Fathoms – Romans 11:33-36

by Roger McCay
22 March 2020
Scripture Passage: Romans 11:33-36
Link to Audio Version

Limpets – What is a Limpet? Well, according to Britannica, it is a snail or a mollusk that lives and clings to rocks underwater near the ocean’s shoreline. C.S. Lewis gives a vignette of Limpets in his book Miracles.  He writes:

“Let us suppose a mystical limpet, a sage among limpets, who (rapt in vision) catches a glimpse of what Man is like. In reporting it to his disciples, who have some vision themselves (though less than he) he will have to use many negatives.

He will have to tell them that Man has no shell, is not attached to a rock, is not surrounded by water. And his disciples, having little vision of their own to help them, do get some idea of Man.

But then there come erudite limpets [that would be those who have extensive knowledge acquired chiefly from books], limpets who write histories of philosophy and give lectures on comparative religion, and who have never had any vision of their own…

From these…ideas… they build up a picture of Man as a sort of amorphous jelly (he has no shell) existing nowhere in particular (he is not attached to a rock) and never taking nourishment (there is no water to drift it towards him). And having a traditional reverence for Man they conclude that to be a famished jelly in a dimensionless void is the supreme mode of existence, and reject as crude, materialistic superstition any doctrine which would attribute to Man a definite shape, a structure, and organs.” [1]

How easy it is to do this same thing when it comes to our understanding of God. Approaching God, from only a cold, theological, academic perspective, fails to embrace the warmth of the living and true God revealed by the Scriptures. He ends up being approached and analyzed like a cold dissected frog in High School biology. Such a method skews our understanding and knowledge of God.

At the other end of the spectrum from cold theology there is enthusiastic worship without sound theology. Like Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity: “Theology is like a map.” [2] Enthusiastic worship without sound theology is like heading on a journey without a map. You may think you are traveling to America, but you might end up in Iraq.

The Israelites wild party in their worship of the golden calf in the wilderness is a prime example. In the absence of a good theology, Aaron made this image and told them: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex 32:4). It was enthusiastic worship, but they were entirely deluded as to God’s true nature. How God corrected their delusion is telling. He directed their enthusiasm with the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law—a theology.

Sometimes we get off balance when it comes to how we approach God. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Hence, after writing Rom. 1-11, one of the greatest theological treatises of all time, Paul aptly balances theology with worship in the doxology of Rom. 11:33-36. It is as if overwhelmed with the wonders of God’s salvific plan for His people, Paul just bursts into song!

Take a look at v. 33a: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”

The structure of the doxology is very balanced. Paul gives three exclamations, asks three rhetorical questions, and then pounds it home with three prepositions (from, through, and to), emphasizing how God is the ultimate ultimate.

The first exclamation focuses on three attributes of God: riches, wisdom, and knowledge.

What do we know of the riches of God? A quick glance through Romans helps. In 2:4 Paul refers to the riches of the Lord’s kindness, tolerance and patience. In 9:23 he refers to the riches of God’s glory. Then he mentions in 10:12 how the Lord “is rich and generous toward all who call upon Him.”

In the current context, considering 11:12, Paul is particularly marveling at the riches of God’s kindness and grace as it is expressed towards undeserving sinners—both Jews and Gentiles. Salvation is a gift from God’s riches. Out of God’s wealth, he bestows upon his people this gift, enriching them with spiritual blessings beyond what we can imagine.

Thus, rhetorically, Paul asks in v. 35: “Or who has first given to Him, that He will repay him?”

No-one, of course. Paul has hammered out over and over in Romans that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works. We receive salvation out of the riches of God’s kindness and grace through faith. We cannot do good works and then say, “Hey God, look what I did, now pay up!” That just won’t go over so well. Hasn’t Isaiah said,“…all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags…” (Isa. 64:6)? God even equates our rebellious, filthy sinfulness with garments smeared in human excrement in Zech. 3.

A hint at the fathomless depths of God’s kindness and grace towards us is given in the death of his Son. Jesus died so that we might be washed clean from our filthy sin in his blood. Who is this Savior who died for you? Consider the Colossians Hymn in Col. 1:15-20:

             15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Oh, the depths of the richness of God’s kindness and grace towards us to sacrifice His beloved Son! Can you fathom it?

Along the lines of the Colossians Hymn we have in Rom. 11:36: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.”

Consider the prepositions. The Lord, as the Creator, is the source (from), sustainer (through), and goal (to) of all things. Is this so when it comes to salvation? I ask to make the point that salvation is part of “all things.” God’s plan and purpose in salvation for all his people (Jew and Gentile) is the immediate context of Paul’s exclamation. Hence, v. 36, contextually, is given with a salvific focus in mind.

Did we initiate our salvation? No! Salvation is from the Lord. It was his plan. He’s been working his plan of salvation through the history of the human race—the Scriptures are clear on this.

Did we accomplish our salvation? No! Salvation is through the Lord. The Father sent the Son to fulfill all the law and the prophets; to achieve victory on the cross; to then to be resurrected and exalted in Heaven at the right hand of God, in power.

What was the Lord’s goal of our salvation? Salvation is to the Lord. As a redeemed people, we are given the right to be called Children of God. We are fully in a relationship with him, which will be finally consummated when Christ returns. He is our God and we are his people. The Lord is with us now. At his return, the Lord will gather all of us to himself, where he will receive glory for his love, grace, majesty and power.

From the depths of the riches of God, through his work, kindness, mercy, and love, he has given salvation to us. We receive this gift through trusting him, through faith. Thus, in merely fathoming the surface of God’s riches, Paul cries out “To Him be glory forever!”

Have you ever considered these things in your worship? Some reasons we worship and sing praises, giving thanks to God, is because of his boundless generosity from the depths of His riches. Maybe you’ve wondered what worship is all about. This is a big part of it. Or, maybe you’ve lost your focus on what worship is all about. Let this help you zero back in on why you worship. Let the depths of His riches help focus your worship. And may the Lord receive glory and honor through your worship. “To Him be glory forever!” Because of the depths of God’s riches, we must glorify Him.

In addition to the depths of God’s riches, Paul highlights another attribute of God—v. 33a: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”

Wisdom and knowledge go hand in hand throughout the Scripture where God is concerned. They are balanced. Wisdom without knowledge is rather pointless, and knowledge without wisdom is a dangerous fool.

Let’s first look at God’s knowledge. In the order of things, wisdom first requires knowledge. What does God know? What is His knowledge? God knows everything from first to last—the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10). Any thought we think, along the lines of discovery of knowledge, are merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Yet, in the context of this doxology, how do we see God’s knowledge in relation to his plan of salvation for His people?

In the context of the doxology in Rom. 11, God’s knowledge is referred to specifically in the form of foreknowledge. One man put it that this knowledge is “that special relational ‘knowing,’ which comes to expression in his election of individuals to salvation.”[3] Rom. 11:2 mentions how “God has not rejected His people whom he foreknew.” In Rom. 8:29, God’s foreknowledge can, in a way, be understood as his fore-love for his people. He knew his people before the foundation of the world, loved us, and elected us to salvation in Christ Jesus. Like Eph. 1:4-5 teaches: God “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world …” He chose us to be “holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ.”

It seems people struggle with this particular knowledge, which God possesses, because it is just too deep for our ken. To fathom it is to attempt to fathom the very mind of God. As Paul asks in Rom. 11:34, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?”

While no-one can even begin to fathom the mind of God, God knows us so well. He knows what makes us tick. He knows the secrets of our heart: our loves, our joys, our hurts, and our sorrow. He knows every thought and action. As the Creator, he knows our bodies inside and out—every ache, every pleasure, every beat of our heart, every impulse of every nerve. Do we even know ourselves or anyone else that well, much less God?

The amazing thing is that, despite God knowing his people so well (warts and all, so to speak), he loves us anyway, sending his Son, Jesus, to die for us. He was willing to die on the cross, so that we will live with him forever.

Have you ever considered God’s knowledge in worship? Let God’s knowledge of us (how He knows us and loves us) guide us in our praise of God. In our joy, within the relationship he has established with us, let us glorify him in all we do, every day. Let us live lives of worship, to his glory. Brothers and sisters in Christ, what a wonder that the Living God would establish a relationship with you and me based on His knowledge and love for us that existed before the foundation of the world. “To Him be glory forever!” Because of the depths of God’s knowledge, we must glorify Him.

Contemplating the depths of God’s knowledge leads, inevitably, to marveling at God’s wisdom—v. 33a: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”

The Scriptures reveal much about the wisdom of God. Just do an internet search of “God’s wisdom verses,” and you’ll see what I mean.

In this specific passage, however, what particular wisdom of God is this referring to? Considering the first two attributes (riches and knowledge) and their relation to God’s salvation, it follows that this attribute—wisdom—is about God’s wisdom, as it has been revealed in his plan for the salvation of all his people. This is along the lines of 1 Cor. 2:6-7, where Paul refers to the “message of wisdom” that he speaks—in other words, the gospel. Verse 7 says, “…we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” This wisdom is found in Christ Jesus, displayed on the cross. 1 Cor. 1:24 likewise teaches that Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” for believers.

Can anyone understand why He chose to work this way? Paul answers—v.33b,c: “How unsearchable are His judgments and inscrutable His ways!”

In context, God’s “judgments” are referring to the Lord’s decisions about the direction he took in salvation history. For example, in Rom. 11, it would be imprudent to challenge God’s decision to harden the Jews so that the Gentiles could receive salvation. What wisdom do we have that can compare to his judgments in this matter? We can’t say, “Well, God, I’ve a better plan.”

That is why Paul rhetorically asks in v. 34, “Who has been His counselor?” No-one! His judgments are unsearchable. He knows everything. His wisdom took into consideration every possible detail through all time, space, and realms, deriving the perfect solution to the salvation of his people. Combined with his perfect love, justice, mercy, grace, and all his perfect attributes, that means of all possible plans, the plan he is following out for His purposes is the only perfect plan to save his people.

Concerning his “ways”—i.e. the way he does business—this has a similar meaning to his “judgments.” God’s ways are inscrutable—meaning they are not readily investigated, interpreted, or understood. Hence, to us, they are mysterious. Isa. 55:8: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.” Along these lines J.I. Packer wrote in his book Knowing God:

“God is not the sort of person that we are; his wisdom, his aims, his scale of values, his mode of procedure differs so vastly from our own that we cannot possibly guess our way to them by intuition or infer them by analogy from our notion of ideal manhood. We cannot know him unless he speaks and tells us about himself.” [4]

We can neither know or understand God’s ways outside of his explaining them to us in revelation. Often, all we can do is observe how he works in the Scriptures. While we might not necessarily understand, we know his ways are right and good based on His character.

Thus, we have God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ—the way to salvation. He tells us, “if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead” we will be saved (Rom. 10:9). Rather than working really hard to earn our salvation, we receive our salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. In God’s wisdom, he worked his plan of salvation for his people, whom he foreknew, in order to bestow the riches of his kindness and grace.

Have you ever considered the wisdom of God in your worship? As we worship, let us give praise and thanks for the depths of God’s wisdom of which he planned our salvation. “To Him be glory forever!” Because of the depths of God’s wisdom, we must glorify Him.

The balance of theology and worship is vital to our walk with Christ. Paul’s doxology provides us an example, in his balance of theology and worship, as he praises the depths of God’s riches, knowledge, and wisdom, in his salvation of his people. Using sound theology as a map, let us navigate our worship in a way that glorifies the true God. Guided by his Word in our praise, let us worship him according to his revelation of himself. Let us worship him as he is, not as we imagine.

Fathoming into the depths of these things in our worship, we find ourselves in the presence of the Living and true God. Because of the depths of God’s attributes, we must glorify him.


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics: Miracles, pg. 379

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics: Mere Christianity, pg. 128.

[3] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse et al., 2d ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 760.

[4] J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 47-48.