The Power of Providence

The Power of Providence

The Christian finds comfort in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God: that is, because God is sovereign, all things are under His rule and control, and nothing happens without His direction or permission. This means that God works not just some things but all things according to the counsel of His own will (Ephesians 1:11). The sovereignty of God assures us that the end of the story of reality is already finished, and at the conclusion of history, it is Christ who will reign and rule in a kingdom ordered by His holy principles and inhabited by His redeemed people. Anything that stands opposed to Christ will be destroyed. Therefore, Christian, let not your heart be troubled, for it has already been decided how this all ends: God wins.

Still, the sovereignty of God is not a cold fact that only saturates heaven and does not affect our everyday lives here on earth. Precisely how the Lord brings about His sovereign will is by His providence. The power of providence is that this doctrine opens our eyes to God’s perfect timing and all-sufficient provision in fulfilling His plans.

So, what is a proper biblical definition of providence? Well, providence looks and sounds similar to the word “provide,” and that is no mistake, because by His providence, God provides for His creatures. He actively guards and cares for His creation and never abandons what He made; rather, the Lord works in and on creation to manage all things “according to the immutable counsel of His will” (Westminster Confession, V, Of Providence). What the Bible tells us is that God is free to work above and without ordinary means, but He typically makes use of them in order to bring about His will. As the narrative of Joseph and his brothers makes plain to us, God can even use the evil of men as a means to bring about His good and glorious purposes. The point is that by His providence, the Lord weaves His fingers through the fabric of our reality in order to take hold of everything and direct all things toward His pre-appointed end.

To unpack the doctrine of providence further, we will go to the Old Testament Book of Esther. Our Scripture focus will come from Esther 4:14, but before I read the text, allow me to set up the story. The Book of Esther begins by telling us about two different groups of people: the Persian Gentiles and the Jews in exile. One of the Jews—a young woman by the name of Esther— providentially becomes queen. Next, a Gentile by the name of Haman rises to power and, as per the king’s command, all who pass by the king’s gate have to pay homage and bow down to Haman. But one man refuses to bow down: a Jew named Mordecai. Haman thinks it beneath himself to kill Mordecai alone, so he goes after all of Mordecai’s people, the Jews. Haman then uses the king to issue a decree to “annihilate, kill and destroy” all the Jews. Mordecai gets wind of the plot and then sends a message to queen Esther. So, in Esther 4:13-14, the text says:

Then Mordecai told [the messengers] to reply to Esther, “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, liberation and rescue will arise for the Jews from another place, and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”

And what happens next? How is the conflict resolved at the end of the narrative? By the end of the Book of Esther, there is a complete reversal. Haman tries to hang Mordecai, but it is Haman who is hanged on the very same gallows he built for Mordecai. And Mordecai is not only saved, he is also promoted to serve at the king’s right hand. Esther intercedes for her people to the king, and the prior decree to destroy the Jews is reversed; in fact, at the end of Esther, it’s not the Jews who are destroyed but the enemies of the Jews. As it says in Esther 9:1:

[O]n the day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, it turned out to the contrary so that the Jews themselves gained mastery over those who hated them.

Hence, the Book ends not in despair but with gracious celebration. You see, at the conclusion of the narrative, it is not the schemes of men that triumph; rather, it is the will of the sovereign God that succeeds and cannot be frustrated. Before the story is complete, at times it may seem that there is no hope and that men are actively supplanting the will of the Lord. But at the end of the story, what becomes evident is that the providential hand of God was moving and directing everything toward the Lord’s appointed end. In fact, what men like Haman designed for evil ended up being steps in God’s glorious plan and good purposes. This principle of concurrence is perfectly illustrated in the drama of the Cross: what the Jews and the Romans meant for evil (the murder of the Son of God), the Lord used as a means to bring about the greatest good for all humankind: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Specifically, the Book of Esther illuminates three points about the power of providence: One, in His providence, God places His agents in suitable situations for doing His work. Two, in His providence, God restrains His enemies so that His work is accomplished. Three, in His providence, the Lord tests His people.

The first point is that in His providence, God places His agents in suitable situations for doing His work. The Lord was not taken by surprise by Haman’s plot; in fact, God had foreseen it, and He also forestalled it by ensuring that a young Jewish girl, Esther, would become Queen of Persia before Haman designed his diabolical scheme. As a result, one of God’s agents was put in a suitable situation to counteract Haman’s plan long before Haman even had a plan. Hence, Esther, being in the king’s house and having his ear, was a means of defeating the adversary. Even more, Esther had a familial relationship with Mordecai, who heard of the plot at the palace gate and then sent a message to his foster daughter. This means that Mordecai was also placed in a suitable situation, and he then used the advantage of information to send an urgent message to the queen. And his relationship to Esther allowed him to communicate with her without delay or impediments. Both Mordecai and Esther acted within the sphere of their unique predicament. Consequently, Mordecai succeeded because he performed as Mordecai should, and Esther succeeded because she performed as Esther should.

God’s providence not only placed two agents in situations where they could be efficient instruments; He also used both agents cooperatively to facilitate steps in His divine plan. Mordecai would have been of little use without Esther, and Esther likely would not have rendered aid if Mordecai had not encouraged her. The simple application here is that the Lord has not only placed you in a particular place at a particular time; He has also placed other agents in efficient positions so that you may collaborate with them. Holy omniscience has determined the ideal placement of God’s agents in the body of Christ, which is a cooperative whole. Thus, every child of God is exactly where they are because God has placed them there for a specific purpose. God’s agents work together with hope toward a divine purpose that cannot be stopped. On the contrary, whatever mischief may be brewing against God, neither the devil, his evil agents nor the schemes of men can frustrate God’s plans. Why? Because the Lord has an Esther and a Mordecai ready at their positions. Consequently, God provides for you not so that you can keep it to yourself, but so that you can provide for others. The question you must now ask yourself is, “For what purpose has God placed me where I am?”

Additionally, let us also not miss that Mordecai and Esther were both called to work and be active in their respective assigned spheres. If Mordecai had spent his days lamenting to himself saying, “I wish I had another job other than being at the king’s gate—I wish I was serving somewhere else,” he would likely have been distracted from the timely service he could tangibly provide to his queen and his people. Therefore, serve Christ in your current situation, for there is something for you to do there. No one must flirt with their imagination and try to discern all of God’s plan or be perfect. All a person is called to do is to do as they can. One person may say, “I am too blessed to be stressed.” Then God has a design for placing you in a fortunate position. Another may say, “I am not blessed; I’m barely scraping by.” Then you are providentially placed to be a light in a dark place. Is not light the most visible where there is none?

When it comes to doing God’s work, one of the most important actions any child of God can take is fervent prayer, which is the most tangible expression of faith. Someone may ask, “What difference does prayer make, since God is sovereign?” The answer is, “Prayer makes all the difference,” because prayer is an essential part of the providence of God. Biblical history demonstrates that, time and time again, everyone who has been delivered by God has been praying for it. Anyone who isn’t praying for it doesn’t really want it. As Augustine once said, “Pray as though everything depends on God. And work as if everything depends on you.”

Perhaps one day, in Paradise, all the children of God will be able to see the grand divine plan. Perhaps they will one day be able to comprehend how—from the beginning—God has masterfully placed specific individuals in precise places in precise times to fulfill His sovereign will. Perhaps the Lord’s wisdom in arranging the smallest events to produce great results will only be appreciated when a person no longer sees with earthly eyes, but with heavenly ones. What the Bible makes plain to us is that there is as much providence in an ant climbing a plant stem as there is in a missionary group going door to door in a foreign land. Everything is ordered by the Lord, whose kingdom rules over all. Hence, the power of providence is that God places His agents in suitable situations for doing His work.

The second point is that in His providence, God restrains His enemies. In the Book of Esther, Haman was fixated on executing his plan to destroy all the Jews. He was quite anxious to have his cruel and immoral decree accomplished with completeness and resorted to using the king to issue a decree that seemingly could not be revoked. Yes, Haman may have been able to attempt to destroy God’s people, but while a man may devise many things in his head, all his steps are providentially guided by the Lord.

This helps to explain why, at the end of Esther, all of Haman’s plans were frustrated. At the proper time, all the Jews in Persia were able to look back to remember and rehearse what God had done: orchestrated their deliverance in spite of plans for their destruction. As I said before, at the end of Esther, there is a complete reversal: Haman tries to hang Mordecai, but it is Haman who is hanged on the very same gallows he built for Mordecai. And when the narrative concludes, it’s not the Jews who are destroyed but the enemies of the Jews. The point, beloved, is this: trusting God entails trusting in His providence, and in His providence, God restrains His enemies. We often wish that God would do something miraculous to deliver us from our predicament, but God rules the world by providence, not by miracles. And in that providence, He often uses the schemes of His enemies to destroy His enemies. As Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said:

The enemies of the Church of God and of His people can never do more than the Lord permits—they cannot go a hair’s breadth beyond the divine license! And when they are permitted to do their worst, there is always some weak point about all that they do; some extreme folly which renders their fury vain! The wicked carry about them the weapons of their own destruction, and when they rage most against the Most High, the Lord of all brings out of it good for His people and glory to Himself! Judge not providence in little pieces—it is a grand mosaic, and must be seen as a whole! Say not of any one hour, “This is dark”—it may be so, but that darkness will minister to the light, even as the ebony gloom of midnight makes the stars appear the brighter! Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord Jehovah there is everlasting strength. His wisdom will undermine the mines of cunning; His skill will overtop the climbings of craft! “He takes the wise in their own craftiness, and the counsel of the froward is carried headlong.”

Of course, the perfect example of God permitting His enemies to do their worst while He weaponized their schemes against them is seen in the Crucifixion of Christ. That event eternally preaches to us that only the Lord can providentially direct reality so that the darkness of the Cross can be a necessary step toward the light of the Resurrection. Hence, even when life hurts and reality seems to make no sense, what we are called to do is to simply trust the Lord and let patience saturate our souls. And, while we remain mindful that God restrains His enemies, that does not mean we are called to be idle; rather, we do everything we can right now and then leave our adversaries in the hands of God. Remember what Mordecai said to Esther in 4:13-14:

Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, liberation and rescue will arise for the Jews from another place, and you and your father’s house will perish.

Here, Mordecai encouraged Esther to act but also added that if Esther failed to take advantage of her royal position and did not act, God would use someone else so that liberation and rescue would arise from someplace else. God does not need any of us to accomplish His plans, but holy omniscience has decided that by His grace, the Lord will use the means of human instruments. Hence, the Lord uses people who are purposeful and active doing something wherever they have been placed.

God did not just restrain His enemies in the time of Esther and two thousand years ago at Calvary. He is also actively restraining His enemies now and using their schemes against them. How do we know this? Because at the conclusion of the story of reality, Christ triumphs. That means everything that is happening right now is being providentially directed to the total and final defeat of God’s enemies, with the result being the eternal safety of His people. Revelation 21:1-8 tells us what will happen at the end of history. The text says:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among the people, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give water to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life, without cost. The one who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly, and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers, and sexually immoral persons, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

When a Christian embraces the idea that all of God’s elect are predestined to be safe forever, it gives them hope in the present cognizant of how safe the Church of God is. Again, as Charles Spurgeon once said:

The foes of the truth of God can never put out the candle which God has lit; they can never crush the living seed which the Lord Jesus has sown in His own blood-bought people.

Therefore, trust in God and His providence and fear not. While preserving His own, God will outsmart the crafty and will hurl down those who exalt themselves. Rather than fail, God will use His enemies to do His work. Who can have God as their enemy and expect to prevail?

The third and final point is that in His providence, God tries His people. When Mordecai first sent word to Queen Esther, her initial response was not “I will help.” Her initial response was hesitation. In Esther 4:11, she says:

All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that for any man or woman who comes to the king in the inner courtyard, who is not summoned, he has only one law, that he be put to death, unless the king holds out to him the golden scepter so that he may live. And I have not been summoned to come to the king for these thirty days.

Mordecai then sends word back to the queen and asks her, “Who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” After Esther hears these words, it is then that the pressure of the trial begins to produce the designed fruit in her. She moves from thinking about her own preservation to the preservation of all the Jews. It is then that she comes to the resolve that even if she dies, she will do everything in her power for the sake of her people. So, in Esther 4:16, the Queen says:

Go, gather all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants also will fast in the same way. And then I will go in to the king, which is not in accordance with the law; and if I perish, I perish.

If you are a child of God, you will be tried. If you are not tried by God, then you are not one of His children (Psalm 11:5; Hebrews 12:6). Part of the divine design, then, is to test God’s servants so that the Lord can educate by affliction in the classroom of providence. Some may balk about the Lord’s parental intent, but they have not yet come to realize that affliction is the best teacher and that grace grows best in the winter. What we must also learn is that just because something is tough does not mean it is not providential. Mordecai once stood alone in refusing to bow down to Haman. Mordecai was subsequently tested not to be too sternly independent, to seek help for his people and to seek help from his foster daughter. Esther was tested in the midst of all the luxuries of royalty that may have persuaded her to forget about God. She was also tested to see what was in her heart: if she was willing to give up everything—even her life—for something greater than this life. And then there were the common Jews who had no recourse and lived under the threat of a royal decree for their extermination. Would they, like Haman, devise their own schemes or trust in the Lord of the Exodus? What the Book of Esther teaches us is that no one was exempt from the Lord’s providential testing because in His providence, the Lord tests His people. On the one hand, God allows the testing because He has made the metal that will be tried; on the other hand, He never allows pressure so great that the metal will break, but provides the Holy Spirit to sustain and to strengthen the metal.

There was a time when I used to think that the “big” trials in life were the hardest while the common, mundane trials were the easiest. I am now firmly persuaded that the opposite is true: that it is because we may tend to ignore or minimize the small, everyday trials that we rely less on God and prayer; as a result, we tend to become negligent and forget about God. After all, it is directly to God through prayer that a Christian runs when their world is totally disrupted. My point in saying this is to communicate the simple idea that oftentimes it is the subtle, slow and persistent trials that are the most arduous because they require not only faith but fruits of faith: patience and perseverance. This is especially applicable to our current time because many people around the world have been undergoing a trial since the Spring of 2020, but have not yet realized that the trial is the point because in His providence, God tests His people.

What I am about to read is a short essay by C. S. Lewis called “On Living in an Atomic Age.” This essay was written over 70 years ago, but I think it is perfectly fitting to our modern context. Mr. Lewis was writing to a population for whom extinction was palpable due to the threat of the atomic bomb. Now, I am writing to a population where fear of death exists due to an acute health threat. I will now quote Mr. Lewis’s essay, and everywhere he writes “atomic bomb,” substitute it for whatever you believe to be the greatest natural threat to life on Planet Earth. Examples could be “COVID-19,” “climate change,” “financial collapse,” “World War III” or “totalitarianism.”

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

For the original audience of C. S. Lewis’s essay, the atomic bomb was perceived to be the greatest threat to the body. But our Savior encourages His disciples not to worry about he who kills the body and is unable to kill the soul. In fact, heaven’s logic comforts us by reminding us that a broken body is the very thing that sets our spirits free. At the end of the day, nothing in this world can touch us without God’s permission, just as a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His consent (Matthew 10:29).

In His providence, God tries His people. Let us then not consider, “Why this trial?” Instead, let us consider, “For whatever reason God has allowed this trial to happen, how can I glorify the Lord in the midst of it?” You see, it is very easy to let our reason run away with itself. Our thoughts can endlessly entertain questions such as “Why?” “What if …” or “If only that, this.” The only resolve is to give up the search for answers to mysteries, or else we will never be fully satisfied. Let us simply say as Paul did in Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!”

Conclusion

What Esther 4:13-14 has revealed to us is that in His providence, one, God places His agents in suitable situations for doing His work; two, God restrains His enemies; and three, God restrains His people. Accordingly, just as Mordecai encouraged Esther with his words, I encourage every reader with this steadfast hope: because God’s will can never be stopped—no matter what—that gives us a holy confidence in the divine purpose. And what does that confidence do? It awakens people from a state of cold idleness to fiery boldness and heroism. God is sovereign over things, ideas, people, kings, kingdoms, time and all of history. His providential hand is actively directing everything toward the established conclusion: the Triumph of the Lamb. The question now becomes: Do you sincerely believe that God’s providence is at work even when life is messy, hurts or doesn’t seem to make any sense? Like Mordecai, Esther and the Jews of Persia, will you trust God no matter what?

In Jeremiah 23:24, the Lord asks rhetorical questions:

“Can a person hide himself in hiding places so that I do not see him?” declares the Lord. “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?”

The point is that the same Lord who made heaven and earth cannot unmake them. There is nothing in this world that can escape from His divine hand. Thus, if you serve the King who rules over all, there is great comfort, because He will plead your cause and protect His people even if all of the world stands against them. As we look forward to the end of time, what is apparent is that one day the King shall return in triumph and the grand mosaic that God is currently weaving will finally be complete. We know how the story is going to end, but God has not yet precisely revealed how all things will unfold in the interim. Still, our steadfast hope comes from the fact that Christ is the master key who unlocks the meaning and purpose of all of reality. As it says in Colossians 1:16-17:

[F]or by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or rulers, or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

And as it is written in John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him not even one thing came into being that has come into being.

Christ is the Logos, or the chief organizing principle that not only made reality but also explains and interprets reality. Therefore, the ultimate comfort for the child of God is that reality is not in the hands of an indifferent, immoral dictator. Rather, reality is in the hands of the Good Shepherd who emptied Himself and stooped in order to reconcile sinners to Himself when we were dead in our sins. If the Son of God has already gone to such lengths for those who were His enemies, then by His providence, how much more will the Lord protect, sustain and persevere those who are now His children? Amen.

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal


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