Near the end of Israel’s 40-year journey, Moses’ life was coming to a halt. Soon, Joshua would be appointed as the nation’s leader, and they would at last enter their land and find rest. You can imagine what the Israelites felt. Some were too young to remember the chains of Egypt—others too old to feel anything but weariness. But surely most of them felt some degree of tension and ambivalence. The God who was their king was a fierce defender, but He also bore a fierce wrath. The sense that they were unique was balanced by their sense of homelessness. Their victories at war were shadowed by their losses, like those brutally cut down by the Amalekites. The question that must have plagued many of them is the question that plagues anyone facing a trial: Why? Why had it been so difficult, so painful, for them to make their journey?
Why had it been so difficult, so painful, for the Israelites to make their journey?
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses gathers the people to remind them of their identity. He retells the story of the Exodus, reminds them of the law, and calls them to renew their commitment to a life of obedience. As he finishes this call, he offers a bit of advice: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). It’s a crucial reminder to God’s people, especially in the midst of trials. It’s also essential to our life with God. There is much that has been revealed, but so much of what’s left unanswered is unanswered on purpose. These “secret things” belong to the Lord.
Moses offers these words as an answer to the “why” of their suffering. To 400 years of slavery. To the innumerable frustrations along the journey—sickness, death, loss, quarreling, and heartache of all kinds. Why were they necessary? What do they mean? The answers belong to the Lord. It’s also revelatory of God, who both reveals and conceals Himself. He is present to Israel, but they cannot see His face. He has a name, but one that is cryptic—I Am Who I Am. He is visible as a cloud by day and fire by night, but His actual substance, His essence, and even His dwelling place all belong to this category of “secret things.”
It’s a gracious God who reveals Himself. The gift He gave Israel in the law truly did make them holy and set apart from their neighbors. It offered a picture of the “good life”—a better world where God is worshipped, where human dignity is protected, where parents are honored and neighbors respected. The law gave them a secure identity as God’s people, and these revealed things became traditions they passed down to their children, preserving them and fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham, even to this day.
The law offered a picture of a better world where God is worshipped, where human dignity is protected, where parents are honored and neighbors respected.
Yes, it’s a majestic and holy God who reminds us that there are yet “secret things.” It’s a marvelous tension: The God who reveals Himself in Scripture is at the same time both knowable and unknowable.
Humility and Mystery
We live in a time when people have the ability to wield almost god-like powers. There are extraordinary examples of this, like the ability to split the atom or map the human genome, and there are wonders so commonplace that we don’t notice them: MRIs, cell phones, laparoscopic surgery, supersonic flight. The advances in science and technology over the last few centuries are stunning, and we are capable of things that would have seemed miraculous to our ancestors.
Once humanity came across the tools of scientific discovery, nature opened up and seemed to disclose all of its secrets. A little aspirin can cure a headache. Bernoulli’s principle creates lift and enables a bird—or for that matter, an airplane—to fly. Sound waves can be recorded and reproduced over and over again by using radios, record players, CDs, and iPods.
In one sense, all of these achievements are part of the bigger picture of God’s creative glory. We are, indeed, fearfully and wonderfully made; we have an amazing capacity for knowledge and ingenuity. But on the other hand, these achievements have an ability to blind us, to fool us into thinking we’ve got the universe figured out. When we become confident that, through study and experimentation, there is an explanation for everything, it kind of becomes a default setting, and we approach all of life with that expectation—including religion.
This leads us to great trouble when it comes to the Bible and to God Himself. If we approach the Bible as we approach nature, we expect that—with enough study—it will open up for us and we will be able to solve all of its mysteries. The Bible, in this way, becomes a text to be mastered, and we embrace the illusion that everything within it can be categorized and comprehended.
But the Bible isn’t like the manual that came with your toaster. Nor is it like a scientific textbook. Instead, we’re told that it’s “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Notice that the Scriptures pierce us, judge us. When we approach the Bible—and most certainly when we approach God—we are dealing with power, depth, and wonder unlike anything else we’ve encountered. It is a “God-breathed” thing, and knowing that should inspire humility (2 Tim. 3:16 NIV).
Mystery, Comfort, and the Book of Job
Mystery doesn’t just humble us; it also offers a strange sort of comfort. In the life of Job, for instance, all of the man’s troubles—the loss of his family, wealth, and health—leave him miserable, and he waits for God to show up and provide answers for his suffering. And yet, when God does show up, He doesn’t provide the man with a single answer. Instead, in Job 38:2-11 (ESV), God offers a cascading series of questions and images:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?”
He goes on to offer example after example of the strangeness of creation: seas, snows, rain, oxen, ostriches, and more. Job is mute while God layers image upon image, immersing him in an ever-larger world.
When God finally shows up, He doesn’t provide Job with a single answer.
As G. K. Chesterton says of this passage, “God comes in at the end, not to answer riddles, but to propound them … Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”
This is the remarkable fact of the book of Job—God doesn’t answer a single one of His servant’s burning questions. He does not solve the mystery or make sense of it. Rather, He pulls the curtain of the world back wider, making Job feel smaller and smaller amidst the towering curiosities and powers that surround him. It is this—not the answers he’d hoped for and not the attempts of sense-making by his friends—that leaves Job, in the end, satisfied. Because there’s something else that comes with Job’s willingness to accept the mystery of his circumstances: It’s the embrace of God Himself.
It turns out that God was the answer, not the resolution of all of tension and mystery of suffering.
It turns out that the God in the whirlwind was the “answer” Job was seeking, not the resolution of all of the tension and mystery of his suffering. And what’s true for Job is true for us, too. Far more satisfying than having the answers to all of life’s questions is knowing and trusting the God who rules the cosmos.
Mysteries That Reveal Mystery
It is in the spirit of humility that we embrace mystery, whether we do so in the midst of sorrow or the mundaneness of ordinary life. A humble willingness to accept that “the secret things belong to the Lord” is part of our everyday experience as believers. The psalmist wrote in Psalm 131:1-3 (ESV):
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.
We take comfort in mystery like a child who takes comfort at his mother’s breast, knowing we belong to a world too large and too vast for us to comprehend.
The gospel is often referred to as a “mystery revealed,” but even that remains profoundly enigmatic. In the book of Romans, after Paul has given his readers 11 chapters of detailed exposition concerning God’s grace revealed in Jesus, he’s still able to say, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or became His counselor?” (Rom. 11:33-34).
This cry reveals a deep truth: The more profoundly we press into the person of God and the wonder of the gospel, the more we will be confounded by their mysteries. God’s Word and God Himself are wonders we behold, not subjects we master. Doing the latter will lead only to frustration.
To return to Chesterton, he offers an invitation to approach the faith like a poet. “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” May we live humbly enough to behold the mysteries of our faith, to press more deeply into the wonders of our God and His creation, and to find satisfaction not because we know all the answers, but because we know God Himself.
Illustrations by Armando Veve