Sovereignty and Free Will
The debate between sovereignty and freewill will probably continue until the Lord returns. This is part of the classic controversy between what is known as Calvinism and Arminianism (for a comparison of these two belief systems click here). Simply put, the issue is, does God’s sovereignty overrule people’s ultimate freedom to choose, or can there be freedom of choice while maintaining that God is sovereign? The traditional Calvinistic position maintains that complete freedom to choose negates God’s sovereignty. Therefore within reformed theological circles (i.e., those who espouse a Calvinistic theology) it is affirmed that people have choice, but that choice is ultimately controlled by God’s sovereignty (For a fuller explanation click here for Wikipedia on Calvinism or click on the link above). The classic Arminian position advocates that it is possible for human beings to have complete freedom of choice without impinging on God’s sovereignty (for a defense of this position click here to read Jack Cottrell’s article entitled, “Sovereignty and Free Will”).
Sovereignty and free will has been a hotly contested issue for many centuries and continues to be passionately debated within the church today (the popularity of books by John Piper, among others, has created renewed interest in this topic). It has been my experience that the topic of sovereignty and free will is often discussed in an atmosphere where each side pulls out their favorite scriptures supporting their viewpoint. It becomes a “prooftext” debate. I think a more productive approach is to look at this topic through the lens of a biblical book. Understanding the overall message(s) of a biblical book helps to fit the topic of sovereignty and free will within its biblical context. This post is not an attempt to solve the debate “once and for all,” but to look at how these ideas are addressed within the canonical context of 1&2 Samuel.
Sovereignty and Free Will in 1&2 Samuel
The Books of Samuel begin with a very strong statement regarding God’s sovereignty. Hannah’s prayer/song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 repeatedly emphasizes God’s power over His Creation and creatures. In the heart of this passage Hannah utters the following words: “The Lord kills and makes alive’ He brings down to the grave and brings up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up (1 Sam. 2:6-7). Chapter 2 continues by contrasting the wickedness of Eli’s sons (Hophni & Phinehas) with the godly growth of Samuel. After Hopni & Phinehas reject their father’s rebuke, we are told, “Nevertheless they did not heed the voice of their father, because the Lord desired to kill them” (1 Sam. 2:25). This statement reaffirms the words of Hannah’s prayer, “The Lord kills and makes alive.” Such strong statements at the beginning of 1 Samuel may lead the reader to conclude that the sovereignty of God determines a person’s destiny without any regard to their free will. However, this understanding is immediately balanced in the text by the words of an unknown prophet who comes to Eli and rebukes him and his sons for their disobedience (1 Sam. 2:27-36). In the midst of this prophetic utterance, the man of God enunciates a principle which holds sway over all of the characters mentioned in 1&2 Samuel. Speaking as the Lord’s mouthpiece he proclaims, “‘I said indeed that your house and the house of your father would walk before Me forever,’ But now the Lord says, ‘Far be it from Me; for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed‘” (1 Sam. 2:30–my emphasis). This significant statement demonstrates that the Lord’s decisions to “kill and make alive,” or “bring low and lift up,” are not arbitrary decisions, but are based on people’s response to Him. This pattern of lifting up or bringing low is evidenced throughout 1&2 Samuel (e.g., Eli and Samuel, Saul and David, David and Absalom), and is consistently based on the actions of people who either honor or despise the Lord. What follows is an excerpt from my book “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.” Sovereignty and free will are significant issues in the discussion of Absalom’s revolt. This excerpt (with a small amount of editing) is taken from the introduction to chapter 24 entitled, “Absalom: The Rebel.”
Absalom’s Rebellion in the Context of 1 and 2 Samuel (2 Sam. 13-20)
In 2 Samuel chapters 13–20 the “strong” house of David (2 Sam. 3:1–5) unravels in fulfillment of the prophetic word announced in 2 Samuel 12:10–11. There the prophet Nathan, who formerly had announced to David an enduring house (2 Sam. 7:11–16), proclaims that the sword will never depart from his house, and that God will also raise up “evil” from his own house.
Within this framework, the sinful actions of Absalom and others recounted in these chapters become viewed as the repercussions of David’s own sin with Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 11). Viewed from this perspective, the events are a divine judgment. David recognizes this in his flight from Absalom, when he rebukes Abishai over Shimei’s cursing and says, “Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the LORD has ordered him” (2 Sam. 16:11b). One writer has even entitled these chapters: “David Under the Curse” (Carlson, David the Chosen King)
Although David suffers greatly in these chapters, he is ultimately vindicated. While one might be hard-pressed to describe this as a “happy ending,” nonetheless it is a positive ending for David. Paradoxically then, David’s road becomes one of blessing and curse in these chapters. How is this to be explained? Furthermore, does David’s sin provide an excuse for Absalom? Can Absalom say in defense, “It’s not my fault; daddy made me do it”? Can he blame his rebellion on divine determinism which had decreed problems in David’s house? The story will clearly show that Absalom is responsible for his own decisions and bears the weight of his own guilt, but how does the text perceive this interlocking of divine sovereignty and free will?
I suggest the answer to all of the questions above is found in the introductory chapters of 1 Samuel (here I explore in more depth comments I have made when introducing this post). In a key statement made to Eli in 1 Samuel 2:30 God declares, “Those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed” (cursed). In Nathan’s rebuke of David he asks, “Why have you despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in His sight?” (2 Sam. 12:9). We have already noted that David accepts Shimei’s “cursing” because he believes it comes from the Lord (2 Sam. 16:11). The word used for “curse” in this passage is the same word translated “lightly esteem” in 1 Samuel 2:30. Thus, following the logic of 1 Samuel 2:30, the reason for David’s divine punishment (curse) in these chapters is because he has despised the Lord. Likewise, the sin of Absalom dishonors both David (the Lord’s anointed) and the Lord Himself, as we shall see (this is examined later in the chapter). As a result, Absalom experiences divine punishment too (2 Sam. 17:14b).
Judgment, however, is only part of the story. As we have noted, David also receives blessing from the Lord. This is explained by David’s humble submission to the Lord throughout the ordeal of Absalom’s revolt (e.g., 2 Sam. 15:30–31; 16:11). In fact, 2 Samuel chapters 15–18 alternate between David and Absalom, contrasting their actions and words just as 1 Samuel 2:11–36 shifts the focus between Samuel and Eli and his sons, comparing them. This contrast highlights David’s humility which results in his vindication, and Absalom’s ungodliness which results in his defeat.
In conjunction with 1 Samuel 2:30, Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam. 2:1–10) also provides the proper background for understanding Absalom’s revolt and its outcome. 2 Samuel 17:14b: “For the LORD had purposed to defeat the good advice of Ahithophel, to the intent that the LORD might bring disaster on Absalom,” is a direct reflection of Hannah’s words, “The LORD kills and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and brings up” (1 Sam. 2:6). Absalom’s self-exaltation resulted in the Lord bringing him down. Similarly, David’s low point was the result of his sin, but his final vindication was based on his humble response to the Lord’s discipline which, in turn, resulted in the Lord lifting him up (1 Sam. 2:7). Putting these two passages together from 1 Samuel 2 (vv. 1–10 and v. 30) helps us to understand the themes of divine sovereignty and free will and how these two seemingly contradictory principles work together. It also explains how David walks the road of cursing and blessing in these chapters. God is sovereign. It is he who “brings low and lifts up” but God’s actions are not arbitrary. They are based on the decisions of people who either choose to honor or despise him. (End of excerpt).
Hopefully this brief treatment of the David and Absalom story in 2 Samuel 13-20 provides an example of how sovereignty and free will work together to accomplish God’s purposes. For a further treatment of this subject see the rest of the chapter on Absalom in “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.”