A sermon preached at the thanksgiving service on the 50th anniversary of Evangelical Times (Hayes Town Chapel, 4 February 2017): ‘The righteous shall see it and rejoice: and all iniquity shall stop her mouth. Whoso is wise and will observe these things, even they shall understand the lovingkindness of the Lord’ (Psalm 107:42-43).
This text helps us consider history from the divine standpoint, to see events as the fulfilment of God’s purposes. It considers the past, not so much in terms of human actions and achievements, but as disclosing the providential government and character of God. ‘Whoso is wise and will observe these things [the things God has done], they shall understand the lovingkindness of the Lord’.
The 107th psalm gives us a panorama of moving pictures, of days of trouble and affliction, sometimes storms and sometimes calm, prosperity and adversity, advances and reversals; men sometimes raised high and sometimes brought low — summarised in verse 43 as ‘these things’.
We are not only looking at ancient times, but at the world we live in today. These verses show there are two ways of looking at it. On one hand, there is the way of the ‘wise’; on the other, the way of the workers of ‘iniquity’. People may live side by side, yet see very differently.
Those who leave out God look at life and its circumstances, but only see change, uncertainty, trouble and unhappiness. History is sometimes put on television for entertainment, but real history is not the stuff of entertainment; it is too serious and sad to be popular. In the words of Henry Lyte, ‘Brief life is here our portion; brief sorrow, short-lived care’.
Take a look in a bookshop and note how few books of history there are compared with works of fiction. The explanation is that a world of fiction has much more appeal than the real world. People think, ‘History cannot help us. It is depressing and futile to think about it’.
But here is another group of people. They look at the same world and are not dismayed and depressed. ‘The righteous … see it and rejoice’. What makes their view so different? It is because they are ‘wise’.
When they look at ‘these things’, they see more than events, they ‘observe’ the hand of God. They recognise the providence of God and so are led to understand ‘the loving kindness of the Lord’.
Understanding the providence of God is what separates the wise from the wicked. The reality is that God rules and reigns in this world, but the reason why human affairs look like things of chance and accident is because men do not want to know God.
The essence of sin is the wish that God should not rule over us. That God is guiding and directing all things according to his own purpose is a truth we do not want to hear. The wicked say to God, ‘Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways’ (Job 21:14).
But this wish does not change the reality that this whole creation, and every person in it, is in the hands of God almighty. Nothing ever takes him by surprise; nothing ever thwarts his will. ‘I am God, and there is none else; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, my counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure’ (Isaiah 46:9-10).
The word ‘providence’ means to see beforehand. God has determined in advance what takes place. ‘The Lord is great … Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did he in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places’ (Psalm 135:6); ‘there are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless, the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand’ (Proverbs 19:21); ‘God works all things according to the counsel of his own will’ (Ephesians 1:11).
This truth is constantly before us in the Bible. Men live and die, nations rise and fall at the time God appoints. God has events recorded in Scripture long before they ever occur.
Abram was told something which neither he, nor his son would ever see, as it would only begin to happen when his grandson, Jacob, was an old man. Abram’s descendants were going to live in a land which was not theirs and where they would be afflicted for ‘four hundred years’ (Genesis 15:13).
So Israel was to go into Egypt and stay there until the time of Moses. Why did they leave at that time? It was not because they planned it. They left then because, when God’s time was fulfilled, God put it in the heart of Pharaoh to hate the Jews.
Events follow the purposes of God, and Scripture proves it by the way history fulfils prophecy. The prophet Jeremiah predicted a captivity of 70 years for the Jews in Babylon (Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10). So Jerusalem fell and we find Daniel and his fellow-Jews in Babylon. In what unfolded, God had a message for the Gentile world as well as for the Jews.
Daniel had to deliver the message to the great king Nebuchadnezzar, that ‘the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomsoever he will’. The boastful king did not believe it, until God afflicted him with a temporary insanity.
After this, Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘My understanding returned to me’, and spoke as he had never spoken before: ‘I praised and honoured him that lives for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he does according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay his hand, or say to him what doest thou?’ (Daniel 4:34-35).
Here is the truth concerning the providence of God dividing men — unbelievers on one side, Moses and Daniel on the other. And this difference stands out yet more clearly when we come to the New Testament.
Here we have the written records of the first disciples of Christ. With one voice they speak of the providence of God. How did they learn it? The answer is they were not only taught it by the Lord Jesus Christ, but they saw it in him.
No mortal man knows his life in advance; ‘it is not in man who walketh to direct his steps’. But the disciples heard Jesus say that his life was known to him, because it was already ordained in heaven (John 6:38). Repeatedly, they were to see Jesus, as Son of God, knowing in advance what was going to happen next.
He knew people and their names before he met them. He taught God’s control of events extends to every sparrow that falls to the ground, and that he, Jesus, shares in that control. So when the disciples were disturbed by the call to pay tribute tax, Christ told them to go down to the Lake of Galilee, and the first fish they catch will have a coin in its mouth, which would pay the required tribute (Matthew 17:27). And so it proved.
Another day, as Jesus approached Jerusalem with his disciples to enter it publicly for the last time, they came to the village of Bethphage. At that point, Jesus told two of his disciples to go ahead and do precisely as he directed. Close to the entrance of the village they would find a colt, the foal of a donkey, tied, on which no one had ever sat. They were to unhitch the animal for Jesus’ use, and, if anyone questioned what they were doing, the disciples were to say, ‘The Lord has need of him’.
So the two went ahead and ‘found even as he had said to them’. Here was the colt, tied outside a door where two ways met. When they unhitched him, the owners stopped them with the question, ‘Why are you loosing him?’, they gave the reply they had been told to give — ‘The Lord has need of him’ — and at once proceeded unhindered (Luke 19:29-34).
The two disciples had never known the house or its owners before, but it was all known to Jesus, as recorded in Old Testament prophecy (Zechariah 9:9).
Think of another scene. Dressed for derision in a purple robe, in imitation of a king, and made to wear a crown of thorns, Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, the representative of the world’s greatest power of that day.
Jesus tells him, ‘Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above’ (John 19:11). Pilate was fulfilling what God had ordained. Jesus was ‘delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23).
This lesson was the last to be personally impressed on Peter. In John 21, when the risen Jesus tells Peter he would be called to lay down his life for his Saviour, Peter looking at John asks, ‘What shall this man do?’ To which enquiry, Jesus tells Peter that John’s future, as well as his own, were entirely in his hands: ‘If I will that he tarries [lives] till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me’.
Whatever happens is determined by Christ himself. This was the conviction which prompted George Whitefield’s motto, ‘No despair, Christ leads’. Christ’s disciples believe in the providence of God, because it is what they had been personally taught.
A Christian should have no problem with the Shorter Catechism’s answer to the question ‘What are God’s works of providence?’ The answer is: ‘God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions’. This truth that unbelievers will not accept, leads Christians to sing:
‘Sovereign Ruler of the skies,
Ever gracious, ever wise:
All my times are in Thy hand
All events at Thy command’.
Iain H. Murray is a well-known author and international conference speaker. He helped found the Banner of Truth Trust, whose ministry he has engaged in for many years.