The Bible is nothing if not a philosophy of history. The Bible gives you a vast panorama against which the events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ must be understood and against which your life and death and your resurrection must also be understood. Tonight we are studying some Old Testament history. We have reached chapter 42 of Genesis. And my headings tonight are First, THE PLAN BEHIND IT ALL; and then secondly, THE PLAN and, a) prudence; b) penitence and c) pain. So ...
First, THE PLAN BEHIND IT ALL
God's "plan behind it all" gives you a vital "philosophy of history." Let me explain. What you think about history involves the most crucial issues of life. Who am I? What happens when I die? Is 'nature' all there is or is 'nature' under the control of something or someone else? These are questions you need a philosophy of history to help you answer. Herbert Butterfield, a famous professor of Modern History at Cambridge, once said:
"Our final interpretation of history is the most sovereign decision we take; and it is clear that every one of us, as standing alone in the universe, has to take it for himself. It is our decision about religion, about our attitude to things and about the way we will appropriate life. And it is inseparable from our decision about the rôle we are going to play ourselves in that very drama of history."
The Old Testament in particular helps you with that "final interpretation of history." And a fundamental lesson is this: God blesses his people when they obey his will in their private and public lives. But when his people ignore his will, they experience judgment. So when they indulge in sexual immorality and degenerate to the level of their Baal-worshipping neighbours, when they neglect the poor and those in need, there is personal and social disintegration. But when there is obedience to God's law there is peace and prosperity. There were exceptions. Job had to learn that. But the exceptions prove the rule; and the rule was this 'rhythm' of blessing and judgment.
So the Bible says that living according to God's will is the most critical factor in human history. True, Marx said that economic relationships, not obedience to the will of God, were the most critical. The evolutionary optimists said that "time" or "history itself" is most critical, for in time all problems will be solved. Then the Freudians said the fundamental problems in history are due to people's frustrations over power, nutrition and sex. But the Bible says there is one critical factor that is more important than all the others, namely a man or a nation's relationship to God and their obedience to him. And one day there is going to be a reckoning. You see, both the Old Testament and Jesus and the New Testament have a linear view of history. They teach there was a beginning and there will be an end. Hindus, Greeks and Post-Modernists like Nietzsche, said that time is "a sort of circle", to quote Aristotle. But the Bible teaches that this ambiguous world we experience will not last forever. Its present condition one day will end. One day Jesus Christ will return a second time not this time for salvation but for judgment. And that is the plan behind it all.
But against that background the Bible spells out God's plan in more detail as you can see as you study Genesis. And Genesis tells you that after God created the world, Adam and Eve "fell" - they wanted to go their way and not God's. So they had to exchange the good life of Eden for the mess that men and women have found themselves in ever since. But then, you read, God planned to establish a people for himself through whom he could turn things around and get people out of the mess they were in. And that people was to come from the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As we now know, this plan covered centuries. It culminated in the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Divine Trinity, and the "people" of God developed into the world-wide church whose members were (and are) to tell others about Christ and his salvation. And it is this detailed plan that centres on Jesus that confirms the truth of the bible's general philosophy of history.
It is said that on one occasion Auguste Comte, the French Philosopher met Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist. Comte then told Carlyle that he was going to start a new religion that would supplant Christianity. It was to have no mysteries and was to be as plain as the multiplication table. It was to be a religion of "positivism". "Very good, Mr Comte", replied Carlyle, "very good. All you will need to do will be to speak as never a man spake, and live as never a man lived, and be crucified, and rise again the third day, and get the world to believe that you are still alive. Then your religion will have a chance to get on." So much then for "The Plan Behind it All".
Secondly, THE PLAN in more detail as it related to Joseph.
Let me recap: Joseph (Jacob's favourite son and so hated by his brothers) was sold to slave traders by the brothers. And when Joseph was then taken down to Egypt, they made their father think Joseph was dead. But Joseph made good as a slave in the house of Potiphar, an Egyptian official - until the offical's wife fancied him and tried to seduce him. When Joseph refused her advances and she lied that he had tried to rape her, Joseph was wrongly convicted and found himself in prison. However, while making making good there also, he interpreted dreams, and dreams not only of Pharaoh's butler and baker but of Pharaoh himself.
These dreams of Pharaoh Joseph explained as predicting seven years of bumper harvests, followed by seven years of famine. And when Joseph told Pharaoh that he needed a supremo to organize food storage during the years of plenty, Pharaoh promptly appointed Joseph as that supremo. So that brings us to chapter 42 - with Joseph being now many years in Egypt. Look at the last words of chapter 41: "the famine was severe in all the world" - not just Egypt. And chapter 42 verses 1-4 go on:
"When Jacob [Joseph's father back in Canaan] learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, 'Why do you just keep looking at each other?' He continued, 'I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.' Then ten of Joseph's brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph's brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him."
You then read of Joseph's meeting with the brothers. He recognized them. They didn't recognize him. But he gave them grain while keeping Simeon, one of the brothers, back in prison in Egypt. The other brothers could return to Canaan, but Joseph demanded they bring Benjamin back with them on a second visit. Jacob, their old father, however, refused this request when the brothers reached home. But then, chapter 43 verses 1 and 2:
"the famine was still severe in the land. So when they had eaten all the grain they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, 'Go back and buy us a little more food.'"
And Judah at last persuaded the reluctant Jacob to let Benjamin go with them. He promised, verse 9:
"I myself will guarantee his safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life."
When the brothers reached Egypt Joseph entertained them in his own residence and Joseph recognized Benjamin - verse 29-30 of chapter 43:
"As he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother's son, he asked, 'Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?' And he said, 'God be gracious to you, my son.' Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there."
So all seemed to be going well. But in chapter 44 you read how when the brothers were returning home with the grain they had purchased, they discovered that their money had all been put back in their sacks as well as the grain. And then they discovered that in Benjamin's sack there was also Joseph's special silver cup. Joseph had himself ordered the cup to be put there. They, however, didn't know this. Verses 11 - 13 of chapter 44:
"Each of them quickly lowered his sack to the ground and opened it. Then the steward proceeded to search, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin's sack. At this, they tore their clothes. Then they all loaded their donkeys and returned to the city."
Joseph then threatened Benjamin with slavery. But at that point there was an amazing speech from Judah who all those years ago, while not wanting to kill Joseph, suggested selling him as a slave. There seemed to be a change going on in his life. Look at what Judah said to Joseph (who he still didn't know was his brother) - chapter 44 verses 30-34:
"if the boy [Benjamin] is not with us when I go back to your servant my father and if my father, whose life is closely bound up with the boy's life, sees that the boy isn't there, he will die ... (verse 33) Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord's slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come upon my father."
Joseph has heard enough. He sees a change of heart. So in chapter 45 verses 1-3 you read:
"Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, 'Have everyone leave my presence!' So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh's household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, 'I am Joseph!'"
Now, you must listen to verses 5, 7 and 8 very carefully for here you have God's plan spelt out so clearly - here is a biblical philosophy of history:
"And now, [says Joseph] do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be ploughing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt."
That verse 8 is so important - "it was not you who sent me here, but God." God was, in some way, over-ruling that terrifying experience of Joseph in the cistern in the desert before being sold as a slave; and the lies of Potiphar's wife; and his time in prison. This is what the theologians call divine Providence. It is a key part of this philosophy of history and it is so crucial. The Bible teaches that God not only created the world, but he continues to be totally involved in the world. He keeps all this universe in being; he involves himself in all events and he directs all things. This is his personal management with total "hands-on" control. His hands may be hidden. But he is totally in charge. Nor is God's providence simply his foreknowledge without control; nor his upholding natural processes without his intervention; nor a general oversight without concern for details.
I can remember when a former Archbishop of York took issue with someone who suggested you could pray for a vacant car-parking space when it was desperately needed. They believed not only that God could, but did, answer their prayer. They understood what the Bible teaches about divine Providence.
The Bible teaches clearly that God has providential care over the universe at large; over the physical and natural world; over the affairs of nations; over our conception, birth and destiny in life; over our successes and failures in life; and over what seems accidental. He has providential care also in protecting the righteous; in supplying the needs of his people; in answering their prayers; and in punishing the wicked. Whose world is collapsing around them tonight? Well, remember God is in total control. Remember that New Testament reading from Romans 8.28: "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." The question is "do you love God and trust him"? Who needs to trust him tonight and to turn to Christ tonight for forgiveness and the power of his Holy Spirit? You can then have that wonderful assurance that God is in control. Jesus said (Luke 12:6-7):
"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
You say, "this is all very well. But what about human freedom?" Well, let me now talk about God's plan and
a) human prudence
These chapters make it quite clear that God's sovereign providential rule doesn't mean no free human initiative. Look again at Jacob speaking in verse 2 of chapter 42: "I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die." Jacob had no shortage of cash. God's providence didn't mean Jacob need not work hard in sheep marketing. Nor does it mean you don't have to work hard and responsibly. Then in verse 17 of chapter 42 there is Joseph putting his brothers "all in custody for three days." He is not being cruel. He is taking the initiative. He has his own plan to ensure that their's is true repentance; for he wants true forgiveness. And if you turn on to chapter 47 you see that Joseph is involved in strategic planning when the famine years were on. He was securing the Egyptians' cash (verse 14), their cattle, (verse 17) and then their land. God's providential plan and human prudence go hand in hand. So does God's plan and human ...
b) ... penitence
God's overruling didn't mean that the brothers were not guilty of the crime of first wanting to kill Joseph and then actually selling him into slavery. This is the mystery. God is sovereign. But you and I are still responsible. Joseph's brothers meant what they did for evil. And they knew they were guilty - look at verse 21 of chapter 42:
"They said to one another, 'Surely we are being punished because of our brother.'"
Joseph knew that if there is to be true reconciliation there has to be repentance before there can be forgiveness. Many get this wrong. God says, "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins." (1 John 1.9). Confession is the link between sin and forgiveness. So Proverbs 28.13 says: "He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy."
Without genuine repentance and confession there can be no true forgiveness. You hear people say, "I have forgiven someone" when there is no repentance on the part of the other person. Well, that isn't biblical forgiveness. It is simply not harbouring feelings of vengeance or animosity. It is not forgiveness. Yes, pray for God to forgive them, as Jesus prayed on the Cross. But like Joseph, you have to seek to bring those who have wronged you to repentance if there is to be a true reconciliation. Jesus says in Luke 17.3-4:
"If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him."
Jesus says, "if he repents". Forgiveness is more than just feeling kind towards someone. It means restoring someone to fellowship. God loves the world. But he can't restore you and me to fellowship unless we repent. If you can restore someone to full and intimate fellowship - someone who is sinning and unrepentant - you don't show the depth of your love, but its shallowness. You are not doing what is for the highest good of that person. So Joseph made sure that there was a genuine family reconciliation and unity through the repentance of the brothers. And Joseph became convinced that they had seen the wrong they had done. That remarkable turn around of Judah seems to have signed and sealed their repentance. Then in the providence of God that new family reconciliation meant Jacob's family could all go down to Egypt together in harmony and at peace. That was essential for both their well-being and God's plan of welding them into his people and a viable nation.
That is what you read about in chapter 46 with a list of everybody going down to Egypt and settling in the rather good land of Goshen. Who needs to pray for and work for family harmony tonight? If you're the one who needs to say "sorry", why not do it when you get home? Write that letter, make that phone call or send that e-mail. So the providence of God doesn't excuse human responsibility and guilt. This is a mystery; but in the words of Job 36.26: "How great is God - beyond our understanding!" As we sang, "Your ways are not our ways, your thought are high above." And, finally, God's providential plan doesn't mean all will be plain sailing for his people. Indeed, there can be much ...
... experienced as God's plan is being worked out. Joseph, as we have seen over the past weeks, had a dreadful time when a slave, when misrepresented, when in prison, forgotten and lonely. Yes, in the end things turned out wonderfully. But he had a tough time. Then for Jacob's family while in Canaan there was the famine. And famine is terrible, as we know from our TV screens. I expect there are a number of people present who know that God's providential plan is not always pain free!
But, and with this I must conclude, because God, for your good, let's you go through difficult times, remember, and I quote again, Romans 8.28: "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." God's plan behind it all, for you and me and the world, is a good plan. So trust him.