David was 30 years old when he began to reign over Israel. The latter half of that 30 years was spent trying to keep his distance from king Saul, the previous king of Israel, who was out to kill him. In this musing, I concentrate on the theological implications of a battle between David and the Philistines (or, better, God and David versus the Philistines), which happened early on in his reign over Israel. Open your Bible to 1 Chronicles 14, starting with verse 8:
“When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over Israel, they went up in full force to search for him, but David heard about it and went out to meet them. Now the Philistines had come and raided the Valley of Rephaim; so David inquired of God: ‘Shall I go and attack the Philistines? Will you deliver them into my hands?’ The LORD answered him, ‘Go, I will deliver them into your hands.’ So David and his men went up to Baal Perazim, and there he defeated them.”
- 1 Chronicles 14:8-11a
I. A puzzle
We have deep puzzle on our hands: God promised David victory over the Philistines, yet David still had to fight. What is puzzling about this is that the most natural way of explaining God’s promises make David’s actions seem superfluous, and the most natural way of explaining David’s need to fight make God’s promise to give him victory superfluous.
Typically, when we talk about God’s promises, we take them to hold regardless of what we do. For instance, God promises that the good work He began in any given Christian believer, He will bring to completion (Philippians 1:6). Since it is a promise, we reason, it legitimately does not matter what we do—God will make it happen. Accordingly, the same goes for David.
We reason: God promised David victory over the Philistines. Of course, what God says will happen must happen! So, even if David forgot his sword, or forgot to get encouraged by the prophet Nathan, or even didn’t show up for battle but slept instead, God would have given him victory. Hence, according to this line of reasoning, the actions David took towards victory are superfluous in light of God’s promise to him.
Interestingly, we can give a different, though equally compelling, line of reasoning for the reverse conclusion. Reality check: our actions matter. We know that what happens in this life is (in part) dependent on what we do. There is a natural order to life. E.g. You talk back to your momma, momma gets mad and sends you to your room (or worse, if papa is home). You drop a brick on your toe, you feel pain. Examples abound. Accordingly, we can only imagine what David had to do to win against the Philistines, even after God said “Go, I will deliver them into your hands.” He probably had to talk to the prophet Nathan for encouragement and discernment. He had to bring his sword to battle. He had to whack that one Philistine in the jaw. He had to duck for cover when arrows were flying at him. He had to do all of these things. And we know that if he had not done them, he would not have won. Plain and simple.
To summarize, the puzzle is this. We know two things: (a) God’s promise to David that he would win could not have failed, and (b) David’s actions were essential to his victory. How on earth can we hold onto both at the same time? Some theologians say we simply can’t. That is, (a) and (b) are contradictory.
II. Resolving the puzzle
But I submit to you that both are true in the fullest sense. In order to see how, let me make a few remarks about the pitfalls of each line of reasoning, starting with the second about how our actions matter. There is no denying that our actions matter in this life. But the argument overlooks all the things that happened leading up to David’s victory, which were outside of his control. Indeed, he had control over whether he wacked that one Philistine in the jaw. Needless to say, he had little or no control over whether that Philistine would bring his axe to battle, or what the weather would be like, or how much sleep his men got, how much adrenaline was pumping through their veins, whether the leader of the philistines had a blistering head-ache before and during the battle, among many other things. Surely, then, even if David’s actions were quite crucial to his victory, God was taking care of all of the things that were outside of David’s control. God was busy orchestrating the world in such a way that David’s actions had the effect needed for his victory.
Now, take the first line of reasoning. Dealing with this sort of argument will be a bit more tedious, so brace yourself. The issue lies with the inference from (i) to (ii):
(i) What God says will happen must happen.
(ii) If David had done different things than he in fact did before or during the battle (e.g. sleeping in, missing the rally before the fight, telling his men to stand down, etc.), God would still have given him victory.
I contend that even if (i) is true, (ii) might still be false (which is why (ii) does not follow from (i)). Understanding exactly what (i) means will help us see why (ii) need not follow from it. The key to understanding (i) is found in what that pesky little word ‘must’ means.
Usually, ‘must’ gets an epistemic interpretation or a deontic interpretation. On a deontic interpretation, ‘must’ means something close to should or ought. When someone says “Joe, you must not hit your brother with his shoes again, or else”, the word ‘must’ gets interpreted deontically. It is clear that the ‘must’ in (i) does not get a deontic interpretation (It does not mean something close to “What God says will happen ought to happen”—albeit true).
Whenever a philosopher says the word ‘epistemic’, think having to do with knowledge. So ‘must’, if interpreted epistemically, means something close to “it is guaranteed by what we know”. If you say, for example, ‘It must be raining in Moscow’, you mean something like our knowledge guarantees that it is raining in Moscow (Or, more technically, all the possibilities compatible with our knowledge are ones where it is raining in Moscow). ‘must’ in (i) should be understood epistemically. According to this interpretation, (i) means something like “Whatever God says will happen, He knows will happen.” (i) is absolutely true as understood in this way. But does (ii) follow from it? No, it does not. For even if God knows that event E will happen, it does not follow that no matter how things went down, E still would have happened. An analogy will help here. Compare God’s knowledge of what will happen to a perfectly reliable barometer, a device that tells you what the weather will be like. The barometer predicts the weather (with 100% accuracy) but it does not necessitate the weather.
Say it will rain in New Jersey. The barometer predicts that it will rain in New Jersey. But it is still true that had those dark clouds taken a very different path, a path that avoids New Jersey, it would not have rained. God’s knowledge of the future is very much like the barometer. They both perfectly predict what will happen, but neither necessitate what will happen. God knew that David was going to win the battle. No doubt, this ensured that David was going to win, but this does not mean that, no matter how things could have gone, David would have won. Indeed, there are ways things could have gone where David did not win. Things could have gone like this: God says to David, “David, you are not going to win.” In that situation, David would not have won. This means that even though God knew that David was going to win, David was not going to win regardless of what he did.
These responses pave the way for how we can reconcile the idea that (a) God’s promises must always hold, and the idea that (b) David’s actions were essential to his victory. First, we learned that there were many circumstances outside of David’s control that God took care of. Then we learned that God knew exactly how David was going to respond to those circumstances. He knew that David would respond in a way that resulted in his victory.
God knew exactly how David would respond in any given circumstance. God knew that had He put this particular Philistine on this part of the battle field, then that Philistine would have stepped out with his left foot first and ran after David and swung his axe way to hard at David. By swinging too hard, the Philistine would lean too far forward and have trouble getting upright again. And God knew that this would put David in a perfect position to smack that Philistine in the jaw. And God knew that David would take the opportunity. This is only a small part of the whole battle. But the basic idea is there: God orchestrated all the circumstances that David could not control in such a way that, given how God knew David would respond to them, victory would be guaranteed. Put more simply, God’s promise of victory was conditional on what He knew David would do. It is this that resolves the tension between (a) and (b). God’s promises hold because he takes care of the things that David cannot and works things out so that David’s responses yield victory; David’s actions still matter because they play a role in bringing about victory.
All the same goes for many of God’s promises to us. God’s promise to defeat the enemy, Satan, is conditional on what He knows his children will do to stop him. God’s promise to sanctify you, to bring the good work he started in you to completion, is conditional on what He knows that you will do. But the key thing to see is that God wants to partner with us, just as He partnered with David.
Indeed, all of life—I repeat, all of life—is a battle that rages over our own souls and the souls of others. For us to win is for our souls along with everyone else’s to be in submission to our Lord. This means that when you are studying for a test, playing a video game, reading a book, serving at your Church, going to sleep early, or whatever, God wants to work with you to draw you (and others) nearer to Himself. Indeed, God wants partner with you in every aspect of your life.
All this philosophy stuff has actually given rise to worry in me. I do not think I have ever been worried about the philosophical implications of something, except until I thought through my solution to this puzzle. Honestly, the solution to this puzzle scared me. The fear is this: how can I possibly know the things that God knows I must do in order for me to gain victory? I might be faced with a decision to do X or not-X, where, as far as I can tell, it does not matter whether I do X or not. But then the worry arises. Well, maybe doing X really is essential to my victory in a certain area of my life. How could I ever know?
To worry about such things is to miss the point about God’s promises. The point is that I do not need to know those things. God’s promise of victory surely does hold regardless of what I know. Indeed, David did not need to know that smacking the philistine at a certain time turned out to be essential to his victory. Rather, here is what is important: David fought with all his heart, and trusted that God would arrange his circumstances so that what he in fact did would result in victory. David put it better: ‘”As waters break out, God has broken out against my enemy by my hand”’ (1 Chronicles 14:11; emphasis is mine).