Can you explain what my pastor meant when he asked, "Did Shakespeare kill King Duncan, or did Macbeth?"


I'm not sure exactly what the context was of your pastor's statement, but more than likely he was using Shakespeare’s Macbeth to illustrate God's sovereignty and man's responsibility.

In this famous play by Shakespeare, a trio of witches prophesy that a general named Macbeth will become King of Scotland. And indeed, with the help of his scheming wife, Macbeth stabs and kills King Duncan and is then made king. Of course the plot then thickens, but as to how this relates to the point I think your pastor was wanting to make, I believe he was saying that, in essence, God has written the script in eternity past and his creation acts out the play in the present. But the question that then naturally comes about is who is responsible and for what?

Though God ordains all things, including sin and evil, he is not the author of it (Jas. 1:13-14). But since God wrote the the grand historical play, some may say, “Why does God still find fault? After all, he said I'd be a child of the Devil so it's not my fault. Therefore I'm not guilty of anything.” An answer from this sovereign God could be this:

But who are you, O man, to answer back to [Me]? Will what is molded say to its molder, "But who are you, O man, to answer back to [Me]? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory (Romans 9:20-23).

Even though God doesn't owe his clay an explanation at all, he emphasizes his almighty sovereignty. He simply says, "I AM WHO I AM" (Exod. 3:14) and "My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure" (Isa. 46:10; cf. Psa. 33:11; Prov. 19:21; Isa. 14:24; 20:8; 41:4; 48:3; 55:11; Eph. 1:4-5, 9, 11, 14).

However, God's sovereignty and man's freedom aren't in competition, but instead they divinely complement one another. Man's freedom is eternally established by God's holy sovereignty. God is God and his sovereignty can't be limited; man's moral capacity is created and maintained within his eternal decree. Herman Bavinck explains it this way:

If God and his human creatures can only be conceived as competitors, and if the one can only retain his freedom and independence at the expense of the other, then God has to be increasingly restricted both in knowedge and in will. Pelagianism, accordingly, banishes God from his world. It leads both to Deism and atheism and enthrones human arbitrariness and folly. Therefore, the solution of the problem must be sought in another direction. It must be sought in the fact that God—because he is God and the universe is his creation—by the infinitely majestic activity of his knowing and willing, does not destroy but instead creates and maintains the freedom and independence of his creatures (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:376-77).

Chapter 3.1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith says man's choices really exist and have eternal significance:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
Mankind continually acts out his own total depravity. He does so according to his own nature. A wolf acts like a wolf because it is a wolf. A goat acts like a goat, a betrayer like a betrayer, and a crucifier like a crucifier. Why? Because that's who they are! So, although man crucified the very Son of God, this event was also decreed by God the Father himself (Luke 22:22; Acts 2:22; 4:27-28). However, as Scripture reveals, man was still morally responsible for this crime above all crimes — "this Jesus … you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).

Mankind is accountable for every one of his free choices and decisions. Shakespeare, the play writer, and his character Macbeth provide a good case study.

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).