“The knowledge of the LORD shall cover the earth like the waters of the sea.”
This phrase was used twice during Dr. Bryan Chapell’s video presentation on the PCA Strategic Plan. Specifically it was used at the beginning (8:10) of his comments and again at the very end of his presentation. Since he didn’t give a Scripture reference it is hard to know what passage he was quoting. Furthermore, he is not following the ESV or the NIV which leads me to believe that he was quoting from memory.
Let me put things in context. After providing an overview of the challenges facing the PCA (and evangelicalism in general) and after noting that in 2008 the PCA recorded its first loss of membership, Dr. Chapell says, “Numbers aren’t everything…but we know that the purposes of God, ultimately, the name of Christ, ‘the knowledge of the LORD shall cover the earth as waters cover the sea.’ And shrinking as a church isn’t the best part of playing out that plan for the cause of Christ. The goal is not to become the New Amish. That can’t be what our strategic plan is. We have to be thinking, ‘How do we participate in what God is doing in the world?’” This use of Scripture left me scratching my head and I chose to do a bit of research.
I discovered that the phrase is found in two places: Isaiah 11:9 and Habbakuk 2:14. The Hebrew verb in question is ‘male’ meaning ‘to cover’ (BDB p. 569 # 4390). In Isaiah the verb is in the Qal tense (indicative) while in Habbakuk the verb is in the Niphal tense (passive). Keil & Delitzch, in their commentary on Habakkuk 2:14 view the fulfillment of both visions as completely dependent upon God. This is most clear in Habakkuk where the Niphal (passive tense) is used to indicate that God will fill the earth with the knowledge of Him in His own time and in His own way. Moreover, they understand Isaiah to be saying much the same thing and attribute his vision to the consummation of “the glory and blessedness of the Messianic kingdom in its perfect state. The earth is then full of the knowledge of the Lord, and the peace throughout all nature which has already been promised is one fruit of the knowledge” (p. 410, Volume 10 Minor Prophets). The Reformation Study Bible and the ESV Study Bible agree (interestingly, Harris, Archer and Waltke, interpret this scene figuratively. See the Theological Workbook of the Old Testament, p. 506, volume II).
While there is some debate about the precise meaning of these visions one thing is clear: neither vision includes an imperative (command) for God’s people to do anything. Moreover, neither prophet links the Great Commission to the Final Consummation nor do they make the Final Consummation contingent upon the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Yet, this is what Dr. Chapell articulates. Both prophets are clear that God will fill the earth with the knowledge of Himself whether His people are faithful or not (Indeed, if we stop and think about it, the knowledge of God already fills the earth [Psalm 19] but is being suppressed in unrighteousness [Romans 1]).
Denominational decline is cause for concern but let us not forget the theological context of Isaiah and Habbakuk. In 722 B.C. God permitted Assyria to conquer the northern ten tribes or Israel because of their apostasy. At the time Isaiah and Habbakuk were writing Judah had also fallen into apostasy and God was arranging the same form of discipline. It was in the midst of this profound spiritual decline God announced that a day was coming when “the knowledge of the LORD would cover the earth like the waters cover the sea.”
Applying this to the PCA, it is right to be concerned about denominational decline but let us not misread Scripture to lobby for wholesale changes to our church. Yes, we have a mandate to take the name of Christ to the ends of the earth and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) but let us not confuse that with the consummation of God’s reign. To do so is to fall prey to the Theology of Glory. It can also become a form of manipulation.
Denominational decline cannot be reversed by a better organization and a better strategic plan. It cannot occur from the top down. What’s striking about the Strategic Plan is what is missing: Prayer, dependence upon the Holy Spirit, and confidence in the ordinary means of grace.
Some might conlude that I'm bashing Dr. Chapell but that is hardly the case. I have a lot of respect for him. Instead of chiding us and making us feel guilty I wish he had quoted the words of Zechariah 4:6 “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” I wish that his presentation boldly called us to get on our knees and seek the Lord’s face instead of proposing things like making 'more seats at the table', creating 'safe places' and talking about 'Gospel eco-systems' (whatever those are).