The Old Testament Is a Story of Providence
The story of the Old Testament is nothing if not a story of divine providence. On every page, in every promise, behind every prophecy is the sure hand of God. He sustains all things, directs all things, plans all things, ordains all things, superintends all things, works all things after the counsel of his will.
This is not a small theme in the Old Testament. Providence is not merely an implied truth, deduced from a handful of obscure passages. No, the doctrine of divine providence is the soundtrack of Scripture. It is everywhere present even if at times you are not consciously aware of it. Like the book of Esther where God’s name is never mentioned but everything from a beauty contest (2:18) to a king’s insomnia (6:1-3) serve to advance God’s purposes. The God of the Bible is a big God who does not leave things to chance. He does not simply react; he predestines. He does not merely turn hard situations for our good; he ordains hard situations for our good. Our God is never confused and never caught off guard. His will, to quote Augustine, is the necessity of all things.
What is Providence?
Here’s what I mean by providence: “Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand” (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 27).
Don’t’ miss all that the Catechism is saying. God’s power is almighty and ever present. That means it is limitless and boundless. In God all things live and move and have their being. Our God rules heaven and earth and all creatures in such a way that whatever befalls them—success or failure, blessing or adversity, life or death—no matter what comes and no matter the situation, nothing around us or to us or about us is the product of random happenstance. As Christians, we can be confident that all things come to us from the wise hand of our loving heavenly Father.
The God of Sovereign Sway
In the Old Testament, we see again and again that nothing is outside God’s control or his foreordination. The heavens and the earth were created because God said so. The floods came because God sent them. Sarah had a baby because God promised. Joseph was sold into slavery because God had a plan. The Israelites escaped Egypt because God delivered them. They inherited the promised land because God was with them. They were shipped to Babylon because God wanted to punish them. And the exiles returned because God stirred up the heart of King Cyrus to let them go.
Or consider the book of Job. In the first chapter, Satan is given permission to ruin Job’s life. So in one day Job gets four dreadful messages. The Sabeans destroy the oxen and donkeys and their servants. A fire burns up the sheep and their servants. The Chaldeans make a raid on the camels and kill them. Worst of all, a wind storm rips through the oldest son’s house and all of Job’s children are killed. Now who is behind all this? Certainly Satan is to blame. Certainly the Sabeans and Chaldeans must be held responsible. Natural disasters also played a role. But somehow sending it all and behind it all-as the planner but not the doer of all these things-is God himself. Which is why Job’s response after these four reports is to confess: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (). Later he cries out, in the midst of unthinkable pain and unbelievable faith, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” ().
People frequently struggle with suffering in the Old Testament and ask “Why?” There are many bewildered cries for help and not a few cries of despair. The Old Testament is full of lamentation. God’s people often struggle to understand what God is doing or why he has done what he’s done. But you never find God’s people concluding that God is not the sovereign hand appointing their struggles. The pain may be debilitating or the circumstances shocking but the assumption is still the same: this is from the hand of God. However much they struggle to make sense of suffering they never make sense of it by minimizing the sovereignty of God. When famine strikes the land of Judah and Naomi loses her husband and her two sons she says in her anguish, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (). She may struggle to see God’s purpose, but she does not doubt this was his plan.
The God of the Old Testament (and the New Testament for that matter) is a God with absolute power and sovereign sway over all things. “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the people” (). “He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth; he sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses” (). He shuts the mouths of lions to preserve the righteous () and unleashes lions to judge the wicked (). He hardens hearts (; ).
God cannot sin. He is not the author or actor of evil. But we mustn’t say he simply allows for certain events to take place, even events full of sin and suffering, as if God had nothing to do with the cross () and has nothing to do with most of what transpires in our world. The sovereign will of God is more all-encompassing that we might imagine.
- ”God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem” ().
- ”Now the Spirit of the Lord has departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him” ().
- ”I am the Lord and there is no other. I form the light and create disaster; I bring prosperity and create disaster; I the Lord do all these things” ().
- ”When disaster comes to a city has not the Lord caused it” ().
Even death is in the Lord’s hands.
- ”The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up” ().
- ”There is no other god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life. I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand” ().
From the big pictures to the tiniest details, the Old Testament teaches that God guides all our steps.
- ”The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” ().
- ”A man’s steps are directed by the Lord. How then can anyone understand his own way?” ().
- ”I know, O Lord, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his step” ().
- ”All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” ().
Our God, Daniel says, “does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth” (). And in Isaiah the Lord declares: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God ant there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (). God is God because he has the power to do what he wants, the wisdom to carry it out, and the sovereign authority to immutably appoint whatsoever shall come to pass.
Power with a Purpose
But we must not forget that providence is more than the raw exercise of power. It’s certainly true that God has power and authority and sovereign sway over all things. But the doctrine of providence goes one step further and asserts that all this power and authority and sovereignty is for us. It comes from a loving Father who intends to do good for his children. It’s like that line from Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddel’s father remarks to a skeptic that God may (in a manner of speaking) be a dictator, but “Aye, he is a benign, loving dictator.” The power of providence has a benevolent purpose.
So how does the knowledge of providence help us? According to the Catechism, the answer is threefold: “We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love. All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved” (Q/A 28).
Let’s look at each of these three points with an eye to the Old Testament.
(1) “We can be patient when things go against us.”
Providence is not only believing that God is the one writing the world’s history, it’s also trusting that he is writing our story. And it’s a good story. When Joseph was in prison, when baby Moses was floating down the Nile, when Haman was plotting to kill the Jews who could have known what good God had in store for his people? But he always did, and always does. Can you find a story in the entire Old Testament of someone in great trouble who trusts in the Lord who finds out that their trust was in vain? Abraham, Joshua, Rahab, Ruth, David, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Daniel—the list goes on and on of godly men and women who trusted God in the midst of trial and discovered that providence was on their side.
No one can tell you exactly how things will turn out for you. I wish I knew when your crazy hard situation would turn around. But I don’t. No one does. But what we do know from the Bible is that God is writing a good story for you. Can you believe that? Do you trust him? You may say, “I’m in the middle of a terrible chapter. He has written a rotten plot twist into my life right now.” And that may be. The Old Testament is full of people lamenting such plot twists. But do not lose your patience. Do not lose heart. The story is not over. This is not the final chapter. God is a skilled Author and we can be sure he has penned a happy ending for us.
(2) “We can be thankful when things go well.”
Have you ever noticed there are a lot of songs and a lot of altars in the Bible? In the earliest days of Israel’s history the people made an altar when God did something amazing. At other points the people stopped to sing a song. The point was the same. When God’s people saw things going well for them they knew God was the reason. Of course, they forget that at times and assumed their bravery and their power were the causes of their success. But whenever the people or the kings were walking with the Lord, they were immensely grateful. They understood that good times were not just the product of wise leadership or a strong economy or brilliant military strategy. Their good times were God times, times where God in his providence had chosen to be transparently kind to them. God is always kind, but sometimes his kinds is especially obvious. It’s in these moments that the doctrine of providence reminds us to be thankful.
If you love the sovereignty of God, you should love to say thank you. Calvinists should be the gladdest people on the planet because we have more reasons to be grateful than anyone else. We know that no gift is an accident. No good thing comes to us by chance. Blessings are never the last link in a chain produced by libertarian free will. If you have a job it’s from God. If you have a family they’re from God. If you have a good church, that’s from God. If your life is made better because of cats or dogs or pizza or popcorn or ice cream or another birthday or new clothes or new friends or new health or a new baby, then give praise to God for he gave them to you. He’s better than Amazon. He gives you packages of new mercy every morning and the shipping is always free.
(3) “For the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father.”
Some of us know the Bible so well that we’ve lost wonder at what God really does for his people. We read and God’s promise that a child from Eve will crush the serpent and we think, “Cool, that’s Jesus.” But we forget that God’s people lived with that promise unfulfilled for thousands and thousands of years. We love the story of Joseph, but don’t think about how he felt during all those years where his life seemed utterly ruined. We recall the promise to Abraham that he would be a great nation and get excited for our Sunday school lesson about trusting God, but don’t appreciate that Abraham and Sarah waited decades for their child to come and then they almost had to kill him and then Isaac’s twins go nuts on each other and then Jacob can’t get things figured out with his wives and then his sons keep acting stupid and then the family almost dies from famine and then comes slavery in Egypt and later exile in Babylon and along the way the line of David is almost snuffed out by Queen Athaliah and later the prophets seem to go silent and then the voice in the wilderness is killed by Herod and finally the would be Messiah gets crucified. At no point did the promise to Abraham look like a sure bet. It never looked like a done deal.
And yet here we are, children of Abraham, children of the promise, children of providence. God has been at work all along guiding, prompting, leading, steering, carrying out his purposes. And he will do the same for us. God is our Father. You are his son or daughter. He loves you. He wants you to grow up and be a mature man or woman. Like any parent, he only wants what is best for you. And unlike every other parent, he always knows what is best.
God Is Great, God Is Good
Don’t be afraid of the future. Don’t be anxious about trials. And don’t be nervous about blessings either, as if God will eventually wake up, realize you’ve been drinking spiritual Mountain Dew your whole life and start giving you spiritual broccoli to eat. Don’t worry that he’ll start balancing the scales to give you a little more suffering. There is no balancing of the scales with God. That’s the thing about providence. Our heavenly Father is always for us. He doesn’t make you pay for the fun stuff in your life with more and more pain. He’s only interested in your good, always interested in your good. He doesn’t vacillate between loving you and loathing you. His affections are set upon you and his providence is fixed upon your spiritual well being in Christ. That’s the story of the Old Testament and your story too-no matter what you’re chapter is like and how you would have written it differently.
21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
15 Though he slay me, I will hope in him;
yet I will argue my ways to his face.
20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.
10 The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
7 He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
who makes lightnings for the rain
and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.
22 My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.”
25 And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them.
17 And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen.
20 For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses.
27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
23 And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech,
14 Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him.
6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the Lord, who does all these things.
6 Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it?
6 The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
39 “‘See now that I, even I, am he,
and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
33 The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord.
24 A man’s steps are from the Lord;
how then can man understand his way?
23 I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself,
that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”
9 remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”