God’s Sovereignty Versus Man’s Autonomy

1And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” – Exodus 20:1-3 ESV

All the way back in the garden of Eden, an epic battle took place when Satan, in the guise of a wily serpent, tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the one tree that God had declared to be off limits.

“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” – Genesis 2:16-17 ESV

God placed a prohibition on consuming the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that carried the penalty of death for its violation. But when Eve encountered the cleverly-disguised enemy of God in the garden, he raised doubts about God’s commands.

“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” – Genesis 3:1 ESV

He began by purposely twisting the words of God, in an attempt to confuse his prey. And Eve attempted to correct his seeming misstatement but ended up misrepresenting what God had said regarding the tree.

“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” – Genesis 3:2-3 ESV

Satan, sensing Eve’s obvious confusion, used this opportunity to question God’s motivation for giving the command in the first place. He raised doubts about God’s intentions, in the hopes of casting aspersions about God’s integrity.

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5 ESV

At that moment, Eve was faced with a decision. The serpent was offering her the chance to be her own god. By eating the forbidden fruit, she would gain insight and knowledge that would allow her to be autonomous and self-determining. She could decide what was best for herself. She would become the captain of her own ship and the master of her own fate. The capacity to know good and evil meant that she would be able to determine her own actions and outcomes. She could create her own laws, deciding for herself what was acceptable and unacceptable. The only rules she would have to live by were the ones she created.

As the woman considered her options, she was persuaded by the rhetoric of the serpent and the tantalizing allure of the forbidden fruit – and she gave in to her base desires. She ate the fruit and shared it with her husband. And at that fateful moment, a battle began that has continued for millennia. The man and woman whom God had created decided that they were better off being their own gods. They chose autonomy over God’s sovereignty, and it wasn’t long before they became self-obsessed with self-rule. With their decision to disobey the law of God, the first couple ushered in the age of self-determination, and within a relatively short period of time, their descendants displayed the dark destination that lay at the end of that path.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. – Genesis 6:5 ESV

That sad state of affairs resulted in God destroying every human being who lived on the planet, except for one man and his family. In the midst of all that darkness and sin, one man is singled out.

But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. – Genesis 6:8 ESV

While every other human being on the planet had taken the path of self-rule, Noah had determined to remain under God’s rule. He is described as “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9 ESV). He wasn’t sinless or perfect, but he exhibited a desire to live according to God’s will rather than his own. 

Noah walked with God. – Genesis 6:9 ESV

This is the same statement made about another man who happens to be a predecessor of Noah.

Enoch walked with God… – Genesis 5:22 ESV

Both men “walked” with God. The Hebrew word is הָלַךְ (hālaḵ) and, in this context, it carries the idea of living life or conducting one’s life in keeping with God’s will. While everyone else around them was doing what was right in their own eyes, Enoch and Noah were swimming against the tide and walking in lock-step with God.

Noah had followed in the footsteps of his godly ancestor, and his faithfulness to God resulted in his salvation by God. When the flood came upon the earth, Noah and his family were spared death and given a new opportunity to “be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7 ESV). And they did. But the results were no less disappointing than before.

From Noah and his three sons would come a new, but not improved, mankind. Their descendants would begin to multiply but rather than keep God’s command to fill the earth, they chose to remain at a place called Babel and erect a monument to their own significance.

“Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.” – Genesis 11:4 NLT

Rather than obey God, they chose to follow their own desires and satisfy their own sense of self-importance. But God put an end to their arrogant display of autonomy by confusing their languages. No longer able to communicate or cooperate, the people disbanded and spread out all over the face of the world, and some ended up in a place called Ur, including a man named Terah. And this one man would have a son who would play a major role in the future of mankind.

Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans. – Genesis 11:27-28 ESV

This foreign-speaking, idol-worshiping pagan from the land of Mesopotamia, would become the father of the patriarch of God’s chosen people. Abram would be God’s choice for another reboot of the system. The last time, God chose a man named Noah who was righteous and walked with Him. This time, God chose a pagan who worshiped false gods and who had no concept of what it meant to walk with the one true God. This man would be the future hope of the world. This man would receive a personal invitation and a powerful promise from God that would dramatically alter the moral landscape of humanity.

“Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:1-3 NLT

With the invitation extended and the promise stated Abram had a choice to make. He could remain where he was and live out his life in Ur, or he could obey this newly revealed deity and move his family all the way to a land he had never seen or heard of. And Genesis 12 reveals that “Abram went, as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:4 ESV). He did as God commanded. In other words, he walked with God. He followed in the footsteps of Enoch and Noah, living his life in keeping with the will of God.

The book of Hebrews includes Abram’s name in the great “Hall of Faith,” where the lives of various Old Testament saints are memorialized for their faithful adherence to God’s revealed will. Abram is described as an obedient servant of God who trusted in the faithfulness of God to keep His promises.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. – Hebrews 11:8-9 ESV

And from this one man came the nation of Israel. God had promised to produce a great nation from this one man, despite the fact that Abram was 75 years old when God called him in Ur. And to make matters worse, this man’s elderly wife was barren. But God fulfilled His promise to Abram. His grandson, Jacob, would eventually lead his small clan of 70 people into the land of Egypt to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. And over the next four centuries, with God’s help, that small group would grow into a mighty nation.

All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:5-7 ESV

It was that very same group that Moses led out of the land of Egypt and who now stood at the base of Mount Sinai. There, from their vantage point in the valley, they could see the dense storm cloud hovering over the mountaintop. The peals of thunder and bright flashes of lightning left them awestruck and fearful as God made His powerful presence known. And as Moses and Aaron made their way to the top of the mountain, the people had no way of knowing what was about to happen next.

But their future was about to be radically and unalterably changed. From that lofty spot on the top of the mountain, Moses would receive the law of God, a written compendium of all God’s commands that the people of Israel would be required to keep. No longer would Moses have to sit in the seat of judgment and seek the counsel of God. From this point forward, there would be a written code of conduct that determined how the people were to “walk with God.”

God’s sovereignty was going to trump human autonomy. When it came to how they were to conduct their lives, the descendants of Abraham would have a clear and uncompromising canon of divine regulations to guide them. No one would be free to do what was right in their own eyes. God was going to make His will known and put it in writing. And it should come as no surprise that the first command He gave addressed the ongoing problem of human autonomy and the desire for self-rule.

“You shall have no other gods before me. – Exodus 20:3 ESV

The Israelites were forbidden to worship any God but Yahweh, and that prohibition included self-worship. Unlike Adam and Eve, the Israelites were to refrain from making their own rules or living by their own set of standards. There was no place for autonomy when God was clearly declaring His sovereignty. He alone was God and He alone could determine the code of conduct that would regulate the lives of His people.

From this moment forward, the people of Israel would be set apart and separated from the rest of the nations on earth by a unique set of laws that would regulate every area of their lives. Nothing was left out. Their entire way of life was going to be regulated by God, for their good and His glory. And it all began with their acknowledgment of His sovereignty and their disavowal of their autonomy.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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