by James W. Alexander
Men are prone to think of God, says the excellent Melancthon, as of a shipbuilder, who, when he has completed his vessel, launches and leaves it. In opposition to this error of the Epicureans and Stoics, we are to be reminded that God never abandons his work—but is as much with it the last day as the first. This governing presence of God with all his creatures and all their actions, is called Providence, from a Latin word which means 'to see beforehand. If we look on creation as God's first revelation of himself, we may look on Providence as the continuance of that revelation. It is that general agency of God, whereby he abides with the creature, upholding and directing it for all the ends for which it was made. Hence the twofold topic of PRESERVATION and GOVERNMENT.
I. The PRESERVATION of all things.
If a volition of the Almighty was necessary to bring creatures into being, a continued volition is necessary to keep them in being. The mere will of God was creative; it brought creation out of nothing: the like will continued is the divine Providence. No more can beings continue to exist without God, than they could have begun to exist without him. This has not been sufficiently considered. The infinite and eternal God is the basis of all being. In him we live, and move, and have our being. If that incomprehensible influence, whereby each thing is, and is what it is, should be withdrawn for an instant, all things would lose their existence, and would go back into annihilation. No positive act of God would be necessary to reduce the universe to nothing. This perpetual and indispensable sustentation of all things is part of Divine Providence. Hence, the old divines were accustomed to speak of Providence as a continued creation. As creation is the will of God that things should exist and begin to be, so Providence is the will of God that things should continue to be. The created world continues by the very same power which caused it to begin. This preservation of all things is the first act of Providence, and that without which other acts would have been impossible.
None but God, the infinite One, can be conceived of as competent to so great a work. It demands for its execution omniscience, to know the universe which is to be preserved, and to know how to preserve it; omnipresence, to apply this divine knowledge in every place; and omnipotence, to carry out the amazing work on the immensity of things. This preserving power extends to the twofold universe of matter and of spirit. (1.) To the world of matter. It is kept what it is by this never-ceasing influence. The properties of matter are maintained such, by an abiding will of God. We may talk of gravity, of motion, and of divisibility; these are only modes of existence which have no substantiality in themselves—but are kept such by God. We may talk of the laws of matter, and sometimes may ignorantly think of them as principles or powers existing in matter, even independently of the Creator—but these laws are only God's methods of producing effects by material means. Every existence, and every property and quality and act of each, is maintained simply by the everlasting power of God. Were this power to be withheld, they would not only cease to have such qualities—but would cease to be.
The dream of ATHEISM is, that the laws of nature constitute all the power there is; and that these laws are only a tendency of material things, rendering unnecessary the supposition of a first cause distinct from matter. The equally absurd dream of PANTHEISM is, that everything is God, and that all the revolutions of the great mass are stages in the development and growth of divinity; for Pantheism believes that God may develop, and change, and grow. But reason suggests and revelation declares that the material world is upheld by a most powerful, wise, holy, and infinite Being, separate from itself.
(2.) Again, this preserving power extends to the world of spirit. God, who inspired the soul of man, and created all embodied spirits, continues their being by his perpetual sustentation. Not as the Pantheists imagine, that all spirits are parts or modifications of God—but that God, while eternally distinct from all spirits, is intimately present with all, sustaining them in all their properties and acts. In this important sense, God is not far from everyone of us. Surrounded and contained by him, and upheld in all the more glorious attributes of manhood by his power, we may in truth be said to be nearer to God than our bodies are to our souls. "Where shall I go from your Spirit, and where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend up into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold you are there; if I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall your hand lead me, and your right hand shall hold me." Ps. 139. This upholding power is properly due to none but God; and hence we derive an irresistible argument for the divinity of our Lord Jesus; since he who thus upholds must be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, that is, must be God; and since this preservation is ascribed to Christ, Heb. 1:3: "Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power;" and Col. 1:17, "All things were created by him and for him; and he is before all things, and by him all things consist."
The view which we here take of Providence, regards the universe of mind and matter, not as a machine, wound up and left to run its career of centuries, without the Maker's care—but as requiring and receiving at every moment his mighty influence, a stream of power perpetually proceeding from the Godhead. The very essence of God is, therefore, everlastingly present with every atom and every spirit. This is exactly accordant to those places in Scripture where God is spoken of as the universal cause, and is said to do those things which are done, secondarily, by creatures. Ps. 104:8, 30. And to this is referred the supporting of life in the most insignificant birds. Matt. 10:29. Enough has been said in regard to this primary acting of divine Providence, in preserving all things. How God does this it would be madness for us to inquire. The simplicity of the divine acts causes them to elude our faculties. He wills it, and that is enough; just as at the beginning he willed creation. What we chiefly need is to bear this in mind, with daily faith, awe, and thankfulness. Such is God's preserving of the creature, as a part of Providence.
II.But there is another equally important agency, put forth by the infinite Creator; it is the DIRECTION of all things. God not only PRESERVES, but GOVERNS the universe of matter and spirit. He continues to "direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will—to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy."
What is to be proposed will have regard to a twofold objection; against God's providence concerning trifles, and his providence concerning sins.
And here, let me acknowledge, I have often wondered at the distinctions taken by some men who would hold rank as philosophers—but who nevertheless, affirm a general while they deny a particular providence, as if the general were not made up of the particulars, or as if God could attend to the whole without attending to the parts. This error is perhaps increased by our forms of expression, allowable in themselves, when, for example, we say of this or of that event, that "it is providential," when in very deed all events are providential, as all are ordered from the greatest to the least. Under pretext of exalting God, and raising him above the care and trouble of earthly things, we betray really low notions of his divinity. We judge of him as of ourselves, and of God as if he were man; our language implies that what is burdensome and annoying to us must be so to him.
We allow him to direct suns and stars and comets, and things in heaven—but the sparrow and the hairs of the head we deem too small for him. Yet, you remember, these are the very instances which he has chosen. That which was fit to be created, is fit to be preserved, though it be the infinitesimal muscle or nerve in the microscopic animalcule. We make too much of our distinctions of greater and smaller, when we carry them into eternity: such quantities reach not Jehovah. It costs him no more thought, no more labor, no more exertion, to maintain an atom in its sunbeam, than to whirl systems of suns and planets and satellites along the shining galaxy. In this sense, we may accept as true the celebrated words of the poet, though false in another—
"Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
When God beholds his eternal plan spread out in the infinite idea of his own wisdom, his perfect knowledge reaches not only to the grand portions—but to every ramification and filament; and with perfect ease plans and directs for the insect of an hour, just as for the triumph of an emperor. We, therefore, attribute to the care and guidance of God "all things without exception, whether celestial or sublunary, small or great, good or evil, necessary or free, so that there is nothing in nature which can exist or occur, without his distinct permission."
If it were glorious to create, why not to govern? God is nowhere greater than in the smallest things—the plumage of the insect, and the circulation of a system, the very existence of which is revealed to us by the microscope. God is great in great things—and he is no less great in the very least things. This ought to answer the objection drawn from the littleness of the affairs which a particular providence would refer to God.
But there is another objection to our doctrine of God's government of all things, which has still more strongly operated to make some banish the Creator from his moral universe; it is that God's providence cannot have anything to do with sinful acts; and that to say that it has, were to destroy all freedom of the creature, and all accountability for crime. It may be well to say at once, that if we assert that evil acts may not be foreseen and provided for, we may as well deny the Bible at once.
There never was a more evil act than the death of Christ; yet it was provided for, and (not only so) was indispensably necessary to the salvation of men. It was provided for during ages preceding; and Peter says of it very distinctly (Acts 2:23): "Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken, and with wicked hands have crucified and slain." The act is declared to be wicked, yet it is equally declared to be by the "determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God;" therefore, acts which are evil may be included in the plan of Providence.
A lesser—but equally demonstrative case, is that of Joseph. The act of his brethren, in selling him into Egypt, was an evil act, yet it was governed by Providence. It was all arranged and foreseen. It formed a part of God's plan. It was intended to produce the most beneficial results. What says Joseph? (Gen. 45:7, 8.) "God sent me before you. It was not you that sent me here—but God." And again (50:20) "As for you, you thought evil against me—but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save many people alive." Now, here I would ask of every objector two questions:
1. Was the sending of Joseph to Egypt providential or not? To this there can be but one answer. Scripture gives answer in God's name: "God sent me before you."
2. Was the act of selling Joseph sinful? There is no answer—but one, in the words of Joseph; "You thought evil—but God meant it for good." You thought evil; here is sin: God meant it unto good; here is providence.
So likewise in the case of the Assyrian invading and punishing the Hebrews (Isa. 10:6) "I will send him against a godless nation; I will command him to go against a people destined for My wrath, to take spoils, to plunder, and to trample them down like clay in the streets. But this is not what he intends; this is not what he plans. It is his intent to destroy and to cut off many nations." The Assyrian committed crime in his invasion; yet he thereby worked out the results which God intended. In the commission of his crime, he was perfectly free, and perfectly accountable; yet this crime was not only foreseen—but, as we observe, predicted by the Almighty. God was not the author of the sin, though the sin occurred providentially; and, foreseeing this, God recognizes man's accountability, and denounces punishment (ver. 12): "But when the Lord finishes all His work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, He will say, "I will punish the king of Assyria for his arrogant acts and the proud look in his eyes."
If we do not recognize this intervention of Providence in regard to the free acts of creatures, we can never interpret those judgments of God which are wrought by wicked men. "Saul took a sword, and fell upon it." (1 Chr. 10:4.) It was his own act—his wicked, act; yet what says the Scriptures? (ver. 13) "So Saul died, for his transgression which he committed against the Lord. And he inquired not of the Lord; therefore He slew him, and returned the kingdom unto David, the son of Jesse." This may serve to show how grave an error is committed by many people in certain expressions of theirs. We hear them say, for example, "I could bear this trial better if there were anything providential in it—if it proceeded from any direction of God; but, on the contrary, it proceeds from wicked men." Very well; so it may, and yet be providential. "The wicked," says David, are "your sword." God can make the wicked acts of men a sword to punish others, and even themselves.
The conspiracy against Christ was wicked; yet the early believers said, and said in prayer to God (Acts 4:27), "For of a truth against your holy child Jesus, whom you have anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatever your hand and your counsel determined beforehand to be done." Here the wicked acts of men come clearly within the scope of Providence. Here is evidently joined with the permission of sins that "most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation to his own holy ends, yet so as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin."
The instances above given, which were free and contingent with regard to their actors, are expressly ascribed to Divine Providence. And is there not a consolation in so believing? Suppose we assert providence of good things only, and not of bad: what follows? That which we most dread, and which alone can do us harm, namely, the wickedness of men and devils, is placed beyond the providential guidance of God. Surely, there is no comfort in believing that the worst, and most atrocious and destructive acts of men are under the dominion of blind chance! Yet such is the common opinion of worldly men on this subject. The government of God, indeed, with regard to evil acts, is different from his government in regard to holy acts. He may include both in his most wise plan—but he contemplates free acts as free acts, and in no degree puts forth any causative influence to tempt or compel to the commission of them.
That there are difficulties here we do not for a moment deny; but they are such as arise from the depths of the divine nature, and the short sounding-line of human reason. In two things we all agree. We must all admit God's permission of evil. Without this permission it could never have existed. God was clearly under no necessity of having sin in the universe. He could clearly have made men without the faculty of sinning; or he could have made a system without men; or he could have forborne from making any system at all. The evil in the universe is clearly under God's permission: he allows it to exist. In this, I say, we all agree. There is another thing in which we all agree, and between these two limits of undeniable truth our opinions have room to oscillate. We all agree that God has no participation in moral evil. Though he permits it, as the product of free creatures, he hates it. Our church has been charged with holding that God is the author of the sin of sinful acts; on the contrary, we teach—"The sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God." "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither does he tempt any man." God could annihilate the sinful creature the moment his free nature breaks forth into sin. In his infinite wisdom he has chosen to do otherwise, and to uphold the existence of the creature even when rebelling against him, yet in such a manner that the taint and pollution belong only to the sinner.
All the creatures of God, then, and all their acts, are governed by his most wise, and holy, and omnipotent providence, to work out his own excellent glory. This is God's ultimate end in creation. No other can be conceived of. To make anything but God his own end, were to set something above God. When as yet there was no creation, and no providence, God contained in himself all the reasons of what was afterwards to be; and these reasons still remain. To create, was in a manner to reveal himself—the earliest revelation; not by words—but acts; and every creature, with all that proceeds from it, is a part of this display. The addition of spiritual and intellectual agencies, men and angels, to the otherwise brute fabric of God's works, afforded indeed spectators of this glory, and judges of this skill; and the quality of choice, freedom, or voluntary action possessed by these beings, introduces a new principle into the universe; one which separates morals from nature, and one in which the Most High appears to take the greatest delight. For we know of nothing which God so loves, or which he purchases at so high a rate, as the free love of a creature. This exalts his benevolence, and is the key to many of his dispensations.
But all creature minds, however spiritual and how ever free, are infinitely inferior to Jehovah, and infinitely too small to afford the real motive of the universe, which must have been eternal—which must have been GOD. All the boundless combinations and interchanges of matter and mind (the latter being far the more complicated and wonderful), all the play of wheel in wheel, of cause in cause, of thought in thought; of passion in passion, conspire to work out one and the same result—the glory of God. "For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things."
What a dismal view is that which epicurean infidelity takes of this universal frame! God is not in all his works! He has left them. As if I should be introduced to a lofty, wide, and noble palace: its walls are strength; every quality of a magnificent structure is there; all is convenience and ornament. I gaze on its sublime colonnades, its sculptured friezes, its statued walls, its interior decorations. What is there left to be desired? One thing: it has no inhabitant. Such is the universe without a providence. Deny the actual and efficient presence of God in his works (and this is providence), and you leave me a world without reason. You give me no assurance that the very next moment may not produce some general and direful catastrophe, involving all the universe in common destruction, without respect to character, swallowing up the good as well as the evil: for to provide for a difference between them would be a providence.
The progress of history is a tangled web—but its developments are chaos indeed, without God. The unfolding of God's design is history. It is he who changes dynasties, and over the convulsion of revolutionary war, makes a highway for his own glorious approach. The study of human records, of daily journals, and even of legislative and diplomatic documents, throw very little light on the riddle of history. The great heroic instruments themselves know little. But the study of revelation, which is God's key to providence, reveals to the believer more than the world dreamed of. Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Alexander the Great, and the Roman empire, were all foreshown to Daniel in the visions of Chaldea. Compare with this the foresight of the great minds themselves, and how clearly do we perceive that it is not they—but Providence, that laid the plan. Do you think that Nebuchadnezzar dreamed, when he was consolidating his mighty empire, that it should presently be given to the Medes and Persians? As little, as that the great Euphrates should be turned out of its bed: and yet both took place. Do you think the young, adventurous Macedonian, as he swept over Asia, conceived that in that same Babylon he should die of his debaucheries? Or Caesar, just arrived at the summit of power, with the republic at his feet, that he should perish by the daggers of his friends? Or Napoleon, that he should die a lingering death in a remote island? Or Charles the Tenth, or Louis Philippe, that they should become fugitives, and die in exile? As little as the great planners, legislators, and orators of Europe know this day, what shall be the succeeding revolutions of the wheel. But God knows. And God has been pleased to disclose some glimpses of his plan. He shows us a delicate but perceptible thread, running as a golden clue through all these transactions and changes, even when most willful and most unexpected. Governments, nations, and languages decay; but the Church remains. It is the great organ for manifesting God's glory, and for exalting his Son. For we live under a mediatorial dispensation, and the kingdoms of this world are to become the kingdoms of God, and of his Christ.
Nor let the humble Christian fear, lest amid the greatness of such events, his little individual interests should be forgotten or overlooked. Oh no! It is a blessed thing to be on the side of One, of whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things. We have seen it to be a characteristic glory of God's knowledge and acts, that he can condescend to the infinitely small, as well as stretch his creative hand to the infinitely great. Amidst the voices from the throne, which tell of the fall of empires, and the triumph of Immanuel, we hear also a whisper of love, saying to the Church, "Fear not, little flock: it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom;" and saying to the believer, "The very hairs of your head are all numbered." "Do not be anxious for tomorrow." "Your Father knows that you have need of these things."
Ah! I know the sneering objection which poor, self-tormenting skepticism makes to this particular providence. In his zeal to make himself an orphan in the universe, he denies that God can take any measures for the relief of individual cases. This would be to step aside from his original plan. Hence the vulgar objections to trusting in God's help in emergencies, or to praying for it. How preposterous (such an one tells us) to think that God will vary from the line of his sublime acts, to meet the case of a poor woman, or an insignificant child. True enough: but God does not vary; he does not deviate. That emergency, that distress, that cry, that deliverance—all are parts of the plan, links of the chain; and this is precisely what we mean by providence. The ignorance and obtuseness are all on the side of the scoffer, who does not perceive, what I have earnestly pressed before, that free acts of creatures are equally in the plan; and hence, when God turns aside the arrow from the heart of his praying child, he does what he foresaw to be done, even from eternal ages.
Mount Etna has no fires—but for God's purpose. Gravitation has no cogency an instant longer than God stands by to act. And when the tower falls, whether in judgment or not, it falls just where and when infinite wisdom has predetermined it should fall. And if this concurs with the earnest believing prayer of God's child, it is not an exception to the general rule, or a deviation from the plan—but a substantial part of what was provided for; that is, it is providence. It is therefore as philosophical as it is pious, for the child of God to trust in him, and resort to him. The Almighty is never greater than when he stoops to the wants and weaknesses of his suffering people. His words of promise, especially as they fell from the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ, are surpassingly sweet and encouraging. They occupy much of the sermon on the mount. Its latter parts are an application of the doctrine of Providence. And I solemnly charge every follower of Christ to believe, that he is never more reasonably engaged, than when he is casting himself on the Divine Providence. Instead of shuddering in chilly doubt as to particular providence, be assured you cannot conceive of a providence more particular than that which is. Superstition may take that for providence which is only its own morbid fancy. Presumption may rely on Providence, in idle, insolent neglect of means. But true faith will still cling to the belief, that the sparrow's fall is not too particular for God's plan.
It is our privilege, not only to hope in Providence, with regard to the lesser affairs of life—but to recognize it—to see God's hand in our daily walk, with wonder and love. "They who observe providences, shall have providences to observe." The simple faith of the patriarchs saw God's hand in everything which befell them; and so might we. I appeal to aged and observant Christians, whether the happiest people they ever knew, have not been those who were most ready to eye God in all the events of life: in health and sickness, in business, and in family occurrences. Let us hope in Providence. Let us hope mightily. "But I will hope continually, and will yet praise you more and more." Do days look dark? O remember, every cloud is governed by the God of truth and the God of power. The house in which you dwell is not without a master. He has issued his promise.
"His very word of grace is strong,
Though sorrow may endure for a night, yet joy comes in the morning. It is all the more likely to come, for your trusting. "Blessed are all who put their trust in him."
Especially delightful is the thought, that the world of mind is under providence; that thoughts, and feelings, and frames, and free acts, are controlled by infinite wisdom; and that our spiritual condition is under the same guidance which regulates our birth and death. Cling fast to the hand which is leading you. Though it be through darkness, though it be in deep waters, you know whom you have believed. Yield not for a single moment to misgivings about future storms or shipwrecks, as though any part of your spiritual voyage could fall out by chance. Infinite love, joined to infinite skill, shall pilot the way through every strait, and temptation, and peril. God has ever loved to place his people where they had none to hope in—but him alone. Your own experience probably recalls such times. Let the recollection be for your abundant encouragement and support. Repose on the arm which has never failed you hitherto. And bring in the aid of a nobler consideration, drawn from an object higher than your own personal, temporary happiness. Love to God is love to his honor. If by your means his great name can be exalted; if, even by trying dispensations to you, Christ's praise can be diffused, you will joyfully cry, "Let him be magnified, by body and soul, whether in life or death." All things work together for the divine glory: this is a stable truth; but—blessed be his name—it is equally true, that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose." Such reliance is very different from the inert repose of the philosopher on his Fate. It is reliance on a present God, who is all wisdom, foresight, love and power. He can cause the wrath of man to praise him; the remainder of that wrath he can restrain.
Even you who disbelieve and rebel, shall be made to do reluctant honor to his name. You are equally swayed by his Providence. If his deserving wrath should fall upon you in the eternal world, it will be to the praise of the glory of his justice. But how infinite will be the gain to you, if you freely accept of his salvation, and join yourselves to the number of those who glorify him, not in spite of themselves, not by rebellion and woe—but by the willing tribute of joyful service! In regard to your own happiness, holiness and perfection, Providence cannot be said to be on your side, while you remain unreconciled to God. And this is a very unequal war in which you are engaged; for who can stand before him, when once he is angry? God will educe order out of confusion, and harmony out of the temporary discord, however much you may rebel; but the part of wisdom is to make God's interest yours, and so to join yourselves to his certain triumph, as to participate in it. Therefore, "be reconciled to God!" His indignation is intolerable—but his grace and love are heaven. And they are yours, on acceptance. None can stay his hand, when he has a purpose to bless. He works out his own irresistible decrees. "For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen." (Romans 11:36)