Decrees issued by rulers, written commands having the effect of law, and the metaphor of God as King of the world provide the imagery behind the Bible's references to God's "decrees."
Terms translated "decree" in Hebrew and/or Aramaic include dat [t'D] (a loanword from Persian) used in Daniel, Ezra, and Esther for decrees of God and human (especially Persian) monarchs, taam [[;f] for the orders of high officials including kings, hoq/huqqaa [q,qej] used especially of God's laws, esar [r's\a] (lit. "something binding"), and gezeraa [h'rzG] ("something decided"); and in Greek dogma [dovgma] ("a [public] decree, decision"). The idea of "decree" may be present even where a specific technical term for "decree" does not occur.
God and Human Decrees. Even in decrees by human monarchs God shows his own decrees or purposes to be sovereign.
In Exodus 7-14 God shows his decrees to be sovereign over Pharaoh's by "hardening" Pharaoh's heart. This "hardening" involves the creation of an irrational mind-set. Despite the miraculous plagues, Pharaoh refuses to do the reasonable thing (decreeing Israel's release from bondage), thereby bringing further disaster on himself and his land. In the early stages of the story Pharaoh appears to be a free agent, hardening his own heart ( Exod 8:15 ), but as the story develops God is increasingly portrayed as the direct cause of Pharaoh's stupidity. Pharaoh is ultimately reduced to a mere puppet of Yahweh ( Exodus 14:4 Exodus 14:8 ).
The decrees of Cyrus ( Ezra 5:13-15 ; 6:3-5 ; 1:2-4 ) to allow the Jews to return from Babylonian exile and rebuild Jerusalem was prophesied beforehand ( Isaiah 44:26-45:4 Isaiah 44:13 ) and providentially prompted by God, who "stirred up" Cyrus's spirit to issue it ( 2 Chron 36:22 ; Ezra 1:1 ). Nonetheless, Ezra-Nehemiah sees a cooperation of heaven and earth in which human initiative (via Zerubbabel, Joshua, Ezra, and Nehemiah) and divine control are both prominent. Hence, the rebuilding of Jerusalem is said to be both "by the command of God" and "by the decrees" of several Persian monarchs ( Ezr 7:13 ).
God delivers Daniel and his friends from various human decrees one by Nebuchadnezzar to kill the sages of Babylon ( Dan 2:13 ), another to cremate anyone not worshiping the image of Nebuchadnezzar ( Dan 3:10-11 ), a third "immutable" decree to cast to lions anyone praying to a god or person besides Darius the Mede ( Dan 6:7-9 ). Providence reverses Ahasuerus/Xerxes' decree to exterminate the Jews ( Es 3:7-15 ) so that the enemies of the Jews are destroyed by royal decree instead ( Est 8:8-9:16 ). The decree of Caesar Augustus for a census ( Luke 2:1 ) is providentially used to ensure the fulfillment of the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem ( Micah 5:2 ; cf. Matt 2:4-6 ).
God's Decrees and the Law. The terms hoq/huqqaa [q,qej] ordinarily translated "statue, " "prescription, " or "ordinance" in reference to God's laws, are from the root (hqq [q; 'j]), meaning to "engrave, carve; write; fix, determine." This root always involves an action of a superior that affects an inferior, and in some contexts refers to human decrees ( Isa 10:1 "Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees" ). Use of hoq/huqqaa [q,qej] seemingly conceptualizes God's "laws" as "decrees" (so NIV cf. Deuteronomy 4:1 Deuteronomy 4:5-6 Deuteronomy 4:8 ).
Colossians 2:14 (cf. Eph 2:15 ) states that Christ by the cross canceled the certificate of debt consisting of "decrees" (NASB; Gk. dogmata [dovgma]) against us. Evidently this is in reference to God's laws that we have violated and which, apart from the cross, condemn us.
Prophetic Decrees. Predictive prophecies resemble decrees by God determining the course of history: "The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed (lit. "written")" in the prophets ( Luke 22:22 ; cf. Matthew 26:53-54 Matthew 26:56 ). God decrees Ahab's doom ( 1 Kings 22:23 ) and destruction on Israel ( Isa 10:23 ); "Seventy sevens'" (often understood as "weeks of years") have been decreed for the history of Daniel's people ( Dan 9:24 ). The scroll sealed with seven seals in Revelation 5:1 perhaps represents a divine decree determining the destiny of the world.
Sometimes predictive "decrees" can be abrogated, repentance averting punishment and disobedience annulling blessing ( Jer 18:7-10 ; Jonah 3:10 ). Hence, despite the "decree" of the destruction, Zephaniah can call the people to seek God "before the decree takes effect Perhaps you will be hidden in the day of the Lord's anger" (2:1-3 NASB).
Political and Cosmic Order. Poetic texts describe God's decrees as having established political and cosmic order.
Psalm 2, an enthronement psalm, states that it was by the Lord's decree (hoq [qoj]) that each Davidic king was adopted as a son of God at his coronation (cf. 2 Sam 7:14 ). The language of this psalm was never literally fulfilled by any Davidic king during the monarchy, but rather finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Romans 1:4, which says Jesus Christ was "declared [or possibly decreed] with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead, " may well allude to the "decree" of Psalm 2:7.
The psalmist describes God's gift of the land as a decree ( Psalm 105:10 ). Job felt his suffering was by divine decree ( Job 23:14 ). Lamentations 3:37 states that all things, good or bad, have been decreed by God. God gave a lasting decree that fixed heavenly bodies in their places ( Psalm 148:3-6 ).
God's Decrees and Election. Calvin understood God's choosing us in Christ before creation and predestinating us to adoption "in accord with his pleasure and will" ( Eph 1:3-5 ) as an immutable, divine decree.
Church Decrees. Paul and Timothy disseminated the Jerusalem church's decrees (the decision of Acts 15), presumably providentially guided, concerning relations between Jewish and Gentile Christians ( Acts 16:4 ). Paul in his epistles never utilized this decree of Acts 15 as church "law, " however, even where he could have. Ultimately in the postapostolic church this term for decree (dogma [dovgma]) comes to refer to authoritative teachings of church councils.
Joel M. Sprinkle
Bibliography. M. Black, Romans; J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion; D. J. Clines, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther; H. H. Esser, NIDNTT, 1:330-31; D. M. Gunn, Art and Meaning: Rhetoric in Biblical Literature, pp. 72-96; H. Ringgren, TDOT, 5:141-42; G. Schrenk, TDNT, 1:619.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Decrees'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".