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Thursday, August 4, 2016

A meditation on the goodness of God

Psalm 139:17-24 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would out number the sand. When I awake, I am still with You. 19 O that You would slay the wicked, O God; Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. 20 For they speak against You wickedly, And Your enemies take Your name in vain. 21 Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? 22 I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; 24 And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way." 

Introduction
Over the course of the last few days we have been considering various meditations on God's eternal nature and attributes from Psalm 139. We have considered God's omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence. Today's meditation has to do with the overall moral character of God, as He is, in His eternal being: namely the goodness of God. 

Is God a good God? We know He is all knowing, everywhere present and powerful - but is He good? Are His plans and purposes for you and me really in our best interest? Such questions are dependent upon what we mean by God's goodness. Theologian Michael Horton notes in his large volume: "The Christian Faith", page 265, this insight:
"God's knowledge, wisdom, and power are inseparable from His goodness. In fact, in the strict sense, Jesus said, 'No one is good except God alone' (Mark 10:18). God's infinite goodness is the source of all creaturely imitations. Precisely because God does not depend on the world, his goodness is never threatened. God is good toward all He has made, even His enemies (Psalm 145:9, 15-16; Mt 5:45). He can afford to be because He is God with or without them."

Moses prays to God in Exodus 33:18-22 to show him all of His goodness:  "Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!”19 And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” 20 But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” 21 Then the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; 22 and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by."

God's goodness is synonymous with His glory, which represents the display of the sum of all His perfections. God's goodness in its concentrated form is expressed in what the Bible calls "God's holiness". God's holiness is that quality of God that separates Him from the created realm. God is so good, so glorious and so "wholly other" as to have no comparison to Himself from the vast created realm. As R.C Sproul has noted, the steps of difference that lies between a caterpillar and an archangel are finite - since they are creatures; whereas the steps of difference between the archangel and God is infinite. 

God's goodness includes all of those moral attributes we find in the scriptures: as mentioned, the sum of all of them, and the one which captures God in His moral essence and character is holiness. As light refracts through a prism to reveal the hues of the rainbow, the light of God's uncreated goodness refracts through the prism of His unending holiness to reveal the eternal moral qualities which He possesses. 

In Psalm 139:17-24 we find reference or allusions to the following moral properties and expressions of God's goodness:

1. God's grace, or "God giving us that which we don't deserve". Psalm 139:17 
David cannot begin to count the "precious thoughts" God has toward him. God chooses to reveal Himself, His words, and His love to David. Grace is the first expression we see of God;s goodness in this text.

2. God's mercy, or "God not giving to us what we do deserve". Psalm 139:18 
When David awakes every day, He finds God ever with him. Do you and I deserve even to awake, or to live? All human beings born into this world deserve justice. Thankfully, God's mercies are new every morning, great is his faithfulness, as mentioned by Jeremiah in Lamentations 3:22-24. 

Now by this point we see two positive expressions of God's goodness - namely His grace and mercy. God is the source of all goodness, and the measure of what we understand to be right and wrong, just and unjust, righteous and wicked. In God is all light, and no darkness (1 John 1:5-7). God is deemed the "Father of heavenly lights, in whom there is no variation or shifting of shadow" (James 1:17). He dwells in "light unapproachable" (1 Timothy 6:16). Thus, whenever we see wickedness, or injustice or unrighteousness, we react like David due to what we know to be the case of God. 

What David says next in Psalm 139 seems jarring at first. What we find in Psalm 139:19-22 is David addressing those who have been persecuting him. In these verses we find him using the language of what we call "perfect hatred", which in our modern-day parlance would be stated as: "loving the sinner but hating the sin". In perfect, hatred, we hate "what" people become as a result of their sinful choices or due to how they treat the Holiness and loving activities of God. Perhaps the closest New Testament parallel that sheds light on this difficult text in Psalm 139 is found in Jude 1:22-23 "And have mercy on some, who are doubting; 23 save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh."

Perfect hatred (as it is called in the KJV) in God is a hatred of what He is not: namely unrighteousness, wickedness, sin, injustice. This type of hatred for God is expressed without offense, without resentment and is directed in those times following all other attempts to be merciful and loving towards His creatures. This is what is referred to as the wrath of God. For God to be loving, just and Holy, it follows that such a morally excellent being "hate" what is unjust and unholy. When Abraham for instance states in Genesis 18:25 at the end of his prayer for the city of Sodom "shall not the Judge of  Earth deal justly"? 

To illustrate this point, our family has a pet cat. Recently we discovered that the cat had fleas. Now for us to be considered good pet owners, we must necessarily hate that which brings harm to our cat - namely fleas. So, we went out, purchased the proper medications and will likely need to pursue further remedies. One could say I have a "perfect hatred" of the fleas. In exercising wrath on the fleas, I am showing love toward the cat. I recognize what is "the right thing to do" because of - well, the goodness of God. Proverbs 12:10a states: "Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of His beast....". In similitude, we could say that David is expressing what he is expressing due to His recognizing the goodness of God to include...

3. God's wrath, or God giving justly to us what people choose to deserve
Romans 11:22 reminds us to not only consider those positive qualities of God's goodness in consideration of His grace and mercy, but also what are the equally necessary negative expressions of His goodness - i.e His wrath and judgment. This final point in our meditation on God's goodness is so spurned by the modern day church. Yet, as seen in the foregoing exposition, if God does not deal justly with sin, injustice and wickedness, then how could we say God is good? J.I Packer, in his book: "Knowing God", quotes the inimitable A.W Pick's observations on the three practical benefits of reflecting on the wrath of God. The three headings alone summarize well why God's wrath has to be included in our meditation of God's goodness:

1. First, that our hearts may be duly impressed by God's detestation of sin.

2. To beget "fear" or "reverence" for God in our service to Him. 

3. Thirdly, to draw out our soul to fervent praise (to Jesus Christ) for having delivered us from the wrath to come.

As David rounds out this final section of Psalm 139, he realizes that even though God's "perfect hatred" or "wrath" is more than appropriate for God, since hatred of sin, injustice and the like is necessary for a Being that is Morally excellent and thus, maximally great; nonetheless he sees in his own weakness how he could abuse such an expression. David finds that he is, in reality, no better than those whose actions and sinful choices he hates. He needs God's grace, which is why He begs God "search him" and to see what wayward ways is in Him."

Closing thoughts
Today we considered the goodness of God. We saw that by reflecting on God's goodness, we are able to better express and appreciate such moral qualities as holiness, grace, mercy and even wrath. Within God, these moral excellencies know no conflict or contradiction. Psalm 139 demonstrates to us how God is "Maximally Great", possessing all the "Great-making" properties that renders Him worthy of praise and worship: omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence and all goodness. Truly we can say: God is good. 

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