The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O LORD, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands. LORD, thou wilt ordain peace for us: for thou also hast wrought all our works in us. Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ: Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
~ Psalm 138:8, Isaiah 26:12, Philippians 1:6, Hebrews 13:20-21
The Mystery of Providence, by John Flavel. An excerpt from the text.
I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me.
~ Psalm 57:2
The greatness of God is a glorious and unsearchable mystery. ‘For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great king over all the earth’ (Ps. 47. 2).
The condescension of the most high God to men is also a profound mystery. ‘Though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly’ (Ps. 138. 6). But when both these meet together, as they do in this Scripture, they make up a matchless mystery. Here we find the most high God performing all things for a poor distressed creature.
It is the great support and solace of the saints in all the distresses that befall them here, that there is a wise Spirit sitting in all the wheels of motion, and governing the most eccentric creatures and their most pernicious designs to blessed and happy issues. And, indeed, it were not worth while to live in a world devoid of God and Providence.
How deeply we are concerned in this matter will appear by that great instance which Psalm 57 presents us with. It was composed, as the title notes, by David when he hid himself from Saul in the cave. It is inscribed with a double title: ‘Al-taschith, Michtam of David.’ ‘Al-taschith’ refers to the scope, and ‘Michtam’ to the dignity of the subject-matter.
The former signifies ‘destroy not,’ or ‘let there be no slaughter,’ and may either refer to Saul, concerning whom he gave charge to his servants not to destroy him, or rather, it has reference to God, to whom in this great exigency he poured out his soul in this passionate ejaculation: ‘Al-taschith,’ ‘destroy not.’
The latter title ‘Michtam’ signifies ‘a golden ornament,’ and so is suited to the choice and excellent matter of the Psalm, which much more deserves such a title than do Pythagoras’ Golden Verses. Three things are remarkable in the former part of the Psalm: his extreme danger; his earnest address to God in that extremity; and the arguments he pleads with God in that address.
His extreme danger is expressed in both the title and the body of the psalm. The title tells us this psalm was composed by him when he hid himself from Saul in the cave. This cave was in the wilderness of Engedi among the broken rocks where the wild goats lived, an obscure and desolate hole; yet even there the envy of Saul pursued him (1 Sam. 24. 1, 2). And now he that had been so long hunted as a partridge upon the mountains seems to be enclosed in the net. His enemies were outside the cave, from which there was no other outlet. Then Saul himself entered the mouth of this cave, in the sides and creeks of which David and his men lay hidden, and they actually saw him. Judge to how great an extremity and to what a desperate state things were now brought. Well might he say: ‘My soul is among lions, and I lie even among them that are set on fire’ (verse 4). What hope now remained? What but immediate destruction could be expected?
Yet this does not frighten him out of his faith and duty, but between the jaws of death he prays, and earnestly addresses himself to God for mercy: ‘Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me’ (verse 1). This excellent psalm was composed by him when there was enough to discompose the best man in the world. The repetition notes both the extremity of the danger and the ardency of the supplicant. Mercy, mercy, nothing but mercy, and that exerting itself in an extraordinary way, can now save him from ruin.
The arguments he pleads for obtaining mercy in this distress are very considerable. First, he pleads his reliance upon God as an argument to move mercy. ‘Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me, for my soul trusteth in thee; yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast’ (verse 1). This his trust and dependence on God, though it is not an argument in respect of the dignity of the act, yet it is so in respect of the nature of the object, a compassionate God, who will not expose any that take shelter under His wings; also in respect of the promise by which protection is assured to them that fly to Him for sanctuary: ‘Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee’ (Isa. 26. 3). Thus he encourages himself from the consideration of that God in whom he trusts. He pleads former experiences of His help in past distresses as an argument encouraging hope under the present strait: ‘I will cry unto God most high, unto God that performeth all things for me’ (verse 2).
In these words I shall consider two things: the duty resolved upon, and the encouragement to that resolution.
The duty resolved upon: ‘I will cry unto God.’ Crying unto God is an expression that denotes not only prayer, but intense and fervent prayer. To cry is to pray in a holy passion; and such are usually speeding prayers (Ps. 18. 6; Heb. 5. 7).
The encouragements to this resolution are taken from the sovereignty of God: ‘I will cry unto God most high.’ Upon this he acts his faith in extremity of danger. Saul is high, but God is the most high, and without His permission he is assured Saul cannot touch him. He had none to help, and if he had, he knew God must first help the helpers or they cannot help him. He had no means of defence or escape before him, but the Most High is not limited by means. This is a singular prop to faith (Ps. 59. 9).
The experience of His Providence hitherto: ‘Unto God that performeth all things for me.’
The word which we translate ‘performeth’ comes from a root that signifies both to perfect, and to desist or cease. For when a business is performed and perfected, the agent then ceases and desists from working. To such a happy issue the Lord has brought all his doubtful and difficult matters before; and this gives him encouragement that He will still be gracious, and perfect that which concerns him now, as he speaks: ‘The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me’ (Ps. 138. 8).
The Septuagint renders Psalm 57. 2: ‘The well-doer saving me,’ ‘who profits or benefits me.’ And it is a certain truth that all the results and issues of Providence are profitable and beneficial to the saints. But the supplement in our translation well conveys the sense of the text: ‘Who performeth all things.’ And it involves the most strict and proper notion of Providence, which is nothing else but the performance of God’s gracious purposes and promises to His people. And therefore Vatabulus and Mius supply and fill up the room left by the conciseness of the original with ‘which he hath promised,’ thus: ‘I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth the things which he hath promised.’ Payment is the performance of promises. Grace makes the promise, and Providence the payment.
Piscator fills it thus: ‘unto God that performeth his kindness and mercy.’ But still it supposes the mercy performed to be contained in the promise. Mercy is sweet in the promise, and much more so in the providential performance of it to us.
Castalio’s supplement comes nearer to ours: ‘I will cry unto God most high, unto God, the transactor of my affairs.’
But our English, making out the sense by a universal particle, is most agreeable to the scope of the text. For it cannot but be a great encouragement to his faith, that God had transacted all things, or performed all things for him. This Providence that never failed him in any of the straits that ever he met with (and his life was a life of many straits) he might well hope would not fail him now, though this were an extraordinary and matchless one. Let us then bring our thoughts a little closer to this Scripture, and it will give us a fair and lovely prospect of Providence in its universal, effectual, beneficial and encouraging influence upon the affairs and concerns of the saints.
The expression imports the universal interest and influence of Providence in and upon all the concerns and interests of the saints. It not only has its hand in this or that, but in all that concerns them. It has its eye upon every thing that relates to them throughout their lives, from first to last. Not only the great and more important, but the most minute and ordinary affairs of our lives are transacted and managed by it. It touches all things that touch us, whether more nearly or remotely.
The text displays the efficacy of providential influences. Providence not only undertakes but perfects what concerns us. It goes through with its designs, and accomplishes what it begins. No difficulty so clogs it, no cross accident falls in its way, but it carries its design through it. Its motions are irresistible and uncontrollable; He performs it for us.
And (which is sweet to consider) all its products and issues are exceedingly beneficial to the saints. It performs all things for them. ’Tis true we often prejudge its works, and unjustly censure its designs, and in many of our straits and troubles we say: ‘All these things are against us’; but indeed Providence neither does nor can do any thing that is really against the true interest and good of the saints. For what are the works of Providence but the execution of God’s decree and the fulfilling of His Word? And there can be no more in Providence than is in them. Now there is nothing but good to the saints in God’s purposes and promises; and, therefore, whatever Providence does concerning them, it must be (as the text speaks) ‘the performance of all things for them.’
And if so, how cheering, supporting and encouraging must the consideration of these things be in a day of distress and trouble! What life and hope will it inspire our hearts and prayers with when great pressures lie upon us! It had such a cheering influence upon the Psalmist at this time, when the state of his affairs was, to the eye of sense and reason, forlorn and desperate; there was now but a hair’s breadth (as we say) between him and ruin.
A powerful, enraged and implacable enemy had driven him into the hole of a rock, and was come after him into that hole. Yet now, while his soul is among lions, while he lies in a cranny of the rock, expecting every moment to be drawn out to death, the reflections he had upon the gracious performances of the Most High for him, from the beginning to that moment, support his soul and inspire hope and life into his prayers: ‘I will cry unto God most high, unto God that performeth all things for me.’
From the text then you have this doctrine:—
It is the duty of the saints, especially in times of straits, to reflect upon the performances of Providence for them in all the states and through all the stages in their lives.
The Church, in all the works of mercy, owns the hand of God: ‘Lord, thou also hast wrought all our works in (or for) us’ (Isa. 26. 12). And still it has been the pious and constant practice of the saints in all generations to preserve the memory of the more famous and remarkable providences that have befallen them in their times as a precious treasure. ‘If thou be a Christian indeed, I know thou hast, if not in thy book, yet certainly in thy heart, a great many precious favours upon record; the very remembrance and rehearsal of them is sweet; how much more sweet was the actual enjoyment?’1 Thus Moses, by divine direction, wrote a memorial of that victory obtained over Amalek as the fruit and return of prayer, and built there an altar with this inscription, Jehovah-nissi: ‘The Lord my banner’ (Exod. 17. 14, 15). Thus Mordecai and Esther took all care to perpetuate the memory of that signal deliverance from the plot of Haman, by ordaining the feast of Purim as an anniversary ‘throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed’ (Esther 9. 28). For this end you find Psalms indited, ‘to bring remembrance’ (Ps. 70, title). You find parents giving suitable names to their children, that every time they looked upon them they might refresh the memory of God’s mercies (1 Sam. 1. 20). You find the very places where eminent providences have appeared, given a new name, for no other reason but to perpetuate the memorial of those sweet providences which so refreshed them there. Thus Bethel received its name (Gen. 28. 19). And that well of water where Hagar was seasonably refreshed by the angel in her distress, was called Beer-laha-roi: ‘the well of him that liveth and looketh on me’ (Gen. 16. 14). Yea, the saints have given, and God has assumed to Himself new titles upon this very score and account; Abraham’s Jehovah- jireh and Gideon’s Jehovah-shalom were ascribed to Him for this reason. And sometimes you find the Lord styles Himself ‘The God that brought Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees’ or ‘The Lord God that brought them out of Egypt’ or again ‘The Lord that gathered them out of the north country’; reminding them of the gracious providences which in all those places He had wrought for them.
Now there is a twofold reflection upon the providential works of God.
One is entire and full, in its whole complex and perfect system. This blessed sight is reserved for the perfect state. It is in that mount of God where we shall see both the wilderness and Canaan, the glorious kingdom into which we are come, and the way through which we were led into it. There the saints shall have a ravishing view of it in its entirety, and every part shall be distinctly discerned, as it had its particular use, and as it was connected with the other parts, and how effectually and orderly they all wrought to bring about that blessed design of their salvation, according to the promise: ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’ (Rom. 8. 28). For it is certain, no ship at sea keeps more exactly by the compass which directs its course, than Providence keeps by that promise which is its cynosure and pole-star.2
The other sight is partial and imperfect which we have on the way to glory, during which we only view it in its single acts, or at most, in some branches and more observable series of actions.
Between these two is the same difference as between the sight of the disjointed wheels and scattered pins of a watch, and the sight of the whole united in one frame and working in one orderly motion; or between an ignorant spectator who views some more observable vessel or joint of a dissected body, and the accurate anatomist who discerns the course of all the veins and arteries of the body as he follows the various branches of them through the whole, and plainly sees the proper place, figure and use of each, with their mutual respect to one another.
O how ravishing and delectable a sight will it be to behold at one view the whole design of Providence, and the proper place and use of every single act, which we could not understand in this world! What Christ said to Peter is as applicable to some providences in which we are now concerned as it was to that particular action: ‘What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter’ (John 13. 7). All the dark, intricate, puzzling providences at which we were sometimes so offended, and sometimes amazed, which we could neither reconcile with the promise nor with each other, nay, which we so unjustly censured and bitterly bewailed, as if they had fallen out quite against our happiness, we shall then see to be to us, as the difficult passage through the wilderness was to Israel, ‘the right way to a city of habitation’ (Ps. 107. 7).
And yet, though our present views and reflections upon Providence are so short and imperfect in comparison to that in heaven, yet such as it is under all its present disadvantages, it has so much excellence and sweetness in it that I may call it a little heaven, or as Jacob called his Bethel, ‘the gate of heaven.’ It is certainly a highway of walking with God in this world, and a soul may enjoy as sweet communion with Him in His providences as in any of His ordinances. How often have the hearts of its observers been melted into tears of joy at the beholding of its wise and unexpected productions! How often has it convinced them, upon a sober recollection of the events of their lives, that if the Lord had left them to their own counsels they had as often been their own tormenters, if not executioners! Into what and how many fatal mischiefs had they precipitated themselves if Providence had been as short-sighted as they! They have given it their hearty thanks for considering their interest more than their importunity, and not allowing them to perish by their own desires.
1. Baxter’s Saints’ Everlasting Rest.
2.‘When the records of eternity shall be exposed to view, all the counsels and results of that profound wisdom looked into; how will it transport when it shall be discerned: Lo, thus were the designs laid: here were the apt junctures and admirable dependencies of things, which, when acted upon the stage of time, seemed so perplexed and intricate.’ (Howe, Blessedness of the Righteous.)
The Evidence of Providence
Chapter 1: The Work of Providence for the Saints
First, I shall undertake the proof and defence of the great truth that the affairs of the saints in this world are certainly conducted by the wisdom and care of special Providence. And in doing so I address myself with cheerfulness to perform, as I am able, a service for that Providence which has throughout my life ‘performed all things for me,’ as the text speaks.
There is a twofold consideration of Providence, according to its twofold object and manner of dispensation; the one in general, exercised about all creatures, rational and irrational, animate and inanimate; the other special and peculiar. Christ has a universal empire over all things (Eph. 1. 22); He is the head of the whole world by way of dominion, but a head to the Church by way of union and special influence (John 17. 2). He is ‘the Saviour of all men, especially of those that believe’ (1 Tim. 4. 10). The Church is His special care and charge. He rules the world for its good, as a head consulting the welfare of the body.
Heathens generally denied Providence, and no wonder, since they denied a God; for the same arguments that prove one will prove the other. Aristotle, the prince of heathen philosophers, could not by the utmost search of reason find out how the world originated, and therefore concludes it was from eternity. The Epicureans did, in a way, acknowledge a God, but yet denied a Providence, and wholly excluded Him from any interest or concern in the affairs of the world, as being inconsistent with the felicity and tranquillity of the divine Being, to be diverted and cumbered with the care and labour of government. This assertion is so repugnant to reason that it is a wonder they did not blush at its absurdity; but I guess the reason, and one of them (according to Cicero) speaks it out in broad language: Itaque imposuistis cervicibus nostris sempiternum dominum, quem dies & noctes timeremus. Quis enim non timeat omnia providentem, & cogitantem, & animadvertentem, & omnia ad se pertinere putantem, curiosum & plenum negotii Deum? (If this is so you have yoked us to an eternal master, such as we would fear day and night. For who would not be frightened of a prying busybody of a God who provides, plans and observes everything and who considers that everything is his concern?) They foresaw that the concession of a Providence would impose an eternal yoke upon their necks, by making them accountable for all they did to a higher tribunal, so that they must necessarily ‘pass the time of their sojourning here in fear,’ while all their thoughts, words and ways were strictly noted and recorded, for the purpose of an account by an all-seeing and righteous God. They therefore laboured to persuade themselves that what they had no mind for did not exist. But these atheistical and foolish conceits fall flat before the undeniable evidence of this so great and clear a truth.
Now my business here is not so much to deal with professed atheists who deny the existence of God and consequently deride all evidences brought from Scripture of the extraordinary events that fall out in favour of that people that are called His, but rather to convince those that professedly own all this, yet, never having tasted religion by experience, suspect, at least, that all these things which we call special providences to the stains, are but natural events or mere contingencies. Thus, while they profess to own a God and a Providence (which profession is but the effect of their education) they do in the meantime live like atheists, and both think and act as if there were no such things; and really, I fear this is the case with the greater part of the men of this generation.
But if it were indeed so, that the affairs of the world in general, and more especially those of the saints, were not conducted by divine Providence, but, as they would persuade us, by the steady course of natural causes, beside which, if at any time we observe any event to fall out, it is merely casual and contingent, or proceeds from some hidden and secret cause in nature – if this indeed were so, let them that are tempted to believe it, give a rational answer to the following questions:
How comes it to pass that so many signal mercies and deliverances have befallen the people of God, above the power and against the course of natural causes, to make way for which there has been an obvious suspension and stop put to the course of nature?
It is most evident that no natural effect can exceed the power of its natural cause. Nothing can give to another more than it has in itself, and it is as clear that whatsoever acts naturally, acts necessarily.