Sometimes it is difficult to understand God’s purposes in the light of current events. But we have to remember that God is outside of time and space though He has entered into our world and knows the end from the beginning. Scripture demonstrates how He uses individuals, leaders, and nations as instruments, thus proving His Sovereignty in human events. This inevitably reassures us of the fulfilment of His plans for Israel and the nations today.
Joseph’s Brothers- Shall you indeed reign over us?
Like many of us, Joseph’s life commenced with regular sibling rivalry. The extent of His brother’s jealousy was particularly severe concerning Joseph’s dreams. His brothers spared his life only when Judah persuaded them to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. Ironically, the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers was the instrument that caused them to drive Joseph away, but started a chain of events that ultimately saved not only their family, but also Israel and the surrounding nations.
Humanly speaking Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers and the false allegations of rape from the wife of Potiphar, his master, which led to his imprisonment, appear disastrous. We might well have questioned where is God in all this? Remember though, Joseph’s God given ability to interpret dreams which had driven him away from his brothers, impressed Pharaoh suitably to appoint him as his right- hand man in governing Egypt.
The family issues were only resolved after the death of Jacob. His brothers had been humbled by Joseph’s provision and mercy yet were fearful that he would repay them for the evil they committed toward him. Joseph consoled them ‘You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.’ (Genesis 50:20)
Evidently an apparent disaster was the necessary though sobering ingredient required to restore Jacob’s family, solve the Egyptian famine crisis, and provide vital sustenance for the surrounding nations.
Let us now remain in Egypt for a while and ponder the question, why did God deliberately harden Pharaoh’s heart against the Israelites? Pharaoh was the grand ruler, answerable to no-one, yet he was again an instrument used by God. God utilised Pharaoh in the outworking of His purposes, so that His name would be glorified in Egypt and Israel.
This was achieved by a series of ingenious and spectacular demonstrations- the ten plagues of Egypt. Noticeably the plagues mimicked the forms of the deities the Egyptians worshipped. To name just a few, Ptah was the frog god worshipped. The seventh- plague hail, was directed against Isis and Osiris who were supposed to be able to control the weather. Moreover Serapis was supposed to protect them from locusts, but was incapable of halting their destructive onslaught!
Before the plagues commenced, God had promised to harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21,7:3) In Exodus 5:2 Pharaoh told Moses that he didn’t know the Lord so God was making Pharaoh aware that when He stretched His hand out against Egypt, the Egyptians would know that He is the Lord!
The seventh plague, hail, was critical as Pharaoh was forced to change his actions but clearly not his heart. It is at this stage that God reveals His purpose in His dealings with Pharaoh. “Now if I had stretched My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, then you would have been cut off from the earth. But indeed for this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” (Exodus 9:15)
Balak & Balaam
In Numbers Chapter 22, Balak the king of the Moabites offered Balaam great financial reward if he could effectively curse the children of Israel as they had recently increased in number and were consequently perceived as a military threat.
Balaam appeared to have divinatory powers that he utilised for profit. Balak sought to take advantage of Balaam’s skills and created numerous scenarios for Balak to harm the children of Israel. As the story unfolds, the reverse happens. The stakes are gradually raised, and Balaam set out on his donkey to curse Israel from a high place of Baal, though God clearly warned him not to go with them. Even on the way, Balaam’s donkey miraculously spoke, Balaam’s eyes were opened, and the Angel of the Lord instructed Balaam to speak only the words which He told him.
Four incredible prophecies followed and instead of cursing Israel, Balaam was only able to bless them and prophesy of the coming Messiah. The number of Israelites will not be reduced but will be innumerable. Sorcery and divination will not prosper against the children of Israel. In fact whoever blesses them will be blessed and whoever curses them will be cursed. The fourth prophecy culminates pointing to the awaited Messiah.
‘I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall rise out of Jacob; a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of tumult.’ (Numbers 24:17)
The Assyrian king Sennacherib went one further than his predecessors openly pouring scorn on the Hebrew God and His people and he questioned the credibility of their trust in Him. ‘Has any of the gods of the nations at all delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria? (2 Kings 18:33)
Hezekiah tore his clothes, covered himself in sackcloth and went into the house of the LORD. He commissioned his servants to summon Isaiah who confirmed the words of the LORD. ‘Surely I will send a spirit upon him, and he shall hear a rumour and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.’ (2 kings 19:7)
Like so many other victories, the battle was the Lord’s and the Angel of the Lord killed one hundred and eighty- five thousand of the Assyrians. Assyria had been an instrument of God’s wrath, the rod of God’s anger and the staff of His indignation (Isaiah 10:5) In their self- exalted pride Assyria had tried to lift themselves up defying God and God used their arrogance to display His justice in punishing wayward nations and displaying His sovereignty and confirming the words of the prophets.
Nebuchadnezzar My Servant
Nebuchadnezzar governed the Babylonian empire which captured Jerusalem and Judah in 586 B.C. The extent of authority that Nebuchadnezzar was able to exercise far exceeds any leaders of contemporary superpowers. Interestingly, God referred to Nebuchadnezzar as His servant on three occasions (Jeremiah 25:9, 27:6, 43:10) and said of him ‘I will strengthen the arms of the king of Babylon and put My sword in his hand.’ Around the same time Habakkuk was extremely puzzled that God would use a bitter and hasty nation, the Babylonians to judge Judah, God’s people.
Like Joseph, Daniel was residing in a foreign land and able to interpret the meaning of the king’s dreams. After explaining how the metallic statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay would relate to the Babylonian. Mede-Persian, Greek and Roman Empires, he was promoted with his friends into high office.
Following the preservation of Daniel’s friends amidst the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar declared ‘Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who sent His Angel and delivered His servants who trusted in Him, and they have trusted the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they should not serve nor worship any god except their own God!’ (Daniel 3:28)
Nebuchadnezzar still had another lesson to learn though. Daniel interprets his second dream concerning a great tree that had grown strong, reaching to the heavens, and provided food for all. The tree was then stripped of its branches and cut down with only its root remaining. This signified Nebuchadnezzar’s greatness which would be removed from him for seven years during which he would eat grass like an ox and lose his sanity.
The seven years occurred immediately when Nebuchadnezzar boastfully uttered ‘Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honour of my majesty?’ (Daniel 4:30) At the end of the seven years Nebuchadnezzar’s understanding returned to him causing Him to praise God, declaring that His dominion is everlasting, all of His works are truth and those who walk in pride He is able to put down!
Cyrus-All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me
Assyria was the rod of God’s anger, Nebuchadnezzar His Servant, and Cyrus was His shepherd (Isaiah 10:5, Jeremiah 25:9, Isaiah 44:28). Amazingly Cyrus was one of eight people in the Bible specifically named and mentioned before their birth. In addition Cyrus’ role was prophesied almost two hundred years before the events took place.
Isaiah prophesied that Cyrus would be His shepherd and announce the rebuilding of the temple and Jerusalem. He would hold his right hand and enable Cyrus to subdue nations. Isaiah mentioned Cyrus by name, even though Cyrus did not know Him. God’s purpose was that they would know that I am the LORD. (Isaiah 44:28-45:7)
Cyrus’ attitude was the antithesis of Nebuchadnezzar’s, who thought Babylon’s grandeur had been attained by his own efforts. Josephus was convinced that Cyrus was familiar with Isaiah’s prophecy and hence why he recognised that the kingdoms of the earth were given to him and proclaimed the decree commanding a temple and releasing the captives to build it!
Herod-“Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”
Herod tried to convince the Magi that He greatly desired to worship the Messiah though his real intentions were nothing of the sort. They were akin to those of Pharaoh who ordered the Hebrew baby boys to be killed. Herod was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau at bitter enmity with Israel, and thought He had the opportunity to either annul or delay prophecy by destroying the awaited Messiah. Herod was not successful and inadvertently played his part in fulfilling another three prophecies.
Joseph was warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt until the death of Herod fulfilling the prophecy ‘out of Egypt I have called My Son’. (Numbers 24:8, Hosea 11:1)
When Herod butchered the young innocents Matthew recalls ‘Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet saying: A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’ (Matthew 24:17-18, c.f. Jeremiah 31:15)
Thirdly ‘he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:23)
Conclusion –Playing chess against God?
The way in which God has used leaders and nations for His purposes could be likened to a gigantic game of chess. Although God’s opponents try to execute their strategies against Him, God is omniscient and is aware of their next move, indeed all of their moves. When a leader makes an evil move, God turns it around for His pleasure and purpose. Hypothetically, even if an opponent were able to put God in check, He could place them in check mate with His next move if He so willed.
Therefore amidst the chaos and turmoil of world events today, there is every reason to believe that God is using individuals, leaders, and nations for His purposes. He is achieving His sovereign will in a manner that may appear confusing, even contradictory to us at times, simply because He is not restricted by the dimensions of time and space, precisely as we are, and His thoughts and ways are higher than ours. We therefore await His glorious return and remain faithful to Him in the meantime, knowing that His timing is perfect as is the astonishing outworking of His purposes.