The Secret Providence of God
September 4, 2016 / No. 3844
Dear radio friends,
Today we consider a beautiful truth of the Holy Scriptures called “Providence,” the secret providence of God. God’s providence is one of the most dear and cherished doctrines of our faith. It is precious, practical to the extreme, our certain comfort, refuge, and citadel in every distress. The truth of providence is that God controls all things by His own hand for the good of His children.
The Bible is absolutely full of this. And the Bible uses a particular figure of speech to teach us the truth of providence: the hand of God. We read in Psalm 31:15, “My times are in thy hand.” We read in Job 19:21, “Have pity upon me,…O ye my friends; for the hand of God hath touched me.” We read in John 10:29, “No man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” Providence not only assures me that God has the whole world in His hands (the spring pollen, the colors, the local economy, the international economy, nations, oil spills, storms, wind, disease, death, war) but assures me also that I am in His hands and nothing can sever me from those hands. As the hymn has it: “He’s got you and me, brother, in His hands.”
Providence is the hand of God holding us, as His dear children, directing all things for our eternal good and for His glory.
God’s hand is often veiled in secrecy. The most astounding truth of our life is found in Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good to them that love God.” But we do not always see that with the earthly eye or feel that in our own hearts. Sudden death, birth defects, daily pain, and even awful sins—all are controlled by a just and holy God to accomplish His own purpose, His glory, and our good. The burden that you bear today, the sorrow that is yours, all things come, not by chance, but by the hand of God. And while we confess that God’s hand moves often in ways that we cannot now fully grasp, we know that His heart (which directs His hands) is always a heart consumed for His glory and for our eternal good. We know that because of the cross of Jesus Christ. Romans 8:32: “If God spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all; how shall he not with him also freely give us all things.”
We look today into the secret providence of God.
Providence reveals the stupendous majesty of God. Providence is not simply God’s observing eye. We read in Proverbs 5:21, “For the ways of men are before the eyes of the Lord.” Providence is not simply His observing eye, but it is God’s operating and controlling hand. When we see God through the truth of providence, we do not simply see that He sits upon His throne watching over all, but we see that His hand is the hand of power to uphold and to govern all things that exist in time. Acts 17:25 reads: “…seeing he giveth to all life, and breath….” And again, in verse 28, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being.”
First, providence encompasses all things in the creation, by which is meant not that God has made a natural order for all things, what men call “Mother Nature.” We do not mean that God has created machinery that runs on its own. But when we say that providence encompasses all the creation we mean, and the Bible teaches, that the omnipotent power of God brings all things to pass. That God cares and that God upholds and that God preserves His creation. That God directs the creation from hour to hour, from moment to moment.
We believe “the almighty and the everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; [so that nothing happens] by chance, but by His Fatherly hand.” (I’m quoting there from a good, old Reformed creed called the Heidelberg Catechism, in Lord’s Day 10 of that Catechism.) We read in the Scriptures (Jer. 23:23, 24), “Am I a God at hand…and not afar off?…. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord.” Psalm 139 teaches us clearly that God knows all about us—our thinking, our thoughts, our position. He is the God of providence. All things are in His hands in the creation—from the far-flung galaxies and comets and asteroids and meteors, to the shifting of plates in the earth and volcanoes, to tsunami and tornado and typhoon, to climate and weather and wind and temperature, to the sprouting of each seed.
God’s providence reaches to your dinner table today, to what you eat, to your body. God’s providence reaches to your pancreas and spleen, to your heart, tachycardia and defibrillation. God’s providence reaches to the moment that your heart will stop and, for a child of God, the light will shine. God’s providence reaches into your mother’s womb. For Psalm 139 teaches us that all our members were fashioned according to God’s book. God’s providence is His omnipotent, all-powerful, everywhere present operation in all of the creation.
Listen to the authority of God’s Word. Matthew 10:29, Jesus’ words: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” Psalm 34:20: “He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken.” The apostle John quotes this prophecy of Jesus in John 19:36, when the soldiers thrust a spear into the side of Jesus. It had been foretold that Jesus, while He was on earth as a man, would never have a bone broken—not at delivery, not as a little boy roughhousing, not in the cruel abuse of His trial and crucifixion. Jesus bones were never severed. For “He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken.”
But looking further, providence is, secondly, concerned with man, since man is the noblest work of God. God’s providence is not just God’s upholding and directing the world around us, the nations and the animals. God’s providence concerns you and me, and every human being. God’s providence directs, especially, human events, human history, the life of men and women.
The apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 9:9, explains a passage in the Old Testament. He quotes there, “Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth the corn,” as a proof that those who are busy in the ministry should be supported by the church. The apostle says of that verse, “Doth God take care of oxen, that is, is God just concerned about oxen, or does He say this for our sakes?” The apostle implies that God’s providential care is not concerned just with the creation and with the animals and with the trees and flowers, but it is more especially concerned with the care of man, who is given by God reason and is called to walk with God. Man is not independent from God. Man is not the captain of his fate. Man does not hold the steering wheel in his own hands. But the life of man is in God’s hand.
Daniel said to Belshazzar the king (Dan. 5:23), the man who had committed adultery and drunkenness and idolatry, Daniel said to this earthly monarch, “And the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, thou hast not glorified.” You are in the hand of God. Your breath is in God’s hand.
God holds every man and woman in His hand. None escape. None evade God’s hands. And in marvelous judgment God brings low the proud. He brings to naught the counsels of the foolish. He makes a laughingstock of the wisdom of this world. And He establishes His rule by grace in Jesus Christ. Our lives are controlled by the providence of God.
Psalm 139, to which I referred a moment ago, verses 2-5: “Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and…art acquainted with all my ways…. Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.” The psalmist says that as you would grab the shoulder of your little boy to guide him, as you would take in your hand the little hand of your daughter, so God leads us. As the hymn has it: “He leadeth me: O blessed thought! O words with heavenly comfort fraught! What-e’re I do, where’er I be, still ‘tis God’s hand that leadeth me.” God controls our lives medically—health and sickness and disease. God controls our lives economically—whether we have riches or poverty. God controls the gift of talents, ability. God sends trials and sorrows. God’s providence controls the lives of men and women.
But now we go yet a step further. God’s providence, as we said, controls the creation. God’s providence controls, secondly, the life of men. But now we come to the loftier view of providence. God’s providence is directed for the good of His church in Christ Jesus. For though God dazzles us with the stupendous majesty of His hand as He controls all things, and though God declares that He is the God of all flesh, holding the life of each man and woman in His hand, yet the great majesty and the glory of providence is seen in that all things are directed with a view to the good of His church in Christ Jesus. In a word, the church of Christ is the object of God’s care and guidance. For the church, providence works. God keeps special watch over, God holds in the palm of His hand, says the Bible, His people and His church. God’s great providence is operating with special power and watch over His own, over the church, where He gathers together His children. We read in Psalm 34:15, “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous.” Psalm 97:10: “He preserveth the souls of his saints.” I Peter 5:7: “He careth for you.” I Corinthians 3:21: “All things are yours.”
To be a child of God, to be a member of the church of Jesus Christ, means that the living God, who holds and governs all creatures and all men and all things, is my Father, directing all things for my good and salvation. So that I may sing: “Under His wings I am safely abiding.” Or, in the words of Psalm 23: “The Lord my shepherd holds me within His tender care; and with His flock He folds me; no want shall find me there.” God’s providence is His hand over all creatures, over all men. And God’s hand of providence is over the church for their eternal glory and good.
Believing these things, we confess as children of God that there is one great enemy that we resist. It is called “Chance.” Things do not come by chance. It is either that God determines all things or things come by chance. Either God governs or there is luck and there is fortune and blind chance.
In countries where God is not known, people talk of chance. They talk of superstition, voodoo, and they walk apart from Christ. And in our country and society, people have come to worship chance: Lotto, scratch cards, gambling, Las Vegas, and the slot machine. It is a society that hates God.
But what about us, as professing Christians? Do you believe in God the Father almighty, the God of providence? Or do you say, “I’m on a roll. Lady Luck is shining on me. I can’t lose.” Do you experience a rush and a thrill? Do you gamble, or do you believe in God? It is one or the other. So, as children of God, we resist the false and heinous notion of chance. We live in the comfort of God’s providence.
God’s providence not only has a great enemy, but God’s providence also has a great warning to us. That warning comes against our sinful pride and arrogance. Do things go well with us today? Do we lift up our heads with pride? Do we receive a compliment and do we think of how great we are? Does God give us mental ability? Do we then believe ourselves to be better and to have a higher rank? Does God give us skill? Do we then bask in our own glory? Who made you to differ? By whose hand comes your success, your abilities, and your intelligence? Do you believe the providence of God? Then you shall hate pride and arrogance and be humble.
And then there is a great blessing. As there is a great enemy—chance; a great warning—against pride; so also is there a great blessing. And that blessing is fortitude of soul. With God’s providence we have patience and thankfulness and trust. The life of those to whom providence is just a word, and who do not know it, is characterized by impatience, ingratitude, and unbelief. But to believe in providence means that you will be patient in adversity. You will be thankful in prosperity. You will have fortitude, comfort.
And yet, God’s providence is veiled in secrecy. Psalm 77: “Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known.” So it appears so often to the saints that have gone before us, to Joseph and to Jacob (when Joseph was sold by his brothers as a slave to Egypt; and to Jacob when he received word that his son Simeon was kept in a prison in Egypt). Neither one of them could see, at that point, that God was working all things for good. So it was for all the saints in the Old Testament—Moses, David, Job. And so it is for us. When our way leads through deep sorrow and anxiety and pain, we ask, “Why does God do this? God controls all things for my good? Then why these sudden, horrible, and heartrending events?” When the Lord fills our cup with sorrow, we ask: Why birth defects? Why the loss of a job? Why the waywardness of a son or daughter? Why a pay increase to your neighbor who buys a boat, and a cutback to you in your pay and you have five children in the Christian school? Why a wheelchair? Why horrible sexual abuse? Does God care? Is there knowledge in the Most High?
The secret providence of God means that all the workings of God, now, in this life, are not fathomable to us. It means that God directs His providence by His wisdom and not ours. “For My ways are not your ways,” saith the Lord of hosts. God’s providence is, first of all, secret in that you can understand it only by faith. “I believe in God the Father.” Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Faith is a certain knowledge and a sure confidence. Without this key of faith, providence is locked, so that you will be bewildered and you will not be able to understand or answer any of those questions. But through faith, the wonderful gift of God, we believe God. It is by faith that we know that all things are directed by God for our eternal good.
But there is still more. The secret of providence is understood by faith when you learn the rhyme and the reason behind the providence. What great good is God’s providence aimed at? What is it that God is seeking in all of His decrees and works? The Bible tells us that it is the revelation of His own glory in Christ Jesus. Listen to Ephesians 1:10: “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times [God] might gather together in one all things in Christ.…” “That we might be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). The eternal goal, the glorious goal of God’s providence, is that the fullness of His grace in Christ Jesus might be known and might be seen in us. God’s goal is not an earthly goal. It is not something in time. But it is heavenly, it is lofty, it is rich, it is satisfying.
And still more. If you want to know the mystery of providence and why the Lord leads you the way He does, then you must look to the cross. You must never judge God’s way on the basis of any event in your life, any disappointment or sorrow. But you must always look to the cross.
By His providence, God brought the cross into history. The determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God gave His Son for our sins in order that He might reconcile us to Himself. And from the foot of the cross, if God has so loved us, will He not in that love also work all things for our salvation in Christ?
And, finally, the secret of God’s providence is that it is arranged around one goal—and that is God. God directs our lives always to show us more of Him, to bring us to Him, to place our hope alone in Him, to tear away all false hopes, all false trust, all false goals, and to trust in God and in God alone.
Believing in the providence of God, we are preserved from the pitfalls of bitterness and resentment, where Satan seeks to have us fall. And we are set upon a rock. Psalm 40: “Out of the miry clay, and upon a firm rock”—God’s providence.
Providence is about you. The truth of providence is the truth, looking through the cross of Jesus Christ, that God upholds all things for me and for my good. He does indeed have you and me, brother, you and me, sister, in His hands. And nothing can sever us from His hands. So trust Him, believe Him, bow down before Him. And say, Surely grace and loving kindness shall forever follow me; till my days of life all ended, evermore my home shall be, O Jehovah, in Thy holy house with Thee.
Let us pray.
Father, sanctify the Word of God to our hearts in this day and grant unto us the peace and the certainty that we are in Thy hand for good. In Jesus’ name, Amen.