Hard Providence

“So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 45:8).  

- Genesis 45:4-8

Joseph could not contain his joy once he was sure of his brothers’ repentance, but they had the opposite reaction when the sternness of his demeanor vanished and he began to cry (Gen. 45:1–2). Being “dismayed at his presence,” they could say nothing, probably because they thought he would take vengeance upon them (v. 3). 

Of course, we know this was not his intent, as is plain in today’s passage. Seeing how Judah and the others are reacting, Joseph reassures them of his forgiveness (vv. 4–8). Joseph’s words are some of the most important and extensive in all of Scripture on the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. He refers to the Lord’s activity and intent in his travails four times, affirming his belief in God’s providential governing of history. In reality, his confidence in the Creator’s sovereignty is one factor enabling Joseph to forgive his brothers. In hindsight, he is able to see God’s invisible hand; thus, there is no place for revenge since Joseph knows the Lord used his years of suffering for His good, redemptive plan (v. 5). God used the wicked act of his brothers to advance His will, despite their ignorance.

Once more we see the central theme of Joseph’s life, namely that God’s providential rule uses evil, but only for His good ends. His sovereignty is so encompassing that Joseph can even tell his brothers: “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (v. 8). We must be careful here to note that the brothers are still liable for their sin, as Joseph later reminds them of their evil intent (50:20). All Joseph means to say is that the Lord’s will — not man’s — is ultimate. In all that occurs, God is at work to make His desires for creation go according to His plan.

This concurrence, or simultaneous working of the Lord and men (good or evil) to bring about God’s holy purposes, is hard to comprehend. But we must always maintain that we are responsible for sin and that the Almighty remains free from any stain of wickedness (James 1:13). John Calvin writes: “God acts so far distinctly from them [evil men], that no vice can attach itself to his providence, and that his decrees have no affinity with the crimes of men.”

Coram Deo

John Calvin’s comments on Genesis 45:8 are essential reading for anyone studying God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. There is much we can say about the Lord’s guiltless use of evil men to achieve His good plan, but ultimately, “this method of acting is secret, and far above our understanding.” Do not be surprised if you find this doctrine difficult to understand, and do not expect the Lord to fully explain His good use of human wickedness.

Passages for Further Study

Deut. 29:29
Isa. 55:8–9
Luke 17:1
Acts 2:23
Rom. 11:33

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