows better and a bad man worse through his right or wrong choice-and this is a law God has imposed on man." Likewise, the acted parable of the potter and the clay (Jer. 18:1-6) simply shows that God can remake a disobedient people-otherwise the potter would have made the marred vessel as marred.


C. God Is Lord of All 

That God is the ruling Lord "is the one fundamental statement in the theology of the Old Testament. . . . Everything else derives from it." It is for this reason that the relationship between God and man in the Bible is "the relation between command and obedience. It is a relation of wills: the subjection of the ruled to the will of the ruler."

Leon Roth noted that it has become fashionable to speak of the relationship between God and man as that of a dialogue. At least it should be recognized that the "dialogue" is not the idle conversation of a social occasion. "It is rather a call, even a calling to account; and it is curious to observe from the record how some of those called upon found it in terror and suffering and how some, for varying reasons, tried to evade it."

In the exercise of His sovereignty, it is to be noted that God permits what He does not necessarily purpose. He allows what He does not intend. But even the evil God permits is not "running loose." It is under control. The conviction expressed by Paul in Rom. 8:28 is true of the writers of the Old Testament: "We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.


 Please do not reproduce this material. You must obtain permission from, Beacon Hill Press of Kansa City, Kansas City, Missouri. The article is from the book: W. T. Purkiser, Richard S. Taylor, Willard H. Taylor, God, Man, and Salvation, chapter: Old Testament Ethics, Kansas City: Beacon Hill, Copyright 1977.

June 22, 2000