By John Flavel
Having given direction for the due management of this great and important duty, what remains but that we now set our hearts to it, and make it the constant work of every day throughout our lives. O what peace, what pleasure, what stability, what holy courage and confidence would result from such an observation of Providence as has been recommended! But alas we may say with reference to the voices of divine Providence, as it is written: 'For God speaketh once, yea, twice, yet man perceiveth it not' (Job 33:14). Many a time Providence has spoken instruction in duty, conviction for iniquity, encouragement under despondency, but we do not regard it. How greatly are we all wanting in our duty and comfort by this neglect! It will be needful therefore to spread before you the loveliness and excellence of walking with God in a due and daily observation of His providences, that our souls may be fully engaged to it.
First let me offer this as a moving argument to all gracious souls that by this means you may maintain sweet and conscious communion with God from day to day. And what is there desirable in this world in comparison with that! 'For thou, LORD, hast made me glad through thy work: I will triumph in the works of thy hands' (Psalm 92:4). Your hearts may be as sweetly refreshed by the works of God's hands as by the words of his mouth. Psalm 104 is all spent in the consideration of the works of Providence which so filled the Psalmist's heart that, by way of ejaculation, he expresses the effect of it: 'My meditation of him shall be sweet' (verse 34).
Communion with God, properly and strictly taken, consists in two things, viz., God's manifestation of Himself to the soul, and the soul's answerable returns to God. This is that koinonia (fellowship) we have here with God. Now God manifests Himself to His people by providences as well as ordinances; neither is there any grace in a sanctified soul hid from the gracious influences of His providential manifestations. Sometimes the Lord manifests His displeasure and anger against the sins of His people in correcting and rebuking providences. His rods have a chiding voice: 'Hear ye the rod, and who hath appointed it' (Micah 6:9). This manifestation of God's anger kindly melts and thaws a gracious soul, and produces a double sweet effect upon it, namely, repentance for sins past, and due caution against future sins.
It thaws and melts the heart for sins committed. Thus David's heart was melted for his sin when the hand of God was heavy upon him in affliction (Psalm 32:4, 5). Thus the captive Church, upon whom fell the saddest and most dismal providence that ever befell any of God's people in any age of the world, see how their hearts are broken for sin under this severe rebuke (Lamentations 2:17-19).
And then it produces caution against sin for the time to come. It is plain that the rebukes of Providence leave this effect upon gracious hearts (Ezra 9:13, 14; Psalm 85:8).
Sometimes God cheers and comforts the hearts of His people with smiling and reviving providences. both public and personal. There are times of lifting up as well as casting down by the hand of Providence. The scene changes, the aspects of Providence are very cheerful and encouraging, their winter seems to be over. They put off their garments of mourning, and then, ah, what sweet returns are made to heaven by gracious souls! Does God lift them up by prosperity? they also will lift up their God by praises (Psalm 18, title, and verses 1-3). So Moses and the people with him (Exodus 15) when God had delivered them from Pharaoh, how they exalt Him in a song of thanksgiving which, for the elegance and spirituality of it, is made an emblem of the doxologies given to God in glory by the saints (Revelation 15:3).
On the whole, whatever effects our communion with God in any of His ordinances is wont to produce upon our hearts, the same we may observe to follow our conversing with Him in His providences.
It is usually found in the experience of all the saints that in whatever ordinance or duty they have any conscious communion with God, it naturally produces in their spirits a deep abasement and humiliation from the sense of divine condescension to such vile poor worms as we are. Thus Abraham, 'which am but dust and ashes' (Genesis 18:27). The same effect follows our converse with God in His providences. Thus when God had in the way of His providence prospered Jacob, how does he lay himself at the feet of God, as a man overwhelmed with the sense of mercy! 'I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth which thou hast shown thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan, and now I am become two bands' (Genesis 32:10). Thus also it was with David: 'Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?' (2 Samuel 7:18). And I doubt not but some of you have found the same frame of heart upon you that these holy men here expressed. Can you not remember when God lifted you up by providence, how you cast down yourselves before Him and have been viler in your own eyes than ever! Why, thus do all gracious hearts. What am I, that the Lord should do thus and thus for me! O that ever so great and holy a God should thus be concerned for so vile and sinful a worm!
Does communion with God in ordinances melt the heart into love to God (Song of Solomon 2:3-5)? Why, so does the observation of His providences also. Never did any man converse with God's works of providence aright, but found his heart at some times melted into love to the God of his mercies. When God had delivered David from the hand of Saul and all his enemies, he said, 'I will love thee, O LORD my strength' (Psalm 18:1 compared with the title). Every man loves the mercies of God, but a saint loves the God of his mercies. The mercies of God, as they are the fuel of a wicked man's lusts, so they are fuel to maintain a good man's love to God; not that their love to God is grounded upon these external benefits. 'Not thine, but thee, O Lord,' is the motto of a gracious soul, yet these things serve to blow up the flame of love to God in their hearts, and they find it so.
Does communion with God set the keenest edge upon the soul against sin? You see it does, and you have a great instance of it in Moses, when he had been with God in the mount for forty days and had there enjoyed communion with Him. When he came down and saw the calf the people had made, see what a holy paroxysm of zeal and anger it cast his soul into (Exodus 32:19, 20). Why, the same effect you may discern to follow the saints' converse with God in His providences. What was that which pierced the heart of David with such a deep sense of the evil of his sin, which is so abundantly manifested in Psalm 51 throughout? Why, if you look into the title, you shall find it was the effect of what Nathan had laid before him, and if you consult 2 Samuel 12:7-10 you will find it was the goodness of God manifested to him in the several endearing providences of his life, which in this he had so evilly requited the Lord for. It was the realization of this that broke his heart to pieces. And I doubt not but some of us have sometimes found the like effects by comparing God's ways and our own together.
Does communion with the Lord enlarge the heart for obedience and service? Surely it is as oil to the wheels, that makes them run on freely and nimbly in their course. Thus when Isaiah had obtained a special manifestation of God, and the Lord asked: 'Whom shall I send?' he presents a ready soul for the employment) 'Here am I; send me' (Isaiah 6:8). Why, the very same effect follows sanctified providences, as you may see in Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 17:5, 6) and in David (Psalm 116:12). O when a soul considers what God has done for him, he cannot choose but say, What shall I return? How shall I answer these engagements?
And thus you see what sweet communion a soul may have with God in the way of His providences. O that you would thus walk with Him! How much of heaven might be found on earth this way! And certainly it will never repent the Lord He has done you good, when His mercies produce such effects upon your hearts. He will say of every favour thus improved, it was well bestowed, and will rejoice over you to do you good for ever.
A great part of the pleasure and delight of the Christian life is made out of the observations of Providence. 'The works of the LORD are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein' (Psalm 111:2). That is, the study of Providence is so sweet and pleasant that it invites and allures the soul to search and dive into it. How pleasant is it to a well-tempered soul to behold and observe.
Observe the sweet harmony and consent of divine attributes in the issues of Providence! They may seem sometimes to jar and clash, to part with each other, and go contrary ways; but they only seem so to do, for in the winding up, they always meet and embrace each other. 'Mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other' (Psalm 85:10). This is spoken with an immediate reference to that signal providence of Israel's deliverance out of the Babylonish captivity, and the sweet effects thereof. The truth and righteousness of God in the promises did, as it were, kiss and embrace the mercy and peace that was contained in the performance of them, after they had seemed for seventy years to be at a great distance from each other. For it is an allusion to the usual demonstration of joy and gladness that two dear friends are wont to give and receive after a long absence and separation from each other; they no sooner meet, but they smile, embrace and kiss each other. Even thus it is here. The Hebrew word may be rendered 'have met us,' and that also is true; for whenever these blessed promises and performances meet and kiss each other, they are also joyfully embraced and kissed by believing souls. There is, I doubt not, an indirect reference in this Scripture to the Messiah also, and our redemption by Him. In Him it is that these divine attributes, which before seemed to clash and contradict one another in the business of our salvation, have a sweet agreement and accomplishment. Truth and righteousness do in Him meet with mercy and peace in a blessed agreement. What a lovely sight is this, and how pleasant to behold! O, if we would but stand upon our watchtower (Habakkuk 2:3) to take due observations of Providence, what rare prospects might we have! Luther understands it of the Word of God, as much as to say, I will look into the Word, and observe there how God accomplishes all things, and brings them to pass, and how His works are the fulfilling of His Word. Others, as Calvin, understand it of a man's own retired thoughts and meditations, in which a man carefully observes what purposes and designs God has upon the world in general, or upon himself in particular, and how the truth and righteousness of God in the Word work them selves through all difficulties and impediments, and meet in the mercy, peace and happiness of the saints at last. Every believer, take it in which sense you will, has his watchtower as well as Habakkuk; and give me leave to say, it is an angelic employment to stand up and behold the consent of God's attributes, the accomplishment of His ends and our own happiness in the works of Providence. For this is the very joy of the angels and saints in heaven, to see God's ends wrought out and His attributes glorified in the mercy and peace of the Church (Revelation 14:1-3, 8).
And as it is a pleasant sight to see the harmony of God's attributes, so it is exceedingly pleasant to behold the resurrection of our own prayers and hopes as from the dead, Why, this you may often see, if you will duly observe the works of Providence towards you. We hope and pray for such and such mercies to the Church, or to ourselves; but God delays the accomplishment of our hopes, suspends the answer of our prayers and seems to speak to us: 'For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it: because it will surely come, it will not tarry' (Habakkuk 2:3). But we have no patience to wait the time of the promise, our hopes languish and die in the interim; and we say with the despondent Church, 'My hope is perished from the LORD' (Lamentations 3:18). But how sweet and comfortable it is to see these prayers fulfilled after we have given up all expectation of them! May we not say of them that it is even 'life from the dead.' This was David's case (Psalm 31:22); he gave up his hopes and prayers for lost, yet lived to see the comfortable and unexpected returns of them. And this was the case of Job (6:11); he had given up all expectation of better days, and yet this man lived to see a resurrection of all his lost comforts with an advantage. Think how that change and unexpected turn of Providence affected his soul. It is with our hopes and prayers as with our alms: 'Cast thy bread on the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days' (Ecclesiastes 11:1). Or as it was with Jacob, who had given over all hopes of ever seeing his beloved Joseph again, but when a strange and unexpected Providence had restored that hopeless mercy to him again, O how ravishing and transporting it was! (Genesis 46:29, 30).
What a transporting pleasure it is to behold great blessings and advantages to us wrought by Providence out of those very things that seemed to threaten our ruin or misery! And yet by duly observing the ways of Providence you may to your singular comfort find it so. Little did Joseph think his transportation into Egypt had been in order to his advancement there; yet he lived with joy to see it and with a thankful heart to acknowledge it (Genesis 45:5). Wait and observe, and you shall assuredly find that promise (Romans 8:28) working out its way through all providences. How many times have you been made to say as David, 'It is good for me that I have been afflicted' (Psalm 119:71). O what a difference we have seen between our afflictions at our first meeting with them, and our parting from them! We have entertained them with sighs and tears but parted from them with joy, blessing God for them, as the happy instruments of our good. Thus our fears and sorrows are turned into praises and songs of thanksgiving.
What unspeakable comfort it is for a poor soul, that sees nothing but sin and vileness in itself, at the same time to see what a high esteem and value the great God has for him! This may be discerned by a due attendance to Providence, for there a man sees goodness and mercy following him through all his days (Psalm 23:6). Other men pursue good, and it flies from them, they can never overtake it; but goodness and mercy follow the people of God, and they cannot avoid or escape it. It gives them chase day by day, and finds them out even when they sometimes put themselves by sin out of the way of it. In all the providences that befall them goodness and mercy pursue them. O with what a melting heart do they sometimes reflect upon these things! 'And will not the goodness of God be discouraged from following me, notwithstanding all my vile affronts and abuses of it in former mercies? Lord, what am I, that mercy should thus pursue me, when vengeance and wrath pursue others as good by nature as I am?' It certainly argues the great esteem God has of a man, when He thus follows him with sanctified providences, whether comforts or crosses, for his good. And so much is plain, from 'What is man . . that thou shouldest visit him every morning, and try him every moment!' (Job 7:17, 18). Certainly, God's people are His treasure, and by this it appears that they are so, that He withdraws not his eye from them (Job 36:7). I say not that God's favour and respect to a man may be concluded solely from His providences, but sanctified providences may very much make it clear to us; and when it does so, it cannot but be matter of exceeding great joy.
What is there in all this world that can give a soul such joy and comfort as to find himself by everything set on and furthered in his way to heaven! And yet this may be discerned by a careful attendance to the effects and issues of providences. However contrary the winds and tides of Providence at any time seem to us, yet nothing is more certain than that they all conspire to hasten sanctified souls to God and fit them for glory.
Saint Paul knew that both his bonds and the afflictions added to them should turn to, or, as the word imports, finally issue in his salvation. Not that in themselves they serve to any such purpose; but as they are overruled and determined to such an end, 'through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ' (Philippians 1:19). When prayer, the external, and the Spirit, the internal means are joined with them, then afflictions themselves become excellent means to promote salvation. And have we not with joy observed how those very things that sense and reason tell us are opposite to our happiness have been the most blessed instruments to promote it! How has God blessed crosses to mortify corruption, wants to kill our wantonness, disappointments to wean us from the world! O we little think how comfortable those things will be in the review, which are so burdensome to present sense!
I beseech you consider what an effectual means the due observation of Providence will be to overpower and suppress the natural atheism that is in your hearts.
There is a natural seed of atheism in the best hearts, and this is very much nourished by passing a rash and false judgment upon the works of Providence. When we see wicked ones prospering in the world, and godly men crushed and destroyed in the way of righteousness and integrity, it may tempt us to think there is no advantage by religion and all our self-denial and holiness to be little better than lost labour. Thus stood the case with good Asaph: 'Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches' (Psalm 73:12). And what does the flesh infer from this? Why, no less than the unprofitableness of the ways of holiness: 'Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency' (verse 13). This irreligious inference carnal reason was ready to draw from the dispensations of outward prosperity to wicked men; but now if we would carefully observe either the signal retributions of Providence to many of them in this world or to all of them in the world to come, O what a full confirmation is this to our faith! 'The LORD is known by the judgments which he executeth' (Psalm 9:16). Psalm 58 contains the characters of the most prodigious sinners, whose wickedness is aggravated by the deliberation with which it is committed (verse 2) by their habit and custom in it (verse 3) and by their incorrigibleness and persistence in it (verses 4, 5). And the Providence of God is there invited to destroy their power (verse 6), and that either by a gradual and unperceived consumption of them (verses 7, 8) or by a sudden and unexpected stroke (verse 9).
And what shall the effects of such providence be to the righteous? Why, it shall be matter of joy (verse 10) and great confirmation to their faith in God: 'Verily there is a God that judgeth in the earth' (verse 11).
And, on the contrary, how convincingly clear are those providences that demonstrate the being, wisdom, power, love and faithfulness of God in the supporting, preserving and delivering of the righteous in all their dangers, fears and difficulties! In these things the Lord shows Himself to His people (Psalm 94:1). Yea, He shows Himself to spiritual eyes in the providences, as clearly as the sun manifests itself by its own beams of light. 'And his brightness was as the light; he had horns coming out of his hand; and there was the hiding of his power' (Habakkuk 3:3, 4). It is spoken of the Lord's going forth for His people in their deliverance from their enemies. Then He had horns or rays and beams of power and mercy coming out of His hands. By His hands are meant His providential administrations and dispensations, and the horns that came out of them are nothing else but the glorious display of His attributes in those providences. How did God make Himself known to His people in that signal deliverance of them out of Egypt? (Exodus 6:3). Then He was known to them by His name Jehovah in giving being by His providences to the mercies promised.
Thus when Christ shall give His people the last and greatest deliverance from Antichrist, He shall show Himself to His people 'in a vesture dipped in blood, and his name shall be called, The Word of God' (Revelation 19:13). His name was the Word of God before; but then He was the Word revealing and manifesting the promises and truths of God; now accomplishing and fulfilling them. 'For that thy name is near, thy wondrous works declare (Psalm 75:1).
But more particularly, let us bring it home to our own experience. It may be we find ourselves sometimes assaulted with atheistical thoughts. We are tempted to think God has left all things below to the course and sway of nature, that our prayers do not reach Him (Lamentations 3:44), that He does not regard what evils befall us. But tell me, saints, have you not enough at hand to stop the mouths of all such temptations? O do but reflect upon your own experiences, and solemnly ask your own hearts the following questions:
Have you never seen the all-sufficient God in the provisions He has made for you and yours, throughout all the way that you have gone? Who was it that supplied to you whatever was needful in all your straits? Was it not the Lord? 'He hath given meat unto them that fear him; he will ever be mindful of his covenant' (Psalm 111:5). O do but consider the constancy, seasonableness and at some times the extraordinariness of these provisions, and how they have been given in answer to prayer, and shut your eyes if you can against the convincing evidence of that great truth: 'He withdraweth not his eyes from the righteous' (Job 36:7).
Have you not plainly discerned the care of God in your preservation from so many and great dangers as you have escaped and been carried through hitherto? How is it that you have survived so many mortal dangers, sicknesses, accidents, designs of enemies to ruin you? It is, I presume, beyond question with you that the very finger of God has been in these things, and that it is by His care alone you have been preserved. When God had so signally delivered David from a dangerous disease and the plots of enemies against him, 'By this,' he says, 'I know thou favourest me, because mine enemy doth not triumph over me' (Psalm 41:11). He gathered from those gracious protections the care God had over him.
Have you not plainly discerned the hand of God in the returns and accomplishments of your prayers? Nothing can be more evident than this to men of observation. 'I sought the LORD, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears. They looked unto him and were lightened, and their faces were not ashamed. This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles' (Psalm 34:6). Parallel to this runs the experience of thousands and ten thousands of Christians this day; they know they have the petitions they asked of Him. The mercy carries the very impress and stamp of the duty upon it, so that we can say, This is the mercy, the very mercy I have so often sought God about. O how satisfying and convincing are these things!
Have you not evidently discerned the Lord's hand in the guiding and directing of your paths to your unforeseen advantage? Things that you never planned for yourselves have been brought about beyond all your thoughts. Many such things are with God; and which of all the saints has not found that word, 'The way of man is not in himself' (Jeremiah 10:23) verified by clear and undeniable experience? I presume, if you will but look over the mercies you possess this day, you will find three to one, it may be ten to one, thus wrought by the Lord for you. And how satisfying beyond all arguments in the world are these experiences, that there is a God to whom His people are exceedingly dear, a God that performs all things for them (Psalm 57:2)! Is it not fully convincing that there is a God who takes care of you, inasmuch as you have found in all the temptations and difficulties of your lives His promises still fulfilled and faithfully performed in all those conditions? I appeal to yourselves, whether you have not seen that promise made good: 'I will be with him in trouble' (Psalm 91:15) and that, 'God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able: but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may he able to bear it' (1 Corinthians 10:13). Have not these been as clearly made out by Providence before your eyes, as the sun at noonday? What room then is left for atheistical suggestions in your breasts?
The remembering and recording of the performances of Providence will be a singular support to faith in future exigencies. This excellent use of it lies full in the very eye of the text. There never befell David in all his troubles a greater strait and distress than this; and doubtless his faith had staggered had not the consideration of former providences come in to its relief. From this topic faith argues, and that very strongly and conclusively. So did David's faith in many exigencies. When he was to encounter the champion of the Philistines, it was from former providences that he encouraged himself (1 Samuel 17:37). And the apostle Paul improves his experiences to the same purpose (2 Corinthians 1:9, 10). Indeed the whole Scripture is full of it. What Christian does not understand the exceeding usefulness of those experiences he has had to relieve and enliven? But I shall not satisfy myself with the common assertion, than which nothing is more trite in the lips of professors, but will labour to show you wherein the great usefulness of our recorded experiences, for encouraging faith labouring under difficulties, consists. To this purpose, I shall desire the reader to ponder seriously these following particulars:
Consider how much advantage those things have upon our souls which we have already felt and tasted, beyond those which we never relished by any former experience? What is experience but the bringing down of the objects of faith to the adjudication and test of spiritual sense? Now when anything has been once tasted, felt and judged by a former experience, it is much more easily believed and received when it occurs again. It is much easier for faith to travel in a path that is well known to it, having formerly trod it, than to beat out a new one which it never trod, nor can see one step before it. Hence it is, though there is a difficulty in all the acts of faith, yet scarce in any like the first venture it makes upon Christ; and the reason lies here, because in the subsequent acts it has all its former experiences to aid and encourage it; but in the first venture it has none at all of its own, it takes a path which it never knew before.
To trust God without any trial or experience is a more noble act of faith; but to trust Him after we have often tried Him is known to be more easy. O it is no small advantage to a soul in a new plunge and distress to be able to say, This is not the first time I have been in these deeps and yet emerged out of them. Hence it was that Christ rubbed up His disciples' memories with what Providence had formerly wrought for them in a day of need. 'O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread? Do ye not yet understand, neither remember?' (Matthew 16:8-11). As much as to say, Were you never in any need of bread before now? Is this the first difficulty that ever your faith met with? No, no, you have been in straits, and experienced the power and care of God in supplying them before now; and therefore I cannot but call you men of 'little faith'; for a very ordinary and small measure of faith, assisted with so much experience as you have had, would enable you to trust God. There is as much difference between believing before and after experience as there is between swimming with bladders and our first venture into the deep waters without them.
What a singular encouragement to faith do former experiences yield it, by answering all the pleas and objections of unbelief drawn from the object of faith! Now there are two things that unbelief stumbles at in God: His power and His willingness to help.
Unbelief maintains the impossibility of relief in deep distresses. 'Can God furnish a table in the wilderness? . . . Can he give bread also? Can he provide flesh for his people?' (Psalm 78:19, 20). O vile and unworthy thoughts of God which proceed from our measuring the immense and boundless power of God by our own line and measure! Because we do not see which way relief should come, we conclude none is to be expected. But all these reasonings of unbelief are vanquished by a serious reflection upon our own experiences. God has helped, therefore He can. 'His hand is not shortened' (Isaiah 59:1). He has as much power and ability as formerly.
Unbelief queries the will of God, and questions whether He will now be gracious, though He has been so formerly. But after so many experiences of His readiness to help, what room for doubting remains? Thus Paul reasoned from the experience of what He had done to what He could do (2 Corinthians 1:10), and so did David (1 Samuel 17:36). Indeed, if a man had never experienced the goodness of God to him, it were not so heinous a sin to question His willingness to do him good; but what place is left after such frequent trials?
It gives great encouragement to faith to answer the objections of unbelief drawn from the subject. Now these objections are of two sorts also.
First, such as are drawn from our great unworthiness. How, says unbelief can so sinful and vile a creature expect that ever God should do this or that for me? It is true, we find He did great things for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc., but these were men of eminent holiness, men that obeyed God and denied themselves for Him, and lived more in a day to His glory than ever I did all my days!
Well, but what signifies all this to a soul that under all its felt vileness and unworthiness has tasted the goodness of God as well as they? As unworthy as I am, God has been good to me notwithstanding. His mercy appeared first to me when I was worse than I am now, both in condition and disposition; and therefore I will still expect the continuance of His goodness to me, though I do not deserve it. 'For if when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life' (Romans 5:10).
Secondly, such as are drawn from the extremity of our present condition. If troubles or dangers grow to a height and we see nothing but ruin and misery in the eye of reason before us, now unbelief becomes importunate and troublesome to the soul. Now where are your prayers, your hopes, yea, where is now your God? But all this is easily put by and avoided by consulting our experiences in former cases. This is not the first time I have been in these straits, nor the first time I have had the same doubts and despondencies; and yet God has carried me through all (Psalm 77:7-9). This is what prevents a Christian from losing all his hopes in an hour of temptation. O how useful are these things to the people of God!
The remembrance of former providences will minister to your souls continual matter of praise and thanksgiving, which is the very employment of the angels in heaven, and the sweetest part of our lives on earth.
If God will prepare mercy and truth for David, he will prepare praises for his God, and that daily (Psalm 61:7, 8). 'By thee have I been holden up from the womb; thou art he that took me out of my mother's bowels'; there mercies from the beginning are recognized. 'My praise shall be continually of thee' (Psalm 71:6); there the natural result of those recognitions is expressed.
There are five things belonging to the praise of God, and all of them have relation to His providences exercised about us:
(1) A careful observation of the mercies we receive from Him (Isaiah 41:17-20). This is fundamental to all praise. God cannot be glorified for the mercies we never noted.
(2) A faithful remembrance of the favours received. 'Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits' (Psalm 103:2). Hence the Lord brands the ingratitude of His people, 'They soon forgat his works' (Psalm 106:13).
(3) A due appreciation and valuation of every providence that does us good (1 Samuel 12:24). That providence that fed them in the wilderness with manna was a most remarkable providence to them; but since they did not value it at its worth, God had not that praise for it which He expected (Numbers 11:6).
(4) The stirring up of all the faculties and powers of the soul in the acknowledgment of these mercies to us. Thus David: 'Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me bless his holy name' (Psalm 103:1). Soul-praise is the very soul of praise: this is the very fat and marrow of that thank-offering.
(5) A suitable recompense for the mercies received. This David was careful about (Psalm 116:1). And the Lord taxes good Hezekiah for the neglect of it (2 Chronicles 32:24, 25). This consists in a full and hearty resignation to Him of all that we have received by providence from Him, and in our willingness actually to part with all for Him when He shall require it.
Thus you see how all the ingredients to praise have respect to providences. But more particularly I will show you that, as all the ingredients of praise have respect to providences, so all the motives and arguments obliging and engaging souls to praise are found therein also. To this end consider how the mercy and goodness of God is exhibited by Providence to excite our thankfulness.
The goodness and mercy of God to His people is seen in His providences concerning them: and this is the very root of praise. It is not so much the possession that Providence gives us of such or such comforts as the goodness and kindness of God in the dispensing of them that engages a gracious soul to praise. 'Because thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee' (Psalm 63:3). To give, maintain and preserve our life are choice acts of Providence; but to do all this in a way of grace and lovingkindness, this is far better than the gifts themselves. Life is but the shadow of death without it. This is the mercy that crowns all other mercies (Psalm 103:4). It is this a sanctified soul desires God would manifest in every providence concerning him (Psalm 17:7), and what is our praising of God but our showing forth that lovingkindness which He shows to us in His providences? (Psalm 92:1, 2).
As the lovingkindness of God manifested in Providence is a motive to praise, so the free and undeserved favours of God, dispensed by the hand of Providence, oblige the soul to praise. This was the consideration that melted David's heart into a thankful praising frame, even the consideration of the free and undeserved favours cast in upon him by Providence. 'Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?' (2 Samuel 7:18), that is, raised me by Providence from a mean condition to all this dignity; from following the ewes, to feed Jacob His people (Psalm 78:70, 71). O this is what engages thankfulness (Genesis 32:10)!
As the freeness of mercies dispensed by Providence engages praise: so the multitudes of mercies heaped this way upon us strongly oblige the soul to thankfulness. Thus David comes before the Lord encompassed with a multitude of mercies to praise Him (Psalm 5:7). We have our loads of mercies, and that every day (Psalm 68:19). O what a rich heap will the mercies of one day make, being laid together!
As the multitudes of mercies dispensed by Providence oblige to praise, so the tenderness of God's mercy, manifested in His providence, leaves the soul under a strong obligation to thankfulness. We see what tender regard the Lord has of all our needs, difficulties and burdens. 'Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him' (Psalm 103:13). He is 'full of bowels' as that word in James 5:11 signifies. Yea, there are not only bowels of compassion in our God, but the tenderness of bowels, like those of a mother to her sucking child (Isaiah 49:15). He feels all our pains as if the apple of His eye were touched (Zechariah 2:8), and all this is shown to His people in the way of His providences with them (Psalm 111:2-4). O who of all the children of God has not often found this in His providences? And who can see it, and not be filled with thankfulness? All these are so many bands clapped by Providence upon the soul to oblige it to a life of praise. Hence it is that the prayers of the saints are so full of thanksgivings upon these accounts. It is sweet to recount them to the Lord in prayer, to lie at His feet in a holy astonishment at His gracious condescension to poor worms.
The due observation of Providence will endear Jesus Christ every day more and more to your souls. Christ is the channel of grace and mercy. Through Him are all the streams of mercy that flow from God to us, and all the returns of praise from us to God (1 Corinthians 3:21, 22). All things are ours upon no other title but our being His.
Now there are various things in Providence which exceedingly endear the Lord Jesus Christ to His people, and these are the most sweet and delightful parts of all our enjoyments.
The purchase of all those mercies which Providence conveys to us, is by His own blood; for not only spiritual and eternal mercies but even all our temporal ones are the acquisition of His blood. As sin forfeited all, so Christ restored all these mercies again to us by His death. Sin had so shut up the womb of mercy that had not Christ made an atonement by death it could never have brought forth one mercy to all eternity for us. It is with Him that God freely gives us all things (Romans 8:32): heaven itself, and all things needful to bring us thither, among which is principally included the tutelage and aid of divine Providence. So that whatever good we receive from the hand of Providence, we must put it upon the score of Christ's blood; and when we receive it, we may say, it is the price of blood; it is a mercy rising up out of the death of Christ; it cost Him dear though it come to me freely; it is sweet in the possession but costly in the acquisition. Now this is a most endearing consideration. Did Christ die that these mercies might live? Did He pay His invaluable blood to purchase these comforts that I possess? O what transcendent, matchless love was the love of Christ! You have known parents that have laid out all their stock of money to purchase estates for their children; but when did you hear of any that spent the whole stock and treasure of their blood to make a purchase for them? If the life of Christ had not been so painful and sad to Him, ours could not have been so sweet and comfortable to us. It is through His poverty we are enriched (2 Corinthians 8:9). These sweet mercies that are born of Providence every day are the fruits of 'the travail of his soul' (Isaiah 53:11).
The sanctification of all those mercies which Providence conveys to us is by our union with Christ. It is by virtue of our union with His person that we enjoy the sanctified gifts and blessings of Providence. All these are mercies additional to that great mercy, Christ (Matthew 6:33). They are given with Him (Romans 8:32). This is the tenure by which we hold them (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). What we lost in Adam is restored again with advantage in Christ. Immediately upon the fall, that curse (Genesis 2:17) seized upon all the miserable posterity of Adam and upon all their comforts, outward as well as inward; and this still lies heavy upon them. All that Providence does for them that are Christless is but to feed so many poor condemned wretches till the sentence they are under is executed upon them. It is indeed bountiful and openhanded to many of them and fills them with earthly comforts; but not one special sanctified mercy is to be found among all their enjoyments. These gifts of Providence do but deceive, defile and destroy them through their own corruptions, and for want of union with Christ. 'The prosperity of fools shall destroy them' (Proverbs 1:32). But when a man is once in Christ, then all providences are sanctified and sweet. 'Unto the pure, all things are pure' (Titus 1:15). 'A little that a righteous man hath is better than the treasures of many wicked' (Psalm 37:16). Now Christ becomes a head of influence as well as of dominion; and in all things He consults the good of His own members (Ephesians 1:22).
The dispensation of all our comforts and mercies is by His direction and appointment. It is true, the angels are employed in the kingdom of Providence. They move the wheels, that is, are instrumental in all the revolutions in this lower world; but still they receive directions and orders from Christ, as you may see in that admirable scheme of providences (Ezekiel 1:25, 26). Now what an endearing meditation is this! Whatever creature is instrumental for any good to you, it is your Lord Jesus Christ that gave the orders and commands to that creature to do it; and without it they could have done nothing for you. It is your Head in heaven that consults your peace and comfort on earth; these are the fruits of His care for you. So in the prevention and restraints of evil; it is He that bridles the wrath of devils and men; He holds the reins in His own hands (Revelation 2:10). It was the care of Christ over His poor sheep at Damascus that stopped the raging adversary who was upon the way, designing to destroy them (Acts 9).
The continuation of all your mercies and comforts, outward as well as inward, is the fruit of His intercession in heaven for you. As the offering up of the Lamb of God as a sacrifice for sin opened the door of mercy at first, so His appearing before God as a Lamb that had been slain still keeps that door of mercy open (Revelation 5:6; Hebrews 9:24). By this His intercession our peace and comforts are prolonged to us (Zechariah 1:12, 13). Every sin we commit would put an end to the mercies we possess were it not for that plea which is put in for us by it. 'And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins' (1 John 2:1, 2). This stops all accusations, and procures new pardons for new sins Hence it is 'he saves to the utter most' (Hebrews 7:25), to the last completing act. New sins do not make void our former pardons nor cut off our privileges settled upon us in Christ.
The returns and answers of all your prayers and cries to heaven for the removing of your afflictions or supply of your needs are all procured and obtained for you by Jesus Christ. He is the master of your requests; and were it not that God had respect to Him, He would never regard your cries to Him nor return an answer of peace to you, however great your distresses might be (Revelation 8:3, 4). It is His name that gives our prayers their acceptance (John 15:16); because the Father can deny Him nothing, therefore your prayers are not denied. Does God condescend to hear you in the day of trouble? Does He convince you by your own experience that your prayers have power with God and do prevail? O see how much you owe to your dear Lord Jesus Christ for this high and glorious privilege!
The Covenant of Grace, in which all your comfortable enjoyments are comprised, and by which they are secured, sanctified and sweetened to you, is made in Christ and ratified by Him between God and you. Your mercies are all comprised in this covenant, even your daily bread (Psalm 111:5), as well as your justification and other spiritual mercies. It is your covenant interest that secures to you whatever it comprises; hence they are called 'the sure mercies of David' (Isaiah 55:3). Nay, this is what sanctifies them and gives them the nature of special and peculiar mercies. One such mercy is worth a thousand common mercies. And being sanctified and special mercies, they must needs be exceedingly sweet beyond all other mercies. For these reasons it was that David so rejoiced in his covenant interest, though laden with many afflictions (2 Samuel 23:5). But now all this hangs entirely upon Christ. The New Testament is in His blood (1 Corinthians 11:25), and whatever mercies you reap from that covenant, you must thank the Lord Jesus Christ for them. Put all this together, and then think how such considerations will endear Christ to your souls!
The due observations of Providence have a marvelous efficacy to melt the heart, and make it thaw and submit before the Lord.
How can a sanctified heart do less than melt into tears while it either considers the dealings of God from time to time with it, or compares the mercies received with the sins committed, or the different administrations of Providence towards itself and others!
Let a man but set himself to think deliberately and closely of the ways of Providence towards him, let him but follow the leading of Providence, as it has led him all along the way that he has gone, and if there is any principle of gracious tenderness in him, he shall meet with variety of occasions to excite and draw it forth.
Go back with your serious thoughts to the beginning of the ways of God with you, the mercies that broke out early in your youth, even the first-born mercies from the womb of Providence; and you will say, What need I go farther? Here is enough, not only to move, but overwhelm my heart. 'Wilt thou not from this time cry unto me, my Father, thou art the guide of my youth?' (Jeremiah 3:4). What a critical time is the time of youth! It is the molding age; and, ordinarily, according to the course of those leading providences after-providences do steer their course. What levity, rashness, ignorance and strong propensities to sin and ruin accompanied that age! How many being then left to the sway of their own lusts run themselves into those sins and miseries which they never recover themselves from to their dying day! These, like the errors of the first concoction, are rarely rectified afterwards. Did the Lord guide you by His providence when but a child? Did He then preserve you from those follies and misdemeanors which blast the very blossom and nip the bud, so that no good fruit is to be expected afterwards? Did He then cast you into such families, or among such company and acquaintance, as molded and formed your spirit into a better disposition? Did He then direct you into that way of employment in which you have seen so large a train of happy consequences ever since following you? And will you not from henceforth say: 'My Father, thou art the guide of my youth'?
Let us but bring our thoughts close to the providences of after-times, and consider how the several changes and removes of our lives have been ordered for us. Things we never foresaw nor designed, but much better for us than what we did design, have been all along ordered for us. The way of man is not in himself. God's thoughts have not been our thoughts, nor His ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8). Among the eminent mercies of your life, reader, how many of them have been mere surprises to you! Your own projects have been thrust aside to make way for better things designed by Providence for you.
Nay, do but observe the springs and autumns of Providence, in what order they have flourished and faded with you, and you will find yourself overpowered with the sense of divine wisdom and goodness. When necessity required, such a friend was stirred up to help you, such a place opened to receive you, such a relation raised up or continued to refresh you. And no sooner does Providence deprive you of any of them, but either your need of them ceases, or some other way is opened to you. O the depth of God's wisdom and goodness! O the matchless tenderness of God to His people! Compare the dealings of Providence with you and others, yea, with others that sprang up with you in the same generation, it may be, in the same families and from the same parents, it may be in families greater and more flourishing in the world than yours, and see the difference, upon many great accounts, it has made between you and them. I knew a Christian who after many years' separation was visited by his own brother, the very sight of whom wrought upon him much as the sight of Benjamin did upon Joseph, so that he could not refrain to fall upon his neck and weep for joy; but after a few hours spent together, finding the spirit of his brother not only estranged from all that is spiritual and serious, but also very vain and profane, he hastened to his chamber, shut the door upon him, threw himself down at the feet of God and with flowing eyes and a melting heart admired the distinguishing grace of God, saying, 'Was not Esau Jacob's brother?' (Malachi 1:2). O grace, grace, astonishing grace!
Compare the behavior of Providence towards you, with your own behavior towards the Lord; and it must needs melt your hearts to find so much mercy bestowed where so much sin has been committed. What place did you ever live in, where you cannot remember great provocations committed, and notwithstanding that, manifold mercies received? O with how many notwithstandings and neverthelesses has the Lord done you good in every place! What relationship has not been abused by sin, and yet both raised up and continued by Providence for your comfort! In every place God has left the marks of His goodness, and you the remembrances of your sinfulness. Give yourselves but leave to think of these things, and it will be strange if your hearts do not melt at the remembrance of them.
Or lastly, do but compare your dangers with your fears, and both with the strange outlets and doors of escape Providence has opened, and it cannot do less than overpower you with a full sense of divine care and goodness. There have been dark clouds seen to rise over you, judgment even at your door, sometimes threatening your life, sometimes your liberty, sometimes your estates, and sometimes your dearest relatives, in whom, it may be, your life was bound up. Remember in that day what faintness of spirit seized you, what charges of guilt stirring up fears of the issue within you. You turned to the Lord in that distress, and has He not made a way to escape, and delivered you from all your fears (Psalm 34:4)?
O, is your life such a continued throng, such a mad hurry, that there is no time for Christians to sit alone and think on these things, and press these marvelous manifestations of God in His providences upon their own hearts? Surely, might these things but lie upon our hearts, talk with our thoughts by day and lodge with us at night, they would even force their passage down to our very reins.
Due observation of Providence will both beget and secure inward tranquility in your minds, amidst the vicissitudes and revolutions of things in this unstable vain world.
'I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep; for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety' (Psalm 4:8). He resolves the sinful fear of events shall not rob him of his inward quiet, nor torture his thoughts with anxious forebodings. He will commit all his concerns into that faithful fatherly hand that had hitherto wrought all things for him, and he does not mean to lose the comfort of one night's rest, nor bring the evil of tomorrow upon today, but knowing in whose hand he was, wisely enjoys the sweet felicity of a resigned will.
Now this tranquility of our minds is as much begotten and preserved by a due consideration of Providence as by anything whatever. Hence it was that our Lord Jesus Christ, when He would cure the disciples' anxious and distracting care about a livelihood, bids them consider the care Providence has over the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, how it feeds the one and clothes the other without any anxious care of theirs; and would have them well consider those providences, and reason themselves into a calm and sweet composure of spirit from those considerations (Matthew 6:27-34).
Two things destroy the peace and tranquility of our lives, our bewailing past disappointments, or fearing future ones. But would we once learn prevision and provision to be divine prerogatives and take notice how often Providence baffles those that pretend to it, causing the good they foresaw, according to their conjectures, coming to their hand, yet to baulk them and flee from them: and the evil they thought themselves sufficiently secured from, to invade them; I say, would we consider how Providence daily baffles these pretensions of men, and asserts its own dominion, it would greatly conduce to the tranquility of our lives.
This is a great truth, that there is no face of adversity so formidable, but being viewed from this station, would become amicable. Now there are several things in the consideration of Providence that naturally and kindly compose the mind of a Christian to peace, and bring it to a sweet rest, while events hang in a doubtful suspense.
First, the supremacy of Providence and its uncontrollable power in working. This is often seen in the good that it brings us in a way that is above the thoughts and cares of our minds, or labour of our hands. 'I had not thought,' said Jacob, 'to see thy face; and lo, God hath showed me also thy seed' (Genesis 48:11). There is a frequent coincidence of providences in a way of surprise, which from no appearance or the remotest tendency of outward causes could be foreseen, but rather falls visibly contrary to the present scheme and state of our affairs. Nothing tends to convince us of the vanity and folly of our own anxieties and fears more than this does.
Second, the profound wisdom of Providence in all that it performs for the people of God. The wheels are full of eyes (Ezekiel 1:18), that is, there is an intelligent and wise Spirit that sits upon and governs the affairs of this world. This wisdom shines out to us in the unexpected, yea, contrary events of things. How often have we been courting some beautiful appearance that invited our senses, and with trembling shunned the formidable face of other things, when, notwithstanding, the issues of Providence have convinced us that our danger lay in what we courted and our good in what we so studiously declined! This also is a sweet principle of peace and quiet to the Christian's mind, that he knows not but his good may be intended in what seemed to threaten his ruin. Many were the distresses and straits of Israel in the wilderness, but all was to humble them, that he might do them good in the latter end (Deuteronomy 8:16). Sad and dismal was the face of that providence that sent them out of their own land into the land of the Chaldeans; yet even this was a project to do them good (Jeremiah 24:5). How often have we retracted our rash and headlong censures of things upon experience of this truth, and been taught to bless our afflictions and disappointments in the name of the Lord! Many a time have we kissed those troubles at parting which we met with trembling. And what can promote peace under doubtful providences more effectually than this?
The experiences we have had throughout our lives of the faithfulness and constancy of Providence are of excellent use to allay and quieten our hearts in any trouble that befalls us. 'Hitherto hath the LORD helped us' (1 Samuel 7:12). We never found Him wanting to us in any case hitherto. This is not the first strait we have been in nor the first time that our hearts and hopes have been low. Surely He is the same God now as heretofore, His hand is not shortened, neither does His faithfulness fail. O recount in how great extremities former experience has taught you not to despair!
The conjectures Christians may make of the way of Providence towards them from what its former methods have been towards them is exceedingly quieting and comfortable. It is usual with Christians to compare times with times and to guess at the issue of one providence by another. The saints know what course Providence usually holds and accordingly with great probability infer what they may expect from what in like cases they have formerly observed. Christian, examine your own heart and its former observations, and you will find, (as Psalm 89:30-32) that it is usually the way of God to prepare some smart rods to correct you, when either your heart has secretly revolted from God and is grown vain, careless and sensual, or when your steps have declined and you have turned aside to commit iniquity. And then when those rods have been sanctified to humble, reduce and purge your heart, it is usually observed that those sad providences are then upon the change, and then the Lord changes the voice of His Providence towards you. 'Go and proclaim these words towards the north and say, Return thou backsliding Israel, saith the LORD; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the LORD, and I will not keep anger for ever. Only acknowledge thine iniquity' (Jeremiah 3:12, 13).
If therefore I find the blessed effects of the rod upon me, that it has done its work, to break the hard heart and pull down the proud heart and awaken the drowsy heart and quicken the slothful, negligent, lazy heart; now with great probability I may conjecture a more comfortable aspect of Providence will quickly appear, the refreshing and reviving time is nigh.
It is usual with Christians to argue themselves into fresh reviving hopes, when the state of things is most forlorn, by comparing the providences of God one with another.
It is a mighty composing meditation when we compare the providences of God towards the inanimate and irrational creatures with His providences towards us. Does He take care for the very fowls of the air for whom no man provides, as well as those at the door which we daily feed? Does He so clothe the very grass of the field, hear the young ravens when they cry for meat, and can it be supposed He should forget His own people, that are of much more value than these? (Matthew 6:26, 30).
Or if we compare the bounty and care that Providence has expressed to the enemies of God, how it feeds and clothes and protects them, even while they are fighting against Him with His own mercies, it cannot but quieten and satisfy us, that surely He will not be wanting to that people upon whom He has set His love, to whom He has given His Son, and for whom He has designed heaven itself.
Lastly, it must needs quieten us, when we consider what the Lord did for us in the way of His providence, when we ourselves were in the state of nature and enmity against God. Did He not then look after us when we did not know Him, provide for us when we did not own Him in any of His mercies, bestow thousands of mercies upon us when we had no title to Christ or any one promise? And will He now do less for us since we are reconciled and become His children?
Surely, such considerations as these cannot but fill the soul with peace, and preserve the tranquility of it under the most disturbing providences.
Due observations of the ways of God in His providences towards us have an excellent usefulness and aptitude to advance and improve holiness in our hearts and lives.
The holiness of God is manifested to us in all His works of providence. 'The LORD is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works' (Psalm 145:17). The instruments used by Providence may be very sinful and wicked; they may aim at base ends and make use of wicked means to attain them; but it is certain God's designs are most pure and all His workings are so too. Though He permits, limits, orders and overrules many unholy persons and actions, yet in all He works like Himself; and His holiness is no more defiled and stained by their impurity than the sunbeams are by the noxious exhalations of a dunghill. 'He is the rock, his work is perfect; for all his ways are judgment; a God of truth, and without iniquity, just and right is he' (Deuteronomy 32:4). So that in all His providences He sets before us a perfect pattern of holiness, that we might be holy in all our ways, as our Father is in all His ways. But this is not all.
His providences, if duly observed, promote holiness by stopping up our way to sin. O if men would but note the designs of God in His preventive providences how useful would it be to keep them upright and holy in their ways! For why is it that the Lord so often hedges up our way with thorns, as it is (Hosea 2:6), but that we should not find out paths to sin? Why does He clog us but to prevent our straying from Him? 'And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me' (2 Corinthians 12:7). O it is good to attend to these works of God, and study the meaning of them. Sometimes Providence ruins a hopeful thriving project to better our condition, and frustrates all our labours and plans; why is this, but to hide pride from man? Should you prosper in the world, that prosperity might be your snare, and make you a proud, sensual, vain soul. The Lord Jesus sees this, and therefore withdraws the food and fuel from your corruptions. It may be you have a diseased, weak body, you labour under many infirmities. In this the wisdom and care of God over your soul is manifested; for were you not so clogged, how probable is it that much more guilt might he contracted! Your poverty does but clog your pride, reproaches clog your ambition, want prevents wantonness, sickness of body conduces to the prevention of many inward gripes of conscience, and groans under guilt.
The providences of God may be observed to conduce to our holiness, not only by preventing sin, that we may not fall into it; but also by purging our sins when we are fallen into them. 'By this therefore shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged; and this is all the fruit to take away his sin' (Isaiah 27:9). They are of the same use that fire and water are for purging and cleansing (Daniel 11:33-35); not that they can purge us from sin in their own virtue and power, for if so, those that have most afflictions would have most grace also; but it is in the virtue of Christ's blood and God's blessing upon afflictive providences that they purge us from sin. A cross without a Christ never did any man good. Now in God's afflictive providences for sin there are many things that tend to the purging of it.
Such rebukes of Providence reveal the displeasure of God against us. The Lord frowns upon us in those providences. Our Father is angry, and these are the tokens of it; and nothing works more to the melting of a gracious heart than this. Must not the heart of a child melt and break while the father is angry? O this is more bitter to our spirits than all the smart and anguish of the affliction can be to our flesh. 'O LORD, rebuke me not in thy wrath; neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure: For thine arrows stick fast in me; and thine hand presseth me sore. There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger: neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin' (Psalm 38:1-3).
By these rebukes of sin the evil of sin is revealed more apparent to us, and we are made to see more clearly the evil of it in these glasses of affliction which Providence at such times sets before us, than we ever saw formerly. 'Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee: know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the LORD thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord GOD of hosts' (Jeremiah 2:19). O the gall and wormwood that we taste in it under God's rebukes for it!
Providence blasts and frustrates all sinful projects to the people of God. Whoever else thrives in them, they shall not (Isaiah 30:1-5). And this also convinces them of the folly that is in sin, and makes them cleave to the way of simplicity and integrity.
Holiness is promoted in the soul by cautioning and warning the soul against sin for time to come. 'I have borne chastisement; I will not offend any more' (Job 34:31). O happy providences, however smart, that make the soul for ever afraid of sin! Surely such rods are well bestowed. This gives God His end, and if ever we sorrowed after a godly sort, in the day of our troubles it will work this carefulness. 'For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you' (2 Corinthians 7:11). O if ever a man have been under a sanctified rod which has showed him the evil of sin and kindly humbled him for it; and a temptation should again solicit him to the same evil, why, thinks he, what a madness is it for me to buy repentance at so dear a rate? Have I not smarted enough already? You may as well ask me whether I will run again into the fire, after I have been already scorched in it.
To conclude - providences do greatly improve and promote holiness by drawing the soul into the presence of God, and giving it the opportunity and occasion of much communion with Him. Comfortable providences will do this; they will melt a man's heart in love to the God of his mercies and so pain his bowels that he shall not be quiet till he have found a place to pour out his soul in thankfulness to the Lord (2 Samuel 7:18). Afflictive providences will drive us to the feet of God, and there make us to judge and condemn ourselves. And all this has an excellent use to destroy sin, and promote holiness in the soul.
Finally, the consideration and study of Providence will be of singular use to us in a dying hour. Hereby we treasure up that which will singularly sweeten our death to us, and greatly assist our faith in the last encounter. You find when Jacob died what reflections he had upon the dealings of God with him in the various providences of his life (Genesis 48:3, 7, 15, 16). In like manner you find Joshua recording the providences of God when at the brink of the grave; they were the subject of his dying discourse (Joshua 24.). And I cannot but think it is a sweet close to the life of any Christian. It must needs sweeten a deathbed to recount there the several remarkable passages of God's care and love to us from our beginning to that day, to reflect upon the mercies that went along with us all the way, when we are come to the end of it. O Christians, treasure up these instances for such a time as that is, that you may go out of the world blessing God for 'all the goodness and truth' he has performed for you all your life long. Now the meditations of these things must needs be of great use in that day, if you consider the following particulars:
The time of death is the time when souls are usually most violently assaulted by Satan with horrid temptations and black suggestions. We may say of that figurative, as it is said of the natural serpent, 'he never exerts his utmost rage fill the last encounter,' and then his great design is to persuade the saints that God does not love them, has no care nor regard for them nor their cries; though they pray for ease and cry for sparing mercy, they see none comes. He handles them with as much roughness and severity as other men; yea, many of the vilest and most dissolute wretches endure less torments, and are more gently handled than they. 'There are no bands in their death' (Psalm 73:4), whereas you must go through a long lane of sickness to the grave and endure many deaths in one!
But what credit can these plausible tales of Satan obtain with a Christian who has been treasuring up all his life long the memorials of God's tender regard both to his needs and prayers, and who has carefully marked the evident returns of his prayers and gracious condescensions of God to him from his beginning to that moment? In this case his faith is mightily assisted by thousands of experiences which back and encourage it, and will not let the soul give up so easily a truth which he has so often felt and tasted. I am sure, says he, God has had a tender fatherly care of me ever since I became His. He never failed me yet in any former difficulty; and I cannot believe He will do so now. I know His love is like Himself, unchangeable. 'Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end' (John 13:1). 'For this God is our God for ever and ever, he will be our guide even unto death' (Psalm 48:14). Did He love me in my youth, and will He cast me off in my decrepit age? 'O God,' said David, 'thou hast taught me from my youth; and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works. Now also when I am old and gray-headed, O God, forsake me not' (Psalm 71:17, 18).
At death the saints are engaged in the last and one of the most eminent works of faith, even the committing themselves into the hands of God when they are launching forth into that vast eternity and entering into that new state which will make so great a change to us in a moment. In this, Christ sets us a pattern: 'Father, into thy hands l commend my Spirit; and having said thus he gave up the ghost' (Luke 23:46). So Stephen at his death, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit' (Acts 7:59) and immediately fell asleep.
There are two signal and remarkable acts of faith, both exceedingly difficult, viz., its first act and its last. The first is a great venture that it makes of itself upon Christ, and the last is a great venture too, to cast itself into the ocean of eternity upon the belief of a promise. But yet I know the first venture of the soul upon Christ is much more difficult than the last venture upon death; and that which makes it so is in great measure the manifold recorded experiences that the soul has been gathering up from the day of its espousals to Christ unto its dying, which is, in a sense, its marriage day. O with what encouragement may a soul throw himself into the arms of that God with whom he has so long conversed and walked in this world! whose visits have been sweet and frequent, with whom the soul has contracted so intimate acquaintance in this world; to whom it has committed all its affairs formerly and still found Him a faithful God; and now has no reason to doubt but it shall find Him so in this last distress and exigency also.
At death the people of God receive the last mercies that they shall ever receive in this world by the hand of Providence, and are immediately to make up their accounts with God for all the mercies that ever they received from His hand. What can be more suitable therefore to a dying person than to recount with himself the mercies of his whole life, the manifold receipts of favour for which he is to reckon with God speedily. And how shall this be done without a due and serious observation and recording of them now? I know there are thousands of mercies forgotten by the best of Christians: a memory of brass cannot contain them. And I know also that Jesus Christ must make up the account for us or it will never pass with God. Yet it is our duty to keep the accounts of our own mercies and how they have been used by us, for we are stewards, and then are to give an account of our stewardship.
At death we owe an account also to men, and stand obliged, if there is opportunity for it, to make known to them that survive us what we have seen and found of God in this world, that we may leave a testimony for God with men and bring up a good report upon His ways. Thus dying Jacob, when Joseph was come to take his last farewell of him in this world, strengthened himself and sat upon the bed and related to him the eminent appearances of God to him and the places where (Genesis 48:2, 3), as also an account of his afflictions (verse 7). So Joshua in his last speech to the people makes it his business to vindicate and demonstrate the truth of the promises by recounting to them how the Providence of God had fulfilled the same to a tittle in his day. 'And behold,' said he, 'this day I am going the way of all the earth: and ye know in all your hearts, and in all your souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things which the LORD your God spake concerning you; all are come to pass unto you, and not one thing hath failed thereof' (Joshua 23:14).
And certainly it is of great importance to the world to understand the judgments and hear of the experiences of dying men. They of all men are presumed to be most wise and most serious. Besides, this is the last opportunity that ever we shall have in this world to speak for God. O then what a sweet thing would it be to close our lives with an honourable account of the ways of God! to go out of the world blessing Him for all the mercies and truth which He has here performed to us! How this would encourage weak Christians and convince the atheistical world that verily there is a reality and an excellence in the ways and people of God!
At death we begin the angelical life of praise and thanksgiving. We then enter upon that everlasting sweet employment; and as I doubt not but the providences in which we were concerned in this world will be a part of that song which we shall sing in heaven, so certainly it will become us to tune our hearts and tongue for it while we are here, and especially when we are ready to enter upon that blessed state. O therefore let it be your daily meditation and study what God has been to you and done for you from the beginning of His way hitherto.
And thus I have spread before you some encouragements to this blessed work. O that you would be persuaded to take up this lovely and in every way beneficial practice. This I dare presume to say, that whoever finds a careful and a thankful heart to record and treasure up the daily experiences of God's mercy to him shall never lack new mercies to record to his dying day. It was said of Claudian that he lacked matter suitable for the excellency of his powers; but where is the head or heart that is suitable for this matter? 'Who can utter the mighty acts of the LORD? who can show forth all his praise?' (Psalm 106:2).