Omniscience is a word that describes the reality that God knows everything—everything past, present, and future; everything in heaven or on earth; everything real and everything potential. Everything. But more than just having an encyclopedic knowledge of his creation—which God does—Scripture shows how God’s universal knowledge brings particular blessing and judgment to the world, to those people whom he knows particularly as his own.
One place where God’s knowledge is seen is an instance in Genesis 18, where the Lord reveals his future plans to Abraham. The key verses are Genesis 18:16–21:
Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 20 Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
From these six verses, we learn four truths about God’s perfect knowledge and how the Lord who knows everything relates to his creation.
Four Truths About God’s Perfect Knowledge
1. God’s knowledge is all-encompassing.
In these few verses we learn how God’s knowledge encompasses everything in the present and the future. First, verse 17 speaks of what God is going to do in the future. In the short range, this “doing” includes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which will be described in Genesis 19. God’s words, however, go far beyond his impending judgment. The Lord contemplates aloud—for our sake, more than for his own—his intent to reveal his immediate plans because of God’s long-range plans to bless Abraham and his offspring.
Verse 18 speaks of the way God will bless all nations through Abraham. Verse 19 similarly speaks of the way Abraham mediates blessing to his children, as they keep covenant with God. In these two verses, we learn how God’s knowledge of the future informs his actions in the present. Only, it is not that looking down the corridor of time he sees and acts according to some future external to himself. Rather, as the rest of the Bible indicates, the future blessing of Abraham is a future of God’s own making. In other words, God knows all things that are going on in the world because this world is the one he has made to conform to his eternal decree. Thus, we are reminded in these verses of Gods’ eternal knowledge.
At the same time, the breadth of God’s knowledge is confirmed as we see that God who is in heaven knows everything occurring on the earth. In verse 20, he acknowledges that he’s heard the “outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah,” and more than that he knows “their sin is very grave.” Importantly, this judgment indicates, he’s not reserving judgment until he finds out more information by his upcoming visit. He knows all things already—he knows the cries of the people; he knows the sin of Sodom; and he knows exactly what he will find when he visits them. In this way, his visit is not about information gathering; it is rather a visitation of judgment based on what he knows, which again comports with all-encompassing nature of his knowledge.
2. God’s knowledge is covenantal
If the Lord’s knowledge is comprehensive in scope, it is also covenantal in focus. In verse 19, the ESV reads, “For I have chosen him,” speaking of God’s special relationship with Abraham. Yet the word for chosen is to know (יָדַע). The translation is accurate in that it conveys God’s special knowledge of Abraham, but it is this covenantal knowledge that is revealed by God’s choice of Abraham (see Neh. 9:7).
Importantly, God’s knowledge of Abraham is different than his general, all-encompassing knowledge. As Amos 3:2 will later communicate about Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth . . .” This is not a statement of his knowledge per se, but a statement of his personal relation with Israel as his specially chosen people.
In Amos and Genesis and later in places where God’s foreknowledge is described (Rom. 8:29; 1 Pet. 1:2), God’s knowledge is more than informational; it is covenantal. God choose Abraham to make a covenant with him. That’s the plot line of Genesis 12–22, and here in Abraham’s encounter with God, the Lord divulges his future plans because of this covenant relationship with Abraham.
3. God’s knowledge is simple and proactive.
The covenantal nature of this knowledge informs the way God engages in the world. As creatures, we learn, plan, adapt, and grow in wisdom, thus our knowledge is finite and improving (or worsening). But for God, it’s different. As this episode reveals, he knows all things in heaven and earth, and all things present and future. And he knows them, because they are the outworking of his divine decree. In other words, his knowledge is simple and complete from the start.
In other words, God can speak of his future judgments and blessings because history is the outworking of his eternal, unchanging will. Thus, God does more than speak of the future with confident optimism; God speaks absolutely of future judgment and curses because, as an eternal being (one who stands over, above, and outside of time), he is directing the course of history. This passage hints at this reality, but other passages make God’s sovereignty explicit.
For instance, Deuteronomy 32:8 indicates the sovereignty of God over the nations, “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” As does Acts 17:26–27, “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, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (cf. Acts 14:16–17).
In short, God’s knowledge is not passive, whereby he learns new things from his creation. Rather, it is proactive, bringing to pass the events he has known from eternity past. God has known them because he has decreed them. In this way, his knowledge is unlike ours; it is not accumulated or reactive. It is entirely complete from the beginning, and thus history turns according to his sovereign decree and his perfect knowledge.
4. God’s knowledge is personal.
Finally, the Lord’s knowledge is also personal, meaning that the infinite Lord who stands outside, above, and over time also enters space and time to personally bless (as in the case of Abraham) or curse (as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah). That is to say, as a transcendent God over all his creation; he is also an imminent God who personally conducts the affairs of all men. This is the reason why his knowledge of Abraham’s future leads him to share the downfall of Sodom and Gomorrah.
As this episode reveals, God’s knowledge is not an abstract or impersonal thing. Instead, the Lord’s all-encompassing knowledge brings blessing to his people. As the Lord reveals the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, it prompts Abraham to intercede for the city, ultimately saving his nephew Lot. Accordingly, we see how the personal knowledge of the Lord, revealed to Abraham, results in personal blessing.
At the same time, God’s knowledge also results in personal judgment. When the Lord says, “I will go down to see” the condition of Sodom and Gomorrah in verse 21, it’s not because he doesn’t know what’s happening. In truth, the Lord can “see” everything from heaven; he already knows the great sin of Sodom (see v. 20). Likewise, because he is omnipresent in his creation, he is “already there.” The language of “going down,” therefore, is a anthropomorphic word of judgment, not knowledge (cf. Gen 11:5, 7). Yahweh is not acquiring greater knowledge by his visit. His concluding, “I will know,” is not because he is lacking any information. Rather, it displays the personal nature of his judgment. Because Sodom’s sin has risen as an odious stench in his nostrils—another instance of anthropomorphism—he will personally bring judgment.
The Perfect Knowledge of Our God
All in all, we find in Yahweh’s interaction with Abraham a window into the perfect knowledge of the Lord. His knowledge is all-encompassing in every aspect of creation. It is also covenantal in that God sets his particular love on his elect people. Like the way a man “knows” his wife, so the Lord has a special covenantal knowledge of his people. This knowledge is not shared with all people, which makes the revelation of that knowledge all the more precious.
The Lord’s knowledge is also simple, proactive, and personal. In the story of Genesis 18 all of these traits come into focus, and with the collaboration of later revelation, we learn in them both the scope of God’s knowledge and his saving and judging purposes.
While it takes all of Scripture to see the fullness of God’s knowledge, Genesis 18 gives us a glimpse of our omniscient God and the way he relates to his world. Truly, his knowledge is exhaustive, but even more than that, it is good. And wonderfully, we see here how God uses his knowledge for the good of his covenant people.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds