Is ‘our God greater than any other’?

imagesOver the last few months I have found myself less and less comfortable with the song by Chris Tomlin that has the chorus:

Our God is greater, our God is stronger
God you are higher than any other
Our God is Healer, awesome in power
Our God, Our God…

At first I thought that the main reason was that it sounded a little the ‘My dad’s bigger than your dad’ playground taunt directed at other religions. I wonder how it would feel to sing this in, say, a Muslim majority area, or with converts from another religion in your congregation?

But on reflection I realised that there was a deeper reason. It occurred to me that it is very rare for Scripture to use comparatives (greater, stronger and so on) to describe God, even in contexts of different and competing faith perspectives. Most often Scripture uses absolutes of God, claiming not that the God of Israel can do things better than the gods of the other nations, but that he can do things that simply no other god can do. I suspect this is the idea behind stories like the battle between David and Goliath—it is not that David’s god is stronger than Goliath’s, but that there is simply no comparison to be made. Another classic example is the mocking of idols as nothing in Is 44:

Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”

This polemical poetry follows, of course, from several chapters in this second part of Isaiah which waxes lyrical about the incomparability of Yahweh, Israel’s god who will show his power and his love by bringing them back from exile—and in fact this sense of the absolute, rather than comparative, greatness of God is explored in the verses of Tomlin’s song. ‘Who is like God?’ the prophet cries—in Hebrew ‘Mi-cha-el?’

Michael and his angels are the subject of the Sunday lectionary reading for Michaelmas from Revelation 12, a text that it is not easy to preach from. In order to do so, there are some important things to note:

1. The chapter is clearly structured in four parts:

  • a strange story about a pregnant woman, a dragon, and the ‘male son’ to whom the woman gives birth in vv 1 to 6
  • a quite different style of story involving Michael and his angels in vv 7 to 9
  • a Christian hymn of praise, celebrating the victory that has been won, in vv 10 to 12
  • in v 13, a return to the original story, clearly signalled by the repetition of the woman, her birth to the male son, and her flight to the desert (using Exodus language which also occurs in Is 40) for the same period. (3.5 years = 42 months = 1260 days if you have perfect months of 30 days each.)

2. The characters clearly come from the Old Testament. The woman stands for the people of God, experiencing oppression or suffering expressed as birthpangs, waiting to be ‘delivered’, in both sense of the term, by Yahweh (see Isaiah 26.17, Isaiah 66.7, Micah 4.10, Micah 5.3). The dragon is explained as the serpent and Satan (Gen 3.13, Ezek 29.3, Job 1.6, Zech 3.1). The male son is the expected messiah, the anointed one who will be the agent of God’s rescue and delivery (Ps 2.9, Dan 10.13).

3. But what about the plot of the main story framing this whole chapter? If I retold the gospel story starting ‘There were three bears who lived in a wood…’ or ‘A girl went out in a red cloak with a hood…’ then you would recognise the story immediately. If you lived in the Roman province of Asia in the first century, you would immediately recognise Rev 12, because it would remind you of this:

Python, son of Terra, was a huge dragon. He was accustomed to giving oracles on Mount Parnassus before the time of Apollo. He was informed by an oracle that he would be destroyed by the offspring of Leto. At that time Zeus was living with Leto. When [Zeus’ wife] Hera learned of this, she decreed that Leto should give birth at a place where the sun does not reach. When Python perceived that Leto was pregnant by Zeus, he began to pursue (her) in order to kill her. But, by order of Zeus, the North Wind (Aquilo) lifted Leto up and carried her to Poseidon; Poseidon protected her, but in order not to rescind Hera’s decree, he carried her to the island Ortygia and covered the island with waves. When Python did not find Leto, he returned to Parnassus. But Poseidon returned the island Ortygia to the upper region, and it was later called the island of Delos. There, holding on to an olive tree, Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis, to whom Haphaestus gave arrows as a gift. Four days after they were born, Apollo avenged his mother. He went to Parnassus and killed Python with arrows.

7000902970_1509aa153dThis was told as a myth in support of imperial power: the emperor was the hero Apollo and he vanquishes Python, symbolising the forces of chaos and disorder, bringing in Pax Romana. The book of Revelation inverts this: the Apollo figure is now this male child who is to rule the nations, and the chaos monster now represents God’s primeval enemy, of whom Roman rule (in the form of the beast from the sea) is henchman. Here we have a written example of a political cartoon, used to tell us the truth about whether Caesar is Lord or Jesus is Lord.

But the most puzzling thing about the passage is the role of Michael in delivering the victory of the messiah. Once you know the Python/Leto story, it is clear from the first part of Rev 12that it is the ‘male son’ who is the champion. But when it comes to delivering the knock-out blow (as it were) in v 9, then this messiah figure is nowhere to be seen. And yet, when we reach the hymn celebrating the victory, in vv 10 and 11, it is clear not only that the victory belongs to the messiah, but that it has been won at the cost of his own blood. Why is there such discontinuity at the crucial moment? It is a puzzle that baffles most commentators.

tadolini_michaelPart of the answer lies in the fact that John, writing Revelation, is drawing on different traditions and stories in these different sections—the Python/Leto myth at beginning and end, and Jewish tradition about Michael in the middle. But he could have easily adapted them to address this issue. No, I think it is quite deliberate. John wants to avoid the idea that the male son is ‘greater’ than the serpent, as if it were possible to compare the two. Like Isaiah, he wants us to say ‘Mi-cha-el? Who is like God? There is no-one with whom he compares.’ Jesus’ victory is so comprehensive, so far-reaching, so surprising and radical, so gracious and life-giving, that there can be no comparison with his adversary, the accuser of the brethren.

Perhaps we should stick with Chris Tomlin’s verses from his song only—unless someone can suggest an alternative chorus?

(First published in Sept 2013. You can read more about the interpretation of Revelation, including chapter 12, in my Grove booklet.)

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15 thoughts on “Is ‘our God greater than any other’?”

  1. Doesn’t Hebrews talks a lot about Jesus being ‘better’ or ‘greater’. Also could 1 John 4:4 be where Tomlin got his song verse? ‘He (God) who is in You is greater than he that is in the world.’ As we know for people labouring under controlling powers its such helpful and liberating news to realise that he who lives in us is ‘greater’ i.e more powerful and wonderful and glorious than all the alternative narratives vying for our love and affections. Yes He is the best but isn’t He also just ‘better’. God bless.

  2. Ian,

    ‘ It occurred to me that it is very rare for Scripture to use comparatives (greater, stronger and so on) to describe God, even in contexts of different and competing faith perspectives.’

    You might then agree, if comparatives are rare, then surely superlatives are abundant, e.g. doesn’t the title ‘Most High’ indicate unrivalled superiority? Superiority must be relative to something else.

    In terms of the impact on this apparent bragging on those of other faith, St. Paul sets the example by working from the Athenians’ inadvertent admission of ignorance: ‘I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship–and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.’ (Acts 17:23)

    He also cherry-picks Cleanthes’ hymn to Zeus and Aratus’ poem since they resonate with the central demand of gospel for repentance from idolatry. (Rom. 9:20,21)

    I would add that much of the Judeo-Christian worship tradition involves repeatedly comparing the scale and majesty of God, both relative to overwhelming natural phenomena (e.g. the panoply of stars, volcanic power, deluges and sea monsters) and to the vanity of human authorities and their false devotions.

    The aim is to demonstrate that our Lord is incomparable. I really don’t can’t see the problem with Chris Tomlin’s lyrics which have the same aim. ‘Higher than any other’ is Most High.

  3. I’m not so sure I agree with you on the song, though I think your exposition of Revelation 12 is bang on.

    To explain, I think you’re both reading too much into the lyrics, and too little. To say “our God is greater than any other” does not, to my mind, limit the meaning to a comparison between our God and other gods; but between God and all things. Our God is greater than man, our God is greater than this world, our God is greater, in fact, than anything we can conceive of. I think therefore that it is an absolutism, and one that fits with your explanation. There is undoubtedly a meaning of “my dad is better than your dad”, but it is not the only one and for me at least, not the main one either.

    That said, I am not convinced by your assertion that the bible only uses absolutes for God. I don’t think the bible ever describes God though direct comparison to other deities, objects or places, but I would argue it certainly does so through contrast to those those things, especially man.

    Man is like this, but God is like this.
    Man desires this, but God desires that.
    God once did this, so will do it again.

    And so on.

  4. So, if I understand you correctly, the apostle John did not base the Book of Revelation on visions or on what he was told to write, like he claimed. Instead John made most of it up, based on stories, fables & legends that he was familiar with.

    • No, you haven’t understood me correctly! I am not sure I say anything here on what kind of vision John had or reports. (Have you ever experienced having a vision? How did you report it?)

      I am noting what any first century reader would have done: that what John writes has strong correspondence with a story that they already knew, and which John knew too. You can explain that any way you like (God gave John a vision using this story; John explained this vision using this story; John made it all up) but it is difficult to deny the close parallel.

        • Wait, what?

          One of the most essential practices for any exegete is to look at how a particular phrase or passage would have sounded to it’s first readers/hearers: what resonances does it make, does it reference other work, or imagery, or places that those hearers would have known.

          This is the starting point of any attempt to take a historical text seriously and that is all that’s going on here. In regards the virgin birth accounts, they do indeed contain imagery borrowed from comparative accounts in ancient culture (as indeed does creation, the flood, and numerous other examples from both testaments), but they are not imitations and use the same language/images to make quite different points, as here in Revelation also.

          If you genuinely think this constitutes “dodgy ground” then I’m afraid you’re the one in most danger of loosing their footing here.

  5. On Revelation 12. I don’t think you make a strong case at all for a move to “Michael” being a deliberate attempt to avoid comparison between the ‘male son’ and his enemy. It seems far more likely that the author would expect ‘Michael’ to be understood as ‘Jesus’ anyway – the ‘Mi-cha-el’ who ‘IS like God’ and fulfills the prophetic role of Michael. So I don’t see a comparison is being deliberately avoided -nor do I think that such a comparison would need to be avoided…

    Although I’d agree (re: Isaiah’s ‘Who is like God?’) that “there can be no comparison”, Isaiah does INVITE such comparison in order to make that point, just as Elijah invites a comparison to be made by putting forward his ‘fire’ challenge. I don’t think Chris Tomlin’s chorus does anything beyond that.

    He may well have got his words from 2Chronicles 2:5’s “our God is greater than all gods”.

    Your mention of “my dad’s bigger than yours” – I’d never though of it like that, but it is a reminder that we don’t always meet words from the same place and setting context within worship can be very helpful.

    But all in all, I think it can be a very expressive chorus and I’ll continue to sing it as it is – just a bit louder! 🙂

    • Thanks Jas. But are you seriously suggesting that the figure of Michael is simply the figure of Jesus with another name?

      Although Jesus has angelomorphic features e.g. in the vision in Rev 1, he is very clearly distinguished from the angelic figures in the narrative of the text, and the episode in Rev 19.10 where John falls at the angel’s feet and is commanded only to worship God is a powerful antithesis to the vision in Rev 1 where John does fall down prostrate.

      So ‘Michael’ is clearly angelic and not Jesus, yet in the narrative he appears to effect the victory of Jesus over Satan (compare Rev 12.11)—so we are left with a narrative/logical problem.

      • No- I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness 🙂 I shall explain in a little more detail…

        The fight between Michael and the dragon [Rev 12:7-9], resulting in Satan and the angels being hurled down to earth alludes to the same in the Book of Watchers. In the Watchers, it is indeed ‘Michael’ who wins the battle over Satan and his angels. But here in Revelation what follows [Rev 12:10-11] shows that it is Jesus who truly wins the victory over Satan. So Jesus has taken and fulfilled the ‘Michael’ role.

        So who is the one ‘like God’ who defeats Satan? Is it Michael, leader of the angels? Not here: it’s Jesus, who’s much more ‘like God’ than Michael – actually being God himself.
        So there’s really no narrative/logical problem, just a bit of an onslaught of imagery.

  6. Great article.

    Sadly, I think you’re hit the nail on the head with your comment:

    “At first I thought that the main reason was that it sounded a little the ‘My dad’s bigger than your dad’ playground taunt directed at other religions.”

    Far too much of the rhetoric we hear from Christians is tribal. My understanding of the Gospel is that the good news had been transferred from a covenant with a single tribe (who became twelve) to a message for all nations, tribes and tongues.

    It appears, however, that many Christians would rather retain the tribal “my god is better than yours” (lowercase g deliberate), rather than the open and expansive Gospel that Jesus announced and Paul preached.

  7. Hi Ian,
    Like Mat, I also think your exposition of Revelation 12 is bang on, but I must say I have never felt uncomfortable with the words in Chris Tomlin’s song. I also just thought of the chorus ‘His name in higher than any other, His name is Jesus, His name is Lord.’ – I have never felt uncomfortable with the wording of this either. God is incomparable and maybe that goes without saying, and yet I for one do make comparisons – I sometimes pray, for instance, ‘Lord, no matter how dark the darkness, your light is brighter.’ I also just thought of this from Corrie ten Boom: ‘No pit is so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.’

  8. There is only one God and He is Greater that any so called gods that man wish to worship and Idelise. Also it’s a fact, my Dad is Greater than any other dad, fact.

  9. I find your thoughts on the song very interesting. I have always seen the lyric as referring to God being higher than any of the gods we can create for ourselves. The song lists, as many of the psalms do, the victories of God and then proclaiming God as higher. It is not just the gods of other religions we should be thinking about here; the little gods we make for ourselves of money, objects and relationships are way more powerful. Forever pointing at others when we should be examining our own lives for purity can be a great distraction for a Christian.

  10. Ian, where is the Apollo/Python myth related in the words you cite? (Ancient myth, as you know, is pretty fluid and rarely has a ‘canonical’ form until some poet writes it down.)


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