Friday, November 09, 2012

The Mystery of Providence

by John Flavel

“I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me” (Psalm 57:2)

The greatness of God is a glorious and unsearchable mystery. ‘For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great king over all the earth’ (Psalm 47:2). The condescension of the most high God to men is also a profound mystery. ‘Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly’ (Psalm 138:6). But when both these meet together, as they do in this Scripture, they make up a matchless mystery. Here we find the most high God performing all things for a poor distressed creature.

It is the great support and solace of the saints in all the distresses that befall them here, that there is a wise Spirit sitting in all the wheels of motion, and governing the most eccentric creatures and their most pernicious designs to blessed and happy issues. And, indeed, it were not worth while to live in a world devoid of God and Providence.

How deeply we are concerned in this matter will appear by that great instance which Psalm 57 presents us with. It was composed, as the title notes, by David when he hid himself from Saul in the cave. It is inscribed with a double title: ‘Altaschith, Michtam of David.’ ‘Altaschith’ refers to the scope and ‘Michtam’ to the dignity of the subject-matter.

The former signifies ‘destroy not,’ or ‘let there be no slaughter.’ and may either refer to Saul concerning whom he gave charge to his servants not to destroy him, or rather, it has reference to God, to whom in this great exigency he poured out his soul in this passionate ejaculation: ‘Altaschith,’ ‘destroy not.’

The latter title ‘Michtam’ signifies ‘a golden ornament,’ and so is suited to the choice and excellent matter of the Psalm, which much more deserves such a title than do Pythagoras’ Golden Verses.

Three things are remarkable in the former part of the Psalm: his extreme danger; his earnest address to God in that extremity; and the arguments he pleads with God in that address.

His extreme danger is expressed in both the title and the body of the psalm. The title tells us this psalm was composed by him when he hid himself from Saul in the cave. This cave was in the wilderness of Engedi among the broken rocks where the wild goats lived, an obscure and desolate hole; yet even there the envy of Saul pursued him (1 Samuel 24:1, 2). And now he that had been so long hunted as a partridge upon the mountains seems to be enclosed in the net. His enemies were outside the cave, from which there was no other outlet. Then Saul himself entered the mouth of this cave, in the sides and creeks of which David and his men lay hidden, and they actually saw him. Judge to how great an extremity and to what a desperate state things were now brought. Well might he say: ‘My soul is among lions, and I lie even among them that are set on fire’ (verse 4). What hope now remained? What but immediate destruction could be expected?

Yet this does not frighten him out of his faith and duty, but between the jaws of death he prays, and earnestly addresses himself to God for mercy: ‘Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me’ (verse 1). This excellent psalm was composed by him when there was enough to discompose the best man in the world. The repetition notes both the extremity of the danger and the ardency of the supplicant. Mercy, mercy, nothing but mercy, and that exerting itself in an extraordinary way, can now save him from ruin.

The arguments he pleads for obtaining mercy in this distress are very considerable. First, he pleads his reliance upon God as an argument to move mercy. ‘Be merciful unto me O God, be merciful unto me, for my soul trusteth in thee; yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast’ (verse 1). This his trust and dependence on God though it is not an argument in respect of the dignity of the act, yet it is so in respect of the nature of the object, a compassionate God, who will not expose any that take shelter under His wings; also in respect of the promise by which protection is assured to them that fly to Him for sanctuary: ‘Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee’ (Isaiah 26:3). Thus he encourages himself from the consideration of that God in whom he trusts.

He pleads former experiences of His help in past distresses as an argument encouraging hope under the present strait: ‘I will cry unto God most high, unto God that performeth all things for me’ (verse 2).

In these words I shall consider two things: the duty resolved upon, and the encouragement to that resolution. 

The duty resolved upon: ‘I will cry unto God.’ Crying unto God is an expression that denotes not only prayer, but intense and fervent prayer. To cry is to pray in a holy passion; and such are usually speeding prayers (Psalm 18:6; Hebrews 5:7). The encouragements to this resolution are taken from the sovereignty of God and from the experience he had of His Providence.

The sovereignty of God: ‘I will cry unto God most high.’ Upon this he acts his faith in extremity of danger. Saul is high, but God is the most high, and without His permission he is assured Saul cannot touch him. He had none to help, and if he had, he knew God must first help the helpers or they cannot help him. He had no means of defence or escape before him, but the Most High is not limited by means. This is a singular prop to faith (Psalm 59:9).

The experience of His Providence hitherto: ‘Unto God that performeth all things for me.’

The word which we translate ‘performeth’ comes from a root that signifies both to perfect, and to desist or cease. For when a business is performed and perfected, the agentthen ceases and desists from working. To such a happy issue the Lord has brought all his doubtful and difficult matters before; and this gives him encouragement that He will still be gracious, and perfect that which concerns him now, as he speaks: ‘The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me’ (Psalm 138:8).

The Septuagint renders Psalm 57:2: ‘The well-doer saving me,’ ‘who profits or benefits me.’ And it is a certain truth that all the results and issues of Providence are profitable and beneficial to the saints. But the supplement in our translation well conveys the sense of the text: ‘Who performeth all things.’ And it involves the most strict and proper notion of Providence, which is nothing else but the performance of God’s gracious purposes and promises to His people.