Saturday, April 19, 2014

Two Builders, Two Watchmen

A miscellany from April 19, 2014.

“Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Psalm 127:1). This is one of the many statements in Scripture that teach us about the relationship between divine sovereignty (God working all things according to his purpose) and human agency (man acting freely, responsibly, and meaningfully, according to his physical capacity and the desires of his heart).

In the realm of philosophy, there’s an idea that goes by the name compatibilism. More or less, this is the view that determinism and human free will are not in conflict with one another, but are instead compatible (hence the name). I think compatibilism happens to be the philosophical position that’s most consistent with what we see in the Bible concerning the relationship between God’s determination and human agency.

But at the same time, the biblical perspective goes farther than mere compatibilism. In the Bible, it isn’t just that divine sovereignty and human agency are compatible with each other, as if the point is simply to maintain that the two concepts aren’t necessarily contradictory. Rather, what we see in Psalm 127:1, and in dozens of other texts, is a positive and inseparable union of divine sovereignty and human agency, which is to say that the two concepts not only can go together, but must go together. From this point of view, you can’t even pretend to understand human agency if you don’t understand it in the light of divine sovereignty, and vice versa.

Psalm 127:1 says unless the Lord is involved, the efforts of men are pointless. But consider this implication: If the Lord builds the house, then the builders labor not in vain. If the Lord keeps the city, then the watchman wakes not in vain. Do you see? The fact that God is building the house is the very reason that the builder can labor in the full assurance that his work is actually meaningful and will pay off in the end. The fact that God sees to it that the city is safe is the very reason that the watchman’s job is worth doing.

This is contrary to the philosophical mindset that we often assume. We tend to think that if we make a strong effort to achieve something, then it somehow minimizes God’s role, and perhaps even indicates weak faith on our part. Or we think that if God is going to do something, then it removes any real need for us to make an effort toward that same end. After all, if God is watching the city, then surely the watchman can just keep on sleeping, right? Wrong. That isn’t the Bible’s perspective on such things, and it shouldn’t be ours either. God’s protection of the city goes hand-in-hand with the watchman doing his job well, and when it comes to the question of who built the house, we should recognize that in all reality there are two answers.

The moral of the story is this: God is working everything according to his purpose, so what are you waiting for?