Behind Every Providence God Hides A Smiling Face
Nick Esch, 9/29/2019 Cornerstone Baptist Church
William Cowper was an 18thcentury poet that none of us would’ve ever heard of had it not been for John Newton. Cowper had a rough life filled with much suffering and darkness. His mother died when he was just a child. He had almost no relationship with his father, except that his father sent him away to school at a young age. And while away at school he was abused by an older teenaged boy. And it would seem that this, along with the death of his mother, triggered something in him that hindered him from ever having a proper relationship with a woman; he never married…
Over the span of his life he had many hard bouts with depression; and three times the clouds of depression and despair got so thick and heavy that he attempted suicide. Eventually those who cared for him had no choice but to put him in an insane asylum; but it was there that he found hope for the first time. A man named Dr. Nathaniel Cotton tended the patients there, and he was a true Christian who loved Jesus and loved people. He had a great desire to see Cowper come to know Christ, but Cowper didn’t seem to have much of a desire for anything. Cotton often shared the gospel with Cowper, telling him of the hope there is in Christ, but Cowper always insisted that he was damned and beyond hope. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t believe the gospel, but that he just didn’t believe that he could be saved… He thought he was too great of a sinner. But Cotton never gave up; he would often leave a Bible lying around in or near Cowper’s room in hopes that he would read it and come to saving knowledge and faith in the gospel… And sure enough, in God’s providence, that’s exactly what happened.
Cowper opened the Bible and read John 11, and was so moved that he began to read more, and then he read Romans 3. Romans 3:25 especially struck him. In context it says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-35a). I can only imagine how sweet those words sounded to a sinner who thought he was beyond the reach of God’s grace… He said, “Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification. In a moment I believed, and received the gospel.”
After becoming a Christian he began to do better for a while. He moved out of the asylum and in with a family that he became very close to—as if they were his actual family. But soon after the man of that house—Cowper’s only real father figure at that point—died in a tragic accident; and that’s how Cowper came to know John Newton. Newton was a nearby pastor, and he came and ministered to the family in their time of grief. And that began a relationship that would last the rest of Cowper’s life; Newton began to fill that fatherly role, and loved him and discipled him… And though now he was a professing Christian, Cowper still struggled with depression, and found himself in the clouds of darkness again and again. But, again and again Newton was there doing his best to pull Cowper out of the darkness. It seemed the only thing that lifted the clouds of darkness off of Cowper was doing things that would get his mind and heart focused on the bigness of God… Whether that meant beholding His glory displayed in nature, or beholding His glory displayed in the truth of the gospel. One of the ways Newton tried to get the darkness to lift was by challenging Cowper to write a hymnal with him… And that’s why we know who William Cowper is today.
Though he lived from 1731-1800 we still sing his hymns today; hymns like There Is A Fountain and God Moves In A Mysterious Way. And that last one is an especially remarkable hymn given all of the darkness and suffering in Cowper’s life. Disease, death, abuse, hardship, deep depression, and all kinds of suffering filled his life, and yet he wrote, “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” Cowper knew these truths because he lived these truths. In his bouts with depression he forgot such things, but writing and going over these great truths helped to get his eyes off of himself and on Christ; and that was his only real means of getting out of the darkness for a while… But again, he could write such things because he had lived and experienced such things—he knew them to be true; but I wonder, do we? Do we know that God is sovereign and good? Do we know that in whatever God allows to befall us that He is working all things together for His glory and the good of His people? Do we know that behind every providence God hides a smiling face, even if we don’t see it? Well, Lord willing that’s what we will see in our passage today: that God is sovereign and good… So look with me at Genesis 50:15-21…
Our text begins right at the end of the story of Joseph. Joseph and his brothers were sons of Israel. Joseph was Israel’s favorite son, and his brothers knew it. And it didn’t help that Joseph had a dream that he would one day rule over his brothers; a dream that, because of his pride, he just had to share with them. So, in a jealous rage his brothers began to plot against him, and eventually they carried out their evil scheme. At first they conspired to kill him, but then his brother Reuben suggested they just throw him into a pit instead… But not long after they did that a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, and Joseph’s brother Judah suggested they make a profit by selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites. And before long Joseph was enslaved in Egypt.
Joseph’s brothers told their father that he was dead, and they assumed that he was as good as dead, but his end had not yet come. After getting to Egypt Joseph was sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. And Joseph flourished in that role. In Genesis 39:2-4 we’re told, “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.” But, it did not last. After serving in Potiphar’s house for a while Potiphar’s wife began to fall for Joseph, at least physically. But, when Joseph refused to entertain the notion she got him falsely convicted of assaulting her and he was thrown into prison.
But even after going to prison we’re told that, “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (Genesis 39:21). So Joseph was put in charge of all the prisoners, and Joseph flourished even there. Eventually Joseph gets to help someone in such a way that it helps them get out of prison, and all he asks in return is that they put in a good word with Pharaoh so that he might get out of prison too; but, they don’t… Joseph ends up spending two more years in prison before the man who got out makes good on his promise and finally mentions Joseph to Pharaoh. Joseph gets out an interprets a dream for Pharaoh which leads to Pharaoh making Joseph his right hand man, as it were. Through God’s blessing Joseph rose to power and flourished once again.
Eventually a great famine breaks out, but because of Joseph, Egypt is prepared for such things; in fact, they seemed to be the only ones prepared, because everyone began to come to them for help. And in the providence of God, Joseph’s brothers end up coming to him for help as well. And even though he puts them through the ringer a bit, eventually he not only helps them, but he tells them, in Genesis 45:5, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” In other words, Joseph forgave his brothers, because, even though he was ripped from his home and his family, and even though he went through much suffering and trial, in and through it all he could see that God was with him and was doing something—something good. Joseph’s brothers meant to destroy his life, but God meant to preserve life. Joseph did not see himself as helplessly ripped away, but providentially sent away for good. And that brings us to our passage today.
We Are Not The King, God Is…
In verses 15-19 we read, “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’ So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, ‘Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?’”
At this point in the story Joseph has already forgiven his brothers, but his brothers think that his forgiveness was only for their father’s sake. Now Jacob (Israel) has gotten old and died, and Joseph’s brothers fear that he will now have his vengeance. But, that is not in the heart of Joseph at this moment. Even as his brothers are bowing down to him just as he had dreamed all those years before, he does not grow prideful, but humble. No doubt, he recognizes that his pride, in part, is what led to his brothers selling him into slavery. And no doubt, he has seen how God has been merciful to him, and shown him steadfast love again and again; and he sees that if he was to ignore all of that, and take vengeance into his own hands, or to be angry, he would be putting himself in the place of God.
That’s what we always seek to do in our sin: to put ourselves in the place of God. I mean, that was how Satan enticed Adam and Eve to sin in the beginning. He got them to question God’s Word, and then told them that they would be like God. They sinned against God because they thought they knew better than God. So in their sin they sought to put themselves in the place of God… They didn’t think they needed God’s wise rule and counsel over them, because they thought they knew what they needed better than God. But of course, they were fools who believed a lie… And so are we every time we sin. Every sin is an act of treason against God, because every time we sin we are essentially seeking to dethrone God. Through our actions we are declaring that we are better and know better than God. Through our actions we are declaring that we are God, that we are the king…
When I was a younger Christian in my office at work I kept a sticky note on the top of my computer screen that said, “You are not the king… God is! So get off the throne!” And that was there to remind me every time I sinned, or every time I was tempted to sin… every time I got angry or my pride flared up, it was there to remind me who I was not, and who God is. Beloved, we are not the King, God is… And every time we sin we are seeking to put our selves in His place… We are seeking to be God and saying that we don’t think God is good enough for the job. For instance, if we get angry and seek to take vengeance into our own hands, we are showing that we do not believe that God is just and that He will do what’s right. We don’t believe God when He says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Deut. 32:35, Ps. 94, Rom. 12:19, Heb. 10:30)… And if we claim to be Christians and act this way, we are showing that we do not really grasp the mercy and love that we say we have received.
Joseph here, even through all the trials and suffering that he has went through, and even now as he hears of the death of his father—a father that he wasn’t able to know for years because of the sins of his brothers—cannot help but be merciful because he sees how God has been merciful to him throughout his entire life… Even in the worst of circumstances… Genesis proclaims again and again that God was with him and His steadfast love was on him. And even Joseph said that it was God that was sending him through everything that happened to him for His good purpose… So, for Joseph to not be merciful and forgiving would be treason, would be idolatry, would be prideful sin, because in those actions he’d be saying that God doesn’t know what he’s doing, and likewise he’d be belittling the mercy that he had received…
You see, Joseph displays a humility and faith here that seems utterly amazing, given all that he’s been through; but, ultimately the humility and faith that he displays are the same humility and faith that we are to display every day. We are those who claim to know and believe that Jesus, who is God and has every right to put Himself in the place of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but instead emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8). What amazing mercy!!! He came and took on flesh, lived the perfect life in our place, died a sacrificial wrath-absorbing death in our place, and rose again in a death-defeating resurrection in our place; all so that we could experience His mercy and grace. And if we have come to partake in that mercy and grace through faith, mercy and grace should be what marks out our lives. So, is it?… Is that what marks out your life? Are you known for being merciful, or angry and vengeful? Understand that in your anger you are seeking to put yourself in the place of God. So cry out to God for mercy, and beg Him to so shower your life in mercy that you become merciful… Ask Him to open your eyes to the mercy that you have already received, and get off the throne… Beloved, we are not the King, God is… And that’s good news.
The King Is Sovereign And Good
Now look at verse 20 with me: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Here Joseph gives us a glimpse into God’s sovereign grace that is almost beyond comprehension. Joseph has shown himself to be forgiving and merciful because even though he was a prideful sinner, God had mercy on him, was with him, and showered his steadfast love upon him again and again—even in the worst of circumstances. But now Joseph is saying that God’s mercy, God’s grace in and through his life goes far beyond himself… In and through Joseph’s story God was accomplishing His purposes, even through the sins of Joseph’s brothers. Notice Joseph says that what they meantfor evil God meantfor good… He doesn’t say that He used it for good, or that He worked it for good, but that He meant it for good.
Even the worst of sinners and the worst of sins are under God’s good sovereignty. But, that isn’t to say that God is responsible for sin. As the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith says in article III, “From all eternity God decreed everything that occurs, without reference to anything outside Himself. He did this by the perfectly wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably. Yet God did this in such a way that He is neither the author of sin nor has fellowship with any in their sin.” In other words, God is sovereign and man is responsible. But God can and does accomplish great things in and through terrible things.
In this verse Joseph acknowledges the sinfulness and the brokenness of this world, but he also acknowledges that this sinful broken world is under God’s governance. Broken though it may be, as the old hymn says, “This is my Father’s world. Oh, let me never forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet” (Maltbie Babcock). The greatest demonstration of this is of course the cross. Jesus was despised and rejected, falsely accused, and crucified by sinful men; but Isaiah 53:10 says, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.” That’s why Peter says in Acts 2:23 that, “Jesus [was] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, [yet He was] crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” And Peter doesn’t let these men off the hook since it was God’s will for the cross to happen; instead he calls them to repent and believe the gospel… These men committed sinful acts, and were responsible for their sin, but God was sovereign in and through it all; and what they meant for evil God meant for good—the greatest good.
Understand, God is good, in all that He is and in all that He does… In Deuteronomy 32:4 we’re told, “his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” The Psalmist tells us that, “This God—his way is perfect” (Psalm 18:30). “Good and upright is the Lord” (Psalm 25:8). And this good God is indeed sovereign. As Job says, God can do all things, and no purpose of His can be thwarted (Job 42:2). Or as we read in Daniel 4:34-35, “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?’” Indeed, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). And what He pleases to do is always good, even if we can’t see it here and now…
Ultimately God is the One who defines good. Joseph says his brothers meant to do evil; and by that he means they meant him harm. But, ultimately evil is rebellion against God… And in doing Joseph harm, they wererebelling against God. But if that’s what evil is, then we’d do well to ask what good is… Good and evil aren’t equal opposites, but in contrast to evil good is what works for the glory of God. As Romans 3:23 lays out, sin is falling short of God’s glory; and sin is evil… So, what is good and righteous works to display and make much of God’s glory; the fact that it works to magnify the glory of God is what makes it good, because what is good is directly linked to God… because again, God is at the heart of the definition of good. And God, in His goodness, has so created and designed this world to magnify His glory, that even though we fell and the creation is now broken, God ordained such things to come to pass so that He could magnify His glory in and through His mercy and grace in Christ. And everything in this world works towards that end.
So, God simultaneously works through sinful acts to accomplish great good; and He doesn’t just work them or manipulate them for good, but Hemeansthem for good. Joseph’s brothers were like maniacs with knives seeking to do Joseph harm, while God was like a surgeon with a scalpel seeking to not only do Joseph good, but the world at large much good, even through much pain. Both God and Joseph’s brothers were working at the same time through the same things (though God was doing much more in countless other things at the same time), and Joseph’s brothers were accomplishing evil, while God was accomplishing much good. That’s almost too much for us to comprehend, but it’s true nonetheless… Our God, who is the true King who belongs on the throne, is sovereign and good even in and through the worst of circumstances. God accomplished his will to not only do Joseph good, but to do Egypt and thousands upon thousands around Egypt much good, in and through the ups and downs, and trials and sufferings of Joseph’s life—in and through the evil that his brothers meant him. And even now, thousands of years later, God is still bringing about good through Joseph’s story as He sanctifies us.
Beloved, so many of us have been through, are going through, or will go through much suffering and hardship. But, like Joseph we are called to patiently trust in the Lord—we’re called to rest in the sovereign goodness of our King. We don’t see everything God is doing, and we may never see it; but, in the words of William Cowper, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace. Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” We can trust that God is doing much good, even if we are suffering, even if we are the victims of much evil. We may see it, or we may not; it may effect us directly, or it may not; but good will come nonetheless… because our God is sovereign and good… He is the rightful King on the throne…
I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to only consider myself when trials come. Suffering may come my way, and I begin to ask the Lord, “What do you wantmeto learn here? What am I supposed to see? How amIsupposed to grow?” And though God does certainly work all things together for good, for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose… I need to understand—we need to understand that God’s purposes are much bigger than just us. Though God is always working to sanctify us and make us more like Jesus (the good in Romans 8:28 is tied to being conformed to Christ’s image in Romans 8:29), He’s doing so much more than just that; He’s working in and through everything for the great good of magnifying His glory in and through redemption—a redemption that goes out to people from every nation and generation, and will eventually fix everything that is broken; God will make every wrong right…
We get a glimpse of this in what happened to Job. James 5:11 tells us, “we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” Through all of the trials, suffering, and the attack of Satan upon Job, and the false accusations of his friends and the like, James says that the Lord was accomplishing His purpose and being compassionate and merciful… Though eventually Job is restored, and the suffering and trials stop, ultimately God was compassionate and merciful to Job and to countless others through the story of Job, because what we see in Job is that God is good and enough. That even though Job lost everything, he never lost God, and God is enough. I mean, that’s why Satan went after Job to begin with, to try to prove to God that Job only loved God’s gifts, not God Himself. But Job declares, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
God was, God is enough. And in and through Job’s story so many of us have been inspired and have been encouraged to believe in God’s goodness and sufficiency. So, in and through Job God’s mercy and compassion have been multiplied. His grand purpose to be glorified has been and is being accomplished… God worked good in and through Job’s story, for Job, but even more so for His people at large. And that’s how God worked with Joseph as well: as Joseph said, “God meant it for good, to bring it about that many peopleshould be kept alive, as they are today.” What Joseph’s brothers meant for evil God meant for good. What Satan meant for evil God meant for good… And that’s still true today. So we can rest assured that behind whatever frowning providence we may find ourselves in, God means it for good—a good that reaches far beyond ourselves… So repent of your lack of faith and trust in God; be patient and know that God is sovereign and good… Beloved, we are not the King, God is; and the King is sovereign and good.
In verse 21 Joseph tells his brothers, “So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” And then we’re told, “Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” I love this because this word from Joseph to his brothers comes to us as a word from our sovereign and good God. Not only do we have this great promise of a sovereign God who will work all things together for the good of His people—who means all things for good, but this whole passage points us to our Savior. Like Joseph, Jesus suffered because of evil men. But, what we see in the gospel is that we are those evil men.
We are not innocent sufferers. We often say things like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But we forget that that only happened once. The only good person to ever suffer was Jesus. And we are the ones who caused Christ to suffer: for it was our sin that lead Him to the cross… but, not only our sin, but the grand good purpose of God to magnify His glory in and through redemption. So, Jesus came, lived, suffered, died, rose again, and ascended on high to bring us to God. The salvation He has provided for us in His person and work declares to us, “do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” We can be comforted and God can speak kindly to us, all because of Christ. For He has provided righteousness, He has provided redemption, He has provided everything we need to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. So, though we should be both challenged and encouraged by Joseph’s story, ultimately Joseph’s story points us to the gospel story. And if we can trust the Christ of the gospel to save our souls, surely we can trust that same sovereign and good King to sustain us in our suffering, and to bring about good even through much pain…
God used Joseph to save many people from starvation, but in Christ God saves all of His people from sin, death, and wrath—a far greater salvation. But, God is not yet done with His grand purpose of redemption. He is still reconciling a people to Himself from every tribe, tongue, nation, and generation. And as long as that work is still happening—until Christ returns—we can know that whatever our God allows to befall us is working for His glory and the good of His people, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive… indeed, to have eternal life… So, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.”