Two verses have been on my mind again these last two or three days. The first is John 19:11—”You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above“—and Lamentations 3:37—”Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it?” (NIV–1978). Another more modern translation, and the one that I really want to focus on, renders Lamentations 3:37 as “Can anything happen without the Lord’s permission?” (NLT–1996). There are other translations that construct Lamentations 3:37 in a similar manner: “For who can act against you without the Lord’s permission?” (TLB–1971), “No one can do anything without the Lord’s approval” (CEV–1995), “Who was it who spoke and it came into being? It was the Lord who gave the order” (GW–1995), “Suppose people order something to happen. It won’t happen unless the Lord has planned it” (NIRV–1995), “Who can command and have it done, if the Lord has not ordained it?” (NRSV–1989, NRSVA–1989, NRSVACE–1989, NRSVCE–1989), “Who has commanded and it came to pass, unless the Lord has ordained it?” (RSV–1946, RSVCE–1965), “Who speaks and it comes to pass unless the Lord has decreed it?” (TLV–2013), and “Who can command things to happen without the Lord’s permission?” (NLT2–2004). While the NLT’s 2004 revision is fairly similar to the other cited translations, I feel like it was watered down to straddle the original NLT text and other translations like “Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not?” (KJV–1611) or “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?” (ESV–2001).
Many respected clergy and learned laity are quick to cast this verse as referring to the authority of a prophet to prophesy. Lamentations was, after all, written by the prophet Jeremiah. But when one compares this with John 19:11, I feel like the intended thought is indeed that no human can undertake to do us harm without God’s notice or awareness. Does this mean that God is at the root of all calamities that befall us? Absolutely not. We need to get back to a more fundamental understanding of permission. We think of permission as indicating active approval, but that is not a valid perspective. At the root of “permission” is “permit” which is really a lot closer to “allow” than we are ready to ascribe to God largely because doing so is uncomfortably close to questioning God’s sovereignty (i.e. why did God allow my loved one to die?, why did God allow that drunk driver to hit me?). Yes, those questions are natural ones for any human, but those of us who consider ourselves to be mature in the faith are likely to restrain ourselves and pull away from sentiments that would question God’s sovereignty and omniscience.
Another reason I think that many are reluctant to embrace the NLT and similar versions has to do with beliefs about predestination. I think it would be very easy for one to fall into a feedback loop and maybe this is why theologians want to diminish and reduce Lamentations 3:37 to a statement about a prophet’s authority to prophesy. Most believers do not believe that humans are bound by predestination. While there are verses that can be cited as evidence of predestination—John 9:1-4 is a prime example—such verses have other didactic significance that far overshadows any predestination argument.
While we mortals have free will—there can be no question about it—there are also times when God overrides our free will. As I explored in an earlier blog post, Matthew 22:14 tells us that “many are called, but few are chosen.” But what does it mean to be “chosen” and does that imply predestination? I am of the opinion that being “chosen” does not negate free will, but can indicate a level of pressure that can be just short of unbearable.
Before he became “Paul,” this writer of two-thirds of the New Testament was known as Saul who, while on the road to Damascus, had a Divine encounter—in which he was quite literally “called” to serve Christ—but which left him physically blind (Acts 9:3-8, Acts 22:6-11). Saul’s traveling companions led him to Damascus where he fasted for three days. The Holy Spirit then spoke to Ananias telling him “arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying [a]nd in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight” (Acts 9:11-12 NKJV). Ananias was reluctant because of Saul’s reputation for persecuting Christians, but God instructed Ananias to go anyway “for he [Saul/Paul] is a chosen vessel of mine” (Acts 9:14 NKJV). Ananias then prays for Saul whose sight is restored whereupon Saul receives Christ and is baptized (Acts 9:17-18). However, what the story does not explicitly state was how limited Saul’s options had become.
By many accounts, Saul was in line to become the next high priest of Israel. Saul spoke at least five languages and he was a natural-born Roman citizen who could therefore act and speak far more boldly than his fellow non-citizen converts. Saul studied under the preeminent Gamaliel who was an expert in Jewish law (Acts 5:34, Acts 22:3) so Saul could reasonably be presumed to also have serious expertise in Jewish law. But Saul’s expertise in the law also spelled disaster for his life ambition because Saul knew that he could not be blind and serve as a temple priest (Leviticus 21:16-23). Saul was thus faced with the same prospect regardless of his choice. If he rejected Christ’s calling and remained blind, Saul could not become high priest. But if Saul accepted Christ’s calling and recovered his sight, he still could not become high priest because of his new faith in Christ. But even if being high priest had not been his ultimate destiny, without his sight Saul/Paul could not continue his studies of Jewish law nor participate in policy decisions at the Sanhedrin, nor teach others the way that Gamaliel had taught him. And he also could not do these things with his sight restored if he accepted Christ’s calling. No matter what Saul chose, it was clear to him that his life had gone off the rails and would change completely. Yet if Saul chose to accept the call of God on his life, at least then Paul could use his exceptional education, foundation, and traning to advance the Gospel. Even so, during Saul’s days of fasting and prayer God revealed to him “how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16 NIV). Yet despite this foreknowledge, Saul still chose to follow Christ. Some might say that Saul chose to go with his best option; others could just as easily say that Saul chose the least painful path. What is certain is that an inordinate amount of pressure was brought to bear upon Saul. He still had free will to choose to reject God’s calling but it was clear either way that life as he knew it was over. In this way, being “chosen” did not override Saul’s free will, but it did put so much pressure upon him that it would be futile to reject or to struggle against the plan that God had for Saul’s life.
Now I don’t think this applies to most people. But I do think that Moses, Joseph (OT), Samuel, David, Zechariah (John the Baptist’s father), Mary, and Joseph (NT) are other examples where the mission was just so critical that God didn’t leave the actors much of a choice. But even if such key actors kicked against the goads (Acts 26:14) and refused God’s commission, God’s supremacy and sovereignty mean that God can simply create someone else to fulfill the rule (see Jeremiah 18). We could also look at Samson as an example of one could have chosen to follow or to refuse. He could have done sooooo much more to advance God’s kingdom and to benefit the condition of God’s people, but even as much as Samson could have done, God did not self-limit to working solely through Samson (see Deut 18:15/Acts 3:22, Psalm 75:7). In similar fashion, Jonah did not have to acquiesce to God’s will, though God was still willing to use Jonah once he relented and surrendered his will to God’s. As Samson and Jonah show us, sometimes calamity is one of the methods that God uses to get our attention, to discipline us, and/or to gain our compliance.
I think that it is fairly easy—no matter how great the tendency toward self-deception that we humans have—to identify which calamitous events are consequences of our own actions and which are not. Still, there are gray areas as illustrated in the narrative of the life of Joseph. Was he an impetuous, snot-nosed punk? Yes. Did he need to lose that attitude? Probably. Was that attitude something he decided would be super cool to have or was it something that he developed in response to his mother’s coddling, his father’s adoration, and all the “Jerry Springer” drama between his mother and three stepmothers? Yes to both alternatives. While the inculcation of Joseph’s faults was not of his own choosing, he did have a choice to change his attitudes. Maybe he was in the process of changing when his brothers attacked him and sold him into slavery. Then again, maybe he wasn’t; no one can know for sure. But even if Joseph had changed his attitudes, would he have avoided Egypt? Of course not because Egypt was God’s plan to save and grow the Israelite nation. God would have caused Joseph to reach Egypt by some other means or misfortune. So yes, Joseph had some human faults, but neither one nor all of his faults warranted the calamity that befell him. Joseph lost several years to servitude and imprisonment and something like ten years altogether apart from his birth family and homeland.
Ultimately, I come back to the conclusion that no unjust tragedy can happen to us without the Lord’s permission. And by permission, I mean “permitting” or “allowing” and not necessarily an explicit authorization (see Job 1-2 as discussed in part one). Can God intervene? Yes, because God is sovereign. Is God obligated to intervene? No, because God is sovereign. Did God intervene for Jonah? Yes. Did God have to? No. Could God have raised up someone to replace Jonah? Yes. Why didn’t God do that? Who knows. The injustice that befell Jonah’s shipmates—who threw all their cargo overboard and lost a ton of money trying to save their lives all the while not knowing that it was Jonah’s presence that imperiled them—still comes back to nothing happening without the Lord’s permission (and with Jonah, permission is even more like “intent” than awareness).
But I think the premise is still sound that no unjust tragedy escapes God’s notice. At the very least God is mindful and permits it to happen if by nothing more than simply not intervening. This can be unsettling and anxiety-inducing if we obsess on it. We are best served by acknowledging God’s sovereignty to do as He pleases. Our best option is to “be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10 NIV).