By John Flavel
That Providence has a special hand in our marriage is evident both from Scripture assertions and the acknowledgments of holy men, who in that great event of their lives have still owned and acknowledged the directing hand of Providence. Take an instance of both. The Scripture plainly asserts the dominion of Providence over this affair: 'A prudent wife is from the LORD' (Proverbs 19:14). 'Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the LORD' (Proverbs 18:22). So for children: 'Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD; and the fruit of the womb is his reward' (Psalm 127:3).
And it has ever been the practice of holy men to seek the Lord for direction and counsel, when they have been changing their condition. No doubt but Abraham's encouragement in that case was the fruit of prayer. His pious servant also, who was employed in that affair, did both earnestly seek counsel of God, and thankfully acknowledge His gracious providence in guiding it (Genesis 24:7, 12, 26, 27).
The same we may observe in children, the fruit of marriage (1 Samuel 1:20; Luke 1:13, 14). Now the Providence of God may be in various ways displayed for the engaging of our hearts in love to the God of our mercies.
There is very much of Providence seen in appointing the parties for each other. In this the Lord often goes beyond our thoughts and plans; yea, and often crosses men's desires and designs to their great advantage. Not what they expect, but what His infinite wisdom judges best and most beneficial for them takes place. Hence it is that probabilities are so often dashed, and things remote and utterly improbable are brought about, in very strange and unaccountable methods of Providence.
There is much of Providence seen in the harmony and agreeableness of temperaments and dispositions, from which a very great part of the tranquillity and comforts of our lives results. Or at least, though natural temperament and education did not so much harmonize before, yet they do so after they come under the ordinance of God: 'And they shall be one flesh' (Genesis 2:24). Not one only in respect of God's institution, but one in respect of love and affection, that those who so lately were mere strangers to each other are now endeared to a degree beyond the nearest relations in blood: 'Therefore shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh.'
But Providence is especially remarkable in making one instrumental to the eternal good of the other: 'What knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?' (1 Corinthians 7:16). Hence is that grave exhortation to the wives of unbelieving husbands to win them by their conversation, which should be to them instead of an ordinance (1 Peter 3:1).
Or if both are gracious, then what singular assistance and mutual help is hereby gained to the furtherance of their eternal good whilst they live together 'as heirs together of the grace of life' (1 Peter 3:7). O blessed Providence that directed such into so intimate relation on earth, who shall inherit together the common salvation of heaven!
How much of Providence is seen in children, the fruit of marriage! To have any posterity in the earth, and not be left altogether as a dry tree; to have comfort and joy in them is a special providence, importing a special mercy to us. To have the breaches made upon our families repaired, is a providence to be owned with a thankful heart. When God shall say to a man, as he speaks in another case to the Church: 'The children which thou shalt have after thou hast lost the other, shall say again in thine ears: The place is too strait for me' (Isaiah 49:20).
And these providences will appear more affectingly sweet and lovely to you, if you but compare God's allotments to you with what He has allotted to many others in the world. For do but look around and you will find multitudes unequally yoked, to the embittering of their lives, whose relations are clogs and hindrances both in things temporal and spiritual. Yea, we find an account in Scripture of gracious persons, a great part of whose comfort in this world has been split upon this rock. Abigail was a discreet and virtuous woman, but very unsuitably matched to a churlish Nabal (1 Samuel 25:25). What a temptation to the neglect of a known duty prevailed upon the renowned Moses by the means of Zipporah his wife (Exodus 4:24, 25). David had his scoffing Michal (2 Samuel 6:20), and patient Job no small addition to all his other afflictions from the wife of his bosom, who should have been a support to him in the day of his troubles (Job 2:9-10; 19:17).
No doubt but God sanctifies such rods to His people's good. If Socrates knew how to improve his affliction in his Xanthippe to the increase of his patience, much more will they who converse with God under all providences, whether sweet or bitter. Nevertheless this must be acknowledged to be a sad stroke upon any person, and such as maims them upon the working hand, by unfitting them for duty (1 Peter 3:7) and cuts off much of the comfort of life also.
How many there are who never enjoy the comfortable fruits of marriage, but are denied the sight, or at least the enjoyment of children! 'Thus saith the LORD: Write this man childless' (Jeremiah 22:30), or if they have children, yet cannot enjoy them: 'Though they bring up their children, yet will I bereave them that there shall not be a man left' (Hosea 9:12), who only bear for the grave, and have their expectations raised for a greater affliction to themselves.
And it is no rare or unusual thing to see children and near relations the greatest instruments of affliction to their parents and friends, so that after all their other sorrows and troubles in the world, nearest relations bring up the rear of sorrows and prove greater griefs than any other. O how many parents have complained with the tree in the fable, that their very hearts have been riven asunder with those wedges that were cut out of their own bodies! What a grief was Esau to Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 26:34, 35)! what scourges were Absalom and Amnon to David!
Well then, if God has set 'the solitary in families' (Psalm 68:6), built a house for the desolate, given you comfortable relations, which are springs of daily comfort and refreshment to you, you are upon many accounts engaged to walk answerably to these gracious providences. And that you may understand wherein that decorum and agreeable comportment with these providences consists, take up the sense of your duty in these brief hints:
Ascribe to God the glory of all those providential works which yield you comfort. You see a wise, directing, governing Providence, which has disposed and ordered all things beyond your own plans and designs: 'The way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps' (Jeremiah 10:23). Not what you planned, but what a higher counsel than yours determined is come to pass. Good Jacob, when God had made him the father of a family, admired God in the mercy. 'For with my staff,' said he, 'I passed over this Jordan, and now I am become two bands' (Genesis 32:10). And how this mercy humbles and melts him! 'I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth which thou hast showed unto thy servant.
Be exact in discharging the duties of those relations which so gracious a Providence has led you into. Do not abuse the effects of so much mercy and love to you. The Lord expects praise wherever you have comfort. This aggravated David's sin, that he should dare to abuse so great love and mercy as God had shown him in his family relations (2 Samuel 12:7-9).
Use relations to the end Providence designed them. Walk together as co-heirs of the grace of life; study to be mutual blessings to each other; so walk in your relations that the parting day may be sweet. Death will shortly break up the family; and then nothing but the sense of duty discharged, or the neglects pardoned, will give comfort.
Another gracious performance of Providence for us is seen in making provision from time to time for us and our families. I the rather put these providences together in this place because I find the Scripture does so. 'Yet setteth he the poor on high from affliction, and maketh him families like a flock' (Psalm 107:41).
You know the promises God has made to His people: 'The young lions do lack and suffer hunger, but they that seek the LORD shall not want any good thing' (Psalm 34:10). And have you not also seen the constant performance of it? Cannot you give the same answer, if the same question were propounded to you, which the disciples did: 'When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye anything? and they said, Nothing' (Luke 22:35)? Can you not with Jacob call him 'the God which fed me all my life long'? (Genesis 48:15). Surely 'he hath given meat unto them that fear him; he will ever be mindful of his covenant' (Psalm 111:5).
To display this Providence we will consider it in the following particulars:
The assiduity and constancy of the care of Providence for the saints. His mercies 'are new every morning' (Lamentations 3:23). It is not just the supply of one or two pressing needs, but all your wants, as they grow from day to day through all your days. 'The God which fed me all my life long' (Genesis 48:15). The care of Providence runs parallel with the line of life: 'Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are borne by me from the belly, which are carried from the womb: and even to your old age I am he, and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear, even I will carry, and will deliver you' (Isaiah 46:3-4). So that as God bade Israel to remember 'from Shittim unto Gilgal that ye may know the righteousness of the LORD' (Micah 6:5), so would I persuade you, reader, to record the ways of Providence, from first to last, throughout your whole course to this day, that you may see what a God He has been to you.
The seasonableness and opportuneness of its provisions for them, for so runs the promise: 'When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them' (Isaiah 41:17), and so has the performance of it been. And this has been made good to distressed saints sometimes in a more ordinary way, God secretly blessing a little, and making it sufficient for us and ours. Job tells us of 'when the secret of God was upon my tabernacle' (Job 29:4), i.e., his secret blessing is in their tabernacles. It is by reason of this that they subsist, but it is in an unaccountable way that they do so. And sometimes in an extraordinary way it breaks forth for their supply. So you find the cruse and barrel fail not (1 Kings 17:9-14).
Samuel Clarke, in the life of that painstaking and humble servant of Christ, John Foxe, records a memorable instance of Providence, and it is this. Towards the end of King Henry VIII's reign he went to London, where he quickly spent what little his friends had given him, or he had acquired by his own diligence, and began to be in great want. As one day he sat in Paul's Church, spent with long fasting, his countenance thin and his eyes hollow, after the ghastly manner of dying men, every one shunning a spectacle of so much horror, there came to him one whom he had never seen before, who thrust an untold sum of money into his hand, bidding him be of good cheer and accept that small gift in good part from his countryman; and that he should make much of himself, for that within a few days new hopes were at hand, and a more certain condition of livelihood. Three days after, the duchess of Richmond sent for him to live in her house and be tutor to the earl of Surrey's children, then under her care.
Isaac Ambrose, a worthy divine, whose labours have made him acceptable to his generation, in his epistle to the Earl of Bedford, prefixed to his Last Things, gives a pregnant instance in his own experience. His words are these: 'For mine own part, however, the Lord has seen cause to give me but a poor pittance of outward things, for which I bless His name; yet in the income thereof, I have many times observed so much of His peculiar providence, that thereby they have been very much sweetened, and my heart has been raised to admire His grace. When of late, under a hard dispensation, which I judge not meet to mention, in which I suffered conscientiously, all streams of wonted supplies being stopped, the waters of relief for myself and family did run low. I went to bed with some staggerings and doubtings of the fountain's letting out itself for our refreshing; but ere I did awake in the morning, a letter was brought to my bedside, which was signed by a choice friend, Mr Antony Ash, which reported some unexpected breakings out of God's goodness for my comfort.' These are some of his lines: 'Your God, who has given you a heart thankfully to record your experiences of His goodness, does renew experiences for your encouragement. Now I shall report one which will raise your spirit toward the God of your mercies.' Whereupon he sweetly concludes: 'One morsel of God's provision, especially when it comes in unexpected, and upon prayer, when wants are most, will be more sweet to a spiritual relish than all former enjoyments were.'
The wisdom of Providence in our provisions. And this is seen in proportioning the quantity, not satisfying our extravagant wishes, but answering our real needs; consulting our wants, not our wantonness. 'But my God shall supply all your need' (Philippians 4:19), and this has exactly suited the wishes of the best and wisest men, who desired no more at His hand. So Jacob (Genesis 28:20) and Agur (Proverbs 30:8, 9). Wise Providence considers our condition as pilgrims and strangers, and so allots the provision that is needful for our passage home. It knows the mischievous influence of fullness and excess upon most men, though sanctified, and how apt it is to make them remiss and forgetful of God (Deuteronomy 6:12) so that their heart, like the moon, suffers an eclipse when it is at the full; and so suits and orders all to their best advantage.
The wisdom of Providence is also greatly revealed in the manner of dispensing our portion to us. It many times allows our wants to pinch hard, and many fears to arise, with a design to magnify the care and love of God in the supply (Deuteronomy 8:3). Providence so orders the case, that faith and prayer come between our wants and supplies, and the goodness of God may be the more magnified in our eyes thereby.
And now let me beg you to consider the good hand of Providence that has provided for, and suitably supplied you and yours all your days, and never failed you hitherto. And labour to walk suitably to your experience of such mercies. That you may do this, let me press a few suitable cautions upon you.
Beware that you do not forget the care and kindness of Providence which your eyes have seen in so many fruits and experiences. It was God's charge against Israel 'that they soon forgat his works' (Psalm 106:13). A bad heart and a slippery memory deprive men of the comfort of many mercies, and defraud God of the glory due for them.
Do not distrust Providence in future exigencies. Thus they did: 'Behold, he smote the rock, that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed; can he give bread also? can he provide flesh for his people?' (Psalm 78:20). How unreasonable and absurd are these queries of unbelief, especially after their eyes had seen the power of God in such extraordinary works.
Do not murmur and complain under new straits. This is a vile temper, and yet how natural to us when wants press hard upon us! Ah, did we but rightly understand what the demerit of sin is, we would rather admire the bounty of God than complain of the straighthandedness of Providence. And if we did but consider that there lies upon God no obligation of justice or gratitude to reward any of our duties, it would cure our murmurs (Genesis 32:10).
Do not show the least discontent at the lot and portion Providence carves out for you. O that you would be well pleased and satisfied with all its appointments! Say: 'The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage' (Psalm 16:6). Surely that is best for you which Providence has appointed, and one day you yourselves will judge it so to be.
Do not neglect prayer when straits befall you. You see it is Providence dispenses all, you live upon it; therefore apply yourselves to God in the times of need. This is evidently included in the promise (Isaiah 41:17) as well as expressed in the command (Philippians 4:6). Remember God, and He will not forget you.
Do not worry your hearts with sinful cares. 'Behold the fowls of the air' (Matthew 6:26), says Christ; not the fowls at the door that are daily fed by hand, but those of the air, that do not know where the next meal is coming from; and yet God provides for them. Remember your relation to Christ, and His engagements by promise to you, and by these things work your hearts to satisfaction and contentment with all the allotments of Providence.