April 22, 2013
In this study of Psalm 31, Alistair Begg focuses on what it means for the Christian to be able to say with the psalmist, “My times are in your hands.” Because of our confidence in the providence of God, we can be certain that we are not trapped by blind forces like fate or nature, nor are we tossed about by chance. To embrace the truth of God’s sovereignty is both liberating and comforting as we view our circumstances from the perspective of His purposes.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I want to read a verse or two from Psalm 31, and then I just have one phrase which will be our focus this morning and on Wednesday morning.
In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress;
and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;
you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
but I trust in the Lord.
I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have known the distress of my soul,
and you[’ve] not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you[’ve] set my feet in a broad place.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I[’m] in distress;
my eye is wasted from grief;
my soul and my body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my iniquity,
and my bones waste away.
He’s not exactly having a brilliant Monday at the moment, is he? Verse 11:
Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach,
especially to my neighbors,
and an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have been forgotten like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
terror on every side!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
Now, you wanna just take a huge breath at that point, don’t you, and say, “Are we going to move out of the shadows, are we gonna move out from under these storm clouds at all, psalmist?” And here we go: “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’” In other words, the circumstances that he has just described are real circumstances. He’s not about to just be able to sweep them away. Facts are as they are. But here is the great revelation which allows him to face what he faces:
But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!
And our phrase for this morning and for Wednesday morning is “My times are in your hand.” “My times are in your hand.”
Gauguin, the Postimpressionist painter, painted lots of very graphic pictures, particularly of women from the islands. He led a dissolute life, although brought up as a Roman Catholic and catechized. And he was not known for writing on his paintings apart from signing them. But on one of his most famous paintings, depicting the journey of man from birth to the grave, he wrote on the top corner—on the left-hand corner, or the right-hand corner, as we would look at it in a gallery—he wrote three questions:
D’ou Venons Nous?
Que Sommes Nous?
Ou Allons Nous?
“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Unfortunately, he had no answer for those questions. He died in his fifties as a result, really, of a life that was lived in excess, without finding answers to those questions. In contrast, the Catechism—the Heidelberg, corrupted a little—asks the question, “What is our only hope in life and death?” and provides the answer: “That we are not our own, but belong body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.”
You see, one of the distinguishing marks of the Christian, of a Christian worldview, is to be found in the way in which he or she views the passing of time and the ordering of the events of life. To think Christianly is to have a radical shift in the way in which we view all of these issues. And to be able to affirm “My times, O God, are in your hands” is a Christian thing to do. And so, I want just to say three things on the strength of that this morning. The way I want to approach it is to say, What?; and then on Wednesday morning to say, So what?; and then, if we have a moment or two before we finish, Now what? Okay? So, this morning is about the what. We’re laying down the foundation.
To say “My times are in your hands” means what? It means, number one, that I am not trapped in the grip of blind forces. I am not trapped in the grip of blind forces. They’ve put me in the philosophy house. I don’t know if you knew that you had a philosophy house, but I am in the philosophy house. It was quite wonderful: I got in there, and I said to myself, “I don’t know what I think about this.” And then I said, “I think, therefore I am.” And then I woke up this morning and I said, “What a piece of work is … man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable!” you know? No, I didn’t. I didn’t at all.
But Paul was invited to the philosophy house in Athens. And when he got there, you will remember that some of the thinkers were dominated by the thoughts of a man called Zeno. He lived in the fourth century. And he taught that the events of the world are determined by a merciless, cold, and impersonal fate. And he also taught that instead of trying to struggle with that, and struggle with the circumstances to change them, what you really need to do is simply accept things in a spirit of resignation: “Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.”
This blind, impersonal force, which the Stoic actually believed to direct the affairs of life, was, in essence, a personification of nature. Of nature. And so, although they didn’t have the weather forecast the way we have the weather forecast—at least, I assume they don’t. They didn’t have some particularly pretty little girl sitting out there trying to come up with, “What do you say in southern California about the weather?” you know? I think it must be the easiest job in the world. But anyway, that’s by the way. But when she sits there and she says, “Let’s see what Mother Nature has for us today,” that is, in some sense, an expression of the notion that somehow or another there are forces over which we have no control. For those of you who love James Taylor, you’ll be familiar with his song “Gaia” and that whole philosophical basis where individual cells make up a single global organism that constitutes the earth, and we, somehow or another, are all caught up inside of that.
David Wells, commenting on this kind of thing, says contemporary spiritualities take many different forms: Hinduism, New Age, Kabbalah, radical environmentalism. All these self-made spiritualities have in common a view of reality that is pantheistic. All of them assume, in one way or another, that nature encloses and contains the sacred. See, for example, Avatar. The assumption is that the way we make contact with God is by finding him within ourselves. But we say, “My times are in your hands. I’m not held in the grip of dark, deterministic forces.”
Nor, secondly, am I tossed about on an ocean of chance. Epicurus, who followed later on, is best known for his ethics—namely, good, the good, is what brings you the greatest pleasure. He really should have lived in the ’60s, as I lived in the ’60s, so that he could have “turned on and tuned in and dropped out.” Because his underlying philosophy declared that everything happens by chance, and since there’s nothing before birth and there’s nothing after death, the best you can do is live the life of Old King Cole, who was a merry old soul, if you remember from your days in your nursery:
Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he;
And he called for his pipe in the middle of the night,
And he called for his fiddlers three.
And it goes on from there. It’s really not very biblical as an approach, but we’ll just leave it there.
Although Epicurus and his followers did not actually follow their views to their logical and absurd conclusion, others have done so. So, for example, Sartre, in his novel Nausea, you will remember, describes his character Roquentin walking in the city park and being overcome by what he referred to as the nausea of the meaninglessness of life. And as he looks around, he concludes that “every [existent] is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” He really should have put that on a T-shirt, you know? It would have been wonderful, wouldn’t it? Just on the back of the T-shirt, as you get up in the morning to remind yourself, as you pull it over your head, “I am born without reason, I prolong myself out of weakness, and I die by chance.” Have a good day!
Now, you see the absurdity of that. You can embrace that philosophy, but you can’t live with it for more than five minutes—not without jumping off a bridge. You’ll end up moving from existentialism into nihilism. You’ll be with Woody Allen, you know, who is a poster boy for nihilism: not only is God dead, but you can’t get a plumber when you need one. That kind of thing. That sense of absolute absurdity.
It’s an old film now, isn’t it? But Dead Poet’s Society captured it fairly well—Robin Williams taking those fellows out into the corridor, showing them all the faces of the people who were the students of an earlier era, and suggesting to them that they seize the moment, seize the day. Well, that sounds kinda biblical. Jesus said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Isn’t that what he’s saying? No, he’s saying—that is, Williams is saying—what Nietzsche was saying: namely, that there is nothing yesterday, there is no tomorrow; therefore, you only have the now. Jesus is saying, “The now matters because of what happened yesterday and because of what I have for you tomorrow.” Listen to Nietzsche: “There remains only void. Man is falling. His dignity is gone. His values are lost. There is no difference between up and down. It has become chilly, and the dark night is closing in.” And he goes on to say, just move among the everyday citizens and you will discover, one, that people rarely read; two, that they seldom think; and three, that they snatch pleasures at random to relieve the monotony and the drudgery of their lives.
What a statement! And yet, try it out! Sit and watch as the world goes by. Look at all these lonely people. Where do they all come from? Many of them have embraced these philosophies without understanding them. They either believe that somehow or another they have no control over anything that is going on around them, that they are predetermined, they are hardwired in some way, they are trapped, they are enclosed, they are encapsulated under the rule of malevolent forces, or that the whole thing is a sick joke, that there is no reason for them showing up and there is no place for them to go.
And into that world the Christian believer—the Biola student—goes out to serve in the realm of science, goes out to serve in the realm of commerce, goes out to move amongst these people in the arts. And when we’re asked a reason for the hope that we have, we have an opportunity to say to them, “Well, I got a novel take on this: I actually believe something that was said a long, long time ago by a fellow on one occasion when he was having a bad day, and he wrote a little song—most of it was a dirge—but it had a nice little part in it, and when he got to the nice part, he said, ‘I trust you, God. My times are in your hands.’”
So, I’m not held in the grip of dark forces, I’m not tossed around in the sea of chance, but I am being trained in the school of God’s providence. I am being trained in the school of God’s providence. Second question in the Catechism is, “What is God?” The answer is, “God is the creator and sustainer of everyone and everything. He is eternal, infinite, and unchangeable in his power and perfection, [in his] goodness and glory, [in his] wisdom, justice, and truth. Nothing happens except through him and by his will.” “Nothing happens except through him and by his will.” So when men and women are smothered by existentialism, some embrace the superficiality of hedonism, you as a believer embrace the truth that God has not abandoned the world that he has made, for that is deism, nor is he confused with his nature—I mean with nature itself, with creation—nor is he confused with creation, for that would be pantheism. But rather, he is working within his creation to manage everything according to his plan.
So we teach our children and our grandchildren: Before there was time, before there was anything, there was God. And that God is the creator and sustainer of everyone and everything. So you may teach your grandchildren to sing, you know—but you probably shouldn’t—“If I were a butterfly, I’d thank you, Lord, for my nice wings.” This is an old song; you only know it if you’re as old as me. “And if I were a robin in a tree, I’d thank you, Lord, that I could sing.” Isn’t this a strange thought, that if you’d been here, like, forty years ago, the band would have been leading this kind of song, you know? And you would get the chance to do the actions.
And if I were a fuzzy, wuzzy bear,
I’d thank you, Lord, for my fuzzy, wuzzy hair.
But I just thank you, Father, for making me, me!
Because you gave me a heart,
And you gave me a smile,
And you gave me Jesus,
And you made me your child.
And I just thank you, Father, for making me, me!
“You have put my eyes on my visage exactly as you designed. You have determined my DNA. You are sovereign over my gray-matter capacity. You are in charge of the bounds of my habitation. You are sovereign, just as we’ve been singing this morning. No matter how bad the sadness is, no matter how deep the overwhelming flood is, I have to come back to the fact that my times are in your hands. I’m being schooled in the school of your providence.”
Berkhof, the systematic theologian, defines providence as the “continued exercise of the divine energy whereby the Creator preserves all … His creatures, is operative in all that comes to pass in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end.” Packer says, “God is completely in charge of his world. His hand may be hidden, but his rule is absolute.”
And what is he doing? Well, he’s working everything out in conformity with the purpose of his will. What is the purpose of his will? To put together a people that are his very own from every tribe, language, nation, tongue, so on, and to unite them in their avowed commitment to the lordship and kingship of Jesus, no matter where they are in the entire universe. And one day that company will be assembled, and on that day they will declare, “Salvation belongs to the Lord, who sits upon the throne, to the Lamb who sits upon the throne.” And in the process of moving his children to that ultimate end, he has one single purpose in view. And let me tell you what it is. This is what God is seeking to do in your life, in a phrase: he is seeking, working, to make you like his Son, Jesus.[pull-4]
That’s what he’s doing. That’s the significance of Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all these things God is working them together for the good of those who love him, who’ve been called according to his purpose.” “Yeah, but what about the fact that my mother just died, and she’s only in her forties? What about the fact that my sister had a stillborn child? What about the fact that my spouse just got MS? What about the overwhelming magnitude of a world that seems to be spinning out of control? What are you doing, God?” “I’m gonna make you like Jesus.”
If you doubt this, read your Bible. Romans 8. It is God’s eternal purpose: “Those he predestined, he did so, so that they might be conformed to the image of his Son.” Second Corinthians chapter 3, what is happening to us? “We are being changed into his likeness.” What is our ultimate prospect? First John: “And when we see him, we’re gonna be like him.” So it is his eternal purpose, it is his existential purpose, and it is his eschatological purpose.
So you’re gonna go back and do your term paper. You’re gonna go back to whatever you’ve got to do the rest of today. You need to be saying to yourself, routinely, number one, “My times are in your hands. They don’t seem that good at the moment. I’m overwhelmed. I’m whatever it might be. But I’m affirming this. I’m affirming with the psalmist this truth. And I’m also reminded—thanks to that funny Scottish guy who came—I am also reminded that what you’re doing in the midst of all of this is, you’re gonna make me like Jesus. And you got a big job on your hands, God, because I’m not a lot like him just now. But you’re the only one that could accomplish that.”
You see how freeing this is? It means that all the issues of our lives are under his control—the who, the where, the what, the when of my existence. So it’s the foundation of great comfort. We might as well believe there is no God as believe in a God who doesn’t see, who doesn’t hear, who doesn’t care, and who doesn’t act. Right? A God who doesn’t know the future, as Augustine said, wouldn’t be God. A God who couldn’t see us and know us and care for us?
Jesus constantly argues from the from the lesser to the greater, doesn’t he? Remember, he says, “If you, being evil,” or earthly, “know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to them that ask you!” He looks around at the circumstances of his day, and he uses these elements around him in order to make his point: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” Are you kidding me, Jesus? Are you saying that the sovereignty of God Almighty extends to the lifespan of sparrows? “Oh,” you say, “it’s a metaphor.” “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” Doesn’t sound like a metaphor, does it? “And even the very hairs of your head are numbered.” Which is easier for some heads than others! “So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Some of you are gonna have to write résumés. You may have begun writing résumés. And you’ve bolstered all your facts and got your folks to extol your virtues and so on. I have a suggestion for you. You can do this or not do it. I haven’t seen anyone do it; I’ve suggested it a few times. But just as you’re finishing up your résumé and the people are saying, “What have you done, where have you been?” and so on, and everything, and “Tell me about yourself,” just put right down at the bottom, just say, “I am worth more than many sparrows.” Just put that down at the bottom. And the person who’s interviewing you for grad school will go through the thing as fast as they possibly can, because the grad school tell us that they don’t read the things properly; they spend an average of 1.7 seconds going through your application. So, there you go. And someone says, “Oh, wait a minute. We’ve got a weirdo here. You’re worth… I think we’ll interview this one.” And when they ask you, “What is the sparrow thing about?” you can tell them: “I’m not held in the grip of blind forces. My life is not simply tossed around on the sea of chance. I’m being schooled in the academy of God’s providence, because ‘my times are in your hands.’”
That’s the what. Wednesday we’ll do the so what.
Our God and our Father, we thank you this morning that you are a sovereign God and a compassionate Father, and that you are the friend of sinners in Jesus. So we come to you, and we affirm the songs we’ve just been singing. Songs that acknowledge that life is hard, but you, God, are good. Songs that acknowledge that we, by our nature, are rebellious, or sometimes we’re just plain indifferent. And we discover that you are a God who has come, sneaked in, as it were, under the radar of our rebellious hearts, and opened them up to the truth and reality of your gracious plan for us.
I pray particularly, Lord, for some who are going through it here today, who dragged themselves in here this morning somewhat reluctantly, perhaps even saying, “Oh, God, just give something, just a phrase. Don’t load me down.” Well then, may Psalm 31:15 be a help and an encouragement to such a one.
And we ask you to help us as the hours of the day unfold, that we might be a help and not a hindrance to each other as we seek to live out the truths that we now affirm. Hear our prayers, and let our cries come unto you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 1. Paraphrased.
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2.
 Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, “Que Será, Será” (1956).
 Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (1964).
 Matthew 6:34 (KJV).
 Walter A. Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th ed. (1950; repr., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 97. The quoted words are not Nietzsche’s own but rather Kaufmann’s summary of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
 See 1 Peter 3:15.
 The New City Catechism, Q. 2.
 See John 1:1
 Brian Howard, “The Butterfly Song” (1974). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 166.
 J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1993), 54.
 See Revelation 5:9.
 Revelation 7:10 (paraphrase).
 Romans 8:28 (paraphrase).
 Romans 8:29 (paraphrase).
 2 Corinthians 3:18 (paraphrase).
 1 John 3:2 (paraphrase).
 Matthew 7:11 (paraphrase).
 Matthew 10:29–31 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.