Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom of God!
‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!’ (Rom. 11:33). These words are the ending of the theological section of the letter to the Romans as Paul has set it out in the first 11 chapters of the epistle, and here is his response. It is affectionate, and emotional, and doxological.
They remind me of the psalmist saying, ‘How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!’ (Psa. 139:17). We often sing of this theme; for example in ‘God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.’ Paul has been explaining to us the plan of God in saving Jews and Gentiles through Christ. The rejection of the Messiah by the Jews became the opportunity for Gentiles to be evangelized and won by the gospel. Then their salvation in turn made favoured Jews envious of the converted Gentiles so that they repented and believed on the Lord Jesus. This plan, embracing both Jews and Gentiles, was devised by God and accomplished and applied by him. As a result multitudes of Jews and Gentiles have been receiving the gospel of Christ. Every Jew may come to the Saviour, and every Gentile may come. The offer of grace is extended to them all and throughout history and everywhere today men and women are coming and trusting in the Lord Jesus. The plan of God is absolutely perfect so that blessings continue to be poured out upon the world.
Paul says that this reflects both God’s knowledge and his wisdom. What is the difference between those two similar words? Let us say that God’s knowledge is his omniscience; in other words, God is ignorant of nothing whatsoever. He knows everything. He knows each sub-atomic particle. He knows the vastness of outer space. He knows what lies beyond and outside of this universe. He knows the entire future for all of eternity. But more than all of that, God knows himself exhaustively; no part of him is a mystery to himself. God alone knows his own being, his triune glory, his love, his grace, his rectitude, his hatred of sin, what is the consequence of the revelation of his wrath, his mercy and pity. That is the knowledge of God. Then what of his wisdom? What is that? His wisdom is the application of his knowledge, using his knowledge for honourable ends in every decision he takes within the Trinity, to create, and to sustain, and to save through the incarnation of his Son and redeem by the work of his Holy Spirit. What wisdom!
O loving wisdom of our God,
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.
O wisest love! That flesh and blood,
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.
His wisdom provided such a Saviour to rescue favoured sinners, and with that same wisdom to deal with us, day by day. In wisdom he brought us to know him, he chose certain means, there were desires he placed in our hearts, and the timing of the great change, and the people he employed, and the message, the very words, and how he answered our questions and objections – what wisdom! Then how he has dealt with us over the years, the trials he has brought into our lives, the temptations, the falls, the forgiveness, the recovery – such wisdom, never allowing us to be tried above our ability to bear it, always making a way of escape. O wisest love indeed! So there is the knowledge of God, and his wisdom.
The verses of our text then are the apostle’s response to all of that. He doesn’t say, ‘How wise is God!’ or ‘How knowledgeable is God!’ Such phrases are a pathetic response, so inadequate to describe the glorification in heaven of an innumerable company of people, all saved from destruction, all enjoying fulness of joy and Christ-likeness in a new heavens and earth for evermore. To say, ‘What rich wisdom has God!’ is still weak after eleven chapters of mind-blowing truth expounding the whole plan of redemption. ‘What rich wisdom and knowledge has God,’ also fails. Even ‘What deep riches of wisdom and knowledge are God’s,’ is also a little inadequate. The element of pathos is missing. Paul has to sigh aloud to respond adequately, ‘Oh! . . . ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!’ And Paul can’t stop there. He goes on, ‘How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!’
1. THE UNSPEAKABLE DEPTHS
Consider how God conceived of creating the cosmos, its absolutely unimaginable vastness. Consider again how he invented out of nothing the basic building blocks of all creation, the atom and the molecule. He designed that micro-world and then the macro-world of outer space. Then he thought into being by his word light, water, air, organic life, and then he made men and women in his image and likeness.
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
Shakespeare in Hamlet wrote those words.
How do you describe such wisdom and knowledge? It is very deep! By a sigh – ‘Oh, the depth . . .!’ aware that it is unfathomably deep. It is so deep that it simply elicits from the inspired apostle, as he stands on the edge of this precipice and peers into the bottomless valley of God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge, an undefined sigh ‘Oh!’ The deeps here are indescribably deep. ‘In vain the first-born seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine.’ Three things come to mind with this expression of the depths of God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge.
i] God’s wisdom and knowledge are unspeakably hidden.
Scientists gaze through the lens of the Hubble Telescope at the depths of the universe and there are no words adequate to describe what they are seeing. They are so awe-struck they cannot articulate what they have caught a glimpse of. But remember that they are seeing those sights of the immense and glorious cosmos which God made. They are not looking at meaningless chaos. Today all is not ‘without form and void’ somewhere in impenetrable darkness. We are looking at the universe that our God made, and we are given greater understanding and evaluation of it. We find Daniel saying, ‘God gives wisdom to the wise, and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness’ (Dan. 2:21-22). Of course 99 per cent of the universe is too ‘deep’ for us specks of dust. It is ‘hidden’ from us. ‘Oh, the depth!’ means that there are unknown dimensions to God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge. They are ‘deep’ in the sense that they are out of our sight, unreachable. We can’t go down there. There will always be depths of God and his creation that we don’t know, because he is infinite and we are finite. The universe is billions of lights years from one side to another. It is past finding out. There will always be a vastness mere man cannot see. Only to God is it no mystery.
I enjoyed hearing Dr. Ligon Duncan illustrating this with a story about his father. He says this,
My father served in the South Pacific with the Marines in the Second World War and after his division was being moved from Palau and the battlefront there on towards Japan in preparation for the invasion of mainland Japan, they stopped the fleet of ships over the Great Marianas Trench. If you look on a globe on the western end of the Pacific Ocean, you will see on some atlases and globes a very deep blue patch known by this name, the Great Marianas Trench. It is the deepest body of water anywhere in the world. It is so deep that you could put Mount Everest into it and the top of Mount Everest would be one thousand feet below the sea level. It is a tremendous place.
So the admirals stopped this fleet of ships and they made an announcement, ‘Would any men like to jump in and swim in the Great Marianas Trench so that you can go back and tell your family that you have swum in this deepest part of the ocean anywhere in the world?’ My father said that he recklessly decided to join the men that were doing this. So he dived off the deck of the ship. He said that when he hit that water he went down, and down, and down, and he wondered if he was ever going to come back up again. He said it was the strangest thing to finally bob up to the surface and breathe again. He was aware that he would have to have gone down four to five miles in order to touch the bottom. He would say, ‘I couldn’t even comprehend how deep this water was.’
Well, this is what Paul is saying in our text; ‘You can’t even begin to comprehend the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge in designing and creating the universe and us men and women.’ So when Paul speaks of the depth, he is speaking of the immeasurable nature of God’s wisdom and knowledge. When he speaks of God’s knowledge, he’s referring to God’s exhaustive understanding of all the things that he’s made. When he speaks of God’s wisdom, he’s referring to God’s most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing of all his creatures and all their actions, God causing all things to work in accordance with his design and knowledge. What depths of wisdom and knowledge has God.
ii] God’s wisdom and knowledge are objective realities.
A depth is a direction; it is not ‘up;’ it is not ‘sideways.’ It is down, and maybe very deeply down. You drop a stone down an abandoned mine shaft and you count the seconds until you hear it hit the bottom. A depth is open to examination and measurement and comment. It is not meaningless. We are told by John that in the beginning was the Logos, the Word, the logic, and that all things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made. So all around us there is rationality, and you can go down and down and down, and all you will meet, all the way, is the rationality of Christ. All facts and discoveries arise from him. All facts and discoveries are sustained by him. All facts and discoveries point to him. He is the meaning of all knowledge. There is no wisdom that is not related to him. You needn’t be afraid of what you’ll meet in the shaft, of what discoveries of true scientific knowledge and proofs and laws and measurements you’ll meet. They will all reflect the Logos who was in the beginning with God and was God the Creator. These things are not fantasies. The breathtaking photographs of vast distant galaxies are not art forms. Paul is enraptured at the thought of the wisdom and knowledge of God. He is clearly moved, but this is not a poetic response. This is an inspired man responding to the mighty works of the living God. ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse’ (Rom. 1:20).
We are beginning to grasp some of the divine wisdom, and we will no doubt grasp more of it, and then still more of it as effectual sanctification changes our minds, but all that we meet is true reality. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,’ and that is the reality we have to deal with. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,’ and that also is the reality we have to deal with. ‘For by grace are you saved through faith,’ and that too is ultimate reality. We are crying to the world this message, ‘Come away from your fiction and fairy tales and superstitions.’ Look at the God of the Bible. Survey him! Explore him! Consider his wisdom and knowledge with your mind, with your brain. He has told us about himself. Then please don’t ignore him and live in shadow lands for the rest of your life. Come to the truth. Stand on this precipice. ‘Oh, the depth.’ He will hold you. You will not fall, but what a wonderful place to perish – there looking at the reality God made, not escaping to fantasy.
Take the case of Graeme Swann the most feared spin bowler in the world. He has fame; he is a millionaire; he is the father of two according to a supplement article on him that I read last week. Yet he is hooked on a witch’s brew of superstitions, rituals and routines. He touches wood. He wears lucky pants. He will drive to Test matches only on the same route to the ground that he has always taken and always accompanied by his friend and team mate Jimmy Anderson. He will allow no one to touch his bat. He rests his gloves on a specific place on his legs to ward off hexes. This is irrationality in a very intelligent and gifted man, and such things are yet no guarantee of success are they? Those inanimate and lifeless things have no power in themselves do they – a piece of wood, a pair of pants, a route, a hex? But many sportsmen are just like him and other intelligent men. For example this past week the Houses of Parliament requested that its members stopped touching the feet of the statues of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher for luck as this was wearing away the foundations of the statues. They had had to erect barriers and signs to that effect. Oh, turn to the living God! He watches over us and brings every joy and trial into our lives. Commit each day and all your ways to him. Take what he gives and love him still, through good or ill, who ever lives.
iii] God’s wisdom and knowledge are the ultimate foundation.
‘Oh the depth . . .’ he says. He could have said, ‘Oh the heights of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God,’ and that would have been true, but he is speaking about those things on which you build your life, and those realities into which your lives have to be earthed in order to stand and to grow. What are you building on? So Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, describing the nature of a righteous life, one that glorified and enjoyed God, one which taught you how to love your neighbour as yourself. Then he told the simplest story. Two men set out to build a house for themselves. One seemed very rapid in building his house. He couldn’t wait to get inside it and soon his building was up to roof level before the other man had even finished laying his foundation. He was in the house, and sitting on the porch smoking his pipe while his neighbour was just laying out the beams for the roof. Finally the second man also finished his house. They seemed identical homes until one night a tornado struck the valley and the winds howled and the river burst its bank, and the house that went up so quickly just as quickly collapsed and was swept away. But the other house, as much battered and tested as the other, stood firm amidst all the wreckage the next day. It stood because the builder had gone down and down to the bedrock and joined his house to that reality.
Our Lord Jesus was talking about his own preached wisdom; his explanation of reality, where we have come from, why we act as we do, what we are here in this world to do; what God expects of us; what is our purpose and chief end in life. We are not here to satisfy every fancy and desire. We are here to know God; that is eternal life. We are here to know his Son Jesus Christ and the great redemption and possibility of forgiveness that he has accomplished for us by his sacrifice on Golgotha. We are here to turn from our unbelief and repent and put our trust wholly in Christ.
Just as I am without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me’
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God I come.
That is why we are here – to come to Christ and build our lives on him, pleasing him and doing his will. Our Saviour was totally confident that everyone who built his life on this deep foundation would survive. He was looking far forward to this 21st century with its restlessness, its fears, and its dependence on drugs and alcohol. Our Lord Jesus was utterly confident that the little Christian girl who built her life on Christ would stand, no matter what scientific pretensions were hurled at her, what attacks on Christianity she would hear, what philosophical ideas she would meet. Let her go down and down and build her life on the foundation of Christ and his teaching and she would stand. She wouldn’t be saying, ‘Touch wood!’ She would be reaching out to make contact with Christ each day. She didn’t cry out in alarm in the morning, ‘Where are my lucky pants? How can I face today without them?’ She would say,
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
On Christ the solid rock I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
Oh the depths of the riches of the wisdom and the knowledge of God!
2. THE UNSPEAKABLE RICHES
God’s rich wisdom and knowledge are seen displayed in at least three senses.
i] God Alone Owns Everything.
How rich he is. The cattle on the thousand hills are his. Everything that is not God was made by God, save for sin. ‘All but the clouds of sin are thine.’ In the beginning God alone created the heavens and the earth. There was no other deity co-operating, advising, helping God out. God in Christ alone made all things, and so David says in the opening words of Psalm 24 those great words: ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.’ So Moses says in Deuteronomy 10 and verse 14 ‘Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.’ We catechize the little children.
Q. ‘Who made you?’
A. ‘God made me.’
Q. ‘What else did God make?’
A. ‘God made all things.’
Q. ‘Why did God make all things?’
A. ‘For his own glory.’
So, not only does God own the earth and all that is in it, including you, but he also owns the reaches of space, the heavens beyond the heavens. He knows the sounds that the Jodrell Bank radio-telescope dish picks up from millions of light years away. He knows what those sounds are. They cannot make a squeak without him. His also are all the angelic armies, the hosts of heaven. In other words, nothing exists outside God that is not God’s. He owns all the power resources of the universe, visible and invisible, and he will do with them as he pleases.
ii] God Made Everything out of Nothing.
A joiner or a wood-worker is limited by the properties of the wood that he is sawing, carving or turning. An ice sculptor is limited by the properties of ice. A painter is limited by his paints and canvas. There was unimaginable nothingness before God. There was God alone. There was no space; there were no dimensions, and no materials. There were no limitations at all on what God could do there. He was limited by his will alone. Now if you can make whatever you please effortlessly in nothingness, then your riches are limitless, because your creativity is not restricted by the raw materials. You don’t need stuff; God needed nothing. God is infinitely rich, because he in nothingness made the cosmos, and so he owns all that is, and he could make a million more universes in the twinkling of an eye if he so willed, and all out of nothing.
iii] God Himself is the True Riches of the Universe.
It is very hard to distinguish the value of God himself from the value of what God has done. Think of Mozart. As a man he seems a very odd personality. What is great about Mozart is the glorious body of music he has left us. We cannot say, ‘Ah, the man is more important than his creations.’ They are both important, but what Mozart has done is his legacy. God is different from any writer, or composer or artist. As a personal God he has no flaws. He is a Spirit infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. He is a fascinating God. Think of such a being who loves the creatures he has made, and loves them so much that he will sacrifice his Son in order that they might share eternity with him as his children. He is a God who wants to be known and will make himself known and tells us to address him as ‘Abba, Father’. I also am his son. I am his heir. This poor man cried and the Lord heard me. I want to know him for myself more and more! I want to be with him! He is the infinite treasure of the cosmos. I love his creation, the rivers and seas and skies and the whole world of nature, but I want their Creator, the God who answers me when I call. The God who says he loves me. God doesn’t need to do anything more, to create anything else, to do one more miracle, or even say one more word. I don’t need him to draw the heavens aside like a curtain and boom one more word to me in order for me to believe in him any more than I do or love him any more than I do. He is himself measurelessly and infinitely fascinating. He is one God and yet he is also three persons, he is Father and he is Son and he is Spirit. I have never had any experience of such a being anywhere in this universe. God alone is triune. What glories lie before us in knowing better the depth of his riches as the one living triune God!
We paupers can know him for ourselves, through what Paul speaks of as ‘the riches of God’s grace’ (Eph. 1:7), and again ‘the riches of his kindness’ (Rom. 2:4), and again, ‘the riches of his glory’ (Rom. 9:23). This is the main thing: God freely giving himself in grace and kindness to us for our enjoyment of his own all-satisfying glory forever. The Lord was rich, and yet for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might become rich. We call God’s wealth ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ’ (which Paul does in Ephesians 3:8) – you understand? Not just riches that Christ gives, but the immeasurable wealth of every virtue and every grace that is Christ himself. As Paul says, ‘The riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Col. 1:27). Christ himself is the present guarantee and the future gift of the glory of God. When Christ died and rose and ascended, he became
Jesus, priceless Treasure,
Source of purest pleasure,
Truest Friend to me . . .
Yea, whate’er we here must bear,
Still in Thee lies purest pleasure,
Jesus, priceless Treasure!
3. THE UNSEARCHABLE JUDGMENTS
‘How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!’ (Rom. 11:33). What do we know without a shadow of a doubt? That God is wise and that God always knows what he is doing in us and with us, and all the consequences for us and for ours for the rest of our lives. We know that. That is not something we search in vain to possess. We cling to that with both our hands. Then there are God’s judgments, what he does to us, and why he has done it, and what good can possibly come from some of his divine judgments. And very often that is unsearchable. What God did to Job was unsearchable. What God did to James the brother of John and to Stephen was unsearchable. William Cowper speaks of God’s ‘unfathomable mines of never failing skill.’ They are such a deep.
There are Christians here who are asking ‘Why?’ They have been walking through a dark valley. They have fallen into a fearful pit. They are being overwhelmed with trials and tribulations and they are not coping very well with them, but they are coping much better than I would if I were experiencing the pain of their providences. I am thinking of child abduction, a car accident, cancer, a genetic illness, a birth deformity, the violence of wicked men, dementia, the death of our loved ones. Months of anguish, years of crippling weakness, long times of crushing, loneliness and despondency. We have read of the difficulties that some eminent servants of God have passed through.
Consider the two major traumas that Horatio Spafford passed through. The first was the great Chicago fire of October 1871 which ruined him financially, and shortly after, when crossing the Atlantic without him, all four of his daughters died when the ship they were sailing on collided with another ship. His wife Anna survived and sent him a telegram with two words on it, ‘Saved alone.’ Several weeks later he sailed across the Atlantic and on that voyage wrote his famous hymn,
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
And sorrows like sea-billows roll,
Whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Most of us have heard of that grief, and other similar difficulties that eminent servants of God have passed through. We have listened to older Christians mentioning the trials they have known, the struggles and falls, and we have wondered whether the Christian life could possibly be all that arduous. What unsearchable judgments!
There is another side to this, of course. There are great days and years, there are highs; there are mountain tops; there is joy unspeakable and full of glory. There is the possibility of being content always and in all things. There is melody in our hearts. We can say, ‘Every day will I bless Thee and I will praise Thy name for ever and ever.’ There is the promise God makes that his grace is sufficient for us, that his strength is most perfectly experienced when we have no strength ourselves and simply fall onto his outstretched arms.
I may not tell you from the day you become a Christian, ‘From now on everything’s coming up roses.’ I may not hide from you sober realities. Many a day the road is rough, and I know the paradox that it is rough by God’s own ordering:
For he commands and forth in haste
The stormy tempest flies.
– that is how the psalmist saw it (Psa. 107:25, Scottish Psalter). We have known some stormy tempests in our congregations, and in our families and in our own personal lives. There are days when the church cries out (as the Old Testament church cried), ‘Can there be knowledge in God of things below?’ Does God know what he is doing in bringing this judgment upon us? Is he aware of the pain of all this? Does he know of the shame that is being brought on the name of Christ? Where is there light in this darkness? There are humble believers today who are close to God and they are perplexed. They are holy men and women and their hearts are broken; their hopes are shattered, their worst fears realized; they are bruised and battered. They don’t know why God has done it this way, and we don’t know. It is a secret matter known only to God; it is past finding out, and we have to live our lives within the framework of that limitation. Often the Lord has to say to us what he said to Peter, ‘You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand’ (John 13:7). John Flavel famously said, ‘God’s providences, like the Hebrew letters, are to be read backwards.’ Certainly from the perspective of glory we shall understand our griefs. All things will become clear when we pass into the region of light. You cling to what we do know. ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God.’
Heaven is our God’s home, and heaven is a world of wisdom and knowledge. It is not a place of eternal perplexity. Now we see through a glass darkly but there we shall know to our eternal satisfaction why God brought these judgments into our lives. The voice of trust says, ‘Later I will understand.’
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain.
God is His own interpreter
And He will make it plain.
This world is not in the grip of chance and fate or under the control of the devil. The God who is rich in knowledge and wisdom has the whole wide world in his hands. When the tower of Siloam fell on 18 people and killed them, some people were thinking that they were worse than the men in the tower who’d been spared. Some thought that that is why they had been killed, because they were particularly wicked. It was their karma. But Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you no! But unless you repent you too will all perish’ (Luke 13:4). We do not know why some are struck down and others spared, but we do know this, than unless we show repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, we are all going to perish. Why particular Christians experience particular suffering we do not know. It is a secret thing belonging to the Lord.
I was listening to the testimony of Joni Eareckson Tada speaking of her initial suicidal despair when she realised as an 18 year old that she was paralyzed from the neck down for life. She longed for a friend to help her commit suicide, and then one day a fellow teenager came and sat with her. His name was Steve and later he went to the same theological seminary that I went to. She asked him why God had done this to her if God were all knowing and all wise. Imagine as a 19 year old being asked by a paralyzed, beautiful, despairing girl that question. But God helped Steve to answer her. He spoke to her of the cross of Calvary where the Son of God was nailed. Jesus also couldn’t move. God allowed wicked men to do that to his Son, and out of it God brought deliverance and eternal life to billions. Steve planted those seeds of trust in Joni’s anguished mind and said no more. God gave him that wisdom. We know, thirty years later, that out of Joni’s life multitudes have received hope and blessing. Her example and teaching have been life-transforming. But why such a judgment on her in particular . . . why on you in particular. . . how unsearchable his judgments.
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