Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 ESV
Paul sums up all he has said in the last three chapters regarding Israel’s rejection of God, their partial hardening and their ultimate restoration as God’s people with a statement about God. He marvels at God’s incomparable riches, wisdom and knowledge. He confesses that God’s ways and judgments are unsearchable and inscrutable. But what does all this mean? What is Paul really saying about God?
I think the New American Standard Version has a more accurate rendering of Paul’s opening line: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” The word, “riches” refers to abundance or fullness. Paul is saying that God is overflowing in wisdom and knowledge. “God’s ‘wisdom’ is His ability to arrange His plan so it results in good for both Jews and Gentiles and His own glory. His ‘knowledge’ testifies to His ability to construct such a plan” (Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes On Romans, 2009 Edition). We may not always understand what God is doing, but we can always trust that what He is doing is right and good. Paul goes on to say that God’s judgments are unsearchable. The word, “judgment” carries a judicial sense to it. It can mean “condemnation of wrong, the decision (whether severe or mild) which one passes on the faults of others” (Outline of Biblical Usage). We have no right to judge God for what He does, including His judgment of the sins of men or His choosing to show mercy to some who deserve His judgment. His “ways” or actions are beyond our comprehension. His thought processes are out of our realm of understanding. Isaiah confirmed this reality when he wrote, “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the Lord. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT).
Paul even uses the words of Isaiah to support his point. “Who is able to advise the Spirit of the Lord? Who knows enough to give him advice or teach him? Has the Lord ever needed anyone’s advice? Does he need instruction about what is good? Did someone teach him what is right or show him the path of justice?” (Isaiah 40:13-14 NLT). In verse 35, Paul even pulls in the thoughts of Elihu, one of Job’s well-meaning friends. “If you are good, is this some great gift to him [God]? What could you possibly give him?” (Job 35:7 NLT). He also quotes the words of God given in response to Job’s questioning of His ways. “Who has given me anything that I need to pay back? Everything under heaven is mine” (Job 41:11 NLT).
God is not someone we should question. While His ways of doing things may seem odd to us or even distasteful, they are always right, just and good. There is always a method and a meaning to what may appear to us at times as His madness. He doesn’t need our advice. He isn’t in need of our counsel. He doesn’t owe us anything, including His mercy. God does not have to redeem anyone. He is not obligated to extend saving grace to any man or woman. That He does so at all should blow us away. It should leave us in awe of His incredible love, patience, and faithfulness. When Paul wrote, “For God has consigned all to disobedience” (Romans 11:32 ESV), he was saying that God was justly passing sentence on all men for their sin and rebellion against Him– “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). Every single human being has been guilty of disobedience or “obstinate opposition to the divine will” (Outline of Biblical Usage). And that includes both the Jews and the Gentiles. But God has decided to show mercy to both the Jews and the Gentiles. Because they deserved it? No. But as Paul wrote, God shows “mercy on whomever he will, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:18 ESV). His mercy and compassion have nothing to do with human will or self-effort (Romans 9:16), but are the sole prerogative of God. Which is why Paul concludes, “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36 ESV). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory.”
Salvation is a gift of God. It is based solely on the mercy of God. It has nothing to do with anything inherently good in the one who receives it. None of us deserve God’s mercy. What He chooses to do in regards to sinful mankind is completely up to Him. As God, He is free to do whatever He deems to be just and good. And all that He does, He does for His own glory. His actions always reveal His character in such a way that He is lifted up. Whenever He acts, He expresses His judgment and He does so in a perfectly just and righteous manner. When He punishes, He never does so unjustly. It is always deserved. When He shows mercy, it is never at the expense of His justice. In other words, it is never unjust or unfair. When God pardons the sins of men who believe in His Son, He doesn’t just turn His back on their sins and act as if they never happened. That would be unjust and unrighteous. Their sins deserve punishment. The crime requires sentencing and a payment of the penalty due. So God took care of the penalty with the death of His Son. He paid the price for our sins by sending His Son to die in our place. How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable are His ways! How wonderful are the ways of God!