Trusting God's ProvidenceErwin W. Lutzer | March 17, 2002
Selected highlights from this sermon
Through the writings of Isaiah, we can learn a lot about the providence of God. God rules over history and world governments. The prophet also asserted that the natural realm is under God’s direction and purview.
The doctrine that we call “providence” should embolden us. God is working all things for our good. And if God is for us, who can be against us?
There was a time in American history when the word “providence” was capitalized. And people capitalized it basically because the word was a synonym for God. So they would say, “You know, providence determined that I would do thus and so.” And what they were really saying is that that was God’s will, that was God directing their steps.
The word providence actually means to see ahead of time, but it means a whole lot more than that. It is not just that God sees what is happening, wonderful though that is, but He oversees what is happening. It is not just that God looks down upon His people, but God looks out for His people. And if the hair of our head is numbered, we can see that that concern goes down to the very detail of our lives.
Now the Scriptures teach the doctrine of providence, and providence basically means at the end of the day we could define it as God directing all things toward an appointed end. You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, why should I be interested in the doctrine of providence? That sounds a little bit theological to me.” Well I hope it does, because it is theology.
But I need to tell you something else. If you understand it properly you’ll discover a new sense of release. Some of you are going through illegal, unfair, unjust court cases and you’re going through times of injustice on every level when you’ve experienced betrayal, you’ve experienced broken promises. You know, people who are close to you who are getting by with all kinds of things and they always appear to be winning. That’s where discouragement sets in. That’s where our faith is eroded and we begin to say, “Where is God?” And if it doesn’t happen in your life, it happens in the life of someone else or you could simply read the newspapers or watch the news on television and you see injustice, crime, evil at its deepest levels all over the world. The only thing that can help us, grant us faith and joy in the midst of it, is providence.
Now I want you to take your Bibles and turn to Isaiah 40. You know that this is the third in a series of four messages on this marvelous chapter that helps us to see God in a new way. The title of the series is When God Comes and today’s message is Trusting God’s Providence. We’ve looked at His wisdom and His knowledge. Today we speak of His providence.
Isaiah begins of course by saying God is coming. The glory of the Lord is going to be revealed, he says. And last time we learned that it is this God who is so great and who has all understanding, who needs no counselors, and now today we begin the passage at verse 21 as we speak about providence: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”
I want you to notice today that first of all what he’s speaking about here is God being above everything. He sits above the circle of the earth. Well, what’s the circle of the earth? It must be the horizon. Remember this was 600 years before Jesus Christ appears on the scene. Before anyone began to think that the earth might actually be a sphere. Where did Isaiah get that from? The circle of the earth under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but the imagery is that God is above the circle of the earth and because He’s above it all we are like grasshoppers. I don’t know if all of you have ever seen grasshoppers. You grow up in the city you might not have any. Some of us grew up and we know what grasshoppers are like. But I’ll tell you this, you can get all the grasshoppers in the world together and they’d never be able to affect the course of the stars or change the rotation of the earth, and that’s what human beings are in comparison to God. We are like grasshoppers. We can affect nothing in comparison to God and His power and His might and His providence.
And so, having stated that fact I might point out one other point that He makes before we get to the actual outline. You’ll notice it says that He also spreads out the heavens like a canopy. He’s using the illustration here of nomadic life, the tent. God stretches it out. Last time we learned, what is it? 15 billion light years, 20 billion light years, after a while it doesn’t matter because there’s no way we can possibly grasp that. And all the heavens are like a tent for Him to dwell in. That’s the opening statement of today’s message.
What I’d like us to do now is to see two realms over which God rules. In verses 23 and 24, the author, consistent with all the other passages of Scripture, says that God rules over history, over the nations. Notice the text, “He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, then He blows on them and they wither and a whirlwind comes and sweeps them away like chaff. Wow. The princes, the rulers of this earth. You see, not even human authorities can resist God’s sovereign providence.
You see, the Bible teaches that God sets up rulers and then He takes them down. “Promotion comes neither from the east nor from the west nor from the south, but God has judged. He puts down one and he sets up another.” It says in the book of Daniel that the kingdoms belong to the Lord and He gives them, that is, the rulership of them, to ever whom He wills. Wow. Paul says in Romans 13, “The powers that be are ordained of God.” And listen, he said that when Nero was ruling Rome. And then I’m very impressed with the words of Jesus before Pilate. When Pilate says, “Look, answer me, don’t you know that I have the power to release you or the power to destroy you?” Oh, every time I read these words I almost get chills up my back. Jesus says, “Thou couldst have no power at all against me unless it were given to thee from above.” Wow. Saddam Hussein ruling under the providence of God. He could have no power at all except it were given to him from above. Yasser Arafat, no power at all except it were given to him from above. President Bush, no power at all except it were given to him from above. For God rules among the kingdoms of the earth.
Now you say, “Well Pastor Lutzer, but don’t we have free will? I mean, are we just a bunch of puppets on a string?” This of course always leads to that theological dilemma doesn’t it? And sometimes we as theologians, and I’m not sure I can call myself that, though I dabble in theology, but we as theologians, we like big words because the bigger the word, the more impressive it is, the more it sounds as if it should be right. [laughter] So I’m going to use the word today concurrence-concurrence or confluence, you could use either one. I’m in a good mood, so you can take your pick. [laughter] Concurrence means that you have two rivers, they are going supposedly independently, but eventually they flow together and they make one river. On the one side you have human will with human decisions and all kinds of things that human beings do for which they are responsible. The other river is the river of God’s purposes and in the mind and providence of God they converge so that God’s will is always done.
I know we can’t put it together. I want you to know that I’ve read a lot about this, I’ve wrestled a lot about this, and there is no way that we as human beings can get our minds around it to understand it perfectly. All that we know is that the people who crucified Jesus Christ were responsible for their evil. They were wicked men and we also know that they did it by the predetermined hand and plan of God, and with that we have to let the matter rest. I personally take delight in the fact that there is no such thing as a ruler, no matter how wicked, no matter how evil but that he is under the leadership and the ultimate domination of God. That gives me comfort when I watch the news.
Now you’ll notice here that God not only sets up rulers, not expressly stated in the text though it is implied as we’ll see in a moment. Isaiah is emphasizing the fact that God brings them down. I love this. He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, they are like little saplings that don’t even have an opportunity to get roots. These little saplings are scarcely put in the ground, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, but He blows on them and they wither and like chaff God blows them away. That’s God who rules among the kingdoms of the earth.
You know, it’s interesting that when he says he brings princes to naught. I took three years of Hebrew and, Pastor Schwartz, you should know that I can quote two verses and I know one phrase that’s about how much I remember so don’t quiz me publicly, but I could do that. But it says in Genesis 1:1, “When the earth was without form and void” the Hebrew is tohuw bohuw. That much I remember. You almost love the sound of the words. That sounds like without form and void, tohuw bohuw, doesn’t it? That sounds that way. I want you to know today that the Hebrew word that is used in this passage is tohuw, desolation. That’s a good way to translate it. He brings the princes of this earth to desolation. He brings them down. He blows on them and they wither and they are gone according to His will and according to His purpose. He plants them because apart from Him planting them, they would not be planted. He sows them. Apart from Him sowing them, they wouldn’t get sown. But at the end of the day when their term is over, He blows on them and they are gone. You say, “Well why doesn’t He do it sooner rather than later?” There are some rulers we wish God would do it real soon to. My dear friend, we need to remind ourselves that with God a thousand years is as a day and a day is as a thousand years. Time moves on for us rather slowly, though the older we get the faster it goes. We could have some personal testimonies here, but the simple fact is that at the end of the day for God this is a hairline of time. And the time will come within His purpose and His plan when He simply blows and they all vanish. If you wonder about that, just think historically there’s nobody ruling today who was ruling a hundred years ago and there’s nobody ruling today who was ruling a thousand years ago despite all the great rulers what has happened, God blew upon them and they were brought to tohuw, to desolation.
God rules over the realm of history. God also rules over the realm of nature. We’re picking this up now in verse 25 and 26. I love this: “‘To whom will you compare me or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.” Maybe I should just pause there and ask you that. Who are you going to compare to God? Do you got anything that somehow matches His size? You got anything in the universe that can stand up against Him? Any nation, any group of people? Can they stand up against God?
There are two ways that God is distinguished from everyone else. First of all, there is no one who can compare to Him, and secondly, He is holy–and both of those are in that verse. Because God is ontologically, as we learned last time, so much greater than any one of us could possibly even conceive that there is no comparison. By the way, extra parenthesis, do you see now the folly of the silliness, the sheer silliness of things like the New Age movement that say I’m God? You know Shirley MacLaine running out onto the Malibu beach shouting, “I’m god, I’m god, I’m god!” Aren’t you glad she’s wrong? “To whom then will you compare me?” Do you see how insulting all of this nonsense is? “‘To whom then will you compare me or who is my equal,’ says the Holy One.” Lift up your eyes to the heavens. Who created all of these?” All of these people running around saying, “I’m god, I’m god, I’m god.”–did they create these things? No? Because you’ll notice it is He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls each of them by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength not one of them is missing.
Notice what we find here in the Scriptures. The amazing thing is that it is God who rules over nature. He rules over nature because right here in the text it says that He created all these things, and if He’s the Creator, He could have chosen to not create. If He is the one who created all things indeed, creation is the overflow of His glory and that’s why it’s such blasphemy to be into astrology. Because astrology looks to the stars for the thing that you and I ought to look to God for, namely wisdom and insight. The created heavens was to reveal the glory of God. It was never intended that we should look at the created heaven and we should somehow begin to worship the creation rather than the creator. The creation only says there must be a Creator who’s much bigger than the creation, and so God rules and He supervises everything that He rules.
Now listen to the text: “He brings out the starry host one by one.” The imagery is a military imagery. It’s as if all the stars of the heaven are on roll call. And God says I’m calling your name and the star says, “I’m present,” and He calls another name and it says “I’m present, I’m present” and for the roll call none of them is missing. You say, well there’s some stars that have fallen to the earth. Those too are also under God’s control, and He knows about them. And even if they’ve gone into some kind of oblivion, God knows all about that. The point is that when God calls a star, it shows up and says “present.” And the billions of stars all have a different name. How would you like to name a trillion stars all differently with a different name? You can’t use the same name twice. And after you named a trillion what about another trillion and then a hundred trillion and then a thousand trillion? Only God can do that.
By the way, I never even thought of this: if God knows the stars by name, do you think He remembers your name? Do you think He remembers where you live? Does He say, “Oh, this dear child of Mine moved, and now I forgot his address”? No, the Almighty God knows you. I mentioned earlier that the hair of your head is numbered. That’s a very precious text to me. It’s becoming more precious all the time. [Laughter]
Every star shows up when its name is called and God absolutely has control over nature. You see, behind the storm is God. In fact, if there’s an avalanche, despite all of its terror (and I’ll mention that in a moment), that too is God because the God who created could have prevented the avalanche. The rocks could have been stronger. Yeah, yeah, you say, but earthquakes come because of a fault in the earth’s crust. That’s right, but who controls the faults of the earth’s crust? Why does one part of the world have a greater fault than the other part under its crust etc., etc. This actually is God. Nature is presented in the Bible as being under the direct power of God. Jesus is on the sea of Galilee and He says to the storm, “Peace, be still!” and it is still.
Let me ask you a series of questions. Since Isaiah asks questions, I will ask some of my own. Who sent the flood during the time of Noah? Who sent the plagues during the time of Egypt? Who caused the sun to stand still or whatever happened there during the days of Joshua when it was darkness when it was expected to be light? Who caused the earthquake when the sons of Korah rebelled? It’s God. Who sends the drought? Who sends the rain? It is God.
Listen to what the Scripture says in Psalm 135: “The Lord does what pleases Him in heaven and on earth and in the seas and in all their depths. He makes clouds to rise from the ends of the earth. He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from His storehouses.” And He’s got more than one storehouse evidently for the wind, as we learned last week here in Chicago. You say, “Well, why all this awful stuff then?” Listen to the words of Job. This is very important, because nature is intended to reveal both the love of God and the judgment of God. I preached on this a couple of years ago, an entire message on it, but I simply want to point it out here. Listen to what the Scripture says: “He says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’ and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’ So that all the men he has made may know his work. He stops every man from his labor. The breath of God produces ice, and the broad waters become frozen. He loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them. At his direction they swirl around over the face of the whole earth and do whatever he commands them. He brings the clouds to punish men or to water his earth and show his love.” Nature reveals both sides of God. Now don’t think that those who experience the calamities of nature are under God’s judgment any more than others. It’s a warning to the whole world. I can’t go into that; I do not have time this morning except to remind you of that.
How much control does God have over nature? Listen to the words of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Now you know that he was a great nineteenth-century English preacher and most preachers read Spurgeon, they learn from Spurgeon, they love Spurgeon, but these are his words now. He says, “I believe that every particle of dust that dances in a sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes, that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its own orbit as well as the sun in the heavens, that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars are in their courses, that the creeping of an aphid over a rose bud is as much fixed as the march of the devastating pestilence, and the fall of the cedar leaves from the poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche. He who believes in God must believe this truth.” Wow. Of course people said, “Well, you know, that’s fate.” Spurgeon said no, fate is blindness working. But he says, if I may quote him, he says but the destiny of Scripture, providence, he says, is full of eyes! What he’s saying is that God acts, but He acts with a purpose. Fate just means that whatever will be will be without a purpose, just randomness. No, God acts purposefully: providence. Well you say, “Well, all of this is fine but you still haven’t answered my question about what I’m going through today. What about the injustice that I’m enduring? What about all of the things that are awful, that people are just plain getting by with and God’s not doing a thing?” That’s what some of you are saying. I can read your minds. [laughs]
Listen to this, verse 27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord and my cause is disregarded by my God’? God has forgotten about me.” I like the New American Standard Version, actually, better than this: ”my cause.” The Hebrew word is judgment. The whole idea being that “my judgment has escaped your attention It really means justice. The best translation says this: “Why are you complaining and saying that the justice that is due you has escaped the attention of your God?” Why are you and I giving up in despair and saying there’s so much evil in the world and everybody’s getting by, and I’m a victim of this evil and God is not intervening? Why are you saying that in light of His sovereignty, in light of His greatness, in light of His providence? He knows every star by name. When He calls them they show up. He knows every particle. Every atom in the universe obeys His command. And you’re telling me that God has forgotten you when Jesus said so clearly listen if God knows about the sparrows, you’re of so much more value than they.
Providence. Two life-changing conclusions: number one, confidence in God’s control means confidence in God’s justice. The more confident you are in God’s control, the more confident you are in God’s justice. See, there are some people who might disagree a little bit with what I’ve said today. They may say, “Well, you know this Pastor Lutzer, he’s always preaching about the sovereignty of God and he emphasizes that so much.” Well, right now I’m emphasizing it because the Scriptures continue to emphasize it. But the thing is that if God wasn’t in control, what hope would you have for justice then? You know, if things were just going along randomly and God is saying, “Well you know generally, I want to somehow make a good outcome of this mess. I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to do it yet, but generally I’m in control. I’m letting all the specifics go under the rug.” Would that be encouraging? I don’t think so.
You see, the reason that we are encouraged is because God knows everything. His searching, His knowledge, we’re going read in the next verse, is beyond understanding. He knows everything and therefore in the final judgment, every dispute, every court case, everything that has ever been tried can all be retried without the need of witnesses, because it is retried with terrifying accuracy and infinite, complete knowledge. And that’s why a Jewish friend of mine with whom I’ve had a very, very good friendship, who does not believe in God, was very disturbed when I said to him, “Are you prepared to live in a universe where Hitler and everyone else have gotten by without a final judgment?” See, there’s something within us that says we want justice. And there can only be justice in this unjust, cruel, heartless universe if there’s a God who is going to resurrect people and who’s going to retry everything so that the balance will be accurately weighed. So that throughout all of eternity, we’re going to be able to sing, “Just and true are thy ways, thou king of saints.” God did it right, God did it right. Can you hang on to that while you’re going through the trials you’re going through?
Second life-changing lesson is that even things that are working against you (and I’ve emphasized this before), might be working for you. Things that are against you might be working for you. Why? Because “all things work together for good to them that love God, to those that are the called according to his purpose.” And so it may appear that things are against you, but Paul says in Romans, “If God be for us,” and He’s for you today. If you’re a believer, God’s rooting for you and He’s for you. If He’s for you, who can be against you, because within His plan He is going to take all kinds of things and have them come out ultimately for your benefit, for His glory, and for the honor of His name. Can you hang on to that in the midst of your sickness, and your trial, and your loneliness, and the broken promises that you’ve experienced from people?
The best illustration of this, of course, is Joseph. In chapter 45 and we will not turn to it, you need to read this on your own though, of the book of Genesis when he’s revealing himself to his brothers. They’re weeping and they’re thinking, you know, my goodness, we’re the ones who sold him into slavery, we’re the ones that broke up the family, we’re the ones that sold him, because we hoped that he’d be killed. We treated him so meanly, what’s going to happen now? And Joesph said, “You sold me, but God sent me here.” Now I want you to hang on to this, everyone thinking at this juncture: Joseph isn’t merely saying, you know, you sold me here and so having sold me here God took this evil that you did and turned it around for good so that the story would have a happy ending. That’s not what he said. He’s saying the very selling itself was a part of God’s plan to save many people.
I haven’t pretended to answer all of your questions about providence, but I know this that the more we know God and the better we love Him and the more we understand the doctrine of providence, the more relaxed we become. You know why? Because if God is in charge, you don’t have to be. That’s why. That’s why we don’t have to render evil for evil. That’s why we don’t have to try to manipulate. That’s why we don’t have to cut corners to get what we want. If God is in charge, you and I don’t have to be. Oh, yes, when we’re sick we can go to the doctor and we can go to the hospital and we can have this and this. We can do what we like. But at the end of the day, it’s God.
Some of you have never trusted Christ as your Savior. That’s another great illustration of providence, isn’t it? I alluded to it earlier. That Jesus would die on the cross at the hands of wicked men and in dying would become the lamb of God to reconcile us with the Almighty Lord God. Think about that. If you’ve come today with a burden of sin, the only people who appreciate the cross are the people who know of their sin. If you’ve come today with a burden of sin, you come to Christ, the one whom God providentially sent to us that we might know His forgiveness, His reconciliation, and His grace. Would you bow your head as we pray?
Now Father we ask that according to Your good will that You might work in us that which is well-pleasing in Your sight. For those, Father, whose faith has been shattered, we ask today that it shall be built up in the presence of Your Word and in the presence of Your Spirit. For those, Father, who have never trusted Christ as Savior, at this moment help them to grasp the truth of it all, to receive it, to receive Him as their substitute and sin-bearer. Now what is it that you need to say to God today? Whatever it is, you say it. What burden do you have to give Him that you’ve been carrying?
Serious prayer can’t happen in just a few seconds. Serious prayer leads us to a place where we can get alone with God maybe for an hour and just do some work and finally giving to Him what we should never have been carrying. So, Father, the work that You have begun in our hearts, complete it, we pray, in Jesus’ name Amen, Amen.