How do you respond to Isaiah 45:7/Lamentations 3:37–38?

The Lord says,“I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7)

“Who can command and have it done
if the Lord has not ordained it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:37-38)

Calvinists often argue that passages such as these attribute both good and evil to God’s sovereign hand (see also Amos 3:6). Some non-evangelical scholars argue that this conception of God represents an early stage of religious development where Yahweh was viewed as morally ambiguous. Only later, they argue, did Yahweh become “all holy” in the eyes of the Israelites and did evil get attributed to Satan and/or other free agents.

In my estimation, the conclusion of the non-evangelical scholars that God is morally ambiguous if he originates both good and evil is irrefutable. Calvinists escape this conclusion only by the mere assertion that it is not so. In their view good and evil originate from God “in such a way” that God remains all good. I frankly find it impossible to ascribe any meaning to the words in the previous sentence. What does it mean to say God is “all good” if it doesn’t rule out the possibility that he could do evil?

Fortunately, when read in context, neither text supports the view that God is morally ambiguous. The Isaiah passage is addressing the future deliverance of the children of Israel out of Babylon (Isa. 45:1–6). As a number of scholars have argued, the “light” and “darkness” of this passages refers to “liberation” and “captivity” (as in Isa. 9:1; Lam. 3:2). The “weal” and “woe,” or “prosperity” and “disaster,” refer to Yahweh’s plans to bless Israel and to curse Babylon. In the words of Terrence Fretheim, this language:

is not cosmic in orientation, but language typical in the prophets for specific (historical) divine judgments….God’s “creating” here is not ex nihilo, but action which gives specific shape to a situation of historical judgment.

Hence he concludes, “no claims are made that God is the all-determinative actor in this (or any other) situation.”*

Similarly, if read in context, Lamentations 3:37–38 does not suggest that Yahweh causes or ordains evil. Indeed, four verses earlier the prophet teaches us that God “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (Lam. 3:33). This passage is not concerned with God’s cosmic sovereign activity; it is specifically addressing prophecy. Both “good and bad” prophecies (viz. prophecies about blessings and disaster) come “from the mouth of the Most High.” Jeremiah is saying this to confront people who only want to believe that prophecies about blessing are from God.

As much as it grieves the Lord (cf. vs. 31–33), he is prophesying judgment on Israel because “[t]he prisoners of the land [a]re crushed under foot” and “human rights are perverted” (v. 34). Far from suggesting that good and evil are part of God’s sovereign plan, the passage highlights God’s unequivocal holiness in coming against evil as something that he does not in any sense will!

Notes
*T. Fretheim, “Divine Dependence on the Human: An Old Testament Perspective,” Ex Auditu Vol. 13, 1997, 6–7. See also F. Lindstrom, God and the Origin of Evil: A Contextual Analysis of Alleged Monistic Evidence in the Old Testament, trans. F. H. Cryer, ConBOT 21 (Lund: Gleerup, 1983), 178–99. See also G. Boyd, God at War, 149f.

On Lamentations 3:37–38 and Amos 3:6, see Lindstrom, Origin of Evil, 199–236; See also G. Boyd, God at War (IVP, 1997), 150–52.

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