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The Name of God: El-Elyon – God Most High

October 16, 2011
Sermon:  The Name of God:  El-Elyon – God Most High
Text:  Psalm 91


Our Scripture today, Psalm 91, appears as a responsive reading in your worship bulletin.  I would invite you to join on the parts in bold print.  Let’s read together responsively.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
            will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
            my God, in whom I trust.”


You will not fear the terror of night,
            nor the arrow that flies by day,


If you make the Most High your dwelling, even the LORD, who is our refuge,
then no harm will befall you,


For he will command his angels concerning you
            to guard you in all your ways;


“Because they love me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue them;
            I will protect them, for they acknowledge my name.


They will call upon me, and I will answer them;


I will be with them in trouble; I will deliver them and honor them.
With long life will I satisfy them and show them my salvation.”

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

When a cowboy applied for a health insurance policy, the agent asked, “Have you had any accidents in the previous year?”

The cowboy answered, “No, I’ve had no accidents, but I was bitten by a rattlesnake.  And a horse kicked me in the ribs and laid me up for a few days.”

The agent asked, “Weren’t those accidents?”

The cowboy explained, “No, I’m pretty sure they meant to do it.”

How do we understand the circumstances that happen to us in this life?  How do we understand Scripture like Psalm 91 that tells us that God will protect us, protect us in every situation? 

So many of us frequently turn to Psalm 91, which is an absolutely beautiful passage.  Our family calls this psalm the Traveling Psalm.  We have read these words often, particularly when our children were preparing for a trip to another country.  We often formed them into a prayer.  Our own Jim and Jane Covington and the Psalm 91 Ministry have had a major role in distributing copies of this psalm.  As you saw this morning, Carrie gave a copy of the children’s version of Psalm 91 to our children.  Psalm 91 is important.

We also recognize Psalm 91 as a soldier’s psalm.  General David Petraeus distributed more than a half million copies of Psalm 91 to soldiers serving in Iraq.  We hear many stories about how this psalm leads soldiers to understand the protective hand of God.  Many soldiers, wonderful Christians, however, have not been so well protected.  How can we understand God as a protecting God if that protection is not equally distributed?  I have pondered that question a lot this week.  Consider a man like Andrew Kinard, who lost both legs while fighting in Iraq.  I have pondered that question often in the last eleven years since our son Erik died almost eleven years ago now.

Sometimes people will ask, “Are you over his death?”  No, we are not over it.  The pain has dulled a lot, and we do not think about his death as often.

Just yesterday, someone commented, “I am sorry you lost your son.”

My response to that is, “Erik really is not lost.  I know exactly where he is.  In fact, he is the one child we have that I do not worry about.  I worry about the others, but not about him.”

I want us to think about the meaning of Psalm 91.  You will notice that the name used for God here is Most High.  In Hebrew, the word for Most High is El-Elyon.  Whenever you see the word El tacked on the end of a word in our English Bible, like Beth-el, it means House of God.  When El appears at the beginning of a word, it is an abbreviation for the name Elohim, the name by which God is called in the first chapter of Genesis.  El is to Elohim as Bob is to Robert, as Rick is to Richard, as Joe is to Joseph, as Bill is to William.  El is a shortened version of the name Elohim.  It is simply a way of saying, “This is the Creator God.  This is the One, in all of His power and creativity, made everything that was out of nothing.”  The use of the word El ascribes to God all of that majesty and splendor.  When you use El with Elyon, it means that this Creator God is above every other god.  Certainly protection is one of His attributes; but more significantly, we need to think of God as El-Elyon, as the God who is sovereign.  God is absolutely in charge of everything.  He is the strongest of the strong.  He is the superlative among all other gods.

I want us to look closely at some passages of Scripture that will help us understand what it means to say that God is sovereign.

Turn first to the unusual book of Daniel, beginning with Chapter 2.  King Nebuchadnezzar, who, to be quite honest, vacillated back and forth about the worship of God, had a dream that disturbed him greatly.  When advisors could not interpret the dream, Nebuchadnezzar threatened to have them put to death.  He was quick on the draw to order the death sentence for people who could not or would not do exactly as he wanted.

Nebuchadnezzar then asked Daniel for his interpretation.  In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, a tree that had served as a safe haven for all kinds of animals was cut down, leaving nothing but the stump and roots.  Presented with this perplexing dream, Daniel pondered its meaning and puzzled over it before going to sleep.  During the night, God revealed to him the meaning.  The next morning, Daniel offered to God a hymn of praise, beginning in Verse 20:

“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
     wisdom and power are his.
21 He changes times and seasons;
     he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
     and knowledge to the discerning.
22 He reveals deep and hidden things;
     he knows what lies in darkness,
     and light dwells with him.
23 I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors:
     You have given me wisdom and power,
     you have made known to me what we asked of you,
     you have made known to us the dream of the king.”

Daniel’s hymn of praise does not actually utilize the name Most High; but clearly, he is addressing the sovereignty of God.

Consider Verse 47, Nebuchadnezzar’s response to Daniel’s interpretation:  “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.”

You hear here a prelude to the phrase we read later in the book of Revelation:  “KING OF KINGS and LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:16).  You can almost hear the strains of Handel’s Messiah in these wordsThis epithet attributes to God absolute sovereignty, absolute power as ruler above all other rulers.

Nebuchadnezzar’s affirmation of God was short-lived, however.  Chapter 3, beginning with Verse 1, shows us a king who had made quite a tall, expensive idol during a time of indecision.

1 King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon…

4 Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: 5 As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”

7 Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the nations and peoples of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

8 At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. 9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “May the king live forever! 10 Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, 11 and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”

13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.

24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?”

They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”

25 He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”

26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!”

Following this display of God’s power, Nebuchadnezzar went on to praise the Most High God, saying that any person unwilling to serve and worship this God, unwilling to pay respect to this God, would “be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble…” (Verse 29).  Nebuchadnezzar did not take the Dale Carnegie Course, instructing him how to win friends and influence people.  For him, power was everything.  You see that he recognized here, even as the king of the most powerful nation of the world at that time, that the God Most High was sovereign.  Nebuchadnezzar did not always recognize that truth.  He sometimes vacillated, but here you have from the lips of this king the idea that God is sovereign.

Daniel 4, beginning with Verse 34 offers one more account whereby God is called Most High.  It is interesting that Nebuchadnezzar is also at the center of this account.  Daniel prophesies that Nebuchadnezzar will go absolutely slam crazy and act like a wild animal until he acknowledges “that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives to them anyone he wishes.”  Nebuchadnezzar did go crazy, in fact, crawling around on all fours like a cat and eating grass.  His fingernails and toenails grew so long that they resembled the claws of an eagle.  He was quite a despicable-looking fellow.  Beginning with Verse 34, Nebuchadnezzar himself recorded that he regained his sanity once he acknowledged God’s power. Humbled, Nebuchadnezzar glorified God Most High.

34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.

His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
35 All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?”

36 At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

Saying that God is sovereign means that God is in charge of everything.  He is the ruler over everything.  He is the ruler over our lives.  He is the ruler over the universe.  He is the ruler over every political faction.  He is in charge.

As I was preparing this message, I discovered that one of my favorite hymns, “How Firm a Foundation,” includes another verse we do not sing.  The words go like this:  “Even down to old age, all My people shall prove, My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love…”

Job discovered these words to be true.  Through all of his suffering, through all of his difficulties, Job asked question after question after question of God.  Though he never received an answer to his inquiries, his long discourse with God finally ended with the affirmation, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.  You are sovereign.  You are in control” (Job 42:2).

In the New Testament, of course, the term El-Elyon is not used; but the sovereignty of God is nevertheless affirmed.  One of the most pronounced confirmations occurs at the end of Romans 11, Verses 33-36.  Paul actually offers a benediction in the middle of his letter to the Romans.  My guess is that it came from the early church.  Scholars say that this benediction possibly came right out of Paul’s Old Testament faith, his life in Judaism.

33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
36 For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Surprisingly, we find the ascription Most High applied specifically to God in the New Testament during the birth narrative of Jesus.  Turn to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1.  The angel Gabriel, in speaking to Mary, gave Jesus himself the attribute of sovereignty.   32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Verse 35 repeats the idea.  When Mary questioned, “How can this be?  How can I be pregnant when I have not been with a man?” Gabriel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”  Gabriel was saying, “Mary, God can do anything.  He is sovereign.”

Zachariah could not speak for several months during the time his wife, Elizabeth, was pregnant.  It was just as well.  With Mary and Elizabeth both being pregnant, he could not have gotten in a word edgewise anyway.  When John the Baptist was born, Zachariah gave the blessing:  “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him” (Luke 1:76).

The term Most High God appears in several other places in the Gospel of Luke, always as an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God, fully revealed in Jesus.  God is sovereign over all of history.  God is sovereign in all time past, in every epoch, and in all future.

Paul Harvey tells a story about an event that happened during World War II at the time America was preparing to drop the atomic bomb.  The B-29 carrying the atomic bomb departed from Guam; but when it reached the intended destination, Kokura, Japan, it circled for nearly an hour.  The pilot could not release the bomb because clouds covered the target area.  The pilot turned away from Kokura, headed for Hiroshima, and released the bomb there instead.

Later the Allied Forces discovered that most of the thousand men taken as prisoners of war by the Japanese had been moved to Kokura.  Many interpreted the clouds that prevented the bombing of that town as a cloud of protection over those Allied soldiers.  I wonder about the protection of the Japanese civilians in Hiroshima.  Surely God loves all people.

A balance exists here between the authority of God and the freewill He gives to His children.  It is true that at some times that balance comes in conflict.  I do not know how God works that out in His divine mathematics; it is one of the great puzzles for those of us who are Christians.  God is sovereign.  He is in charge of everything.  God is in charge of every government, every ruler.  The rulers may not always follow his plan.  I am sure that some do not.

The country of China built the Great Wall, stretching 1500 miles, in order to keep out invaders.  In the first 100 years following its construction, three major invasions occurred.  How did the attackers conquer the barricade?  They did not climb over the wall; they merely entered through the gates by bribing the gatekeeper.

What is the point of this story?  We can try to defend ourselves with all of our might, but the greatest defense any country can have is trust in the sovereignty of God.  If we fail to put our trust in God, if we fail to live up to the motto on our coins, there is no defense.  God is sovereign over all learning, over all wisdom.

Last week, I mentioned the little book Your God Is too Small, by J.B. Phillips, who asserts that we simply understand neither the vastness nor the splendor of God.  We do not comprehend God’s sovereignty.  We often reduce God to our own level, treating Him as if He were made in our image.  God goes so far beyond anything we can imagine.  Frederick Buechner illustrates this same point by claiming that for us to try to understand God is a bit like a beetle trying to understand a human being.  Isaiah 55:8-9 says as much:

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

This inscrutable God, this God that is beyond our understanding, is absolutely sovereign.  I want you to know that He is sovereign over your life.

Our son Kris, who is an artist, painted an angel on a wooden paint stirrer and gave it to a colleague who was having a really tough time.  He explained to his friend, “This is a guardian angel.”  Kris even added the verse from Psalm 91, “He will set his angels to guard over you, to keep you in all your ways.”

Clare saw his art and said, “Kris, painting guardian angels is a wonderful idea!  I want some of them.”

Kris made several for her, and when Clare asked him to tell her what to do with them, he suggested, “Put them in the places that make you most afraid.”

Clare asked, “Kris, what places in this house made you most afraid as a child?”

Kris went to several places in our home, including our basement, which was once an old coal bin.  He placed a guardian angel beside the door leading to what we call “outer darkness.”  He also put an angel on the side of the barn.  It, too, frightened him at nighttime. The barn had no light inside.

The time had come for painting those guardian angels.  They have made it as far west as New Mexico and as far north as Vermont and New York City.  Our God who loves us wants to protect us.  He wants us to know, most of all, that He is sovereign in our life.

The book of Proverbs tells us that in days of trouble, we should run to the strong tower of El-Elyon.  There we will find refuge and strength in God.  We can be sure that the perplexing difficulties we face do not puzzle God.  He understands.  We sing the hymn, “This is my Father’s world.  O let me ne’er forget the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”  God is the ruler.  We may not know what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future.  God holds the future in His hands.  Because He is sovereign over everything, over everyone, and over every circumstance, we never have to be afraid.  God is in control, in charge.  He loves us.  He is God Most High.

Clare and I do not listen to much contemporary Christian music, but one song we really like, written by Don Moen, contains the words, “God will make a way where there seems to be no way.  He works in ways we cannot see.  He will make a way for me.”  God, who is sovereign, sent His Son, the Son of the Most High, into this world to show us how to live.  God loves us so much and wants to protect us so much that He sent Jesus to the cross of Calvary to protect us from the vicious cycle of sin and death.  God raised Jesus up from the grave to conquer even death itself.

I ask you two simple questions:  Who is in control of your life?  Are you still trying to make your life happen your way?  God is sovereign.  He should be in control of your life.  He is a better pilot than you are.  Give Him the controls and allow Him to guide and direct your life.

If you have never accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior, could I invite you to make that decision today?

Kirk H. Neely
© October 1022

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