It is common to speak of “providence,” but the common way of speaking of it shows it is not common to understand the subject. So many things are ascribed to “providence” that the reflecting mind, acting apart from the enlightenment of the Scriptures, would be liable either to doubt whether there is such a thing as providence at all, or to conclude that all things are “providence,” which would practically be the same thing, for in that case, the central idea of providence, as a special discrimination and influence in the shaping of circumstances in particular cases, would be lost.
It is of great practical importance to have distinct and correct ideas on the subject. It is not a matter of barren speculation. It touches the springs of action, and bears upon the development of character. True views on the subject will sustain and expand and ennoble the mind, while false views will have a contracting and withering and depressing effect. True views will keep a man in the path of wise action, while erroneous views may turn him into a fool. True views will enable him to know when to recognise the hand of God in past and current history, and it may be in his own life, while false views will blot God from the world altogether, and consign a man to the dreary wastes of chance and orphanage.
Correct views on the subject are only to be obtained from the Scriptures. There is no light in any other direction. Science cannot tell us how or when God may operate in the affairs of men. The mere contemplation of human experience cannot help us, for we should not be able without guidance to say what parts of the labyrinth were due to Divine regulation, and what to the uninfluenced action of man. God could enlighten us by direct instruction, by the Spirit, as He did the fathers of old; but there is a time for everything; and in His wisdom, this is not a time for open communication from God, but a time for studying the communications He has already made and preserved so wondrously in the Bible, which is so much more wonderful and precious than familiarity allows the common run of men to realise.
Those who reject this source of enlightenment are helpless indeed. They are doomed to remain for ever in the dark. They can have no light except where God has placed it. A first principle of the subject is to accept this light unreservedly. It is not uttering a mere platitude to make this remark. In our day, it is essential to decide with ourselves positively whether we are to accept the Scriptures as our guide or not. If we do not settle this, we drift on without the ability to appropriate and utilise the instruction it contains. Let us settle it, and when settled, act upon the settlement. This is not the place to discuss the question whether the Bible is the word of God. It has been discussed elsewhere, and may again be demonstrated in many more ways as occasion may arise. It is needful merely to refer to it as the foundation of this endeavour to elucidate the ways of providence by the help of the divine illustrations supplied to us so numerously in the Scriptures. Away from the divinity of the Scriptures, there is no guidance. There is not only in that case probably no providence at all: but if there were, all talk on the subject must be useless speculation; for it is then left to every man to call that providence which he pleases to consider so, and reject as providence what may not happen to be in his favour, but which being in another man’s favour would be considered providence by him. Let us see this point clearly, and it will greatly simplify and strengthen the effort to grasp Bible instruction and Bible instruction alone.
There can be no doubt in the minds of those who have fully mastered the facts of the case, about the Bible being God’s word. But there is a possibility that a man may assent to its being the word of God and yet fail to be influenced by its teaching in the way that ought to result from such an assent. Many causes may conduce to this. The leading cause is want of familiarity. Business and other studies interfere with that affectionate and intimate acquaintance which comes with daily reasonable deferential reading to the man who prays without ceasing. Let business and other things be attended to in their proper measure; but the Bible ought never to be displaced from the supreme position. It ought to have an inalienable place in the day’s programme. Constantly read and devoutly pondered, it will, in course of time, emancipate a man from the dreamy state of misconception which thinks the incidents of providence all very proper and natural in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but not to be looked for in the humdrum days of machinery and manufacturing districts. It will remove that blindness of mind which listens to a quotation from the history of Joseph with a sort of feeling, “Oh, that is only a school lesson - a story book - only Genesis,” without being impressed - while attaching great consequence to any statement or opinion derived from a merely human source. It will, in fact, bring us to see and accept and feel and be impressed and enlightened and comforted by and to thank God for the Bible, in every part of it, as a great light and a paramount authority, and an infallible teacher on things on which we can get instruction in no other quarter whatever, unless borrowed from itself. Persian, Rabbinical, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Roman and Mohammedan, Vedas and Mishnas, Talmuds and Korans, and Sanscrit literature and books of Confucius, and the law-making and philosophisings and dramatic outpourings of Greek and Roman Lycurguses and Catos, Homers and Horaces, Socrateses and Julius Caesars, Euripideses and Virgils, and the remaining host of the wise of this world - with whose valueless lucubrations it is esteemed a high honour to be familiar, will, by such a man, be at last esteemed at their inherent and proper value. He will not be afraid, but rejoice in boldly endorsing Paul’s declaration concerning them all:
“The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise that they are vain...The wisdom of the world is foolishness with God...The foolishness of God is wiser than men.”
This, then, is a first principle of the subject to be scrupulously observed and dogmatically insisted upon - that the Scriptures, in their entirety given by inspiration of God, are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With this full conviction, we have long desired to draw attention to that mode of divine operation among men currently expressed by the term “providence,” as illustrated and plainly exhibited to us in the authentic cases recorded in the Scriptures. They are numerous and plain, and by the light of them, studied in their details, we can see plainly where otherwise there is mist and darkness.
There are those who see a providence in everything, without being able to tell what they mean. There are those who see a providence in what they think good things, but none at all if the drift goes against men. Providence with them is a sort of benign blind-eyed deity who has no jurisdiction in the realm of evil occurrence, but whose sole function is to be illustrated by a good-natured father distributing plums among children. There are those who think there is providence somewhere - “a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will” - but they cannot make it out, and prefer to leave the subject as an unpractical one, not to be taken into account. There are those who think there is no divine interposition in human affairs at all, except such as happens when a Red Sea is divided or a multitude fed with five loaves and two fishes. And there is finally the large class of fools who say in their hearts there is neither God nor providence, but simply the reign of blind power that in some inexplicable way has developed a universe replete with contrivance and arrangement of the most ingenious and elaborate kind.
We turn to the Scriptures for light, and we propose to obtain it, not so much by considering the declarations they make on the subject, as by pondering seriatim the practical illustrations of it with which Bible history abounds, beginning with the fathers and ending with the Lord Jesus, in whose crucifixion, by the hands of wicked men, God fulfilled His previous purpose, the condemning of sin in the flesh as the sacrificial basis of our reconciliation. This properly carried out, would be a valuable process. It will do more than anything else to give us confidence in the fact of divine participation in human affairs; and an insight into the apparent contradiction that the same acts may be at once human and divine - human as regards the impulse and design of the performer, and divine as regards the initiation and regulation of that impulse and the objects to be accomplished in its execution. It will also show us that all human affairs are not divinely regulated; that many things happen that are not of God; that in only a certain narrow channel of things is providence a fact; that only certain classes are providentially guided and controlled; and that divine interposition as often takes the shape of bringing about apparently evil circumstances as those that are obviously good, and that not always with a good purpose, so far as the particular person operated upon is concerned, though in the wide sense, and as regards a certain class, all divine operations have good as the ultimate end.
There is such a thing as chance, as distinct from what God does. The Bible declares this (Eccles. 11:11) and the experience of every day teaches it. Every moment teems with the incidents of chance. The whirl of a cloud of dust before the windy gust coming round the corner of the house illustrates the point. God has control of all chance; but all chance is not controlled. It is controlled when His purpose requires it. His purpose does not require Him to decide which shells every or any child on the sea-shore shall pick up and throw away, unless the incident be a link in the purpose being worked out, and then the hand of the child will be guided. This illustration touches a great fact which it is important to see clearly.
A first idea to be mastered in apprehending the ways of providence is the relation of the universe to God. All things are in Him, and He, though personally located in the highest heaven, is everywhere present by the Spirit, which is His substance in diffusion, so to speak. Nevertheless, God is different from His works. Creation, as organised by Him and in Him has a fixed nature, in virtue of which it has, by His appointment, an independent action, so to speak. Results ensue from certain conditions without His volition participating in the results. For example: you place a strip of paper in the candle flame: ignition follows. The ignition did not require the will of Almighty God to produce it. It resulted from conditions originally established by His will, but now having permitted independence of action. The same thing is illustrated in the million occurrences of everyday experience. It is essential to recognise it. It constitutes the platform of evidence. There could be no such conception as providence if every thing were due to direct Divine volition. This conception requires that some things are God’s doing, and some are not. All things are of God, as regards the establishment of the conditions and affording the power-base of their existence; but the play of the conditions is the affair of what is called chance. The flames produced by the servant maid in the grate are not of God’s doings, but the result of the conditions God has established and fixed; but the flames that consume the sympathisers of Korah, Dathan and Abiram are the direct work of God. So with a thousand illustrations, from the capture of a fly by a spider to the vast elliptical revolution of the unmeasured comet; the occurrences and phenomena of “nature,” though all in God, and known to Him, and which cannot take place without Him, are the result of fixed affinities existing in His will, but not manipulated by His volition in their details. He can and does interfere where necessary, and this is the distinction between what He does and what He does not do. A recognition of this distinction will prepare the mind to discriminate between those incidents in human history which are the direct work of God, and those countless millions of incidents with which He has no more to do than with the selection of which blades of grass on the hill side are to be consumed by the browsing cattle. It will therefore qualify us to read the hand of God in current events, as well as in the history of the past, in our individual lives, as well as in the affairs of nations.