God’s Sovereignty

Let me ask you a question.  When it comes to God, the Bible, and Christianity, what do you think is the most difficult question to answer?  I wanted to see what people thought about this, so I did a Google search, and it turned up, among other things, a book that gives “Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions”.  And some of the questions covered in that book are definitely challenging – Could Jesus have sinned?  What is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?  Will people be condemned for not believing in Jesus even though they’ve never heard about him?

            But I think what may be the most difficult question of all wasn’t covered in that book.  The question that I struggle with more than any other is this — how do we reconcile what the Bible says about the absolute sovereignty of God with the scriptural teaching that man has been given free will?  Or, to put it another way, if God controls everything, how can we be responsible for our own choices and actions?

            If we’re going to be faithful to what the scriptures teach, we have to acknowledge both sides of the coin. On the one hand, God is absolutely sovereign. He is in control.  Everything that happens in this world — big stuff, little stuff — all of it is under God’s sovereign control.  Job put it this way when he said to God, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2).

            But on the other hand, scripture is also clear that human beings have free will and we are fully responsible for our own actions.  In Deuteronomy 30, God said to the people of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life…” (Deuteronomy 30:29-30).  Make the right decisions.  Make the right choices.  From the very beginning, when God put Adam and Eve in the garden, he gave mankind a choice.  We can either obey him or we can disobey him, it’s our choice.  It’s our free will.  We get to decide how we respond to God.

            And I think there is always this tension between the idea of a sovereign God, whose plans and purposes will be carried out no matter what, and people who exercise our free will and make choices.  And it makes me wonder – how much of what happens in life is the result of God making it happen, and how much of it is us making it happen?

            This morning, we’re going to see how this plays out in the story of King David.  We’re going to be in 2 Samuel chapter 17 this morning, but we need to go back and review just a little bit.

            When we left off last week, David’s son, Absalom, was trying to overthrow the government and take over the throne, and David was running away from Jerusalem toward the wilderness.  I mentioned last week two men who play an important role in this story, 

            First, there was Ahithophel.  At one time, he was one of King David’s most trusted advisors.  But, when Absalom started his rebellion, Ahithophel decided to switch sides.  And I pointed out that his betrayal of King David probably had something to do with the fact that Ahithophel’s granddaughter was Bathsheba.  And it seems that he held a grudge because of how David used his power to take advantage of his granddaughter.  So, Ahithophel, who was a very wise man, went over to Absalom’s side.

            But David had another trusted advisor named Hushai.  And last week, we saw how David sent Hushai on an undercover mission.  He said, “Go to Absalom, tell him you want to switch sides.  And then, when the opportunity arises, give him some really bad advice to throw him off track.  And whatever Absalom plans to do, get word to me so that I can react accordingly.

            And that brings us to chapter 17.  Absalom is trying to figure out the best way to defeat his father in battle.  So, first, he turns to Ahithophel for advice.

            “Now Ahithophel urged Absalom, ‘Let me choose 12,000 men to start out after David tonight.  I will catch up with him while he is weary and discouraged.  He and his troops will panic, and everyone will run away.  Then I will kill only the king, and I will bring all the people back to you…After all, it is only one man’s life that you seek.  Then you will be at peace with all the people.’  This plan seemed good to Absalom and to all the elders of Israel.” (2 Samuel 17:1-4)

            The reason this plan seemed good to them is because this was a really good plan.  David left Jerusalem in a hurry.  He only had a few men with him, because he didn’t have time to gather an army.  He’s in a panic, he’s not thinking straight, he’s exhausted.  This is the perfect time to grab him before he can get up into the hills and hide.  Catch these men before they’ve got time to prepare. 

            One of the interesting things about this advice is that Ahithophel wants to get involved in the battle.  Which seems strange because Ahithophel wasn’t a soldier; he wasn’t a warrior; he wasn’t a commander.  But, all of a sudden, he wants to lead the troops; he wants to chase David down.  And….he wants to be the one who kills David.  I think this lets us know that this is a very personal mission for Ahithophel.  He’s got a grudge against David and he wants to be the one to take him down.

            Now, as I said this, this was a really good plan.  Absalom liked it.  All the elders of Israel liked it.   Everybody thinks it’s a great idea.  But Absalom wants to get a second opinion.  So, he calls in Hushai to hear what he has to say.  Remember, Hushai is David’s undercover agent.

            “Absalom said, ‘Bring in Hushai the Arkite.  Let’s see what he thinks about this.’  When Hushai arrived, Absalom told him what Ahithophel had said. Then he asked, ‘What is your opinion?  Should we follow Ahithophel’s advice?  If not, what do you suggest?’” (2 Samuel 17:5-6)

            “I need a second opinion.  What do you think?” 

            “‘Well,’ Hushai replied to Absalom, ‘this time Ahithophel has made a mistake. You know your father and his men; they are mighty warriors.  Right now, they are as enraged as a mother bear who has been robbed of her cubs.  And remember that your father is an experienced man of war.

He won’t be spending the night among the troops. 

            “He has probably already hidden in some pit or cave.  And when he comes out and attacks and a few of your men fall, there will be panic among your troops, and the word will spread that Absalom’s men are being slaughtered.  Then even the bravest soldiers, though they have the heart of a lion, will be paralyzed with fear.  For all Israel knows what a mighty warrior your father is and how courageous his men are.” (2 Samuel 17:7-10)

            It would seem that there was a great deal of fear on the part of Absalom and his army.  And that’s understandable.  David was a legend; David was a great warrior.  David and his men knew how to fight, and I don’t think either Absalom or his army were excited about the thought of doing battle with David.  So, there seems to be a lot of fear, which may explain why Absalom asked for a second opinion.  

            Hushai uses this opportunity to help David out.  He knows that Ahithophel’s advice was good advice and if Absalom does what he suggested, then it’s likely David will be defeated.  So, his advice is given with the idea of buying David some time — allowing him to regroup, to refresh, to put together his strategy, in order to stand a better chance of winning the battle. 

            First, he says, “This time Ahithophel has made a mistake.”  He says, “Ahithophel is a good advisor.  Normally, he gives really good advice.  But this time, he made a mistake.”

            He said, “You know your father and his men.” Absalom, you know your father.  You know the mighty men he has with him.  Don’t buy into this idea that they’re weary and discouraged.  These are mighty warriors and “right now, they are as enraged as a mother bear who has been robbed of her cubs.”  Your father has been backed into a corner, and he’s angry.  I’d think twice about messing with him right now.  And I can just imagine Absalom going, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

            “And don’t kid yourself about the fact that your father is just going to be sitting around somewhere and can be easily picked off.  Because you know him. You know that your father is an expert in warfare. He’s not gonna spend the night with his people with a big flag up there that says, ‘David’s Army,’ with him sitting there by a campfire, just waiting for somebody to come along and drag him away.

            “No, he’s going to be off in a cave somewhere and if his troops pounce on your troops and win a victory, the people are going to panic and the battle’s going to be lost.  So, you need to slow down and rethink this.”

            Then he says, “‘I recommend that you mobilize the entire army of Israel, bringing them from as far away as Dan in the north and Beersheba in the south.  That way you will have an army as numerous as the sand on the seashore.  And I advise that you personally lead the troops.  When we find David, we’ll fall on him like dew that falls on the ground.  Then neither he nor any of his men will be left alive.’” (2 Samuel 17:11-12)

            Hushai says, “Here’s what you need to do.  Whatever paltry group Ahithophel is planning to put together — twelve thousand men – that’s not enough.  We’re gonna make a real army.   We need to gather the biggest army possible.  We need to bring soldiers in from all over the land — let’s call everybody out.  It will be a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore.

            Of course, Hushai realizes that to do that would take time.  It would give David a considerable amount of time to regroup and to strategize and to get ready for the battle.  Then Hushai says, “And once we put this vast army together, Absalom, you need to lead the charge.”

            I can just imagine Absalom’s ego taking over.  He’s beginning to picture himself out in battle, riding in his chariot, with his hair blowing behind him, leading hundreds of thousands of men into battle.

            You see what Hushai is doing?  “This is your time, Absalom. This will go down in history as one of the great moments, and you are going to lead and win this great battle.”  Hushai was a wise man.  He knew just how proud and arrogant Absalom was, and so he played right into it.

            So, we’re told in verse 15, “Absalom and all the men of Israel said, “Hushai’s advice is better than Ahithophel’s.” (2 Samuel 17:14).

            Technically, Ahithophel’s advice was better.  If Absalom had listened to him, David probably would have been captured and killed.  So why didn’t Absalom listen to Ahithophel?  Why did he listen to Hushai instead?   You could say it was because of his pride, or because Hushai was just more persuasive.  But verse 14 tells us the real reason. 

            “For the Lord had determined to defeat the counsel of Ahithophel, which really was the better plan, so that he could bring disaster on Absalom!” (2 Samuel 17:14)

            This verse tells us that Ahithophel’s advice was good advice.  Not good in the moral sense, but it was good advice in terms of its objective, the objective being to destroy David and his kingdom.  But what we have to keep in mind is that God’s plan was for David’s kingdom to continue.  

            So, what we see here is God is at work behind the scenes, in the scenes, and through the scenes.   In other words, the Lord God is sovereign.  He caused things to work out exactly the way he wanted them to work out.

            We’re going to come back to that in just a few minutes, but first, let me give you a synopsis of how the rest of this story plays out.  Remember that David told Hushai, “When you find out what Absalom is planning to do, send word to me through the priests.”  And that’s what Hushai does.

            He goes to the priests and he says, “This is Ahithophel’s plan; this is my plan.”  At this point, he doesn’t know which one of those two plans Absalom is going to follow, but he told David that he would keep him updated, so he tells the priests what’s going on and then they sent a messenger to their sons outside the city who head out to deliver the message to David.

            But one of Absalom’s men sees them, so they report it to Absalom, and he sends troops to chase after David’s spies.  The spies are trying to get to David safely but the troops are catching up to them, so when they get to the village of Bahurim, they find a family that will help them out.  They hide them in a well, put something over the well, throw grain on it; the soldiers get there — the whole scene feels very much like the story of Rahab who protected the spies in Jericho. 

            The spies are hidden; the soldiers are sent off in the wrong direction.  When they’re gone, the spies come up out of the well and they go to David to tell him that he needs to get on the other side of the Jordan River as quickly as possible, so that the Jordan River can create a barrier between David’s troops and Absalom’s troops.

            Then, the account jumps ahead.  Absalom has gathered his huge army and he crosses the Jordan River to chase after David and his men.

            In verse 27, while David is on the run, he comes to some Ammonites out in the wilderness.  And three of the Ammonite men — Shobi the son of Nahash, Machir, and Barzillai – “brought sleeping mats, cooking pots, serving bowls, wheat and barley, flour and roasted grain, beans, lentils, honey, butter, sheep, goats, and cheese for David and those who were with him. For they said, ‘You must all be very hungry and tired and thirsty after your long march through the wilderness.’” (2 Samuel 17:28-29)

            And that’s where the chapter ends.  This is one of those chapters where you read it and you say, “I really don’t understand what any of this has to do with us today.”  There’s just a bunch of details that seem irrelevant.  It has a bunch of weird names we can’t pronounce.  It’s one of those chapters that makes people say, “This is why I don’t read the Bible.  It just doesn’t make sense!” 

            So, I want to go back and try and unpack this a little bit.  Everything that is written here is written for a reason.  And it’s almost like the writer wants us to go back and review some details from previous events that will help us to understand the application that the writer wants us to see here in this chapter.  And the key verse in all of this is verse 14.

            “For the Lord had determined to defeat the counsel of Ahithophel, which really was the better plan, so that he could bring disaster on Absalom!” (2 Samuel 17:14)

            That’s a significant statement regarding the sovereignty of God.  It makes it clear that when this story is over, David is going to win and Absalom is going to lose.  Because ultimately God is in control.   God chose David to be king, followed by Solomon.  He did not choose Absalom and there is nothing Absalom can do that will change that.

            But that raises all sorts of questions:  Does that mean that everything that happens is part of the sovereign plan of God?  If we say that, does that mean that God wanted David to commit adultery with Bathsheba?  That God wanted David to kill Uriah?  That God wanted Amnon to rape Tamar?  That God wanted Absalom to try to kill David?  What does the sovereignty of God mean?  That God orchestrated all of this? 

            And the answer would be:  No, absolutely not!  God is sovereign, but we have free will.  And sometimes that means we make choices that God doesn’t want us to make.  And those choices do affect my story.  So somehow there’s the sovereignty of God and there’s my free will — and how those two are reconciled is, I think, impossible to really understand.  

            Sometimes people will come to me whose lives are messed up and they say, “Why would God do this to me?”  And they need to be reminded, “God didn’t do this to you.  You did this to you!  You’re the one that made all these choices that has led to all these bad things happening in your life.”  God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean that’s what God wanted.  You made choices that define the pathway of your life, but somehow that fits within the context of the sovereign plan and purpose of God.

            David understood that.  When David was escaping from Jerusalem, the priests came out with the ark of the covenant and, fortunately, David didn’t do what others tried to do.  He didn’t treat the ark like it was a rabbit’s foot or a lucky charm.  He said, “You need to take the ark back,” and then he said, “because I understand if God wants me to win, I will win and I will come back to Jerusalem.  If God wants this to be the end of my story, then I will die.” He said, God is going to make this turn out the way he wants it to turn out.

            David understood, at the end of the day, God will determine the outcome of the story.  But that doesn’t mean that what David did didn’t matter.  He didn’t just go up into a cave and sit down and wait to see what would happen to him.  Even though he believed in the sovereignty of God, he also understood he had choices to make and somehow his choices would affect the outcome of the story. 

            So, let’s go back and look at some of the choices David made.  When David first learned that Ahithophel left his side and joined up with Absalom, do you remember what he did?  He prayed.  Specifically, he prayed, “O Lord, please turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.” (2 Samuel 15:31).  And that’s exactly what happened. It’s very clear that God answered David’s prayer.

            When you put too much emphasis on the sovereignty of God, you end up thinking that God

is going to do whatever he’s going to do and there’s nothing we can say or do that will change that, which is simply wrong.  We’re told not only that David prayed, but we’re told what he prayed for.  And so when Absalom didn’t listen to Ahithophel’s advice, that was an answer to David’s prayer.  David prayed, God listened, and God acted. 

            How do you explain how the prayer of a human being can move the hand of a sovereign God?  I don’t fully understand.  But what’s clear is this – David’s prayer made a difference.  David prayed, and God answered.

            And then, remember what David did when Hushai said, “I want to go with you.”   David said, “I need for you to go back and pretend to be an advisor for Absalom, and then you can function as a spy.  And when you know what he’s going to do, then you can tell the priests; the priests will tell their sons; the sons can come deliver the message to me.” 

            The text we read this morning tells us that that plan was executed flawlessly, down to the smallest detail.  Why would it tell us that if it’s not telling us that those decisions mattered?  You have the sovereign plan of God, but you also have David acting as a responsible leader, laying out a strategy that was perfectly executed, which is a part of what leads to his victory.  Which again reminds us that both parts matter.  There’s God’s part and there’s David’s part.

            And then, the spies were trying to get away from Absalom’s troops and they came to the village of Bahurim, which was where Saul’s family lived.  So, why would Saul’s extended family, at the risk of their own lives, create a place of safety and refuge for David’s spies?   I think the answer is because 20 years earlier, David had shown great respect for Saul and for Jonathan.  When they died, he uttered a wonderful tribute.  David had been overly compassionate to Saul and his family.  Now twenty years later, in his hour of need, those decisions David made back then make a difference because now these people are willing to help the spies. 

            But it’s even more recent than that.  Bahurim is the village where Shimei was from.  Last week, we looked at how Shimei was yelling curses and throwing rocks at David and his men, and Abishai stepped up and said, “Just give me the word and I’ll go up there and cut off his head.”  What if David had said, “You know, I’m tired of this garbage, too; go ahead cut his head off.” 

            If David had done that, what do you suppose would have happened when David’s spies showed up 24 hours later?  Do you think they would have protected those spies if David had just cut off the head of one of their villagers?  Not a chance!  Because David did the right thing, it created a context where it was possible for the spies to be protected so that they could eventually get to David.  You see all these little choices that David made mattered.

            So, now we come to the Ammonites and the three men who gave supplies to David and his men to help them out.  And we’re wondering, why in the world would the Ammonites help King David?  But we’re told that one of those of those three men was the son of King Nahash.  And if we go back to I Samuel 11, we see that David entered into a peace treaty with King Nahash.  They had respect for one another, and they worked it out so that they might live in peace together.  What if David hadn’t been so kind to King Nahash?  Do you suppose his son would have been eager to help David out?

            Another of those three men was Machir.  When you go back in the story, you find that he was the guy that Mephibosheth was living with when David came and got Mephibosheth and poured out so many blessings on him.  And now, many years later, in David’s hour of need, they’re more than happy to return the favor by giving him shelter and refuge and food.

            So, all of these little details and names that we read are not insignificant.  They remind us that the choices and decisions that David made all along the way helped to define his story.  Which brings us now to your story.  Whatever challenge you may be facing in your life, there is this combination of God’s part and your part.

            Ultimately, we have to recognize that God is sovereign.  God does have a plan and a purpose.  It’s not just random chaos in this world.  God is up to something.  And he has a plan for your life.  You may never understand it as long as you are on this earth, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t up to something.  It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have a plan and purpose that he’s carrying out in your life.  You have to trust him with that.  

            But you also need to realize that your decisions matter.  The choices you make, the decisions you make help shape the pathway of your life and so they matter.  David’s story turned out well because of decisions he made along the way where he did the right thing.  Which is your responsibility, too.  Making good decisions each and every day will affect how your story turns out.

            But there is comfort in knowing that it doesn’t all depend on us, and we don’t have fix things all on our own.  Ultimately, God is sovereign.  He is in absolute control, and that gives us great comfort.  Do your part, and then allow God to do his part.  Because your part and God’s part together will make up the rest of your story

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