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The Sovereignty of God
By T. T. Shields (1873-1955)

      I shall not take a particular text this evening, but read to you a verse or two from the fourth chapter of Daniel:

      “And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation:

      “And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou” (Daniel 4:34-35)?

      We can know nothing of spiritual truth apart from God. Religion - not Christianity, but religion - is universally prevalent. All men are at some time, and in some measure, religious, in the sense that they recognize another life than this, and that there is somewhere, unknown to them perhaps, a supreme Person, a Will which exercises itself in the universe, and manifests itself in the lives of men; but who and what God is, no man can ever discover for himself: “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea. If he cut off, and shut up, or gather together, then who can hinder him” (Job 11:7-10)?

      When the Apostle Paul came to Athens his spirit was moved within him when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. He later referred to that which he had observed, for he said, “As I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you” (Acts 17:23). That there was a God they believed, but who and what and where He was they had no means whatever of discovering.

      The very idea of God precludes the possibility of His discovery by the finite mind. If God - how shall I put it? - if God were discoverable to the finite mind, He would cease to be God; because the very idea of God postulates infinity, something that is beyond us entirely, something above us, something that outreaches our utmost understanding. Therefore I say, it must be so, in the very nature of the case, that the Infinite cannot be discovered by the finite.

      You cannot measure the ocean with a teacup. You cannot fathom its depths, nor ascertain the area of its surface, with a foot-rule. It is too big for you. You may see it, and wonder at it, and admire it, and fear it, and perhaps, in some of its moods, love it; but you cannot measure it, nor adequately understand it.

      But it is often so that the thing which is beyond the capacity of our understanding is, by our little minds, reduced to the meager measure of our own comprehension. How easily people can make up a story! What little capacities some people require to understand matters which humble, when they do not actually humiliate, the expert. So, though men cannot order their own affairs, nor wrest the veil aside to peer even into tomorrow, yet they presume to sketch for themselves a picture of God, commensurate with the dimensions of their own understandings, and so set up for themselves standards by which they propose God Himself shall be regulated!

      Have you not deserved that a man’s inability to manage his own affairs almost invariably in his estimation, qualifies him to be adviser-in-chief to everybody else? Have you noticed that? If a man cannot run a little corner store, but leads it into bankruptcy, he is likely to be put up for alderman next year, - for if a man who has failed himself is not qualified to be the adviser of half a million people, and to decide how their money to the tune of millions is to be spent, then where in the world shall we get a competent administrator! But you have seen that again and again, have you not? And is it not true that those who make so signal a failure of the business of living, as we all have done, and effect such a tangle of life that we have no skill to disentangle the skein, though we cannot exercise our will over the limited area of our little merry-go-round of existence, nor wisely plan within the limits of our own vision, yet full often sit in judgment upon God, and presume to tell Him what He ought to do!

      That, indeed, is the sin of this age. That is the error that lies at the base of what we call Modernism, and of all heretical and erroneous cults. In fact, the foundation of all evil is a misapprehension of God. In the beginning - if we accept this as the inspired record, as we do - in the beginning, the tempter labored to effect in the minds of his victims of misunderstanding of God. He misrepresented God in order that they might misunderstand Him, and, misunderstanding Him, might be led into rebellion against Him.

      So today men try to interpret God by what they see of His works. I may look upon a magnificent piece of architecture like St. Paul’s Cathedral, and gaze upon that brass inscription under the dome which tells us, if we would see the monument of Sir Christopher Wren, to look around. It is a marvelous building. As you walk about it you cannot be other than impressed with its magnificence. Yet if you think a little, you will say, Sir Christopher Wren must have been a wonderful man to create this, but surely he was bigger than any of the works of his hand; and nothing he ever did could adequately represent him. It could offer a suggestion as to his greatness, but the architect must be greater than the building.

      Thus as we scan the works of God, those that are immediate, to which we have direct access, upon which we can put our glass and magnify them to within the range of our vision and understanding, or span the ethereal spaces and bring those distant worlds, or whatever they are, near - we may do all that, and by years of investigation and experimentation, discover the operation of principles which we call law, and observe the manner in which certain natural forces ordinarily work. But when one has spent a lifetime at it, he will be able to say, “it is a wonderful building. It is marvelously designed, and beautiful in its proportions and in its furnishings.” But whether you view the distant, the great and magnificent, or inspect a snowflake under a microscope (and of the countless billions of flakes there are no two alike, and yet every one of them is a work of art, of matchless, incomparable beauty) - I say, look at it all, and you may exclaim, “God must be wonderful.”

      But you have not seen God! God is greater than that. It is not to be wondered at therefore that the Bible says, “No man hath seen God at any time” (John 1:18); “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). We can see enough for our condemnation, but the fact that God is infinite involves the necessity that He shall reveal Himself in order to be known.

      But I am to speak this evening of the sovereignty of God. That is a doctrine that is much hated by the natural man. By “sovereignty” we do not mean any particular quality of Deity, any attribute that is, any quality attributed to Him - not that. We mean the rule of God in the universe - that it is unlimited, unrestricted, and cannot successfully be opposed. We mean, indeed, what Nebuchadnezzar learned at least. As he walked on the terrace in the place of Babylon, and looked over the great city, he exclaimed, “...Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty” (Daniel 4:30)? What a great man he was! He was a magnified little Jack Horner! The world is full of little Jack Horners, sitting in corners, eating their Christmas pie. They stick in a thumb, and pull out a plum, and say - if not, What a good boy, then, “What a great boy am I!”

      Nebuchadnezzar thought he was great until he was made to eat grass like oxen, and his nails grew like birds’ claws, and his hair like eagles’ feathers. Then by and by, his understanding returned to him, and when it did, he said, “...I blessed the most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever....”

      No man’s understanding returns to him until in his thinking he gets God in the right place, or, rather, gets himself in right relation to God.

      What did Nebuchadnezzar discover? That the inhabitants of the earth before the most High were reputed as nothing, and that “...he (God) doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doeth thou?” He is sovereignly independent of every one and of every thing, of all conditions, of every sort of circumstance; He dwells apart and alone in splendid isolation in unique and solitary grandeur. He is God, and “beside him there is none else.”

      Your professor must not try to stretch his little rule upon the divine scepter. He must not assume that his little reason is competent to write a constitution which is to control the Lord of all worlds. It is folly to try to form a human parliament to which the King of kings shall be subject. He laughs at it all! He is above it all! He is God!

      We need an adequate idea of God. How can we form an adequate idea of God? By such knowledge of God as they may have who yield heart and mind to the revelation God makes of Himself. The important thing for us to know and to rejoice in is the truth of that hymn we were singing just now. I am glad Brother Greenway selected that hymn. I think we will appoint Him Professor of Hymnology at the Seminary, because I notice if you leave it to him, he selects a hymn with sound doctrine in it, something to get your soul’s teeth on. You are not fed on bran muffins, or a soda biscuit. Who can become enthusiastic about the singing of religious piffle? But when you sing a hymn like this, there is something in it to inspire you to sing. What a word this is! ---

“Thou sweet beloved will of God,
My anchor ground, my fortress hill,
My spirit’s silent fair abode,
In Thee I hide me, and am still.

“O will, that willest good alone,
Lead thou the way, thou guidest best:
A little child, I follow on,
And trusting, lean upon thy breast.

Thy beautiful sweet will, my God,
Holds fast in its sublime embrace
My captive will, a gladsome bird,
Prisoned in such a realm of grace.

“Within this place of certain good
Love evermore expands her wings,
Or nestling in Thy perfect choice,
Abides content with what it brings.

“Oh, lightest burden, sweetest yoke!
It lifts, it hears my happy soul,
It giveth wings to this poor heart;
My freedom in Thy grand control.

“Upon God’s will I lay me down,
As child upon its mother’s breast;
No silken couch, nor softest bed,
Could ever give me such deep rest.

“Thy wonderful grand will, my God,
With triumph now I make it mine;
And faith shall cry a joyous, Yes!
To every dear command of Thine.”

      Who would not live in a prison like that? Would you not like to be shut up in a palace, forbidden to go beyond the limit of God’s care?

“I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.”

      What lies back of the truth of divine sovereignty, that God has His way, that He has always had His way, that He is having His way now even when we do not know it? What underlies that? We shall see later some manifestations of that sovereignty, but what - what shall I call it? - I do not want to be technical, or confound you with theological technicalities, but what is the moral philosophy of it? What is the moral reason for it? What is the ethical justification for divine sovereignty? You cannot safely invest a man with full sovereignty. I know there are some that are reputed to be very “autocratic!” But the day of the unlimited monarchy, of the political despot, is over. Of course, a naughty little boy thinks his father is very despotic when he takes him out to the woodshed - but even that is a limited sort of monarchy!

      The idea that Jack is as good as his master has invaded the religious realm. That is the defect of our modern theology: people want to drag God down to human standards, and shut Him up to the dimensions of their own understanding. That is impossible. If God could dwell in temples made with hands, He would cease to be God. It is impossible to build a house big enough for God. “To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One” (Isaiah 40:25).

      What is the reason for it? I do not know whether I shall put you to sleep before time tonight. What time do you usually go to sleep? I remember once going to a doctor to try to persuade him to come to church. His wife asked me to do so. He had many excuses to offer, but I said, “Doctor, when you have a patient whose sleeplessness difies all your narcotics, all your efforts to make the patient sleep, come to church and find out how I do it!” But I do not want to put you to sleep before your time this evening.

      There is a word that many play with as though it were a tennis ball. They do not know what it means. I have known people upon whose tongue it dwells continually. When they are asked, “Are you sure?” The answer is, Absolutely”. “That is quite correct, is it?” “Absolutely!” Did you ever meet Mr. Absolutely? or Mrs. Absolutely?

      The word “absolute” is an immeasurable word. It is a word of infinite dimensions. You cannot measure it. And, properly speaking, it is a word that cannot define qualities that may be included in any category of human values. The absolute is God. That is the Last, the Final, the Utmost, the Ultimate, the Infinite. There is nothing more beyond that. And there is but One in Whose nature anything can be found in the absolute degree. The end of all perfection, of all estimation, of all computation, is absolute. You may stagger people with the astronomers’ figures. You may astonish them with the light years of the stellar specialist - and the evolutionist comes a close second with his computation of millions, and hundreds of millions of years, until one grows dizzy with trying to think it out, - but roll them altogether, and then you have not the infinite or the absolute: Infinite and Absolute are terms which labor to denote the essence of Deity. Very well, then, we can understand the Infinite less than we can understand the sun, or measure the seas. God ought to be God because He is eternal. There never was a time when God was not: there never will be a time when He will cease to be. “From everlasting” - whenever that was - ”to everlasting” He is God. Such a conception is beyond us.

      But what little shadows we see of Deity sometimes, little intimations of principles which find their ultimate in God! Why is the father superior to his children? He was there first. He is older. Why, what they call legally “the right of primogeniture”, the right of the eldest son to inherit? Because he came first.

      With whom do these rights dwell in their absolute degree? With God, for He was first; because He has always been. Before the worlds were made, before time was reckoned, before the angels sang, before there were cherubim or seraphim, before there was any creation, or any created thing, God was - and He will always be.

      If we could conceive of God as the infinite, we should probably not try to shut Him up to our little spellingbook, to our multiplication table, or to such standards as the human mind can comprehend. In respect to that something which we call “time,” - what is it? What are the rise and set of sun? What is it? Why does time register with us, - can you tell me? You reply, “I shall be old at three score years and ten.” But what do you mean by “years?” “It is a point of time. It is a span. It is a period. It is a measure.” One says, “There is plenty of time.” Yes, there is plenty of time - but not for you, but there is plenty of time. There is something in us that limits our views, that limits the possibilities of life, that makes time a factor with us. It is not so with God. He is independent of all these conditions. Eternity is with Him.

      Another thing. Goodness is with Him. I use that term because it will serve. If you break it up into its constituents, if you do like a chemist and resolve it into its elements, you will find many things in it. There are truth, and faithfulness, and righteousness, and justice, mercy, love. Gather them all together and call the compilation goodness, or moral wholeness, moral perfection, - holiness, if you like, for wholeness is another word for holiness; but it is only in God. It is nowhere else.

      Goodness, with us, is a relative term. You say, “He is a good man.” He might have been better? “Oh yes. I do not say he is altogether what he might be, but he is a good man.” It is a relative term, it is ever literally in the comparative degree, but it is not the absolute; but the divine Goodness is Absolute. Goodness in absolute measure dwells with Him. And because of that, He must reign.

      One says that sin bringeth forth death, that it does not pay to be other than good. That is all true, but He Who is Himself the Source, the Spring, the Fountain, and infinite Reservoir of all goodness, is God. Who else should rule, I should like to know, but God? You had an election the other day. You went to the polls and marked your ballot to the best of your judgment. You said, “I think that man is fairly good. I will vote for him.” Yet sometimes after you vote you wish you had not, because you can not know what is in a man until he is proved. But if you knew of a man in Toronto who was good all through, if you knew of a man who could be identified as the best man, you would say, “Tell me who he is, and I will vote for him.” Why? “Because,” you say, “the best man ought to be elected in the general interest of the public.”

      If we had any enlightenment of divine Goodness is Absolute. Goodness in absolute measure dwells with Him. And because of that, He must reign.

      One says that sin bringeth forth death, that it does not pay to be other than good. That is all true, but He Who is Himself the Source, the Spring, the Fountain, and infinite Reservoir of all goodness, is God. Who else should rule, I should like to know, but God? You had an election the other day. You went to the polls and marked your ballot to the best of your judgment. You said, “I think that man is fairly good. I will vote for him.” Yet sometimes after you vote you wish you had not, because you can not know what is in a man until he is proved. But if you knew of a man in Toronto who was good all through, if you knew of a man who could be identified as the best man, you would say, “Tell me who he is, and I will vote for him.” Why? “Because,” you say, “the best man ought to be elected in the general interest of the public.”

      If we had any enlightenment of intellect at all, we should all agree that God should be on the throne. If sin had not blinded our eyes, if we could know what goodness is, even if God gave all His creatures the franchise, and put Himself up as a candidate for election, He would be elected by acclamation! Why? Because Goodness ought to reign. It must reign. It does reign. “It” shall reign? - No! He shall reign and nobody shall dispute His right.

      So I could go on to speak of His wisdom. God, being without limit as to life, or His existence without limit as to duration - ”from everlasting to everlasting” - and being without imperfection of any sort in the moral sense, being goodness with all its constituents, or holiness - to use the larger, fuller term - dwelling absolutely in Him, then He ought to reign. And wisdom is with Him absolute also; therefore He should, He must, He does, and shall for ever reign.

      I cannot go into that fully: it is only a suggestion I give you. But God never makes a mistake. He is never limited in His vision. He sees the end from the beginning. To Him there are no temporal boundaries, there is no boundary of time at all. A million years hence all that has occurred will be as present to the view of God as we are to each other at this moment. Nothing is ever hidden from His view. There are no physical boundaries, as there are no temporal boundaries. You cannot localize God. You cannot shut Him up to a given place, or to a given time. He is everywhere, all the time. Therefore He cannot make a mistake.

      The mother looks at that little child in the cradle and says, “I wonder what he will be? Will he be a good boy? Will he grow up to be a blessing to me? or will he break my heart? Shall I always thank God for Him, or is it possible that I may live to see the day when I could almost wish he had never been born?” We know not what a day, nor an hour, may bring forth. We cannot peer into the future. But there is no future with God. There is no past with God. There is just one eternal now, and His infinite wisdom can order everything aright. He reigns because He must: He is the infinitely good, the infinitely wise.

      I will say but this one further thing tonight: He is the infinitely mighty. He does what He wills, “and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou” (Daniel 4:35)? You say, “If that be so, what of my will?” Yes, I wonder? How often you hear it now, - men boasting that they are the captains of their souls, that they are master of their fate. If we are, we are making a bad job of our captaincy! “I am not going to surrender my will”, is the proud boast. Why not, I should like to know. “I am not going to surrender my judgment.” Why not? Is it so excellent as all that? I wonder why any one of us should want to have his own way? I wonder why anybody in his senses should pit his judgment against the judgment of God and say, “I know.” You poor, ignorant, dunce, what do you know? What do you know? What does anybody know? Democracy, the rule of Demas, the people! If one hundred people are only one hundred simpletons, if the hundred are put together, are you likely to have much more wisdom than in the singular? What a lot of simpletons we are anyhow! We are all a little bit “off.” It is only a merciful Providence that shuts the door of the asylum and leaves us outside. You know that is true. You have said it yourself. You did not say it out loud, but you have said, “How foolish I am!” And for once, at least, you told the truth.

      Do you not think you need somebody else’s judgment instead of yours? When you are sick, you use the doctor’s skill: and if you have a legal matter to decide, you employ a lawyer’s mind. When you go riding on a train, you leave the piloting of the engine to the engineer. When you go on a ship, you leave it to the trained navigators to pilot you across the ocean. Yet we cannot leave anything with God! You say, “I am a man, and I am going to play a man’s part. I am going to play the man.” I wonder what sort of man we should be, any of us? How foolish! Little midgets that we are! And how great God is! The only time a man shows he has any sense at all is when he acknowledges he has none! That is a paradox, but it is true. A man never begins to be dignified until he humbles himself before God and confesses that he does not even desire to live. The only time Nebuchadnezzar was ever really great was when he bowed himself before the Most High.

      After all, the doctrine of divine sovereignty means that we are under a paternal Despot. Our Father is just that. He will have His way. He will do His will. But blessed be His name, through Him Whom He sent as a Revelation of His Person - and of that more by and by - we have salvation. He it is Who said of the Father, “He is far off there where you cannot see Him. You do not know Him, and you wonder what He is like. You wish you could pray to Him, but you do not know how to address Him. I know Him, and I will tell you how. When ye pray, say, ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’.”

      Are you not glad your Father is on the throne? That is true, if you are a Christian. I cannot go into that this evening. I have been trying to lay the foundation for later lectures, just thinking out loud with you; but we shall see next week how He came out of the unknown and robed Himself in our flesh, and came speaking to us in our language, and touching us with a human touch, saving us at last by the washing away of our sins with His own precious blood.


[From Editor, Christopher Cockrell, The Berea Baptist Banner, December, 2017. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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