The Providence of God

Session 6

Bethlehem Baptist Church

When I was here last time, we took up the providence of God in the affairs of nations. I explained that the sequence we’re following is from the least personal to the most personal. And as we get to nations, we’re getting very close to persons because to rule nations and govern nations, God governs hearts — hearts of kings. And then we’ll move ahead to God’s providence over individuals and individual choices and individual salvation. So, it kind of becomes more controversial because people take more offense at the rule of God over their own soul than they do over wind. But the same God who rules the wind rules the heart, I believe.

Everywhere-Present Power

I thought I’d begin with a definition again as we have seen weeks ago but, it’s good to go back to it. This is taken from the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563.

Q: What do you understand by the providence of God?

A: The almighty, everywhere-present power of God, whereby, as it were, by his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.

R.C. Sproul has a new book Not a Chance. And it’s about that. So, the providence of God, as it’s historically understood in Reformed catechisms (and this is the way I understand it and I believe it’s biblical) is that the providence of God is “his everywhere-present power” by which he governs all things “by his fatherly hand.”

True King

Now, what we’re going to do tonight is pick up where we left of last time, and we’re going to focus on some lessons from Daniel about, first of all, Nebuchadnezzar’s pride, and then we’re going to focus on some things from Ezra about the rebuilding of the temple. And remember: what we’re doing here is looking for biblical evidences of how God rules nations, and we are asking the question, To what end does he do it?

So, we’re going to take Nebuchadnezzar as an example, and he’s the braggy king of Babylon. I tried to pick out the key verses; there’s still a lot of them. Nebuchadnezzar had a dream and he called Daniel to interpret the dream and here’s the interpretation:

This is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will. And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that heaven rules. (Daniel 4:24–26)

Easily Forgotten

So, the dream’s point was that Nebuchadnezzar is going to have to be driven out of the realm of ordinary mankind, to learn this lesson: the Most High is the ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever e wishes. Because evidently Nebuchadnezzar is getting a little uppity in his thinking about his rule over Babylon.

All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:28–30)

Now that’s strange when you just stop and think of this: that he had been told by Daniel that in order to learn that that’s not true, this dream was going to have to be fulfilled in his life, and only a year later (twelve months later!) he’s forgotten; he’s just not in touch. It’s a scary thing. If we think that we can solve the problem of sin by a single warning or a single confrontation with someone, we’re kidding ourselves about the power of the deceitfulness of the human heart. Nebuchadnezzar, wise as he was to build his kingdom, was certainly not wise in dealing with his own dreams.

Like Animals

While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you (Daniel 4:31)

We all learned in the seventh grade or maybe the fifth grade that this is a passive verb. But passive is what I have in mind right now. It’s passive which means the subject of the verb is unexpressed. Who is it? Who’s doing this action? God. That’s what this said right here. And he bestows it. God bestows it on whomever he pleases and he takes it away from whomever he pleases. So, God is removing the sovereignty from him.

You shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” 33 Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws. (Daniel 4:32–33)

Why’d God do it this way? Why this? Any sense of why God made him go insane like this, so that he became like cattle and like an eagle, his fingers like birds’ claws, his hair like feathers? What is this? Why is God doing it this way? Maybe something will turn up to help us decide.

At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. (Daniel 4:34)

A year ago I took this, “He raised his eyes towards heaven and his reason returned,” and I put that on my door in my office. Because what hit me is that reason, right thinking, depends on directing your mind toward heaven. He turned his eyes to heaven, and when he turned his eyes to heaven, his reason returned. And, there are brilliant people teaching at the University of Minnesota whose eyes are not toward heaven. And brilliant people work in the newspaper office and big industry whose minds have a native brilliance and they are not reasonable people — as long as God is not in their thinking. Because it is highly unreasonable to leave the most important reality out of your life; it’s highly unreasonable.

If you ask, What is a reasonable way to proportion your consciousness and the importance of reality? And if you said, It is reasonable to devote maybe two percent of your thought life to that which is ninety-nine percent of reality, that’s not reasonable. And that’s the way most people live — even the most brilliant people — so that the irrationality just isn’t plain, but it is highly irrational. I think God, in this way of doing it here, wants to portray a picture of what all non-heaven-directed thought life is like: it’s animal-like. We are more like the animals, when we do not direct our eyes towards heaven, than we are like humans and like God.

Short, Crisp Sentences

I think you should always be praying, in your family devotions, your personal devotions, “Lord, give me some sentences — just simple, crisp, short, truth sentences to speak into unbelievers’ minds at work.” Because they don’t have anybody doing that for them by and large. I think we tend to think “all or nothing” with regard to our unbelieving friends. “How am I going to get to a place where we have an hour and I can share enough and we can have questions that they make a decision?” Well, God will give you that eventually, probably, if you ask for it. But short of that, there’s a lot of truth sowing that needs to happen. Sentences like: God is the most important person in the universe. Just say that to somebody this week. God is the most important person in the universe. And they’ll go home and they’ll remember that sentence and they’ll say, “Never thought of that. “If he exists, that’s certainly true. And I say he exists. And if he’s the most important person, I’m sure not acting like it.” Little series of thoughts can start in people’s minds. So, pray that God will give you just crisp sentences about that.

Or another one might be: Jesus Christ can never die again. Just say that. And the implications of that sentence means he can’t ever be defeated. He’s going to live forever and everybody will give an account to him. But you don’t need to say all that, just: Jesus Christ will never die again. Direct people toward heaven, in other words. Get their minds thinking about things nobody else is telling them to think about. They’ll never hear those sentences on television — ever.

Everlasting Dominion

At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever,

for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
    and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
    and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
    and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
    or say to him, “What have you done?”

At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Daniel 4:34–37)

Now let’s ponder what he said here for just a minute before we go on to another text:

His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. (Daniel 4:34)

That’s like saying Jesus can never die. How does that relate to Christ or God’s ruling the nations? And I think the answer is: if your kingdom or your dominion is everlasting, endures from generation to generation then, you can’t be defeated. Here’s Nebuchadnezzar and he knows he’s going to die. He knows that his kingdom is going to pass over to Cyrus or Darius or Artaxerxes; there’s another one coming. And God declares, “My kingdom never ends, and therefore, yours comes and goes. And mine stays, and therefore, I think a necessary implication is: I rule; I’m in charge here.”

Matchless Power and Counsel

All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing. (Daniel 4:35)

Now, is that a troubling sentence?

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Does that fit here? John says that God so loved the world. Daniel says that all the inhabitants of the world are accounted as nothing. Can you put those together? What does this mean here? All the inhabitants of the world, or the earth, are accounted as nothing. What do you think that means? How would you paraphrase that? Let’s get it from the context here.

He does according to his will among the host of heaven. (Daniel 4:35)

So, the contrast here seems to be, this nothingness here has to do with their will. What force does a human will have in running the world in comparison to God’s will? And it seems like the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but he does according to his will. Another way to say it would be: the other thing about a will is not only its forcefulness, but its intelligence and its wisdom. “Who has been his counselor?” Job asks and Paul quotes in Romans 11 (Job 15:8; Romans 11:34). The counsel of the earth, your wisdom and my wisdom, counts for zero in running the world. God never consults with his creatures as to the wisest way to run the world. He never says, “I think I better seek some counsel about this situation.” Never. We are nothing when it comes to counseling the wisdom of God. So, I would add to Bob’s power statement a wisdom and intelligence statement; it’s true at that level also.

He does according to his will among the host of heaven
    and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand. (Daniel 4:35)

So, if you consult everybody on the earth, do they have any power to stay or hinder or frustrate his hand when he decrees that hand to move? And the answer is no. So, they are as nothing when it comes to resisting his hand. That would be a clear contextual implication. They are as nothing when it comes to warding off his hand; that’s a power thing.

None can stay his hand
    or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35)

Now that’s another wisdom thing. They can’t come into the courtroom and say, “Give an account of yourself.” Now Paul quoted that in Romans 9:19. You know, when you find fault with God because he’s so powerful and say, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” And Paul says, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Nobody — nobody — can put God in the dock. I mean we try. Books are written all over the place; God is in the dock everywhere in America. Any time a tragedy happens, God’s in the dock: “Give an account of yourself God. I know how things ought to be done. I know this shouldn’t have happened. You give an account of yourself.” Nebuchadnezzar had to become like an ox in the field and like an eagle with his hair long, with fingernails like eagles’ claws to learn that you can’t talk like that to God, that you can’t call God into account.

And if you do, in a season of heartache, you eventually will come to regret it and repent. And we must shepherd each other through those times because I do no doubt that before this year is out, I will hear somebody say, “How could God do that?” Or, “Why does he act that way?” And we will say in silence, “You will know in due time.”

Thrown Overboard

Let me tell you a little story that happened to me this week. I don’t think she would mind, though I won’t use her name. I was talking to a young woman, probably in her late twenties, who had a near-death experience about a month ago. She was on a boat in Gunflint Lake and capsized. The water is thirty-eight degrees, she’s half a mile from shore, and the boat’s gone. And you don’t live longer than what, fifteen-twenty minutes in that kind of water. She was telling me this story to relate the effect it’s had on her since. She said, “I’ve heard stories that your whole life goes before your eyes as you think that you’ve got no time left.” And she said, “That’s not what happened to me. What happened to me was that, at that moment I felt a crisis that, I could have my life if I really wanted it bad enough. And what opened before me was God.” She said, “I saw God in a way I’ve never seen him before, and I could not describe to you.” She didn’t mean an apparition, I don’t think; she meant bigness. She used the word majestic. She said, “He was so big and unbelievably majestic, that I felt that I had been trifling most of my life.” And she swam a half a mile in that water and was saved. And she hadn’t been going to church for a long time, she said, and wanted to get connected. And, I said, “Well that’s one good effect.”

But I think we shouldn’t have to be thrown into water in order to recognize that God is big and not to be trifled with. And Nebuchadnezzar had to be thrown out in the field for seven weeks or whatever it was, and she evidently had to be tossed overboard in order for God to get her attention.

A Most Dangerous Sin

God knows he is able to humble those who walk in pride. Very often I pray (and these are scary prayers; the elders were praying some of these prayers the other night about our willingness to do whatever God wants us to do at Bethlehem), “Lord, do whatever you must do in my life, not to let me fall victim to a ministry-destroying pride. Kill me.

I can remember I used to run in Pasadena when I was in seminary. I ran a mile every morning. I’d run the same thing. I’d go down the alleys over here and I turned and ran down there and run down Orange Grove Avenue. And the sun would be coming up at certain times of the year, and my heart would be pounding so fast that I’d say it’s going to explode right out of my chest. And I would just pray as I ran, “Only keep me alive if I’m useful, please. Don’t let me live beyond my usefulness.” And I think you all ought to pray that way because this is the most dangerous of all sins here, and ministry has its temptations to it, and where you are has its temptations to it. And it can take very quiet forms, and it can take very upfront forms.

But it is such a dangerous thing that God, in his mercy, will take you to the shed. And I just say, “Lord, if it’s this, do this. If it’s throwing me overboard in the lake, do that. If it’s the loss of my health, do that. If it’s ministry troubles, do that. If it’s a wayward child, do that. Do whatever you have to do, Lord, not to let this happen.

Now, the other text that we looked at a few weeks ago that relates to this is James 4:13–16, and I just want to read it again because it struck me. I hadn’t noticed this before: that in James 4, when he’s talking about the providence in our ordinary daily lives, he says,

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance.

So, it’s arrogant to say, “I’m going home for Christmas,” unless there’s the tacit conviction — doesn’t have to be spoken — “if the Lord wills, I’ll get home for Christmas.” If that’s not there, you’re arrogant, and you might be the meekest person on the face of the earth. But if your theology — this is scary. Theology really matters. If you have the conviction that this is not true — namely, that God is not the one who determines whether you get to Duluth or California or Anoka or whether you get home tonight or not, then you’re arrogant.

So, this text, James 4:13–16 , doesn’t sound all that arrogant does it? It’s just godless. And godlessness is the height of arrogance, and arrogance is the height of unreasonableness, and therefore, you must turn your eyes toward heaven, in order to have your reason returned to you.

I’m going to take you through three kings in the rebuilding of the temple after the Babylonian exile, and show you that Ezra, in writing his book, was set on making sure that his readers knew that while these kings were apparently doing remarkable things to enable the temple to be rebuilt, they were not doing them without the providence God in their lives.

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, . . . to build him a house at Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:1–2)

So the Lord’s in charge here to get this done.

Plans to Prosper

Now it says he’s doing this to fulfill a prophecy. I want to read you that prophecy. Many of you have memorized it and you didn’t know you memorized it because you didn’t memorize the verse just before the part that you memorized in Jeremiah 29. Many of you have memorized,

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

Well the verse that leads up to that, Jeremiah 29:10, says,

Thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.

That’s what’s happened here; they’re completed, so it’s time for the prophecy to be fulfilled. That’s what’s going to happen here; they’re going to go back from Babylon to Israel. So now, when you memorize Jeremiah 29:11, you can see it under the banner of a sovereign God who rules the nations to make that good happen. That’s the point here: “I know the plans I have for you. I’m going to do you good and not evil.” How? “I’m going to go to Cyrus, and I’m going to put into Cyrus a will to send you back to your homeland, so that you can build the temple, and have a homeland again.” And you can just extrapolate that out to your situation. The same promise holds true for you: God will do you good. And he will move kings for you. We’ll see that again in some other texts.

More Than Omniscience

So, he fulfills the word of the Lord. When God prophesies a thing to happen, sometimes we think of that in terms of his omniscience, so that he knows what’s going to happen, and history runs on its own steam, and God, being omniscient, knows the events that are out there. And we stop right there and give him the glory for his knowledge. But we don’t tend to think God undertakes mightily to fulfill the word that he speaks about that future event. But here, you get a different vision of how God knows the future. God knows the future because he makes the future. Look at this:

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia. (Ezra 1:1)

So back then in Jeremiah 29, God just didn’t make a prediction about how history runs on its own. He said, “In 70 years you’re going to be brought back here.” And then when the time comes, God does it; he does it. And you see this again and again in prophetic literature in the Old and in the New Testament. So, don’t let the omniscience of God in your thinking be abstracted from the omnipotence of God. God knows the future because he rules the future. If he didn’t, he couldn’t know it for sure. Which is why, by the way, Clark Pinnock and others are saying that he doesn’t know the future because they know the implication for his power, and they don’t want to give him that power.

The only way that you can consistently deny God the right to rule history is to take away his infallible foreknowledge of history. Because if God infallibly knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, it’s going to happen tomorrow. And that’s because he rules it. And so there’s a whole movement inside evangelicalism to deny the omniscience of God. Which is sad. Here’s the next step:

Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4:4–5)

Now this I would call a setback right? Here you have God moving on Cyrus saying, “Go and build a house for your God.” When they get there and the people of the land (these are non-Jews here) discourage them and they keep them from doing it. This is a terrible setback here. So, what’s going to happen? How is God going to handle this? He raises up two prophets; they each have a book in the old testament.

Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them. (Ezra 5:1–2)

So, God sees this discouraging development, and it lasts for a while in his sovereign purposes. He lets the discouragement come, he lets it be effective, they don’t build, and then, when the time is right, he sends a prophet — two prophets and they start speaking words. Read the second chapter of Haggai if you want to know how to stir up people when they’re discouraged. Read what the prophet Haggai said. So they start to build and leaders are raised up.

What Needs to Be Done

This is very encouraging to me as a pastor. I cannot do what needs to be done in the church. I see so many things that need to be done in the church. I look at this city and I see so many ministries that need to happen in the church. I want to see a people mightily unleashed, building. I want to do it; get it done. And I can’t; I’ve only got one life to live and a family and I need sleep at night and. So, what am I going to do? Well, I’m going to do my best to do the Haggai and Zechariah thing. That’s my job at Bethlehem. I’ve got some other jobs, but that’s my main job, I think: to do the Haggai and Zechariah thing and prophesy to you the word of God, the name of God, and then watch him raise up Mitch Pearson and others — elders and Sunday school teachers and kids workers and witnesses in the community. The pro-life committee is meeting right now as we’re talking. He’s raised up people, and they start working because no longer are they going to listen to the discouraging voices anymore. Do you see how it works? But there was a languishing time. And then he raised up Haggai, Zechariah, and some of these others.

At the same time Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and their associates came to them and spoke to them thus: “Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?” They also asked them this: “What are the names of the men who are building this building?” But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until the report should reach Darius and then an answer be returned by letter concerning it.

The eye of their God was on the elders. I hope I’m not reading in too much here; I hope these things can have a proper inspiration like this. The elders have a twenty-four-hour retreat at Bethlehem coming up on Friday at 5 p.m. until Saturday at 5 p.m., and I believe the eye of God is upon us. And I believe he’s raising up encouragement rather than discouragement. But would you pray for us. The elders are going to try process some of this long-range planning and worship things, structure things, staffing things and so on. And we want to hear God. We’re going to fast and pray and worship. And you could pray Acts 13:2 for us:

While [the prophets and teachers of Antioch] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

And the world was never the same again — ever — because of that missionary journey. And may God speak like that to us this Saturday morning when we are worshiping and fasting.

If it seems good to the king, let search be made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by Cyrus the king for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem. And let the king send us his pleasure in this matter. Well, they think they’re going to get this thing stopped by writing to Darius. And they are going

Then Darius the king made a decree, and search was made in Babylonia, in the house of the archives where the documents were stored. And in Ecbatana, the citadel that is in the province of Media, a scroll was found on which this was written: “A record. In the first year of Cyrus the king, Cyrus the king issued a decree: Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices were offered, and let its foundations be retained. (Ezra 6:1–3)

So, Darius finds that was told, now how’s he going to respond?

Now therefore, Tattenai, governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai, and your associates the governors who are in the province Beyond the River, keep away. Let the work on this house of God alone. Let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site. Moreover, I make a decree regarding what you shall do for these elders of the Jews for the rebuilding of this house of God. The cost is to be paid to these men in full and without delay from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province from Beyond the River. (Ezra 6:6–8)

From Why to Worship

Now, you’ve got to apply this to your life, folks, because what happened here was a great and wonderful providence when God put it in Cyrus to send the people back and build the temple. Why, those Jews must have been thrilled! God reigns. He reigns over Cyrus. “Let’s go; let’s do it!” And after a little while, discouragement set in and the enemies spoke evil and they stopped. And God let that happen; I mean, he’s sovereign and he could stop that. Why did he let that happen? Here’s one reason: he sends his word, he raises up his leaders, the enemies come, they seek Darius, and Darius not only says to keep on doing it, but he says that he’ll pay for it.

And so here they are discouraged in Babylon, and then there’s tremendous encouragement with the providence of God and Cyrus letting them go, and then a season of discouragement and all the Why’s — why, why, why? We all ask why. Why in our family life? And why in our church life? Why in our civic life? Why certain actions on abortion, Lord? Why not do this law instead of that law? And why did this person get elected? Why? Why? Why? And the Bible is replete with stories like these to help us be patient. And so the answer is: boom, Darius is going to pay for it; that’s what’s happening. Cyrus took them so far, and Darius (another pagan king) is going to take them the rest of the way. So, God reigns over Cyrus to get it started and he reigns over Darius to get it paid for.

I use the analogy in Future Grace, in the chapter on patience, that, if you knew that when you got a broken leg, they were going to have to go in there and set it, and then when they went in they found a tumor, and they take it out and it’s beautifully contained, and they close it up and they say, “No problem; you don’t need any therapy here. But three more months and you would have been a dead man.” If you knew that as you lay there on the ski slope, with your vacation ruined and a broken leg — if you knew that that’s what God was doing — you wouldn’t complain. And I’m here to tell you, in the name of Jesus Christ, he is always doing that (Romans 8:28). That’s not my word; that’s God’s word. He is always doing that you know.

Levels and Language of Causality

God’s causality is different in different events. Some things he causes very immediately and very directly, and other things he causes through secondary and tertiary causality in the world. Sometimes there’s more distance here between the active hand of God and the event, so that I have a place for Satan to move around in the world, and I have a place for us to move around in the world. But I do not ever have an ultimate place for Satan or an ultimate place for human willing; that is, no human will and no Satanic will ultimately causes anything. God is the ultimate cause of everything — including all the pain of this downward spiral right here.

When I say that God let this happen — he let Shethar-bozenai and these others give them grief for a few months or years — I don’t mean they were out of God’s control. He could have cut that off any time he wanted. But he gives them leash, as it were, and his control here, I think, is a little different from his control here. When he worked on Cyrus, it says that God stirred him up. It doesn’t say that about Shethar-bozenai in the same way. There was enough stuff already resident there in his mind, that God could kind of let him have some leash to do what he knew he would do(through all the millions of influences that came to bear to make Shethar-Bozenai who he was), and what God was ultimately in charge of. If I say God caused (rather than something like God let) with every single thing, I think I would be misleading because I wouldn’t be making some distinctions that the Bible makes with regard to Satan’s causality and human causality and so on.

There are many people who disagree with my theology who handle tragedies in our lives by using the allow language, and don’t believe the cause language; they don’t believe it. Mitch is dealing right now with a friend of his who, last night his five-month-old baby died in bed. Now, when Mitch talks to him, he needs delicate, careful, true, sensitive language. Because if I was reading between the lines as Mitch was praying tonight, this fellow is questioning his faith and Mitch’s faith, and he’s probably going to hit Mitch (if he hasn’t already) with: So do you think God killed my baby? And we need to find ways of answering that with true language.

What would I say? I would need to know the guy, I would need to hear his heart, I would need to know what he’s thought before. Pastoral counsel is always governed by a hundred things. But I would say, “You know, I didn’t get any comfort back in 1974 in thinking that God had lost control of the universe when my mother was killed.” That may be all I need to say about that. Or I might say, “The most important thing you need to think about now is that all of God’s power is available to you for your comfort. And that Christ came into the world to bear every kind of pain and suffering that we’ve ever known so that he could be a faithful high priest to sympathize with you in your tragedy.”

Or you could say, “You know there are some big, universal, heavy, theological issues that are probably best not to settle in the moment of pain.” Or it may be that God would simply appoint that Mitch would say, “You know, Job said, when all ten of his children were killed, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Yeah he took your child and he loves you — he loves you; he loves you. He’s trying to get your attention. He wants you that much. He’d like you to join your child someday.” You might be that risky. The point there is: you don’t have to lie to people. I’m not saying lie to people; I’m saying, there are all kinds of ways to handle truth: you can handle it with a sledgehammer, or you can handle it with a feather, with a cushion.

Streams of Water

Summary here of these kings: Cyrus, Darius, Artaxerxes:

And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia. (Ezra 6:14)

And those three decrees were all of God. Here they are. We read already that the Lord stirred up Cyrus. Here’s the other one:

The Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria [Darius] to them. (Ezra 6:22)

The Lord did that. And Artaxerxes:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king [Artaxerxes], to beautify the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem. (Ezra 7:27)

It doesn’t say God let him do it or that God allowed him to do it. He speaks aggressively here; he speaks forcefully. And so here’s the concluding word from Proverbs:

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
    he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1)

And that includes Bill Clinton and Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher and Muammar al-Gaddafi and so on.

Now, you might still get hung up on the language of permission — that God allows or lets things happen. If you are with me in the absolute sovereignty of God, you might wonder whether we need that language. Can’t we just say that God decrees all things and be done with it? Well here’s an example:

Say you have a child at home, and they steal something from the refrigerator. You had told them, “Don’t touch that until suppertime.” And they take it and they say, “God reigns.” And, “Que sera sera. I would say to my sons that God has set up the universe such that there are intermediate causes. And when those causes create evil, he punishes them and holds them accountable. And they respond, “Well, I don’t think that’s possible for God to be totally in control and still hold intermediate causes accountable for doing evil things.” And I say, “You may not think it’s possible, but the Bible says it’s so, and I will now spank you to demonstrate a theological principle. I will show you the character of God and the way his universe works by paddling your bottom.” That’s the way I would respond to a theft out of the refrigerator to a twelve-year-old.

Predestined to Take Place

In Acts 4, when Herod and Pilate and the Gentiles and the Jews are gathered together to kill Jesus, it says in Acts 4:27–28, that they

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.

So all of Pilate’s “I see no fault in this man; you kill him” — all that expediency — was ordained by God. All of Herod’s mockery with the robe and the crown of thorns — it’s of God. Every hammer blow on the nails is of God. So, God rules. That’s quoted in a prayer in Acts 4, which shows that the sovereign rule of God, which is so thorough that it controls Pilate, Herod, soldiers and Jews — this is a God to whom it is not foolish or irrational to pray that things be one way and not another way. Isn’t that amazing? I was going to end by showing you that prayer, in view of a God who rules and controls all things, is not pointless because the theology that he does rule is expressed in the middle of a prayer that he would grant them to be filled with the Holy Spirit and speak the word of God with boldness.

God folds our prayers into that causality in mysterious ways that make our prayers effectual, not meaningless. In fact, I would argue that if God couldn’t control Pilate, this prayer was meaningless. “O God, stretch forth your hand and restrain evil in the world.” “I can’t do that; they’ve all got free will.” Prayer assumes the right of God to intrude in the lives of rulers and everybody else. How do you pray for an unbelieving loved one? Don’t touch them, don’t get near, don’t infringe upon their free will, don’t move so decisively that their brokenhearted and repent.

One other point from Acts 4: that whole prayer was elicited by Peter and John being arrested, being threatened, being put in jail overnight, then being released and being told, “Don’t you dare speak this way again in Jerusalem,” and then saying to the ruler (whom God rules and ordains that he be)

Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard. (Acts 4:19–20)

In other words, not only prayer is rational inside God’s total control of rulers, but resistance is rational. Resisting the very things that God ordained to take place is reasonable. So, I’m saying this at the end here, lest you walk out of here fatalists, thinking that if God rules the kings, if God rules the church, if God rules the traffic, if he decides whether I get home tonight, well I’ll just take my hands off the steering wheel and close my eyes. I talked to a guy who did that one time. For a quarter of a mile on the freeway, just testing God. I’m not saying that; I’m saying you should pray that things be different with confidence, and when you see sin in rulers, you should resist it. And let nobody say, “Oh, but God ordains rulers, and God ordains that.” Well yeah, but he ordains the resistance too. Witness Acts 5:29.