Divine Sovereignty in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

Inside a Hobbit hole2
For all my fellow Tolkien “heads” out there; a long post for you.
There is a current running through all of Tolkien’s mythology that fascinates me. How things always seem to end up o.k, how help always seems to arrive at just the right moment, how events seem to flow seamlessly into one another for just the right combination to conquer evil. These themes point us to a major, i think, idea in Tolkien’s concept of light and darkness, of evil and how it fits within a larger concept of divine sovereignty.
Silmarrillion, Just under the Cover
In The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s supreme God, Illuvatar, makes some pretty striking comments toward Melkor, the evil being of Middle-Earth. He says, “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined,” (17) and again, “And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory,” (17). What a statement for the supreme God to make! No music, or creative act, can be done that can alter the creative force and direction of the things already set in motion by Illuvatar, and all attempts to thwart the glory of Illuvatar will but, in the end, prove and play a part in his ultimate glory. Wow. Considering the evil that comes from Melkor and the seed he sows, this is startling. Just a quick look at the major evil events that proceed from Melkor with prove that Tolkien’s mythological God is ultimately powerful and absolutely in control. We see from Melkor’s evil the events surrounding Feanor’s forsaking of Valinor, including the kinslaying at Alqualonde and the Prophecy of the North. We see proceeding from Melkor the tragic events of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, Beren and Luthien, the darkness surrounding the story of Turin in the Children of Hurin with the murder of Beleg and tragic deaths of both Turin and Niniel, the ruin of Doriath and the plundering of The Thousand Caves concerning the Simarils, the darkness spreading from Melkor in the story of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin, the further treachery of the children of Feanor in their war against their kin at the Havens of Sirion. We see Melkor’s minion, Sauron, working tirelessly in the downfall of Numenor, in the forging of the Rings of Power, in the battle surrounding the Last Alliance, the tragedy of Gladden fields and the pollution of Gollum. We see Melkor’s evil seed working in the ousting of the dwarves from Erebor and the subsequent battles fought over it, and finally in the events of the Lord of the Rings. It would be quite a task to show how each of these events works out for good, but all, it could be argued (though not here!) do. One example, though not sufficient, is of the origin of Elrond, son of Elwing (Beren’s grand daughter) and Earendil (son of Tuor). Because of the events surrounding the fall of Gondolin and of Beren and Luthien, Elrond was born. Elrond played an immense part in the Last Alliance, White Council, and in guiding the fellowship to destroy the One Ring. Skipping unbelievable amounts of history, from these evil and dark events it is hard to see how Tolkien could allow Illuvatar to make these statements concerning his sovereignty. Nonetheless, he does. But indeed it is crucial that a supreme God be sovereign or no God at all. It is a necessary attribute of a supreme God, and Tolkien knew this because of his knowledge of the One True God.

Moving from the realm of fiction to fact, we see God’s sovereignty in the Christian narrative so vividly. The biblical character, Joseph, declares God’s providence beautifully. He says of his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today,” (Genesis 50:20). In selling Joseph into slavery, his brothers committed horrendous sin, but it was because Joseph was sold into slavery that he was put in a position in Egypt to save his family in time of famine. In a striking autobiographical statement, the Lord says in Isaiah, “I form light and create darkness, I make well being and create calamity, I am the Lord who does all these things,” (Isaiah 45:7). Amos tell us, “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6). Job also says, “Shall we indeed receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Though we cannot say that God performs evil, we certainly must concede that He allows it and ordains it. The Bible describes God as the one who directs man’s steps even though man seems to plan them (Proverbs 16:9) and controls nations and people groups and seasons and times (Daniel 2:21, Daniel 4:25). He “kills and brings to life; he brings to Sheol and raises up, the LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts,” (1 Samuel 2:6-7), and “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,” (Acts 17:25-26). God’s sovereignty is essential to His character. His sovereignty, though, is expressed in its fullness in Jesus Christ. Genesis 3:15 tells us that from the first instance of sin, God purposed to send a savior to crush the powers of sin and evil forever. In Acts, we read that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” (Acts 2:23) and that Christ was crucified according to God’s predestined plan (Acts 4:28). Here we see that God ordained Christ to die before He actually died in time. The greatest sin committed and the greatest suffering ever felt, then, was planned, ordained, predestined, and achieved for the salvation of His people, for without Christ, there is no salvation (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 John 4:10, Hebrews 9:11-14, Isaiah 53:4-12). The genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1 shows God’s providence further. Matthew mentions five women, four of which were not an idea of perfection. Tamar committed unknowing familial incest with her father in law Judah, Rahab was a prostitute, Ruth was a Gentile, and the “wife of Uriah” was taken in adultery by King David. Yet Jesus comes from this genealogy.

Martin Luther says, ““the Christian’s chief and only comfort in every adversity lies in knowing that God does not lie, but brings all things to pass immutable, and that His will cannot be resisted, altered, or impeded,” (Bondage of the Will, 84). It is crucial for the Christian to believe in God’s sovereignty. In the midst of our daily struggles with sin, our constant suffering internally with sin and externally from the world, in the darkness surrounding us, we must believe that God is working and controlling all things, and then we can say triumphantly with Paul, “and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (Romans 8:28). And that, as Gandalf says in the movie, “is an encouraging thought.”

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