Mercy Street Church of Christ
Abilene, TX
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The Inscrutable Ways of God

by Leroy Garrett

How inscrutable his judgments! How mysterious his methods! —- Romans 11:33 (Moffatt)

This trenchant line from Romans 11:33 is rendered in many interesting ways, one of my favorites being from Barclay: “His decisions are beyond man’s mind to understand! His ways of working beyond man’s power to trace.” The New Jerusalem Bible has “We cannot reach to the root of his decisions or his ways” and The New English Bible: “How unsearchable his judgments, how untraceable his ways.” Several versions follow the King James with “How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”

While all these are informing as to what the apostle is saying, I like Moffatt’s use of inscrutable in that it is such a piercing term, meaning something like “completely obscure or incomprehensible.” The apostle is describing God the way God describes himself in Isaiah 55:8 “My thoughts are not your thoughts; Nor are my ways your ways,” says the Lord, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” The Lord speaks similarly in 1 Samuel 16:7: “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The reader will notice that all translations place exclamation marks in Romans 11:33, as does Moffatt: “How inscrutable his ways! How mysterious his methods!” making them exclamatory sentences. This is to show that the apostle is exclaiming his affirmation, emphasizing a profundity, as if to say, Hear me, God’s ways are past finding out.

This may strike the reader as odd in that this bold exclamation comes after a rather profound discourse on the place of the Jews in God’s plan in which the apostle appears to understand quite well what God is up to, Romans 9-11. He reaches such conclusions as “There is a remnant set aside by grace” (Romans 11:6) and “Blindness in part has happened to Israel until the full number of Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26). How can Paul write with such assurance and then conclude by exclaiming that God’s ways are inscrutable?

Paul is not saying that prophets and apostles — and all of us — cannot understand God when he reveals himself. Hebrews 1:1 records the great truth that “God spoke to our fathers through the prophets” and that in these last days “God speaks to us through his Son.” And of course we can understand, believe, and obey his will for us. The apostle is rather saying that even when we see what God has done and what he promises to do we cannot comprehend the why and the how of his ways or methods. We understand that God chose the Jews to be his covenant people and not the Persians or Romans or Greeks, but why? We understand that he planted the ear and formed the eye, and set the planets in place, but how? We understand that God gave up his son to die for the sins of the world, but why since he was already abundantly forgiving sins in Old Testament times? There was already a savior before Christ came, God himself, as in Isaiah 45:15: “Truly You are God who hide Yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” Jesus Christ himself is the embodiment of the inscrutable nature of God, the ultimate mystery.

The apostle refers to this as “the mystery of godliness’ in 1 Timothy 3:16, and goes on to refer to God as “manifested in the flesh.” There is no way to be more inscrutable than that! How can a God who is “eternal, immortal, invisible” (1Timothy 1:17) and who “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16) become a human being? How can the infinite become finite? How can an invisible, unapproachable God speak through a burning bush, a still small voice, and even by the tongue of a jackass?

But nothing is more mind-boggling to Paul than the grace of God. As a final answer to why his own people Israel had not accepted Jesus as Messiah — a grievous problem to Paul — he says “God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32). Amazing! Is this biblical universalism? Is the second “all” as forceful as the first “all”?

This is what led the apostle to exclaim: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”

All this should encourage us to be more conscious of the magnanimity of God, and to make him the focus of our faith. We should stand in awe of his mysterious ways. Jesus himself, who came to show us what God is like, directed people to God rather than to himself, insisting that he could do nothing except by the Father (John 5:30). And when he named the greatest or first commandment it was about God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).

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