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.