If the foundations be destroyed what can the righteous do? Psalm 11:3
I do not understand this question to imply that the foundations can be destroyed, except in the fears of the righteous. But whenever, in the mind of a righteous person there is a distrust as to the stability of the foundation of his hope, then he may well say, “What can I do?” Just to the extent of our distrust of the foundations is the despondency with which we look upon the tangled and conflicting affairs of this life. All our heartiness in work, boldness in enterprise, endurance of affliction, persistence in effort, and courage in danger is measured by the degree of our faith in the stability of the foundations upon which the Christian religion stands.
If the issues of life are determined by fate or chance, there are no foundations. In the one case we become the effortless children of apathy upon whom no responsibility devolves, our only consolation being the Oriental proverb, “Kismet.” In the other case we become the devotees of ephemeral pleasure with no higher watchword than, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Hence my theme today: The Providence of God is the Christian’s foundation. Under these three – Fate, Chance and Divine Providence may be grouped all the theories and philosophies of life. There is no room for another classification.
“Providence,” then, being the theme, certain inquiries naturally suggest themselves:
1. What antecedents does the doctrine of Providence imply? 2. What is Providence? 3. Who is Providence? 4. What is the relation of prayer to Providence? Finally, what is the effect of simple faith in God’s Providence?
Now under these heads I wish to briefly discuss this question, for I certainly regard the Providence of God as a foundation, and “if the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
Objectively, this foundation will be considered in this sermon as impregnable and indestructible. But subjectively, that is in the minds of God’s people, the foundation may oftentimes seem to shake. It is not affirmed that this timorous apprehension is the habitual state of mind of even the weakest of God’s people, but that even with the strongest and bravest, in exceptional emergencies, there may be temporary?distrust. This distrust again is more in practice than in theory. Oftentimes the lips pronounce an orthodox reliance on God’s oversight of this world, when the heart is sinking and the life is drifting.
Following the outline suggested, let us first answer the inquiry -1. What does the doctrine of Providence imply? It implies the being of God, that there is a God. It implies that this God possesses all of the requisite attributes of Deity; that is, omniscience, knowing all things; omnipotence, having all power; omnipresence, being everywhere; and holiness and love. It implies that such a God, having the attributes of omniscience and omnipotence and omnipresence and holiness and love, created the universe, brought into being everything that you see – what is above us, what is below us, ourselves. It implies that this intelligent and powerful and benevolent being brought into existence everything that is. In other words, that God created this universe with all its creatures.
This implication denies atheism by assuming the being of God. It denies polytheism, for but one being can possess the divine attributes. It denies materialism and pantheism by assuming God’s existence before matter and His creation of it. So much at least being implied, we may proceed to the second inquiry: 2. What is Providence? The importance of having a clear conception in our minds as to the meaning of this term is self-evident. All books on systematic theology emphasize the importance of a clear definition just here. I shall not cumber this discussion with quotations, but will freely use without other acknowledgment, anything in these books that best expresses my own views.
Briefly, then, Providence is God’s continual oversight or government of the universe He created. To enlarge somewhat, the term, Providence, expresses the divine agency in the direction, control and issue of all the events in the physical and moral universe. All of them? Yes. Does He direct every event in the physical world? Every one.
How sublime the doctrine as set forth in the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st chapters of Job! The rain, the dew, the frost, the seasons, are always directly under His control: “Hath the rain a father? Or who hath begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it? The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen. Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?” (Job 38:28-32.)
He directs every event in the physical world. I do not refer simply to the events that relate to the spheres in their magnitude and in their movements. I refer to the most infinitesimal detail, minutia, that takes place in the whole physical world. He has just that kind of direction in the moral world, as it relates to human beings and angelic intelligences; that it is not only direction but control; that it is not only control, but that it governs the issue, the direction, the control, the issue or outcome of all events in the physical and in the moral universe.
In other words, having created the universe, He governs the universe. He did not make the world and wind it up like a clock and go to sleep and let it run itself. I mean that His direction and control and government of the issue applies to all forces that are in operation in the physical world, otherwise called laws of nature. They are nothing more than the expressions of the divine will.
Or, take this definition: Providence is that continuous, effective, all-comprehensive agency of God by which He makes all the events of the moral and physical universe to fulfill the design with which He created the universe.
Let us consider that definition a moment. It is expressed in somewhat different terms from the other, but the idea is the same – that having made a world, He governs it, superintends it, not by an intermittent agency, but by a continuous agency; not by a slight agency, but by an effective agency; not by a partial agency, but by an all-comprehensive agency. I mean that the agency is just as comprehensive as the universe is.
To get still nearer to what I mean by all-comprehensiveness, that it is not only an agency over classes, but equally over the individuals in the classes; that it is not merely an agency over the whole of a world, but over all of its parts; that it is not merely a general Providence, but that it is a particular Providence; that it takes cognizance of everything; that it is just as essential to the idea of Providence to believe that the very hairs of your heads are numbered, and that it is just as essential to believe that not a sparrow can fall to the ground without our heavenly Father knowing it, as to believe that not a world could be blotted out. I mean that it is a continuous, effective, all-comprehensive, divine agency. That it is so in the sense of administering a kingdom; a kingdom implying a personal king; a kingdom implying jurisdiction, implying government; that the kingdom of God is supreme, that it is over all other kingdoms; that all other kingdoms must be subordinated to the kingdom of God; that the issue will be just what this definition expresses: That it is the continuous, effective, all-comprehensive, divine agency?which makes all events in the physical and moral universe fulfill the original design with which He created that universe.
To advance a little in the thought of this definition: Once settle your mind on the idea of Providence and there is no such thing as chance, there is no such thing as luck, there is no such thing as fate. That this Providence “is not simply foreseeing but forseeing,” not simply looking ahead beforehand, but looking ahead for, or in order to, the accomplishment of its purposes and desires, “forseeing as well as foreseeing.” An agent is a doer, or actor, not an influence; it is the personal supervision of an individual.
With that definition clear before us, we may enlarge on one thought: All that is involved in the definition that has been given is applicable to moral creatures without interfering (how, I do not know, but yet without interfering) with their freedom of action and responsibility. Of course you may say the two propositions cannot co-exist. Your own consciousness replies to you bearing testimony within you not only to the superintending providence of God over your life, but also the freedom of your own individual actions.
Here let us squarely face the main difficulty ¾ how about sinful actions? Now, while I will be brief on this point, I want to be very clear, endeavoring to show just how God’s providence, as defined, touches, bears upon the evil actions of men. I think I can make myself understood, and I will use certain terms suggested by Dr. Strong, of Rochester, in order to make it clear that God’s providence touches evil actions and the doers of them.
Let Bible events illustrate: Abimelech took Abraham’s wife. There were no human barriers to oppose his will or restrain his desires. Yet was he hindered from committing a great sin. How hindered? God’s Spirit touched his spirit in a dream: “Thou art but a dead man for the woman thou hast taken I withheld thee from sinning against me.”
Anyone who thoughtfully examines the events of his past life can call up some case where there had been a desire to do a wrong thing, and where there had been opportunity to do a wrong thing, and where, arguing from his past feelings upon such subjects, he would have said that as a human proposition, given that desire and that opportunity, the sin would have been committed, and yet he knows that notwithstanding a conjunction of both desire and opportunity, the evil was not done. How does he explain it? “Something kept me from doing it.”?So when Laban pursued after Jacob. He had followed Jacob all the way from Mesopotamia to the brook Jabbok, about half way down the eastern border of Palestine, and now was within sight of Jacob, with an overpowering force. Jacob is just as helpless in the hands of Laban as a timid dove is under the claws and beak of a hawk. Laban followed him to smite him and despoil him. Why didn’t he do it? Let him explain:
“It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt; but the God of your fathers spake unto me yesternight, saying, take thou heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad.” (Genesis 31:29.)
Here was a restraining and preventive force that came by night upon that man of violence more efficacious in staying the execution of his fell and persistent purpose than any available human intervention.
To precisely that feature of Providence David refers in his prayer, “Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sin.” That is, “O Lord, when in a moment of weakness I am going astray, and when my powers of resistance to evil have been undermined and I am about to commit an awful offense, O God, prevent it! Keep me back. In some way keep me back from presumptuous sin.”
The thought is expressed in one of the prophets where God himself explains why His people had not committed certain heinous offenses: “Because I built up a hedge of thorns between you and that sin.” Now that hedge of thorns that God builds up between the one who desires to commit an offense prevents the sin.
A writer of a modern romance avails himself of this well known subjection of the human mind to the influence of providential interference in presenting a pathetic instance where one, cruel by nature, cruel by habit, full of hatred toward a certain object, had fully determined to strike when the opportunity came, and yet in the very hour of opportunity was prevented from saying one hostile word by what seemed to be a pure accident, and that is, that somebody had left a baby’s shoe on her table. It was not there when she went out of the room and she comes back and finds her own long-buried little baby’s shoe on her table. Instantly memory leaps back to her one child. Instantly she hears the lisping prattle of that long silent tongue; she hears the sound of well-known pattering footsteps; she remembers the one and only time that she put this very little shoe upon that baby’s foot and her hard heart broke and melted, long dried-up fountains of tears overflowed and so the memory of that dead and buried baby expelled the purpose of malice from the heart. Now that illustrates the preventive providence of God.?Consider another term: The permissive providence of God. The permissive providence of God is simply God’s not putting forth His preventive force; that is all. We sometimes see that God permits a man to sin who has been hindered a week, a year, two years, five years. He has tried hard hitherto to do this mean, devilish thing and God has withheld opportunity. God has brought in somebody or something to interrupt him.
Some force visible or occult has stayed his hand. But he incorrigibly followed after that sin until at last God said, “Now I will just remove my prevention, I will not incite him, but I will break down my hedge of thorns.”
God never tempts to sin. That is what is called “letting a man alone,” “leaving him to his own devices.” God says to His Spirit, “Let him alone. You have been preventing. You have been guarding. You have been hedging. And he fights against the restraint and bruises himself against the hedge, and manifests an incorrigible spirit to go on and commit this offense. Now, if he will, let him go his way. I will call him no more. I will visit him neither by day nor by night. So far as that providence is concerned which has hovered over him and kept him back from presumptuous sin, I will take it away. Now, sinner, commit thy sin.” That is permissive providence. The case of a good man, Hezekiah, is an example. He had grown unmindful of God’s care for him and got to thinking that he was holding himself up until it became necessary to teach him a lesson. The Scriptures tell us, in the 32nd chapter of 2 Chronicles, how this man, who it seemed could not make a mistake, that went along accomplishing everything he wished, until he really thought that he was infallible and invincible, all at once stumbled and fell, as much to his own surprise as to the wonder of others.
God explains it to him. He had let him alone for a little season to show him that his help was in the Lord. It needed to be done. It was a part of God’s discipline. So dealt the Lord with David, another good man. David knew his fundamental principles of divine government, that as power rested in God it made no difference about numbers; that the Lord could work with a few people; that one could chase a thousand and two could put ten thousand to flight. But David got into his mind a vain conceit that frequently misleads modern Christians ¾ pride in numbers: “I have a large people now, let us count them and glory in their multitude.” Seeing David’s bent, the Lord took away the hedge and let him do what he pleased. One scripture expresses it, “The Lord moved David to number Israel,” while another, referring to the same event, says, “Satan moved David to number Israel.” And the question is, “How can both be true?” The answer is this: Satan had been?trying to move him to do that for a long while and Satan could not make him do it because this intervening providence of God had kept him from it. Now when God just gets out of the way, Satan gets in and you may say the Lord moved, or the Lord permitted it to be done. Satan moved him. He would have moved him sooner if God had permitted.
The providence of God is not only preventive and permissive of evil but is also directive. What do I mean by directive? I mean that God so directs evil actions as to disappoint the purpose and expectation of the sinner and his tempter. Let us get that very clear. Two scriptures will serve to show that God’s providence is directive with reference to the actions of evil men when it so operates that this evil action shall miss its issue, shall come to another issue neither intended nor desired by the perpetrator.
The first scripture is from the book of Genesis. The wicked brothers of Joseph, who had sold him into Egypt, are now in trouble in that very land. Their consciences accuse them:
“And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us. And Reuben answered them, saying, Spake I not unto you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and ye would not hear? Therefore, behold, also his blood is required.” (Genesis 42:21, 22.)
This was the human side. On the other hand, hear Joseph: “I am Joseph, your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. Now, therefore, be not grieved nor angry with yourselves that ye sold me hither; for God did send me before you to preserve life *** to preserve you a posterity in the earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now, it was not you that sent me hither, but God.” That is, you meant evil. God directed that action so as to change it into an issue that was not foreseen nor purposed by you. The other scripture is from the fourth chapter of Acts. These two will answer for a thousand. They equal in importance any in the Bible:
“And when they heard that, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said, Lord, Thou art God, which hast made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is: Who by the mouth of Thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things? The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the?Lord, and against His Christ. For of a truth against Thy holy child Jesus, whom Thou has anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to be done.” (Acts 4:24-28.)
Now here was an entirely independent purpose and expectation on the part of Herod, on the part of Pilate, on the part of the Jews. They meant death and ruin and yet God’s providence governed their very malice to an issue neither foreseen, desired nor purposed by them, in that it accomplished not only His own predetermined purpose, working not for the ruin but for the salvation of the world. Yet another term may be employed to show how the providence of God touches evil actions, to-wit, determinative. Terminus means a boundary, a limit, and to determinate is to set a boundary. The providence of God then touches evil actions by putting a limit upon them. An illustrative case or two may be rapidly stated. The devil wanted to get hold of Job, to worry and destroy him. He asked the Lord for an opportunity. God, having purposes of His own to accomplish concerning Job and others, gave the permission but set a limit at Job’s life: “You may take his cows; you may take his camels; you may take his children so far as their earthly health and existence is concerned; you may touch Job himself and cover his body with loathsome ulcers, but the life of Job, the soul of Job, the spiritual standing of Job in the sight of God, oh, devil, you cannot touch.” There God puts an impassable barrier.
In the same direction are the words of the Psalmist:
“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, now may Israel say: If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us, then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us: then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul; then the proud waters had gone over our soul; blessed be the Lord, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth. Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we are escaped.” (Psalm 124:1-7.)
That is oftentimes true. If you leave God out, wickedness could put to death every Christian in Waco in a week. Leave out the determinative providence of God, that feature of God’s providence that sets a limit to the wrath of evil men and the devil, and the foundation would be removed, and then what could the righteous do??We may well apply these words to the present state of our missionary work in ‘Texas. God’s determinative providence has set a limit to the relentless obstructers of His holy cause. In our impatience it may seem a long way off. But it will come, and when the Almighty’s barrier is reached, we shall have peace and prosperity in our afflicted Zion.
Satan was permitted to sift Peter as wheat, but Jesus insured that his faith should not fail. A messenger of Satan was permitted to buffet Paul and become an almost unbearable thorn in his flesh. But God’s almighty grace was sufficient for him. Our next inquiry is: Who is Providence? This is an important question to Christians. How shall it be answered? I appeal to prophecy:
“Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.” (Psalm 2:6.)
“The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” (Psalm 110:1.)
“Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever; the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre. Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness; therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.” (Psalm 45:6, 7.)
“And speak unto him, saying, Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, Behold the man whose name is the Branch and He shall grow up out of His place, and He shall build the temple of the Lord. Even He shall build the temple of the Lord; and He shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon His throne; and He shall be a priest upon His throne; and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.” (Zechariah 6:12, 13.)
Who is this King, this priest on the throne? Of whom speak the prophets these things? Let the New Testament answer. Paul thus prayed:
“That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. The eyes of your understanding be enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of His calling, and what the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of His mighty power, which He wrought in Christ when He raised Him from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in?that which is to come, and hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church.” (Ephesians 1:17-22.)
Who is Providence? Let Paul answer again: “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation and took upon Him the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of man, and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God hath also highly exalted Him and given Him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Consider, moreover, the passages in the book of Hebrews, which cite the Psalms from which we have quoted. They find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Hear himself speak: “All power in heaven and on earth is given unto me.”
Who is it that sits on the throne of the judgment? Jesus Christ, your Savior. Before whom shall stand all the dead, small and great? Jesus. And according to what shall they be judged? The laws of Jesus. Who shall assess the penalty for the violation of these laws? Jesus. At whose bidding today is every wind and wave and element and force and star and atom? Under whose control and jurisdiction is every power in this universe? Under the control of Jesus.
He is Providence, and with an effective, continuous, all-comprehensive, divine agency He touches every event in the physical and in the moral world. To what end? That to them that love God all things shall work together for good.
Who is Providence? Oh, ye doubting ones! A little storm darkens your horizon for a while – an ephemeral thing. You forget He is riding it; that on the neck of that courser of the skies lie the reins and that those reins are in the hands of Jesus Christ, and that all things shall work together for good to them that love God.
For whom is the royal diadem? Who is to be the crowned? That One who has written on His thigh, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” That One who came to the Ancient of Days and received a kingdom which is an everlasting kingdom; that One who shall reign until all His enemies are put under His feet, and the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. Why should the heathen rage and the people imagine vain things? Who shall say the foundations are destroyed? On what reasonable ground quakes your cowardly heart? Why is your right arm nerveless? Why have you permitted the devil to come and pluck courage and faith and hope out of your heart when the Lord God omnipotent reigneth and reigneth today and reigneth over everything??Let us next ascertain the relation of faith to Providence. How manifest and self-evident is this relation? Inquire of your own heart: Does your faith rest in a dead God or a living one? A God who sleeps or who is awake? Do you believe in a God manifest in Christ or without a manifestation?
If a little boy could lie down on the deck of a ship, saying, “My father’s captain,” how much more can a Christian say, “Let the devil bark. Let puny earthquakes shake this globe. Let the wicked fight and howl and shout. When the enemy comes upon thee like a flood, then the Lord lifteth up the standard.”
Have you faith in the providences of God? The Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us see now if you have faith in Providence. Test it, my brethren. Are you like David once when his heart failed him? Hear his doleful confession, Psalm 73:
“Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches. Verily, I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.” (Verses 12, 13.)
“When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me; until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end. Surely thou didst set them in slippery places; thou castedst them down into destruction. How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors.” (Verses 16-19.)
“Nevertheless I am continually with thee; thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.” (Verses 23, 24.)
Ah, brother, have you worried over the prosperity of the wicked? Have you been a fool and brutish, like David? Have you stumbled at such thoughts? Then enter the sanctuary. Stand next to God; get behind the curtain; see the reach of God’s foresight and the sweep of His sword of justice, see the threads of all events in His hands, see how He is drawing them to a consummation absolutely at His disposal; then understand.
Yes, little bird, when even you fell, O sparrow, your Father knew that. And every hair on my head is numbered and my God knoweth all my needs and my God is able?to supply all my wants; and my God is able to care for me in any emergency that may arise.
Jesus, forgive me, if for one treacherous moment I ever allow a shadow of doubt as to divine providence to come into my heart.
Very briefly, in conclusion, what is the relation of prayer to Providence? Let a single scripture express it:
But what good will it do? “Shall not God avenge His own, they that cry unto Him day and night?” What good? Behold that picture in Revelation: “I saw an angel and he had in his hand a smoking censer.”
And that censer contained the prayers of the saints of God, and he carried those prayers to the golden altar and he waved those prayers before the throne of God, and as that censer waved and smoked, what followed? All of those wonderful things that are mentioned in the book of Revelation. The elements leaped to the foot of the throne and said, “The prayer has touched us.” Disease came and said, “Prayer has touched me.” Pestilence came, with her loathsome form, and grimvisaged, red-handed war, and conflagration with her torch; these all came, and as ministers in answer to prayer said unto God, “Send us,” and thus God says, “Avenge my people.”
Now in conclusion, such being Providence, and you having faith in that Providence, and all the time praying to that Providence, what is the result? This is the climax. I will read it, from the 26th chapter of Isaiah. It has oftentimes been a great comfort to me. Not always but many times I have said in my heart just what it says: “In that day shall this song be sung.” Now, what is it? “We have a strong city. Salvation will God appoint for its walls and bulwarks. Open ye the gates that the righteous nations that?keepeth truth may enter in. Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee.”
Many of God’s saints, in the stormiest and darkest periods of their lives, have had that peace, perfect peace, without anxiety in view of trouble or difficulty. “Lord, I trust thee. My song is this: That I have faith in God, faith in the Providence of God; and while wolves may howl around my dwelling, they cannot enter in, and while night may bring her curtains of darkness and wrap the world about, there is a light inside. While winter may come with its cold and chilling blasts and bind in iron the earth outside, it is warm in here. My heart is full of peace because stayed on God. My trust is in thee.”
Now, brethren, I ask you, when you seriously reflect on what Providence implies, on what Providence is and who Providence is, the relation of faith to Providence and the relation of prayer to Providence, ought not your hearts at once to accept this proposition expressed so often in the scriptures? What is it? “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth forever. Let the earth rejoice. Let it rejoice.” Let the world be glad that God reigneth. Trust it. Lean your head on it and your heart on it. Put your soul’s most perfect love upon Jesus.
But you say, “Oh, this man and that man!” Well, now, do you call that a foundation? No man is a foundation. It is only a Romanist that would make Peter a foundation. “On this Rock I build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” And that Rock is Christ. Therefore