Divine purpose, and divine and human action. The thought always comes to me in retrospect — “Oh, now I see why that had to happen that way!” But sometimes the images slide together in focus, and I comprehend that God is this very moment providentially moving about in the world, through human action, to bring about his will for his glory and my good. “I don’t know what he has planned as the outcome, but there are things he is doing today that are instrumental in bringing it about.” My most-used application of this is in the ubiquitous matter of the job search. Isn’t it true that the position God has ordained for you has to be made available at the right time? And that that availing process involves another availing process—someone else needs to leave their job before person B can take it, thereby leaving their job to create the vacancy for you to fill tomorrow? Right?
I’ve been chewing a good bit on the doctrinal meat of divine sovereignty and human responsibility lately. Family conversations over the holiday and preliminary reading and research for an upcoming Bible study on the book of Esther have created a swirl of conflicting voices in my head, godly perspectives and moralistic rebuttals, and it’s been helpful for me to transcribe notes as I listen to sermons or read treatises on the topic.
Today I began a new series on the book of Esther with help from sermons delivered by Geoff Thomas preached in early 2007 at Alfred Place Baptist Church, in Aberystwyth, Wales. (Transcript here; audio here*.) Thomas recently retired and relinquished the Alfred Place pulpit to his grandson, Rhodri Brady, who was called, ordained and installed as minister in September 2016.
In his introduction to this fascinating historical book of the Old Testament, Thomas presents a brief but engaging narrative of the growth of the Persian empire up to the point of the reign of Xerxes and the story of Esther. The reach of the empire was vast—it was the largest empire that the world has ever known, encompassing all of what is today Saudi Arabia, Libya, the Sudan, Ethiopia, North Africa, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, and parts of Egypt. To be the ruler of Persia was to be the most powerful man in the world . . . until Alexander the Great conquered Darius III in 331 BC and established the Greek empire.
When Cyrus the Mede absorbed the Babylonian kingdom under his reign, he allowed some of the Jews living in captivity, who had been functioning as a servile class, to be repatriated. Sadly, despite the unwavering voice of Daniel the prophet reminding the people of their identity and their traditions as established in the word of God, few cared enough to return to the land their ancestors had been given. The people disobeyed God by intermarrying, mixing religions and religious practices, embracing materialism and parading their paganism and apostasy, adopting the ways of a culture which was becoming increasingly hostile to the standards of God. The world around them worshipped entertainment, reputation, power, money and government, and for the oppressed few who desired to live by God’s laws, the temptation to be invisible, to draw as little attention to themselves, was very great. This was Esther’s world.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Reading through that summary (loosely paraphrased from Thomas’s sermon) prods me toward a sense of despair—until I realize that the empire didn’t last. Nebuchadnezzar and Xerxes and Darius were vainly constructing castles in the air, flagrantly flouting God, blithely unaware of the future demise of their great enterprises, and though it took a few centuries and the strategic brilliance of a young Macedonian named Alexander, all of their accomplishments were buried in the rubble of warfare as a new civilization took over. History is a great leveller, reminding us that our worries today have no roots in tomorrow’s outcomes, no matter how overwhelming this moment may be. As John W. Gardner said, “History never looks like history when you are living through it.”
Reverend Thomas’s message on the details of the life of a replacement queen of Persia teaches us about God’s sovereignty, and it includes several perceptive points that resonate with us today. We see that even Queen Vashti’s efforts to choose the high road don’t result in a happy ending. Despite all the “good life now” promises we get from popular TV evangelists, we despised aliens (for not only does that describe the Jews in Persia, but it describes us pilgrim believers passing through this world) probably have even less to hope for, right? Yet, Thomas reminds us, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it where he will.” (Proverbs 21:1)
“Nothing,” says Thomas, “shall thwart God’s plan for our own individual lives as his servants.” And, he will even use sinful actions of wicked men (such as arbitrarily putting away and divorcing Vashti) to deliver his people (such as through the rise of Esther to the place of queen).
An illustration from Job is helpful, and here is the narrative and exposition in Thomas’s own words:
Job went through a terrible time. He lost his business, his children, his health, his reputation. The bedrock of his comfort was this knowledge that nothing happened by accident to him, that nothing happened just because the devil was getting at him. Almighty God had a plan for job’s life and everything that touched him was in accordance with that plan. Job says these words, Job 23:13-14 — he’s talking about God: “But he stands alone. And who can oppose him. He does whatsoever he pleases. He carries out his decree against me. And many such plans he still has in store.” Who is it that stands in the throne of God, at the helm of the vast cosmos and is taking it to its ultimate destination? Who has all authority in heaven and on earth? Are there two warring gods? a good god and a bad god? When bad things happen is it because the bad god has got the upper hand? When good things happen, is it because gentle Jesus meek and mild has got the upper hand? NO. Job says, “God stands alone.” One sovereign ruler of the skies. And then he considers the Lord’s mighty power. And he says, “And who can oppose him?” Who can smack God’s hand and say, don’t do that? Who can push God aside if he wants to help us and lift us up again or he wants to throw the devil into the bottomless pit? God stands alone in his might among the armies of heaven and amongst the inhabitants of the earth. “He does whatsoever he pleases.” That is Job’s God and that is our God, too. And that conviction provided rationality and it provided hope for Job after all he endured.
. . . Whatever happened to Job was, in Job’s words, because of this great reason: “God carries out his decree against me and many such plans he still has in store.” Job 23:13-14. What’s happened to me is because of God’s decree. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. But I know whatever it will be is according to God’s providence. Now no one can ever steal from you the providence of God. (from the audio)
Along with the OT account of Joseph’s life and the central gospel message of the NT, the persecution and death of Jesus, we also have reinforcement from throughout the writings of the New Testament, most notably, Romans 8:28 and Romans 11:36:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)
I can certainly look back over my life and see the wisdom of God’s sovereignty. It has been said, “If I were as sovereign as God, I would change a lot of things. If I were as wise as God, I would not change a single thing.” (from the audio)
God knows what he is doing with you and me and our church and Christians . . . in the world today. His plans, his works, are never arbitrary, never capricious. They all have a purpose, which is like his own nature, and his own nature is all wise and all good, and so his plans are all wise and all good, too. They are the best possible plans. And when we fully understand them — not this morning, we see his plans through a glass darkly. But one day we will see his plans face to face, we will look over them and examine them, they will be spread out for us, and we will understand how perfectly how God has worked everything. And we will say then, what Paul says there, “To him be glory forever and ever, amen.” That will be our theme. Not eternal grudges against what God has done, but eternal glory being given to the God who’s done them. (from the audio)
If this is true, we reason, how can man be held accountable?
“What God decrees in eternity, man will always demand in time,” said a Puritan once, and John Reisinger adds: “Man’s ‘free will’ will always freely choose the very thing that God has sovereignly ordained, and God’s purpose will be fulfilled; just as surely, man will be responsible for his every act of sin.”
Why do we freely tie God’s hands to fate rather than man’s free will to God’s decrees? Why would we prefer to remove God’s purposes and determinations far from what we perceive as the taint of sin rather than even question that our definition of free will is flawed?
As Thomas Watson, another great Puritan, wrote, “God always has a hand in the action where the sin is, but he never has a hand in the sin of the action.” Man freely acts according to what God ordains — regenerate man, free and in accordance with a will that is bound to Christ, unregenerate man, free only according to a will that is bound to sin. Reverend Thomas says, “God never says, ‘Go ahead and sin.’” — Unregenerate man does that just fine on his own!—”But in the sin, God’s hand is acting.”
So with the “unfairness” of man’s actions being tied to God’s will resolved, many turn their thoughts back to poor Vashti. What has happened to her is so unfair, they cry, imagining themselves empathizing with the disgraced queen. But God, acting in fairness to his own holiness, removed the one through no fault of her own, keeping her conscience clear, while he positioned the other in her place, enacting his plan to bless his people, and in the process, residual blessings fall on Persia. Do you see what a help this is as we consider how to make application of these weighty doctrinal truths? God does exactly what he plans, and we need not worry about how it appears or how we will fare, because his promises are always to bring about good for his own. No one can thwart God’s plans. Remember? No one can ever steal from you the providence of God.
As Jane Roach writes in God’s Mysterious Ways: Embracing God’s Providence in Esther, there are several practical implications for our lives when we learn to trust God’s providences, such as a way to battle fear, to wait with contentment for God’s will to be revealed, to live joyfully through trials because God’s purposes are for my good, to shore me up when the world’s naysayers want to bring me down, to broaden my view of eternity so that hope in him exceeds all worry or anxiety about the future.
What a bounty of blessings! I am only through the first sermon of Thomas’s series and I have gleaned so much already. I look forward to being further edified and encouraged in my understanding of God’s providence in history and in my life, through the listening and reading that comes with preparation, as well as through the time of digging into the text and the resulting discussion we have when the Bible study begins in January.
To close, I want to offer this quote, a description about the effects of time on the particulars of history, by Charles Lanmen, whose piece, “A Nameless Essay”, appeared in the Southern Literary Magazine (v. 6) in 1840:
In that delightful land embosomed in the Mediterranean sea, there once stood in its pride and strength one of the most splendid cities of the world…. Since then, many centuries have rolled away and are lost in oblivion.— They have gone, and O how many millions of men have gone with them to the shoreless ocean of eternity!… [T]his city…. [h]er palaces have crumbled, and the owl builds her nest within the mouldering chambers of her kings. The poet’s lyre is broken. The voice of eloquence is forever hushed. The wine-cup is in the dust. The voice of their merriment has long since ceased. The good, the brave, the noble, the wealthy and the poor, are all forgotten. Spirit of change! these mighty revolutions are thine. Thou art the eldest-born of time; thy lessons are precious to the soul, and ever should they be treasured in the memory. ~Charles Lanman, “Musings,” 1840
Esther is gone. Xerxes is gone, along with his scepter. Persia is gone; the opulence of the courtyards and the memories of the officials are lost to oblivion. But this window into their world has graciously been opened for us by the Holy Spirit to mark the sovereign actions of God’s hand as he brought about the saving of his people from the wicked deeds of a tyrant and his minions.
We are here now. You, and me. In our places, our churches, our work stations, our classrooms, our neighborhoods, our kitchens, amidst our blur of entertainment and worries. Yet despite the roll of time, His purposes never change. God is still as intent today upon drawing together his elect and making us more like Christ as he was for the believers in the first century. This big picture work sometimes involves our pain and suffering. Sometimes not. Sometimes it happens to someone else. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it. But it’s happening. Do you trust him? Do you trust that his providence toward you includes a multiple of human actions, in tandem, coordinating to bring about the timely circumstances of your life? Will you hold dear to your heart the treasure that is God’s providence, willingly letting him turn your heart where he desires it to go, since he knows what is the very best for you?
* Personal notes from the audio and the published transcript both significantly influenced my thinking as I developed this post.