The Certainty Idol

“Well, that’s what the Bible says, and if you don’t believe it, then you just don’t believe God.” How many times have we heard this sort of statement? How many times have we used a derivation of it ourselves? Are we so certain that we have God figured out so well that we can afford to make such statements? I am going to propose that we should not be so dogmatic in our assertions that our understanding of Scripture is the only correct understanding — but why? — Because we are potentially setting ourselves up for disappointment and are all too often guilty of creating a certainty idol out of our understanding of God.

So where do such statements go wrong? I could begin this by pointing out that the Bible was not written to a 21st century English-speaking Western audience (sorry KJV-only crowd). Most of us are at the mercy of English translations that do a great job but are prone to translator bias at times. Furthermore, we are at risk of misunderstanding the context of the text, the social situation, or the custom being described, but I believe the core issue runs even deeper than these cultural barriers (although they are certainly a factor). You see, even those who spoke Hebrew and lived in that ancient culture fell victim to the sin of certainty. One of the most prominent examples of this was Jewish messianic expectation of the first century. While the various sects of Judaism disagreed on numerous aspects of Scripture, they were close to universal in their expectation that God must usher in the messianic age by violently overthrowing the Roman government; the Scriptures were quite clear on the need for this bloodbath. Yet when God did send His Messiah to deliver Israel, it was the Romans who did the slaughtering. Looking back after witnessing the resurrection of Yeshua, the Apostles realized that these prophecies that they had previously understood to require violence against the nations ended up being fulfilled through Yeshua taking that violence upon himself and overcoming evil through God’s self-giving love and the power of the resurrection. This certainty of religious scholars of the day in believing that, according to Scripture, the Messiah must kill the Romans as opposed to dying a shameful death at the hands of the Romans became a major stumbling block to the Jews (1 Cor. 1:23). This erroneous certainty resulted in many not accepting Yeshua as the Messiah.

Trust in certainty above simple trust in YHWH is problematic. We train ourselves to have faith that is based on a certainty that the Scripture must be correct according to our understanding of it rather than trusting God even when things don’t make sense. This mindset is a dangerous position as it sets us up for disappointment and confusion when things don’t go our way, or naysayers come and point out Scriptures that conflict with our perception of what Scripture is saying. This certainty idol has led to an epidemic; people are leaving the church in droves over the perceived conflict between science and religion.  Within the Messianic world, things are also grim; too many people are rejecting Yeshua as the Messiah over perceived conflicts between OT prophecy and prophetic fulfillment in the NT. Does God really demand certainty in our understanding of Scripture? Is it imperative to have everything figured out to have a strong faith? Or is it possible that God is asking for us to trust in Him even during those times when things don’t quite make sense? I would point us to the Psalms to answer such a question.

I have to confess that Psalms is one of my favorite books in the Bible. One of the things that I love about it is the psalmist’s ability to destroy our idealized (and often unachievable) concepts of what religion should look like in real life. Just when we think we have proper prayer etiquette figured out, we come across Psalm 137:9 “How blessed will be the one who grabs your babies and smashes them on a rock!” Ouch, that sure shatters our idea of the Scripture being all nice and proper. Try getting the choir to sing that one during church service! The wonderful thing about this particular Psalm (which at first glance seems horrifying) is that it is not, in fact, necessarily advocating the murder of enemy infants – rather, it is about bringing everything to God in prayer, not just the nice stuff. Consider Psalm 88, a brutal lament by the psalmist asking God why He has rejected the author and hidden His face from him (88:14). Unlike most other laments, this psalm does not end with any statement of hope; despair reigns supreme. Certainly not what we picture as having trust in God. Yet this psalmist apparently trusted God enough that he was willing to let God know what he was really feeling deep down inside, rather than bottling up his fear, anger, hurt, and confusion and acting as though everything was okay. The Psalms are telling us “let it out! Give it to God! It’s okay to have emotions; there is Someone who will listen.” The Psalms teach us that it’s okay to bring our anger, our heartbreak, and even our doubts to God. He is there for us when we are in a crisis; He will listen.

Psalm 89 reflects one of those moments where the psalmist was struggling with doubt. He was certain God had promised something and yet he was experiencing the exact opposite. His certainty idol was being shaken to the core, and he lashed out in confusion. This psalm begins with an absolutely breathtaking praise of YHWH’s faithfulness,

I will sing of the covenant-loyalty of YHWH forever
To all generations, I will make known your faithfulness with my mouth.
Psalm 89:1

The psalmist then went on to repeat back to YHWH the words which the Lord had sworn in an oath, that God would establish David’s seed upon the throne of Israel forever (89:2-4). Next, the psalmist proceeded to exalt and praise the awesome power of YHWH (89:5-18) before returning to remind God of His covenant with David. The psalmist concluded this section with a stunning exclamation of the permanence of the covenant with the house of David, quoting YHWH’s own words back to Him:

“My lovingkindness I will keep for him forever,
And My covenant shall be confirmed to him.
So I will establish his descendants forever
And his throne as the days of heaven.
If his sons forsake My law
And do not walk in My judgments,
If they violate My statutes
And do not keep My commandments,
Then I will punish their transgression with the rod
And their iniquity with stripes.
But I will not break off My lovingkindness from him,
Nor deal falsely in My faithfulness.
My covenant I will not violate,
Nor will I alter the utterance of My lips.
Once I have sworn by My holiness;
I will not lie to David.
His descendants shall endure forever
And his throne as the sun before Me.
It shall be established forever like the moon,
And the witness in the sky is faithful.”
Psalm 89:28-37

So far so good, right? We have just read the black and white words of the text which give us certainty of YHWH’s absolute faithfulness to His covenant promise to always have a son of David on the throne, right? Buckle your seatbelts; it’s about to get ugly. What happens next is astounding!

Psalm 89 was composed at some point in time after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC.  The city had been wiped out, the Temple destroyed, and the Davidic king was no longer in power. As time progressed, it became clear that this was not just a temporary blip on the radar. Even after the Judaean exiles are allowed to return to their homeland, no Davidic king was enthroned. Israel remained a vassal state to the pagan nations surrounding her. The composer of Psalm 89 was living in this reality. His world was shaken; he had read the promises of the everlasting nature of the throne of David directly from the mouth of God; he was certain that God swore to the perpetual rule of a Davidic king from Jerusalem…yet it is not so. What does the psalmist do? He calls God a liar!

But You have cast off and rejected,
You have been full of wrath against Your anointed.
You have spurned the covenant of Your servant;
You have profaned his crown in the dust.
You have made his splendor to cease
And cast his throne to the ground.
You have shortened the days of his youth;
You have covered him with shame.
Psalm 89:38-39, 44

If calling God a liar wasn’t enough, the psalmist then goes on to accuse God of hiding and having created mankind for worthlessness (89:46-47). What is he thinking! Didn’t this psalmist know that this sort of accusation is not allowed? And what compiler permitted this Psalm to escape his notice and sneak its way into our Bibles? I am going to propose that such a distressing poem is in our Bibles to teach us a valuable lesson: God doesn’t want us to be certain, He wants us to trust Him. This psalmist learned that lesson. He had set up his certainty idol around the promise that God must always keep a man from the line of David upon the throne of Israel, but reality had crushed that idol—leaving the psalmist, and indeed many Israelites, in a world of confusion. God’s promise did not come through in the way that the psalmist believed it should have.

The manner in which this psalm ends is key to understanding the lesson to be learned from this painful encounter. The psalm does not end with an explanation as to why the promise of YHWH has apparently failed; it doesn’t offer an exegetical analysis of why the psalmist misunderstood God’s promises, it doesn’t even try to proclaim some spiritual or mystical understanding. Instead, it ends with a simple statement, “Blessed be YHWH forever! Amen and Amen” (89:52), a declaration of absolute and counterintuitive trust in YHWH. The psalmist’s world had been turned upside down; the Scriptural promises he was certain he could count on had failed, but that did not shake his trust in YHWH.

As believers in Yeshua, we look backward and understand that this covenant promise to the house of David was not cast off, but instead, was redefined. Yeshua was born into the lineage of King David, and the Gospel tells us the story of how Yeshua becomes king of the Jews and ultimately will be king over all the earth. This revelation enlightens us to something spectacular about our Scriptures; we don’t have to have them figured out for God to save us. God will bring about His plan of salvation regardless of our understanding of this plan and sometimes in spite of our lack of comprehension of His purpose. God doesn’t require us to have everything all worked out by the time He shows up to implement the plan, but He does ask us to trust Him when the plan starts to unfold, and it doesn’t go according to our plan.

I know what you are going to ask now, does this mean we should just stop studying and bury our heads in the sand? Absolutely not. I would be a hypocrite for saying such a thing as I spend much of my time digging deep into Scripture and teaching others what I have learned. The study of Scripture is absolutely vital for our spiritual growth and the growth of the people of God. But I can tell you from experience, the more you study, the more you realize that there is so much more you have to learn. Certainty is a stumbling block to the way of growth. What I am proposing is that we should be careful not to set up for ourselves a certainty idol when we search God’s Word. Proclaiming we know precisely what a text means and rejecting any other meaning is a recipe for disaster. Such practice will start us down the disastrous road of understanding God only through our personal interpretations of Scripture and will invariably result in conforming the Creator to our own image, which is idolatry. Worse, our faith will become brittle when confronted with any information that challenges our certainty idol. The end result is one of two scenarios: we will respond either with anger and accusation towards the confronting party, or our faith will begin to crack. We may, in fact, find ourselves lacking the trust in YHWH that overcomes life’s (supposed) contradictions. Instead, we might seek to control the narrative, demanding that God must conform to our understanding of Him. Is God that small that we can put Him in our little box and claim that He must act according to how we understand Him?

The root of idolatry is control. Don’t like the forecast? Carve yourself an idol of the god of the winds, placate it and worship it so that the weather will be favorable. Need to win a battle? Sacrifice to the god/goddess of war and your victory will be made certain. The actual heart of paganism lies in its degradation of deity; conforming God to our image rather than our being conformed to His image. This degradation is the very reason why YHWH makes it clear that we shall not form any image or likeness of Him. No idols whatsoever because as soon as we have one, we begin to think we can manipulate and control the Almighty. Most of us have no problem following this as an external command but sometimes struggle with the internal idolatry because it is often hard to discern. Job’s friend rightly shone truth into the lie of the certainty idol, “Can you discover the depths of God? Can you discover the limits of the Almighty? They are high as the heavens, what can you do? Deeper than Sheol, what can you know?” (Job 11:7-8). Certainty sets boundaries to your understanding of how the Almighty can act; it lays claim to an ability to fathom the depths of God. Certainty is most certainly an idol.

So, if we should avoid certainty, where does that leave us? As those blown about by every wind of doctrine? Of course not. It is essential to have strong beliefs that shape who we are, but we must be willing to let go of the need to die on a hill defending them when evidence presents itself to the contrary. The desire to die a martyr’s death over this or that issue can be, in and of itself, another powerful idol. When God’s Spirit moves and brings new understanding, sometimes we have to just trust in Him even if, especially if, we don’t completely comprehend the matter. Strongly-held theological beliefs are called “sacred cows” for a reason; the allusion is to the sacred golden cow that ancient Israel set up for themselves at the base of Mount Sinai. They were certain that YHWH needed an image to represent Himself to the nation, and thus attempted to limit Him to a certain geographical location and specific physical form—controlled and defined by the Israelites themselves. Our theological certainties can become sacred cows too—when we allow them to define God to us.

When questioned as to who was the greatest in Heaven’s kingdom (i.e., God’s rulership on earth), our master Yeshua responded that we would never be able to enter into living in God’s rulership unless we humble ourselves and become like a child (Matt. 18:1-6). Have you ever sat down and observed a little child? They are amazing creatures and I really never understood this verse until the Father blessed me with four young boys of my own. It is incredible to watch them play, learn, and grow in a worry-free state. They trust my wife and me completely. They don’t have everything figured out, they don’t understand all our rules, and they regularly need to have their worldview adjusted by us, yet they never doubt our love for them. They don’t worry about whether or not they are in or out of the family; they trust that we will provide them with everything they need, and they are more than willing to change their beliefs and behaviors with a little prompting. We are called to be God’s children, a people who trust in Him like a child trusts in a loving parent. It’s okay to be uncertain on matters Biblically related; it’s okay to have various opinions, it’s okay to struggle with God – after all, this is what it means to be Israel (Gen. 32:28). When someone presents you with an argument that challenges your worldview, it’s okay to wrestle with it and doubt your understanding of the text, as long as, like a child, you do not stop trusting in YHWH and His son Yeshua. Certainty idols will be revealed and crumble in our spiritual walk, but our God is bigger than our attempts to understand Him.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 3:5-6

O Lord of hosts,
How blessed is the man who trusts in You!
Psalm 84:12

Those who know Your name will put their trust in You,
For You, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You
Psalm 9:10

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