Sometimes a word in a text appears to stand out from its fellows in such a forceful way as to arrest the attention, challenge the mind, and launch a train of thought that is both stimulating and instructive. Such a word is found in Psalm 78, verse 41, which says, "Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel."
The word is "limited." Translated from the Hebrew word tavah, which, in its primary sense, implies a marking out, a scratching, or the setting of a mark, it suggests the setting of limitations. From this primary usage the connotations of the word have been extended to mean "to provoke," or "to grieve." We have, then, in Psalm 78:41 leveled against Israel the accusation that they had provoked or grieved the Holy One by setting limitations on His power and wisdom.
The language of Scripture describes the Holy One of Israel as almighty and infinite, beyond human comprehension, and beyond computation. How is it then that such a One can be limited by the creatures of His own making?
Limited to Personal Attainment
In point of time the first attempt to limit Infinity came as plans were being made to create a new world—this world. The simple account is recorded in Isaiah 14:13, 14, where the intent of Lucifer is expressed in these words, "I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: .. . I will be like the most High." The whole flood tide of sin and defiance began when one being limited the Infinite God to the scope of personal attainment, and having thus cut God down to a manageable size in his own estimation, he proceeded into open rebellion.
A seed of doubt was sown in the mind of Eve in Eden, which quickly grew and bore fruit, as shown in Genesis 3:6. For it says there that "when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, . . . and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof and did eat." So the Omniscient One was limited to the scope of human desire and wisdom. Such reasoning produced not only shame and sorrow to the original pair but a murderer in their immediate family and a succession of evil that filled the earth with violence until there was no remedy, and men, who had endeavored to limit the Infinite, beheld a symbol of omnipotence in the irresistible waters of a great flood.
Time moved on, and once again men multiplied on the face of the earth, and in their pride and shortsightedness they scratched out on the shifting sands of time the limitations within which they would allow the God of heaven to operate.
Limited by Deceit
Then from the confines of the mud walls of Ur of the Chaldees, God called a man to go out into the infinity of the open spaces, where he could lift up his eyes, unobscured by the clamor of commerce and the conformity of society, and behold in all its wonder the immeasurable handiwork of God. So Abraham obeyed, and by faith went out and tried to demonstrate to the world the infinity of God. But even he, the father of the faithful, placed limitations on the God he represented. He limited Him by his cunning and deceit when he feared that his attractive wife would be taken from him, and then, in the face of an apparently unfulfilled promise, he again limited God to the processes of natural law, expecting that Ishmael would be accepted as the child of promise.
Limited to Nationhood
And what of Israel the chosen race, delivered by a mighty hand, preserved by miracles and established at the crossroads of the nations to be an unanswerable argument to the power and might of their God? The glory of their Temple, the significance of their religious ceremonies, and the wonder of their civil administration, all established by infinite wisdom, were nullified by the limitations they placed upon God, until from a great heart bursting with anguish came the bitter lament, "But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me" (Ps. 81:11).
They cried, "Give us a king to judge us," and limited the Holy One to a state of nationhood. They danced around a golden calf proclaiming, "These be thy gods, 0 Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt," and thus reduced God to the size and shape of an inanimate object made by their own hands. They carried the ark of the covenant into battle, indicating that God was limited to the confines of a golden box that could be borne upon their own shoulders.
So they turned back and tempted God and limited the Holy One of Israel until the nations round about believed that the God of Israel was in fact contained in a golden box, and was no better than the gods of wood and stone that they themselves made and worshiped.
Limited to Human Law
So it happened that "when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law" (Gal. 4:4, 5). But His people, having become smug and comfortable within the insulated cell of their restricted and misdirected vision, limited this Holy Child that was the Only Begotten of the Father, pronouncing Him to be the carpenter's son.
He came to His own and His own received Him not because He refused to conform to the limited program that they had prescribed for Him. How often would He have gathered them together as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, but they would not, but rather, they delivered Him to a civil governor to be judged, condemned, and cast aside. They said, "We have a law, and by our law he ought to die" (John 19:7). The law of the Eternal had become their law, to be administered within the limitations of human interpretation.
The Omnipresent One was limited geographically to the area occupied by the post of a cross, and held there by nails wrought and driven by the hands of men. He was enclosed by the cold stone walls of a borrowed tomb, sealed with the seal of Rome, and surrounded by a darkness equal to the darkness of the minds of a people who considered that the Holy One of Israel could be held captive by the rocks of His own creation, and restrained by the military might of an earth-bound power.
The custodians of the oracles of the Almighty had, by their chosen course, confined God within the compass of a man's mind, and had limited Him to the function of a rubber stamp, expecting that He would submissively endorse that which they planned and proposed.
Obviously such a state of affairs could not continue, and it is not surprising that God finally removed the responsibility and the privileges of witness from those who had so persistently provoked and grieved Him by setting limitations on His power.
But what of the chosen people, the royal priesthood, who were then commissioned to produce the fruitage of the limitless resources of Omnipotence? And more particularly, where do we stand today with respect to the charge laid in Psalm 78:41 against the chosen people of the old dispensation?
Unlimited Faith Needed
The majesty and magnitude of God, incomprehensible as it is in its fullness, is nevertheless revealed in part in many sublime and inspired passages of Scripture, which together constitute a mighty challenge to all who profess to be followers of the Christian faith, for God says in Isaiah 43:12: "Ye are my witnesses . . . , that I am God."
The performance of this act of witness calls for an unlimited faith, a faith that goes beyond the compass of personal attainment and wisdom, which is not restricted by natural desire or the limitations of natural law. Nor is it satisfied with the mere celebration of formal religion or the outward observance of a code of law.
It calls for a faith and a devotion that are not governed by impulse, comfort, or convenience, nor one that can be restrained or intimidated by secular authority or military power. It is not dependent upon economic security or astute management, and is not assessed in terms of magnificent buildings or a grand and efficient organization.
It is a vital, living faith that makes an ordinary earthen vessel (2 Cor. 4:7) the depository of the fabulous treasure of the eternal kingdom, and displays this treasure in such a way that the excellency of the power of the Infinite becomes wonderful, and desirable to the passer-by, and causes sinners to exclaim in sincerity and humility, "What must I do to be saved?"
If only we in our enlightened age could lay aside the scratching tools of our devising with which we have marked out the limitations of the Holy One of Israel, and allow Him to demonstrate through us the unlimited scope of His power, the work would be finished in a blaze of glory, and we would soon be home in the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world for those who love their God.