The Vaunting Ax

Rev. Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965)

The following article first appeared in the Standard Bearer of April 1, 1939.)

In the beautiful but often misinterpreted thirteenth article of our Netherlands Confession of Faith the providence of God is considered and briefly explained especially from the viewpoint of its relation to sin and evil, its control over and rule of devils and wicked men. It teaches that God did not forsake the work of His hands, as is the doctrine of the Deists; that He did not surrender them to the whims of fortune or chance, as is the teaching of fatalists and determinists; but that He rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing ever occurs in this world but by His appointment and determination. This, of course, cannot exclude, but must include the actions and counsels of the rational, moral creatures; and that not only of the good but also of the wicked. All that men and angels, powers and principalities, wicked men and devils do, happens by God's appointment and according to His holy counsel. The article, therefore, continues to emphasize that this confession of God's providence over all things does not imply that the holy One is the author of sin or can be charged with the guilt of sin; but that He knows how to rule justly even through the wickedness of the powers of darkness. And it adds that it is not the purpose of this confession curiously to inquire into the deep things of God, but rather to humble ourselves and to adore the righteous judgments of the living God. And it concludes by pointing out that for the people of God there is unspeakable consolation in this truth of God's government over all things, for by faith in it we feel confident that nothing can befall us except by the will of our heavenly Father, and that He so restrains the devil and all our enemies that without His will and permission they cannot hurt us.

The false doctrine that the Holy Spirit restrains the process of sin in devils and wicked men so as to improve them somewhat and enable them to live a relatively good world-life, which in 1924 the Christian Reformed Church sought to elicit from this article, certainly is wholly absent from it. Yet, on the basis of Scripture, and without becoming guilty of curiously prying into things too deep for human understanding, we may proceed a step further than this article, and, instead of saying that God restrains the devil and wicked men, we may certainly declare that he so uses them that they must serve His purpose and counsel, even though it be unwittingly and unwillingly, yea, contrary to their own will. To this truth I would call your attention in this article.

You guessed, perhaps, that I derived the formulation of my subject from Isa. 10:15: Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself as if it were no wood. The boasting ax and the self-magnifying saw, and the rebellious rod and self-exalting staff are all the same. And in the tenth chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah you find an individual picture of that vaunting ax to the general appearance and significance of which I expect to call your attention. In that chapter it represents particularly the power of Assyria, which at that period of history constituted the world-power. And Assyria has a work to do. He has a commission from Jehovah to fulfill. For, he must marshall his forces against Jerusalem, the City of God, that is, however, at that time filled with wickedness and hypocrisy. He must take the spoil and the prey and tread them down like the mire of the streets. Emphatically it is declared that Assyria has this commission as a charge of the Lord, for it is the Lord's purpose to punish hypocritical Jerusalem. vs. 6. And Assyria will surely acquit himself of his charge and with great zeal and ambition he will carry it out. But in doing so he is not at all aware of the fact that he has a charge from Jehovah. He does not know that he is but serving God and executing His counsel. On the contrary, it is in his heart to exalt himself, to acquire all the world-power, to become great, and to destroy many nations. And for this purpose he boasts in his strength and considers that the God of Jerusalem is as the gods of the other nations and that Jehovah will no more be able to save His people out of his hand than the idols of the nations have been able to deliver them. The result is, therefore, that he performs God's counsel and serves Him unwittingly and in so far he is but an ax in the powerful hand of Jehovah, Who hews with him. But, on the other hand, he is not a mere ax but a rational and moral agent, he has his own purposes and counsels even while he accomplishes the purpose of the Most High; and these purposes are wicked. For that reason the final result is that Assyria does, indeed, execute the will of God and nothing more or less, but in doing so he becomes guilty and is punished and destroyed.

You understand, however, that we may generalize and say that this vaunting ax is always in the world, that the Most High always employs him for His purpose and presses him into his service, and that, on the other hand, he always boasts and exalts himself against the Most High and His covenant and people. Assyria is but an individual picture of him, an appearance of the vaunting ax in time, at that particular period. We shall, therefore, have to consider him in his general significance and power.

In order, then, to obtain a full and correct conception of this boasting power of darkness in all its meaning, in relation to God and to all things, we must remember, first of all, the position in which God originally placed man in the midst of the world. He made him His king-servant. For, He created him after his own image, in true knowledge, righteousness and holiness. And by virtue of this likeness of God in his nature man stood in covenant-relation to his God, that he might rightly love Him, love Him with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, serve Him with all things and have a place in God's very heart. In relation to God, therefore, his name was friend-servant. And this friend-servant God placed at the very pinnacle of the earthly creation. For, he gave him dominion, so that it was his calling to reign over all the works of God's hands in the name of and according to the will of the Most High. He was, therefore, God's king-friend-servant in the midst of the earthly creation. All things must serve him that he might serve his God. In the second place, we must remember, that this friend-servant of God, this king over the earthly creation, became through willful disobedience the friend-servant of the devil. For, the image of God in him turned into its very opposite, so that his knowledge became darkness, his righteousness became rebellion, his holiness changed into corruption. He became the devil's ally and slave. On the other hand, he retained his relationship to the earthly creation. True, he lost much of his original gifts, his power was curtailed; but in relation to the world he remained king. He still rules. The earth and all earthly creatures still serve him. The world in which he lives supplies him with food and drink, with shelter and clothing, with resources and power to develop himself and to express himself in relation to God. And these earthly things he employs and develops. Only, with all his power and gifts, with all his mind and heart, with all his resources and means he opposes the living God in a spiritual ethical sense of the word, and he serves the devil, who in that sense of the word, is become the prince of the world. In the third place, we must bear in mind, that this fallen man in his generations naturally stands opposed to God's cause, His covenant and people in the midst of this world. It is Babylon against Jerusalem; the world over against the church. For, God maintained his covenant. He had anointed his own king over his holy hill of Zion. And He causes him to become the root of a new humanity, the humanity of the elect, the Head of the Church, the seed of the woman, the King of the kingdom of heaven. This covenant people of God, delivered from the slavery of the devil, renewed unto holiness after the image of God, are of God's party in the midst of and over against the power of the fallen and rebellious king and his kingdom. They live in the same world, use the same means, are of one blood with the power represented by this vaunting ax. And, because they differ in deepest spiritual-ethical principle, the latter hates and opposes the former step by step, throughout all the history of the present world. The vaunting ax, therefore, is the power of the world, living and acting and developing from the principle of sin, employing all his power and means to establish and maintain the wicked world-kingdom, in opposition to God and His Christ and His covenant. It includes the devil and his angels and all the wicked in alliance with them.

Of this vaunting ax the power of Assyria at the time of Isaiah's prophecy was but an individual manifestation, for it is always in the world. Its most general description is given in Gen. 3:15, as the seed of the serpent that will bruise the heel of the woman's seed. It is in the world before the flood as manifest in the generations of Cain over against those of Seth, in the children of men in opposition to the sons of God. Even then it is powerful in the world and persecutes and threatens to destroy the Church, but goes under in the flood. It is represented in the builders of the tower of Babel over against the generations of Shem. It embodies itself especially for a time in the world-power of Egypt vomiting fury and death against the sojourning children of Israel. It reveals itself in carnal Israel, as it prevents, for a time, the Church to enter into its rest; and as, later, when Israel has entered into the land of promise, it always causes the nation to apostatize and the remnant according to election to groan and suffer, finally leading the Church into captivity. And it also is represented by the successive world-powers of the old dispensation, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. It is the power of Jew and Gentile, of scribes and Pharisees, of Pilate and Herod combined that rise against the holy child Jesus to destroy Him on the cross. And it is all the powers of darkness combined in the new dispensation, the wicked world and the false church, as they plot and conspire against the cause of God, as they tempt and seduce, by false doctrine and vain philosophy, by the treasures and pleasures of the world, as they fume and rage furiously against the Lord and His Anointed, and as they must ultimately culminate in the realization of the power of antichrist. And it includes the power of the nations that live on the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, that will rise against the camp of the saints to destroy it. The vaunting ax may differ as to appearance in different periods of history, it may accommodate itself to various circumstances, but it is always in the world and always it stands in opposition to the cause of God and His covenant in the world.

Now this power of darkness in all its activity must serve a purpose and the purpose it serves is God's. This is very emphatically and concretely expressed in the passage from which we derived the formulation of our subject. For, the power of Assyria is compared to an ax in the hand of God Who hews therewith, to a saw in the hand of the Most High that draws it, to a rod and staff in the hand of the Almighty that strikes with it. What figure could more emphatically express that all the power of darkness is pressed into the service of God? An ax and a saw and a rod are but instruments. In themselves they serve no purpose. They accomplish nothing. They wait for the hand to strike with them or to draw them. Without that hand they are useless. And the purpose they shall serve is determined strictly by him, whose hand takes them up to use them as instruments. Especially is this true when the figure is applied to Assyria in the hand of God. For, though man may sometimes fail to reach his purpose with the instrument he uses, and, indeed, is always limited by the instrument itself; God never fails in His purpose, and the instrument He employs is most perfectly fitted for the use He desires to make of it. For, God devises, prepares and most perfectly shapes His own tools, in order then to employ them with absolute sovereignty, power, and perfect wisdom to His own end. But this is not only evident from this figure of the ax in the hand of the Almighty, it is the current teaching of Scripture. For, it is said to Pharaoh that God hath raised him up for the very purpose of rebellion that He might show His power in him. Ex. 9:16. And the apostle Paul, referring to this passage in Rom. 9 teaches us that the great Potter hath power over the clay to make vessels of honor as well as of dishonor. In the case of Job the devil serves the purpose of the Most High and is wholly limited in his rage against Job to God's purpose. Job 1, 2. Besides, God forms the light and creates darkness, He makes peace and creates evil, Isa. 45:7, It is, indeed, true, that wicked men crucify and kill Jesus, but only according to and by the determinate counsel of God, Acts 2:23. And the nations do rage furiously against the Anointed of the Lord, and the world-power, Pilate and Herod and the leaders of the people do counsel together and rise against the Holy Child Jesus, but only to do what God's hand had before determined that should be done. Acts 4:26-28. And the apostle Paul is buffeted by an angel of Satan; but only to serve the purpose of God. Indeed, the reprobate stumble at the stone, elect and precious, being disobedient, but unto this they are also appointed. I Pet. 2:8. And many nations are gathered against Israel, and say: Let her be defiled and let our eyes look upon Zion, but they know not the counsel of the Lord, neither do they understand his thoughts, Micah 4:11-12. All the Word of God sounds the same note. All creatures at all times serve the Lord and only execute His sovereign will.

When we contemplate this fundamental Scriptural truth concerning the vaunting ax, it not only affords us unspeakable consolation, but it also causes us to bow down in worship and adoration before the living God and to glorify his absolute sovereignty and unsearchable wisdom. Here the last trace of dualism disappears. God is God alone, everywhere, in time and in eternity. For, it declares unto us that all things have been eternally arranged with the most flawless wisdom to serve the God of Jacob. For, it is evident, that if the power of darkness is but an instrument in the hand of God to serve His purpose, that the purpose and the instruments to serve that purpose have been determined from before the foundation of the world. Reprobation receives a new meaning. For, in the light of this Scriptural teaching it signifies, not merely that God excluded some from the salvation of His people and ordained them unto damnation; nor is its significance fully expressed by saying that reprobation must be to the glory of God's righteousness and severe justice. But we learn that God has a work to do for the reprobate part of mankind and for every one of the reprobate wicked, men or devils, which must be accomplished. Just as it is true of the people of God that the good works in which they walk have been prepared for them from eternity, so that all the saints together and every saint individually bear that fruit that was ordained by God; so also the actual deeds and accomplishments of the wicked have been ordained from eternity, so that all the reprobates together fill the measure of iniquity, but also each of the wicked occupies his own place in the whole and performs his own part in filling that measure of sin. Cain and Lamech, Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and Antiochus Epiphanes, Herod and Pilate, Napoleon and Mussolini, but also the most insignificant sneak thief, rich and poor, simple and wise, philosophers and moviestars,--all are servants of God, each fitting in his own place and time, each endowed with the necessary powers and means to perform his part, each and all uniting to accomplish that purpose for which God raised them up. They are the ax with which He heweth, the saw He draws, the rod of His anger. For, God has made all things for His own name's sake, even the wicked unto the day of evil. And He is not outside of the world to leave it to its fate, but in all things to govern them all unto His determinate end.

Nor is it, in general, difficult to determine what purpose they serve. For, first of all, it is evident from Scripture that they must serve the glory of God. God is willing to show his wrath. He purposed to reveal His power in Pharaoh. But this general purpose is not to be separated from the whole of God's works nor to be divorced from the end He purposes to attain. That purpose is the highest realization of His covenant in Christ Jesus our Lord, which is to be realized in the way of sin and grace. The realization of that purpose in general and salvation of each of the saints in particular the vaunting ax must serve. This is evident from the text in Isaiah. Jerusalem is become wicked and apostatized from Jehovah. The carnal element reigns supreme in the city of God and the remnant according to the election is crying to Jehovah because of Zion's low estate. And Assyria must serve the true Zion by chastising and punishing apostate Jerusalem. It is the rod of God's anger. This is very clear centrally from the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Herod and Pilate are gathered with the rulers of the people to do what God's hand had determined that should be done. Christ must be crucified. He must lay down His life for His sheep. The blood of atonement must be shed. And God will be in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them. And the vaunting ax of the wicked reprobate must serve that purpose. It is in that light that also the temptation of the devil and the fall of man is to be viewed. God's church is in the loins of the first Adam. And that Church in Christ must be separated from him. From the viewpoint of God's determinate counsel Adam must fall in order to make room for Christ and prepare the way for the redemption and glorification of the Church. And the devil must serve that purpose of God. And from the fall to the ultimate manifestation of the Antichrist the entire government of God with respect to the wicked world is such that all must serve Him in the realization of His eternal covenant.

Nor is this only true in a general sense. Also unto the salvation of God's individual children the wicked must serve the purpose of God. When the angel of Satan buffets Paul, it is that he may not exalt himself and not boast beyond measure. And when the fire of persecution rages and God's people must suffer in the world, it is but that the gold of the work of God's grace may be tried as by fire. For, as fire proves the genuineness of gold, purifies it and brings out its beauty and luster so God employs the wicked world to prove the genuineness of his own handiwork of grace in the Church and in the hearts of the individual believers, purifies and sanctifies them through the fire of persecution and thus causes the beauty of His own work to shine forth, that all may be to praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ. Not improperly has the devil been called the watchdog of Jesus' sheep. Heresy has served the purpose of developing God's truth. And the blood of the martyrs is surely the seed of the Church. All things work together for good to them that love God. And all the wicked must surely serve God and His saving purposes concerning His elect in Christ Jesus our Lord.

However, we must not lose sight of the fact, that there is an important difference between an ax and saw on the one hand and this power of the reprobate wicked on the other. It is somewhat of a contradiction to speak of a vaunting ax. A mere instrument does not exalt itself in the hand of him that uses it, does not boast. It is dead. It is utterly passive. It knows not and cares not what you do with it. But this is not the case with the wicked power of the world. It is an instrument in the hand of God, but it is not dead. Devils and wicked men are agents to accomplish the purpose of God, but as agents they are not utterly passive. They are moral, rational creatures, and as such they all act willingly and consciously. They do not act unwittingly, but knowingly. They are not driven like brute beasts, but they act with motivation from within. They have their own purposes, their own ideals, their own ends to attain, their own motives in all their actions. And their thoughts and counsels and motives and purposes are wholly contrary to the thoughts and purposes of the living God. This is plainly stated in Isaiah 10. God's purpose is to punish wicked Jerusalem, and in this purpose Assyria serves Him. But while Assyria serves God and accomplishes the purpose of the Almighty, he does not think so, nor is it his intention to serve the God of Israel. He does not even understand the counsel of God and fails absolutely to perceive His purpose. On the contrary he vaunts. He boasts. He exalts himself. He does not acknowledge that God must lead his armies to battle and give him the victory. He is vain and proud in his own strength. He will become mighty and destroy many nations and even the God of Israel will not be able to check his progress. He, therefore, boasts against the living God. And though He will accomplish the very thing God charges him to do and in that sense of the word is God's servant, he is such in spite of himself and does so in the vain imagination that he opposes God and His people in Jerusalem.

And this is the case always. There can be no question about the fact that the devil in paradise serves God's purpose. For, it is God's inscrutable purpose through the temptation of Satan to open the way for the coming of His only begotten Son in the flesh and the salvation of His church that is in the loins of Adam. That does not imply, as a few years ago a certain speaker from the old country presented the matter, that God simply called on the devil and commanded him to tempt man. No command of God to them do the wicked obey. Nor does it mean that God forced the devil against his will to go to paradise and seduce man to his fall. Formally Satan remains a free agent. And God is by no means the author of sin, though He certainly is the cause of all that is accomplished by sin. Satan has his own purposes and does not see the purpose of God, no more than the fish perceives the purpose of the angler when it swallows the bait. He will tempt man and cause him to fall. He will rebel against God, slander Him, lie about Him, establish his own kingdom and prosper in his purposes. And he does not know, neither does he mean what God knows and intends. The same is true of Pharaoh in Egypt, when he furiously rages against Israel. And very clearly this is true of the power that rises up against God's Anointed at the cross of Golgotha. The nations imagine a vain thing, indeed. They set themselves against God and against his Christ because they are filled with hatred and rebellion. Their purpose is destruction, their motive is rebellion against the living God. Yet, the counsel of redemption they fulfill and they are but instrumental unto the realization of God's purpose of salvation. Throughout, therefore, they act as moral, conscious, responsible agents, with motives and purposes of their own. And because these motives and purposes are contrary to the will of God in seeking God's purpose they sin and gather unto themselves treasures of wrath.

The reward of the vaunting ax or the wicked in serving the counsel of God, therefore, is threefold. In the first place, they have the reward of a certain temporary success, glory and power. For a time the devil succeeds, what he purposes he accomplishes, and with devilish glee he rejoices in his success. Assyria will succeed in destroying many nations and punishing Jerusalem, in gathering the spoil and exalting himself. Judas and the enemies of Christ do succeed in capturing him and performing all their wicked will upon Him and they rejoice in their victory. Nebuchadnezzar does become great in the world, Napoleon does gather for himself a name and glory. And all the anti-christian world will for a time run after the beast and rejoice in its glory and power. But, in the first place, this success of the world is but a means to lead to greater sin and rebellion against the Most high and to gather greater treasures of wrath. And, secondly, this success is essentially failure. It is the success of the fish that swallows the bait and satisfies its appetite, but in so doing swallows his own destruction. In the second place, their reward is the everlasting desolation of hell fire, because they stood and acted in rebellion against the living God. There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. And in the third place their reward will be, that they shall clearly know and acknowledge unto all eternity that in all their vain imagination against God they served Him and accomplished his counsel. For God is God and must be acknowledged as such. Not only will He bring the counsel of the wicked to nought in the end, but He will not leave them their imagination that even for a time they opposed him and succeeded to thwart His purpose. In hell they shall know that they but accomplished the counsel of God in spite of themselves. Eternally the Word of God will say to Pharaoh, and to Nebuchadnezzar and to Assyria, and to the raging nations, and to the devil and his angels: For this purpose had I raised thee up! And from the consciousness of desolation the response will come: Yes, Thou art and wert, and forever shalt be God alone!