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THE INCOMPREHENSIBLENESS OF GOD.
Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?—Job xi. 7.
IN treating of the properties and perfections of God, I shall at present consider that which results from the infinite excellency of his nature and perfection, compared with the imperfection of our understandings, which is commonly called the incomprehensibleness of God. This you have expressed here in the words of Zophar, “Canst thou by searching find out God?”&c.
There is no great difficulty in the words; “Canst thou by searching find out God?” Potesne pervestigare intima Dei, so Castalio translates it. Dost thou know God intimately and thoroughly, within and without? Canst thou pierce into the centre of his perfections, and dive into the bottom of them? and “Canst thou find out the Almighty to perfection?” Canst thou find out the Almighty, usque ad ultima, to the very last and utmost of him? so as thou canst say, after a thorough search and inquiry, “There is no perfection in God beyond this; there is nothing of him now that remains to be known; this he is, and no other; that he is, and no other wise; this he can do, and no more; hither doth his knowledge, and power, and wisdom reach, and no farther.”213
Canst thou do this? These interrogations have the force of a vehement negation; as if he had said, No thou canst not; God is unsearchable, he is incomprehensible.
The two questions in the text seem to be only two several expressions of the same thing. The first question is undoubtedly general, concerning the nature and perfections of God in general; “Canst thou by searching find out God?” Canst thou by the most diligent search and inquiry come to a perfect knowledge and understanding of him?
The second question may seem to be a particular instance to the general truth implied in the first question; he seems to instance in his power, as if he had said, God is unsearchable, and then had instanced in a particular perfection, the power of God, “Canst thou by searching find out God?” Thou canst not comprehend the Divine nature and perfections in general; “Canst thou find out the Al mighty unto perfection?” Consider particularly his power, and see if thou canst know r the utmost of that. But I rather think that the latter question is altogether the same in sense with the former; and that the attribute of Almighty, which is here given to God, is used by way of description, and not in tended by way of instance. “Canst thou find out the Almighty,” that is, God, “unto perfection?” Which way soever we take the words, it is not much material, we may ground this observation upon them:
That God is incomprehensible.
This term or attribute is a relative term, and speaks a relation between an object and a faculty, between God and a created understanding; so that the meaning of it is plainly this, that no created understanding 214can comprehend God; that is, have a perfect and exact knowledge of him, such a knowledge as is adequate to the perfection of the object. Or thus, the nature and perfections of God are above the understanding of any of his creatures; it is only his own infinite understanding that can frame a perfect idea of his own perfection. God knows himself, his own understanding comprehends his own perfections. But he is incomprehensible to his creatures.
Indeed, there is nothing more obvious than God; for “he is not far from every one of us; in him we live, and move, and have our being;” there needs no great search to find out that there is a God: “An eternal power and Deity are clearly seen in the things which are made,” as the apostle tells us; but the manner of the being, and properties, and perfections of this God, these cannot be comprehended by a finite understanding. I shall prove the doctrine, and then apply it.
First, For the proof of it: I will attempt it these three ways:
I. By way of instance, or induction of particulars.
II. By way of conviction.
III. By giving the clear reason of it.
I. By way of instance. And I shall give you instances both on the part of the object, and of the subject, or the persons who are capable of knowing God in any degree.
1. On the part of the object. The nature of God, the excellency and perfection of God, the works and ways of God, are above our thoughts and apprehensions. The nature of God, it is vast and infinite: (Job xxxvi. 26.) “God is great, and we know him not.” (Job xxxvii. 23.) “Touching 215the Almighty we cannot find him out.” (Psal. 3.) “His greatness is unsearchable.”
The excellencies and perfections of God; his immensity, (2 Chron. ii. 6.) “The heaven of heavens cannot contain him:” the eternity of his duration, “from everlasting to everlasting he is God:” we cannot imagine any limits of his presence, nor bounds of his duration. The infiniteness of his knowledge: (Psal. cxlvii. 5.) “His understanding is infinite.” When we think of the wisdom and knowledge of God, our best way is to fall into admiration: (Rom. xi. 35.) “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”
Where the Scripture speaks of those perfections of God, which the creatures do in some measure and degree partake of, as his goodness, and power, and wisdom, and holiness, and immortality, it attributes them in such a peculiar and Divine manner to God, as doth exclude and shut out the creature from any claim, or share, or title to them: (Matt. xix. 16, 17.) “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is God.” (1 Tim. vi. 15, 16.) “Who is the blessed and only Potentate, who only hath immortality.” (1 Tim. i. 17.) “The only wise God.” (Rev. xv. 4.) “For thou only art holy.” In so inconceivable a manner cloth God possess these perfections which he communicates, and we can only understand them as he communicates them, and not as he possesses them; so that when we consider any of these Divine perfections, we must not frame notions of them contrary to what they are in the creature, nor must we limit them by what they are in the creature, but say, the goodness and the wisdom of God are all this which is in the creature, and much more, which I am not 216able to comprehend; the transcendent degree, and the singularity of these Divine perfections, which are communicable, is beyond what we are able to conceive.
The works of God; they are likewise unsearchable; the works of creation and of redemption. (Job v. 9.) “Which doeth great things, and unsearchable; marvellous things, past finding out.” And then he instanceth in the works of God, (Job xxvi. 14.) “Lo, these are part of his ways: but ho w little a portion is heard of him! and the thunder of his voice, who can understand?” So that he tells us expressly, we cannot find out the works of God; we do but know part of them. The question which he puts, (Job xxxvii. 16.) “Dost thou know the wondrous works of him that is perfect in knowledge?” can only be answered by the words of the Psalmist: (Psal. civ. 24.) “O Lord, how wonderful are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all.” The work of redemption: in this there shines forth such wisdom, mercy, and love, as our understandings cannot reach. This work is called “the wisdom of God in a mystery; hidden wisdom,” σοφία ἀποκεκρυμμενη, (1 Cor. ii. 7.) The mercy, and grace, and love of it is called, “the riches of God’s mercy, the exceeding riches of his grace,” (Eph. ii. 4. 7.) Now riches is, when you cannot tell the utmost of them, pauperes est numerare. (Eph. iii. 18, 19.) “That ye may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height, and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge.” When we have the largest apprehensions of this love, so that we think we comprehend it and know it, it “passeth knowledge;” yea, the effects of God’s power and love, which he 217manifests in believers, are unspeakable; for “he is able to do for us exceeding abundantly, above what we can ask or think, according to the power which worketh in us,” (Eph. iii. 20.) The peace which guards their souls “passeth all understanding,” (Phil. iv. 7.) Those “joys which fill their hearts are not to be expressed.” (1 Pet. i. 8.) We read of “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” The happiness which they hope for is inconceivable; it is that which “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath entered into the heart of man, which God hath laid up for us.”
The ways of God’s providence, they are not to be traced: (Psal. lxxvii. 19.) “Thy way is in the sea, and thy paths in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known.” (Eccles. iii. 11.) “No man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” We are but of yesterday, and know nothing. When we look upon God’s providence, we take a part from the whole, and consider it by itself, without relation to the whole series of his dispensation; we cannot see the whole of God’s providence at one view, and never see from the beginning of the works of God to the end; therefore our knowledge of them must needs be very imperfect, and full of mistakes, and false judgments of things; we cannot, by our petty and short-sighted designs, judge of the works of God, and the designs of providence; for “our ways are not as his ways, nor our thoughts as his thoughts; but as the heavens are high above the earth, so are his ways above our ways, and his thoughts above our thoughts,” (Isa. lv. 8, 9.) The ways of God’s mercy: (Psal. ciii.) “As the heavens are high above the earth, so great is God’s mercy.” (Psal; cxxxix. 17, 18.) “How 218precious are thy thoughts unto me! how great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand.” And the ways of God’s judgments, the severity and greatness of his judgment is not known. (Psal. xc.) “Who knoweth the power of thine anger? and who may stand before thee when thou art angry?” And the reasons of his judgments are unsearchable: (Psal. xxxvi. 6.) “Thy judgments are a great deep.” (Rom. xi. 33.) “How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” These are the instances on the part of the object.
2. On the part of the subject, or the persons capable of knowing God in any measure. The perfect knowledge of God is above a finite creature’s understanding. Wicked men are ignorant of God, and full of false apprehensions of him. The Scripture gives this description of them: they are those that “know not God.” (2 Thess. i.) Wicked men are so far from knowing God to perfection, that they have hardly any true knowledge of him; for as the man himself is, so will God seem to be to him; the idea and notions which men have of God, is but the picture of their own complexion. To a true knowledge there is required likeness; a man’s mind must be like the thing he would understand; therefore the apostle tells us, “the natural or animal man doth not receive the things of God,” he is not capable of them, because his mind is unsuitable to them; he is πλήρης τοῦ Σώματος, “full of body,” and he cannot relish spiritual things; even those natural notions which wicked men have of God, are strangely tinctured and obscured by the temper of the man; they are lux sepulta in opaca materia, “light buried and hid in matter and darkness,” 219in the blackness of a foul and impure heart; so that there is no question of them, whether they comprehend God or not.
But good men cannot find out God, they have some false apprehensions of him; all their apprehensions are dark, have much of obscurity in them; they know God to salvation, but not to perfection. In this life we do but know God in part; that is, in comparison of the knowledge which our natures are capable of.
But I will instance yet higher: the angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect, though they have true apprehensions of God, yet they do not arrive to perfect knowledge of him, they cannot pervestigare ultima, “know the utmost of God;” the cherubims themselves are continually looking at the mercy-seat. To which the apostle alludes, (1 Pet. i. 12.) when he tells us the mystery of God’s mercy in the gospel, is a thing “which the angels desired to pry into.” In heaven, “that which is in part shall be done away;” that is, our knowledge shall be as perfect as our natures are capable; but it shall be finite. When we shall “see God face to face;” that is, have an immediate vision of him, “and see him as he is;” that is, not having our understandings tinctured by any lust or passion that may darken our minds, or misrepresent the object; for the apostle tells us, “we shall see him, because we shall be like him;” yet then we shall have short and inadequate apprehensions of him, we shall still retain our limited natures and finite understandings.
II. By way of conviction. Dost thou know perfectly the nature of a finite spirit, the perfection and the power of an angel, how, being immaterial, 220they can act upon the matter, and move that which can make no resistance to a spirit? Dost thou know how they can move themselves to a great distance in a moment, and dart themselves from one part of the world to another? Dost thou know how man is “formed in the lowest parts of the earth,” as the Psalmist expresseth it, and the curious frame of our bodies is wrought from such rude principles in so dark a shop? Canst thou give an account how the soul is united to the body, by what bands or holds a spirit is so closely and intimately conjoined to matter? Dost thou know how thyself understandest any thing, and canst retain the distinct ideas and notions of so many objects without confusion? Dost thou know the least parts of matter how they are knit together; and by what cement they cleave so fast to one another, that they can hardly be separated?
Now if the creatures be so unsearchable, and the knowledge of these be too hard for thee, is not the Creator of them much more incomprehensible, who possesseth all these perfections which he communicates, and many which cannot be communicated to a creature? If in natural and sensible things, maxima pars eorum quæ scimus, est minima pars eorum quæ nescimus; how much more is it true of God, that “our ignorance is more than our knowledge,” when the whole earth and all the creatures bear no proportion to him? (Isa. xl. 15, 17.) “Behold, all the nations of the earth are as the drop of the bucket, and as the small dust of the balance; all nations before him are nothing, and are accounted to him less than nothing.”
III. By shewing you the clear reason of it, which is this the disproportion between the faculty and 221the object, the finiteness of our understandings, and the infiniteness of the Divine nature and perfections. “God is greater than our hearts;” and therefore as he knows more than we do, as the apostle reasons, (1 John iii. 20.) so he is more than can be known by us; he is too vast an object for our understanding to entertain, for our minds to receive. Thou mayest as well mete out the heaven with a span, and measure the waters in the hollow of thy hand, and comprehend the dust of the earth in a little urn, and weigh the mountains in scales, and the hills in a little balance, as think to circumscribe God in the narrow limits of thy thoughts, or to bring that which is infinite within the compass of that which is finite.
And there is not only the vastness and greatness of the object, but the glory and resplendency of it does so dazzle our sight, that we cannot perfectly see it: (1 Tim. vi. 16.) “He dwelleth in light, which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see.” As God is too big, so he is too bright an object for our understandings; the presence of his glory overpowers our minds, and bears down our faculties, and conquers our understandings.
I come now to apply this doctrine of the incomprehensibleness of the Divine nature. If the nature, and perfections, and ways, and works of God be incomprehensible, and past finding out;
I. It calls for our admiration, and veneration, and reverence. These are the best apprehensions of him that is incomprehensible; a silent veneration of his excellencies, is the best acknowledgment of them. We must admire what we cannot apprehend or express, (Zech. ix. 17.) “How great is his 222goodness, and how great is his beauty!” The best way to celebrate the praises of God, is that which Nehemiah useth, (Nehem. ix. 5.) “And blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.” Whenever we speak or think of God, we necessarily detract from his perfections; but even this necessity is glorious to him, and this speaks his perfection, that the highest finite under standing must have imperfect thoughts of him.
We should make up in reverence and veneration what we fall short of in knowledge. Reverence is an acknowledgment of distance; by our reverence of the Divine Majesty, we should best awe our hearts, in a sense of the distance which is between his in finite nature and perfection, and our finite apprehensions. Worldly greatness will cause wonder, the thoughts of earthly majesty will compose us to reverence; how much more should those excellencies which are beyond what we can imagine? (Isa. vi.) You have there God represented sitting upon his throne, and the seraphims about him, which are described to us as having “each six wings, and with twain they cover their faces.” Creatures of the brightest understanding, and the most exalted purity and holiness, cover their faces in the presence of God’s glory; they choose rather to venerate God, than look upon him.
II. This calls for humility and modesty. The consideration of God’s unsearchable perfections should make “the haughtiness of man to stoop, and bring down his proud looks, and God alone should be exalted.” The thought of God’s excellency should abase us, and make us “vile in our own eyes;” it should make all those petty excellencies that we pride ourselves in, to vanish and disappear. 223“Those treasures of wisdom and knowledge” which are in God, should “hide pride from man:” it should hide those little parts and gifts which we are so apt to glory in, as the sun hides the stars. When we consider God, we should be so far from admiring ourselves, that we should, with a humble thankfulness, wonder that God should regard such inconsiderable nothings as we are. (Psal. viii. 1, 3, 4.) “O Lord our God, how excellent is thy name in all the earth, who hast set thy glory above the heavens! When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him?” He that considers the glory of God, and the greatness of his works, will think so meanly of himself, that he will be astonished that God should mind him or visit him. This is a noble strain of humility in David, by which he acknowledged that the great est king of the earth, how considerable soever he may be in respect of men, is yet but a pitiful thing to God.
When we speak to God, we should do it with great humility. (Eccles. v. 2, 3.) “Let thy words be few, for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth.” We should say to God, (Job xxxvii. 19.) “Teach us what we shall say unto thee, for we cannot order our speech by reason of darkness.” And when we think or speak of him, we should do it with great modesty; we should not rashly pronounce or deter mine any thing concerning God. Simonides being asked what God was, desired one day’s time to consider; then he desired two, and then four. The more we think of God, the less peremptory shall we be in defining him. He that considers that God 224is incomprehensible, will not pretend to know all the ways of infinite knowledge, and the utmost of infinite power, and all the reasons of God’s ways and providences. He that rightly values his own short understanding, and the unlimited perfections of God, will not be apt to say, this God cannot do, this he cannot know, such ways are not agreeable to his wisdom. He that knows God and himself, will be modest in these cases; he will ἐπέχειν, abstain from all peremptory pronouncing in these matters; he considers that one man many times differs so much from another in knowledge, and skill of working, that he can do those things which another believes impossible: but we have pitiful thoughts of God, if we think the difference between one man and another, is any thing to the vast distance that is between the Divine understanding and our ignorance, the Divine power and our weakness, the wisdom of God and the folly of men.
III. The incomprehensibleness of God’s perfections calls for the highest degree of our affection. How should we fear this great and glorious God! (Psal. xc. 11.) “Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.” Fear is the most infinite of all our passions, and fills us with the most endless jealousy and suspicions: God’s wrath is greater than our fear; “according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.”
How should we love him, when we are astonished with admiration of God’s goodness, and say, “How great is thy goodness, and how great is thy beauty! Behold, what manner of love the Father hath be stowed upon us!” How great should our love be to him! what manner of love should we return to him!225
This calls for the highest degree of our faith. With what confidence should we rely upon him, “who is able to do for us exceeding above what we can ask or think!”
To conclude. This requires the highest degree of our service: how should our hearts be “enlarged to run the way of his commandments,” who hath laid up for us such things, “that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man!”226
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