What can we really know about God?
The study of God and his attributes is properly called “theology,” but it is not the same study as in a science classroom. The subject of our study is a person different from us in ways unimaginable. He doesn’t present himself as an object to be studied but as a Lord to be worshiped. We learn of him not through examination but rather through revelation and reflection.
It can be intimidating to open up a Bible and not know where to begin, but the table of contents hints at the first quality of God we may wish to discover. What might we conclude from the fact that the Bible’s longest book is an ancient hymnal?
The God of the Christian faith is worthy of praise.
In the songs of Israel’s praise, we hear the overtures of those of old who knew him best, even as they struggled to maintain a relationship with their God. The text takes the shape of poetry, not prose. Take, for example, the 21 verses of Psalm 145.
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:1–3).
In declaring, “Great is the Lord,” the psalmist offers us a first glimpse of God. He is exceptional and superlative. He is lofty, far above all the other persons we have known and subjects we have studied. He is worthy to receive worship. His greatness itself is great, “unsearchable” and beyond our comprehension. Knowing him is a daily journey of worship and adoration.
“One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, and I will declare your greatness. They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.” (Psalm 145:4–7)
Any tyrant can declare himself great, but God’s greatness reveals itself throughout his actions in history. His greatness is not a hollow compliment we offer but the result of our experience of him. His deeds are so great they require reflection and meditation. They are so expansive we have to slow down and take in what they actually include. As a result, it is often only years after an event that we look back and see God at work. This is why the generational praise of God is passed down from age to age. It is a reminder to step back and see the big picture.
“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.” (Psalm 145:8–9)
God’s greatness is revealed in his mercy. I love this part of the psalm because it contradicts everything our culture says about greatness. In our time, we are told you can be great, or you can be good. You can be in power over your enemies, or you can be merciful to them. But God is great because he is good; he is powerful because of his mercy. He is big enough to suffer wrong without being made less by it.
”All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your saints shall bless you! They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom and tell of your power, to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” (Psalm 145:10–13)
God’s rule over the cosmos reveals his greatness. God is not merely a clock-winding creator like deists might imagine. His kingdom - his rule and dominion over all things - extends to all of space and time. He is not an actor in our universe but the sustainer of every part of our universe. At no time in our existence have we ever stepped out of his domain. No atom or particle has ever escaped his binding law and providence.
“The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:14–16)
God’s greatness is revealed in his kindness to the weak. Again, the contrast with our modern nation of greatness is highlighted here. Great men become great by associating with other great men and receiving their praise. We pat each other on the back and laud our accomplishments, hoping that one more compliment might give us status enough to satisfy our craving. God needs no compliments from the great. Instead, he spends his time concerned with the small. He provides for those who cannot provide for themselves, which leads to the final element of his greatness in this psalm, which might be its greatest attribute yet.
“The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them. The Lord preserves all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy. My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.” (Psalm 145:17–21).
God reveals his greatness to us through his nearness to our lives. It is nearly inconceivable that a being whose chief characteristic is his greatness could also be near enough to notice my troubles. Great people in our society do not condescend to the lowly. They are too “great” to be bothered. But God is great because he can be bothered and is bothered. He genuinely cares for me, whose smallness should be lost in his greatness. He does not reduce his capacity to rule the universe by attending to my life. His resources are not squandered when he answers even my prayers. His greatness extends to the tiniest corner of his world and there he finds me and loves me.
“Great is the Lord and worthy of praise.” Any study of theology that does not begin with this premise is just idle talk and creative speculation.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.