Question

Why call God “sovereign of the universe?”

David Arnow Jewish

Jewish liturgy repeatedly refers to God as melech ha’olam, “Sovereign” or “king of the universe,” and the story of the Exodus affirms the image of an activist God who saves the downtrodden and punishes the oppressor. Later we’ll have occasion to more fully explore God’s role in history, but for now it’s worth noting that the Bible itself struggles with this very question. The Book of Deuteronomy tries to explain the apparent absence of divine intervention by asserting that Israel’s sins bring about a hiding of God’s face, which allows evil to flourish (31:16-17). This hardly satisfied Job. “The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; He covers the eyes of its judges, if it is not He, then who? . . . I insist on arguing with God” (Job 9:24 and 13:3). Many of the psalms also angrily chide God for failing to exercise sovereignty: “Why Lord, do You stand aloof, heedless in times of trouble . . . The wicked . . . think God is not mindful, He hides His face, He never looks . . .” (Psalms 10:1-11). The rabbis of the Talmud were no less honest. One tale recounts why certain biblical texts ascribed to Jeremiah and Daniel fail to refer to God precisely as Moses had, as “mighty and awesome” (Deuteronomy 10:17). The explanation? Because in the days of Jeremiah enemies destroyed God’s Temple, so where’s the awesomeness? Because in Daniel’s day enemies enslaved God’s people, so where’s the might? Still, how did Jeremiah and Daniel dare to abolish something written by Moses? “They knew,” says the Talmud, “that God insists on truth and they would not ascribe false things to God!”The Aleynu, a prayer recited three times daily, refers to God as “our Sovereign,” but concludes that, “we hope in You . . . that we may soon behold Your might . . .” Paradoxically, we both assert God’s sovereignty and pray for — and work to bring — the day when it will truly become manifest.

Mary C. Boys Christian

To speak of God as “sovereign” of the universe is at once an act of faith and an expression of longing for divine mercy and justice to be manifest in our broken world. We voice our faith that the incomprehensible God cares for all creation. We cry out, mindful of the violence, chaos, and finitude of the human condition.

Clearly, God is not sovereign in the conventional sense of the term. God does not eradicate evil. Suffering abounds. How the infinite goodness of God can allow so much suffering remains a major enigma for religious persons. Job’s question has never been adequately answered.

While many Christians have thought of God as omnipotent, and thus incapable of suffering, others suggest that God is affected by our suffering; God is with us in our suffering. As theologian John Merkle writes, “If we stop thinking of omnipotence as an attribute of the divine, we will be free to appreciate as never before that the true mark of divinity—what makes God divine and thus worthy of our worship—is not absolute power and control, but infinite compassion, unending love.”*

Muhammad Shafiq Muslim

God in the Qur’an is Al Malik al Mulk (Sovereign of the sovereign). Al Mulk (the Sovereign) is one of His attributes in the Qur’an. His Throne extends over heavens and earth and He controls everything. In the famous Qur’anic verse called Aayatul Kursi, the Qur’an described God: “there is no deity save Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent Fount of All Being. Neither slumber overtakes Him, nor sleep. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth. Who is there that could intercede with Him, unless it be by His leave? He knows all that lies open before men and all that is hidden from them, whereas they cannot attain to aught of His knowledge save that which He wills [them to attain]. His eternal power overspreads the heavens and the earth, and their upholding wearies Him not. And he alone is truly exalted, tremendous” (2:255). Describing God as the Sovereign, the Qur’an says: “SAY: ‘O God, Lord of all dominion! Thou grantest dominion unto whom Thou willest, and takest away dominion from whom Thou willest; and Thou exaltest whom Thou willest, and abasest whom Thou willest. In Thy hand is all good. Verily, Thou hast the power to will anything’” (3:26).

But why does God humiliate some and destroy others? Why He makes some suffer and others prosper is a fundamental question raised in many religions. The Qur’an asks the people to take responsibility for all that happens to them. “Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because of the things your hands have wrought, and for many [of them] He grants forgiveness” (42:30). The Qur’an says: “Allah created the heavens and the earth for just ends, and in order that each soul may find the recompense of what it has earned and none of them be wronged” (45:22). God multiplies good deeds with His grace, but wrong deeds receive only what they deserve – and because God is merciful and forgiving, many times these bad deeds are overlooked and forgiven. The Qur’an says: “Whoever shall come [before God] with a good deed will gain 10 times the like thereof; but whoever shall come with an evil deed will be requited with no more than the like thereof; and none shall be wronged” (6:160). The good is even multiplied up to 700 times or even more with His Grace. The Qur’an says: “The parable of those who spend their possessions for the sake of God is that of a grain out of which grow seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains: for God grants manifold increase unto whom He wills; and God is infinite, all-knowing” (2:261).

When suffering and calamities happen, why does God, the Sovereign, not stop them? The Qur’an would say so that people take the responsibility and also turn back to Him. “Mischief has appeared on land and sea because of [the deed] that the hands of men have earned, that [Allah] may give them a taste of some of their deeds: in order that they may turn back [from Evil]” (30:41). But suffering is not always caused by wrong deeds; it may be a test of faith from God as it was in the case of Prophet Job. Or it may be to reward them with something greater as it was in the case of Khidr [the Green one] and Moses, where Khidr kills a child. Answering Moses’ objection to the killing, Khidr said, “God will compensate the parents with a better one” (18:74-80). There is a story of a pious man in Muslim tradition. Whenever any one would complain to him of a suffering, he would say: “Be pleased there is good (al Khair) in it.” There was a man who intended to injure the pious man when he came out of his home. While the man was waiting outside, the pious man fell down inside his home, injured his knee and did not come out. The man went inside the house and found the pious man suffering. When his potential assailant asked about the injury, the pious man said: “There must be good in it.” Then the other man told him of his bad intentions and confessed that whatever God does is always good for humanity but many times we do not realize it.

Note: Translation of the Qur’anic verses and many of the Hadith translation with references were taken from Islamicity.com; some translations of and references to the Hadith were taken from ahadith.co.uk.

2 responses to “Why call God “sovereign of the universe?””

  1. davidson says:

    There are estimated to be 100 billion to 200 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. There are also estimated to be 100 to 200 billion galaxies in the universe. This scale is beyond imagination. To reach the nearest star outside the Milky Way would take over 4 light years: traveling at 186,000 miles per second for four years. The stars we see at night have never existed in that configuration. Some may have died hundreds of millions of years ago. Other new stars may have been born many millions of years ago, but their light still hasn’t reached us. Here are two useful thought experiments to put our presence, and the age of all our religions and all of their many gods in perspective:

    1. If the time since the Big Bang is condensed into one year, then
    Cro Magnon – the first recognized human – has been here about one minute. One minute out of the 525,960 minutes in a year (365.25 days). And the 4,000 years of our recorded history, including the birth of all our existing religions and their gods, go back just one one-millionth of the way to the origins of life four billion years ago.

    2. If we extend our arms straight out to the side, making us look
    like a “T,” and count the distance from the tip of our right middle finger to
    the tip of our left middle finger as representing all the time since our planet Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, then we could erase the presence of humans – about 200,000 years – with one quick and very light swipe of a nail file across the end of the fingernail of one hand.

    Why would we think that religious stories and gods invented in about the last one-millionth of the year of life (the 4,000 years of our recorded history) could know or tell us much about who we are, how we came to be this way and how we should live? All of our gods and religions are just too new, and the wisdom they can offer about our nature and our relationship to all other life on earth is too narrow, and too shallow, to be useful for much beyond nostalgia. We share over 98% of our DNA with our two closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. Those who wrote the Bible couldn’t even have known those great apes existed. Ethologists are finding that we share most or all of our best traits with nearly all other social species, and many thousands of other species, all of whom evolved before we did. These traits include empathy, compassion, a sense of fairness, and an innate capacity to respond to the needs of other species that has even more scope than the nearly worldwide “golden rule.” We got that sense of empathy and compassion through evolution as the other species did, then we projected it onto our religions and gods once we began creating our religions and gods.

    I understand the nostalgic appeal of waxing rhapsodic about the beliefs we grew up with, especially as religion in the U.S. is now going the way of religion in Europe after WWII. Between 2000-2005, for example, church and synagogue attendance declined in all fifty states. Still, speaking of one of the gods we created as being in any sense “universal” — maybe there is a tender childhood naiveté involved, but there is also incredible arrogance, isn’t there? During the last couple centuries, the word “God” has gone from referring to a kind of Being to being a symbol, a metaphor, trying to point toward what we imagine is our larger context. God-talk has, in our lifetimes, become merely an idiom of expression, a dialect, trying to call forth visions of ourselves as parts of something truly great. That was an honest move, the only way to grow beyond literalism. But it’s also a Trojan Horse. For once god-talk is seen as a vehicle for noble and ennobling thoughts, the question arises of whether it’s still a very GOOD vehicle. Dying church attendance is saying no, it is not. The challenge to those in traditional religions is to back off and view their gods and myths as — to use the Buddhist imagery — “fingers pointing toward the moon.” That “moon” is the possibility of growing further into our full humanity, and if the word “sacred” applies anywhere, it applies to that yearning. All people, and all their gods and religions, are yearning for that sense of more fullness and connection. Without intentionally opening the symbols, gods and myths to point far beyond themselves, it looks and feels like we’re just giving our people the finger.

    More. This is all in harmony with a major theme of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures: bringing “god” down to earth — through Moses, and then Jesus. Our task is to “secularize” religion: to bring it down to earth, to recognize its gods as ancient creations of ours with their own evolutionary history (Yahweh as war god with the attributes of a tribal chief added later) — and then to grow beyond them. A major task, for which those educated in fields of religion are best prepared, is to translate the concerns of religion from jargon (including jargon like “God,” “salvation,” etc.) into ordinary language. If we can’t, we’re not communicating, but merely chanting familiar old sounds in a world and a universe infinitely bigger, older, and different than the authors of a few thousand years ago could ever have imagined.

    Do you think I’m missing something?

  2. Allyson Szabo says:

    Via LinkedIn: Allyson Szabo, Minister at Patchwork Interfaith Ministries

    I actually don’t like the title “sovereign”, to be honest. :) For me, it brings up mental images of men in purple robes abusing the little people around them, and that is definitely not how I picture the Divine All. Also, because I don’t have an “all is One” view of Divinity, I don’t see there being a single sovereign but more a … hm. Consortium? Council? I’m not really sure! :)

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