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Covid-19. ‘The Lord reigns’

Field ay sunset

Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you (Jeremiah 32:17, NIV).

If the overarching trajectory of Jeremiah’s message was one of hope, it was undergirded by the affirmation and assertion of the Lord’s reign and rule over human affairs and over the entire cosmos. Likewise, as we ponder the Covid-19 crisis, it is essential to lay this same foundation – the foundation of God’s absolute sovereignty.

Incomparability
Israel’s God, and ours, is incomparable. Echoing Moses’, “who is like you, O Lord, among the gods, who is like you, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders” (Exodus 15:11), and Solomon’s, ‘O Lord God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven or on earth (2 Chronicles 6:14), Jeremiah declares, “there is none like you, O Lord, you are great, your name is great in might” (Jeremiah 10:6).

Ruler of the heavenly host
In the OT understanding, the Lord God is, first, the ruler of the heavenly hosts, the ‘president’ of the divine council, who administers judgement in the midst of the gods (‘elohim’), the sons of the Most High (Psalm 82). “Who in the heavens can be compared to the Lord?”, wrote the Psalmist, “who among the sons of the mighty can be likened to the Lord?” (Psalm 89:6). “He is exalted far above all gods” (Psalm 97:9). Certainly, the gods of the nations are no match for Him – a theme than runs right through the message of Jeremiah and the other prophets.

Creator of all
This incomparable God is the creator and ruler of all things ‘seen and unseen’ (1 Chronicles 29:11-12). “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” (Jeremiah 10:12). “It is I”, the Lord declares, “who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me” (Jeremiah 27:5). The Lord God rules over, sustains, and oversees all aspects of His creation in every minute detail (Jeremiah 10:13; Psalm 8; Job 38-41; Psalms 104, 147:15-18, 148:5-16). As another Psalm testifies, “He is most high Most High over all the earth” (Psalm 97:9).

King of the nations
The incomparable, creator God is also ruler of the nations – “who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For this is your due; for among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is none like you” (Jeremiah 10:7). As the Psalmist asserts, “the Lord reigns.. He is high above all the peoples” (Psalm 99:1-2). The Lord’s immense and supreme power trumps the pretensions and hubris of both the gods of the nations, “which are not gods” (Jeremiah 2:11) and the nations’ earthly rulers. The “nations are as a drop in a bucket” (Isaiah 40:15). They might rage, but He holds them in derision (Psalm 2). They might take counsel and make plans, but, “the Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect”, but, “the counsel of the Lord stands for ever, the plans of His heart to all generations”.

All-encompassing and all-pervasive
God’s sovereignty is, therefore, all-encompassing and all-pervasive. He is truly Lord of all. As John Piper writes, “He holds absolute sway over this world. He governs wind (Luke 8:25), lightning (Job 36:32), snow (Ps. 147:16), frogs (Ex. 8:1–15), gnats (Ex. 8:16–19), flies (Ex. 8:20–32), locusts (Ex. 10:1–20), quail (Ex. 16:6–8), worms (Jonah 4:7), fish (Jonah 2:10), sparrows (Matt. 10:29), grass (Ps. 147:8), plants (Jonah 4:6), famine (Ps. 105:16), the sun (Josh. 10:12–13), prison doors (Acts 5:19), blindness (Ex. 4:11; Luke 18:42), deafness (Ex. 4:11; Mark 7:37), paralysis (Luke 5:24–25), fever (Matt. 8:15), every disease (Matt. 4:23), travel plans (James 4:13–15), the hearts of kings (Prov. 21:1; Dan.2:21), nations (Ps. 33:10), murderers (Acts 4:27–28), and spiritual deadness (Eph. 2:4–5)—and all of them do his sovereign will.”

Holy, righteous and good
Jeremiah’s message was built not only on the foundation of God’s absolute sovereignty, but also on his infinite holiness, righteousness and goodness. Holiness is, in a sense, the ‘positive’ side of incomparability. God is not like anyone or anything else, because he transcends all other reality; He is separate from and above all else. As Hannah sung, “there is none holy like the Lord: for there is none besides you” (1 Samuel 2:2). As Piper  writes, “righteousness is the moral dimension of God’s holiness.. his unwavering commitment to act in accord with his worth and beauty and greatness” – he cannot day Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). Goodness is the outflow of God’s holiness and righteousness to His creation, humanity and His people in beneficence and generosity. He created a world that was “very good” (Genesis 1:31) and created men and women, in His image, and “blessed them” (Genesis 1:26-28). His goodness extends especially to those who fear Him: “Oh, how abundant is your goodness which you have stored up for those who fear you worked for those who take refuge in you” (Psalm 31:19). But as we shall see below, His goodness is always consistent with and governed by His righteousness and holiness (He cannot deny Himself), hence both mercy and judgement are essential to His character and sovereignty.

Faithful
This incomparable, creator God, who rules over the heavens and the earth and the nations, their gods and their rulers, and whose power is immense, unrivalled and unlimited, and his holy, righteous and good, is also unflinchingly faithful to the people He has chosen to be His cherished possession, the “tribe of His inheritance” (Jeremiah 10:16). He is Israel’s rock (1 Samuel 2:2; Psalm 78:35; Isaiah 44:8), those who trust in Him cannot be moved (Psalm 125:1-2). He is their fortress, strength, stronghold, refuge (Psalms 46:1, 91:2; Jeremiah 16:19), and fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13).

Our refuge and strength
He is the same Lord who rules and reigns today; He has not changed. And our first resort, as those who, through Jesus Christ, are also His people, fear Him, and call on His name, must be to affirm and assert His absolute sovereignty over our present circumstances and to appropriate His promises.

He is our “refuge and strength”, who is in a sense more present in times of trouble, “therefore, we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1). Fear is, of course, a present reality. We are in frightening uncharted territory and the future is even more uncertain. Even when the virus has run its course, things will not be the same. Around us, there may be many who are gripped by fear of catching the disease itself, of the loss of money, home, job or loved ones, of the kind of world that might emerge beyond the pandemic, and ultimately of death. But, like Jeremiah, we must first declare that the Lord is still on the throne, is still in control, and still reigns and rules over human affairs and the entire cosmos. His plans stand forever (Psalm 33:10-11) and His purposes will prevail (Proverbs 19:21).

‘He is there and He is not silent’
The Sovereign God is also the God who speaks. As US theologian, Francis Schaeffer wrote, “He is there and He is not silent”. For Christians, this might be an extreme statement of the obvious! The whole Christian message, the Gospel, is founded on the fact that God has spoken and continues to speak – through His creation (Psalm 19:1-3; Romans 1:20), His written word the Bible, His people Israel and their prophets, and ultimately and most fully through His Son (Hebrews 1:1-4).

The issue at stake here, however, is, ‘does God speak (and act) through present events and states of affairs?’. Yes, He rules and reigns over His whole creation, nations and people, but does He speak and act through them today? The whole premise of Jeremiah, on which I am (loosely) basing this series of articles, is that He does. The prophetic task, then and now, is to reveal God’s hidden governance behind visible states of affairs, to understand public history as an arena of God’s purpose and activity, to make theological sense out of a global human, social, political and economic crisis. 1)Breuggemann, W. 2007. The theology of the book of Jeremiah, p 42. New York: Cambridge University Press

So, contra-N T Wright, I believe the Bible compels us to at least admit the possibility that Covid-19 is a sign, warning and judgement! Reflecting Schaeffer, I believe that, in the Covid-19 crisis, ‘He is there and He is not silent’. Considering in what way He is speaking and acting is the purpose of this short series of articles.

[As an aside, Wright is right to urge us to use the Psalms of bewilderment (eg Psalms 10, 13, 22, 88, 89) as we ponder the seeming senselessness of things and the feeling of abandonment  in the Covid-19 crisis. But, equally we should surely make the psalms of trust and protection our own at this time (eg Psalms 31, 34, 40, 46, 91).]

Judgement and mercy
For Jeremiah, and for us today, the critical outworking of God’s sovereignty and character is in the apparent paradox of mercy and judgement, of a ‘future and a hope’ beyond devastation and loss. For ancient Israel, as Jeremiah declared, destruction and exile were covenantal sanctions consequent upon repeated violation of covenantal conditions and repeated refusal to repent (eg Deuteronomy 30:15-20).

But judgement was penultimate. For the faithful remnant (Jeremiah 23:3, 31:7), there was a hope and a future (indeed, they were the seeds of the future): “and it shall come to pass, that as I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to throw down, to destroy, and to afflict, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:28); “for a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (Isaiah 54:7).

To quote Brueggemann again, “in those events Israel learned.. that Yahweh is morally serious and will not be mocked (hence the loss) and that God is faithful and powerful beyond moral categories (hence that homecoming)”.

So, against Oyekan, Valerio and many others, I believe scripture compels us to accept the possibility of God’s judgement in the Covid-19 crisis. But equally, scripture compels us also to acknowledge that, until the Final Judgement, judgement is always penultimate. Beyond God’s judgement is God’s mercy, now shown to all in Christ, “who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10).

 

God moves in a mysterious way,
    His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
    And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
    Of never failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs,
    And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
    The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
    In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
    But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
    He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
    Unfolding ev’ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
    But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
    And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
    And he will make it plain.

(William Cowper)

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Notes   [ + ]

1.Breuggemann, W. 2007. The theology of the book of Jeremiah, p 42. New York: Cambridge University Press