Does God not know certain things?
The verse I am examining today is once again not necessarily difficult, but it does raise a few questions – important questions. These questions have to do with issues such as: how much does God know? Most Christians will reply, ‘God knows everything of course.’ And I would concur.
But there are some passages which on the face of it seem to suggest that he might be lacking in knowledge in certain areas. This passage from Jeremiah 7:31 is a case in point: “And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.”
Two other times in this book we find quite similar things:
Jer. 19:4-6 Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind—therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.
Jer. 32:34-35 They set up their abominations in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
In all three cases some readers might be asking: Was the horrible reality of child sacrifice that God’s own people were even involved in something outside of God’s knowledge? Is the idea of divine omniscience not correct after all? Let me deal with those matters here.
First, let me mention that related to this is the issue of whether God has full and complete foreknowledge. Some minority theological positions have tried to argue that he does not. I recently dealt with this subject here: billmuehlenberg.com/2022/01/05/what-does-god-know/
In that article I sided with classical theism over against what is known as Openness Theism or Freewill Theism. These folks argue that God does not have knowledge of the future, and he does not have full knowledge of all events. And they take a passage like Jer. 31:7 to make their case.
But are they right? Let me point out that we have a few other similar texts in Jeremiah that might be something the openness theologians can appeal to. These include:
Jer. 3:7 And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it.
Jer. 36:3, 7 It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin. . . . It may be that their plea for mercy will come before the Lord, and that every one will turn from his evil way, for great is the anger and wrath that the Lord has pronounced against this people.
Do these sorts of passages mean that God really does not or did not know? Before I deal with the claims of the openness theologians, let me say one important thing: Whatever we make of the issue of God’s knowledge, we must not let that debate detract from what is being said in this passage.
The very thought of child sacrifice is absolutely loathsome. Whether it was burning children alive to some pagan god back then, or killing them in the mother’s womb today in the name of the ‘right to choose,’ it is completely abhorrent. And that is my take on this text: it is such a horrible and demonic sin that God had to use anthropological language to express his utter outrage over it.
Returning to our passage then, it is clear from the rest of Scripture that God was fully aware of child sacrifice and he had condemned it repeatedly. Here are some of the main passages on this:
Leviticus 18:21 You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
Deuteronomy 12:31 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.
Deuteronomy 18:10a There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering.
Ezekiel 20:31 When you present your gifts and offer up your children in fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you.
Ezekiel 23:36-39 The Lord said to me: “Son of man, will you judge Oholah and Oholibah? Declare to them their abominations. For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. With their idols they have committed adultery, and they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me. Moreover, this they have done to me: they have defiled my sanctuary on the same day and profaned my Sabbaths. For when they had slaughtered their children in sacrifice to their idols, on the same day they came into my sanctuary to profane it. And behold, this is what they did in my house.”
So these things most certainly had entered God’s mind. To talk of it ‘not entering my mind’ is a figure of speech to indicate just how repulsed God is by all this. As Michael L. Brown put it in his 2010 commentary on Jeremiah: “How could such a thing be? God never commanded it, nor did such a thought ever cross his mind, meaning he never intended that people commit such abominable acts, rather than meaning he never conceived of the possibility that people would be capable of such evil.”
Brown also has a four-page excursus on “Open Theism and Jeremiah’s View of the Foreknowledge of God.” In it he looks at verses that the open theists use to ‘prove’ limitations on God’s knowledge. These include verses that speak about divine disappointment or seem to speak about divine ignorance. He says this in part:
First, greater weight must be given to biblical statements that describe God’s essential nature and that boast of his omniscience (in particular, his knowledge of future events, as in Isa. 44:28-45:1; 46:9-11) than to “experiential” verses such as Genesis 22:12b….
Second, and conversely, the very language used in the many passages marshaled by open theists indicates that in a real way God experiences not only pain and joy but also hope and disappointment. In a real sense, his heart aches (cf. already Ge. 6:6), and he grieves over the destruction of his people….
The divine shock [of Jer. 7:31] is genuine, but not because of the “surprise element” as much as because of the horrific nature of the sins committed….
I suggest that the best way to balance the whole of the scriptural witness, neither negating God’s complete omniscience nor downplaying his “emotional” involvement with this world, is to recognize that God is able to enter into our situation and actually experience it as though he didn’t know the future. Thus his invitations, appeals, and entreaties are real, even if he knows his people will fail in the future, and his grief and even “disappointment” are real, despite his foreknowledge.
Quite right. And we get this same double-edged truth early on in the book of Jeremiah. The prophet is told two different things that may seem to be contradictory but are not. First, he is told to go preach to the people, urging their repentance in the face of coming judgment. Second, God tells him that the people will NOT listen! Yet he is to go and proclaim God’s word to them nonetheless.
God knew all about the diabolical horror of child sacrifice. Yet it was still shocking to him that his own people were involved in it. And as mentioned, it is the same today. The slaughter of millions of unborn children – even by ‘Christian’ parents – is no less reprehensible and evil. It too must be repented of and turned away from, and it too is something that God has not commanded, nor has it entered his mind.