The hand of God
Joseph is a wonderful, real-life illustration of the biblical doctrine of God’s providence. Through the events of his life Joseph understood that God sovereignly orders all things that come to pass and preserves the lives of his creatures for his purposes. Our discussion of the doctrine of God’s providence is set against the background of Joseph’s revelation of himself to his brothers in Genesis 45.
The mystery of providence
Here is the great mystery of God’s hand in Joseph’s life. You will recall that his brothers sold him into slavery, in part to prevent the realisation of his dream that they would one day bow down to him. In order to ensure that that day would never come, they took matters into their own hands and committed an evil act for which they were responsible. But God in his overruling providence used their evil behaviour to bring Joseph into the very position of authority before which the brothers were obliged to bow. As Joseph called for his brothers to gather around him, he must have seen the distress and remorse and fear in their eyes. And so, to put their minds at ease, he said, ‘Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you’ (Gen. 45:5).
What a powerful statement of divine providence! There is also ample mystery here for our minds to ponder. The truth of God’s providential care does not mean that every detail of our lives will fit into neat categories so that our days flow along smoothly. Joseph knew that God was not taken by surprise when his brothers stripped him of his coat and threw him into the pit. He understood divine providence well enough to respond to his brothers the way he did. He arrived at the conclusion that his brothers’ hatred of him and his journey to Egypt were part of a larger plan and he responded accordingly. When people fall into bitterness and a desire for revenge they are forgetting providence.
The benefits of providence
Joseph looked beyond the actions and reactions of men when he told his brothers, ‘It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you’ (Gen. 45:5). Then he added ‘[God] made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt’ (v.8). Joseph saw the hand of God in his benefits.
Humanly speaking, Pharaoh may have been responsible for Joseph’s exalted position but Joseph realised that his promotion truly came from the hand of God. Pharaoh could not have acted as he did had not God, in his grace and wisdom and providential care, inclined the king’s heart toward Joseph (see Prov. 21:2). When you and I begin to depend upon divine providence in that way, we can endure our afflictions without undue complaint and experience our blessings without undue pride. Think it out. Neither you nor I can draw breath without God’s enabling. Do we really think that it’s because we own that postgraduate degree or because we are so clever in business that we enjoy the things we have? Without demeaning or denying our efforts, we must confess that ultimately it is God who provides these things according to his purpose and grace.
Providence and human evil
Joseph’s understanding of God’s providence in his life was expressed by a statement he repeated three times: ‘God sent me ahead of you’ (vv.5,7); ‘It was not you who sent me here, but God’ (v.8). It is important to note that this was Joseph speaking, not the brothers. Coming from them, a statement like this would have sounded like they were trying to shift the blame from themselves to God. Rather, it was the will of God both that Joseph should be brought to Egypt and that the evil actions of his brothers should be the means used.
We must understand that the nature of sin is not altered by the use that God makes of it. Divine providence does not mean we can just go out and sin because, after all, God is over-ruling everything to his glory anyway. God’s will does not sanction our sin. Poison does not cease to be poison just because it may be part of a medicine that heals. Poison is still poison – and sin is still sin for which the sinner is responsible, even though God may choose to use that sin for the unfolding of his plan. God bears no blame for our sin.
The purpose of providence
This raises one more question we need to address. People often wonder why, if God is sovereign and in control of everything, he allows so much sin in the world. The answer from the scripture is, for his own glory. God knows what he is doing. He has dealt with sin at the cross, and he is about to banish the evil one into hell forever. But, in the meantime, sin serves God’s purposes. And since he is God, let us not raise our voices in protest. John Calvin writes:
I grant [that] thieves and murderers and other evildoers are the instruments of divine providence. And the Lord Himself uses these to carry out the judgements that He has determined with Himself. Yet I deny that they can derive from this any excuse for their evil deeds … In themselves they discover all evil, but in Him only the lawful use of their evil intent so as to preclude the charge against God.
All the evil in what happened to Joseph was the responsibility of his brothers. God was not contaminated because he determined to use their evil activities in order to achieve an overarching purpose he had for his servant. Calvin concludes concerning this issue, ‘Away then with this dog-like impudence which can indeed bark at God’s justice afar off, but cannot touch it.’ Without wishing to be unkind, we must acknowledge to our shame that in the last 25 years, there have been far too many books written in the evangelical world that are nothing other than ‘dog-like impudence’. It is an expression of the low view in which the greatness and wonder of God are held today, that people feel they have the right to call into question his purity and holiness.
The doctrine of providence has very practical benefits. You and I cannot really go to sleep at night without a proper view of God’s providence. Why? Because unless we believe God is in sovereign control over every detail of life, we will live in paralysing fear of what the next phone call or next knock on our door might bring. Instead of living in fear, we can rest in the confidence that the God who knows when a sparrow falls is profoundly involved in our lives. He has made us the special objects of his love, so will he not look after us? I have no doubt that Joseph slept as well in the dungeon as he slept in the palace because he knew that ultimately his exaltations and his deprivations came from the hand of God.
This extract is taken from ‘The Hand of God’ by Alistair Begg, published by Moody Publishers. Used with kind permission.