Scripture assures us that the purposes of God stand:
It was the Dutch survivor of Nazi concentration camps Corrie ten Boom who once said, “If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God you’ll be at rest.” I must say, I am far too often distressed and depressed, and I often need to pray for more faith and more trust in God.
But because of my ministry, and because of the sort of person I am, I am often looking at what is happening around me, what is going on in the world, what the political scene is like, and so on. And the more the Christian looks at all that, the more depressed and distressed he might become.
So we need to see things through the eyes of faith as well as just through human eyes. We need to try to understand what is happening all around us from God’s point of view, not just our own point of view. As such, we need to see that God is accomplishing his purposes.
Sure, one big problem is we may not always know what exactly his purposes are. We cannot always see what he is up to, and so often it seems like his purposes are not being done. Or we may have an inkling of what his purposes are, but we may not like them!
But knowing that God is in control and that he is working out his plans is meant to comfort and console us. Yesterday I wrote about how human choices fit in with divine purposes. They may seem to be mutually exclusive, but somehow God is bringing them together: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/07/24/human-choices-divine-purposes/
Here I want to look further at divine purposes, and I will again confine myself to the book of Isaiah which I am now once again reading. Many times in this key Old Testament book we find statements about how God’s purposes stand, and how he is accomplishing what he desires. Here are some of them:
Isaiah 14:24-27 The Lord of hosts has sworn:
As I have planned,
so shall it be,
and as I have purposed,
so shall it stand…
For the Lord of hosts has purposed,
and who will annul it?
His hand is stretched out,
and who will turn it back?
Isaiah 19:12-17 Where then are your wise men?
Let them tell you
that they might know what the Lord of hosts has purposed against Egypt…
Everyone to whom it is mentioned will fear because of the purpose that the Lord of hosts has purposed against them.
Isaiah 23:8-9 Who has purposed this
against Tyre, the bestower of crowns,
whose merchants were princes,
whose traders were the honored of the earth?
The Lord of hosts has purposed it,
to defile the pompous pride of all glory,
to dishonor all the honored of the earth.
Isaiah 37:26 Have you not heard?
Long ago I ordained it.
In days of old I planned it;
now I have brought it to pass,
that you have turned fortified cities
into piles of stone.
Isaiah 44:24-28 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself,
who frustrates the signs of liars
and makes fools of diviners,
who turns wise men back
and makes their knowledge foolish,
who confirms the word of his servant
and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,
who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’
and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built,
and I will raise up their ruins’;
who says to the deep, ‘Be dry;
I will dry up your rivers’;
who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
and he shall fulfill all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’
and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”
Isaiah 46:9-11 I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.
Isaiah 55;11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
As can be seen, most of these passages have to do with the nations. Of course his purposes stand for all aspects and details of life. But the fact that even secular nations are part of his purposes should be of real comfort to us. As we look around at evil nations and ungodly tyrants, it is so easy to get discouraged. But God is accomplishing his purposes, even with godless and arrogant nations.
Much can be said about all this, but one important resource to appeal to here is the recent volume by John Piper. Providence may well be his magnum opus. You can see my review of this very significant book here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/06/02/a-review-of-providence-by-john-piper/
Not surprisingly, he has three chapters on God and the nations in this 750-page work. Let me offer some quotes from them. He opens his first chapter on this with these words:
God’s providence over kings and nations is prominent in the Old Testament primarily because God’s plan for history, until the Messiah came, was that the nation of Israel would be the central focus of God’s saving work. This meant that God’s people, as an ethnic, political, and geographic nation, would be in constant relationship, and often conflict, with other nations. How God dealt with Israel and those nations is a thread of providence running through the entire Old Testament.
He goes on to say this:
God’s providence over the nations today is just as inclusive and pervasive as it was in the Old Testament. This has huge implications for the faith and courage of God’s people today, who are charged to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), and who are told by Jesus that we will “be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matt. 24:9).
Not only that, but God’s providence over the nation of Israel in the Old Testament is relevant for the Christian church because the royal line of national kings stemming from David was promised to issue in a “Son of David” whose kingdom would endure forever and would encompass all the nations:
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32–33)
I, Jesus, . . . am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star. (Rev. 22:16)
This same Jesus, who is the “King of kings” (Rev. 17:14) and will rule all the nations of the earth (Rev. 19:15–16), is head of the Christian church and the central person of the Christian gospel (Rom. 1:1–4). By faith in him, people from all the nations of the world are granted “entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:11). Therefore, for these and other reasons we shall see, the Old Testament record of God’s providence over nations and kings is relevant—even urgent—for Christians today.
In a discussion about Daniel 4 he remarks:
The point of saying that earth’s inhabitants are counted as nothing was not that God takes no interest in the world of human kingships or that he shows no kindness to them. The point is that when he does, he is absolutely free and unconstrained by any power or right or worth in “the inhabitants of the earth.”
In other words, earthly kingdoms and their inhabitants are not impressive. God is impressive. And when he takes interest in these insignificant creatures, his grace, not their glory, is amazing. In fact, he does take interest in them. And the absolute, majestic sovereignty of his providence over the nations and their inhabitants is not meant to make his grace inconceivable but to make it spectacular.
One last quote on how the “greatest good came through providence over evil rulers”:
Without God’s providence over wicked authorities, there would be no gospel. The murder of the Son of God is pivotal in providing our salvation. Christ did not die randomly. It was planned. His death was a God-orchestrated travesty of justice that his enemies hoped would get rid of his influence. But in all of that sin and injustice, providence was pursuing the salvation of those who plotted his death—and millions more who don’t deserve it. There would be no salvation without this kind of God-planned, God-orchestrated death.
At the merely human level, Jesus’s death was owing to a wicked king and expedient governor and brutal soldiers and a bloodthirsty mob. But they were all acting in accord with a perfectly wise, just, and gracious providence:
Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27–28)
The kind of pervasive providence over the hearts of evil kings that we have seen in the Old Testament is the kind of providence to which we owe our hope of forgiven sins and eternal life.
As in my previous article, perhaps as many questions are raised here as answered. These are mysterious matters. But the doctrine of God’s providence and unfailing purposes is meant to comfort us and reassure us. It may look like evil – and evil rulers and evil nations – have the upper hand, but it is only temporary. God is at work behind the scenes bringing about his wise and good purposes.
So we persevere. If need be we may need to pray for more faith, for more trust, and for more certainty that God is indeed on the throne and is working out all things for his good and gracious purposes.