Maybe you have had an experience like this: While walking or driving somewhere, you suddenly realize that the beauty of the scenery around you is littered with complex moral issues. If you visit Mount Vernon or Monticello, you are struck by the beauty of both presidential homes. Yet, in learning the history, you are also confronted with the fact that both plantations depended on slave labor. Likewise, if you celebrate the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s, you must consider that many of the programs implemented to help blacks during that era have done more harm than good.
Something similar occurs in Psalm 105, only the findings there are not based upon fallible interpretations of history. In Psalm 105, we have the inspired and inerrant Word of God. And strikingly in these 45 verses, we find multiple, morally-complex statements. Some of these issues concern oppression (v. 14), others talk of slavery (v. 17), but in every case, God is praised for his sovereign actions in history.
Indeed, for all the beautiful comfort that Psalm 105 brings, for it is a Psalm that speaks of God’s faithfulness in leading his people from Abraham to Moses, it also introduces many complexities in God’s sovereignty over the nations. Yet, instead of impugning God with error or wrong-doing, a rightful understanding of Psalm 105 actually helps us to know who God is, how he works in the world, and how we can better understand our own morally-complicated history. To that end, let’s look at Psalm 105 and its discomforting truths which in time lead to a greater confidence in God.
1. God can and does stop oppression.
While the history of our fallen world knows no period when or where oppression has been absent, it is clear from Scripture that when God intends to prevent oppression and overturn slavery, he can. In Psalm 105, the Psalmist reflects on God’s care for Abraham, when the patriarch and his children had no land to call their own (vv. 12–15). As they sojourned among warring nations (see Genesis 14), Psalm 105:14 says that God “allowed no one to oppress them; he rebuked kings on their account, saying, ‘Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!'”
This verse highlights the way God protected his people. Similarly, in Genesis 20:6–7, we find this occurring through God warning Abimelech in a dream not to touch Abraham’s wife. And in Genesis 26:11, Abimelech takes the initiative to warn his men not to touch Isaac and his wife. Interpreting these events, Psalm 105 reveals the role God plays in protecting his people. And thus, in general it reminds us of God’s sovereignty; in particular, it recalls the way God can intervene to halt oppression as he designs.
This is a wonderful promise. But it is one that may also stir up doubts. If God can stop oppression and does stop oppression, then why are there so many instances of oppression? Answering that question takes us to the problem of evil—a vast and intricate discussion that exceeds our scope here. For now, we must simply recognize that Psalm 105 teaches that God is sovereign over all oppression. In many instance, he can and does halt oppression, but other instances he does not.
Answering for this uncomfortable truth that God ordains all oppression for reasons that he alone knows, we will continue to see what Psalm 105 says. And we will discover that the moral tension increases before it resolves.
2. God permits slavery and even puts people in slavery.
Though God can prevent oppression, we also discover that sometimes he does not. In fact, as discomforting as it may first appear, God can and does enslave people. In Joel 3:1–8, this slavery is an act of judgment on those who enslaved Judah. But in Psalm 105, the enslavement of Joseph is not for any particular wrongdoing that he did. Rather, as Genesis 45:5, 7 and 50:20 make clear, what Joseph’s brothers intended for evil, God intended for good.
In other words, in the same act (Joseph’s enslavement) we find two agents with two different and competing moral desires. In selling Joseph into slavery, his brothers sought to rid themselves of this irritating brother and make a few “dollars” in the process. The Bible is unequivocal in its assessment that such man-stealing and slave-trading is wicked (cf. Exod. 21:16). Still, God is blameless, even good and wise, when he ordains men to be enslaved. As Psalm 105:16–17 puts it, “When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.”
Notice here how God made provision for his people (the sons of Abraham) prior to sending a famine. In a fallen world, God sending a famine is not immoral; it is the just fulfillment of his curse upon creation (Gen. 3:14–19). As Job 37:13 indicates, all of God’s actions in creation, including natural disasters, are correction, love, or for the sake of the land. Sometimes we can see why God does what he does in nature; sometimes we cannot. But with the inspired interpretation of his actions in Psalm 105, we learn that God sent Joseph to Egypt to prepare for the coming famine.
Still, it was through the free actions of evil men that God sent Joseph to Egypt. As with the Assyrians destroying Israel (Isaiah 10), the Babylonians exiling Jerusalem (see Habakkuk), and the Jewish-Roman coalition who crucified Christ (Acts 2:23–24), these evil men did just as God ordained them to do. And in the case of Joseph, his slavery was ordained by God. By extension, when we consider that God orders the steps of all individuals (see Prov. 16:1, 4, 9), not just a chosen few, we have biblical support for believing that every person sold into slavery is under the sovereign care of God.
Again, for some slavery is a just punishment for their sins (see Joel 3:1–8), for others, it is an undeserved affliction. Yet, in all cases, Scripture maintains that God is sovereign over slavery. On one hand, this truth is deeply disturbing: Knowing the human atrocities associated with slavery, an institution that has plagued nearly all civilization (see Thomas Sowell’s “The Real History of Slavery“), how could God ordain one or many people to be slaves? On the other hand, this truth is deeply comforting: To those like Joseph who were held in slavery, God was with them (cf. Gen. 39:2, 23) and working for them, whether they knew it or not.
Such a truth does not deny the horrors of slavery, Psalm 105:18 acknowledges the suffering: “[Joseph’s] feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron.” God knew what would happen to Joseph in Egypt, and that is why verse 19 says, “until what he had said came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him.” God had a plan for Joseph, but Joseph did not know that plan until after he was released, raised to power, and used by God to preserve his family—and through his family, the seed of the woman who would save the world. Until then, his faith in God’s promises to Abraham and his offspring was tested.
Indeed, this is the shocking truth: God does all things on the earth for his purposes, and this includes human slavery. As Thomas Sowell has observed, there is nothing peculiar about the presence of slavery in the United States. What is peculiar is that this worldwide practice that goes back before Joseph came to be viewed as a moral evil in Britain and America, instead of just an inescapable fact of life.
Clearly, in God’s judgment on the world, he has ordained slavery to be a common practice among sinful people and nations. Today, slavery continues unabated in the sex trafficking of girls and boys. As Carl Trueman recently noted, this modern-day slavery is one that touches every zip code in America.
Accordingly, the ongoing nature of slavery should grieve us and impel us to action. But such action must be grounded upon biblical truth. And the truth of Psalm 105 is that no man or woman is enslaved outside of God’s control.
Let me be clear: Such a divine decree does not justify the enslavement of someone, nor permit our apathy towards its horror. At the same time, such a decree does not mean God delights in the unjust oppression of the enslaved, or that we should not work to abolish all forms of slavery. Rather, with Joseph as our model, Psalm 105 teaches us that God can send this man to Egypt by means of slavery without being the immoral agent of slavery. This is how the Bible speaks of God and his holy judgments in a fallen world. This truth may taste sour in our mouths, but as we abide in the light of God’s Word, his absolute sovereignty becomes a healing balm for anyone who has suffered from injustice, even slavery.
God’s sovereignty in history is critical for thinking rightly about a world filled with wrongs. And his sovereignty is critical especially for thinking about the moral complexities associated with our country and the after effects of slavery.
3. God turns people (nations) against one another.
If God’s relationship to individuals is complex, his relationship between nations is more so. And here again, we need to state clearly, God does not simply observe what nations and groups of people do, he actually turns nations towards and against one another.
In the gospel, we find God has torn down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14–16). Through the peace-making blood of Christ, he has made one new man. Yet, for as much as God unifies humanity in Christ, he also sets nations against one another. We could deduce this from the fact that God is sovereign over nations (Ps. 33:11) and that he turns the hearts of kings like water in his hands (Prov. 21:1). But in Psalm 105, we have God’s direct testimony.
In verse 23, we find that God sent Abraham’s offspring to dwell in Egypt for 400 years. During that time, “the Lord made his people very fruitful and made them stronger than their foes” (v. 24). Fulfilling his promise to Abraham, God grew the nation of Israel immensely. As a result, the Egyptians feared Israel and began to hate them. Yet, Psalm 105 does more than assign hatred to Egyptians through some impersonal means. Rather, in keeping with the psalmists Godward perspective, verse 25 states, “He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants.”
Again, we find two agents in this singular event. Egypt and its proud ruler Pharaoh began to hate Israel. But such hatred as a result of watching Yahweh bless Israel. In the act of blessing his people, God turned the hearts of Egypt to envy and hate his people. Importantly, God did not hate, nor directly produce hatred in the Egyptians. Rather, his good actions unto Israel evoked the wickedness of Egypt to come forward. This again shows how God works in the world: He permits evil men to do evil and prompts wicked nations to be wicked.
And why does God work in this way? The answer is found in the next two points.
4. God permits oppressors to oppress in order to demonstrate his just judgment on sinners.
As soon as we acknowledge what Scripture says about God’s absolute sovereignty, we are pressed to know why. Certainly, some matters of history—personal and (inter)national—are a mystery. But others can be discerned, especially when they are explicated in Scripture. To that end, we discover in Psalm 105:26–36 that one chief reason God permits oppressors to rise to such lofty heights is so that he can publicly and definitively knock them down. We might call this the Pharaoh principle.
In Exodus, the antagonist Pharaoh is raised up by God so that the sovereign Lord of creation might display his power. As Yahweh says to Pharaoh, “For this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (9:16). Paul says the same thing in Romans 9:16, as he explains that God in his providence “has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (9:22).
Critically, Paul does not say that these vessels of wrath are prepared beforehand for destruction, like the vessels of mercy are “prepared beforehand for glory” (v. 23). Only God’s elect are chosen for salvation from before the foundation of the world (cf. Eph. 1:4–6). By contrast, vessels of wrath are prepared for destruction in time. As they continue in sin and rebel against God and his world, they are storing up wrath upon their heads (Rom. 2:5).
In this way, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by letting Pharaoh be who he was going to be. Without the grace of election, Pharaoh continued to walk in pride, opposing the God of Israel and oppressing the people of God. For this reason, God sent ten plagues of judgment on Pharaoh and the nation he ruled. In Psalm 105:26–36, we find eight of the plagues listed. Each of these plagues gave Pharaoh a chance to repent, but in fact, he never did. Thus, his increasing hardness towards God made it all the more just to destroy him in the Red Sea.
God would have been just to execute Pharaoh without any of the plagues. God knows what is in the heart of every man (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7); he even knows how people will act in any circumstance (see Matt. 11:21). This is why in Exodus 7:3–4, before any of the plagues came, God says: “Though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you.” So God did not need to go through with the ten plagues for himself. Rather, every step he took with Pharaoh was to display publicly Pharaoh’s wickedness, so that when his judgment came, all would agree: God did what was just!
As hard as it is to believe, there are people who are slow to call evil “evil.” There are even some of God’s people who may be slow to celebrate the destruction of the wicked. Only when the wicked are proven to be undeniably deserving of judgment, does the death of the wicked produce shouts of joy, as Proverbs 11:10 declares.
In the case of Pharaoh’s death, the people sang for joy as the Egyptian soldiers’ dead bodies sunk in the waves (Exodus 15). Only after Pharaoh’s wickedness was proven without any shadow of a doubt, could the Israelites rejoice with such fervor. Ironically, even after this, grumbling Israelites would long to return to Pharaoh and the table settings of Egypt.
This blindness in God’s own people to seeing good and evil like God does plays a large part in explaining why God permits wickedness to rise to such heinous heights. In Psalm 105 we see that for his own purposes and for the purposes of demonstrating his justice before others, God permits the tares to grow up nice and tall before cutting them down. This is a principle—the Pharaoh principle—that shows up throughout world history. And it is one Jesus also employs as he explains why the wheat and tares must grow up together (see Matthew 13:24–30).
To be certain, this truth explains a great deal of why God’s good world is so littered with evil. It is not because God is evil. It is not because God is blind. It is so that when God’s people reach the shores of heaven, they will rejoice with endless praise that the wicked are no more. As Revelation 19:1–3 reads,
1After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, 2for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” 3Once more they cried out, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.”
5. God afflicts his people so that they will call upon him.
In all that God does, he is working for the good of his people (Rom. 8:28). As we just saw, even when he permits the wicked to flourish, it is for the good of his redeemed. Sometimes, those vessels of wrath who are currently prospering serve as living reminders that earthly prosperity is never as satisfying as we might think. When we enter the presence of God, we discover that the unbelieving rich are desperately hopeless (see Psalm 73). Likewise, when the wicked prosper as a result of oppressing God’s people, Scripture again teaches us that God is sovereignly using such afflictions to save and sanctify his saints.
For instance, in Exodus Pharaoh’s satanic oppression of the Hebrews led them to cry out to God. Exodus 2:23–25 captures Israel’s plight:
23During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. 24And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.
If we believe, as Asaph did, that the nearness of God is my good (Ps. 73:25)—my earthly and everlasting good—then we should understand that the affliction of Israel was for their good. So too, we should be thankful for any sovereignly-chosen circumstance, even suffering, oppression, and injustice, that leads us (back) to God. Certainly, we do not need to call evil ‘good’ or accept oppression as unchangeable. Paul himself told slaves to avail themselves of freedom if they could (1 Cor. 7:21–24). But we do need to see how God ordains suffering in the lives of his people, in order to lead them to himself.
In Egypt, the Hebrew slaves suffered at the hands of their masters. They also indulged in worshiping idols (see Ezekiel 20). Yet, in covenant faithfulness to the promises he made to Abraham, Yahweh both liberated the slaves and crushed their idols with one plague after another. By assigning Israel to endure 400 years of bondage—something told to Abraham in Genesis 15—God made a plan for liberating Israel not only from Egypt, but from their sins.
Later in the Psalms, we find the rationale for the way God uses suffering to bring his people to himself. Psalm 119:67 and 71 read respectively, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word” and “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” The point of these two verses is that God uses suffering in his people’s lives in order to draw them closer to himself. In Psalm 119, the psalmist speaks as an individual, but we can see how God works for groups too.
Importantly, when this occurs, his people see not only the pain of the suffering but its sovereign purpose. As Paul says later, our sufferings are light and momentary compared to God’s eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:17). The key word is compared. In itself, slavery of any kind is one of the most heinous forms of suffering known to man. But compared to God’s eternal weight of glory, it is light and momentary.
I can imagine, in our age of “lived experience,” that to some such a view of slavery and suffering might sound hollow and callous coming from a white male. Some might go further saying, Who are you to speak this way, having never experienced slavery personally nor ancestrally? To such arguments, I would simply point them back to Psalm 105 and the rest of Scripture. How does God’s Word speak of slavery, oppression, and suffering under God’s sovereignty?
For all who see Scripture as inerrant and authoritative, we must consider first what it says. God’s Word takes priority over tradition, culture, and experience, and thus we must deny ourselves, and put God’s Word about our personal histories. As counter-cultural or counter-intuitive as it may sound, lived experience never gives authority over Scripture nor does it supply gnostic wisdom that goes beyond the revelation of God. What does the Scripture say? This is the question with which we must always lead.
If we are going to find solace in God’s Word, we must be willing to submit ourselves to all of Scripture, including the discomforting words. Because God alone has the “experience” (i.e., the heavenly wisdom) to speak to all nations and all peoples and all circumstances, we must listen to him and learn to trust him—even if that goes against our feelings and cultural norms. If we are to walk in his truth, we must continue to humble ourselves before all the words of his life-giving Word.
God has redemptive purposes for human evil and suffering, and we either will bow the knee to biblical revelation and admit that God sends his saints into slavery and hurts their bodies with fetters as Psalm 105:17–18 says, or we will have to deny this type of teaching and read Scripture selectively. The former approach is discomforting, but it leads to healing and comfort as it brings the child of God to rest in God’s absolute sovereignty. By contrast, the latter approach may escape such uncomfortable truths—for a time—but ultimately, like avoiding a needed surgery, it avoids the healing that is found alone in the sovereign grace of God.
Ultimately, Christ alone was undeserving of slavery, oppression, and death; yet, in his cross, he died under the unjust actions of men and the sovereign will of God. This is the mystery of God’s sovereignty revealed in Christ. What evil men did to Jesus, God had predestined before the world began. As discomforting as God’s sovereignty is; God’s absolute sovereignty as revealed in Scripture is the only place where eternal comfort can be found.
The Bible is clear: God afflicts his saints with suffering, oppression, and yes, even slavery. But he does so in order to lead his sheep to their shepherd and to help us find eternal comfort for our souls in times of earthly affliction. This is what Psalm 105 teaches and it matches the rest of Scripture.
A Final Word to Embrace God’s (dis)Comforting Sovereignty
All in all, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is one of the most repulsive and discomforting truths you will ever find, as you walk out of step with the Spirit. But when you come to a place where you bow the knee and submit to God as Creator of the universe, Author of history, and Lord of salvation, you begin to see how wonderful God’s sovereignty is.
In truth, there remain many mysteries in God’s world. Why do the nations rage the way they do? Why do certain people suffer like they do? Why? Why? Why?
Scripture does not answer all of these questions. But they do have an answer and all those answers belong to God. Knowing God doesn’t mean he will reveal all of his answers. The secret things of God still belong only to God (Deut. 29:29). But in coming to God and trusting in him for salvation and for his sovereignty, we are brought in proximity to the God who is working all things for the good of his people.
This is the bedrock of gospel truth. And in the Bible we find light and wisdom to address the pain of our fallen world. Often, that truth, like a surgeon’s knife, is also discomforting. But only for a time. As the Great Physician, God knows how to heal our wounds and bind up our brokenness. Such healing, however, comes only as we grapple with the absolute sovereignty of God.
Psalm 105 is a wonderful place to see how the goodness of God engages a morally-complex and messy world. Thankfully, God’s goodness is not complex. He is not partly good and partly evil, mostly light with a little darkness mixed in. No. God is pure light and by his light, and his light alone, do we walk in the light, where we find fellowship in the blood of Christ (1 John 1:5, 7).
That is our gospel hope and a truth we must be willing to proclaim, no matter how discomforting it is. In these days where uncomfortable truths are being cancelled left and right, may he give us wisdom to rightly know him and how he works in the world.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds