It’s not unusual for men and women to ask whether there is any order and meaning in the chaotic world around us. Alistair Begg explains that the doctrine of the providence of God enables the Christian to offer a different perspective. All things are ordered by God for His glory, and because He is both powerful and good, we can find comfort and security in trusting His providence.
I’d like to read from the book of Genesis and from chapter 45. I’ll be glad for you to follow along as I read Genesis 45. I’ll read from verse 1 through to the end of, I think, verse 15. And Genesis 45 here is picking up this amazing encounter between Joseph and his brothers. You will perhaps recall this story; if you don’t, it will reward your reading, and you could read it through this week and find it very, very helpful to you.
And it begins, “Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, ‘Make everyone go out from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence.
“So Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come near to me, please.’ And they came near. And he said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and the lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry [up] and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, and your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. [And] there I will provide for you, for there are yet five years of famine to come, so that you and your household, and all that you have, do not come to poverty.” And now your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see, that it is my mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father of all my honor in Egypt, and of all that you[’ve] seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. After that his brothers talked with him.”
Now a brief prayer together:
Father, we pray now for your help. It’s towards the end of the day, and our attention span diminishes, our energy depletes, and so we acknowledge that we need that supernatural intervention of God the Holy Spirit to give us ears to hear and eyes to see and hearts to respond to the truth of your Word. Match it to our lives, we pray, as only you can, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Our study this evening doesn’t so much emerge from this morning as it emerges from my study for this morning and the one passing comment that I made concerning the disagreement that took place between Paul and Barnabas that led to their separation, and yet the disagreement, although it was not a good thing in itself, led to something good, inasmuch as it led to the development of the gospel message in diverse parts of the growing world. That, along with the fact that as I’ve said to you for some weeks now, I have myself been studying afresh the Westminster Confession. And as I’ve got to section 3 in that, I’m back in the familiar territory of the doctrine of providence. And these two things combining for me lead me to the study that I have for you now: to deal with it first and very briefly, but theologically, as from the Confession, and then to see that theology worked out in some measure in the familiar story that we’ve just referenced here in Genesis chapter 45.
Separate from our comments from the Confession tonight, I want just to give you one early statement from the Westminster Confession in order to encourage us. The divines said,
Not all things in Scripture are equally plain in themselves or equally clear to all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly stated and explained in one place or another in Scripture, that not only the educated but also the uneducated may gain a sufficient understanding of them by a proper use of the ordinary means.
Now, “the ordinary means” being in some measure the means that are provided when you are given pastors who are then entrusted with the responsibility of teaching the Bible.
With that said, let me remind you of a comment from the commentator from the Wall Street Journal, the columnist in the Wall Street Journal that I mentioned probably a couple of years ago now, when in a somewhat humorous tone he began his column by saying, “For the first time in my [life], I have no idea what’s going on.” He said it somewhat humorously, but he meant it entirely. And as someone now, I think, probably around the age of seventy, his allotted life span of three score years and ten already up, having looked on the social and political scene of the world over a lifetime in journalism, he finds himself, as it were, picking up his morning newspaper and saying, “You know, I have no idea what is going on at all.” The events of the world seem haphazard, in many ways uncontrollable, for many people frightening, and almost inevitably uncertain. And so the question that falls to the Christian believer is, do we then have anything that is valid to say, any response to make, when what is not uncommon perception is offered to us in the course of everyday life?
Well, in actual fact, when Paul addressed the thinkers in Athens, he responded to people who were coming at it from very much the same position by saying, “You know, we’ve got ourselves covered on every front we can imagine in terms of philosophy and theology. We even have a little shrine here to the unknown god, in case we’ve missed somebody.” And when Paul has an opportunity to speak to them, he says, “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” And then he doesn’t have some kind of vague philosophical rambling, but he speaks in very specific terms, terms that are in concurrence with what I’m going to share with you from the Confession. He says,
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by [human hands], nor is he served by [man], as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.
Because, he goes on to say, he’s not actually that far from every one of us, “for ‘in him we live and move and have our being,’” he says, quoting some of their own poets.
Now, with that said, let me give to you the direct quote from the Westminster Confession. Here we go:
God—the … Creator of all things—upholds, directs, disposes, and governs all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least. He exercises this most wise and holy providence according to his infallible foreknowledge and the free and unchangeable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness and mercy.
Now, in contrast to Henry Allen’s “For the first time in my life, I haven’t got a clue what’s going on,” the Westminster divines were sitting down to say, “We want to say that the Bible has an answer to that”—what the writer to the Hebrews gives to us in really just a phrase when, introducing his letter, he says, “In the past God has spoken in various ways through the prophets, and now in these last days he has spoken to us in his Son, and he is the one who sustains all things by his powerful word.”
Now, it’s important to recognize what is being said here. The divines are not suggesting that God as Creator is simply exercising a kind of maintenance ministry, a sort of deistic view of the universe: that there was a Watchmaker, and he made the watch, and he wound up the watch and he set the watch down, and then he’s just let everything run on its own from there. No. The language is very straightforward—namely, that he directs, he controls, he sustains, he upholds all things according to his word. “All things” means all things. It means stars, planets, nations, sparrows, and even the hairs of our heads. And that is a scary thought if we divorce it from the fact that the hands that control all things are good hands—that as the question is posed in Genesis 18, Abraham says, “[Will] not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Can we trust God to do the right thing? And the answer is, yes, you can trust him to do the right thing. So therefore, if there’s gonna be somebody who is upholding, controlling, sustaining, and governing everything that happens in the universe, you want to make sure that this God is not simply powerful but that he is also good.
Which then occasions some of us to go to our limited knowledge of C. S. Lewis and to the arrival in Narnia through their uncle’s wardrobe, and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver telling the children that they’re going to take Lucy and the rest of them to meet Aslan the lion. And remember the response. “Is he—quite safe?” Susan says. “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” To which the lady replies, “That you will, dearie, and [make] no mistake. … If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, [they are] either braver than most or else just silly.” The hesitancy is because of my writing. Sorry.
“They’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? [Of] ’course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, [I’m telling] you!”
What do we have to say to our friends and colleagues who believe themselves to be living in a chance universe, who believe that their very existence is a result of simply the coalescing of time and matter and chance? Well, on the strength of God’s Word, we’re able to say this: that the world was created by and is in the hands of a good God. The psalmist says, “The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”
And when Jesus speaks of these things to his disciples, who were often overwhelmed by the complexities of life as it was unfolding for them, he speaks in the most tender terms, doesn’t he? And he makes it so amazingly clear that the vastness of God’s interest in the universe extends to the tiniest of concerns. And that’s how he argues from the clothing of the grass of the field to the caring for the fall of a sparrow. He’s actually making the claim, as Creator, that God himself, who made this world, sustains it and is interested and engaged in it to the very fall of a sparrow. So it’s not simply the macro picture; it’s quite immense. “If God so clothes the grass of the field that is here today and tomorrow is cast into the oven, won’t he look after you?” he says. “And if there isn’t a sparrow that falls to the ground, what are you so worried about?” It makes sense.
The Confession goes on to say, “Although—in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, [i.e.,] the first Cause—all things come to pass unchangeably and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he orders them to occur according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.” Which being interpreted, means simply this: that as God is working his purpose out according to the eternal counsel of his will—a God who is in absolutely no need of help from any quarter, a God who could have removed every secondary cause and made himself the primary cause of everything that takes place—that God has chosen in the mystery of his purposes to effect his eternal counsel by the employment of secondary causes, to govern a world in which some events and actions cause other events and actions: tides, movement of the planets, sowing and reaping. That’s the significance in Genesis: he says, “And as long as the earth remains, there will be seedtime, and there will be harvest.” Why will there be seedtime and harvest? Because he has determined that ordinarily that is the way it will happen, so that there are patterns and there are regularities that are written into the universe. There are events that take place as a result of God’s strategy and purpose.
And these secondary causes, as the Confession says, are either necessary—i.e., he gave us the sun so that we would have something during the day—unless it was yesterday in Cleveland. He’s given us the moon so that we would have something to look at in the evening. These are necessary there. There are other causes that are a result of the free exercise of the will of individuals. So, for example, someone commits a murder, and they are free now to run to a place of safety, and the exercise of their freedom in that context is going to have a determining impact on the outcome—whether they live or whether they die.
And also, in the same way, there are contingent events. So, for example, if you think of the scene in Acts, remember, in the shipwreck scene in Acts chapter 27—and I haven’t reread this, but I know it’s there—you remember where they are all really freaked out as a result of the storm at the sea, and Paul is on there, and he is able to tell them that if they just hang on, they shouldn’t be afraid. “I told you,” he says, “that we shouldn’t have gone on this voyage in the first place, but now I urge you to take heart that there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.” Now, how did that happen? Well, as long as they stayed on the ship. It was contingent upon them staying on the ship. And also, when the ship ran aground as he said it would run aground, their safety was contingent upon them grabbing planks of wood or being in shallow enough ground to get there. In other words, it wasn’t happening as a result of some divine intervention from without; it was contingent upon their action from within. So that God, who is the primary cause of all that happens—upholding everything, securing the safety of the ship—secures the safety of the ship by means of secondary cause.
Now, I think that’s fairly straightforward. What is also straightforward is that when you think about it, you realize that although God works ordinarily in those ways, he’s not trapped in any way. He can work entirely outside of things. So, for example, in Job—and we won’t make this a rabbit trail through the Bible—but in Job 34, I think, if you look there, you’ll find that it says how God just swept away these people in a direct intervention that had no obvious cause. God is able to do that. He’s able to work from outside. He’s able to work from above.
He’s able to come to a lady like Sarah, who from every human perspective is beyond childbearing age, right? There’s no way in the world that anybody that old—I don’t care what point in history it was—with an old guy like Abraham, this does not work. There’s no way on earth this is gonna work, except that the God who upholds everything according to the eternal counsel of his will is able not only to work outside but is able to work above—and he’s also able, incidentally, to work against. And if you wake up in the night, you can think about how, in 2 Kings chapter 6, you have the story of the floating ax-head. Ax-heads don’t float—ordinarily. But it did float. Why? Because he who controls everything and upholds everything and governs and sustains everything may choose to work ordinarily and with secondary causes, but he may also choose to work outside and above and against.
Now, let’s come in the second half—or the last third—to earth this just in the familiar story of Joseph, Genesis chapter 45. I’m going here because of its familiarity. I don’t think I’ll need to do very much to create context.
But here in the verses that we’ve read, it’s quite a scene. This is a lot of crying that’s going here. This is not what you would call sniveling; this is big-time crying. He cried, and he cried “so that the Egyptians heard it,” and he cried to such a degree that “the household of Pharaoh heard it.” And the sense of emotion in the disclosure of Joseph to his brothers is quite amazing, isn’t it? “And they came near. And he said [to them], ‘I[’m] your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.’” It’s interesting he says that, as if they had forgotten. There probably wasn’t a day of their lives that they ever said, “Goodness, I wonder whatever happened to Joseph when we sold him into Egypt.” And then comes this amazing statement, which shows us that this doctrine of providence of a God who overrules and upholds and sustains has actually laid hold of the mind of Joseph: “Do[n’t] be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here,” which they did, “for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
Now, if you remember the story, he comes down one morning for his breakfast, and he says, “Man, did I dream last night! I had a couple of real dillies.” And they said, “Oh yeah, what were you dreaming about last night?” He said, “Well, I dreamt, actually, that there were all these sheaves of corn, and they were bowing down to me. And I think I know what it is.” He says to his brothers, “It’s about you all bowing down to me.” That didn’t go over real well at the breakfast table. And the sense of animosity that they felt towards this young character, who was obviously something of a favorite of his father’s—he was wearing a special coat that they hadn’t been given—all of that bitterness and animosity began to build within them. And as a result of that, they determined that, in part to prevent the very notion, to get rid of the very idea that such a thing could ever be, they decided, “We’ll just get rid of him.” And in getting rid of him, they actually brought about the very thing that he had described in his dream. Amazing providence.
And so he says to them, “You need to know that Pharaoh is really the secondary cause. Humanly speaking, Pharaoh gave me this position. But actually,” he says in verse 8, “it wasn’t you who sent me here but God, and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” In other words, he acknowledges the fact that this God who has created him is the one who sustains and upholds all things.
Now, it’s important for us to recognize, too, that this is Joseph speaking and not the brothers. If the brothers were saying this, then we would have occasion to be concerned. Because if you put it in their lips, then it comes out differently, doesn’t it? ’Cause they’re now going, “Hey Joseph, you can’t blame us for this. This is the providence of God. This was supposed to happen. You see, we’ve got nothing to do with this.” And that’s the way some people play the game. It’s the same notion as is addressed in Romans chapter 6: “If God is this great God who sustains, upholds, justifies, keeps, and brings to fruition all of his plans for us, why don’t we just go out and sin like crazy people so that we can show what an amazing, grace-giving God he is and brings everything to completion?” And Paul says, “No, you don’t get it at all, do you? God forbid that you would ever do that.”
So if Joseph and his brothers had begun to do that, then they would have been quickly corrected by Joseph himself. In fact, in chapter 50, Joseph says to them, “As for you, you meant evil against me.” “You meant evil against me.” There is no way that you can use the providence of God as a mechanism to cloak your evil. It doesn’t work that way. “You can’t do that,” he says. “When you sat down and conceived of this plot, first of all to kill me, and then my brother Reuben intervened, and I got out of that one—but when you sold me into slavery, you sold me into slavery. That was something you wanted to do. And you did it. And the Ishmaelites bought me because I looked like a good business proposition. They accepted me, and Potiphar bought me, and he put me in position because he thought I was a good prospect. And because his wife thought I was an even better prospect, I ended up in the jail—because of her badness. But I want you to know today, fellas, that in it all and through it all, God is the first cause.” The brothers were but instruments overruled by him for the accomplishment of his own purposes. They were not pawns. They were participants, not pawns. Participants.
Now, let me make two observations and I’ll draw this quickly to a close. When you seek to bow down underneath this instruction—and bowing down under it is actually the only way to handle it. If you view this simply as an exercise of the intellect, you will probably very quickly go wrong, because your head will be too fat and your neck too stiff. You see, the thing is that God operates in this way because he’s God, and because he is able to do what he chooses to do, because he’s actually God. It’s very straightforward, but it’s foundational. It doesn’t work if God is simply a cosmic principle. It doesn’t work if God is simply wrapped up in his creation. It doesn’t work if God is somehow inside of ourselves as a construct; it doesn’t work. No, it only works if before there was time and before there was anything, there was God, who created all things, who has revealed himself in his Word and in his world. He speaks two ways: in creation and in his Word, in conscience and in creation.
And so it is that when God operates in this way and we respond in this way, we need to realize—and here’s the first of the two things. (I interrupted myself, I’m sorry.) The nature of sin—the nature of sin—is not altered by the use God makes of it. The nature of sin is not altered by the use God makes of it. It’s still sin. Whatever we have done in our lives remains sin. The fact that God in his mercy and in his providence works good out of evil, as in the story of Joseph, is a testimony to the magnificence of God. But it does not transmute what was evil somehow into a good. Poison is still poison; it doesn’t cease to be poison just because it may be part of a medicinal potion that actually heals. It’s still poison.
And the second thing is that the will of God never contains permission for us to do what runs contrary to the revealed will of God. You get that? That the will of God never contains permission for us to do what runs contrary to the revealed will of God. So you can’t play any of these funny games, I can’t play any of these funny games, about, “Actually, I believe this is God’s will for me to steal Mrs. Jenkins’s handbag,” you know. Now, I can tell you it isn’t. Why? Because it says you’re not supposed to steal. “Well, I really believe that God wants me to covet my neighbor’s donkey and everything that goes along with it.” No, it’s absolutely not possible, because the will of God never runs contrary to his revealed will in Scripture. And that is of paramount importance when you think about providence.
Now, we’ll stop before we get to the really big question, which is the mystery of sin itself. For God is not responsible for sin. But nevertheless, since he is the one who creates, sustains, upholds, and controls, somehow, in the mystery of it all, he has ordained that these things should be so. James says—and you studied it in my absence—“Let no one say when he is tempted that this is as a result of something God is doing, because God doesn’t tempt to sin, because that would make God out to be something other than he is,” and what do we know that he is? We know that he is entirely good. So, again, you’ve got a great intellectual dilemma there, but nevertheless… George Lawson, in an earlier era in Scotland, says, “God not only permits sin, but he makes use of it. No sinner can do any evil that God has not intended to use for the advancement of his own glory.” So, we can’t use it as a cover-up.
Let’s finish in this way. We don’t need to simply stay with Joseph; we can go to Jesus. And you remember, in the preaching of Peter following the ascension, and Peter’s sermon, he addresses those who are his listeners, and he confronts them with their culpability in the death of Jesus. And yet, he says, even the capture and execution of Jesus was according to God’s set purpose and foreknowledge. Listen to it:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
It’s just a mystery, isn’t it? It’s a mystery. But the effects of it are so powerful.
Somebody gave me a wonderful collection of Cowper’s poems and letters. And in it, of course, we have his great hymn, to which he gave the title “Light Shining out of Darkness”—the hymn which begins,
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable minds
Of never failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will.
The staggering thing about this in the life of Cowper is that although he wrote this with such conviction, this particular hymn, we’re told, was written in June of 1773, on the evening before he was institutionalized once again for his virtually crippling depression. So the night before they take him away to lock him up, he’s writing this hymn:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds [you] so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
He’s writing to himself, for goodness’ sake!
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make [things] plain.
So there’s nothing superficial, or cliché, or catchy, or sort of immediately absorbable, or to be used as a mechanism for interacting with a culture that is largely significantly removed from any such notion. It needs to be come to on our knees. It needs to be held softly in our hands. It needs to be trusted resolutely in the face of our death, in the disappointment with our children, in the struggles with our relationships, in all of the various vicissitudes of life which press in upon us.
In the doctrine of providence, there is comfort in trouble. In the doctrine of providence, there is security in chaos. In the doctrine of providence, there is the basis for humility in the experience of success. And it has been well said that the doctrine of providence is really a soft pillow. “God,” we used to sing in Scotland,
is still on the throne,
And he will remember his own;
Tho’ trials may press us and burdens distress us,
He never will leave us alone;
God is still on the throne,
And he will remember his own;
His promise is true, he will not forget you,
For this God is still on his throne.
“For the first time in my life,” writes Henry Allen, “I haven’t a clue what’s going on.” I want to say, “Mr. Allen, I’d love to have coffee with you. I’d love to tell you about this.” Those are the opportunities that await us this coming week. May God help us to seize them.
Father, cement in our thinking all that is of yourself. Anything that is untrue or unhelpful or harmful to our well-being, may it be banished from our recollection. Thank you that these thoughts are big enough to expend significant time pondering, and yet they are earthed in the everyday experience of life—in the marriage of our children, in the birth of a baby, in the care of a loved one, in the unscrambling of a mind that fights for a sense and a semblance of peace. Thank you that there is strength for us, not simply meted out on an annual basis, or even weekly, and not even day by day, but with every passing moment. And in this we find our hope and our confidence renewed. And we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
 See Acts 15:36–41.
 The Westminster Confession of Faith, Modern English Study Version, 1.7.
 Henry Allen, “The Disquiet of Ziggy Zeitgeist,” Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2013, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324110404578626314130514522.
 Acts 17:23–28 (ESV).
 The Westminster Confession of Faith, Modern English Study Version, 5.1.
 Hebrews 1:1–3 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 18:25 (KJV).
 C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), chap. 8.
 Psalm 33:11 (NIV).
 Matthew 6:26, 30 (paraphrased). See also Luke 12:24, 28.
 The Westminster Confession of Faith, Modern English Study Version, 5.2.
 See Ephesians 1:11.
 Genesis 8:22 (paraphrased).
 Acts 27:21–22 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Kings 6:1–7.
 See Genesis 37:1–36.
 Romans 6:1–2 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 50:20 (ESV).
 James 1:13 (paraphrased).
 George Lawson, Lectures on the History of Joseph (London: Banner of Truth, 1972), 271.
 Acts 2:22–23 (ESV).
 William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).
 Kittie L. Suffield, “God Is Still on the Throne” (1929). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2020, 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.