Determinism in the Hebrew Scriptures: Daniel

, posted by

The prophet Daniel offers believers a startling portrait of our sovereign God while faithfully maintaining the biblical truth of genuine human freedom and responsibility. His doctrine of God’s sovereignty appears methodically organized in the exact manner as non-determinists or libertarians advocate: God is sovereign Ruler of His universe, yet His creatures render decisions from their own mind, and their own heart, without adding the unnecessary and unbiblical theory that God has secretly decreed1 and influenced2 those decisions, as Calvinists speciously insist.

From the opening remark, of the first chapter, we discover God’s governance of the events of kings and kingdoms: “Now the Lord delivered King Jehoiakim of Judah into his [King Nebuchadnessar’s] power, along with some of the vessels of the temple of God.” (Dan. 1:2 NET, emphases added) That God determinately delivered the King of Judah into the hands of the enemy demonstrates God’s sovereignty, but He did so judiciously, and not by mere decree or power; and that God determinately yet judiciously delivered the King of Judah into the hands of the enemy’s power demonstrates a free action deriving from King Nebuchadnezzar himself and his forces.

In other words, Daniel is not suggesting that God is playing a game of thrones, to pardon the reference. God is not forcing Judah into the hands of the enemy by forcing King Nebuchadnezzar to capture Judah. Nebuchadnezzar’s desire was to conquer Judah, and God, because of Judah’s wickedness, determined not to thwart Nebuchadnezzar’s efforts but, to the contrary, support his free-will cause. God was judging disobedient Judah for her actions that stemmed from a heart that no longer wanted YHWH for her Sovereign.

In captivity, the prophet Daniel “made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank; so he sought permission from the commander of the officials that he might not defile himself. Now God granted Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the commander of the officials.” (Dan. 1:8-9 NASB, emphases added) Again we see human freedom and God’s sovereignty in action, while granting proper boundaries for each; meaning, Daniel freely “made up his mind” that he would not defile himself, while God was working in the hearts of the court officials to be sympathetic toward Daniel’s request.

In order for such passages of Scripture to afford the Calvinist his or her deterministic views, Scripture must be re-interpreted to suggest that God determined by decree and brought about that Daniel would not defile himself with the royal delicacies, as well as determined by decree and brought about directly the overwhelming influence of the desires of the court officials to be sympathetic toward Daniel. Scripture, however, will not allow us to re-interpret the passages thusly.

This is why, in holy writ, we find that Daniel “made up his [own] mind that he would not defile himself with the royal delicacies or the royal wine,” and that God “granted Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the commander of the officials.” Scripture leaves both truths intact: human beings retain a great measure of freedom to the making of their own decisions from various choices, or options, while God maintains His sovereignty, without re-imagining and necessarily re-defining His sovereignty in meticulous and exhaustive fashion (i.e., God determines by decree what we think, say, and do).

Throughout the book of Daniel, we find the same theme, that people freely render their own decisions (cf. Dan. 3:4, 5, 12, 18) and God remains sovereign (cf. Dan. 2:44; 3:25, 26, 27, 28, 29; 4:17). God gave Daniel, as well as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, gifts of knowledge and skill, while these young men used them at their will (Dan. 1:17, 20; 2:1, 2, 5, 10, 11, 17, 18, 27, 28, 30). For example, when King Nebuchadnezzar freely chose to exalt himself, and all that he believed himself to have accomplished (Dan. 4:19-24, 28-30), God sovereignly brought down his arrogance upon him — and he remain humbled “until [he] … learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will.” (Dan. 4:27, 32; 5:21; but cf. Hos. 8:3, 4) Note, also, that the king had to freely learn this truth for himself the hard way.

That God is holding people responsible for their own decisions and actions should itself be a tell-tale sign that He has in no sense decreed and rendered certain what decisions we make and what actions we assume. To suggest that a just and holy God would decree and thus render certain, as well as actually influence, our desires and decisions is to hold a distorted view of our sovereign God and, obviously, an errant theodicy. How deceitful must God be, in the Calvinistic scheme, to secretly decree and influence a person, or a group of people, toward a wicked or sinful end, and then to judge them for actually accomplishing what He decreed and influenced the same to commit? Is this a just or righteous or holy God? “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11; cf. 2 Cor. 1:16-20) Daniel Whedon comments:

We inaugurate, then, what we will call the axiom of freedom and responsibility, and hold it as valid as any axiom of geometry. Power must underlie obligation [and here we include the reality of God’s power at work in us]. There can be no full moral obligation to an act, volitional or non-volitional, for which there is not full and adequate power in the required agent. Otherwise, there can be no guilt or responsibility for act or volition, for avoidance of which there is not complete and adequate power; that is, for which there is no power adequate to counter an act or volition. If guilt, or responsibility, or obligation is a reality, then the power of counter choice is a reality. Responsibility, therefore, demonstrates free will.3

While we think that Whedon’s philosophical argument is sound, we do not base our assumptions on mere logic, but on God’s word. Not only are we given ample evidence in Scripture to insist that God in no sense decrees, renders certain, as well as influences, our desires and decisions, but Scripture also accords with the sound reasoning of logic.

God’s sovereign rulership and the free will of human beings is further evidenced in the following passage addressed to Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Belshazzar: “O king, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar kingship, greatness, glory, and majesty [denoting the sovereignty of our great God]. And because of the greatness that he gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him.” (Dan. 5:18, 19a) Now note how the king abused the sovereign gift of God by his own freedom: “He killed those he wanted to kill, kept alive those he wanted to keep alive, honored those he wanted to honor, and degraded those he wanted to degrade.” (Dan. 5:19)

Were we to interpret this passage, in a strict determinist fashion, the following would demonstrate the reality we would be forced to accept: “He killed those God decreed, rendered certain and influenced him to kill, kept alive those God decreed, rendered certain and influenced him to keep alive, honored those God decreed, rendered certain and influenced him to honor, and degraded those God decreed, rendered certain and influenced him to degrade.” If Calvinistic determinism were true, then the preceding, re-imagined passage is also true. Thankfully, the Calvinistic view of God’s character is not biblical, and is certainly not reality; for who could imagine living in such a confused and topsy-turvy world, in which evil is rendered not only necessary but also good, since both evil and good derive from the same allegedly good source?

Belshazzar, just like his father Nebuchadnezzar, freely disobeyed the righteous ways of our sovereign God. (Dan. 5:22-23) Therefore, God confronted him with a message written on a wall by a hand without an arm or a body, the writing of which Daniel was called to interpret. Belshazzar then made Daniel third in the kingdom but was assassinated that very evening. (Dan. 5:29-31) Enter King Darius.

We find the same themes of God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will under the rule of Darius. One of Darius’ counsel members influenced the king to establish a rule in which everyone without distinction in the whole kingdom worship and pray to the King for thirty days (Dan. 6:6-9). This was an effort to trap righteous Daniel for worshiping and praying to the God of Israel. Before moving on let us emphasize one fact that if Calvinistic determinism were true then God Himself would have decreed, rendered certain and influenced the idolatry inherent in this Babylonian edict of worshiping and praying to Darius. Yet, we have learned from God that He absolutely detests idolatry (cf. Ex. 20:4, 5; Deut. 5:9; 7:25, 26). Suggesting that God would decree, render certain, and influence idolatry is in direct opposition and contradiction to the nature and character of God.

Here again we discover the tenacity and integrity of Daniel, who refuses to worship and to pray to Darius, but remains loyal unto death to the true God of Israel (Dan. 6:10-13). But Darius was very fond of Daniel: “When the king heard the charge, he was very much distressed. He was determined to save Daniel, and until the sun went down he made every effort to rescue him.” (Dan. 6:14) This is a very moving and passionate passage, one that demonstrates the inner motives and desires of Darius, which are, we must confess, absent of any notion or hint of divine determinism.

For example, had God influenced Darius’ desires and decisions to rescue Daniel, then God failed in His efforts since Daniel was still thrown into the den of lions. Yes, God sovereignly protected Daniel from the hunger of the starving lions, but God’s alleged immediate influencing of Darius to intervene on Daniel’s behalf was ineffective. This itself betrays any notion of God’s sovereignty from a deterministic perspective.

But notice this peculiar statement from Daniel: “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him” (Dan. 6:22, emphasis added). Daniel references his own integrity and righteousness as the leading cause of God rescuing him, not God’s glory, not God’s renown. The author himself concurs: “So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.” (Dan. 6:23, emphasis added) For all the hue and cry of the Calvinist regarding boasting before God, Daniel turns such on its head, and insists that his own integrity and faith in God was the causative factor in God delivering him from harm.

Daniel also reveals to us that God is a “great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments.” (Dan. 9:4, emphasis added; cf. Ex. 20:6; Deut. 5:10; 7:9) Note what the text does not suggest, that God keeps His covenant and steadfast love with those whom He influences to love Him and keep His commandments. There is a great thematic truth here that is repeated by Jesus: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. … Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:4, 6) Followers of God are responsible for faithfully abiding in their covenant-promise with God by the grace of God.

In Daniel’s prayer we again discover human freedom and responsibility: “we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land [of Israel].” (Dan. 9:5-6) Painstakingly, yet again, if Calvinist determinism were true then we would be obliged to interpret this passage thusly:

We have sinned by Your decree, done wrong by Your decree, acted wickedly and rebelled by Your decree, turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances by You rendering certain and influencing us to do so. You decreed, rendered certain, and influenced us not to listen to Your servants the prophets, whom You decreed, rendered certain, and influenced to speak in Your name.

Though such a concept is unthinkable, this is the only consistent form and conclusion of Calvinistic determinism. Though this concept betrays the very justice of God, this is the only consistent form and conclusion of Calvinistic determinism. Yet Daniel rightly frames the matter: “Open shame, O LORD, falls on us, our kings, our officials, and our ancestors, because we have sinned against you. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him, and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.” (Dan. 9:8, 9)

We also discover from Daniel that God reacts and interacts with our free decisions: “He said to me, ‘Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I [the angel Gabriel] have come because of your words.'” (Dan. 10:12, emphasis added) Yes, we do clearly see free actions of relatively free creatures in the brief remainder of this book (cf. Dan. 10:20, 21; 11:11, 12, 13; 31, 32, 36, 37, 38, 39; 12:10), as well as our sovereign God at work in His world and among His creatures (cf. Dan. 12:2). The only proper perspective Scripture offers is that God is sovereign over His world, including the fallen creatures who are created in His image, while those creatures daily demonstrate a relative freedom in their own desires and decisions. This truth, then, renders the pagan philosophical theology and theodicy of determinism entirely unbiblical.


1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), I.18.1.

2 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.

3 Daniel D. Whedon, Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, ed. John D. Wagner (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009), 318.