Scripture on God’s Government and Sin (continued)
But from the point of view of God’s purpose and government, we find here a plain instance of the truth that God accomplishes His purpose through the scheming and plotting of wicked men. Their purpose was to destroy Joseph. But in scheming and plotting to carry out their purpose, they actually work out God’s counsel and accomplish God’s purpose. This is plain when we view the outcome of this history, and find Joseph saying, Genesis 50:20: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” Mark you well, this history does not teach that God reaches His purpose in spite of the efforts and schemes of wicked men. This is true, of course, when you consider from a subjective point of view the purpose and motive of the wicked. The devil does not intend to accomplish God’s purpose. And Joseph’s brethren did not intend good to Joseph; they meant it for evil, and at the time God was not in all their thoughts. But objectively speaking, God does not operate in spite of anything the wicked do; and the wicked never actually can or do accomplish anything against the Most High. God is sovereign, and He accomplishes His purpose through the scheming and plotting of Joseph’s wicked brothers. For it was God’s purpose that the covenant people must go to Egypt for various reasons. And it was God’s purpose to keep them there, to provide for them there, to have them as bondmen in Egypt, to deliver them by a mighty hand, and to lead them to the land of promise. And in the whole of this history Joseph has a part to play, indeed; but the brothers of Joseph, and, in fact, several other individuals connected with the narrative, have a part to play in “setting the stage” for Joseph to play his part.
Now look at the history that led up to Joseph’s being sold. To accomplish His purpose God “brings in” the ways of various characters in this drama. God brings in the ways of Jacob. If Jacob had known in advance the outcome of some of his actions, he would never have performed them. Among these are the folly of his partiality to Joseph, the imprudence of sending Joseph alone on this errand, the imprudence of letting Joseph work with his hateful brethren. Certainly, if Jacob had foreseen that this was going to lead to his losing of Joseph, he would have followed an altogether different course. But God also brings in the ways of the other individuals. God brought it to pass that the brothers were no more in the place where Joseph expected to find them, but at Dothan. Accident? Insignificant detail? Apparently; but Dothan was along the main route from the East to Egypt, where the caravan would pass. God brought in the way of that unnamed individual who informed Joseph where his brethren were. Neither that man, nor Joseph knew at the moment that this would lead to Joseph’s downfall, and that it would be “much better” if Joseph returned home without finding his brothers. Accident? Mere circumstance? No, this was according to divine government. God saw to it that this unknown stranger knew where Joseph’s brethren were, and that he “happened” to be there just when Joseph “happened” to be unable to find his brothers. God brought in the way of Reuben, that half-way accomplice with the wicked, who, while not agreeing with his brothers, is not strong enough, and nevertheless saves Joseph from death, persuading the brothers to put Joseph in the pit. And God brought the caravan at just the right moment, causing the way of the caravan to coincide with the way of Judah, who was afraid to kill, but not afraid to sell. And the outcome of all this is that while the brothers are going to make sure that Joseph’s dreams will never be realized, they are all the time unwittingly working for the very realization of those dreams and, above all, for the realization of God’s purpose.
Or take that prime example of the devil’s action against Job, which is all the more striking because it involves a “conversation” between God and the devil. No one would deny that the devil had a wicked purpose against Job, and that with respect to God the devil had an evil motive. But who would ever deny that the devil in all his actions was strictly under God’s sovereign control and government? The devil says to God, “But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.” And the Lord indeed puts forth His hand, as Satan suggests; but He does so through Satan. For the Lord gives the matter over to Satan’s execution: “And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power (“hand”); only upon himself put not forth thine hand.” Job 1:11, 12. And the consequences of Satan’s employment of this power are recorded in the remainder of the chapter: he brings one catastrophe upon another on Job, until finally Job has nothing left. This is repeated with respect to Job’s person in chapter 2. There Satan says to the Lord: “Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.” And again, the Lord indeed puts forth His divine Hand and touches Job’s bone and his flesh; but He does so by giving Job over into Satan’s sovereignly limited power: “And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life.” Job 2:4-6.
The example of Pharaoh at the time of Israel’s bondage and exodus is a classic one. On the one hand, there can be no question about the fact that Pharaoh sinned here and even hardened himself in his sin. His obligation before God was to let the children of Israel go. With this demand God literally confronted Pharaoh through Moses and Aaron. And this demand was repeated not only, but it was enforced in all its divine authority through the plagues which God sent upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Pharaoh, therefore, was emphatically aware of his obligation before Jehovah. And he acted responsibly, that is, as a rational, moral creature. He sinned. He did so even according to his own admission. Moreover, he progressively hardened himself in sin, until finally he plunged himself headlong into his own destruction. All his sin and all his hardening of himself was his own willful action. He was the conscious, thinking, willing subject of his own actions. God also dealt with him as such, so that when he is fully hardened in sin, God in just retribution plunges him into destruction in the Red Sea. Was Pharaoh, however, sovereign? Did God stand on the sidelines, so to speak, unable to make a move until Pharaoh made one? Was God’s government in this case dependent on and conditioned by the actions of Pharaoh? Must we conceive of God and Pharaoh as two chess players, with Pharaoh leading off and God’s moves on the chess-board of history limited by and occasioned and determined by Pharaoh’s moves? Scripture itself gives us the answer. And that answer is not merely that Godplanned all that transpired in the history of Pharaoh and Egypt, but that God acted. He executed His own counsel. God is in the active sense of the word the Lord of history! For before. there is any mention of Pharaoh’s hardening of his own heart, yea, before Moses and. Aaron even appeared before Pharaoh, the Lord says to Moses: “When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.” Hence, you read in Romans 9:17, 18: “For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, (Exodus 9:16), Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.”
We may at once take note in this connection of the further explanation of the apostle in Romans 9:19-21. For this passage is enlightening with respect to the frequent objection that the truth of God’s sovereignty cancels out the responsibility of the sinner. Notice that it is exactly this matter that is raised and presented in the form of a wicked objection in verse 19: “Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” It ought to be observed that this objection is made exactly on the premise of God’s absolute sovereignty in hardening whom He will. On any other premise it makes no sense and has no point. But how does the apostle meet this objection? Does he begin to make concessions and to speak of another “track” of man’s responsibility. Not at all; he simply maintains four-square the absolute sovereignty of God and reproves the brazen creature of the dust who dares to bring such an objection: “Nay, but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonor?”
Scripture abounds with literal examples of this truth.
Think of the history of the children of Israel in the conquest of the land of Canaan. Who would deny that the nations of the Canaanites sinned heinously in their resistance against the nation of Israel? That warfare can never be explained naturalistically. It must never be presented as a mere warfare of one nation against another. Israel represented the cause of Jehovah. They were the Lord’s people. The land of Canaan was theirs by inheritance; it had been assigned to them by the Lord. Not only so, but the nations who fought against Israel were well-aware that they were fighting against Jehovah’s people. The fame of Jehovah and his wonderful works in behalf of His people had preceded Israel into the land of Canaan, and the terror of the Lord was upon the inhabitants of the land. As Rahab says to the spies, Joshua 2:9-11: “I know that the Lord hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. And as soon as we had hear d these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the Lord your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.” But what did the nations of the Canaanites do? They nevertheless willfully gathered together against Israel. They formed strong alliances. They rallied mighty armies against God’s people. They sinned, and that too, in spite of better knowledge. “There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle.”Joshua 11:9. And what is the Word of God concerning this sinful warfare of the Canaanites? Listen: “For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that he might destroy them utterly, and that they might have no favor, but that he might destroy them, as the Lord commanded Moses.”Joshua 11:20.
Or consider the case of Eli’s sons,—”sons of Belial” Scripture calls them. How is their sin and its consequent judgment viewed by the Word of God? Let Scripture speak: “Now Eli was very old, and heard all that his sons did unto all Israel; and how they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And he said unto them, Why do ye such things? for I hear of your evil dealings by all this people. Nay, my sons; for it is no good report that I hear: ye make the Lord’s people to transgress. If one man sin against another, the judge shall judge him: but if a man sin against the Lord, who shall entreat for him? Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto the voice of their father, because the Lord would slay them.” I Samuel 2:22-25. Or confront in the light of Scripture the incident of Shimei’s cursing of David, II Samuel 16:5-10: “. . . . behold thence came out a man of the family of the house of Saul, whose name was Shimei, the son of Gera: he came forth, and cursed still as he came. And he cast stones at David, and at all the servants of king David: and all the people and all the mighty men were on his right hand and on his left. And thus said Shimei when he cursed, Come out, come out, thou bloody man, and thou man of Belial: The Lord hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned; and the Lord hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son: and, behold, thou art taken in thy mischief, because thou art a bloody man.. Then said Abishai the son of Zeruiah unto the king, Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? let me go over, I pray thee, and take off his head. And the king said, What have I to do with you, ye sons of Zeruiah? so let him curse, because the Lord hath said unto him, Curse David. Who shall then say, Wherefore hast thou done so?”
Enlightening in this regard is the incident involving Ahab, who certainly sinned when he hearkened to the false prophets and went up to battle against the Syrians. Especially significant is this passage because it graphically portrays the “behind-the-scenes” drama in heaven that was involved in the divine government of this event. It is recorded in I Kings 22 in the prophecy of Micaiah, who had already prophesied bad tidings to the king of Israel and who was disbelieved by Ahab before he ever uttered a word. Ahab was predisposed to listen to the false prophets of his own liking; and of Micaiah he had said to the God-fearing Jehoshaphat, who had qualms of conscience about this whole affair: “There is yet one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may inquire of the Lord: but I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil.” And when Micaiah had been adjured by Ahab to tell the truth, and had done so, the king of Israel complains to Jehoshaphat: “Did I not tell thee that he would prophesy no good concerning me, but evil?” But then Micaiah begins to explain what is really taking place at this time: “And he said, Hear thou therefore the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left. And the Lord said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramothgilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him. And the Lord said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so. Now therefore, behold, the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the Lord hath spoken evil concerning thee.”
Let me mention but one more example from the Old Testament, significant because it is found in a plaintive prayer: “O Lord, why hast thou made us to err from thy ways, and hardened our heart from thy fear? Return for thy servants’ sake, the tribes of thine inheritance.” Isaiah 63:17.
(to be continued)