|Detail of wall relief from the palace of |
King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria at Nimrud
c. 875 BC.
The big questions many people ask are: 'How can I be responsible if God really determines what happens?' or 'If I have free will how can God be completely sovereign?' These are great questions and worth considering at length, but the Biblical attitude is summed up quite well in Isaiah 10.
In the early chapters of Isaiah the nation of Judah (under King Ahaz) faces firstly the threat of invasion by their northern cousins in Israel and the nation of Syria who have made an alliance and decide to invade Judah to remove Ahaz and place a puppet king on the throne (see especially Isaiah 7). This alliance is all about standing as a united front against Assyria – the great superpower of their day.
Under the reign of Tiglath Pileser III (744-727 BC), the Assyrian empire expanded significantly. From their capital in Nineveh on the Tigris River, they came to rule over Babylon to the south, around the fertile crescent and pushed down toward Palestine and Egypt. By 734 BC the consequences of this expansion led Syria and Israel to attack Judah and forced Ahaz to decide where he would turn for security.
In Isaiah 7 the prophet confronts Ahaz and challenges him not to lose heart because of the invasion of Israel and Syria but to trust the LORD. Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign and when Ahaz refuses Isaiah tells him that the Lord will give a sign anyway – the sign of Immanuel. The Lord promises that within a few years at most he will "whistle up" invaders from Assyria as if they were insects that will lay waste to the nations of Syria and Israel. He goes on to say that 'In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the River – the king of Assyria – to shave your head and the hair of your legs and to take off your beards also.' (7:20) Again in chapter 8 there is the prophecy of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (meaning 'quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil'), that before the child knows how to say mother or father the nations of Syria and Israel will be carried off by the King of Assyria – a prophecy which was fulfilled in 732 BC and 722 BC respectively. The records suggest that the Assyrians overran Judah and surrounded Jerusalem, but withdrew before conquering the city.
The point Isaiah makes is that in all this Assyria is an instrument in the hands of the Lord – fulfilling God's will of punishing Syria and Israel and even Judah. But does that mean they are not responsible for their actions? The answer in Isaiah 10:5-19 is clear:
5 ''Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!
6 I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me,
to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets.
7 But this is not what he intends, this is not what he has in mind;
his purpose is to destroy, to put an end to many nations. . .
12 When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, ''I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes. 13 For he says: '''By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding. . .
15 Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it, or the saw boast against him who uses it?
As if a rod were to wield him who lifts it up, or a club brandish him who is not wood!
16 Therefore, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will send a wasting disease upon his sturdy warriors; . . .
The Bible here makes a claim for God's sovereignty – Assyria is an instrument in his hands – and yet the King of Assyria will be punished for 'the wilful pride of his heart'. He is still responsible. Somehow God's sovereignty does not contradict human responsibility – but it over-arches all.
While we may find it difficult to reconcile these two ideas, this is the consistent view of the Bible – we are responsible moral agents who will one day be accountable to God for all we do. Yet at the same time it is God who 'fore-ordains' or 'pre-destines' the rise and fall of nations and kings and all the detail of every human life. Yet we do not become fatalists, because God does not (usually) tell us the details of his plans beforehand – we are left to live trusting his word to us and seeking to respond in the obedience that comes from faith. We also rejoice that when we put our faith in the Lord Jesus we receive forgiveness for our sins and the gift of eternal life.
For an interesting account of the building of Sennacherib's palace in Nineveh early in the 8th Century BC see this site: http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/palaces/story/sto_set.html