Experts about Providence


Elder Mark Green

The old puritan, John Flavel, once wrote a book called "The Mystery of Providence." I have not read it and so know nothing of its content, but the title certainly says a lot. The providential government of God over His creation is something that man cannot fathom. I make that statement considering it to be an undeniable fact. God has given us snapshots in inspired Scripture so that we may see how He has worked on occasion in the past, but what an infinitesimally-small portion of his providential acts would those comprise?

Solomon said, as he mused upon the affairs of men in this confusing and often-discouraging life, "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all" (Ecc. 9.11). Things happen in this life, things that are beyond our control, so that the outcome of events is not what we might have expected. When Solomon uses the word "chance," I absolutely do not understand him to be saying that those things are beyond the view of God's all-seeing eye or the reach of His all-powerful hand. God is not taken by surprise by any event, and He has power to intrude into any of the affairs of men, should He so desire, to change what might otherwise have been. By "chance," I understand Solomon simply to mean those things that occur unexpectedly that change outcomes from what might have been predicted to something else.

Some things happen in the ordinary course of events — that which occurs if God does not intervene in the affairs of men. Some things happen only because God has intervened. Sometimes He intervenes; sometimes He does not. The Scriptures are replete with examples of both. Now, if nothing ever happens that is different from what otherwise would have been, then there is no such distinction as "things that happen in the ordinary course of events" and "interventions by God;" but I trust that our readers understand that this is a valid Scriptural distinction.

God acts providentially in both miraculous and non-miraculous ways. When the ax head flew off the handle of one of the sons of the prophets in Elisha's day, it fell to the bottom of the stream. This is what would have happened in the ordinary course of events, according to the previously established law of gravity. When Elijah caused it to float, that was a miraculous intervention into the ordinary course of events that caused something extraordinary to happen. Let us take another example: had Joseph's brothers killed him as they had intended, that is what would have happened had not God intervened. Through God's providence, however, Joseph's life was spared, and he was carried to Egypt, where he became the deliverer of the land through his administrative ability and wisdom; but nothing contrary to nature occurred in that sequence of events. This is an example of a non-miraculous intervention by God into the affairs of men. In both examples the outcome was changed from what it would have been; both are examples of God's providence; but in one the laws of nature were suspended, and in the other they were not.

When a miracle happens, it is obvious that God has intervened in the affairs of men. However, when God intervenes non-miraculously, we may or may not know it. In Biblical times, God sometimes told men that He had acted, but today we are left without such a divine explanation. A man is a fool who sees all the recklessness and negligence that occurs upon the highways of this country and does not believe that God intervenes to protect his people. How many times each and every day are we protected by an unseen Hand from our own and other men's folly, not to mention from the might of Nature? You may not believe that God has turned storms to protect his people, but I certainly do. I did not get a letter from heaven telling me that He did it, but I believe it nonetheless, knowing some little bit of the mercy and power of God in my own life.

It is amazing how easy it is for people to become "experts" about God's providence. They are able to tell us just how God has worked — or has not worked — in the affairs of men. Some seem to think that God cannot overrule evil so as to bring good from it without their knowledge of it. He did it frequently in the Old Testament, but suddenly He does not seem to be doing it today. They seem to have comprehended the workings of divine providence so well that they are able to say with remarkable confidence that "God did not do that" when some cataclysmic event happens. Nahum said that "the Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm," but evidently things have changed since those days, for according to them, He never uses the forces of nature as judgment upon men today. Moreover, according to them, God seldom if ever overrules the acts of wicked men to accomplish his purpose today. He never overrules evil for good. He did it in the Old Testament: "0 Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil" (Is. 10.5-6). Evidently, however, He never does that today, to hear some tell it.

Other experts, speaking from a different perspective, imply that there is nothing that happens "in the ordinary course of events." God is always performing some special purpose in every event that happens in this world — good, bad and indifferent. I guess God has sent them an epistle from heaven, for they seem to be as certain of that fact as the experts of the other school are in their calculations. With them, God wasted his time in making the laws of nature, for He was as especially and directly involved in the sinking of the borrowed ax head as He was in its rising at Elisha's command. These folks busily engage themselves in trying to ascertain why God does everything that He does (and with them everything that happens is something that God himself does directly).

God very seldom tells us why things happen, or why He does not .prevent things from happening; and we are presumptuous to think that we know it without his having informed us. When there is a storm, or a war, or a terrible calamity, we do not know if that is something that would have happened in the ordinary affairs of men, or if it is a direct and special judgment of God. He does not tell us, and thus we do not know. It might be a special judgment of God, but it also might not be. The thorns and thistles (suffering) of this sin-cursed earth were the judgment of God in a general sense because of Adam's sin, and thus sad and hurtful things — wars and tornadoes and earthquakes and thorns - happen every day in the ordinary course of events without any special intervention by God. God is not obligated to deliver us from any of them, but I am convinced that He does deliver us from many of them.

It is impossible for us to say with absolute certainty that something was or was not a particular temporal judgment of God. If when those things happen to us personally our consciences smite us, then we should take heed. Apart from that, we simply do not know, and the reason we do not know is that we do not need to know. If we needed to know, God would tell us. Since we do realize that it is because of sin that we make our living by the sweat of our faces and are surrounded by thorns and thistles and wars, that alone ought to make us humble and repentant in the face of the calamities and disasters of this world.

When we presume to answer questions that we cannot answer, all we accomplish is to confuse God's people. We know that God can and does intervene in the affairs of men to impose his judgment, and we also know that the curse in Adam's day was alone sufficient to bring about great calamities upon this earth. We know what happens to us, but we do not always know the particulars as to why — one way OR the other. Let us be content to know the things God has revealed, and leave the rest with his infallible wisdom.

Editorial from “The Primitive Baptist, Christian Pathway, and Gospel Appeal, August – September 2019”

James 4:14 14. Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow, for what is your life? It is even a vapour, what appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.  Editor: Time belongs to God, to rule as He will according to His own purpose. We can only observe it as it passes, and thank Him for the sweet moments His providence and grace allows us.