Ques. 27. What dost thou mean by the providence of God?
Ans. The almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures, so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.
Lord’s Day 10. Heidelberg Catechism.
Our book of instruction takes us on a short detour. Often when you travel you are suddenly impressed by the scenery that looms up in front of you, and the urge prevails to leave the highway and enjoy a broader view of the country. This little excursion usually proves to be well worth its while. This is certainly the case in this Lord’s Day. The previous question discussed the confession, “I believe in God, the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” In this confession there is no reference made to the providence of God, but it speaks only of creation. Yet already in the previous answer reference was made to God’s providence—unavoidably so. Now our fathers take us on this excursion to explore more in detail this ever comforting, reassuring, blessed truth of the holy Scriptures. We gladly follow them.
Once more our Catechism reminds us that this is a very personal, experiential matter for us. “What dostthou mean by the providence of God?” Moreover, the child of God is addressed. Our Father is sovereign God over all creatures. Our Father lives in intimate relationship of fellowship with us through our adoption in Jesus Christ. This places us squarely before the importance of Father’s perpetual work as it touches every phase of our lives. What does this mean to you?
Generally we speak of the providence of our Father-King from the threefold aspect of God’s preservation, co-operation (always remembering that this word does not accurately express the idea), and God’s government. To maintain the more personal approach of the catechism, we will speak of the three elements, providing, preserving, directing.
The figure is used here of God’s hand. We are in the palm of that hand as it upholds us, constantly giving us our life and being. That hand reaches out to provide for our every need. The finger of that hand touches the earth, and the mountains quake, the seas roar. That finger also touches us with health or illness, joy or sorrow, or whatever Father deems good for us. We are always in Father’s care.
Years ago I read a book entitled, “Living out of God’s Pantry.” The author, whose name is long since forgotten, stressed the fact that God cares for His children in a miraculous way. He cited many examples, among which was one that I remember, and that characterized all the rest. A family had become destitute; there was no food on the table. In the cold of winter the little boy opened the door, explaining that God sent ravens to feed Elijah, and that God could do as much for them. A rich man happened by, wondered about the open door, ventured in, with the result that God miraculously supplied the family needs out of the storehouse of His providence. That is nothing short of Deism, which places God far above the earth, and makes the world a huge machine that can run by itself, but occasionally when things go wrong God must step in and set them right by His providence. This same error is prominent among the faith healers of all sorts. We, however, confess that the Most High God, Who dwells in the high and lofty place, is also very near to us. He is in the raging storm and in the rumbling earthquake, but is also present in the gentle breeze that wafts as a still, small voice. He directs, each ray of sunshine, and drops each drop of rain where He wants it to fall. If that sounds like exaggeration, think of all the insignificant hairs of our heads, which ‘God numbers. “He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things. . . . In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:25, 26). We are, therefore, as in the palm of God’s hand, under His watchful eye, close to His attentive ear, near to His heart, under the very breath of His mouth that breathes blessings upon us, even one gift of grace upon another.
The wicked and the righteous both receive the same sunshine and rain, and many other good things from the hand of God. Yet the wicked always receive them in His wrath, for the wrath of the Lord is in the house of the wicked. And the righteous receive all things in God’s goodness, for His favor is upon His people. It may seem at times, as Asaph experienced in Psalm 73, that the wicked prosper in spite of their wickedness, and the righteous suffer in spite of their righteousness; yet when we go to God in prayer, and ask Him to open our eyes to the wonder of His Word, we see that God prospers the wicked to their own destruction, while it is our comfort that God guides us by His counsel day by day, afterward to take us to glory. “Herbs and grass, fruitful and barren years,” and all such ordinary things are all supplied by His fatherly hand. He who cares for the sparrow cares much more for us.
The longer we ponder this gracious work of God’s providence the greater the mystery grows. There is always the consequential fact, that shortly after their creation Adam and Eve fell into sin. What about God’s providence. in that instance? Were there two powers operating at that moment, God and the devil at war together, with the sad outcome that Satan gained the first victory? What happened to the almighty and everywhere present power of God’s providence? Or was it thus, that there are infinite possibilities and contingencies in God’s decree, so that if Adam remained standing history would have taken one course, and if he fell history would move in a different direction? That would make God dependent upon man’s whims and actions. What, then, must happen to me short of disaster? Or once again, did God possibly turn His back a moment while Satan meddled in His affairs in paradise, with the terrible result that sin now reigns, and God is compelled to bring restoration in a sadly ruined world? Where, then, is the sovereignty of our God? Perish the thought, for it is unworthy of God Himself, and certainly contrary to His Word that teaches the comforting, reassuring truth of God’s power that controls and directs all things every moment from the dawn of history to its finish!
How wonderful to turn to the pages of Holy Writ. We read that the hearts of kings are in God’s hand, so that He directs them even as He controls the rivers in their courses. Pharaoh is a good example of that, for God says, “Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee” (Rom. 9:17). Another example of God’s providence comes to mind. God drew Satan’s attention to His servant Job. God gave the devil power over the Chaldeans and the Sabeans, over wind and, lightning to deprive Job of all His possessions and his ten children. Satan was even given power to afflict Job with agonizing sores, so that his life was pure misery. Yet Satan had no power over Job except for the power God temporarily entrusted to him. Our thoughts turn to the greatest event of history, the crucifixion of our Lord. The whole world conspired against Him to destroy Him. It appeared as if this might be the great moment of Satan’s triumph over God. And yet we read in Acts 4:27, 28, “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, and the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined to be done. What could be more emphatic than that? God determined the death of Christ in the hands of wicked men. God directed every move they made. Yet Judas, along with Pilate and Herod and all the others, still gnaws his tongue in hell for this horrible deed. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are so intricately interwoven by the wisdom and power of the Most High, that it defies our comprehension. Wonderful! We see it, but shall never fathom the depths of the riches of the knowledge and judgments of God. Under our breath we can only say, “How else could we be saved?”
That providence of God is evident in all such outstanding events in our lives as our birth, the choosing of a life mate, or the choosing of a vocation, but also in the smallest details of our daily walk. Often we find ourselves vainly struggling against providence, much to our chagrin. Allow me a single example. I oversleep some morning, even a bit deliberately. If I hurry I can still make it to work on time. But the speed limit of 55 miles an hour deters me, although my car and my desire could readily travel 65 or 70 miles an hour. Then I run into a traffic snag. On a morning like-this! Next I have all the traffic signals against me, so that I sit biting my nails. Until I realize that God is controlling traffic and signal lights and all the rest, but I have been taking matters in my own hands and tried to run my own life, forgetting the prayer I may have repeated that morning, “Thy will be done.” What peace could be mine, if I learned to live by the good hand of my God every minute!
History is like a ship at sea. The ship of God’s church left its harbor at the dawn of creation to travel across the stormy sea of time. There were the storms of man’s fall in paradise, the universal flood, the oppression in Egypt, the Babylonian captivity, the cross of our Savior, the Reformation, and many more. Even these storms were God’s mighty power operating according to the counsel of His will throughout history. In fact, Christ in heaven now sends and directs those storms for the welfare of His church. At the same time, Christ, the Pilot, steers the ship of His church through treacherous waters, along dangerous shoals, through waves of persecution and trials, without ever veering from His course, ever directing His ship toward the eternal haven of rest.
Or, if you will, the Lord builds His church. He gathers each elect stone for His temple and sets that stone in its appointed place. All the events of history help toward building that church, so that the wicked serve as scaffolding and tools for Christ’s purpose. Each stone must be cut, chiseled, shaped, and polished (how painful that treatment often is) until it fits exactly in its own appointed place in the House of our God. Paul says, “In whom (Christ) all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord. In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21, 22).
In the light of the rise and fall of many world powers, even ultimately of antichrist himself, and in the light of all the trials and afflictions that God’s people suffer in this present time, we can anticipate a glory that makes it all worth while, an eternal exaltation in the God of our salvation. In anticipation we already sing, “Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the lamb forever and ever.” Amen.