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The Gospel of Providence
So, we are not inventing a modern providence. The idea of providence personal, domestic, and imperial is not a new idea; we have the advantage of immemorial time. You are fond of antiquity; you go wild over it in some directions. Only point out something that is hoary and dateless, and into what ecstasy people are flung! I do not ask you to believe in mythological antiquity, but in historical time. The Hindu imagination was independent of arithmetic; in the Hindu chronicles it is casually mentioned the historian tells us just in an incidental way that one of the kings reigned for the period of seven-and-twenty thousand years. That is not that kind of antiquity to which we now call attention. The Psalms are historical; they can be traced day by day; we can go back to the very time of their writing. They were not written yesterday, they were written thousands of years ago; and here the minstrel says, "Our fathers have told us what work thou didst in their days, in the times of old." So we are standing upon a line that is historical, real, verifiable; and the first truth that stands up before us is that the idea of providence personal, real, individual, secret, tender, gracious is not an idea of yesterday, but venerable, immemorial, and we take up the sacred song this day, and sing it without abatement of spiritual passion or cooling in any degree of gratitude and zeal.
He who rises to dispute this providence must be either a very great man or a very little one; there can be nothing common about him. A man who rises to contradict the centuries ought to be sworn before he gives evidence; we cannot have any frivolous chatter upon this great question; we cannot have speculations and dreamy suggestions, and partial, lackadaisical scepticisms; the man who rises to contradict this testimony must be sworn. Who is he? Whence came he? What is his title to speak? How is he credited in the marketplace? With what authority is he clothed? If this were a quotation from mythological writings, if it professed to be a revelation granted to mankind millions of years; ago, we should be lost in the infinite figures; but we are dealing; with a Book the very ink of which we can trace; and if men four thousand years ago stood up armed and strong, and sang the providence of God in loud and cheerful and grateful and resonant songs, and if today we do not alter a syllable of the hallelujah or the anthem, we have, at all events, a long and deep historical basis on which to stand.
Providence is a revelation. There is a Gospel of providence as well as a Gospel of forgiveness. We must enlarge our conception of the term "Gospel" or we shall hinder the progress of Christian civilisation. The Gospel is not a set of phrases to be found in certain books only; it is the mysterious spirit of the age; it is a light that looks out of historical events, a voice that sounds in the nighttime along all the lines of life; it is the morning newspaper; it is the great battle; it is the splendid victory; it is the new feeling of confidence that God is, and is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. The Gospel is not a word of six letters or of two syllables. We wrong the Gospel by limiting it to any number of letters. We repeat, as the result of personal observation, and corroborating in some feeble degree the grand historical testimony, that there is a Gospel of providence as certainly as there is a Gospel of redemption. Is it nothing for you to be assured that the foundations of your house are strong? Good news does not take up one set of words only, good news calls for all great words and noble sentences, ay, and for all musical instruments, and it says, "Everything that hath breath announce me. Repeat me, and let all heaven be filled with the musical thunder." God did not come into the race a thousand years after it was created; the race is in him, its root is in his duration. All things are under his hand. The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice.
There is a providence of facts. When the Psalmist and the ancient seers and prophets spoke of the law of the Lord, they did not confine their observations to that which was written with pen and ink. They were observers in the ancient time as men profess to be now. Inductive reasoning is not a little invention of the day before yesterday; in the Bible you have all the wealth of that reasoning baptised, sanctified, followed up into glory. The law of the Lord was written in the movement of nations, in the development of ideas and purposes, in the destination of the good man, in the issue of all wickedness. The men sat, and looked, and noted, and wrote memorandum book after memorandum book, if we may so modernise the incident, and when they had filled up their paper they said, "This is the law; this is the point of pressure; this is the meaning of the secret behind." Oh that men were wise, that they understood these things, that they would say that the newspaper is the supplement, and the daily incident the daily annotation of the one eternal word! If you were believing only in something that is written, that had no counterpart in the actual life around you, and no confirmation in your own consciousness and experience, you might be living a highly speculative life; but if any man in all the school of wisdom can confirm his doctrine by living proof the Christian is that man. When we look back upon all the way of history so far as it is revealed to us, it seems to me to be more difficult to deny providence than to believe it. It appears to me that the difficulty is on the side of unbelief. If we had to deal with a single instance only, the case would be so limited as to be vexed by much personal contention; but a whole volume of history lies wide open. What about all the purposes that have been countervailed, the schemes that have come to nothing? What about those who have dug pits, and fallen into them themselves? What about the towers, half built and then thrown down? What about the law of checking and limitation and restriction, the mysterious unwritten law of boundary thus far shalt thou come and no farther? These are not church words; these are not chapel expressions; there they are on the open page of the world's own history. Looking at them, endeavouring to connect them and to give them shape and almost personality, we should feel that the difficulty would be on the side of unbelief and not on the side of faith in view of the proposition that God is, that God rules.
If we cannot thus prove the objective existence of providence, we can do something which is equal to it. What kind of men does this faith produce? How does the creed come up in the life? Let us not fritter away our time in discussing the creed in words and syllables; let us get away from merely intellectual contest and skilful encounter of cunning use of words, and ask this question, What kind of men does this creed make? How does the creed come down into the life, and touch it, mould it, shape and direct it? We are willing to abide by the answer; to judge the works, as Christ challenged his contemporaries to do. We cannot find the source, it may be, but let us drink the water and say what kind it is, and be honest, healthy of soul in giving our evidence. There is a faith which says, "God is, God rules, God judges. God will bring all men into account; nothing happens by chance; the eternal decree includes the boundary and the issue of all things." How does that creed operate in the life? It ought to make courageous men. Given the conviction that God has sent me, ordained me, and put his name within me, and where is fear? There is no night in my marching; the wilderness is a garden and the desert is a ground full of roses, so long as that gladdening, inspiring faith burns in my soul. Any faith that will produce such courage is, presumptively, well founded, and must, presumptively, have grand issues. Moses says, "Lord, whom shall I say sent me? When they ask me his name, what shall I say?" If a little name had been given to the man there had been no access of power in heart or arm; but charged with this name, "I AM that I AM," Pharaoh became an object rather of contempt than of dread. The man came down upon Egypt from infinite heights; he did not struggle up to it as if the situation were greater than his resources. The man in whom this gracious faith rules ought to be a man in the enjoyment of the deepest peace. He ought to sing night and day, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea." There is peace in his heart. "All things work together for good to them that are good" that is a gospel the good never left alone, the good never left to run any risks, the good pledged from eternity; the army that is with it, the Trinity the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Admit that intellectually, and you will go away and be as troubled as ever; realise it spiritually, let it enter into the making of the soul, and be the soul's very protoplasm, the force of the soul, then your peace will flow like a river; no storm can trouble it; no wind can toss it into more than momentary agitation. The faith that produces such peace and the Christian faith does produce it is, presumptively, divine, authoritative, final.
We have thus ventured to trace all these speculations, suggestions, or nominal revelations to providence; thus, too, would we test all theology. How does the theology come out in the life? To believe in the Triune God, and to rob our neighbour, is the vilest blasphemy. Do not affront me with impertinence, and say you are orthodox, because you believe so much theological ink. If your life is heterodox "you are of your father, the devil." Let us try all Christian propositions and doctrines and theologies by this one grand test What is the fruit? What is the work? What is the result? What is the life? And the life being such as God loves, the faith must be of the same quality; the tree is never better than the root.
In reading the Biblical description of providence and its operations in individual histories and imperial developments we feel no difficulty whatever as to the merely extraordinary or romantic element which may distinguish the story. Your own life is a romance. It is only commonplace for you, because you have come into it a day at a time; but if you could have taken a seven years' stride, you would have gone from commonplace into the incredible, not to say the miraculous. Our light comes to us so gradually, we grow little by little, and the increments are so small and scarcely namable, that the sum-total does not surprise us; but if you could see your point of origin and your present point of strength, wealth, influence, comfort, hope, and Christian assurance, without seeing the intermediate process, what miracle could exceed the miracle of your own development? So, when we read of the men who went through the Red Sea, we can say, each for himself, "So have I." We have fled from Egypt, and have been pursued by the enemy, and have passed through seas as upon dry land. If we had come to the story from without, entirely without sympathy or personal consciousness of divine realities, we should have called it miracle, romance, incredible, fable; but coming to it after forty years' experience, struggle, difficulty, pain, hardship, loss, joy, and all the wondrous contradictions which crowd themselves into human life, we read about the Red Sea as if the story were part of our own life. We must try to outgrow the miracles, and, by our own daily growth in grace, so tower above them as to make them commonplaces. When we read of being fed in the wilderness, a strange glow of fire warms the heart, for we say, "Surely the man has known me; surely he has read my heart. Why, this is my own course." When he says, "There is a certain tree the branches whereof will sweeten the bitter waters," we say, "I know it. I have taken off the branches. I have sweetened the bitter stream, and that tree has been to me a tree of life." We must not read the Bible as if it were something that had nothing to do with our life; we must come from our life back to the Redeemer of it; then, by instinctive gratitude, by an inborn music of the soul, our emphasis will fall into right pressure, and the colour of our reading will be beautiful as God's rainbows, and our whole utterance of the word will be natural because we have lived it, and in reading the Bible we are telling our own story.
Providence leads up to redemption. There is no escape along that line. The God that numbers the hairs of our heads must be proportionately interested in the salvation of our souls. You cannot cut off the divine ministry, saying it belongs to this side of life but not to that. If God care for oxen, there is nothing in all human imagery of speech that can represent his love of man. If you admit the numbering of the hairs of your head, you are bound to go on to the completion of the evidence. Redemption involves providence; providence suggests redemption. Any one intervention of the divine finger in human life means, rightly read, the Cross. To think that God has provided for everything but for the forgiveness of sins, that God has been gracious to the body and forgotten the soul, that God has provided us with bread for the passing hunger of the days and made no provision for the inward hunger, the famine that kills the soul who can believe it? It is inadmissible in reasoning, not to say inadmissible in theology.
So, then, we stand in this faith today. We do not inherit our religion; we personally receive it, and personally repronounce the faith. Thousands of years ago, men said, "His mercy endureth for ever;" today men say the same. And they do not read it out of a book; it is forced out of them by the gracious necessities of gratitude. We are not to be snubbed by men who have invented some new theory of life for which no man ever died, and which never cost any man the sacrifice of a night's sleep. We hide ourselves in the tabernacle of history, and we enter into that tabernacle through the gateway of our own consciousness and experience. We are part of a great band of witnesses; no merely single voice is heard in this testimony; it is a grand, massive, choral utterance of all nations, kindreds, peoples, and tongues, that God reigneth; that all that transpires in his universe is under his eye, and with him are the resources of wisdom and strength. So, whether we remain here or go elsewhere, the bounds of our habitation are fixed; we do not urge providence, or seek to drive it; we say to thee, ever-looking, ever-loving Father, "As thou wilt, here or there, or yonder, only fix the place, and we will build the altar."
Almighty God, we want to trust thee; give us thy Holy Spirit that we may not fail in the exercise of faith. We are made happy by trust; we are sure that our lives are in the hands of God, and that all things, how contrary soever in appearance and momentary conflict, work together for good, if we be right within. It is this inward part of our nature that is our difficulty. We can dress the body, but how can we perfect the soul? It is not in man that liveth to direct his way or to handle the education of his own spirit; we must come to our Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, and cry mightily unto our Father, saying, Create in me a clean heart, and renew within me a right spirit. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; it tells lies to itself; it is self-deceiving, self-mocking, therefore self-ruining: Lord, save us from ourselves. Out of the heart proceed all evil things: create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. When we would do good, evil is present with us; whilst we pray, we doubt; whilst our eyes are lifted up to the hills whence cometh our help, they turn aside that they may glance at the valleys, the temptations, the prizes of time. How wondrously hast thou made us, and how wondrously have we made ourselves! We have lost our Father, we are in the darkness, we are meditating mischief all the day: create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Assure us that the enemy is not dead, that he has but left us for a season, and will return stronger than ever. When the enemy would come in like a flood, lift up thy Spirit as a standard against him. Feed us with the bread of life: Lord, evermore give us this bread; then we shall be stronger than all that can be arrayed against us. Watch our spirit, regard our heart with special interest, take not thy Holy Spirit from us. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew within me a right spirit. Amen.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"I will freely sacrifice unto thee." Psa 44:6
If we take the word "freely" as equivalent to freewill we see what a scope love has in the offering of sacrifices unto God. The verse might be rendered "I will offer a freewill sacrifice." Some offerings we must make, not of our own freewill but by the compulsion of nature, by all the necessities which represent the sterner aspects of life. Some tributes are forced from us. We are obliged to wait for the seasons. We are compelled to bow down our heads if not in acquiescent yet in sullen consent to the decrees of Providence. On other occasions we are, so to say, left to invent the expressions of our own love; God gives us opportunities in which we may show our real quality, and prove what we would do if we could. The great purpose of divine discipline is; to work out the freewill of men. At first man would seem to have no freewill; he is bounded by laws, he is influenced by heredity, he is shut in by circumstances, he is hardly consulted as to the way in which he will spend his own life. We begin our experiences under the rod. Stern commandments say, Thou shalt, Thou shalt not, during every hour of our early existence. Then the time comes when we have a larger manhood. God gives us partial liberty. Having enjoyed this liberty without abusing it we are entrusted with still greater responsibility. As time goes on we seem to have reversed the whole plan of life and to have come into a large heritage of individual freedom. If we have profited by the discipline of life, the freedom which follows it will not be misunderstood or perverted. Freedom itself will be but a larger law. Love will begin to consider what it can do by way of repayment of the divine goodness. Thus we escape the mere literal law, the hard and stern request and command, and come into the exercise of our larger and finer faculties. The question then is, What shall we do now that we have come under the inspiration of love, having escaped the dominion of iron law? If the home-life has been good, wise, and beautiful, children on leaving it will not forget the past, but will begin to wonder how they can recognise the very discipline under which once they chafed. Let us feel that God has given us great liberty in this matter of serving him, and let it be our business not to consider how little we can do in return, but how much.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 44". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany