11:34 No created being can know the mind of the Lord, except to the extent that He chooses to reveal it. And even then we see in a mirror, dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). No one is qualified to advise God. He doesn’t need our counsel, and wouldn’t profit by it anyway (see Isa. 40:13).
11:34 This is a quote from the Septuagint of Isa. 40:13–14, where God delivers His people by bringing them back from exile. In 1 Cor. 2:16 Paul quotes this same passage but attributes the title, “Lord,” to Jesus.
34. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?’ An echo of Isaiah 40:13, ‘Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or as his counsellor has instructed him?’ Cf. also Jeremiah 23:18; Wisdom 9:13.
34. Who has known the mind of the Lord? He begins here to extend as it were his hand to restrain the audacity of men, lest they should clamour against God’s judgments, and this he does by stating two reasons: the first is, that all mortals are too blind to take a view of God’s predestination by their own understanding, and to reason on a thing unknown is presumptuous and absurd; the other is, that we can have no cause of complaint against God, since no mortal can boast that God is a debtor to him; but that, on the contrary, all are under obligations to him for his bounty.
Within this limit then let every one remember to keep his own mind, lest he be carried beyond God’s oracles in investigating predestination, since we hear that man can distinguish nothing in this case, any more than a blind man in darkness. This caution, however, is not to be so applied as to weaken the certainty of faith, which proceeds not from the acumen of the human mind, but solely from the illumination of the Spirit; for Paul himself in another place, after having testified that all the mysteries of God far exceed the comprehension of our minds, immediately subjoins that the faithful understand the mind of the Lord, because they have not received the spirit of this world, but the Spirit which has been given them by God, by whom they are instructed as to his goodness, which otherwise would be incomprehensible to them.
As then we cannot by our own faculties examine the secrets of God, so we are admitted into a certain and clear knowledge of them by the grace of the Holy Spirit: and if we ought to follow the guidance of the Spirit, where he leaves us, there we ought to stop and as it were to fix our standing. If any one will seek to know more than what God has revealed, he shall be overwhelmed with the immeasurable brightness of inaccessible light. But we must bear in mind the distinction, which I have before mentioned, between the secret counsel of God, and his will made known in Scripture; for though the whole doctrine of Scripture surpasses in its height the mind of man, yet an access to it is not closed against the faithful, who reverently and soberly follow the Spirit as their guide; but the case is different with regard to his hidden counsel, the depth and height of which cannot by any investigation be reached.
The Inscrutable God
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
William Beebe (1877–1962) was a biologist, explorer, and author, and he was also a personal friend of Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), the twenty-sixth president of the United States. He used to visit Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill, his home near Oyster Bay, Long Island, and he tells of a little game they used to play together. After an evening of talk, they would go outside onto the lawn surrounding the great house and search the sky until they found the faint spot of light beyond the lower left corner of the great square of Pegasus. One of them would recite: “That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as the Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.”
Then Roosevelt would grin at Beebe and say, “Now I think we are small enough! Let’s go to bed.”
Our Smallness before God
I think of that story as we come to the last thoughts of Romans 11, following the apostle Paul’s exclamation of wonder at the unsearchable depths of the riches of the wisdom, knowledge, judgments, and paths of God in verse 33. He is still thinking of God and marveling at God. But Paul’s glance shifts, as it were, to the man who is doing the thinking and marveling, and he makes a contrast between God’s unsearchable grandeur, on the one hand, and the poverty of man’s small knowledge, on the other. In verse 34 he queries, “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” In verse 35 he adds, “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”
Each of these verses is a quotation from the Old Testament, which reminds us that this is Paul’s characteristic way of wrapping up an argument. We have already seen several examples of this in the letter, Romans 3:10–18, for example. Those verses contain Old Testament quotations that summarize Paul’s arguments for the depravity of the race developed in chapters 1–3. We have the same thing in chapters 4; 9; 10, and earlier in chapter 11. To give a contrary example, the apostle Peter argued by beginning with the text, then providing what we would call an exposition (cf. Acts 2).
The quotation we are looking at in this study is from Isaiah 40:13, but it may have elements of several other passages (cf. Job 15:8; Jer. 23:18).
“Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” Although drawn mostly from Isaiah, this was essentially the question put to Job when God interrogated him toward the end of that great Old Testament story. The bottom line is that no human being, however wise, has anything to offer to God in the matters of his knowledge and wisdom. The question fits Paul’s context beautifully, for it links up with his earlier reference to “wisdom” and “knowledge” in verse 33, though in reverse order. As F. Godet observed, “The first question contrasts the always limited knowledge of man with the infinite knowledge of God.… The second goes further, it bears on the relation between human and divine wisdom. It is no longer merely the discovery of the secrets of God by the study of his works which is in question, but some good counsel which man might have been called to give to the Creator in the organizing of his plans.”
As I say, Paul is still thinking about God in this verse. But here he also turns our attention from God’s attributes—the perfection of his wisdom, knowledge, judgments, and ways—to our limitations as measured by them. He tells us once again that we are not like God.
Isn’t it interesting that Paul should have to do this, especially now, at this point in our studies of Romans 11? You may recall the distinction I made earlier between God’s incommunicable attributes, those he does not share with us because he cannot, and God’s communicable attributes, which he does share with us. The latter category contains such attributes as we have been studying here: knowledge, wisdom, the ability to make plans and decisions, and the capacity to act. We understand what we are talking about when we say that God has these attributes or possesses these abilities, because we have them ourselves. We, too, know things, possess a measure of wisdom, make decisions or plans, and act on them.
But even in this area we do not measure up to God. In fact, our knowledge, wisdom, planning, and acting are so far from his knowledge, wisdom, planning, and acting that it is even less than the equivalent of comparing ourselves to the billions of suns in the great galaxy of Andromeda or to the many other galaxies. To put it another way, the only things we know, we know because God has known them first and has revealed them to us. Because we are so small, the knowledge we have is itself also pitifully small. Or to put it still another way, we have nothing to contribute to God in any area.
How Little We Know
The way we need to explore this is to look at that part of the biblical writings known as “wisdom literature,” particularly Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs. I begin with Job, because that book deals directly with the extreme limitations of our knowledge.
We know Job’s story. It is one of the great stories of all time. Job was a fortunate individual in many ways. He was wealthy; he had a wonderful family; he enjoyed good health. Moreover, he was a godly man. Even God called attention to Job’s character: “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job. 1:8). But within a very short time everything Job had was taken away from him, except his character. His goods were plundered or destroyed; his ten children were killed; and he was afflicted with painful sores that covered him from the soles of his feet to his scalp. He was reduced to abject and utter misery. He sat in ashes, suffering both within (in his soul) and without (in his body).
At this point Job’s three close friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, came to him to sympathize and offer counsel. The bulk of the book consists of their attempts to explain what had happened, followed by Job’s responses to their words.
To put it in our terms, what they were trying to explain is “why bad things happen to good people.” And by our standards they did pretty well at it. They rightly assumed that this is a moral universe of cause-and-effect events and that God, who has created the universe and who guides its destiny, is a moral God. Everything has a purpose, they argued, and because this purpose is God’s purpose, it must be good. Evil does not triumph. Virtue is rewarded. All this is entirely right, of course. In fact, if you were reading carefully, you will have recognized that these are the exact points I was making when I was speaking about the wisdom, decrees, and paths of God in the preceding studies.
What, then, was wrong with the counsel of Job’s friends? And why was God so unhappy with them?—as he reveals himself to be later (“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” [Job 38:2]).
The problem was not with their starting point or principles, for they were the very things that are revealed about the nature of reality in Scripture. Instead the problem was that these men, wise as they were, lacked sufficient knowledge to discern what God was doing. As the story points out at the beginning, God was waging war against the slanders and lies of Satan. Satan claimed that Job served God only because of what he got out of it, a standard utilitarian argument. God maintained that Job loved God because of who God was, regardless of what it might bring to him personally. Satan said, “Does Job fear God for nothing?… Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face” (Job. 1:9–11).
God allowed Satan to strike at Job’s possessions and family, but though Job was personally crushed by these disasters, Job worshiped God, saying,
Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.
Next Satan wanted to strike at Job’s health. “Stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face,” Satan said to God (Job 2:5). But when God allowed Satan to be the instrument of devastating physical affliction for Job, Job said to his wife, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”—and the text points out that “in all this Job did not sin in what he said” (v. 10).
Job’s friends knew none of this, of course. They had not the faintest idea of what was going on at the cosmic level. Therefore, although they had begun at the right starting place and had the right principles, what they actually had to say to Job turned out to be mere nonsense, which is why God rebuked them.
Moreover, notice the nature of God’s rebuke. Their problem was that they were not aware of the invisible, cosmic nature of this struggle. But when God rebuked them (and Job, too) for their ignorance, he rebuked them not because they did not know the invisible dimensions of the struggle—what was going on between himself and Satan—but because they did not understand or know even the things they could see. God chided them for being unable to explain the origins of the earth (“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” [Job. 38:4]). Scientists are not much closer to explaining that today. He chided them for being unable to explain or control the sea (“Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb?” [v. 8]). Today, with all our scientific advances we cannot even predict the movement of the sea’s storms accurately, let alone control either it or them. Chapter after chapter, God chides Job and his friends for their profound and extensive ignorance of all natural forces—light and darkness; rain, snow, wind; the intricacies of the heavens; animal instincts and behavior; the migration patterns of birds and fish; and countless other observable phenomena.
But here is the point: If these people could not explain what they could see, how could they hope to understand and explain what they could not see? Obviously, not at all. They could not contribute to God’s perfect knowledge in any respect. The only thing they could possibly do is what Job does at the end of the story—he shuts his mouth and admits his utter ignorance:
Then Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.’ ”
I have previously described the effect of our thinking about God and his “eternal decree” as (1) humility at our incomprehension and (2) awe before God and praise of him. We find both responses in Job’s final words, as well as in the closing section of Romans 11.
Fools, and Blind
The second half of verse 34 goes an important step beyond what I have been describing up to this point. I have been writing about our extreme lack of knowledge, which is what “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” refers to. But the next words are also significant, for they add, “Or who has been his counselor?” This part deals with wisdom and how little of it we possess.
I turn here to the Book of Ecclesiastes. This is a short book; it has only twelve chapters. Yet Ecclesiastes is a high point of the wisdom literature in the sense that it shows the limits of man’s earthbound wisdom, just as Job shows the limits of man’s knowledge. Ecclesiastes is essentially a sermon on one text: “ ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. / ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’ ” (Eccles. 1:2). As anyone can tell just by looking at the subheads in the New International Version, the preacher develops the text to make these points: (1) wisdom is meaningless; (2) pleasures are meaningless; (3) wisdom and folly are meaningless; (4) toil is meaningless; (5) advancement is meaningless; and (6) riches are meaningless.
But surely we don’t believe that, do we?
Haven’t we been saying that God is sovereign over the affairs of his creation, that he has a single supreme purpose in all he does, and that this purpose is a good purpose because he is a good God? Of course, we have. Then how are we to understand Ecclesiastes? Is this merely the last words of an embittered cynic, which we can completely discount? Some Christian leaders have taught that. One of them once told me, “You can never preach a sermon from Ecclesiastes.”
We know that is not correct, because “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful …” (2 Tim. 3:16). But how, then, is Ecclesiastes to be taken?
The answer is that this book shows us the limits and hence the folly of human wisdom apart from revelation. Here is the way J. I. Packer, who has done several helpful studies of Ecclesiastes, puts it:
Look (says the preacher) at the sort of world we live in. Take off your rose-colored spectacles, rub your eyes, and look at it long and hard. What do you see? You see life’s background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature (1:4ff.). You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control (3:1ff.; 9:11f.). You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to good or ill desert (7:15; 8:8). Men die like beasts (3:19f.), good men like bad, wise men like fools (2:14, 17; 9:2f.). You see evil running rampant (3:16; 4:1; 5:8; 8:11; 9:3); rotters get on, good men don’t (8:14). Seeing all this, you realize that God’s ordering of events is inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so (3:11; 7:13f.; 8:17 rv; 11:5). The harder you try to understand the divine purpose in the ordinary providential course of events, the more obsessed and oppressed you grow with the apparent aimlessness of everything, and the more you are tempted to conclude that life really is as pointless as it looks.
But once you conclude that there really is no rhyme or reason in things, what “profit”—value, gain, point, purpose—can you find henceforth in any sort of constructive endeavor (1:3; 2:11, 22; 3:9; 5:16)? If life is senseless, then it is valueless; and in that case, what use is it working to create things, to build a business, to make money, even to seek wisdom—for none of this can do you any obvious good (2:15f., 22f.; 5:11); it will only make you an object of envy (4:4); you can’t take any of it with you (2:18ff.; 4:8; 5:15f.); and what you leave behind will probably be mismanaged after you have gone (2:19). What point is there, then, in sweating and toiling at anything? Must not all man’s work be judged “vanity (emptiness, frustration) and a striving after wind” (1:14 rv)?
That is true, isn’t it? Apart from what God is doing in Jesus Christ and in our lives, the last part of which is at best only partially revealed to us, everything is indeed “meaningless.” There is more, of course. There is what God is doing, what he reveals. But before we can see those things, we need to see that there is no meaning in anything apart from them. One of the great proofs of our lack of wisdom is that we do not see even this fundamental point of earthly wisdom clearly.
Even Christians don’t. Otherwise, why would they spend so much of their time and energy working for things that do not satisfy at any significant level and, in fact, will never do so?
Why do they spend their time acquiring houses and cars and television sets and fine furniture, which will eventually depreciate and decay?
Why do they work for increasingly larger paychecks and bank accounts, which they will not be able to take with them to heaven when they die?
Why do they yearn for earthly recognition, which can vanish in a flash?
Why do we do these things? We do them because we have not learned even the rudimentary earthly wisdom of the Book of Ecclesiastes, let alone the infinitely more profound wisdom of the revealed counsels of God. Yet we presume to suppose that we can criticize God for what he is doing in our lives. We think that we could tell him how to do things better, if we only had the chance. What folly! What utter folly! We who think we are teachers need to learn again the first principles of the oracles of God.
Paul asks the Corinthians, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20). We need to learn that again. We need to hear again Paul’s implied rebuke as he wisely asks the Romans “ ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ”
The answer clearly is “no one.” Not you, not me. No one. Not one of us can contribute to the knowledge or wisdom of God in any respect.
Humility and Wisdom
So where does this leave us? Obviously, it is not intended to leave us in our folly. We are not called upon to be either ignorant or foolish. On the contrary, we are to trust God, work to develop our minds, and grow in true spiritual wisdom and understanding. How? Let me suggest these points.
- Learn that there is no true wisdom except in God. That is why Proverbs 9:10 says rightly, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, / and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” We can know because God is a God who knows, and we can acquire wisdom because God is a God of wisdom. But we will achieve neither unless we begin with him.
- Learn that even though you begin with God, you will never fully understand God and therefore you will never fully understand his ways. God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, / neither are your ways my ways” (Isa. 55:8). Moreover, since God’s thoughts direct God’s actions, clearly it will be his ways rather than yours that will be accomplished, for “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, / but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Prov. 19:21).
- Finally, learn to trust God and follow hard after him. This leads me to the wisest saying of all: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; / in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5–6). If you do not do that, your pitifully small knowledge and faulty wisdom will lead you eventually either to arrogance or despair. But if you acknowledge your ignorance and foolishness and learn to trust God, you will find that God will provide all the knowledge you need—you will find it in Scripture—and if you ask him, he will give abundant wisdom, too (James 1:5).
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1728). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Utley, R. J. (1998). The Gospel according to Paul: Romans (Vol. Volume 5, Ro 11:34). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.
 Bruce, F. F. (1985). Romans: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 6, p. 220). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (pp. 446–447). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: God and History (Vol. 3, pp. 1449–1456). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.