Two facts about the triune Jehovah are assumed, if not actually stated, in every single biblical passage. The first is that he is king—absolute monarch of the universe, ordering all its affairs, working out his will in all that happens within it. The second fact is that he speaks—uttering words that express his will in order to cause it to be done.
The first theme, that of God’s rule, has been touched on in earlier chapters. It is the second theme, that of God’s word, that concerns us now. The study of the second theme will in fact advance our understanding of the first theme, for just as God’s relations with his world have to be understood in terms of his sovereignty, so his sovereignty is to be understood in terms of what the Bible tells us about his word.
An absolute ruler, such as all kings were in the ancient world, will in the ordinary course of things speak regularly on two levels and for two purposes. On the one hand, he will enact regulations and laws which directly determine the environment—judicial, fiscal, cultural—within which his subjects must henceforth live. On the other hand, he will make public speeches in order to establish, as far as possible, a personal link between himself and his subjects and to evoke from them the maximum of support and cooperation in the things he is doing. The Bible pictures the word of God as having a similar twofold character. God is the king; we, his creatures, are his subjects. His word relates both to things around us and to us directly: God speaks both to determine our environment and to engage our minds and hearts.
In the former connection, which is the sphere of creation and providence, God’s word takes the form of a sovereign fiat: “Let there be . . .” In the latter connection, the sphere in which God’s word is addressed to us personally, the word takes the form of royal torah (the Hebrew word translated law in our Old Testament, which actually denotes instruction in all its manifold forms). Torah from God the king has a threefold character: some of it is law (in the narrow sense of commands, or prohibitions, with sanctions attached); some of it is promise (favorable or unfavorable, conditional or unconditional); some of it is testimony (information given by God about himself and people—their respective acts, purposes, natures and prospects).
The word which God addresses directly to us is (like a royal speech, only more so) an instrument, not only of government, but also of fellowship. For, though God is a great king, it is not his wish to live at a distance from his subjects. Rather the reverse: He made us with the intention that he and we might walk together forever in a love relationship. But such a relationship can exist only when the parties involved know something of each other. God, our Maker, knows all about us before we say anything (Ps 139:1-4); but we can know nothing about him unless he tells us. Here, therefore, is a further reason why God speaks to us: not only to move us to do what he wants, but to enable us to know him so that we may love him. Therefore God sends his word to us in the character of both information and invitation. It comes to woo us as well as to instruct us; it not merely puts us in the picture of what God has done and is doing, but also calls us into personal communion with the loving Lord himself.
THE GOD WHO SPEAKS
We meet the word of God in its various relations in the first three chapters of the Bible. Look first at the story of creation in Genesis 1.
Part of the purpose of this chapter is to assure us that every item in our natural environment has been set there by God. The opening verse states the theme which the rest of the chapter is to expound—“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The second verse pictures the state of affairs in terms of which the detailed analysis of God’s work is to be given: it is a state in which the earth was lying waste, empty of life, dark and completely waterlogged. Then verse 3 tells us how amid this chaos and sterility God spoke. “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” What happened? Immediately “there was light.” Seven times more (vv. 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26) God’s creative word “let there be . . .” was spoken, and step by step things sprang into being and order. Day and night (v. 5), sky and sea (v. 6), sea and land (v. 9), were separated out; green vegetation (v. 12), heavenly bodies (v. 14), fish and fowl (v. 20), insects and animals (v. 24), and finally man himself (v. 26), made their appearance. All was done by the word of God (compare Ps 33:6, 9; Heb 11:3; 2 Pet 3:5).
But now the story carries us on a further stage. God speaks to the man and woman whom he has made. “God . . . said to them . . .” (v. 28). Here is God addressing human beings directly; thus fellowship between God and them is inaugurated. Note the categories into which God’s utterances to them in the rest of the story fall. God’s first word to Adam and Eve is a word of command, summoning them to fulfill humankind’s vocation of ruling the created order. (“Be fruitful . . . and have dominion . . . ,” v. 28.) Then follows a word of testimony (“Behold . . . ,” v. 29) in which God explains that green plants, crops and fruits have been made for humans and animals to eat. Next we meet a prohibition, with sanction appended: “But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (2:17). Finally, after the Fall, God comes near to Adam and Eve and speaks to them again, and this time his words are words of promise, both favorable and unfavorable, for while he undertakes, on the one hand, that the woman’s seed shall bruise the serpent’s head, on the other hand he ordains for Eve grief in childbirth, for Adam frustrating labor, and for both certain death (3:15-19).
Here, within the compass of these three short chapters, we see the word of God in all the relations in which it stands to the world, and to man within it—on the one hand, fixing man’s circumstances and environment, on the other, commanding man’s obedience, inviting his trust, and opening to him the mind of his Maker. The rest of the Bible sets before us many new utterances of God, but no further categories of relationship between God’s word and his creatures. Instead, the presentation of the word of God in Genesis 1–3 is reiterated and confirmed.
Thus, on the one hand, the whole Bible insists that all circumstances and events in the world are determined by the word of God, the Creator’s omnipotent “Let there be. . . .” Scripture describes all that happens as the fulfilling of God’s word, from changes in the weather (Ps 147:15-18; 148:8) to the rise and fall of nations. The fact that the word of God really determines world events was the first lesson that God taught Jeremiah when he called him to be a prophet. “See,” God told him, “today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10).
But how could this be? Jeremiah’s call was not to be a statesman or a world potentate, but to be a prophet, God’s messenger boy (1:7). How could a man with no official position, whose only job was to talk, be described as the God-appointed ruler of the nations? Why, simply because he had the words of the Lord in his mouth (v. 9): and any word that God gave him to speak about the destiny of nations would certainly be fulfilled. To fix this in Jeremiah’s mind, God gave him his first vision. “Jeremiah, what do you see?” . . . “A rod of almond [shaqed].” “You have seen well, for I am watching [shoqed] over my word to perform it” (Jer 1:11-12 RSV).
God through Isaiah proclaims the same truth in this form: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish . . . so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire” (Is 55:10-11). The whole Bible maintains this insistence that God’s word is his executive instrument in all human affairs. Of him, as of no one else, it is true that what he says goes. It is in truth the word of God that rules the world and that fixes our fortunes for us.
And then, on the other hand, the Bible consistently presents the word of God as coming directly to us in the threefold character in which it was spoken in the Garden of Eden. Sometimes it comes as law—as at Sinai, and in many sermons of the prophets, and in much of Christ’s teaching, and in the evangelical command to repent (Acts 17:30) and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Jn 3:23). Sometimes it comes as promise—as in the promise of posterity, and the covenant promise, given to Abraham (Gen 15:5; 17:1-8), the promise of redemption from Egypt (Ex 3:7-10), the promises of the Messiah (Is 9:6-7; 11:1-2) and of the kingdom of God (Dan 2:44; 7:14), and the New Testament promises of justification, resurrection and glorification, for believers.
Sometimes, again, it comes as testimony—divine instruction concerning the facts of faith and the principles of piety, in the form of historical narration, theological argument, psalmody and wisdom. Always it is stressed that the claim of the word of God upon us is absolute: the word is to be received, trusted and obeyed, because it is the word of God the King. The essence of impiety is the proud willfulness of “these wicked people, who refuse to listen to my words” (Jer 13:10). The mark of true humility and godliness, on the other hand, is that a person “trembles at my word” (Is 66:2).
J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2011).
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