The Sovereignty of God in 20203
Few things are more controversial among Christians than the sovereignty of God. Is God truly sovereign over everything, including calamity, natural disasters, death, and demons, or is his sovereign control restricted to those things we typically regard as good, such as material blessing, family welfare, personal salvation, and good health?
This is an especially relevant question for pastors and biblical counselors who regularly seek to help those who have suffered great loss, whether that be of a financial nature, the abandonment by a spouse, or perhaps the death of an infant or the loss of life in a car accident. It is here that we need to make an important distinction between two kinds of evil: natural and moral.
Natural evil would include such things as hurricanes, wild fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, famine (although famine can often be the result of moral evil perpetrated by those who devastate a country through greed or theft), floods, and global pandemics, such as Covid-19. Is God sovereign over natural evil? Does he exert absolute control over these events in nature, such that he could, if he willed to do so, prevent them from happening or redirect their course and minimize the extent of damage they incur? Yes.
Moral evil has reference to the decisions made by human beings. Does God have sovereignty over the wills of men and women? Can he stir the heart of an unbeliever to do his will? Can he frustrate the will of a person whose determination is to do evil and thereby prevent sin from happening? When a Christian does what is right, to whom should the credit and praise be given? And how is it possible for God to exert sovereignty over all of life without undermining the moral responsibility of men and women? These are the questions that find their answer in Scripture.
Today, however, I want to focus on only one sphere of divine sovereignty: so-called natural phenomena. My guess is that what we’ve seen in terms of hurricanes along the Gulf coast is unprecedented. Five hurricanes have struck with incredible force over the span of the last 6 months. The wildfires in California, and more recently in Colorado, are yet another example of the havoc that the created realm can wreak. Then there is Covid-19. I don’t need to say anything in regard to the current pandemic. The evidence is overwhelming.
So, is God behind all this? Or is it Satan? And if it is Satan, does he only do this with God’s permission? And if God does it, or permits it, why? We know that the winds and the waves obeyed the voice of Jesus (Mark 4:39-41). So, could he not have diverted the path of any particular hurricane? Could he not have sent rain to douse the fires on the west coast? Yes. Well, then, why didn’t he? The book of Job speaks of “the fire of God” that fell “from heaven and consumed Job’s sheep and killed his servants (Job 1:16). It also describes “a great wind” (Job 1:19) that destroyed his eldest son’s house and killed “the young people” (Job 1:19). All this only happened after God gave permission to Satan to bring havoc on Job, his property and family.
And we must never overlook the book of Revelation. There we read repeatedly of God’s judgments on the earth: war, famine, pestilence (disease), earthquakes, as well as the devastation of “a third of the trees” and “all green grass” (Rev.8:7). In addition, we read of the pollution of the sea and “a third of the living creatures in the sea” dying (Rev. 8:9) and the sun and moon being darkened (Rev. 8:12). Note well: all these devastating natural disasters were precipitated not by divine permission but by the direct and intentional action of God who sent his angels to inflict judgments on the earth.
If that were not enough, God pours out his wrath on the “earth-dwellers” (standard language in Revelation for unbelievers) in the form of “painful sores” (Rev. 16:2) and scorching “fierce heat” (Rev. 16:8-9) from the sun. Again, this is not the work of Satan but of God whose longsuffering has reached an end with those who would not repent (Rev.9:20-21).
No, I’m not drawing a one-to-one connection between the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments of Revelation and what we are witnessing globally today. But I’m not denying it either. Current events may well be a prelude to, perhaps even the first stages of the many judgments of God against a rebellious and idolatrous and unrepentant world. And no, in case you are wondering, Christians will not be raptured out of the earth prior to such judgments. But we will be preserved by God from ever enduring such events as expressions of his wrath. Although believers may well be caught up in such devastation, and even lose their lives because of it, such is never an expression of God’s wrath against them for their sin. Jesus has already exhausted that in his death on the cross.
But enough of that. What does the Bible say about God’s sovereign control over and orchestration of events in the so-called natural world? A few texts will tell us everything we need to know.
As for God’s sovereign control over everything in nature and in the weather, consider this text from Psalm 104. Resist the temptation to skip this psalm. Read and reflect on the greatness of God!
“Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent. He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind; he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire. He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they fled; at the sound of your thunder they took to flight. The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them. You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth. You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills; they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches. From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man's heart. The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers. He made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. You make darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they steal away and lie down in their dens. Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening. O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it. These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works, who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke! I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD. Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more! Bless the LORD, O my soul! Praise the LORD!” (Psalm 104)
We see much the same thing in Psalm 147.
“He covers the heavens with clouds; he prepares rain for the earth; he makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry. . . . He makes peace in your borders; he fills you with the finest of the wheat. He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before his cold? He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow and the waters flow” (Psalm 147:8-9, 14-18).
This past week in central Oklahoma we suffered from a devastating, early-season ice storm. It’s hard to describe the extensive destruction of trees and shrubs. It will take months to recover and remove the debris. Whether it was God who directly orchestrated this devastation or Satan who did so at God’s permission, the fact remains that “he (God) gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. . . . He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs” and when it pleases him “he sends out his word, and melts them” (Ps. 147:16-18).
In Psalm 148 all of creation is called upon to praise God, for he created and sustains it all. Indeed,
“he commanded and they were created. And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away. Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and maidens together, old men and children!” (Psalm 148:5-12)
There are several passages in Job that affirm God’s complete sovereignty over all of nature, both on earth and in the heavens above.
“[It is God] who removes mountains, and they know it not, when he overturns them in his anger; who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun and it does not rise; who seals up the stars; who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea; who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south; who does great things beyond searching out, and marvelous things without number.” (Job 9:5-10)
“He stretches out the north over the void and hangs the earth on nothing. He binds up the waters in his thick clouds, and the cloud is not split open under them. He covers the face of the full moon and spreads over it his cloud. He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkness. The pillars of heaven tremble and are astounded at his rebuke. By his power he stilled the sea; by his understanding he shattered Rahab. By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent. Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:7-14).
Again, in Job 37 we read descriptions of God’s sovereignty over “lightning” (vv. 3-4), “snow and rain” (v. 6), the “whirlwind” and “cold from the scattering winds” (v. 9), and “ice” (v. 10). Why, you ask? The answer is given: “Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen” (v. 13).
If you feel tempted to pass judgment on God for this, be careful, for “the Almighty—we cannot find him; he is great in power; justice and abundant righteousness he will not violate. Therefore men fear him; he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit” (Job 37:23-24).
God himself bears explicit witness to his own sovereignty in Job 38. He controls how far and wide the waves of the sea may go (vv. 8-11). He keeps the snow and hail in his storehouse until the time for their release (vv. 22-23). He directs the rain, even in the desert (vv. 25-27). It is from God alone that the “ice” and “frost” come forth (vv. 28-30). It is God who even supplies the raven its prey and food for its young ones (v. 41).
Is that not enough? No? Here then is more.
“It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom; and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Jer. 10:12-13).
“Are there any among the false gods of the nations that can bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Are you not he, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for you do all these things” (Jer. 14:22).
“I also withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest; I would send rain on one city, and send no rain on another city; one field would have rain, and the field on which it did not rain would wither” (Amos 4:7).
Few of these texts tell us explicitly what purpose God has in either sending or preventing natural calamities, and we should not speculate where the Bible is silent. But one thing is clear: nothing occurs apart from his sovereign will. So, rest easy, Christian man or woman, in the midst of chaos and upheaval. Your God is in complete control, and all his purposes are good and righteous.