Ignorant gods

I was recently reading through—actually, listening to—1 Chronicles and was struck by a small phrase in chapter 10 that, despite having read dozens of times before, I have never taken particular notice of. The writer is chronicling the death of King Saul and his sons. When the Israelite army learned of the death of Saul, they all fled their cities, which were then inhabited by the Philistines. It was only the following day, when they went to strip the slain, that the Philistines discovered that Saul had been killed. “They stripped him and took his head and his armour, and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to their idols and to the people” (v. 9). It was that small phrase in v. 9—“to their idols”—that caught my attention as I listened.

The contrast between the God of Israel and the gods of the Philistines could hardly be any starker. The God of the Bible “knows everything” (1 John 3:20): every falling sparrow (Matthew 10:29), every hair on every head (Matthew 10:30). The gods of Philistia needed to be informed by messenger of the death of King Saul. The God of Israel, in fact, was sovereign over the death of Saul (vv. 13–14); it did not catch him by surprise. But the Philistine soldiers were aware of Saul’s death even before their gods, and in fact their gods would have remained ignorant of this fact were it not for the messengers sent to inform them.

Now, of course, the Philistine gods never became aware of the death of Saul because they never existed. As the works of men’s hands, they could not be informed of anything. Information can only be received by living, intelligent beings, not by statues of metal or rock. But to the minds of the Philistines, their gods were not all-knowing and needed to be informed of their enemy’s death.

Contrast this with the God of the Bible, of whom David wrote,

O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.

(Psalm 139:1–6)

The theological term for God’s all-knowledge is omniscience. He has perfect knowledge. He neither needs to learn, nor can he learn (see Isaiah 40:13–14; Romans 11:34). A. W. Tozer writes, “He knows instantly and with a fullness of perfection that includes every possible item of knowledge concerning everything that exists or could have existed anywhere in the universe at any time in the past or that may exist in the centuries or ages yet unborn.”1 He knows our thoughts (1 Kings 8:39) and, unlike the gods of our age (Isaiah 44:22–23), our future (Isaiah 46:10).

Since he knows everything, God never requires any information and therefore never discovers anything. He is never surprised or amazed.

On the one hand, this can be a frightening thought: God knows everything about you—your deepest, darkest secrets; those sins that no one else knows about. As Moses acknowledged, “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence” (Psalm 90:8). Just as Adam and Eve tried in vain to hide from God, we seek in vain to hide our secret sins from the him (see Psalm 139:7, 11–12).

And yet, “to us who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope that is set before us in the gospel, how unutterably sweet is the knowledge that our Heavenly Father knows us completely.”2 “He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). And his knowledge of us is personal, warm, compassionate and intimate. He knows our needs and desires, and delights to meet them. He knows our weaknesses and provides a way to escape temptation. He knows our sorrows and shares his joy with us.

Perhaps one of the starkest differences between the omniscient God and the ignorant gods is that, while messengers carried the good news of Saul’s death to their gods, the good news about Jesus Christ comes to us from God. Philistia’s enemy fell and their gods knew nothing of it. Our enemies have fallen and God not only knew of it but actually ordained and actively enacted that fall. God became a man in order to defeat the enemies that no other man could defeat: sin and Satan.

We can rejoice that, while the gods of this world “have neither knowledge nor understanding” but “walk about in darkness,” the God of the Bible is neither ignorant nor blind. But this is cause for rejoicing only if we are found in Christ. Ultimately, God’s thorough knowledge means that we must “give account” to him (Hebrews 4:13). He is the God “with whom we have to do” (KJV). That day of judgement will be a frightening time for the unbeliever, but a glorious experience for the believer. For now, our understanding of God’s omniscience should drive us to worship. As A. W. Pink says, “What a wondrous Being is the God of Scripture! Each of His glorious attributes should render Him honorable in our esteem. In apprehension of His omniscience we ought to bow in adoration before Him.”

  1. A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Carlisle: OM Publishing, 1961), 77–78.
  2. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 79.

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