One of my favorite theological topics—one of my favorite topics of any kind—is providence, the biblical teaching that God governs all things. I mention it often in this blog; if you search for it in the archive as of this writing, you get, by my count, 34 posts out of 580. Two reasons for that: first, I like it a lot, and second, by its very nature providence is pretty difficult to avoid mentioning. Once in a quiz I asked the class to identify an example of providence in history, and as we were grading it I realized that literally any historical event would be a correct answer.
That’s pedagogically embarrassing, but it’s theologically exhilarating.
I’d like to spend a few posts surveying the biblical data on the topic. I don’t intend to get into the thorny arguments that have arisen around the topic and its implications, but I would like to soak awhile in what the biblical authors thought it healthful to consider.
I suppose we should start with a definition of sorts: what are the spheres of providence? Or in less technical terms, where is God governing?
When I put it that way, you’ll be tempted to snort, “Well, duh. Everything.”
And this is one temptation I am fiercely encouraging you to give in to.
Of course that is the right answer. It is inherent in the meaning of the word sovereignty. If God’s not in charge everywhere, then he’s not really in charge, is he?
And the Scripture confirms that idea by direct statement. Just look at where the Bible says that God is in control—
- In the cosmos. Psalm 19 famously begins by asserting that God’s glory—his handiwork—is apparent everywhere in the physical universe (Ps 19.1). The Psalmist focuses, of course, on the universe as he knew it, before Galileo and before NASA; he exults that this knowledge is plain throughout the whole earth (Ps 19.3-4a). He chooses as his primary illustration the sun, both in the faithfulness of its daily appearance (Ps 19.2) and in the all-pervasive power of its light (Ps 19.4b-6). Every natural phenomenon, both the edifying and the destructive, are from God’s hand and subject to his perfect will.
- In human life. God is intimately involved with the life of each of his human images, whether or not they realize or acknowledge it.
- He gives life. God is the one who decides whether a human life will begin. As Moses succinctly put it, “He is your life, and the length of your days” (Dt 30.20); in other words, he brings you into the world, and he takes you out of it. When I was a boy, the family next door had two sons, one about my age. The older boy died of cystic fibrosis as a young teen. A few years later, his brother, the one my age, died in a car accident. Two of my schoolmates died young, one just before graduation (another car accident) and the other just after (she was murdered). But I’m pushing 70. Who made those decisions? None of us did; God determines our birth and the length of our days.
- He directs life’s circumstances. David observes that God “knows” everything he does (Ps 139.2-3); but he’s clearly thinking of more than just an academic knowledge: he says, “You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me” (Ps 139.5 NASB95). Is that true only of David? Or is he speaking of the normal human condition? The rest of the psalm answers that question clearly.
- In national affairs. Daniel says (and he was certainly in a position to know) that God “removes kings, and sets them up” (Da 2.21). He raised up Assyria against Israel; he raised up Nebuchadnezzar against Judah (Jer 25.8-14); he raised up Cyrus to return Judah from captivity (Is 45.1-4). He has raised up our government—Democrat and Republican, wise and foolish, good and evil, competent and incompetent.
- In heavenly affairs. Paul writes, “By him [Christ] were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him” (Co 1.16). He’s describing supernatural powers here—angels and demons. And they answer to God and obey him—even (as in the case of Satan himself) when they do not want to (1Co 2.8).
Yes, God’s in charge. Everywhere. At all times.
Next time we’ll look at some specific ways he demonstrates that principle.