by John Flavel
I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me (Psalm 57:2)
The greatness of God is a glorious and unsearchable mystery. ‘For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great king over all the earth’ (Psalm 47:2). The condescension of the most high God to men is also a profound mystery. ‘Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly’ (Psalm 138:6). But when both these meet together, as they do in this Scripture, they make up a matchless mystery. Here we find the most high God performing all things for a poor distressed creature.
It is the great support and solace of the saints in all the distresses that befall them here, that there is a wise Spirit sitting in all the wheels of motion, and governing the most eccentric creatures and their most pernicious designs to blessed and happy issues. And, indeed, it were not worth while to live in a world devoid of God and Providence.
How deeply we are concerned in this matter will appear by that great instance which Psalm 57 presents us with. It was composed, as the title notes, by David when he hid himself from Saul in the cave. It is inscribed with a double title: ‘Al-taschith, Michtam of David.’ ‘Altaschith’ refers to the scope and ‘Michtam’ to the dignity of the subject-matter.
The former signifies ‘destroy not,’ or ‘let there be no slaughter.’ and may either refer to Saul concerning whom he gave charge to his servants not to destroy him, or rather, it has reference to God, to whom in this great exigency he poured out his soul in this passionate ejaculation: ‘Altaschith,’ ‘destroy not.’
The latter title ‘Michtam’ signifies ‘a golden ornament,’ and so is suited to the choice and excellent matter of the Psalm, which much more deserves such a title than do Pythagoras’ Golden Verses.
Three things are remarkable in the former part of the Psalm: his extreme danger; his earnest address to God in that extremity; and the arguments he pleads with God in that address.
His extreme danger is expressed in both the title and the body of the psalm. The title tells us this psalm was composed by him when he hid himself from Saul in the cave. This cave was in the wilderness of Engedi among the broken rocks where the wild goats lived, an obscure and desolate hole; yet even there the envy of Saul pursued him (1 Samuel 24:1, 2). And now he that had been so long hunted as a partridge upon the mountains seems to be enclosed in the net. His enemies were outside the cave, from which there was no other outlet. Then Saul himself entered the mouth of this cave, in the sides and creeks of which David and his men lay hidden, and they actually saw him. Judge to how great an extremity and to what a desperate state things were now brought. Well might he say: ‘My soul is among lions, and I lie even among them that are set on fire’ (verse 4). What hope now remained? What but immediate destruction could be expected?.
Yet this does not frighten him out of his faith and duty, but between the jaws of death he prays, and earnestly addresses himself to God for mercy: ‘Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me’ (verse 1). This excellent psalm was composed by him when there was enough to discompose the best man in the world. The repetition notes both the extremity of the danger and the ardency of the supplicant. Mercy, mercy, nothing but mercy, and that exerting itself in an extraordinary way, can now save him from ruin.
The arguments he pleads for obtaining mercy in this distress are very considerable. First, he pleads his reliance upon God as an argument to move mercy. ‘Be merciful unto me O God, be merciful unto me, for my soul trusteth in thee; yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast’ (verse 1). This his trust and dependence on God though it is not an argument in respect of the dignity of the act, yet it is so in respect of the nature of the object, a compassionate God, who will not expose any that take shelter under His wings; also in respect of the promise by which protection is assured to them that fly to Him for sanctuary: ‘Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee’ (Isaiah 26:3). Thus he encourages himself from the consideration of that God in whom he trusts.
He pleads former experiences of His help in past distresses as an argument encouraging hope under the present strait: ‘I will cry unto God most high, unto God that performeth all things for me’ (verse 2).
In these words I shall consider two things: the duty resolved upon, and the encouragement to that resolution.
The duty resolved upon: ‘I will cry unto God.’ Crying unto God is an expression that denotes not only prayer, but intense and fervent prayer. To cry is to pray in a holy passion; and such are usually speeding prayers (Psalm 18:6; Hebrews 5:7).
The encouragements to this resolution are taken from the sovereignty of God and from the experience he had of His Providence.
The sovereignty of God: ‘I will cry unto God most high.’ Upon this he acts his faith in extremity of danger. Saul is high, but God is the most high, and without His permission he is assured Saul cannot touch him. He had none to help, and if he had, he knew God must first help the helpers or they cannot help him. He had no means of defence or escape before him, but the Most High is not limited by means. This is a singular prop to faith (Psalm 59:9).
The experience of His Providence hitherto: ‘Unto God that performeth all things for me.’
The word which we translate ‘performeth’ comes from a root that signifies both to perfect, and to desist or cease. For when a business is performed and perfected, the agent then ceases and desists from working. To such a happy issue the Lord has brought all his doubtful and difficult matters before; and this gives him encouragement that He will still be gracious, and perfect that which concerns him now, as he speaks: ‘The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me’ (Psalm 138:8).
The Septuagint renders Psalm 57:2: ‘The well-doer saving me,’ ‘who profits or benefits me.’ And it is a certain truth that all the results and issues of Providence are profitable and beneficial to the saints. But the supplement in our translation well conveys the sense of the text: ‘Who performeth all things.’ And it involves the most strict and proper notion of Providence, which is nothing else but the performance of God’s gracious purposes and promises to His people. And therefore Vatabulus and Muis supply and fill up the room left by the conciseness of the original with ‘which he hath promised,’ thus: ‘I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth the things which he hath promised.’ Payment is the performance of promises. Grace makes the promise, and Providence the payment. Piscator fills it thus: ‘unto God that performeth his kindness and mercy.’ But still it supposes the mercy performed to be contained in the promise. Mercy is sweet in the promise, and much more so in the providential performance of it to us.
Castalio’s supplement comes nearer to ours: ‘I will cry unto God most high, unto God, the transactor of my affairs.’ But our English, making out the sense by a universal particle, is most agreeable to the scope of the text. For it cannot but be a great encouragement to his faith, that God had transacted all things, or performed all things for him. This Providence that never failed him in any of the straits that ever he met with (and his life was a life of many straits) he might well hope would not fail him now, though this were an extraordinary and matchless one.
Let us then bring our thoughts a little closer to this Scripture, and it will give us a fair and lovely prospect of Providence in its universal, effectual, beneficial and encouraging influence upon the affairs and concerns of the saints.
The expression imports the universal interest and influence of Providence in and upon all the concerns and interests of the saints. It not only has its hand in this or that, but in all that concerns them. It has its eye upon every thing that relates to them throughout their lives, from first to last. Not only the great and more important, but the most minute and ordinary affairs of our lives are transacted and managed by it. It touches all things that touch us, whether more nearly or remotely.
The text displays the efficacy of providential influences. Providence not only undertakes but perfects what concerns us. It goes through with its designs, and accomplishes what it begins. No difficulty so clogs it, no cross accident falls in its way, but it carries its design through it. Its motions arc irresistible and uncontrollable; He performs it for us.
And (which is sweet to consider) all its products and issues are exceedingly beneficial to the saints. It performs all things for them. ‘Tis true we often prejudge its works, and unjustly censure its designs, and in many of our straits and troubles we say: ‘All these things are against us’; but indeed Providence neither does nor can do any thing that is really against the true interest and good of the saints. For what are the works of Providence but the execution of God’s decree and the fulfilling of His Word? And there can be no more in Providence than is in them. Now there is nothing but good to the saints in God’s purposes and promises; and, therefore, whatever Providence does concerning them, it must be (as the text speaks) ‘the performance of all things for them.’
And if so, how cheering, supporting and encouraging must the consideration of these things be in a day of distress and trouble! What life and hope will it inspire our hearts and prayers with when great pressures lie upon us! It had such a cheering influence upon the Psalmist at this time, when the state of his affairs was, to the eye of sense and reason, forlorn and desperate; there was but a hair’s breadth (as we say) between him and ruin.
A powerful, enraged and implacable enemy had driven him into the hole of a rock, and was come after him into that hole. Yet now while his soul is among lions, while he lies in a cranny of the rock, expecting every moment to be drawn out to death, the reflections he had upon the gracious performances of the Most High for him, from the beginning to that moment, support his soul and inspire hope and life into his prayers: ‘I will cry unto God most high, unto God that performeth all things for me.
From the text then you have this doctrine : ---
It is the duty of the saints, especially in times of straits, to reflect upon the performances of Providence for them in all the states and through all the stages of their lives.
The Church, in all the works of mercy, owns the hand of God: ‘LORD, thou also hast wrought all our works in (or for) us’ (Isaiah 26:12). And still it has been the pious and constant practice of the saints in all generations to preserve the memory of the more famous and remarkable providences that have befallen them in their times as a precious treasure. ‘If thou be a Christian indeed, I know thou hast, if not in thy book, yet certainly in thy heart, a great many precious favours upon record; the very remembrance and rehearsal of them is sweet; how much more sweet was the actual enjoyment?’. Thus Moses, by divine direction, wrote a memorial of that victory obtained over Amalek as the fruit and return of prayer, and built there an altar with this inscription, Jehovah-nissi ‘The LORD my banner’ (Exodus 17:14, 15). Thus Mordecai and Esther took all care to perpetuate the memory of that signal deliverance from the plot of Haman, by ordaining the feast of Purim as an anniversary ‘throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed’ (Esther 9:28). For this end you find Psalms indited, ‘to bring to remembrance’ (Psalm 70, title). You find parents giving suitable names to their children, that every time they looked upon them they might refresh the memory of God’s mercies (1 Samuel 1:20). You find the very places where eminent providences have appeared, given a new name, for no other reason but to perpetuate the memorial of those sweet providences which so refreshed them there. Thus Bethel received its name (Genesis 28:19). And that well of water where Hagar was seasonably refreshed by the angel in her distress, was called Beer-laha-roi: ‘the well of him that liveth and looketh on me’ (Genesis 16:14). Yea, the saints have given, and God has assumed to Himself new titles upon this very score and account; Abraham’s Jehovah-jireh and Gideon’s Jehovah-shalom were ascribed to Him for this reason. And sometimes you find the Lord styles Himself ‘The God that brought Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees’ or ‘The LORD God that brought them out of Egypt’ or again ‘The LORD that gathered them out of the north country’; reminding them of the gracious providences which in all those places He had wrought for them.
Now there is a twofold reflection upon the providential works of God.
One is entire and full, in its whole complex and perfect system. This blessed sight is reserved for the perfect state. It is in that mount of God where we shall see both the wilderness and Canaan, the glorious kingdom into which we are come, and the way through which we were led into it. There the saints shall have a ravishing view of it in its entirety, and every part shall be distinctly discerned, as it had its particular use, and as it was connected with the other parts, and how effectually and orderly they all wrought to bring about that blessed design of their salvation, according to the promise: ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). For it is certain, no ship at sea keeps more exactly by the compass which directs its course, than Providence keeps by that promise which is its cynosure and polestar. [footnote]
The other sight is partial and imperfect which we have on the way to glory, during which we only view it in its single acts, or at most, in some branches and more observable series of actions.
Between these two is the same difference as between the sight of the disjointed wheels and scattered pins of a watch, and the sight of the whole united in one frame and working in one orderly motion; or between an ignorant spectator who views some more observable vessel or joint of a dissected body, and the accurate anatomist who discerns the course of all the veins and arteries of the body as he follows the various branches of them through the whole, and plainly sees the proper place, figure and use of each, with their mutual respect to one another.
O how ravishing and delectable a sight will it be to behold at one view the whole design of Providence, and the proper place and use of every single act, which we could not understand in this world! What Christ said to Peter is as applicable to some providences in which we are now concerned as it was to that particular action: ‘What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter’ (John 13:7). All the dark, intricate, puzzling providences at which we were sometimes so offended, and sometimes amazed, which we could neither reconcile with the promise nor with each other, nay, which we so unjustly censured and bitterly bewailed, as if they had fallen out quite against our happiness, we shall then see to be to us, as the difficult passage through the wilderness was to Israel, ‘the right way to a city of habitation’ (Psalm 107:7).
And yet, though our present views and reflections upon Providence are so short and imperfect in comparison to that in heaven, yet such as it is under all its present disadvantages, it has so much excellence and sweetness in it that I may call it a little heaven, or as Jacob called his Bethel, ‘the gate of heaven.’ It is certainly a highway of walking with God in this world, and a soul may enjoy as sweet communion with Him in His providences as in any of His ordinances. How often have the hearts of its observers been melted into tears of joy at the beholding of its wise and unexpected productions! How often has it convinced them, upon a sober recollection of the events of their lives, that if the Lord had left them to their own counsels they had as often been their own tormenters, if not executioners! Into what and how many fatal mischiefs had they precipitated themselves if Providence had been as shortsighted as they! They have given it their hearty thanks for considering their interest more than their importunity, and not allowing them to perish by their own desires.
Table of Contents
Part One - The Evidence of Providence
1) The Work of Providence for the Saints
2) Our Birth and Upbringing
3) The Work of Conversion
4) Our Employment
5) Family Affairs
6) Preservation of the Saints from Evil
7) The Work of Sanctification
Part Two - Meditation on the Providence of God
8) The Duty of Meditation on Providence
9) How to Meditate on the Providence of God
10) The Advantages of Meditating on Providence
Part Three - Application of the Doctrine of Providence
11) Practical Implications for the Saints
12) Practical Problems in Connection with Providence
13) The Advantages of Recording our Experiences of Providence