Dr. Richard L. Strauss
October 28, 1979
The Babylonian Empire was the greatest in the world of its day, and its king, Nebuchadnezzar, had no peer. But the great king hadn't been sleeping very well. Whatever he tried, troubling thoughts flooded into his mind from a dream he had, and he was terrified (Daniel 4:5).
He tried to get help from his magicians, astrologers, and diviners, but to no avail. Finally he turned to Daniel, who had helped him with a frightening dream earlier in his reign (Daniel 2), and he described his nightmare. It was about a huge tree that grew to the sky, and everyone on the earth found food and protective shelter under this tree. Sounds great, doesn't it? But all of a sudden, a holy messenger from heaven declared that the tree would be cut down, with this announcement:
The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone He wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people (Daniel 4:17).
Whatever dramatic event that dream anticipated, its purpose would be to convince the inhabitants of earth that the Most High God rules in the affairs of men. We call that great truth the sovereignty of God.
It was essential for Nebuchadnezzar to understand it. As a matter of fact, God let him lose his mind, grovel in the fields like an animal and eat grass like oxen until he was willing to admit it. Listen to his own testimony, after his recuperation from that awful ordeal.
At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified Him who lives forever.
His dominion is an eternal dominion;
His kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as He pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back His hand
or say to Him: "What have you done?"
That is one of the clearest declarations of God's sovereignty found anywhere in the Bible. Nobody can stop God from doing what He wants to do. Nebuchadnezzar learned this doctrine well. It is every bit as important that we learn it, too.
What does it mean?
1. The Meaning of God's Sovereignty
Neither the word sovereign nor the word sovereignty appear anywhere in the King James Version of the Bible [the Bible version Dr. Strauss primarily used at this time]. But the truth is so well established it can hardly be disputed. The dictionaries tell us that sovereign means "chief or highest, supreme in power, superior in position, independent of and unlimited by anyone else."
Some theologians insist that sovereignty is not technically an attribute of God, but rather a prerogative that flows out of the perfections of His nature. That may be true, but it makes little difference. We still need to know Him as the sovereign God, and there is probably no more comforting truth about Him that we shall ever learn.
That God is truly and perfectly sovereign means four things. Let me list them for you.
- He is the highest and greatest Being there is.
- He controls everything. Nothing is ever out of His control.
- His will is absolute. There is nothing that can happen outside of His will, and there isn’t anything anyone can do to thwart His will.
- He does whatever He pleases.
Now we can hear those four things and think, OK, we can handle that pretty well. Especially on a Sunday morning when things are going fairly smoothly in our lives. But it might be a different story when God does something to us that we don't like. Then we may resist the doctrine of God's sovereignty.
Rather than let it bring comfort, we may find that it gets us upset with God. Our problem is likely a faulty understanding of the doctrine or an inadequate knowledge of God. Let's see if we can explore what sovereignty means, then truly get to know our sovereign God.
Now let's go through these four things.
a. God is Highest and Greatest
It shouldn't be any problem for us to admit that God is the highest and greatest Being there is. We've been learning that God is the eternal, self-existent, self-sufficient, and unchanging Spirit. In the coming weeks we will learn He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and is everywhere. So it is obvious that He stands alone, above all. No one can equal Him.
If anyone preceded Him, or is more powerful than He, or knows more than He knows, or if He needed anyone else to be complete, then that one that God needs would be God. But there is no such possibility.
The very name by which He revealed Himself to Nebuchadnezzar proved it: the Most High God.
Other passages concur. I counted and I have over 65 Bible verses in my notes. I won’t have you go through them all today, but let's look at several. Turn to Isaiah, chapter 44.
"This is what the Lord says—Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: 'I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God'" (Isaiah 44:6).
The writer to the Hebrews put it succinctly: "For when God made promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no greater, He swore by Himself" (Hebrews 6:13).
God is the greatest and highest Being there is. (See also Exodus 18:11, Deuteronomy 4:39, Psalm 95:3; 135:5, Isaiah 40:12-15, 18, 22, 25; 45:5; 1 Timothy 6:15.)
We need to know that, but it still doesn't convince us that God can do anything He pleases with us. For that we need to go back to the beginning of God's creative activity. Let's reason together on this: If God made everything, and sustains everything by His power, then He obviously owns everything and has a right to rule what is His and do what He pleases with what is His.
Did He make everything?
"For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him" (Colossians 1:16—talking about God the Son, but God nonetheless).
Not only did He create all things, but He created them for Himself, for His own glory. Solomon went so far as to say, "The Lord has made all things for Himself, yes, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Proverbs 16:4). He didn't cause them to be wicked, but He made them, and somehow He is going to use them, in spite of their wickedness, to fulfill His own eternal purposes.
Furthermore, what He made for Himself He is presently holding together.
"He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17).
God the Son is the power that keeps the particles of the universe from flying apart. All things cohere in Him. If He created everything and now takes the necessary steps to make it all stick together, He must consider it all to be His. And that is exactly what the Bible teaches. In a great prayer of thanksgiving, David declared:
Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power
and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, Lord, is the kingdom;
you are exalted as head over all.
Wealth and honor come from you;
you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
to exalt and give strength to all.
(1 Chronicles 29:11-12)
God owns everything. To this all the Scriptures agree.
"The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof; the world and they who dwell therein" (Psalm 24:1).
How much is the Lord’s? Everything. The earth and its fullness. (See also Genesis 14:19; Deuteronomy 10:4; Psalm 50:10-12).
b. God Controls Everything
If God owns everything, then He has the right to rule everything. That is what he taught Nebuchadnezzar. The Most High rules in the affairs of men (see Daniel 4:17, 25, 34-35). And actually, David had said it years before: "...You are the ruler of all things" (1 Chronicles 29:12).
Passages abound in both the Old Testament and the New Testament to verify that. Our memory verse for this week summarizes the doctrine of God's sovereignty:
The Lord has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all (Psalm 103:19).
Nothing is outside the scope of His sovereignty, absolutely nothing. A godly King named Jehoshaphat found great encouragement in knowing the sovereign God of the universe who rules everything, when he faced a coalition of invading armies.
"Lord, the God of our ancestors, are You not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in Your hand, and no one can withstand You" (2 Chronicles 20:6).
We too can find great comfort in knowing that He rules the nations. [Dr. Strauss' sermon notes, written during the Cold War, include "USSR" in parentheses here. Today we could also call out China and Iran.] (See also Psalm 47:2-3, 7-8; Psalm 93:1-2; Matthew 28:18; Acts 17:26; Revelation 19:6).
c. God's Will Is Absolute
Since God is infinite, His sovereignty must be absolute. His rule involves the total control of everything in His domain—every circumstance, every situation, every event.
Now listen to this part very carefully, please. His sovereignty means that He either directly causes or consciously permits everything that happens in human history.
If God is sovereign, He either actively causes or consciously permits everything that happens.
Is that what the Bible teaches? It most certainly does.
Paul said, "For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things" (Romans 11:36).
He works "all things after the counsel of His own will" (Ephesians 1:11). The word "counsel" means plan or purpose.
God controls the weather (Psalm 147:16-18; 148:8). And He controls the life of every creature (Job 12:7-10).
We may be shocked to learn that God even admits to causing adversity and calamity.
"I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things" (Isaiah 45:7).
Think of that. God may purposely program problems into our lives—little problems like the flat tire on a deserted road, or big problems like the undiagnosed illness that lingers on and disrupts our lives (see also Proverbs 16:33; Lamentations 3:3; Daniel 2:20-21).
d. God Does Whatever He Pleases
It looks as though we have reached the crucial point of this doctrine of God's sovereignty. He has the right to do anything He pleases, and we have no right to argue with Him about it.
Remember the former things, those of long ago;
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like Me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, "My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please."
"Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him" (Psalm 115:3).
"The Lord does whatever pleases Him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths" (Psalm 135:6).
That's the lesson King Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way (Daniel 4:34-35), as did a suffering believer named Job. This was one of our memory verses last year.
"I know that You can do all things; no purpose of Yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).
Jesus taught the same lessons to His disciples by means of a parable. Remember the story of the laborers in the vineyard? Some were hired early in the morning, some at 9:00am, some at noon, some at 3:00pm, and some at 5:00pm. But when evening came the owner of the vineyard paid them all the same, and when some complained, he said, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" (Matthew 20:15).
"Hey, folks, it's my money. I gave you what we agreed to at the beginning of the day. If I want to give something more to the guy who started at 5pm and only worked an hour, that's my business. It's my money."
This is the doctrine of God's sovereignty. God has a right to do as He pleases with what is His, without asking permission from anyone. And Isaiah warns, "Woe unto him that strives with his Maker" (Isaiah 45:9).
Paul takes up the same theme.
"One of you will say to me: 'Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist His will?' But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?" (Romans 9:19-21).
(See also Job 23:13; 33:12-13; Jeremiah 27:5.)
2. The Mysteries of God's Sovereignty
By this time some are probably saying, "Where is the comfort in this? If God controls everything, why is there war, violence, crime, bloodshed, pain and suffering?" The Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that God is good (Psalm 100:5), so we expect Him to exercise His sovereignty for good purposes. But it's difficult for us to understand how these tragedies can be good.
And quite frankly, we may never fully understand that. God tells us that His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).
We're talking about the mysteries of God's sovereignty. We won't always understand everything. But there are some things we can know.
We do know that God is not the author of sin (Habakkuk 1:13; James 1:13, 1 John 1:5). We also know that God in His sovereign good pleasure created an angel host and a human race, both with volition: the ability to choose good or evil. Both chose evil of his own will, and the heartaches of this world are the direct result of that choice.
Now God created man with volition, and He knew that man would choose evil before He ever created him. But He also knew that creating him was the best way to demonstrate the greatness of His person and the perfecting of His nature—in other words, to show who God really is and so bring glory to Himself.
The beautiful thing is that He has the power to overrule even man's sin to accomplish this good purpose. The Psalmist assures us that when he says, "Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee" (Psalm 76:10).
God can even make man's wrath praise Him. Daniel is filled with examples: Daniel 1:19-20; 3:28-29; 6:25-27.
The Bible is filled with illustrations of God overruling man's sin. For example, He overruled the evil designs of Joseph's brothers when they sold him into slavery. God used that sin to keep Jacob's family alive through a devastating famine so that the line through which Messiah was to come would be preserved. Joseph told his brothers, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Genesis 50:20).
God can turn tragedy into blessing. He did it when He overruled the murderous designs of the Jewish religious leaders who plotted the death of His Son by laying on Him the guilt and penalty of the whole world's sins and so providing forgiveness for the human race.
He overruled the persecution suffered by the early church in Jerusalem. It seemed like a tragedy to them but God used it to send the gospel to places it might never have gone otherwise (Acts 8:1-4).
He may be allowing some problem to invade your life right now. As a sovereign God, He could have protected you from it. We're going to study God's omnipotence next week. He has all power so obviously He has the power to stop problems, to stop tragedy. So we must assume that He has at least allowed it even if He did not directly cause it (Psalm 31:25; Psalm 17:23; Psalm 18:30). If He allowed it to happen, He must have some reason for doing so. As a sovereign God, He has the power to use it for good, and He promises to do that.
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).
That verse is so commonly cited that it almost becomes trite. But it is one of the most important verses in all the Bible.
How God does this may remain a mystery for the present, but you can be sure that He will do it.
3. The Message of God's Sovereignty
Let's summarize what we've been learning. God has the right to do with us anything He chooses because we belong to Him. He made us. He owns us. And we have no right to argue with Him.
He controls every circumstance in our lives and He always does what is best. David told us clearly that God is in control of everything in our lives.
"My times are in Your hands" (Psalm 31:15a).
He was referring to our times and all they bring, the situations and circumstances of daily living. My life is in God's hands. All these circumstances are of God's appointment.
"The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in Him" (Psalm 37:23).
The course of life—all that befalls a believer—is established, fixed, and settled by the Lord. Things may be out of our control, but God has them under His total control at every moment (see also Proverbs 20:24; Ecclesiastes 9:1).
David also assures us that God will not make any mistakes. Not one. Here is one of the most important verses about sovereignty applied to our lives.
"As for God, His way is perfect" (Psalm 18:30).
That doesn't allow for any mistakes, does it? His way is perfect. We can't always understand how His actions are perfect, but He doesn't expect us to. He just expects us to trust Him. Trust Him.
The godly old patriarch Abraham, didn't understand it when God was doing what He was doing. When God told him He was about to destroy Sodom, he feared for the lives of his nephew Lot and family, and he pleaded with God to spare the city. Remember, he asked about 50 righteous people? If there were 50 righteous people, would God spare the city? God said He’d spare it for 50. And the negotiation got all the way down to 10 but Abraham didn’t go any lower than that, perhaps because he was embarrassed. But behind his request was the settled assurance that God would do what was best. In that negotiation, Abraham said something very important and we need to know it. "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25). That’s a question but it expects a positive answer. He trusted God to do what was right.
The message of God's sovereignty is the message of total trust. It's trusting God to do what is right.
God is saying to us when He reveals this doctrine of sovereignty, "I have the right to do with you anything I please, but I have everything under control and I will do only what is best. Trust me. There isn't any reason to worry, fret, complain, or argue. That won't change anything. Just trust Me."
I remember one godly old woman who learned the lesson well. I remember it because it was during my first pastorate, and some of those first experiences really stuck with me because they were new and fresh. She was lying in the hospital dying of cancer, suffering great pain but still mustering up the strength to read her Bible every day. On this particular morning I’m speaking of, she couldn't wait for my visit so she could tell me what God had shown her that morning. She asked me to open my Bible to Psalm 119 and read verses 67 and 68.
"Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your word. You are good, and what You do is good; teach me your decrees" (Psalm 119:67-68).
"Now read verse 71," she said.
"It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees" (Psalm 119:71).
"And one more—verse 75," she added.
"I know, Lord, that Your laws are righteous, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me" (Psalm 119:75).
When I finished, she looked up at me and smiled. "You know, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything in the world. I'm right where God wants me to be, and it's good."
That is the doctrine of God's sovereignty put into practice in a life. That's total trust. I still don't understand why she thought that God was afflicting her so she would learn His statues because she was a godly woman and it's difficult to imagine her going astray. But she knew. The bottom line is that she yielded to His sovereign will. She surrendered herself to Him.
He has a right to do with us as He pleases. He can allow our best-laid vacation plans to fall through at the last minute if He so chooses. He can let the boss blame us for somebody else's mistakes if He chooses. He can allow that loved one to be snatched away from us if He chooses. He already has it worked together for good.
We can do one of two things. We can resist Him, grumble and complain, accuse Him of being unfair or unkind—and end up with tension headaches, knots in the pit of our stomach, or maybe even with ulcers or heart attacks. Or we can believe that He will work our circumstances together for good, willingly yield to His sovereignty—and find inner peace and rest. God gave us free will so we can choose. It's our choice.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Now, our sovereign God has clearly stated that He has provided only one way to experience forgiveness of sins and eternal life in heaven. He said it through His son, when Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). If a sovereign God makes that statement, then I would presume that that's the only way.
Would you be willing to recognize that truth this morning? Would you recognize God's sovereignty and acknowledge your sin, so that you experience the forgiveness of your sins and submit to Him as your own Savior and Lord?
Let's bow together for prayer.
Our Heavenly Father, some of these truths are hard to hear and apply to our lives. We don't have all the answers but we thank You for revealing this truth to us. Lord, I pray that we may be willing to trust You. And if there are some here who have never recognized the eternal condemnation that sin incurs, and trusted Christ as their personal Savior from their sin, I ask You that right now, in the closing moments of this message, that they will be willing to acknowledge that sin and come to You in the way that you have provided through Jesus. For it's in Jesus' name that we pray. Amen.
God Is Sovereign
The Lord has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all.
Psalm 103:19 NIV
Continue to AT-07: God Is Able