Part III: Implications
for Daily Life
In this part there are four chapters which may seem out of place to those who are familiar with the contents and format of most studies of Calvinism. It is not usual to insert chapters which really deal more with personal life and experience into a volume that is otherwise strictly theological in argument. But I think it is a mistake to divorce theology from experience in this way.
The first chapter is titled "The Comfort of Calvinism" and to my mind there is tremendous comfort in knowing that God is sovereign, that He is our loving heavenly Father and we are his children, accepted in the Lord.
It is to our practical advantage to explore how the sovereignty of God is worked out in the daily relationships of life, and not merely how God deals with history in a somewhat impersonal, wholly objective manner, as though we ourselves were not part of the stream of it.
And there are some very satisfying answers to some very practical problems. Some of these answers become almost obvious and self-evident once we have distinguished between certain terms commonly used in Scripture which have all too frequently been treated as mere synonyms. I have in mind such terms as the ways of God and the works of God, the wishes of God and the will of God, righteousness and wickedness as opposed to good and evil, and fruits as opposed to works, to name only a few. I think it will become apparent, or at least I hope it will, that there are real differences between these terms as employed in Scripture, although we commonly use them imprecisely and so surrender certain insights which might otherwise have been gained by reading the Word of God more carefully.
If the reader should feel that this particular section of the volume is really out of place in a serious theological study, I hope he will nevertheless resist the temptation to skip through to Part IV, which returns to a more usual theological approach. For although Part III is a departure to some extent, it deals with a very essential facet of the whole problem of God's sovereignty in the affairs of men, especially as it relates to personal life.
My own experience has in many ways been a complete departure from what most of the Lord's children expect of life, but well over forty years of living and walking with the Lord in spite of life's vicissitudes have taught me that the certainty of God's sovereign grace, and all that ensues from this certainty, can be the most saving faith that a man can have.
The Comfort of Calvinism
In his Systematic Theology Charles Hodge wrote: "The whole course of history is represented [in Scripture] as the development of the plan and purposes of God; and yet human history is little else than the history of sin." (1) Can we equate the existence of sin and its consequences with the plan and purpose of God? Is this what God originally intended, or has the plan gone wrong?
How sadly true it is that human history, and personal history for each one of us, has been little else than the history of sin. And although we are constantly reminded of this sad circumstance, we still insist that we believe God is in control of every situation, and our Calvinistic theology demands that this be so; and yet we behave by our worrying as though the success or failure of our lives in fulfilling the will of God is dependent upon ourselves. We have no great difficulty in publicly acknowledging with thankfulness the sovereignty of God in our successes and times of good fortune, but when things go badly with us and especially when it is clearly our own fault, we do not even privately thank the Lord for the consequences.
Not that we should thank the Lord for our having failed; but if what we have been saying has any validity, then should we not say, "Thank You, Lord," for the consequences that God allows to arise out of our disobedience, even when these consequences have all the appearance of punishment? We must surely see from Scripture that these consequential events are not punishments but blessings, evidences of our heavenly Father's concern for our good. Only if this is so can we honestly say that "all things work together for good" (Rom. 8:28). It is true that this is conditional for the passage goes on to say "to them that love God." Now our love of God is not necessarily reflected in our obedience even though it ought to be. Obedience may be a demonstration to others of something, just as disobedience is. Our love of God is not really dependent on either obedience or disobedience. It is dependent upon the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5) who creates it within us. Obedience arises out of love thus created; it is not the cause of that love, but the consequence of it. The Lord did not say, "If you keep my commandments, you love Me," but, "If you love Me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). That is the goal, the desirable thing: the hope that our lives will reflect the state of our hearts. But our actions often belie our love for the Lord; yet they are a contradiction not a denial of that love, for that love remains because it originates in God, not ourselves. It is ourselves we hate when we are disobedient, not God that we hate. We love God as a response to his love, not because we are obedient but because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). We often disobey those whom we love. Romans 8:28 is really an assurance that all things do indeed work together for good to them who have been called into this relationship of reciprocal love. This assurance is not based upon the extent to which our behaviour truly reflects that love. For whose behaviour ever does? Things work together for good not because we are good but because God is good and sovereign and He loves us.
So we do disobey, and all too frequently. Our personal lives, like human history, are records of sinful behaviour. Israel's history was a similar record, and yet the Old Testament is a story of the superintending providence of God who constantly brought good out of evil in the life of this elect nation, just as He constantly brings good out of evil in the lives of his elect children today. But more than this--and here is the almost unbelievable thing about this record--God not only overrules all the circumstances attendant upon his children's disobedience so that they turn out for good, but He often ordains those very disobediences! He not merely foresees them and plans ahead to compensate for them by his gracious providence; He predetermines that they shall be performed
If one needs a single good example, it is significantly to be found in the most dreadful act of human violence and hatred that man has ever committed: the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. That this was not merely foreseen by the Father, but predetermined (Acts 2:23) and determined before to be done (Acts 4:27, 28) is stated categorically in the clearest possible terms:
Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain (Acts 2:23).Many of us find a profound intellectual satisfaction in the grand truths of Calvinism with their emphasis upon the sovereignty of God, and yet we often fail to find real comfort when we are in trouble. We simply do not apply what we know to what we daily experience of the vicissitudes of life. We have the answers in our heads but do not relate them to the questions in our hearts. We lack the ability or the faith or the will to apply what we know to serve as a monitor of what we feel. Our knowledge is too objective and our faith is too small.
For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom Thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done (Acts 4:27, 28).
Now surely, one of the most comforting things about any faith in the absolute sovereignty of the grace of God ought to be the assurance we derive from that faith that God is still on the throne even in our most dismal defeats and that the clouds we so much dread are waiting to pour only showers of blessing on our head. Our lives are so full of stupidities, unwise choices, ineptitude, and plain selfishness and confusion of motive that it would be wonderful indeed if we could be fully and once-for-all persuaded that the same grace which overwhelmed us when we were sinful sinners and which called us into God's blameless family is still operating when we are sinful saints! If only we could grasp the fact that the whole of life is of a piece in this respect, that even when we walk in the shadows of our own disobedience, it is nevertheless God who has appointed the shadows! And if we once understand that He does not merely ordain our blessings and allow our difficulties but ordains both blessings and difficulties alike, then we are in a position to view the shadow as protection and not as a threat. What an extraordinary thing it would be to bask in the shadow as we bask in the sunshine! Yet this is what the New Testament invites us to do. As Paul says, "In everything give thanks" (1 Thess. 5:18).
This seems reasonable enough if the tribulations are not due to our own disobedience. But most of our tribulation seems to be of our own engineering.
When it is not our fault we may not find it hard at all. "Martyrdom" can actually be quite rewarding! It is when the martyrdom takes on the appearance of punishment that it becomes burdensome. And our lives are such that we tend to live in the expectation of punishment, even while we are boldly preaching to others that there is now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Our public preaching is correct; our private practice is not.
What is implicit in many New Testament passages on this question of the sovereignty of God in appointing our circumstances is explicit to a remarkable degree in the Old Testament. And here it appears most obviously in connection with the dismal record of Israel's failures. Being a faithful account of man's selfishness and pride worked out on a national scale, the history of Israel is full of illustrations of the fact that God not merely overrules our mistakes but often even ordains them.
Before proceeding to demonstrate this from Scripture it is important to underscore the fact that it is the acts themselves which He ordains, not the motivations behind them. Since human life is so full of such acts it is not perhaps surprising that the Old Testament contains many more explicit statements about the sovereignty of God in actions that were culpable than it does about his sovereignty in actions that were meritorious. Of course revelation is needed to make this point, and without this revelation we would probably not be aware of the truth. We can well imagine that God overrules our mistakes and makes them turn out for good, but what these many passages of Scripture reveal is that He not merely overrules these mistakes, nor merely allows them, but often ordains them. Can it really be that our mistakes are part of his plan?
While God is sovereign, He does not always exercise his sovereignty in all matters and upon every occasion. Sometimes He permits what He might otherwise forbid. He thus exercises the sovereignty of his will in two different ways: absolutely overruling the will of man where it does not conform to his own intention or design, but permitting it to express itself where nonconformity to his own intention is of no consequence or is more acceptable than the alternative use of compulsion. What is of consequence to his own intention is known only to God, and it is therefore often not possible for man to know with certainty whether his actions are free or hedged about by the divine overruling.
We thus have two forms of divine willing--that which represents God's intention and is therefore predetermined for man and cannot be evaded, and that which is his permissive will and is not imposed upon man's activities even when man does things which God would prefer he not do. On the one hand, man is therefore providentially and sovereignly appointed to certain actions which form an essential part of the plan of God for his creation, and on the other, man is encouraged or invited, but not sovereignly overruled, to actions which do not play an essential part in the plan of God for his creation. There is, in short, a divine intention and a divine inclination, a sovereign will and a permissive will, a requirement and a preference, an election and a predilection, a decree and a desire, a command and a request, a must and a should, a will and a wish.
It is as though God had a master plan that runs like a river through history, sweeping along all in its channel compelling towards a foreordained goal. Outside of this current along each bank are many things which may or may not be done, and which, whether done or not, in no way check or even assist the current flow. God's master plan thus proceeds towards its fulfillment willy-nilly, forming the current of the divine intention, decreed and unchangeable. In short, what He predetermined has been, is being, and will be done infallibly. This river is formed of his intentions, his sovereign acts, his requirements, his elections, his decrees, his commands, his musts, and his will.
Along the bank are his inclinations, permissions, preferences, desires, requests, shoulds, and wishes. Here He permits man that measure of freedom of action with which He may be gladdened or saddened. But in no way does this measure of freedom modify or interfere with the movement of his purposes towards their appointed end.
What God intends, He decrees; what God permits, He has foreseen. And thus by a combination of foreordination and foreknowledge, his will remains sovereign, while man retains sufficient freedom to be held accountable--always for his motive, but sometimes for his actions as well.
Let us look into the situation as it is reflected in Israel's history in the Old Testament. The Word of God is full of unexpected insights, and it is when we learn to accept these unexpected things that we make the most significant progress in our understanding of the Lord's dealings with his people.
For the somewhat restricted purposes of this brief survey we shall attempt a review of Israel's history only so far as it illustrates the sovereignty of God in relation to human frailty and sinfulness. The remarkable thing is how explicitly this truth is set forth in the Word of God. Even where man's intentions are manifestly wicked and not merely misguided, there we find the Lord saying most explicitly, "This thing is of Me." And the more wicked such actions are, the more explicit and emphatic is the statement of divine responsibility for the consequences likely to be. What must be borne in mind always is that action and motive have to be kept apart in making moral judgments. We assume a good deed has a worthy motive and an evil deed an unworthy motive. This is a naive judgment. Many good deeds are performed for entirely unworthy reasons, and sometimes evil deeds are necessary in the course of events (like the judicial taking of life, for example) but the motives are not unworthy. The surgeon who amputates a gangrenous leg is performing an evil operation but not a sinful one. Whether an act is good or evil depends upon immediate (historical) circumstance; whether an act is sinful or righteous depends upon eternal (moral) circumstance. Good and evil are not the same as righteous and sinful. God does evil (Job 2:10: Isa. 45:7; Lam. 3:38; Amos 3:6; etc.) but never sin. Man may do good deeds but they may have to be judged sinful in the light of eternity (Matt. 7:22, 23). It is extremely important to recognize these fundamental differences. We are invited to taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8) but never that the Lord is righteous--that would be to tempt the Lord. And this we are expressly forbidden to do (Matt. 4:7).
Now Israel's story begins with the preferring of Jacob over Esau, and with God's decision that although Jacob was not really the first-born (Gen. 25:25, 26), he was to enjoy the rights and privileges of primogeniture when he reached maturity. This decision was a sovereign decision taken by God without respect to any merit that Jacob might acquire and in plain contradiction of the actual order of birth (Rom. 9:11, 12). How was this predetermination in the divine plan brought to pass? And why did not God overrule at the time of parturition, so that Jacob was actually born before Esau? Would this not have been a better way to achieve his purposes since no deception or trickery would ever have been involved later?
We do not know the answer to this, but we do know that as a consequence of the birth order that actually occurred, Jacob later fulfilled the will of God only by taking advantage of his brother's more carnal nature, what the world might call Esau's earthiness (Gen. 25:27-34), and by using the grossest form of deception (with his mother's connivance) upon his aging and nearly blind father (Gen. 27:1-33). By the first he secured the right to the status of first-born, and by the second he secured parental sanction and validation of it. In the whole affair there was not one admirable thing. It was in fact shameful for a son to treat his trusting father so, and despicable that his mother should enter into the scheme and help him to pull it off. But pull it off he did. The blessing customarily reserved for the first-born, by which his privileged position was legally confirmed once for all, was "mistakenly" given to Jacob, and once given could not be revoked. Though Esau sought with tears to have his father revoke it, his pleading was in vain (Heb. 12:17 and Gen. 27:34, 35). This wretched performance was, as we know from Romans 9:11-13, directed towards an end which was entirely in keeping with the Lord's sovereign will. Yet what an extraordinary way for God to have allowed it to be fulfilled!
One wonders how it would have been fulfilled if Jacob had been an entirely honorable man. I suppose we too sometimes undertake by equally devious means to assist the Lord in the fulfillment of his purpose. At any rate by foul means, not fair, Jacob became the founder of an elect nation. So God performs his strange work, ordaining good and evil at one and the same time (Isa. 41:23) to our dismay, bringing good out of evil, and making the sinfulness of man to praise Him while restraining that which does not (Ps. 76:10).
Jacob's family grew until he had twelve healthy but not altogether scrupulous sons to perpetuate his seed. Among them was one who was to become the savior of his family, but only because of the unscrupulousness of his brothers! This exceptional individual was Joseph.
Now Joseph had become the envy of his ten older brothers because of the special attention paid to him by the aging Jacob. One day their envy was acerbated to the point that they decided to do away with him by dropping him into a pit without clothing, food, water, or shelter from the sun (Gen. 37:24). But just as they were about to leave him, an alternative plan was formulated when the chance of selling him as a slave to some passing Ishmaelite traders on the way to Egypt presented itself unexpectedly (Gen. 37:28). And so Joseph was carried away into Egypt, a stripling and a slave, mourned by his father who believed him dead.
But in Egypt God prospered Joseph exceptionally; and because of his divinely inspired wisdom regarding the bountiful harvests over which he became chief administrator, he was elevated to the position of Prime Minister (Gen. 41:39-44). The famine which Joseph had predicted was apparently everywhere in the Middle East and it was a famine specifically ordained of God (Ps. 105:16, 17). The situation in Palestine became so serious that Joseph's father sent his ten sons down into Egypt to buy enough grain to keep them alive. And so they came face to face once more with the brother whom they had planned to murder but sold into slavery instead. In due time Joseph revealed his identity to them and assured them of his forgiveness, and supplied all their needs. But the really important thing in this story is the insight which Joseph had acquired into the ways of God in dealing with his people. Once his brothers had recovered from their surprise and apprehension at finding themselves in the presence of a brother whom they had once sought to destroy, Joseph explained the circumstances of the whole course of events from God's point of view. Notice how explicit he is:
Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves...for God did send me before you to preserve life...And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth...so now it was not you that sent me hither but God...(Gen. 45:6, 7, 8).A little later Joseph made an extraordinary statement which reveals how clearly he understood the guiding hand of God in every circumstance, and how proper it is, when there is evidence of true repentance, that we should know that even our worst actions fall within the pattern of God's foreordination, either as part of what He intends or as part of what He permits. What He intends He decrees shall be done, and what He permits He foresees will be done: and thus by a combination of foreordination and foreknowledge God's sovereignty remains absolute. And so Joseph said to his brothers:
But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good...to save much people (Gen. 50:20).The family, once settled in Egypt, multiplied greatly in numbers and apparently acquired wealth enough to excite the envy of the native people (Ps. 105:23-25). In their prosperity Israel forgot that they were in a foreign land, and they forgot the promise made to their forefathers that they were to be singled out, placed in the Promised Land, and made a light to the Gentiles by their unique relationship to the Lord. Like so many of us when we dwell at ease, they forgot that this was not their home and that they were a special people, chosen out of the world to be separate from it in order that they might bear witness against its wickedness. So God raised up a new ruling family, and in particular the Pharaoh of the Exodus (Rom. 9:17, 18), under whom Israel was to rediscover that they were indeed a people apart. Under this tyrannical but vacillating man Israel was to be welded into a nation conscious of itself, a nation that was to "be born at once" (Isa. 66:8) when they made the greatest escape in history,
It is necessary to underscore that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was a vacillating man, for it seems from the record as though he was almost willing, after the slightest display of God's miraculous power, to let Israel go without a struggle. It is as though at the end of each day as catastrophe fell upon the land, Pharaoh was quite ready to let them go. But then overnight he suddenly discovered in himself new resolve which he had not anticipated the night before, so that in the morning he revoked the permission of the previous day and threatened Israel with even greater debasement. Every day new calamities overtook him and weakened his resolve. Every night he recovered himself and strengthened his resolve by morning. What Pharaoh did not know was that the energy of the new resolves did not arise from within himself but from God. When Romans 9:18 tells us that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, it seems that we are to understand that God energized him (the word is a quite appropriate rendering in view of its basic meaning) in his original resolution. God was determined that when Israel went out, the circumstances should be so exceptional that they would never forget them. And in order to do this, Pharaoh had to be given such powers of resistance to the demands of the people for their freedom that the people would be brought almost to despair. Only by this means would their Exodus remain indelibly imprinted in their memory. And yet, in spite of the fact that we know by revelation how Pharaoh gathered the resolve he needed to resist God's determination that his people should be set free, we also know that this same Pharaoh was punished for his resistance by being overwhelmed in the Red Sea, a circumstance intelligible only when the action itself is separated from the motive which prompted it. Pharaoh's motive was evil; his action was entirely according to the intention of God. This beautifully illustrates the fact that the sin of the world is not that it does not do the will of God but that it does not choose the will of God.
And so Israel embarked on the Exodus, which was so crucial an event in their history that it has literally marked their "birthday" and has been annually remembered by them as such ever since. No other event, not even the entry into the Promised Land, has held such a treasured place in their collective memory. To them it marks "the beginning."
They crossed the wilderness with many reminders of the Lord's special care for them all and so found themselves on the threshold of their new home. Spies were sent ahead who came back with tremendous reports of the prosperity they could expect to enjoy, but also of the resistance with which they would meet. However, the people were also assured that strong resolution would carry them through.
And then their courage failed them. They dared not trust the God who had brought them thus far and go on to possess their possessions. Cowardice or lack of faith--it is all the same really--resulted in their return to the wilderness when they might have crossed Jordan into a land flowing with milk and honey whose fruitfulness had been so dramatically demonstrated to them by the bunch of grapes which it required two men to carry (Num. 13:23)! Here they wandered about for another forty years, until every adult who had reached the Promised Land but had turned back (save only Joshua and Caleb) was laid to rest with his fathers, never having tasted of the blessings which had been promised. When a new generation had replaced the old, the people once again found themselves on the threshold, and this time ready to go in and possess the land. It is only later that we are told why God predetermined that there should be this long delay of forty years.
We know now that in this interval the$political situation in Egypt deteriorated to such an extent that the Promised Land, which had been united and strongly fortified as a province of Egypt, gradually slipped out of Egypt's control. Its original strength in unity was dissolved by the rise of petty kings and chiefs, and by internal dissent and squabbling among its princes. In Egypt the Pharaohs seem largely to have lost interest in maintaining tight control, and the result was that Israel was enabled, when the time came, to enter the land and capture it piecemeal. The enemy presented no united front against them.
Nevertheless we are told specifically that God did not allow Israel too easy a victory even then, in order that they might not become prematurely at ease themselves. Not all the petty kings and princes yielded at once. Here and there resistance was stiff indeed. Thus in Joshua 11:20 we read: "It was of the Lord to harden their hearts that they should come up against Israel in battle, in order that He might destroy them utterly." There was a real danger that too easy a submission would have led to alliances fatal to Israel's divinely appointed development. Thus it is recorded in Judges 2:20-23 that the Lord sometimes deliberately withheld total victory, saying, "I also will not henceforth drive out any more from before thee of the nations which Joshua left when he died; that through them I may prove Israel."
Moreover, the land might have become so depopulated that wild beasts would have multiplied out of hand and threatened the sparse settlement which Israel could effect while their numbers were still comparatively few. And so in Exodus 23:29 the Lord said: "I will not drive them out from before thee in one year, lest the land become desolate and the beasts of the field multiply against thee." Clearly God was still sovereign and knew what was best.
Whenever we find ourselves encouraged by circumstances to go forward only to discover difficulties in the path, we should not be surprised if some of them, like the river Jordan in Israel's case, are miraculously dried up as our feet touch the waters. But we should not presume that there will be no testing of faith by the opposition of the enemy merely because we have received a clear signal to go forward. It is a striking thing, as we know now, that it was only because Jordan was in flood (Josh. 3:15) that the river was so providentially backed up by the undercutting of its bank some miles upstream. For this flooding evidently started a landslide to form an artificial dam which caused the waters to back up in "a heap" (Josh. 3:13, 16). This lasted just long enough for the children of Israel to pass dry-shod over the Jordan and thus appear with distressing suddenness on the other side, precisely at a time when the opposing enemy waiting for them felt it least likely they would cross. So it comes about that God converts obstacles into bridges, for He is in charge also of the timing of events in our lives, a fact which often accounts for a large measure of the element of miracle in our walk with the Lord. No doubt the Israelites were surprised a little at the resistance they met here and there. They must have felt that if the Lord had brought them out of Egypt in order to give them the Promised Land, He would simply hand it to them without loss of life or severe struggle.
What the Israelites did not know was that God had reasons for strengthening the hand of the enemy against them even as He had reasons for hardening Pharaoh's heart. And these reasons were not merely that He might prove them and build their character as a people, but also that He might protect them against enemies which they could not possibly know about, the wild animals of which they had no previous experience. These things are clearly written for our instruction (1 Cor. 10:11).
It might seem rather absurd to leave one kind of enemy (human ones) in order to protect against another kind of enemy (animal ones), but history shows that when a new land is suddenly depopulated by conquest, serious consequences may follow. Marco Polo in his Travels (Chap. XLV, p. 166) notes that this is precisely what happened in one area of Kublai Khan's Empire when the native population was so decimated that the wild animals multiplied alarmingly and it became no longer safe for human settlement. The situation in the Promised Land might well have developed in the same way. It is a parable of Christian life. With the Lord's help we can sometimes conquer certain obvious failings in our lives, only to find that we have left a vacuum, like the man who swept his house of the evil demons that were in it, but did not ensure an alternative occupancy, with the result that seven times as many devils took up residence instead (Luke 11:26). Self-reformation is always in danger of just such an eventuality.
In due time judges served as governors while the nation passed through its teething pains. One of these judges was Samson, and at that time Israel's most persistent enemy was the Philistines. But, alas, Samson compromised the situation by falling in love with a Philistine woman at the very time he was supposed to be preserving Israel against their depredations. This is analogous to the Christian pastor who takes a non-Christian as a wife while seeking to preserve the separation between his people and the world. We know from the New Testament that it is contrary to the Lord's explicit instructions for any Christian to be yoked with a non-Christian in this way, and it must be particularly so in the case of a Christian leader (2 Cor. 6:14). The extraordinary thing is that this action, so completely contrary to all that we know of the Lord's dealings with us, turns out in Samson's case to have been specifically the Lord's doing.
It was natural that Manoah and his wife, Samson's parents, should have been particularly grieved by their son's actions, for they were godly people and had dedicated their son to the Lord's service. His rise to a position of leadership in Israel must have greatly rewarded them. But now it seemed as though Samson had forsaken the Lord's way entirely and betrayed both their aspirations for him and Israel's hope. But Judges 14:4 makes a surprising statement: "His father and his mother did not know that it was of the Lord, that He sought an occasion against the Philistines." And as events turned out, Samson slew more of the Philistines, and probably more important people among the Philistines, when he died than he had throughout his life. And all this because he fell in love with and married a Philistine woman contrary to the whole spiritual import of Israel's family life. We do not hear of any further trouble with the Philistines for another twenty years.
When in due time under Solomon Israel had peace all around, the Golden Age of their history seemed to have dawned. They were united as they had not been united hitherto. Jerusalem was beautified as their capital city, a great Temple was erected to the glory of God as a single place of worship to which all the tribes went up as one man, and an era of great personal prosperity seemed to have been ushered in. It must have appeared to many that this was the millennium towards which all their prophets had looked forward. But as soon as Solomon died a division between the north and south, between Israel and Judah, suddenly emerged, threatening to bring their great hopes to an end. Once again we are surprised to find that although this rift between Rehoboam in Judah and Jeroboam to the north was really due to pigheadedness and inexperience on Rehoboam's part (2 Chron. 10:1 ff.), it was nevertheless God's intention that it should happen. It was a fatal division within the nation, and it proved disastrous for the nation's survival. And yet in 2 Chronicles 10:15 and 11:3, 4, we have a simple summary statement of the fact that what happened was precisely according to God's foreordained plan.
Very briefly, the situation arose because the people of the northern part of the Kingdom became increasingly unwilling that the south should be the centre of everything. They wanted a greater measure of independence and they found a leader in Jeroboam, a man who had been something of a maverick in Solomon's days and had been forced to flee into Egypt as a consequence. Jeroboam was called back to the north to head a new independent party; they then arranged to meet Rehoboam to negotiate new terms of union which would give them greater autonomy. Rehoboam wisely consulted his elder statesmen and they advised him to speak peaceably to Jeroboam and to treat his demands with moderation. But Rehoboam unwisely followed the advice of the younger aristocracy in Judah who suggested sterner measures, including a substantial increase in taxes. Unfortunately, this was the policy which Rehoboam adopted--with fatal consequences. This is the summary background of 2 Chronicles 10:15:
So the king [Rehoboam] hearkened not unto the people for the cause was of God, that the Lord might perform his word which He spake by the hand of Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat.The northern tribes rebelled and Rehoboam had no alternatives but either to lose face and do nothing about it, or go to war with them and force them to submit to his terms. This is the background of 2 Chronicles 11:2-4:
But the word of the Lord came to Shemaiah, the man of God, saying, Speak unto Rehoboam the son of Solomon, king of Judah, and to all Israel in Judah and Benjamin, saying, Thus saith the Lord, ye shall not go up nor fight against your brethren, return every man to his house: for this thing is done of Me. And they obeyed the words of the Lord, and returned from going against Jeroboam.Once again the progressive course of Israel's history was rudely disturbed, this time by the foolishness and pride of a young king who inherited a kingdom just when it had reached its highest stage of development and prosperity. Thereafter, until the time of the Captivity and Exile to Babylon, the nation virtually ceased to be an effective witness among the nations to the great God who had chosen them as a special people for this very purpose. The whole story is indeed a dismal one.
But the saddest part of all was yet to come, for when a greater than Solomon (Luke 11:31) came to heal all the breaches within the nation and to enable Israel to fulfill its mission to the world as spiritual ambassadors under the Messiah, they failed to recognize Him and crucified Him instead, thus virtually committing national suicide.
Yet even this was all part of God's determinate will in order that in their casting away, their spiritual mission might be turned over for a season to the Gentiles (Matt. 21:43) who should, in bringing forth the fruits thereof, be blessed with blessings which would have come to them through Israel had that people fulfilled its mission. Such seems to be the burden of Paul's words in Romans 11:13-31. Paul therefore concludes (vv. 32-36):
For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all. O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counselor? Or who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things to whom be glory for ever. Amen.As we look back over this record of the failures of God's people, we see it was not merely that God was in their victories to be praised as the Lord of all circumstances, but God was in their failures just as actively and sovereignly, performing his "strange work" as Isaiah was inspired to term it (Isa. 28:21). That their failures were reprehensible is clearly stated in Scripture and we are faced accordingly with the apparent anomaly of action that is foreordained in accordance with God's predetermination being at the same time culpable. But did God really plan these actions or did He merely allow them?
Sometimes the latter seems the more reasonable conclusion. And yet in the most crucial of reprehensible actions--the acquisition of the right of the first-born by Jacob, the selling of Joseph as a slave, the division of the Kingdom just when it had reached the climax of its development as a nation, and the rejection and crucifixion of the Messiah who would have fulfilled all of Israel's dreams--there can be no question as to whether these actions were decreed and foreordained or merely foreseen and permitted. They were clearly decreed.
What this extraordinary historical record shows to us, the Lord's people, is that God is just as sovereign in times of failure as in times of success, in defeat as in victory. This is a really important lesson to learn. It is not surprising that the Lord has seen fit to emphasize it in the Old Testament, especially at certain crucial periods of Israel's history. We are so accustomed to reading success stories, and even Christian success stories, that we imagine God's purposes are fulfilled only, or at least best, during those times when our lives are "successful." But for most of us such successes are few and far between. We may have a measure of peace about our failures but it is not likely we shall derive any comfort from them; and it is almost certain that as soon as the Lord takes occasion to allow certain consequences in order that He may perfect in us that which He has begun (Phil. 1:6), we shall be tempted to view them as punishment and others will be quick to confirm our worst fears. Frankly, I find it almost impossible not to make this false estimate of what is happening. Yet in my mind I know that the dangers to our spiritual welfare from success are far greater than the dangers from failure. If God is concerned with the making of saints rather than the production of executives, then obviously He must ordain or allow far more failures than successes. Logically a highly "successful" Christian life may very well be a failure from God's point of view. We know this. We recognize it in others. We see it again and again. And yet we desire success. This is another way of saying we have more desire for the wrong kind of success, the kind of success which in God's view is failure, than we do for the kind of failure which in God's view is truly success. The secret of thus entering into God's thoughts is surely to realize very clearly why He has chosen us, and the extent to which He is sovereign over all the circumstances of our lives, both the happy and the unhappy ones. We have not yet learned the real meaning of the Lord's words in Isaiah 55:8: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord." Perhaps it is for this reason that Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:27-29): "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence."
1. Vol. l, p. 544.