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Filled with worry, the old man sits beside the road that runs out from Shiloh to the west. Overweight and stooped under the burden of many years and sorrows, he should be guarding his meager strength and shielding his health from the weather. But his doubts and fears will not let him rest. The ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence with Israel, has been taken into battle against the Philistines, and no one save Eli seems to doubt the wisdom of the plan.

As he sits trembling, Eli is a poignant figure. But perhaps he is more. Perhaps at this moment he is a type of God Himself. Perhaps, in the privacy of His small wooden chest, Yahweh sits trembling, wondering about the outcome of the battle. Will He be brought back victorious to Shiloh? Or will He be taken as a captive to the cities of the Philistines?

Ridiculous? Certainly—at least according to classical Christian understandings. But for open theists, the above scenario is much less far-fetched. In their view, the outcome of the Israelites’ battle with the Philistines was unknown to God. The Philistine victory was in the future, and hence unknowable even to the omniscient God. The fight could have gone either way, for the result was “open”—completely undetermined.

Thus, God was taken on an unexpected trip to Ashdod. Fortunately, He still had some power at His disposal and was able to figure out a way to make the Philistines want to send Him back to Israel, which they eventually did. So everything turned out OK, except that thirty thousand Israelites died in battle. But, of course, God was as upset about those losses as His people were.

Inconveniently for open theists, however, Scripture portrays the defeat of Israel and the capture of the ark as events that God not only foresaw but actually predetermined.

Look first at 1 Samuel 2:27–36. A “man of God” comes to Eli and declares, “ ‘Thus says the Lord.…’ ” He has a communication from God—a prophetic communication. God is speaking to Eli about the future, and He’s not guessing. In fact, whereas many prophetic utterances in Scripture are conditional, stating what will happen under certain circumstances, this prophetic word speaks of events that are bound to occur. This is a word of judgment—God is telling Eli what is going to happen as a result of his sons’ sinful behavior. And He isn’t talking about the mere natural consequences of their actions—He is talking about His own response. Without a doubt, God is talking here as if He has determined future events, a strange way indeed for the “open” God to speak.

What does God say? Specifically, He says there will be “ ‘an enemy in My dwelling place’ ” (v. 32). Although this verse is difficult to translate, it could well be speaking of the capture of the ark and the subsequent destruction of the Shiloh tabernacle by the Philistines. But God goes way out on a limb and gives Eli a sign by which he will know that these things are to happen—his two wicked sons will perish on the same day, being judged by God for their sin (2:34). And so it comes about (4:11). Did God merely guess right?

Look now at Jeremiah 7:12–14. God is speaking through the prophet to warn His people that He is about to send them into exile and destroy the temple. And lest they doubt that He means what He says, He urges them to remember not just what happened to Shiloh many years before, but, as He puts it, “ ‘what I did to [Shiloh]’ ” (v. 12). He is saying that He caused to happen what He said would happen in 1 Samuel 2:32. Moreover, the destruction of Shiloh is now being used as a sign that God means what He says, just as the deaths of Hophni and Phinehas were given as signs of God’s intent to destroy the tabernacle. God truly seems to be predetermining events.

Finally, look at Psalm 78:56–62. Asaph the psalmist here sings of the destruction of the Shiloh tabernacle. Does he say that the Philistine victory caught God by surprise? Hardly. Rather, the psalmist, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, declares that God “forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh” and “delivered His strength into captivity.” The implication of these words is plain—God allowed the Philistines to overrun the tabernacle and allowed the ark of the covenant to be captured. He decided. He predetermined. It all happened because He wanted it to happen. None of it caught Him by surprise.

Someone could argue that the author of Samuel or a later editor arranged the story so that it included a convenient prophecy before the ark’s capture. He could say that Jeremiah’s words have been doctored or that the psalmist has been mistranslated. But he would be questioning the integrity of Scripture and disagreeing with its plain meaning.

If God had kept quiet about His plans more often, open theists might have a better case. Fortunately for those who oppose their heresy, the merciful God frequently warned His people before sending judgment. Of course, the fact that the prophetic record stands in opposition to open theism is no surprise to God at all.

God’s Lesser Glory

Dagon Bows to Yahweh

Keep Reading Made in Man's Image: Open Theism

From the February 2003 Issue
Feb 2003 Issue