William S. Plumer, 1865


"When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me." Psalm 73:16

Providence is a greater mystery than revelation. The state of the world is more humiliating to our reason than the doctrines of the gospel. A reflecting Christian sees more to excite his astonishment, and to exercise his faith, in the state of things in this world—than in what he reads from Genesis to Revelation. (Cecil.)

God act according to rules of wisdom and justice, which it may be quite impossible by our faculties to apprehend, or understand. (Barrow.)

There is, and ever was somewhat, very much, in God's providential administration of the things of this world, which the most improved reason of men cannot reach unto, and which is contrary to all that is in us, as merely men. (John Owen.)

The book of Providence is inextricable and unintelligible to the wisest of men, who are not governed by the word of God. But when the principles of Scripture are admitted and understood, they throw a pleasing light upon the study of Divine Providence, and at the same time are confirmed and illustrated by it. (John Newton.)

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Jehovah.)

No subject has more perplexed godly men, than the dark aspects of Providence. Jeremiah was humble and very tender-hearted, yet he says, "Why are the wicked so prosperous? Why are evil people so happy?" This pious, humble servant of God was sore perplexed. Indeed the Scriptures everywhere admit that God's ways are unsearchable. "Your judgments are a great deep." Psalm 36:6. "Your way is in the sea, and your path in the great waters, and your footsteps are not known." Psalm 77:19. "Marvelous are your works." Psalm 139:14. Even in heaven itself; glorified ones sing, "Great and marvelous are your works, Lord God Almighty." Rev. 15:3. So that inspiration itself everywhere covers the eternal throne with clouds and darkness, and admits that acts of providence are veiled in mystery. Wonders will never cease. Heaven is full of mysteries, though none of them are painful—but all of them glorious.

Let us look at several things which must ever make the providence of God mysterious to pious men in this world.

1. God's ways of working are infinitely diversified, even in the midst of a general uniformity. He saves or he destroys in any way he pleases, by the strong, or by the weak; by friend or by foe; when danger is seen, and when it is unseen. He sends an army of men, or an army of caterpillars to punish a guilty nation. In either case the work is done. He shakes a leaf, or sends an earthquake, and each does its errand. God is confined to no routine. He knows and commands all causes, all agents, all truths, all errors, all influences, and all oppositions. At a nod he makes the great, small; or the small, great. No mortal can tell which of two causes is the greater, until he sees what God will make of them. Men and causes are considerable or contemptible according to the fiat of Jehovah. That which to us sometimes seems like confusion, is in fact all order.

In the seventy-third Psalm, Asaph tells us at length of his deep and terrible perplexity when looking at the ways of God. Coming to a knowledge of his own ignorance, and of the infinite glory of God, his troubles vanish; and he concludes his sorrowful meditations with the exultant assurance, "Whom have I in heaven but you? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside you. My flesh and my heart fails—but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."

2. For many things in providence we can give no account, except that so it seemed good to the Judge of all the earth. Who can tell why bloody Nero was left to ruin by his passions, and Saul of Tarsus, no less bloody, was saved? Why was repentance granted to one thief on the cross, while the other died a blasphemer? The mercies received by any man are wholly undeserved. No man merits any good thing at the hand of his Maker. Yet all receive many mercies, and some are blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus. On the other hand, why is one man more afflicted than another? All our afflictions are deserved, yes, they are always fewer than we deserve. Indeed the wonder is we suffer so little. But the whole doctrine of divine judgments is of difficult interpretation, when we come to individual cases.

McCosh says, "It is comparatively seldom that we have such a minute acquaintance with every event in the past life of a neighbor, as to be able to determine the precise end contemplated in any visitation of God towards him. In some cases, indeed, the connection is manifest to the man's intimate friend, or to the world at large, as when intemperance and excess lead to poverty and disease, and cunning leads to distrust, and is caught in the net which it laid for others. In other cases, the connection is only visible to the individual himself, or his most intimate friends. In all cases, it is easier to determine the meaning of the judgments of God in reference to ourselves, than in their reference to others, when they are exposed to them. Being ourselves acquainted with all the incidents of our past life, we may trace a connection between deeds which we have done, and trials sent upon us—a connection which no other is intended to perceive, or so much as to suspect. While affliction can in no case prove the existence of sin not otherwise established, yet it may be the means of leading the person afflicted to inquire; whether he may not in his past life have committed some sin, of which this is the punishment or cure. Here, as in many other cases, the rule is to be strict in judging ourselves and slow in judging others."

3. The absence of pomp and parade in God's providence, has struck many. How noiseless are most of his doings. When in spring Jehovah would reanimate all nature, bring into activity myriads of insects, give growth to millions of seeds, and clothe mountains and valleys in living green—it is all a silent work.

When he would subvert a universal monarchy, long before the time set for that purpose, he puts it into the heart of a great ruler to build a bridge, and for that purpose to change the channel of a river for a season. This is all done without signs in heaven, or war in the elements. In the fullness of time the same river is, by means the simplest, diverted from its channel. Belshazzar is slain, Babylon is a prey to the invader, and a universal empire is dissolved.

Commonly when God depopulates cities and kingdoms, his messengers pass silently along, and do their work before men are aware. There was no noise of preparation for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The morning of their eternal overthrow was as calm as any on which the sun had risen upon them. The destroying angel, who slew the first-born of Egypt, spread his mighty wings over the land, and from them dropped down death on every habitation of man and beast. Yet all was quiet as the grave, until the wail of bereavement filled the land with terror.

God makes a world with less noise than that produced by man when he makes a coffin. When Jehovah spread out the heavens and set up their unshaken pillars, there was not so much as the sound of a hammer. When on our best railroads we travel at the rate of sixty miles an hour, the rumbling noise is heard afar, the sight of our speed is startling to every spectator, and we cannot divest ourselves of apprehension. But ever since we were born we have been riding on a world moved by God at the rate of more than sixty-two thousand miles every hour. And yet who has been afraid? Who has heard any startling sound? This is the more wonderful because the motion of the earth is not simple, but complex. Yet in the midst of all this speed we can hear the chirping of a bird, or the dropping of a pin. But when God chooses, he can make our ears to tingle. By the shaking of a leaf he can startle us, or make us rise up with alarming sounds. "The thunder of his power who can understand?" When he shall destroy the world it shall be with sounds that shall awake the dead. "The heavens shall pass away with a great noise." When God chooses to be heard, even the mountains give ear and obey his voice. At his rebuke he dries up the sea, and makes the river a wilderness. Yet, ordinarily, his footsteps are not heard, and his voice is but the silent going forth of his almighty energy.

4. In his mysterious providence God also hides his works and ways from man by commonly removing results far from human view. In autumn the farmer scatters his wheat and buries it under the ground. It dies. Search and you shall find it rotten. The rigors of a long winter are approaching. The unskilled would say this sowing of seed was madness. It was casting bread upon the waters. But wait until summer, and that farmer shall shout his harvest home. What thus occurs in the natural world is a type of spiritual things. "They who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who goes forth and weeps, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him." Much as the blessed result is hoped for, it is not perceived by any mortal. None but God sees the end from the beginning. Whom he would bless, he first puts to the test of patient waiting. If the righteous should see the happy outcome of all that befalls them—as it lies open before God—their afflictions would be no trials. Had Abraham known that all God would require of him would be to bind Isaac and lay him on the altar, we never would have heard of the illustrious faith of the father of believers. Jacob once cried out, "Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and you will take Benjamin away. All these things are against me!" He lived to see that all these things were for him. But at the time of his bereavement he saw not the blessed end, and so his virtue was severely tested.

If on the day of crucifixion, as on the day of Pentecost, the disciples had clearly perceived the results of that scene of terror, the Shepherd might have been smitten—but the sheep would hardly have been scattered. And it is as true of the wicked as of the righteous—that they cannot foresee results; they cannot tell what God is about to do. None are more surprised than the wicked at the conclusion of things under God's control. The sinner intends—but God superintends. The creature appoints—but God disappoints. Man proposes—but God disposes. Lazarus was filled with wonder to find himself in Abraham's bosom—but Dives was sorely amazed to find himself in hell. Neither Pharaoh, nor Belshazzar, nor Herod, nor Pilate, expected such results to themselves as their wickedness wrought out. "Sin, when it is finished, brings forth death." The wicked have the hope of heaven, in the midst of all iniquity and unbelief. How sorely will their souls be vexed when they find themselves eternally, hopelessly disappointed.

5. God's ways respecting means are very remarkable. So far as we can see, he often works without means. Perceiving no causes in operation, we expect no effects. Seeing no disease, we expect no death. Not perceiving any cause for a certain trial—it finds us unprovided with remedies, and we are ready to be swallowed up. As we begin to give up all hope, God steps in and relieves us. When he chooses, he dispenses with all means. He did so when he made the world. He has often done so since. "I will have mercy upon the house of Judah, and will save them by the Lord their God, and will not save them by bow nor by sword, nor by battle, nor by horses, nor by horsemen." Hos. 1:7.

Again, God often works by means, which seem to us INSIGNIFICANT. Burke, "The death of a man at a critical juncture, his disgust, his retreat, his disgrace—have brought innumerable evils on a whole nation. A common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn—have changed the face of fortune, and almost the face of nature." Wellington, "The stumbling of a horse may decide the outcome of a battle—and so the destinies of an empire!" Will God save Rome from pillage? It shall be done by the cackling of geese. Has a man's appointed time upon earth expired? The sting of a bee, the scratch of a pin, a crumb of bread, or a spring zephyr—shall be the means of his death! Will God prolong the life of Hezekiah? A lump of figs shall have healing efficacy. Will he raise up a wonderful nation? It shall be from a man, whose body was dead, he being about a hundred years old, and the womb of his wife dead also. Rom. 4:19.

Moreover God often works CONTRARY to means. How much bad practice in medicine does he provide against, and thus restore the patient! How many blunders in his ministers does he overrule for good! Christ would give sight to a blind man. He makes clay, puts it on his eyes as if to make him more blind—but he is healed. A terrible fall dislocates a joint. The bone is not put rightly back into its place. Years of lameness and suffering follow. A second fall, worse than the first, jars the frame, jeopardizes life—but restores the bone to its socket, and soon the man walks and leaps and praises God. By death, God destroyed him that had the power of death. God often works contrary to the natural tendency of means.

5. God also employs such instruments as greatly confound us. Our ignorance and unbelief would choose those instruments which God rejects; and reject those instruments which he selects. Will he cure Naaman's leprosy? A little captive maid shall tell him of the prophet of the Lord. Will he lead forth Israel from Egyptian bondage? That little infant in a basket among the reeds, by edict doomed to death as soon as born, shall be the deliverer. Will he make Joseph prime minister of Egypt? His brethren envy and sell him, the Ishmaelites carry him far from all loved ones, Potiphar imprisons him, the iron enters into his flesh; yet in God's providence every step is ordained to the destined result.

How often are those whom we never befriended made to minister to our aid and comfort! Must God's people be brought out of Babylon? Cyrus shall send forth the binding decree. This worshiper of the sun deals as tenderly with God's people as a nurse with her child. It would not have been more wonderful to see the wolf nourishing and protecting a lamb. Who would have supposed that God would choose a raven to feed Elijah, the boy Samuel to bear heavy tidings to Eli, or the youth Jeremiah to pull down, destroy and build up kingdoms? God would exalt his Son and give him a name, which is above every name. He is made flesh, born in a manger, is subject to his parents, is tempted, mocked, spit upon, betrayed, denied, condemned, crucified, dead and buried—yet all ends in his exaltation. He, who made swaddling bands for the sea, was laid in swaddling clothes, that he might be the first-born among many brethren. By falling he arose above all his enemies, above all the creatures of God.

Will God bring the gospel to the ends of the world? It shall not be done by the ministry of angels—but to the poor, condemned, and dying—the riches of his mercy shall be borne in earthen vessels. Will God subdue the world to knowledge, to peace and righteousness? Humble men shall be his ambassadors. Will he make of his people a glorious church? "Brothers, consider your calling: not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen the world’s foolish things to shame the wise, and God has chosen the world’s weak things to shame the strong. God has chosen the world’s insignificant and despised things—the things viewed as nothing—so He might bring to nothing the things that are viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence." 1 Corinthians 1:26-29

Look at that godly man surrounded by an infuriated throng. Each one gnashes with his teeth and is intense for his prey. At the giving of the signal, stone follows stone. Gash after gash is made on the body of the pious sufferer. The blood streams from his head and body. Near by him stands a small young man, drinking in with malignant joy the groans that fall from the martyr's lips. Like a young tiger, hitherto fed on milk—but now tasting blood, he becomes furious against all who call on the name of Jesus. He breathes out threatenings and slaughter. He sheds innocent blood without remorse and without cessation. Who would believe that this persecutor was the chosen of God, and should yet, with unparalleled zeal and incredible success, preach Jesus, call sinners to repentance, and give joy and courage to the trembling disciples? Yet such was God's plan—and it was all executed.

God is a sovereign. His counsel shall stand. He will do all his pleasure. He rejected all the seven elder sons of Jesse, and chose the little boy, David, who had been left with the sheep, and made him king of his people, and the sweet singer of Israel. "Man looks on the outward appearance—but the Lord looks on the heart." Most of the great, useful, and honored men of the next generation are now poor boys, unnoticed by the proud, buffeting difficulties, and forming vigorous characters under the influence of neglect and adversity. Matthew Henry says, "The most splendid women the world ever saw, have been those who were most familiar with toil and care."

7. We often tremble to see God pursuing a course which, to our short sight, seems quite contrary to the end to be gained. This is for two purposes. The first is to humble us and thus prepare us for the reception of his great blessings. The other is to prove that "besides him there is no Savior." When mountains and waters and cruel Egyptians hedged in the Israelites on every side, and it was manifest that "in vain was the help of man!" Then came the word, "Stand still and see the salvation of God," and the sea was cleft in two, and its waves became walls. "In the mount it shall be seen" is for a saying in Israel. Even the gospel was not sent until men had racked their inventions, and were at their wit's end. "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe." Everything in its order. When wit has shown its weakness—then God's word comes in, and speaks wisdom. When human powers fall prostrate, divine energy produces the desired results.

The mysteries of providence are very vast. No created mind can fathom them. Let us dwell on the subject a little further, in the order already observed.

8. Men are so ignorant of their own hearts that they are incapable of determining what is best for them. Even regenerate men are but partially sanctified and enlightened. But God searches the heart. He understands our whole case. He knows what is most for our good. He sees our strong corruptions and sad deficiencies. When, in mercy to His child, he comes to heal his spiritual maladies, he does not take counsel with human reasoning or desires. It is right, it is best that he should act according to the wisdom which is infallible. He employs the requisite remedies. Often they are distasteful to flesh and blood. Sometimes they are frightful to contemplate and terrible to endure. Then man, in his ignorance, too often says, "If God loved me, he would not give me so bitter a cup to drink!" But this is man's folly. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? Shall human weakness control divine power? Shall finite knowledge prescribe to omniscience? It is the height of wickedness for a worm of the dust to revise the decisions, or pre-judge the justice of the Almighty. We should expect that God would deal with us, in an incomprehensible way—if we did but remember how base, sordid, and narrow are our views and plans; and how holy, glorious, and eternal are his purposes and designs. We are quite prone to magnify both the good and evil things of time, to the disparagement of those of eternity. But when God thwarts, afflicts, and mortifies us—he makes us look at the things which are unseen and eternal. If he racks this body with pain, it is that we may think of our house, not made with hands, eternal, and in the heavens. The shaking of this clay tabernacle forces upon us the recollection that this is not our rest, and that we ought to be seeking a heavenly country. If the godliest man on earth had his own way without divine guidance—he would soon be in full march towards destruction!

How kind is God in wisely and mercifully deciding so many things for us! The man who fears God and loves his little daughter, would esteem it a greater affliction to be called on to say when his child should be sick—than he now finds it to nurse her through weeks of disease, close her eyes in death, and then carry her to the grave. God very mercifully bears the heaviest part of all our trials, by marking out our course for us. God is governor. We are servants. To us belong obedience, submission, acquiescence. It is not ours to guide, to decide what is best, to rule the world, to shape the course of events.

9. It is very remarkable that God so strangely upholds his people, and keeps them from falling into sin. How often are their feet ready to slip—and yet how commonly are they upheld. The wonder is that they do not fall every day. But the promise even concerning the weak among them is that they shall be held up, for God is able to make them stand. True, his grace is secretly supplied, and that is their support. But his providence often hedges them about, surrounds them with motives to right conduct, sends seasonable hints and warnings, points out the wretchedness of transgression, and so holds them up. "The deliverances of God's people," says Flavel, "are often as remote from their expectations, as from the designs of their enemies." "Hold me up, and I shall be safe!" Psalm 119:117

10. To some God's providence is full of mystery, because at times he works so slowly, and at other times he works so rapidly. Sometimes he takes scores and even hundreds of years to effect a purpose. Again he cuts short the work in righteousness. From the day that Joseph is sold to the Ishmaelites until he and his brethren are reconciled are four and twenty long years, while in less than twenty-four hours, Daniel is delivered from the lions' den and from the fearful conspiracy against him. The Babylonish captivity lasts seventy years, and yet probably in less than seventy minutes, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are brought out of the burning fiery furnace unhurt. "My times are with you, O God." God takes his own time and is never in a hurry, and is never slack as some men account these things. One day is with the Lord as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day.

11. Hardly anything in Providence is more incomprehensible than the lengths to which God often permits men to go in the way of transgression before he brings them to a saving knowledge of Christ Jesus. Yonder goes a funeral procession. A large and respectable church is burying one of its most valued members. He has lately departed this life in the triumphs of faith. His death was preceded by months of painful sickness, which was borne with sweet submission to God's will. This sickness was preceded by more than a dozen years of close, humble walking with God, as the fruit of a clear conversion. But that conversion was preceded by more than a dozen years of shocking intemperance and profaneness, during which promises were made, pledges given, and oaths taken that the cup of poison should be laid aside—but all in vain. A voyage to sea was alike ineffectual. So desperate was that man's state of mind that he often said, "If I could see the world wrapped in flames, I would clap my hands for joy." At length he determined on self-destruction. The deadly poison is procured. The vial is emptied—but the stomach refuses to retain it. Life is prolonged. At last he resolves to pray for strength to overcome his dreadful sin. His prayer is heard. This leads him to pray for other things. The result is his salvation.

Nor was this a solitary case. Some of the converted members of the church at Corinth had been sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers. Nor were they the only ones, whose state was debased before their conversion. The whole church at Ephesus was made up of those who had been "once darkness," but by their happy change were now "light in the Lord." In countries but recently enlightened by the Gospel are found in the churches many, who once sacrificed their children to devils.

12. Four things in God's providential dealings which we are not able to grapple with. (From John Owen)

1. Visible confusion. The oppression of tyrants, wasting of nations, destruction of men and animals, fury and desolations—make up the things of the past and present ages. Also, the greatest and choicest parts of the earth, in the meantime are inhabited by those who know not God, who hate him, who fill and replenish the world with habitations of cruelty, sporting themselves in mischief, like the leviathan in the sea, etc.

2. Unspeakable variety. Instance the case of the saints. In what unspeakable variety are they dealt with! Some under persecution always, some always at peace, some in dungeons and prisons, some at liberty in their own houses; the saints of one nation under great oppression for many ages, of another in quietness; in the same places some poor, in great distress, and put hard to it to gain their bread all their lives; others abounding in all things; some full of various afflictions, going softly and mourning all their days; others spared and scarce touched with the rod at all; and yet commonly the advantage of holiness, and close walking with God, lying on the distressed side, etc.

3. Sudden alterations. As in the case of Job, God takes a man who was blessed with choice blessings, in the midst of a course of obedience and close walking with himself, when he expected to die in his nest, and to see good all his days—ruins him in a moment; blasts his name, that he who was esteemed a choice saint, shall not be able to deliver himself from the common esteem of the hypocrite; slays his children; takes away his rest, health, and everything that is desirable to him. This amazes the soul, it knows not what God is doing, nor why he pleads with it in so much bitterness, etc.

4. Great, deep, and abiding distresses have the same effects, etc.

13. Nothing in providence is more inscrutable than the ever new discoveries and evolutions of the grace and wisdom of God towards his people. "He who spared not his own Son—but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" Romans 8:32. In one of his epistles (Titus 3:4) Paul speaks of the philanthropy of God, in the English properly rendered, love toward man. "After that the kindness and love of God toward man appeared," etc. The same word occurs in the New Testament but in one other place, Acts 28:2, where it is said, "The barbarous people showed us no little kindness." Their philanthropy consisted in kindling a fire and in hospitably receiving each of the sufferers from the rain and cold.

If such philanthropy as this is worthy of mention in the Book of God, surely the philanthropy of Jehovah in rescuing sinners from everlasting misery by the gift of his Son should never be forgotten while eternity endures. The Bible tells us that God's love is from everlasting to everlasting, that it is vastly productive of glory to God and salvation to man, that it is wholly gracious—but it never claims to do the subject justice. Jesus himself says, "God so loved the world," John 3:16, and the beloved disciple exclaims, "Behold what manner of love." 1 John 3:1. But neither the Master nor the beloved disciple can tell us the full meaning of the word, so, or of the phrase, what manner. The love of no mother is equal to the love of the Savior, Isaiah 49:15, and its developments and evolutions will be more and more glorious forever and ever.

14. Nor is all this strange if we duly consider that—God's providence is the acting out of his infinite perfections. Neither man nor angel comprehends the infinitude of his resources, the infallibility of his truth, the glory of his holiness, the power of his wrath, the fearfulness of his praises. He works like a God. His whole plans are on a scale so entirely above the comprehension of creatures, that angels no less than pious men, wonder and worship.

15. Nor can any creature ever make straight that which is crooked, nor smooth that which is rough, nor light that which is dark. Who can comprehend the inequality of the circumstances of mortals? Why are some men poor—while others no more virtuous are rich? Why are some feeble—while others are strong? Why are some unfortunate in almost every enterprise—while others hardly touch anything that does not seem to enhance their earthly comfort? Job saw these things, "The tents of robbers are safe, and those who provoke God are secure. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? The life of every living thing is in His hand, as well as the breath of all mankind."

16. Another thing that must invest the providence of God with perpetual mystery to mortals is the fact that all the mightiest agencies in the universe are invisible. No man has seen God at any time. No man can see his face and live. "When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him." "But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him.

9 When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him." Job 9:11; 23:8, 9. So likewise the agency of angels has almost always been beyond our perception, except by its effects. They excel in strength. One of them destroyed an army of one hundred and eighty-five thousand men in one night. Yet no one perceived him. In like manner, the evil influence of fallen angels is not observed. Thus the whole power of thrones, dominions and principalities pertaining to the invisible world eludes the grasp of our senses; yet nothing to an equal extent operates on this world.

"Wisdom and strength belong to God; counsel and understanding are His. Whatever He tears down cannot be rebuilt; whoever He imprisons cannot be released. When He withholds the waters, everything dries up, and when He releases them, they destroy the land. True wisdom and power belong to Him. The deceived and the deceiver are His. He leads counselors away barefoot and makes judges go mad. He releases the bonds put on by kings and ties a cloth around their waists. He leads priests away barefoot and overthrows established leaders. He deprives trusted advisers of speech and takes away the elders' good judgment. He pours out contempt on nobles and disarms the strong. He reveals mysteries from the darkness and brings the deepest darkness into the light. He makes nations great, then destroys them; He enlarges nations, then leads them away. He deprives the world’s leaders of reason, and makes them wander in a trackless wasteland. They grope around in darkness without light—He makes them stagger like drunken men." Job 12:13-25 These are but a few of the just and sublime statements of the man of Uz, respecting the undeniable mysteries connected with the invisible agency of the Lord Almighty.