The Inscrutable Wisdom of God
33 O what a depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how untraceable his ways!
34 For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
35 Or who has previously given him anything,
that he should be repaid?
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.
The historical exposition in chapters 9-11 dealt with the outcome of Israel, and the outcome of the Gentiles in connection with that. That exposition, however, reached its end in 11:32. In verses 33-36, the apostle subjoins an appendage to it. Looking back at his precise presentation of divine pedagogy, at God’s working and governing among Jews and Gentiles, he launches into an exclamation of high admiration.
33a. Ὦ βάθος πλούτου καὶ σοφίας καὶ γνώσεως θεοῦ·
“O what a depth of the riches and the wisdom and knowledge of God!” Even if the three genitives are grammatically coordinated, the latter two are still really intended as a more exact definition of the first, which would otherwise be too vague and colorless. “Riches in wisdom and knowledge” is the meaning. The σοφία [wisdom] of God is the fundamental idea. The wisdom of God sets the goal and chooses the means. And since γνῶσις, knowledge, belongs to God, he knows the right means. God’s wisdom and knowledge are so rich that no one can grasp or measure them. The riches of divine wisdom are so deep that human understanding cannot fathom1 them. The immeasurable, unfathomable wisdom of God makes itself known in his inscrutable judgments and untraceable ways.
33b. ὡς ἀνεξεραύνητα τὰ κρίματα αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀνεξιχνίαστοι αἱ ὁδοὶ αὐτοῦ.
The apostle has set forth both God’s judgments and his ways in the preceding chapters. When we speak of God’s judgments, we particularly mean his hardening of hearts, which ends in eternal wrath. God’s judgments testify to his righteousness, as well as to his wisdom. God knows how to catch those who oppose him as if in their own snares, by handing them over to their perverted mind and self-chosen destruction. God also knows how to make his judgments upon the godless and unbelievers serve his entire plan for the world. In contrast with τὰ κρίματα [the judgments], αἱ ὁδοὶ αὐτοῦ [his ways] should be taken as God’s ways of grace, which lead to eternal life, life from the dead. How wonderful and wise are these ways of his! One truly has to marvel at divine wisdom when one considers the following:
- God has mercy on the disobedient.
- He gathers out of the rebellious Jews and Gentiles a people who are his very own.
- He converts some through others.
- He uses both the faith and unbelief of some to turn others to salvation.
- He preserves the world day after day despite the malice of humans, until he has carried out his counsel of grace in all his elect.
His wisdom is entirely immeasurable and unfathomable; his judgments and ways are inscrutable and incomprehensible. Here lies the emphasis.
Indeed, the ways and judgments of God can be readily seen in history. Scripture also reminds us of this by emphatically pointing to God’s ways and judgments. It is also revealed to us in Scripture, e.g. Romans 9-11, that God’s judgments are caused by humans, and that God’s ways of grace have their foundation in God himself, in God alone. But this does not explain everything. The final causes and motives of divine ways, works, and resolutions are and remain veiled and hidden to us.
Scriptum ubique subsistit in eo, quod Dominus voluit et dixit et fecit; rationes rerum universalium singulariumve non pandit; de iis, quae nostram superant infantiam, ad aeternitatem remittit fideles 1 Cor. 13, 9 etc.
Scripture everywhere consists of what the Lord has willed, said, and done. It does not relate the reasons for universal or individual truths. These reasons, which surpass our infantile comprehension, he withholds from the faithful until eternity (1Co 13:9, etc.).2
When we consider the outcomes of nations and individuals and compare them with each other, questions and puzzles force themselves on us. Some of these we cannot solve. Some even Scripture does not solve. For example: God wants the salvation of all people, and all people are equally guilty and corrupt. So why does he convert some of them, but hand others over to their perverted and hardened mind? We cannot understand this. Here we refer back to what was noted at 9:18 concerning the mystery of the discretio personarum [distinguishing of persons].3 Note how the old Lutheran theologians dealt with this mystery in that section. They united both passages, Romans 9:18 and 11:33-34, and proved from both that we should not search for the causa discriminis [cause of discrimination], precisely because God has not revealed it to us.4 Körner5 remarks at our verse, as he did similarly at 9:18:
Consilia ejus, quibus vel probat vel damnat aliquid, quibus hunc eligit et salvat, illum vero non eligit et salvat, nemo potest vel cogitando vel ulla ratione perscrutari et assequi. … Et cum inqirere ejus arcana non possimus, simus contenti patefactione rerum nobis et ad vitae aliquam commoditatem et ad salutem necessariarum, reliqua sapientiae et judicio Dei committamus.
His counsels, by which he either approves or rejects something, by which he elects and saves this person but not that one, no one can examine and comprehend either through careful pondering or any reasoning. … And since we cannot inquire into his mysteries, let us be content with the revelation of the truths necessary both for some advantage in our life and for our salvation. Anything beyond that let us entrust to the wisdom and judgment of God.6
34-36a. τίς γὰρ ἔγνω νοῦν κυρίου;
ἢ τίς σύμβουλος αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο;
ἢ τίς προέδωκεν αὐτῷ,
καὶ ἀνταποδοθήσεται αὐτῷ;
ὅτι ἐξ αὐτοῦ καὶ διʼ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰς αὐτὸν τὰ πάντα·
The apostle confirms that the judgments and ways of God are inscrutable and untraceable with three questions, which he borrows from Isaiah 40:13 and Job 41:3. “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has previously given him anything” – really: anticipated him7 – “that he should be repaid?”
There are only three cases in which a person could know what God had decided or how he would carry it out: 1) if he looked into God’s heart, 2) if he were a co-possessor of God’s heart, and 3) if he, according to the measure he had given to God, could calculate the return measure on which he could rely.8
These three cases, however, are simply not the case for anyone.
The fact expressed in all three questions has its basis, according to verse 36, in this: Everything is from God, through God, and for God. Everything that is and comes to be has its beginning in God, is carried out by God, and serves God’s purposes, including the finis ultimus [ultimate goal] of glorifying God. God is the original self-supporting One and the absolutely independent One. He is the beginning, middle, and end of all things. Even evil, which is not from God and is contrary to God, is included in τὰ πάντα [all things] insofar as God permits, limits, regulates, and governs all things, and makes them serve his purposes according to his wise counsel. In this way everything is from, through, and for God. Therefore the possibility of taking any part in God’s working, counsel, and knowledge is excluded.
We additionally share excerpts from Brenz’s9 remarks at the passage under consideration.
Quia haec exclamatio est generalis doctrina adversus omnes curiosas quaestiones de arcanis consiliis Dei, idcirco diligentissime est observanda. … Hinc oritur praecipua quaestio: Cum, quod ad homines attinet, una sit omnium massa peccato corrupta, quod autem Deum attinet, tam sit clemens et misericors, ut totus sit clementia et misericordia ipsa, cumque fides non sit opus carnis, sed donum Dei, quid est, quod Deus est clemens Jacobo et donat eum fide, non est autem clemens Esau, sed relinquit eum in incredulitate? quid est, quod Deus convertit Paulum mirabiliter per fidem, non autem Caipham? Cur donat gentibus fidem et non conservat Judaeos in fide? Dici quidem potest, quia hi fuerunt ingrati et Christum rejecerunt ac evangelium ejus, illi autem agnoverunt Christum obedienter. Sed quaestio redit in circulum. Quid enim est, quod Deus non retinuerit Judaeos in vera gratitudine et fide, cum tam facile fuisset ei, fidem in Judaeis conservare, quam facile fuit, gentibus fidem donare. … Ad haec omnia quaestionum genera respondet Paulus hac exclamatione: O profunditatem divitiarum etc. et compescit apostolica auctoritate quaestiones curiosas. … Distinguendum est inter secula et inter res ipsas, quae nostrae cognitioni objiciuntur. Nam, ut sunt duo secula, praesens et futurum, seu mundanum et coeleste, ita et res cognoscendae duplices sunt. Aliae sunt revelatae, ut in hoc seculo cognoscantur. Aliae sunt absconditae, ut cognoscantur tantum in futuro seculo. Quae igitur in hoc seculo cognoscenda sunt, ea sunt patefacta per decalogum et evangelium Christi. … Aliae autem quaestiones, quarum aliquot Paulo ante commemoravimus, repositae sunt in futurum speculum, in quo (si modo in hoc seculo rectam fidem habuerimus et obedientiam praestiterimus) omnia Dei arcana cognoscemus.
This exclamation is a general teaching against all prying questions concerning the secret counsels of God. Accordingly it should be given very careful attention. … From this place arises this extraordinary question: “As pertains to humans, there is one mass corrupted by sin, consisting of all people. As pertains to God, however, he is so compassionate and merciful that his entire being is compassion and mercy itself. Moreover, faith is not a work of the flesh, but the gift of God. So why is it, then, that God is compassionate to Jacob and gives him faith, but not compassionate to Esau, allowing him to remain in unbelief? Why does God transform Paul through faith in an extraordinary way, but not Caiaphas? Why does he bestow faith upon the Gentiles, but does not preserve the Jews in faith?” Certainly it can be said that the latter were ungrateful and rejected Christ and his gospel, while the former readily acknowledged Christ. But the question keeps going around in a circle: “Why did God not keep the Jews in the true gratitude and faith, since he could have preserved faith in the Jews just as easily as he gave faith to the Gentiles?” … To all these kinds of questions Paul responds with this exclamation: “O the depth of the riches,” etc. Thereby he restrains prying questions with apostolic authority. … A distinction has to be made among the ages and among the truths themselves, which are opposed to our knowledge. For, just as there are two ages – the present and the future, or the worldly and the heavenly – so also there are two kinds of truths that must be identified. Some truths are revealed, so that they may be learned in this age. Others are hidden, so that they may be learned only in the age to come. Accordingly, the truths that should be learned in this age are disclosed through the law10 and the gospel of Christ. … But the other questions, some of which we mentioned a little earlier, are reserved for the age to come, in which (provided that in this age we will have possessed the true faith and shown obedience) we will learn all the mysteries of God.11
36b. αὐτῷ ἡ δόξα εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν.
“To him be glory forever! Amen.” With a Soli Deo Gloria! Paul draws this exclamatio [exclamation] to a close, along with the entire discussion in chapters 9-11, which basically comprises a theodicy.12 In saying this, he calls on all Christians not to search into the arcana Dei [mysteries of God], let alone find fault with them, but rather to adore them. We should give glory to God for both – for what he has revealed to us in his Word for our salvation, and for his secret and hidden wisdom. Even if this wisdom is hidden from us for the time being, we are still convinced13 that it is great, sublime, holy, divine, and worthy of adoration. The Soli Deo Gloria! will indeed resound from our mouth even fuller and louder when the veil has fallen, when the whole counsel of God lies bare and uncovered before our eyes in the life to come.
Thus, in the closing prayer (vv. 33-36), the apostle calls on Christians to adore the unfathomable wisdom, the inscrutable and incomprehensible judgments and ways of God.
- 1. German: ergründen. The Grund of something can be: 1) the reason for it, 2) the cause of it, or 3) the bottom or foundation of it. We cannot ergründen the riches of divine wisdom in any of these respects.
- 2. Dr. Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752), Gnomon Novi Testamenti, 2nd edition (Ulm: Joh. Fried. Gaum, 1763) 666 or 3rd edition (Tübingen: Heinr. Philipp. Schramm, 1773) 2:711.
- 3. God apparently “distinguishes” and “discriminates” between persons when he elects some to salvation and hands others over to their own sinful minds. From here to the end, Stöckhardt wants to make sure that we correctly speak about this apparent distinguishing and discriminating, putting the praise or the blame in the right place. His reference to what was said at 9:18 corresponds to pages 444-450 in the commentary.
- 4. Stöckhardt: “The mystery of the discretio personarum is an established mark of 16th century Lutheran orthodoxy, in opposition to the Synergists and their causa discriminis in homine [cause of discrimination in mankind]” (p. 444).
- 5. Christoph Körner (1518-1594), one of the authors of the Formula of Concord.
- 6. The commentary actually reads Deo (cf. Latin paragraph above, where Dei has been substituted). The translator has taken the liberty of supposing this to have been a typographical error, either by CPH, Stöckhardt, or whatever source from which Stöckhardt obtained the quote. Thus the translation. With the original reading, the final sentence would read: “Let us, with wisdom and good judgment, entrust anything beyond that to God.”
This quotation is drawn from Körner’s commentary (Commentarius) on Romans published in 1583. It was unfortunately unavailable to the translator, making a more complete citation impossible.
- 7. If anyone has given something to God beforehand, he has really preceded God altogether. Stöckhardt is trying to bring out Paul’s glaring truth: No one has acted before God to limit or set bounds on God, so that acknowledgment of any kind must be given to that person rather than to God.
- 8. Dr. Johann Christian Konrad von Hofmann (1810-1877), Die heilige Schrift neuen Testaments, 3. Theil (Nördlingen: Druck und Verlag der C. H. Beck’schen Buchhandlung, 1868) 510-511. Hofmann is paraphrasing each of Paul’s three questions.
- 9. Johannes Brenz (1499-1570), Lutheran Reformer of Wuerttemberg.
- 10. Lit.: “the Decalogue” or “the Ten Commandments” (cf. decalogum in the Latin paragraph above)
- 11. This quotation is drawn from Brenz’s commentary (Commentarius) on Romans published in 1563. This edition was not available to the translator, but a reprint of a 1564 edition published in Frankfurt was available. In the reprint, however, Brenz’s commentary on 11:34-36 differed considerably from the quotation Stöckhardt includes here. The content of the 1563 commentary was either altered by Brenz himself for the 1564 edition, or it was revised by Stefan Strohm, who was the Bearbeiter (reviser) for the 1970 reprinting. Cf. Johannes Brenz, Werke: eine Studienausgabe (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1970) 2.2:368-369.
- 12. A theodicy is a defense of God in view of actions and circumstances that seem to challenge his nature, especially his goodness.
- 13. German: so haben wir doch den Eindruck