A Study of Divine Providence
The religious world is an environment of extremism. Some allege, for example, that if God does exist, he has no contact at all with humanity. He is a disinterested, distant deity. This philosophy is known as deism. Others, by way of contrast, assert that virtually every activity of Deity is a miracle. Miracles, they allege, are occurring in abundance everyday. Such a view is equally at variance with the facts. The Scriptures plainly indicate that supernatural signs served a unique function in the divine scheme of things, and they are not being duplicated today (see Miracles).
A correct view recognizes that Jehovah operates in the affairs of men, but not miraculously; rather, God works through the process we accommodatively call “providence.”
The English term “providence” derives from the Latin providentia, which signifies “foresight.” Providence has to do with:
- the Creator’s maintenance of the functional balance of the natural world;
- the fulfillment of the divine purpose in the regulation of international affairs; and
- God’s special operation in the lives of those who seek to do his will.
Before we consider each of these areas, it is necessary that we discuss the nature of providence. Exactly what is this phenomenon?
Providence is the activity of God as accomplished through law. It stands in contrast to the miraculous, by which the Lord operates independent of law. In providence, Jehovah manipulates his own laws for the accomplishment of his ultimate purpose. God respects man’s free will, and he will never overpower our freedom of choice in the use of providential activity; nevertheless, the Bible clearly affirms divine activity in the providential mode. It is a process that we simply cannot explain from our limited vantage point. We accept it because of our confidence in the credibility of the biblical record.
Perhaps the following will help illustrate the difference between the miraculous and the providential.
When Mary, a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), gave birth to Jesus, such was affected by means of miraculous power (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:30-37). On the other hand, when Hannah of Old Testament fame prayed for a son, the Lord heard her prayer and answered it. He did so, however, providentially; she conceived only after her husband “knew her” (a biblical euphemism for sexual union); ultimately Samuel was born (1 Samuel 1:19,20).
Here is another case in contrast. When the Assyrian army threatened the city of Jerusalem, God supernaturally destroyed 185,000 enemy soldiers in a single night (Isaiah 37:36). Over against this, Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, was dealt with in a different fashion. Jehovah caused him to “hear tidings” that prompted his return to Assyria (Isaiah 37:7); there, in accordance with divine prophecy, he was killed by the hands of his own sons (cf. 37:7,38). Unquestionably, providence was implemented! In each instance, Heaven was guiding certain events. In the one case, divine activity was direct, independent of means. In the other case, it was indirectly employed by the use of means.
Providence and Nature
The holy Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) was responsible not only for the origin of the universe (Genesis 1:1ff; John 1:1-3), these divine Persons continue to regulate and sustain nature. Christ is “upholding all things [i.e., the entire universe] by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Additionally, “in him all things consist [sunesteke, stand together]” (Colossians 1:17). The perfect tense form is used here in the sense of a present. Christ keeps on holding together the forces of the universe. Robertson noted that he “is the controlling and unifying force in nature” (1931, 479).
God providentially maintains the seasons (Genesis 8:22), and blesses the earth with his bounty (Acts 14:17). All earth’s creatures are in the hand of the Creator (Matthew 10:29), and he cares for them (Matthew 6:26; cf. Psalm 104:21; 147:9). There are many Bible examples where Jehovah used the forces and/or the creatures of nature for the accomplishment of his will (see Genesis 22:13; Numbers 11:31; 1 Kings 13:24ff; 17:6; 2 Kings 2:23,24).
God and the Nations
Since the fall of humanity God has been working a plan designed to make redemption available to fallen mankind. The plan was implemented with the death of Christ, and the subsequent establishment of his kingdom. Long before the birth of Jesus, however, God was providentially working among the nations of the world to prepare the human race for the coming of the Savior. The Lord is “ruler over the nations” (Psalm 22:28). Jehovah rules in the kingdoms of men, setting over them whomever he wills (Daniel 2:21; 4:17).
The Hebrew nation was very important in the divine plan for human salvation. Through this people the Messiah would come (Genesis 22:18). Accordingly, the Lord protected Israel (or a least a remnant) so that the promises regarding the Messianic line would be kept in tact. For example, Jehovah providentially used Joseph to sustain the Hebrews as they sojourned in the land of Egypt.Joseph was sold by his jealous brethren into Egyptian slavery, but God used that situation for the preservation of the nation (see Genesis 39:2; 45:5-9). Every student should read J. W. McGarvey’s discussions of divine providence, dealing with the accounts of Joseph and Esther, as set forth in his book, Sermons (available from Gospel Light Publishing, Delight, AR).
Paul, in his epistle to the churches of Galatia, contended that God sent his Son “when the fulness of time came” (Galatians 4:4). Without a doubt the apostle here alludes to Heaven’s providential preparations among various nations, which would facilitate the arrival and success of Christ’s redemptive mission. The Hebrews, for example, prepared the antique world with its sacred Scriptures, replete with Messianic prophecies. The Roman Empire provided a peaceful environment, a highway system for the rapid spread of the gospel, etc. The Greeks contributed the most precise instrument for the conveyance of human thought ever devised, the Koine Greek language (in which the New Testament was composed). Galatians 4:4 fairly shouts of the providential activity of the Creator. An excellent discussion of this point is found in A. H. Newman’s, A Manual of Church History (1933, 20ff).
When we speak of “special providence,” we are thinking primarily of two things. First, there is the providential operation of God in the lives of those who earnestly are seeking the truth. Second, there is the divine activity that operates in the interest of Christian people. Let us consider each of these.
(1) God knows of those who long for the truth (see Acts 16:6-10), and promises that they who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” shall be filled (Matthew 5:6). Accordingly, the Father has the ability to work within the circumstances of human activity to bring about his desire. That being the case, it reasonably follows that God’s providence may be employed to facilitate the journey of those whose hearts are longing to find and serve their Maker.
A case in point may be found in the following narrative.
In the book of Philemon the story is told of a slave named Onesimus. He belonged to Philemon of Colossae. Onesimus ran away from his master and made his way to Rome, where he encountered the apostle Paul. Paul led Onesimus to the truth. Commenting upon this matter, the apostle sees the possibility of providence in this situation. He writes:
For perhaps he was therefore parted from you for a season, that you should have him forever; no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved (Philemon 15,16).
The verb echoristhe (“was parted,” ASV) is a passive voice form. The passive represents the subject as being acted upon. Some scholars have noted that the passive here “may contain a conviction of the divine overruling . . . to denote the hidden action of God as an agent responsible for what is done” (1980, 314). Also, by the terms “for a season” and “forever,” some suggest the apostle shows his “conviction that the hand of God was at work in the whole situation” (1978, 461).
(2) The New Testament is filled with promises which affirm that God will answer the prayers of his people and work in their lives. But since Jehovah is not functioning miraculously (see 1 Corinthians 13:8-10), obviously he is operating providentially. Things that may appear perfectly natural, from the human point of view, may be being directed by Jehovah!
Here is a case in point. When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome (from Corinth, during his third missionary journey – cf. Acts 20:2; Romans 16:23), he told these brethren that in his prayers he continually made request (a present tense form) unto God that he might some day visit them (Romans 1:9,10). As he concluded the book, he urged the Roman saints to join him in prayer, to the end that this request be granted (Romans 15:30-32). God will answer those prayers, but in his own providential way!
Consider the following facts:
- After his third missionary campaign, Paul returned to Jerusalem where he was arrested for allegedly defiling the temple (Acts 21:28). In the night, the Lord told him to be cheerful. He would not die in Jerusalem; rather, the apostle would bear witness in Rome (23:11).
- To save his life from a Jewish mob that had vowed to murder him, Roman officials sent Paul to Caesarea by night (23:31ff).
- There, he was imprisoned for two years (24:27).
- Finally, when he concluded that he would get no justice from the authorities, exercising his right as a Roman citizen, the apostle appealed his case to Caesar (25:11).
- In early autumn (ca. A.D. 60), he was put on a ship bound for Rome (27:1).
- En route, the vessel was wrecked and all hope of being saved was abandoned (27:30).
- But an angel appeared to the apostle and promised: “You must stand before Caesar” (27:24).
- The following spring, safe and sound, Paul arrived in Rome (28:16). His prayers (and those of the Roman saints) had been answered, but through the mysterious workings of divine providence!
Later, writing from Rome to the brethren in Philippi, the apostle could say that the things which had happened to him “have fallen out rather unto the progress of the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). There is no doubt but that Paul saw the helpful hand of Providence in this series of events in his life (see Acts 26:22).
Let God’s people thus rejoice, and live each day with calm confidence, knowing that the Lord is near, and that Heaven’s operations through providence are an abiding presence in our daily existence.
Scripture references: Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:30-37; 1 Samuel 1:19, 20; Isaiah 37:36; Isaiah 37:7; Genesis 1:1; John 1:1-3; Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17; Genesis 8:22; Acts 14:17; Matthew 10:29; Matthew 6:26; Psalm 104:21, 147:9; Genesis 22:13; Numbers 11:31; 1 Kings 13:24; 2 Kings 2:23, 24; Psalm 22:28; Daniel 2:21, 4:17; Genesis 22:18; Genesis 39:2, 45:5-9; Galatians 4:4; Acts 16:6-10; Matthew 5:6; Philemon 15; 1 Corinthians 13:8-10; Acts 20:2; Romans 16:23; Romans 1:9, 10; Romans 15:30-32; Acts 21:28; Philippians 1:12; Acts 26:22
- Newman, A. H. 1933. A Manual of Church History. Vol. 1. Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society.
- Rienecker, Fritz. 1980. A Linguistic Key to the Greek Testament. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Robertson, A. T. 1931. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. 4. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
- Rupprecht, Arthur. 1978. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Frank Gaebelein, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.