Throughout the course of our entire life we must often repeat King David’s utterance: “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains, O Lord; Thy judgments are a great deep” (Psalm 36:6). This depth is illustrated in the Bible in the example of the two high-ranking servants of the Egyptian Pharaoh: the cupbearer and the caterer. Both were servants of the same king, both came under his displeasure, both were arrested and imprisoned, and both were remembered by the king during a palace feast; the Pharaoh could have pardoned them both, if such were the will of God, or could have condemned them to execution. However, he ordered the caterer to be hanged, while the cupbearer he returned to favor and his former position. Such was the will of God; some He removes from His presence in accordance with His righteous judgment, while others He covers with great mercy. “And who can search out His mighty deeds? Who can measure His majesty’s power? And who can fully recount His mercies?” says the son of Sirach (18:3-4).
Equally mysterious and unfathomable was God’s will in regard to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and the Pharaoh of Moses’ time. The blessed Augustine has rightly said of them: “Nebuchadnezzar was punished by God for his countless iniquities and in this way was brought to salvific and very beneficial repentance. The Pharaoh, on the contrary, became hardened even despite God’s scourges, disdained them, and perished in the Red Sea together with his entire host.” Both of them were pagan kings and both were punished. Why did they reach such an unequal end? – One of them comprehended God’s punitive hand, repented, and rectified his conduct; the other did not submit to the will of God that was announced to him, remained in his sinful obduracy, – and perished.
Here is another example of the incomprehensibility of God’s judgment: one of the best Judean kings was Asa, who did good in the eyes of the God and fortified his kingdom, destroyed the idols in the entire Judean land, and eradicated idol-worship. However, this glorious king, who for a long time reigned admirably, lost his initial glory at the end of his reign, having changed for the worse. King Menaces, on the other hand, being most wicked and evil throughout his entire life, and having brought the Jewish people to the very edge of iniquity, recognized the hand of God in his misfortune, returned to God, repented of his iniquity, and was granted forgiveness and God’s mercy. O Lord! Thy judgments are truly a great deep, a deep without measure!
At this point questions such as “why is this so?” and “how is this so?” are inappropriate. Such questions arise at the instigation of the evil spirit and have spiritually destroyed many people. “So, did God truly say: do not eat the fruit of any tree in the Garden of Eden?” – the most cunning of all creatures once asked Eve. To this question Eve should have replied thus to the wicked creature: “We know that God commanded us not to eat only the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but why and for what purpose He commanded thus – it is not our place to ask Him.” Such was His holy will, and we must not question the reasons for His willing thus. “For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been His counselor? Or who hath first given to Him, for Him to recompense again? For of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things” (Rom. 11:34-36). I am sure there will be people who will assert that it is not forbidden to sometimes ask the reason for one or another commandment. Ask whom? Do they mean God, Who alone knows everything, knows what is good and what is only tolerable? If a servant from his master or a subordinate from his superior demand the reason for such-and-such an order or directive, then the first will look upon it as an insult to himself, while the second will regard it as rebellion and insubordination, and yet you dare to exhibit even greater insolence towards God? God’s Providence needs no other reason except His holy will.
St. Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, describes the following event in the life of St. Anthony the Great: two monks undertook a journey to visit St. Anthony in his desert. However, traveling through the arid and hot desert, they became completely exhausted from thirst, and one of them already died, while the other was on the threshold of death. St. Anthony was several miles away from them. Sitting on a rock in his monastery, he hurriedly summoned his two monks and said to them: “Run as fast as you can to such-and-such a place in the desert, taking vessels with water with you, for one of the two brothers who were coming to visit us has already died of thirst, while the other is still breathing, but is suffering and has become very weak; if you delay, you will not find the other one alive either: this has been revealed to me by God while I stood in prayer.” Having received such instructions, the messengers immediately and willingly went off, and after finding the travelers, they buried the body of the deceased one, while the other one they revived with water and fortified with food, and then brought him back with them to St. Anthony. In describing this event St. Athanasius wisely remarks that someone may very well ask: “Why did St. Anthony not send his monks earlier to save the travelers, before one of them died?” Such a question is quite inappropriate for a Christian, because it was not St. Anthony’s affair, but God’s judgment: God Himself pronounced a fair verdict in regard to the dying man and the thirsty living one; and He likewise revealed to St. Anthony His will concerning the saving of one of the travelers.
St. Anthony the Great, being in a state of contemplation, was amazed at God’s hidden and unfathomable mysteries and humbly called out to God: “O Lord my God! Thou art sometimes pleased to grant a long life to people who seem useless and immersed in an abyss of iniquity, and yet sometimes Thou deprivest of life people who are very beneficial to society” During such reflections Anthony heard a voice saying: “Be attentive to thine own self. That upon which you are reflecting is God’s judgment, and it is not your place to analyze or question it.”
In the year 1117, when the whole of Italy was being shaken by earthquakes, some of the residents of the city of Milan assembled at a certain home to discuss public affairs. Suddenly a voice was heard from outside, calling upon one of the people present in the house to come out. The person being summoned was unsure of who was calling and for whom, and thus delayed in going out, waiting for a repeat call. Unexpectedly a stranger came up to the door and asked that the person being called come out quickly; no sooner had the latter moved several paces away from the building than the house fell down and destroyed all who were within. This begs the question: why was only one person from all those within the house saved from death, while all the others perished? The Lord’s judgments are a great deep! Who cannot clearly see in this event a repetition of ancient miracles? Thus did the angel of the Lord lead Lot and his children out of Sodom, leaving all the other inhabitants to become victims of fire. In a similarly miraculous manner other people are left unharmed amid multitudes who perish in general catastrophes.
We often see extraordinary upheavals and changes in the universe, unexpectedly-occurring events, and of each of them we say: “Let us see how this will end.” Occasionally we ourselves experience events that amaze us by their unexpectedness, and then we grumble in vain and say: “I could never foresee or think of such a thing happening.” We are poor illiterates in the matter of foreseeing future events! Even in currently occurring events we cannot always easily understand their true cause, except the one that is operative in all events and, moreover, is a genuine and undeniable cause. Such-and-such happened strictly because such was the will or tolerance of God according to His benevolent Providence. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, – saith the Lord. – For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
There are many things in our earthly life which we will never comprehend by means of our intelligence. It is sufficient for us to know, be convinced, and believe implicitly that God is not unjust, and that on the last day of judgment there will not be a single person on trial saying anything to the Lord except the following words: “Righteous art Thou, O Lord, and upright are Thy judgments” (Psalm 119:137). We must put off gaining complete understanding of the unfathomable judgments and purposes of God’s most-high wisdom until the future life!
Thus, let us cease expanding the wings of our curiosity and judgment of subjects that are above our heads. The waves of the boundless ocean of the Supreme Mind exceed the quick reasoning of all wisdom, not only human, but also angelic. And how could we ever hope to understand the end purposes of God’s profoundest destinies? Who can comprehend God’s determination in the following: why does God’s punishment for sin temporarily pass by some people and strike others? Why are those who are innocent of crime sometimes put on trial, while the sins of some people fall upon the heads of their children and descendants? Why do some die in infancy, while others live to a ripe old age? Why does one person, having sinned only slightly, perish without repentance, while another, mired for a long time in the bog of iniquity, finally rectify himself and become worthy of a Christian end? Why does one person wallow in wealth and luxury, while another does not have a single morsel of bread or a single penny?
O restless and overly curious mind! Why should you brood over this? The Lord allowed, the Lord wished, the Lord created all. We should look upon God’s will as the ultimate truth, and a willing and tranquil adherence to it as the ultimate wisdom.
St. John of Tobolsk