Sparrows, Souls, & Sovereignty: When The Towers Fell

Opening Remarks

Todd Braye
Todd Braye
There aren’t many Sundays marking the tenth anniversary of a life-altering event. So, I think it would be remiss of me if I overlooked the occasion. On this day exactly ten years ago, life as we knew it changed forever. We saw some unspeakably horrific images. I for one will not forget seeing people jump some 100 stories to their deaths. As I watched, all I could think was ‘What kind of fiery hell inside the towers made them choose the window?’ How hopelessly terrifying must it have been to make the pavement below more desirable? I cannot even begin to imagine the fear. It must have been overwhelming times a billion.
In the wake of such an event, when evil seems to have the upper hand, people say stuff. Men wish to make sense of what happens around them. We have this desire to understand what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. Sadly, if not dreadfully, horrible events such as 9/11 are the sparks for bad theology. With hopes to soothe suffering, tranquilize the pain, and protect God’s reputation and character, even Christians and their pastors fall prey to all sorts of doctrinal confusion and nonsense. With a desire to uphold God’s name and keep it from false accusation and even slander, they are quick to assert God’s non-involvement with any type of ‘ground zero’. “If it results in human suffering,” they say, “God has nothing to do with it.” They’re quick to point out the fact that God is love. God is a merciful, compassionate, good God, and so they conclude He has nothing to do with hate and evil. It is conceivable that such a god, if he were God, would be so aloof. A god who is merely loving and compassionate may in fact be completely removed from every horrific event in the history of mankind. But the God who is compassionate, merciful, loving, just, and holy is not so removed. God is involved with death and destruction.
The Biblical evidence for this leaves no room for any doubt whatsoever. Ezekiel is but one example. Through that prophet, the Lord says to Sidon, the nation:

Behold, I am against you…and I will manifest my glory in your midst. And they shall know that I am the Lord when I execute judgments in her and manifest my holiness in her; for I will send pestilence into her, and blood into her streets… (Ezek. 28:22-23).

God is love. But God is also, and essentially, holy. The cross itself makes that known. At Calvary, God displayed His holiness in wrath and judgment. This is not new to you. You have all been established in this. God’s holiness is a pillar here; it is a foundational plank in our theology. And so is this: God is sovereign. He is sovereign over all and in all. God rules over all creation and even in salvation. That is why we call ourselves Sovereign Grace Baptist. God is sovereign in saving grace. The God we serve and worship and exalt is a sovereign God. But it’s been said that what was once fought for then believed all too often becomes assumed. And what becomes assumed all too often is abandoned. To the end that doesn’t happen here on my watch, I declare to you what you have learned and become convinced of.
God is absolutely sovereign
God is absolutely sovereign. To say God is absolutely sovereign is to assert what the Bible says about God. It isn’t to say what mere men might argue. Nor is it to declare what many believers and even some scholars believe about divine sovereignty. To say God is sovereign is to proclaim what God says about Himself. It’s to affirm God’s absolute supremacy and authority and power over all. It’s to say God does as God pleases, that He governs all things according to His good pleasure. It is to declare God is the Most High, the Almighty, the Possessor of all power and authority in heaven and earth, that none can thwart His counsels, deny His purpose, or resist His will. It’s the declaration that none can stay God’s hand or say to Him, “What are you doing?” It’s to proclaim that there’s no such thing as a maverick molecule. It’s to affirm with the Bible, and thus agree with God Himself, that God sets up kingdoms, determines presidencies, and overthrows empires. It’s to say that God is the King of kings and Lord of lords. It’s to say that God alone is the author, orchestrator, and conductor of the symphony of history with all its harmonies and discords. In short, to say God is sovereign is to say God is God. He’s either sovereign over all or He isn’t sovereign at all.
The Bible is very clear on this. God’s absolute sovereignty is the warp and woof of Scripture.

Psalm 103:19 states that “The Lord has established His throne in the heavens; and His sovereignty rules over all.”

In Ephesians 1:11, Paul asserts that God “works all things after the counsel of His will.”

In Psalm 119:91, we find this statement: “all things are your servants.”

Which means everything bows to the King of kings. God bows His knee to no one and no thing.

Proverbs 16:33- “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Even dice are divinely ruled.

Proverbs 21:1 teaches God is sovereign over the most sovereign of men. “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand if the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.”

Psalm 44:11 reveals that God governs the slaughter and scatter of His people. It says “You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.”

“O Lord of hosts…You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (Ps. 89:9).

“Who enclosed the sea with doors, when bursting forth, it went out of the womb…and I placed boundaries on it, and I set a bolt on its doors, and I said, ‘Thus you shall come, but no farther, and here your proud waves shall stop?”

And it so happened that they found themselves in a boat with their Master, asleep. And the wind began to below and the sea became fierce. The waves came crashing in upon them. Fearing for their lives they woke him. And Jesus rebuked the wind and the surging waves, and they obeyed.

Amos 3:6. “If a calamity occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it?”

Isaiah 45:7. “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord who does all these things.”

And in Matthew 10:29-30, Jesus weighs in on the matter. Look at it with me again:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

Stop there. What’s Jesus saying? He’s saying that even a sparrow, even that which holds next to no value, when it falls to the ground, it does not do so apart from God. God is somehow involved when a sparrow dies. He is associated even with the smallest, unnoticed, and seemingly inconsequential event. A sparrow dies and falls. An apple falls out of a tree, then a leaf. A lone raindrop lands on your head. If it happens, it happens ‘not apart from your Father.’ In other words, every occurrence in the universe, seen or unseen, felt or unfelt, is not independent of, but dependent upon, God.
But what does that mean exactly, that every event is dependent upon God? The ISV renders the phrase in question ‘without your Father’s permission.’ Sparrows don’t fall ‘apart from God,’ or ‘without God’s permission.’ The NIV translates it ‘apart from the will of your Father.’ Sparrows don’t fall apart from God’s will. The Lexham English Bible says “without the knowledge and consent of your Father.” It goes without saying: there’s a few ways to understand this phrase. Some even interpret this in terms of God knowing what happens. God knows all that happens they say, because nothing happens apart from the Father. This is of course true. God does know all that happens.
But the best and correct way to see that nothing happens apart from God is to do so in light of what Jesus says in the next verse. Let the Bible define its terms. We always must come to that position. So,

are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. Verse 30: “But even the hairs on your head are all numbered.”

I submit to you that the ‘numbering’ of verse 30 defines the Father’s involvement of verse 29. God numbers the hairs on our heads. The number of hairs we have is not apart from the Father. How would a Jew understand that? Matthew was written to Jews. So, it makes good sense to ask this question. And I suggest to you he would understand it this way: He would see it in terms of God’s absolute sovereignty. Psalm 147 is very helpful here. In the 4th verse of that Psalm, we read that God counts (NASB), or determines (ESV) the number of stars. Matthew uses the exact same word as the LXX uses in this Psalm (ἀριθμέω). The word means ‘to use numbers in determining how much.’ The key word is ‘determining.’ It’s essential we understand what Jesus is not saying here. He isn’t saying God counts or numbers hairs to discover how many. We count jelly- beans to learn how many. We count our pennies to find out if we have enough to buy something. But when Scripture says God numbers something, like the hairs on our heads, or the days of our lives, it’s not saying God counts so as to learn and discover. What it’s saying is God determines, or wills, whatever He counts. He counts so as to determine the quantity of. In other words, He NUMBERS them by sovereign decree! He sovereignly determines the number of stars. He determines the number of hairs. And He determines when, and how, a sparrow falls to the ground. And if that is the case, what shall we say of 9/11, when the towers fell to the ground, and 3000 souls perished? How much is one soul worth? If God determines the death of a sparrow, then surely He determines the end of that which is far more costly. It is wrong to say 9/11 occurred independent of God; all things are dependent upon God. And it’s not enough to say God permitted 9/11. God did more than permit the evil carried out that day. God determined that sparrows fall when they do. And He determined when and by what means the twin towers fell.

Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?” These are words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Listen again: “Who is there who speaks (like Osama Bin Laden) and it comes to pass (like 9/11), unless the Lord has commanded it?
Then the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s widow bore to David, so that he was very sick” (2 Samuel 12:15). “Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him (Job 42:11).

So, when someone, some religious leader or pastor or whatever, stands up and says “The Christian is not … to assume that whatever happens is the will of God, especially not when something is so at odds with … God as a God of love,” he doesn’t know God. It’s that simple. He doesn’t know God; and he doesn’t know the Scriptures (let alone tremble before them). In the final analysis, this is the issue. The authority of God’s Word is the issue. Did God actually say what He said in the pages of Holy Writ? Or did He deceive? Is God’s Word true? Or is it false? If true, then God is absolutely sovereign. He works all things after the counsel of His will. If false, then we might as well go home, eat, drink, and be merry. God is not God.
God Willed the Cross
There’s yet another thing to consider, something monumental: God willed the cross. God ordained Calvary. Calvary answers the question: “How can God will evil and not be responsible for evil?” Make no mistake: God wills evil to happen. But God remains pure and sinless. Luke records the apostle Peter’s words. He says that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” By that plan, by that sovereign, predetermined before the dawn of time plan, Jesus was crucified and killed “by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). God planned it. Men performed it. God determined it. Men, both Jews and Gentiles (i.e. Romans) carried it out. And so the believers prayed what they prayed, together saying

Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit: Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against His Anointed- for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:24-27).

How strange is it therefore, to hear those who claim to believe in the authority of Scripture, and who profess the name of Christ, to reject the God-exalting, divine attribute of absolute sovereignty! Besides, if God willed the death of His one and only Son, if He predestined the death of the only truly innocent One, who was not deserving of death, then what’s so hard about the predestined death of 3000 sinners, deserving of death, even death by fire and fall? God is a God of love; a thousand times yes! But love and willing evil are not at odds; not if you’re a holy God. Look at every brutality that ever occurred in the history of mankind. See it in light of the cross, and you see it as you ought. God willed it. He was very much involved. Even though men crashed the planes, God was working His plan.
When the Towers Fell: A Call to Reverence & Humility
In response to this, much can be said. God is God. We are not God. God is the Maker. We have been made. He is the Potter. We are but clay. He therefore has the right to ordain and bring to pass whatsoever comes to pass, no matter if it’s the death of a swallow, the destruction of a tsunami, or the pain of a gut-wrenching September day. Men, unregenerate men, balk at this. The proud believer shrinks and recoils at this. What would God say to any and all who object? We do not have to guess. God Himself has furnished us with the answer. He would say what the apostle has written in the 9th chapter of the book of Romans: “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this, will it?” Or, “What on earth are you doing?’” Job’s words were right, weren’t they? You recall what he said after God put him in his place. “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40.4). A.W. Pink hit the nail on the head. He said that God’s sovereignty argues that no one has the right to speak against God. The only fitting attitude for the creature is one of reverent submission. When the towers fell is therefore, a call to reverence and humility before God. It’s the only posture.
A Check Against Idolatry
But that’s not all 9/11 is. When the towers fell is also a check against idolatry. Do you embrace the God who determined the death of 3000 souls by means unimaginable? If you don’t, you embrace a god of your own imagination. Sparrows do not fall independent of God. Neither do 110 story towers or the 767 jets that fly into them.
A Reason for Confidence & Security
When the towers fell is a call for reverence and humility. It’s a check against idolatry. And as strange as it might sound, it’s also reason for confidence and safety. When Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 10 to not be afraid, he did so because God is absolutely sovereign. The road ahead would be dangerous; suffering and persecution were waiting. So, Jesus assured them. He told them, in effect: ‘Fear not, you are of more worth than sparrows. And no sparrow falls apart from your Father. Neither will any of you.’

Death and plagues around me fly,
till he bid, I cannot die;
Not a single shaft can hit,
Til the God of love sees fit.

There is no hope in the position that says, “God was on vacation on 9/11.” If God had nothing to do with what happened at the Pentagon or in Pennsylvania or Manhattan that would mean this: Evil was in control, Al-Qaeda was in charge, and Satan called the shots. And I say there is no hope in that. None whatsoever. With Satan there is no righteousness, no mercy, no justice, no love. So don’t get sucked in to the “God doesn’t will bad things” trap.
A Motivation for Repentance & Sobriety
When the Towers Fell: A Call to Reverence & Humility, A Check Against Idolatry, A Reason for Confidence & Security; and finally, a motivation for repentance and sobriety. On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, when 3000 people woke up and got ready for work, not one soul thought “I’m going to die today. This is the day. My time is up. I’m going to meet my Maker.” I do not know how many among the dead were believers. Todd Beamer is the only one of which I am aware. The rest for all we know are in hell. But if Jesus were a guest speaker at ground zero today, what would he say? Would he say things aimed to console and comfort? Maybe. Would he proclaim with abounding authority how unjust the tragedy was? I somehow doubt it. Would he decry the monstrosity of the thing? What would Jesus say? Luke tells us:

13 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

The most important issue when towers fall is not that thousands die. The horrific event is not what concerns Jesus. What concerns Jesus is your soul. God now commands men everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness. This is not the same as “inviting Jesus into one’s heart.” No one receives the saving benefits of Christ that way. We must turn from our sins and trust in Christ. We must embrace his death, his atoning, wrath appeasing, justice satisfying, eternal redemption securing, forgiveness purchasing, righteousness ensuring death. He made him who knew no sin to be sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ. It’s the greatest of all exchanges. And it was ‘not apart from the Father.’ As sure as God willed the day when the towers fell, he willed the hour when the Son of Man was lifted up.
The Ground of Doxology
A cause for reverence and humility; a check against idolatry; a reason for confidence and security; a motivation for repentance and sobriety; finally, when the towers fell is ground for doxology. When Job lost everything, he fell to the ground, and worshiping he said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Tuesday, September 11, 2001, 8:46 am flight 11 crashes into the north tower. At 9:03 flight 175 crashes into the south tower. At 9:38 flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon. At 9:59 the south tower falls. At about this time somewhere over Pennsylvania, Todd Beamer says, “Let’s roll.” Flight 93 crashes in a field at 10:10. Then, the north tower collapses at 10:28. Thousands die unspeakable, unimaginable, fiery, gut-wrenching deaths. The Lord gave. And He took away.
The apostle Paul makes this sweeping statement at the end of his doctrinal section in Romans: “…from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” How is it possible that the events of 9/11, and events like them, be the ground for praise and doxology?[1] How ON EARTH is that possible? There’s only one way. It’s only when the glory of God itself is treasured above everything else does a ground zero event become the ground for worship. If life, or unsaved family, or convenience, or pain-free living, or anything else is cherished above God Himself, then ground zero events will be … meaningless. Not until God is seen as the end for which God created the world will life be seen as God sees it. September 11/01 was a day God made for God. It was His to do with as He pleased. “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Todd Braye is solo pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Blackie, Alberta 
(some 30 miles south of Calgary). After graduating from Canadian Theological Seminary in 1997 (M.Div.) he served a small Baptist church in rural Ontario for six years. Happy to be back home in Alberta, entering his 12th year of pastoral ministry, Todd’s eyes were opened to gospel freedom when preaching through Galatians (a task yet unfinished). Check out his blog @ “GraceNotes“.

[1] We do not rejoice in evil or sorrow, but only that God is sovereign over it. “Although the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

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