The Providence of God

by Thomas Watson


Question 11: What are God's works of Providence?

Answer: God's works of providence are the acts of his most holy, wise, and powerful government of his creatures, and of their actions.

Of the work of God's providence Christ says, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." God has rested from the works of creation, he does not create any new species of things. "He rested from all his works;" and therefore it must needs be meant of his works of providence: "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." "His kingdom rules over all;" that is, his providential kingdom. Now, for the clearing of this point, I shall—

I. Show you that there is a providence.

2. What that providence is.

3. Lay down some maxims or propositions concerning the providence of God.

I. That there is a providence. There is no such thing as chance or blind fate—but there is a providence which guides and governs the world. "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord." Prov 16:33.

II. What this providence is. I answer, Providence is God's ordering all outcomes and events of things, after the counsel of his will, to his own glory.

[1] I call providence—God's ordering things, to distinguish it from his decrees. God's decree ordains things that shall happens, God's providence orders them.

[2] I call providence the ordering of things after the counsel of God's will.

[3] God orders all events of things, after the counsel of his will, to his own glory; his glory being the ultimate end of all his actings, and the center where all the lines of providence meet. The providence of God is "the queen and governess of the world." It is the eye which sees, and the hand which turns all the wheels in the universe. God is not like an artificer who builds a house, and then leaves it—but like a pilot, he steers the ship of the whole creation.

III. Propositions about God's providence.

[1] God's providence reaches to all places, persons, and affairs.

(1.) God's providence reaches to all PLACES. "Am I a God at hand, and not a God afar off?" The diocese where Providence visits, is very large; it reaches to heaven, earth, and sea. "I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the place of the dead, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me." Psalm 139:7-10. Now, that the sea, which is higher than the earth, should not drown the earth, is a wonder of Providence. The prophet Jonah saw the wonders of God in the deep, when the very fish which devoured him and swallowed him brought him safe to shore.

(2.) God's providence reaches to all PERSONS, especially the persons of the godly, who in a special manner are taken notice of. God takes care of every saint in particular, as if he had none else to care for. "He cares for you," that is, God cares for the elect in a special manner. "The But the Lord watches over those who fear him, those who rely on his unfailing love. He rescues them from death and keeps them alive in times of famine." Psalm 33:18-19. God by his providential care shields off dangers from his people, and sets a life-guard of angels about them. "The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them." Psalm 34:7. God's providence keeps the very bones of the saints. "The righteous face many troubles, but the Lord rescues them from each and every one. For the Lord protects them from harm— not one of their bones will be broken! Psalms 34:19-20. It bottles their tears. "You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book." Psalm 56:8. It strengthens the saints in their weakness. Heb 11:34. It supplies all their needs out of its alms basket. "You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies." Psalm 23:5. Thus Providence wonderfully supplies the needs of the elect.

When the Protestants in Rochelle were besieged by the French king, God by his providence sent a great number of small fish to feed them, such as were never seen before in that haven. So the raven, that unnatural creature (that will hardly feed its own young), providentially brought sustenance to the prophet Elijah. The Virgin Mary, through bearing and bringing forth the Messiah, helped to make the world rich—yet she herself was very poor; and now, being warned of the angel to go into Egypt, she had scarce enough to bear her expenses there; but see how God provides for her beforehand. By his providence he sends wise men from the east, who bring costly gifts, gold, myrrh, and frankincense, and present them to Christ; and now she has enough to defray her expenses into Egypt. God's children sometimes scarce know how they are fed, except that providence feeds them. "Truly you shall be fed." Psalm 37:3. If God will give his people a kingdom when they die, he will not deny them daily bread while they live.

(3.) God's providence reaches to all AFFAIRS and occurrences in the world. There is nothing that stirs in the world but God has, by his providence, the over-ruling of it. Is it the raising of a man to honor? "But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another." Psalm 75:7. Success and victory in battle is the result of providence. Saul had the victory—but God wrought the salvation. That among all virgins brought before the king, Esther should find favor in the eyes of the king, was not without God's special providence; for, by this means, the Lord saved the Jews alive, who were destined to destruction.

Providence reaches to the least of things, to birds and ants. Providence feeds the young raven, when the mother bird forsakes it, and will give it no food. "He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call." Psalms 147:9. Providence reaches to the very hairs of our head. "The hairs of your head are all numbered." Matt 10:30. Surely if providence reaches to our hairs, much more to our souls. Thus you have seen that God's providence reaches to all places, to all persons, to all occurrences and affairs. Now there are two objections against this doctrine.

Some say, There are many things done in the world which are very disorderly and irregular; and surely God's providence is not in these things.

Yes, the things that seem to us irregular, God makes use of to his own glory. Suppose you were in a smith's shop, and should see there several sorts of tools, some crooked, some bowed, others hooked, would you condemn all these things, because they do not look handsome? The smith makes use of them all for doing his work. Thus it is with the providences of God; they seem to us to be very crooked and strange—yet they all carry on God's work. I shall make this clear to you in two particular cases.

God's people are sometimes in a low condition. It seems to be out of order, that those who are best, should be in the lowest condition; but there is much wisdom in this providence, as appears thus:

1. Perhaps the hearts of the godly were lifted up with riches, or with success; now God comes with a humbling providence to afflict them and fleece them. Better is the loss that makes them humble, than the success that makes them proud. Again,

2. If the godly were not sometimes afflicted, and given an eclipse in their outward comforts, how could their graces be seen, especially their faith and patience? If it were always sunshine we would see no stars; so if we should have always prosperity, it would be hard to see the acting of men's faith. Thus you see God's providences are wise and regular, though to us they seem very strange and crooked.

Here is another case. The wicked flourish. This seems to be very much out of order; but God, in his providence, sometimes sees it good, that the worst of men should be exalted; that they may do some work for God, though it be against their will. "But this is not what he intends, this is not what he has in mind; his purpose is to destroy, to put an end to many nations." Isaiah 10:7. God will be in no man's debt. He makes use of the wicked sometimes to protect and shield his church; and sometimes to refine and purify it. "O Lord, you have appointed them to execute judgment; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish." Hab 1:12. As if the prophet had said, "You have ordained the wicked to correct your children." Indeed, as Augustine says well, "We are indebted to wicked men, who against their wills do us good," As the corn is indebted to the flail to thresh off its husks, or as the iron is indebted to the file to brighten it; just so, the godly are indebted to the wicked, though it be against their will, to brighten and refine their graces. Now, then, if the wicked do God's own work, though against their will, he will not let them be losers by it; he will raise them in the world, and give them a full cup of earthly comforts. Thus you see those providences are wise and regular, which to us seem strange and crooked.

But, some may say, "if God has a hand in ordering all things that fall out, he has a hand in the sins of men."

I answer, No, by no means, he has no hand in any man's sin. God cannot go contrary to his own nature, he cannot do any unholy action, any more than the sun can be said to be darkened. Here you must take heed of two things:

you must take heed of making God ignorant of men's sins;

you must take heed of making God to have a hand in men's sins.

Is it likely that God is both the author of sin, and the avenger of sin? Is it a likely thing that God should make a law against sin, and then have a hand in breaking his own law? God in his providence permits men's sins. "He allowed all nations to walk in their own ways." Acts 14:16. God permitted their sin, which he never would, if he could not bring good out of it. Had not sin been permitted—God's justice in punishing sin, and his mercy in pardoning sin, had not been so well manifested. The Lord is pleased to permit sin—but he has no hand in sin.

But is it not said that God hardened Pharaoh's heart? Here is more than barely permitting sin.

God does not infuse evil into men, he withdraws the influence of his graces, and then the heart hardens of itself; even as the light being withdrawn, darkness presently follows in the air? But it would be absurd to say, that therefore the light darkens the air; and therefore you will observe, that Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart. Exod 8:85. God is the cause of no man's sin. It is true God has a hand in the action where sin is—but no hand in the sin of the action. A man may play upon a jarring instrument—but the jarring is from itself. Just so here—the actions of men, so far as they are natural, are from God; but so far as they are sinful, they are from the men themselves, and God has no hand at all in them. So much for the first position, that God's providence reaches to all places, to all persons, and to all occurrences.

[2] A second proposition is, that providences, which are casual and accidental to us, are pre-determined by the Lord. The falling of a tile upon one's head, the breaking out of a fire, is casual to us—but it is ordered by a providence of God. You have a clear instance of this in I Kings 22:34. "An Aramean soldier, however, randomly shot an arrow at the Israelite troops, and the arrow hit the king of Israel between the joints of his armor." This accident was casual as to the man who drew the bow; but it was divinely ordered by the providence of God. God's providence directed the arrow to hit the mark. Things that seem to happen casually, and by chance, are the outcome of God's decrees, and the interpretation of his will.

[3] God's providence is greatly to be observed—but we are not to make it the rule of our actions. "Whoever is wise will observe these things." It is good to observe providence—but we must not make it our rule to walk by. Providence is a Christian's diary—but not his Bible. Sometimes a bad cause prevails and gets ground; but it is not to be liked because it prevails. We must not think the better of what is sinful, because it is successful. Providence no rule for our actions to be directed by.

[4] Divine providence is irresistible. There is no standing in the way of God's providence, to hinder it. When God's time was come for Joseph's release, the prison could hold him no longer. "The king sent and loosed him." When God would indulge the Jews with liberty in their religion, Cyrus, by a providence, puts forth a proclamation to encourage the Jews to go and build their temple at Jerusalem, and worship God. If God will shield and protect Jeremiah's person in captivity, the very king of Babylon shall nurse up the prophet, and give charge concerning him, that he lack nothing. Jer 39:11, 12.

[5] God is to be trusted when his providences seem to run contrary to his promises. God promised to give David the crown, to make him king; but providence ran contrary to his promise. David was pursued by Saul, and was in danger of his life—but all this while it was David's duty to trust God. Pray observe, that the Lord by cross providences, often brings to pass his promise. God promised Paul the lives of all who were with him in the ship; but the providence of God seemed to run quite contrary to his promise, for the winds blew, the ship split and broke in pieces. Thus God fulfilled his promise—upon the broken pieces of the ship they all came safe to shore. Trust God when providences seem to run quite contrary to promises.

[6] The providences of God are chequer-work, they are intermingled. In the life to come, there shall be no more mixture; in hell there will be nothing but bitter; in heaven nothing but sweet. But in this life the providences of God are mixed, there is something of the sweet in them, and something of the bitter. Providences are just like Israel's pillar of cloud, which conducted them in their march, which was dark on one side and light on the other. In the ark were laid up the rod and manna, so are God's providences to his children; there is something of the rod and something of the manna; so that we may say with David, "I will sing of mercy and judgement." When Joseph was in prison, there was the dark side of the cloud; but God was with Joseph, there was the light side of the cloud. Asher's shoes were of brass—but his feet were dipped in oil. So affliction is the shoe of brass which pinches; but there is mercy mingled with the affliction, for there is the foot dipped in oil.

[7] The same action, as it comes from God's providence, may be good; and as it comes from men, may be evil. For instance, Joseph being sold into Egypt by his brethren was evil, very wicked, for it was the fruit of their envy. But as it was an act of God's providence it was good; for by this means Jacob and all his family were preserved alive in Egypt. Another instance is in Shimei's cursing David. Shimei cursed David, it was wicked and sinful, for it was the fruit of his malice. But as his cursing was ordered by God's providence, it was an act of God's justice to punish David, and to humble him for his adultery and murder. As the crucifying of Christ came from the Jews, it was an act of hatred and malice to Christ; and Judas's betraying him was an act of covetousness. But as each was an act of God's providence, so there was good in it; for it was an act of God's love in giving Christ to die for the world. Thus I have made clear to you, the doctrine of God's providence in these several positions. Let me now speak something by way of application.

Use one: By way of exhortation in these particulars.

(1.) ADMIRE God's providence. The providence of God keeps the whole creation upon the wheels, or else it would soon be dissolved, and the very axle of the world would break in pieces. If God's providence should be withdrawn but for a moment, creatures would be dissolved, and run into their first nothing. Without this wise providence of God, there would be anxiety and confusion in the whole world, just like an army when it is routed and scattered. The providence of God infuses comfort and virtue into everything we enjoy. Our clothes would not warm us, our food would not nourish us, without the special providence of God. And does not all this deserve your admiration of providence?

(2.) Learn quietly to SUBMIT to divine providence. Do not murmur at things that are ordered by divine wisdom. We may no more find fault with the works of providence than we may with the works of creation. It is a sin as much to quarrel with God's providence, as to deny his providence. If other people do not act as we would have them act, they shall act as God would have them act. His providence is his master-wheel, which turns these lesser wheels, and God will bring his glory out of all at last. "I was silent; I would not open my mouth, for you are the one who has done this." Psalm 39:9. It may be, we think sometimes we could order things better, if we had the government of the world in our hands; but alas! should we be left to our own choice, we should choose those things that are hurtful for us! David earnestly desired the life of his child, which was the fruit of his sin—but had the child lived it would have been a perpetual monument of his shame. Let us be content that God should rule the world; learn to acquiesce in his will, and submit to his providence. Does any affliction befall you? Remember God sees it is that which is fit for you, or it would not come. Your clothes cannot be so fit for you as your crosses. God's providence may sometimes be secret—but it is always wise; and though we may not be silent under God's dishonor—yet we should learn to be silent under his displeasure.

(3.) You who are Christians, believe that all God's providence shall conspire for your good at last. The providences of God are sometimes dark, and our eyes dim, and we can hardly tell what to make of them; but when we cannot unriddle providence, let us believe that it will work together for the good of the elect. Rom 8:28. The wheels in a clock seem to move contrary one to the other—but they help forward the motion of the clock. Just so, the providences of God seem to be cross wheels; but for all that, they shall carry on the good of the elect. The pricking of a vein is in itself evil and hurtful; but as it prevents a fever, and tends to the health of the patient, it is good. Just so, affliction in itself is not joyous—but grievous; but the Lord turns it to the good of his saints. Poverty shall starve their sins, and afflictions shall prepare them for a kingdom. Therefore, Christians, believe that God loves you, and that he will make the most cross providences to promote his glory and your good.

(4.) Let it be an antidote against immoderate FEAR, that nothing comes to pass but what is ordained by God's decree, and ordered by his providence. We sometimes fear what the outcome of things will be, when men grow high in their actings; but let us not make things worse by our fear. Men are limited in their power, and cannot go one hair's breadth further than God's providence permits. He might let Sennacherib's army march towards Jerusalem—but they shall not shoot one arrow against it. "Then the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning--there were all the dead bodies!" Isa 37:36. When Israel was encompassed between Pharaoh and the Red Sea, no question, some of their hearts began to tremble, and they looked upon themselves as dead men; but Providence so ordered it—that the sea was a safe passage to Israel, and a sepulcher to Pharaoh and all his host.

(5.) Let the merciful providence of God cause THANKFULNESS. We are kept alive by a wonderful-working Providence. Providence makes our clothes to warm us, and our food to nourish us. We are fed every day out of the alms-basket of God's providence. That we are in health, that we have an estate, is not by our diligence—but God's providence. "But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth." Deut 8:18. Especially if we go a step higher, we may see cause for thankfulness, that we were born and bred in a gospel land, and that we live in such a place where the Sun of Righteousness shines, which is a signal providence. Why might we not have been born in such places where Paganism prevails? That Christ should make himself known to us, and touch our hearts with his Spirit, when he passes by others; whence is this but from the miraculous providence of God, which is the effect of his free grace?

Use two: Comfort in respect of the church of God. God's providence reaches in a more special manner to his church. "Sing about a fruitful vineyard: I the Lord, watch over it; I water it continually. I guard it day and night so that no one may harm it." Isa 27:2-3. God waters this vineyard with his blessings, and watches over it by his providence. Such as think totally to ruin the church, must do it in a time when it is neither day nor night, for the Lord keeps it by his providence night and day. What a miraculous conduct of Providence had Israel! God led them by a pillar of fire, gave them manna from heaven, and water from the rock.

God by his providence preserves his church in the midst of enemies; as a spark is kept alive in the ocean, or a flock of sheep are kept alive in the midst of wolves. God saves his church strangely.

(1.) By giving unexpected mercies to his church, when she anticipated nothing but ruin. "When the Lord restored his exiles to Jerusalem, it was like a dream! We were filled with laughter, and we sang for joy. And the other nations said, 'What amazing things the Lord has done for them.' Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us!" Psalm 126:1-3. How strangely did God raise up Queen Esther to preserve alive the Jews, when Haman had got a bloody warrant signed for their execution!

(2.) Strangely, by saving in that very way in which we think he will destroy. God works sometimes by contraries. He raises his church by bringing it low. The blood of the martyrs has watered the church, and made it more fruitful. Exod 1:12. "The more they afflicted them—the more they multiplied." The church is like that plant which Gregory Nazianzen speaks of—it grows by cutting.

(3.) Strangely, in that he makes the enemy to do his work. When the people of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir came against Judah, God set the enemy one against another. "The Lord caused the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir to start fighting among themselves. The armies of Moab and Ammon turned against their allies from Mount Seir and killed every one of them. After they had finished off the army of Seir, they turned on each other. So when the army of Judah arrived at the lookout point in the wilderness, there were dead bodies lying on the ground for as far as they could see. Not a single one of the enemy had escaped." 2 Chronicles 20:22-24. God made the traitors to be their own betrayers. God can do his work by the enemy's hand. God made the Egyptians send away the people of Israel laden with jewels. The church is the pupil of God's eye, and the eyelid of his providence daily covers and defends it.

Use three: See here, that which may make us long for the time when the great mystery of God's providence shall be fully unfolded to us. Now we scarcely know what to make of God's providence, and are ready to censure what we do not understand; but in heaven we shall see how all his providences (sickness, losses, sufferings) contributed to our salvation. Here we see but some dark pieces of God's providence, and it is impossible to judge of his works by pieces; but when we come to heaven, and see the full body and portrait of his providence drawn out into its living colors—it will be glorious to behold. Then we shall see how all God's providences helped to fulfill his promises. There is no providence, but we shall see a wonder or a mercy in it!

From A Body of Divinity