Article of the Month
by Francis A. Schaeffer
One of the great hymns of the church is “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” which begins like this:
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
The phrase “hold me with thy powerful hand” has been a great comfort and blessing to God’s people down through the ages. But I would raise two questions about it: First, does the word hand used this way show primitivism in the Scripture? Does it demonstrate that the Bible is, after all, an ancient book which from an evolutionary perspective should be viewed as being old-fashioned in a very basic way? Second, is it just romanticism, merely a poetic expression that gives God’s people only emotional comfort?
God Is Spirit
The Bible says plainly that God is a pure Spirit and does not literally have a hand. That we are made in the image of God does not mean that God has feet, eyes and hands like ours.
Nor does God need a hand, for in the greatest of all acts, the creation of all things out of nothing, he merely spoke and it was (Ps. 33:9), the most dynamic and over-flowing short phrase in all of language. Psalm 148 has a parallel statement: “He commanded, and they were created” (v. 5). The whole Bible makes it plain that in this titanic beginning of all things, God who is Spirit created by divine fiat. He willed, he spoke and all things came into existence.
If God does not literally have a hand, then why does the Scripture use this expression? The answer is simple. God wants us to know him as personal. He wants to communicate to us in propositional, verbalized form the reality of his personality working in history. And how can he do this? By making use of the tremendous parallels between us finite men, created in God’s image, and God himself.
What do hands mean to us men? Hands equal action. The hands are that part of a man which produces something in the external world. We move always from our thought world outward. As men, we think, we have emotions and we will. The artist desiring to paint a picture, the engineer desiring to build a bridge, the house-wife desiring to bake a cake—each must do more than mere thinking and willing. Action must flow from the thought world of the inward man out through his hands into the external world which confronts him.
If a business letter must be typed, hands upon the typewriter produce it. If we are digging in our garden in the Spring or Fall, our hands hold the spade. If a poet wants to write a poem, his hand guides the pen. In warfare, the hand holds the sword. In each case, man projects the wonder of his personality—his thoughts, his emotions and the determinations of his will—into a historic, space-time world through the use of his body, and especially his hands.
So in order to communicate to us that he is a personal God who acts into space-time history, God uses the image of “the hand of God.” It is a familiar phrase, easily understood. But there is nothing primitive about this way of speaking. He uses this term which we know in order that we might understand exactly what he is saying. Nor does God use this expression in a poetic, romantic way merely so that we can feel better when we think of it. Rather, he is telling us an overwhelming yet basic truth: that he, without physical hands, can equal and surpass in space-time history all that we men can do with physical hands.
Now let us consider several ways God uses his “hand.”
The Hand of God Creates
As we have already mentioned, God uses his hand to create: “Hearken unto me, O Jacob and Israel, my called; I am he; I am the first, I also am the last. Mine hand also hath laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand hath spanned the heavens: when I call unto them, they stand up together” (Is. 48:12-13). In this tremendous picture, we see that the hand of God is no puny thing either in the past at the creation or in the present.
We have in Isaiah’s brief statement almost an entire theology of God, a whole system concerning who God is. First, he is transcendent. Because he is the Creator of the external world, he is not caught in it; he is above his creation. This stands in contrast to modern theology with its pure immanence. But, second, he is not transcendent in the sense of being the philosophic other or the impersonal everything. He is also truly immanent.
Though he is transcendent, he still can and does work in the universe. And it is important in a day like our own to understand this relationship between God and the machine. The universe exists because God made it, and he made it to work on a cause-and-effect basis. But it is not controlled entirely by the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. God has made the machine, but he can work into it anytime he wills.
On the one hand, then, cause-and-effect relationships exist. Without them there would be no science, there would be nothing we could know. It is not just arbitrary actions on the part of God that make the tree grow, the snow come, the rain fall. And yet, at the same time, God is not caught within these cause-and-effect relationships. He is not part of the machine. He has made it and can act into it anytime he wishes.
This theology of God and his relation to the world is emphasized often in Isaiah. For instance, we read in Isaiah 45: “I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded” (Is. 45:12). God has not made a little universe. He has made the wide stretches of space and has put there all the flaming hosts we see at night, all the planets, stars and galaxies. Wherever we go let us remind ourselves that God has made everything we see.
No matter what man eventually discovers the universe to be, no matter how much it contains or how great its stretch, this man must know—that God made it all. And not only did God make it all, but he is present to work in any part of it at any time he wishes. There is no place in the far-flung universe where the hand of God cannot work.
The entire Old Testament cries out that God is not a localized God, not a God of one part of the land, nor a God who dwells only in the temple, nor a God who is carried in the box of the ark. He is the God who dwells in the heavens and does what he wills. “Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands,” the psalmist affirms (Ps. 102:25).
The Hand of God Preserves
In addition to declaring that God is the Creator of the entire universe, the Bible also makes clear that he did not create the earth and then walk away. His hand also operates to preserve his creation, both conscious and unconscious life: “That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good” (Ps. 104:28). And again, “The eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing” (Ps. 145:15-16).
Nothing lives in a vacuum. Everything in the world is preserved by God on its own level. Machines, plants, animals, men, angels—God preserves each one existentially, moment by moment, on its own level. Can we use our hands to work in the external world? God works in the external world.
An antiphonal doxology in the psalms praises God for being a worker in the creation he has made:
O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good:
The succeeding verses praise God for specific actions. One is that God “brought Israel out from among them [the Egyptians]. . . with a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm” (vv. 11-12). Not just a generalized statement about preservation, this mentions a specific event—the Jews’ deliverance from Egypt. Praise is being given here because God is a worker in the creation he has made. The Jews always looked back to this work that God had done in space and time, and therefore they were linked to something that was tough enough to bear the weight of life, for they knew that God was not far away. Their affirmation was not just a poetic expression. Since God had acted in past history, the people knew they could trust him for the future.
After God had brought many plagues upon Egypt, the court magicians had said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God” (Ex. 8:19). During the earliest plagues, the magicians undoubtedly had thought that these might be chance occurrences or that by using the power of the demons they themselves would be able to duplicate the plagues. But as they watched the increasing horror of the plagues, these magicians came to another conclusion: This is more than chance, or, to speak in modern terms, this is more than the machine, more than merely cause and effect in a closed system. They concluded that there was a God who was acting in history. They admitted, “This is the finger of God.”
God’s acting in history is also portrayed forcefully in the giving of the Ten Commandments soon after the Jews left Egypt. The scene is described this way: “And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18). God took two blank tables of stone (we are not sure what they looked like; we think we do because of the way the artists have painted them for so many centuries, but we really do not) and then, either gradually or suddenly, carved on them the words he wanted there.
If Michelangelo had wanted to chisel words on these tables, he would have placed the tables in his studio, fastened them properly, taken his favorite hammer and chisel (which he would have made lovingly with his own hands, as sculptors did in those days) and worked away. With one hand holding the chisel and the other the hammer, he gradually would have produced words on the stone, and beautifully carved ones, I am sure. Out of his own thought world whatever he would have wanted to put on the tables would have appeared—his personality would have flowed through his fingers into the external world.
And that is exactly what God did on Mount Sinai. As Moses looked at the tables of stone with nothing on them, words appeared. But God did not need physical hands or a chisel. He who spoke all things into existence had only to will, and, in the historic, space-time world, words appeared on stone.
God speaks to men through verbalization, using natural syntax and grammar, as when, on the Damascus road, Jesus spoke to Paul in the Hebrew tongue. He did not use a “heavenly language.” Both on the Damascus road and on Mount Sinai, God used regular verbalization—and the syntax was good, let us be sure. And both events affirm, let us stress again, that God is able to work into the machine any time he will.
Here is the distinction we must see between existential theology, Greek thought and Jewish thought. Modern existential theology says, “Truth is all in your head. You must make a leap, completely removed from the common things of life.” The Greeks were tougher than this, for they said, “If you’re going to have truth, it has to make sense.” If a man would insist, as modem man does, “I will believe these things whether they make sense or not,” the Greek philosopher would answer, “That is foolish. A system which is internally inconsistent is unacceptable.” So the Greeks were better than modern man in his modern theology.
But the Jews were stronger yet. The Jews said, “Yes, truth must fit together in a system that is non-contradictory, but it must do something more. It must be rooted in the space-time stuff of history.” The Jews throughout their history affirmed that God’s hand had done a great thing in releasing them from Egypt. Therefore, they were not shaken in the midst of trial because they knew what God could do in the external world.
The Hand of God Chastises
But God’s action in the external world can be even more personal than it was when he led the Jews out of Egypt. We Christians should be grateful for that event, which, since we are spiritual Jews, is part of our history. It should be our environment to offset the environment of our own day when men are seen as only machines. But God can be even more personal. He can and does say, “I use my hand for you.”
One way God expresses his fatherly care for his children is in loving chastisement. How do parents spank their children? They use their hand. Similarly, when one of his children needs chastisement, God brings down his hand.
In Psalm 32:4, for instance, David says, “For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me,” or, in other words, “You have chastened me.” In Psalm 39:10, David cries, “Remove thy stroke away from me: I am consumed by the blow of thine hand.”
This chastisement was not merely psychological, another important truth for our generation to understand. The hand of God is pictured as working not in the thoughts of men but into the external world. He uses the word hand so that we have perfect communication: That which we use our hands to do, he, being a personal God, accomplishes without hands. One such action is chastisement.
The chastisement of David for his sin with Bathsheba was not just psychological. In this and in other pictures of chastisement in the Bible God did not do something inside the heads of men. Rather, in his loving care for his people, he chastened them through external situations. God worked into the machine not only to achieve the mighty exodus from Egypt, not only to carve his law upon the rock, but also to show love to his people by chastening them. God is not far off, acting only in the great moments of history; he is acting into our own personal history in a loving way as well.
The Hand of God Cares for His People
God does not apply his hand only to chastise. He uses it to care for his people, too. The human hand has an amazing quality that nothing else has: tremendous efficiency of strength and yet total gentleness. (The nearest thing to it, incidentally, is an elephant’s trunk, but that does not come very close!) A hand is extremely strong for its size, and yet it can be most gentle. There is nothing as gentle as a lover’s hand. Thus, the hand of God can shake the world, but it can also express tenderness and love toward his individual children.
Sometimes we act as if God is the philosophic other or the impersonal everything, in short, as if he is only a word. The psalmist describes the wicked man who really believes this: “He hath said in his heart, God hath forgotten: he hideth his face; he will never see it” (Ps. 10:11). But the psalmist follows this with a contrasting statement: “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up thine hand” (Ps. 10:12). With these imperatives, he is saying to God: “Act in the world to show people you exist. Show them that you can work in history, that you are not far off.” Then he cries, “Lift up thine hand: forget not the humble. Wherefore doth the wicked contemn God? He hath said in his heart, Thou wilt not require it. Thou hast seen it; for thou beholdest mischief and spite, to requite it with thy hand: the poor committeth himself unto thee; thou art the helper of the fatherless” (Ps. 10:12-14). Let us never forget that in our poor world we are all fatherless, some more obviously so than others. But since God is immanent we can all cry to him.
Another psalm plays on the word hand: “My times are in thy hand: deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me” (Ps. 31:15). The first clause of this verse, “My times are in thy hand,” expresses the realization, as up to date as tomorrow’s theological and philosophical discussion, that we live in a universe which we can speak of as personal, one which does not trap God in its machinery.
The second clause compares the hand of God to the hand of men. Men can take their hands and slap me across the face; they can tie me down and beat me. “O God,” the psalmist asks, “I often fall into the hands of men, but, O God, I put myself into your hand in the midst of the present space-time history.”
Psalm 37 expresses the same confidence in God’s care: “Though he [the righteous] fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the LORD upholdeth him with his hand. I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread” (Ps. 37:24-25). The psalmist sees, as he reviews the past, that the Lord holds his own in his hand. This is not just a psychological projection, a blind leap in the dark, an upper-story experience which is not open to verification. It is the very opposite. We can look into the world and see God acting for his individual people through the might of his hand. A beautiful perspective, which suddenly changes the world. Instead of living in the modern consensus, surrounded by the impersonal, I live in a personal environment and am more than a speck tossed to and fro by impersonal chance.
But don’t the wicked often do well, too? Don’t the affluent wicked number in the millions today? The psalmist wrestled with this: “But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped. For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps. 73:2-3). But he reached this conclusion: “So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee. Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? ... God is ... my portion forever” (Ps. 73:22-26).
In the last clause of this quote, we see that the psalmist knows something else about God’s care for his children: It does not end at death. It carries them into a future beyond death. The affluent wicked will perish, but God will act on behalf of his child not only now but forever.
And as I raise my eyes and look at the environment surrounding me, it looks different. I live in a personal world, and God is dealing with me not for a few short years but forever. And I can make different value judgments as I look at the world because I understand that reality does not exist only between birth and death. A personal God is acting in a true history that goes on forever.
Not only does God care for his people throughout all time, he also can express his love for them no matter where they are located: “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me” (Ps. 139:9-10). Conversely, the lost man cannot make his own universe even in hell, for “if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there” (Ps. 139:8). And this, I suppose, is the center of the hellishness of hell, that the rebel cannot make his own universe even there. But the same thing holds true for the people of God. As a child of God, I cannot go anywhere where God is not present to hold my hand.
In Psalm 143, David muses on God’s working in history: “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all thy works; I muse on the work of thy hands” (Ps. 143:5). And he sees that on the basis of God’s past activity he himself can do something in the present, existential moment: “I stretch forth my hands unto thee: my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty land” (Ps. 143:6). David paints a marvelous picture here. As a person looks back at God’s actions in history and makes this his own environment, then he can have a positive reaction in this existential moment: As God’s child, he can raise his hands in personal confidence. This is the walk of the Christian.
Why does the boy out hiking with his father reach out his hand when they come to a slippery place? He does it because in the past his father has faithfully taken his out-stretched hand, and they have walked over the slippery trails together. This portrays the Christian walk with God, and the picture is beautiful. I raise my hand to my Father in personal relationship, and then walk with him hand in hand.
The Hand of God Provides Security
We can understand even better now why the psalms praise God:
The sheep of his hand! Is that a strange expression? Not at all. At least it should not be strange by this time. It is the shepherd’s hand that guides the sheep, the shepherd’s hand that takes the crook to rescue the silly sheep and the rod to guard against the wolf that chases the sheep. And we are God’s sheep for whom he acts in history.
God has made us a promise: He is committed to work in history for us his sheep. Being his sheep is not just pie in the sky, or a better leap than some other leap, or the relief we get from using evangelical God-words. All these are a kind of blasphemy. That we are his sheep means he works in the external world on our behalf.
Jesus uses the image of the shepherd’s hand in exactly the same way: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall anything pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). Here we see the tremendous fact that the second Person of the Trinity, because he is deity and because of his finished work on Calvary, can say, “When you become my sheep, I will hold you in my hand.” The hand of gentleness and power will hold us securely. In order to bring home this truth with even greater force, he even repeats it, making a couplet out of it: “My Father, which gave them to me, is greater than all; and nothing is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:29).
So we are informed about this titanic security of being held in the hand of the Son and in the hand of the Father. Nothing is able to pluck us out, for our Father is greater than all. Without a doubt, when Jesus said this he was not merely using a figure of speech but was fitting his statement into the whole Jewish mentality of a space-time reality based on the expression “the hand of God.” He who is able and does work in the machine of the universe of the external world loves us and will work in the universe to protect us, to chasten us when we need it for our care. Nothing is able to pluck us out of God’s hand.
The Hand of God Invites
The Jews understood that all these statements about the hand of God were being said in contrast to all the other gods that men have made. The psalmist says that these other gods are not like the living God: “They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat” (Ps. 115:7). Whether a god is made of stone, wood, gold or silver, or whether it is a projection of the mind of modern men (who make their gods merely in their thoughts), the Bible says there is a great distinction between it and the living God. Such a god (that is, an idol made of stone, wood, etc.) has a hand but cannot do anything with it. He has feet but never takes a step, a mouth and throat but never says a word.
But the true God is not like this. He does not literally have hands, as an idol does, but he is able to work into history any time he wills. He does not have feet, but he will be wherever we need him. Without a mouth he is able to do what men do with theirs, that is, to communicate through verbalization; and he has given us his propositional communication in the Bible.
And through that communication the hand that creates, preserves, chastises, cares for people and provides security, does something else—it invites. God said regarding the Israelites, “I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walketh in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts” (Is. 65:2). God invites but the rebellious walk in their own thoughts rather than heeding this invitation.
Spreading out one’s hands in invitation is a natural gesture. If you watch any natural speaker, he will use it without ever having been taught it. When giving any kind of invitation, he will use his hands. “I do the same,” God says. “I stretch out my hands to you. I am constantly extending a sweet invitation, but you hard-hearted and rebellious men do not listen to it.”
So if you are a non-Christian, I would say to you, Will you respond to the invitation of the outreached hands of God? Will you give yourself to the God who is there, the God who has acted and is acting in history? And I would urge Christians also to remember this invitation. Much of the time we, too, are rebellious people. Aren’t we ashamed that even though God stretches out his hand to us day by day we so often turn away?
God’s invitation is not a gesture made only now and then. Look at all the verification that God’s hands are at work. Look over all God’s works in history. Those of you who are children of God, look back in your own personal life and see what God has done. Reach back beyond that into the flow of history. And then remember: The acts of God’s hand are a constant invitation for you to come to him, to stop being rebellious and to have him as your real environment.
Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer was widely recognized as one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the day. He was the author of twenty-two books which have been translated into twenty-five foreign languages, with more than three million copies in print.
Dr. Schaeffer had lectured frequently at leading universities in the U.S. and abroad. With his wife, Edith, the Schaeffers founded L’Abri Fellowship, an international study center and community in Switzerland with branches in England, The Netherlands, Sweden, and the U.S.
Among Dr. Schaeffer’s most influential books are The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, and The Mark of the Christian. His two most recent books — How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (written with Dr. C. Everett Koop) — have also been produced as major film series. Whether in books, films or the work of L’Abri, Dr. Schaeffer proclaimed a common theme — the uncompromising Truth of historic, biblical Christianity and its relevance for all of life.
This article is taken from his popular book, No Little People, pp. 27-41.
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