Providence and the individual - Psalm 139

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 19th September 2010.

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George Mueller was one of the most outstanding Christians of the 19th century. He was a man who passionately believed that God was in control over every twist and turn of our lives for our ultimate good and his supreme glory. This was the man who set up orphanages to care for hundreds of children and who lived by faith, that is he never appealed for money, but prayed and trusted that the Lord to provide- which he did. You see, he really did believe in what we call ‘providence’. But in July 1850 his only daughter, Lydia was struck with typhoid fever and she found herself on the brink of death. Tell me: how does a Christian father deal with something like that? Well, this is how Mueller records his experience. ‘While I was in this affliction, this great affliction, besides being at peace, so far as the Lord’s dispensation was concerned, I also felt perfectly at peace with regard to the cause of the affliction. Once on a former occasion, the hand of the Lord was heavily laid on me and my family. I had not the least hesitation in knowing, that it was the Father’s rod, applied in infinite wisdom and love, for the restoration of my soul from a state of lukewarmness. At this time however, I had no such feeling. Conscious as I was of manifold weaknesses, failings, and shortcomings…….yet I was assured that this affliction was not upon me in the way of the fatherly rod, but for the trial of my faith… parents know what an only child, a beloved child is, and what to believing parents as an only child, a believing child must be. Well, the Father in heaven said, as it were, by this dispensation, ‘Art thou willing to give up this child to me?’ My heart responded, ‘As it seems good to Thee, my heavenly Father. Thy will be done.’ But as our hearts were made willing to give back our beloved child to him who had given her to us, so he was ready to leave her to us and she lived….. Of all the trials of faith that as yet I have had to pass through, this was the greatest, and by God’s abundant mercy, I own it to his praise, I was enabled to delight myself in the will of God; for I felt perfectly sure, that, if the Lord took this beloved daughter, it would be best for her parents, best for herself, and more for the glory of God than if she lived….’  Well, she did live.

Do you see what George Mueller was doing? He was acting on the belief that God is good, that God is all powerful and as such God answers prayer. After the event, he looks back and sees God’s hand at work with gratitude, but during the event he still believes God’s hand is at work and trusts him for the outcome. And it is obvious that during that dreadfully taxing time, George Mueller and his wife were also remembering other times when God was providentially at work weaving a pattern in their lives which was at times mysterious but never senseless and this gave them strength to cope with their present crisis. This is when belief in providence comes into its own. The 17th century Christian minister John Flavel, who wrote a wonderful little book called, ‘The Mystery of Providence’, says this: ‘It is the duty of the saints (Christians), especially in times of straights, to reflect upon the performances of Providence for them in all the states and through all the stages of their lives.’ And that extends not only to the time we were born but even before that, while we are in our mother’s womb. Everything we are, everything we have, is connected to everything else- the parents we had, the friends we made, the country in which we were born, all of these fall within the personal care of God in order for him to bring about his good and perfect will in our lives. And that is what we are going to be thinking about this morning with the help of one of the most glorious Psalms ever written, Psalm 139.

Psalms can be broadly divided into two types- Praise and Lament. The question is: into which category does this Psalm fall? Is this a ‘hallelujah’ psalm or a ‘Lord why are you letting this happen to me?’ psalm? The indications are that it is the latter. It is pretty obvious looking at verses 19-22 that David’s enemies are giving him a hard time and he wants God to act swiftly to sort them out and can’t quite understand why God seems so slow in getting his act together. Remember how George Mueller said that while there were times in his Christian life that he could see God using hardship as a way of discipling him because he had drifted, so here David is saying to God that while he is far from perfect there is nothing in his life at the moment as far as he can see, which merits this kind of treatment. He thinks it can’t be because he needs to be disciplined for he almost challenges God to get out the magnifying glass- v23, ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’ It’s as if he is saying to God, ‘Probe as deeply as you want Lord but you will not find offenses in me that justify what is happening to me at the moment-help.’  Similarly with verses 1- 6, O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. 2You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.5You hem me in--behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. 6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.’  David is fully aware that God knows all things- David’s thoughts, his words- even before they are spoke. And since God knows all things then he knows that David hasn’t done anything wrong to warrant the vicious attacks of these men. And yet it is because he believes that God not only knows all things but is in controls all things, that in some way God is behind this trial, hence David saying he feels hemmed in by God and feels the weight of God’s hand upon him through these tough circumstances. And so crushing is David’s experience that he even considers the attractive possibility of running away from it all, including God: 7Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast11If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me," 12even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.’  Have you ever felt like that? Things must be bad for David to want this, but again he submits to what he knows to be true, namely, that you can’t escape from God and at the end of the day why would you want to escape from him? If you find yourself in the darkness what better than to have the one who can see into the darkness? There is still hope you see that God’s hand will guide and guard.

But will you notice that David doesn’t take the apparently easy way out that many today are taking by saying, ‘Well God is limited you know. In order to respect human freedom even he doesn’t know what is going to happen next. He might try and turn things around after the fact but poor fellow that he is, God is as frustrated by events just like the next man. God can’t be blamed for what is happening to me he is just doing his best, the trouble is, his best isn’t best enough.’ Not at all! It is because David believes in the absolute sovereignty of God, his overruling Providence that he prays as he does and says what he says. He knows that God in some way is behind all the difficult things that are going on in his life at the moment, that he why he trying to understand why? It is because he knows that God is  the perfect judge and knows all and sees all, that he finds himself in a bit of a quandary- David is innocent and the other guys guilty so why the delay? Don’t you feel like that at times? David does not abandon his belief in God’s sovereignty; he wrestles with it, and works it through, allowing great thoughts of God to provide the firm anchor for his soul when things get rough. And you know what? We are to do the same.

And it is the thoughts which appear at the centre of the psalm which can provide such tender strength when we begin to think that life is simply too much to cope with and God has lost control. Just take a look at them: 13For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. 14I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 16your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.’ 17How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.’


You may say; surely if ever there was a time I was not known to God, when I was hidden from him, it was while I was in the womb. How can a microscopic ball of cells travelling on its mysterious journey down the fallopian tube be of any interest to God? Why, even my mother was not aware of my existence then, so how could God be? ‘You know, that is the sort of question I pondered’, says David. Never having seen an ultra scan does not prevent him from using the most sublime figurative language to describe God’s providential care in piecing us together to become the people he designed us to be. You created me, intones David, like a potter shaping a vessel. You knit me like a weaver blending together threads in a complex tapestry. When he says, ‘I am wonderfully made’ the word he uses (ruchampti) is a very interesting one. One translation renders it ‘You painted me with a needle’; like some rich embroidery made of nerves and blood vessels, that is how skilfully God personally superintended our coming into being inside our mother’s womb. ‘17How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.’ He is talking about God’s pre-natal thoughts, all the details that have gone into making him the man he is- eye colour, hair texture, height, weight, IQ, his fear of spiders- millions, if not trillions, of thoughts have come together in perfect harmony to produce this glorious creature called a human being- more specifically-me.

Of course we are in a better position than David to know how wonderfully made we are and we are meant to be blown away by the thought and moved to worship. Take our brain for example. We are talking about two handfuls of tissue, weighing a little more than three pounds, with the colour and something of the consistency of porridge, are human’s equipment for feeling, speaking, seeing, smelling, appreciating art, remembering, enjoying sex, doing cross words and a hundred and one other activities that make up our daily lives. Isn’t it extraordinary that through this bundle of ‘stuff’ we are able ‘in here’ to get an accurate picture of what is ‘out there’? The human brain contains ten thousand million nerve cells, each cell connected to ten thousand other. This means that if you could make a model of the brain using cells the size of the volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica; you would need nearly the whole of the earth’s surface in which to lay it out.

The thing is, we are not take these truths for granted. By that I don’t simply mean that we are to be thankful that we can see, touch, speak and think, though we should, but to appreciate that all of this comes from God’s personal and specific say-so for me! Personally God gave me the right kinds of biological material to be the person he wanted me to be to know him and serve him in this world in the way he intended. This should help us in moving towards Christian contentment. You would like to be taller-tough, you are the height you are. You would like to have blue eyes-tough you have the eyes you have. God has made you the perfect height with the perfect coloured eyes-for you. Only a few of us can look like Mel Gibson! Why do you want to be what you are not? Why do you think it will make the slightest difference?  A forty five year old American cosmetic surgery advisor gushed to the Sunday Times about her ten year ‘marathon surgery’ in pursuit of new beauty. She had the works- eyes, nose, chin, tummy and knees-that was just for starters- she had more plastic than a Tupper ware party. Then she said, ‘This is the real me. I felt like a misfit in my old face and body; it never felt right. This is the way I want to live, and I couldn’t do it with my old face and body- I don’t even want to associate myself with that person. She is dead. I cut her up.’ Do you honestly think that she became a less vain and selfish person because she had a new nose and chin? Hardly! God knew what he was doing when he made you just the way you are.

Not only that but from the vantage point of eternity my whole life was mapped out by you says David; all the decisions I would ever freely make from which shoe I would wear to which wife I would choose were foreordained by you-v16. You knew exactly when I was to enter this world and what is more, you know exactly when I am to leave it. This gives life a meaning, as every story has a meaning, a goal to which it is heading.

Again from this we are meant to take great strength and move towards praise when we think of God’s providence in bringing us to where we are today. Let me share a few personal things with you which illustrate this. I am glad that I was brought up as a child in the 1960’s- it really was a great time in which to enjoy childhood. I have appreciated the fact that God had me born when I was, and unlike my Grandfather I have not had to live through two World Wars. I am thankful to God that the Comprehensive School system came along just when it did because someone from my background would never have gone to Grammar School and I would never have gone to University at a time when only 2% of the population managed to obtain a place.  It was great to be student in the 70’s and 80’s too- I could have fired up the Quatro. Every time I go to the dentist I am so grateful that I wasn’t born 300 years ago for not only would I probably not have any teeth at the moment but they would have been extracted in a very painful way. I am grateful for the medical care we have in contrast to the lack of free care which my Grandad was subject too so that when as a boy he ate some laburnum seeds he was sick to the point of death and all he had to depend upon was my Great-grandmother tending him with herbs. Although I wasn’t brought up in a Christian home I was brought up in a stable home which had standards and kept me on the straight and narrow. So I thank God for the parents God gave me and if you have Christian parents how much more should you thank him. Have you thought about how privileged those of us who have been born in Britain are? I know grumbling is a British pastime but we should be careful given God’s providential ruling of this country over the years. In theory I guess, you could have been born in Pakistan or in North Korea- do you know what the chances of you becoming a Christian would have been then? The answer is, very slim indeed. What is more, if you had become one you would be persecuted, probably languishing in a shipping container somewhere. Is it not a cause for wonderment and gratitude to the Providence of God that he placed you in a country which is politically stable, where there are still many freedoms we enjoy, including the freedom to believe?

But even after all of this you might say, ‘It is alright for God up in the heavens to rule over all things where it is safe and secure, but it is pretty rough for us down here- hence David’s complaint.’ But when we bear in mind that God himself, as it were, subjected himself to his own Providence in this world that complaint collapses. The Christian turning to this psalm can say God knows how all of this feels too. For a descendent of David, Jesus the Son of God went through all of this as well. In the womb of Mary, God was the ball of cells rapidly multiplying. God saw through the newly formed eyes of a developing embryo. God felt what it was like to touch with a baby’s hand.  God knew what it was like to be born under a tyrannical political regime and a corrupt religion. And as he walked this earth, God the Son rejoiced in the thought of his heavenly Father knowing when he sat and when he stood, when he slept and when he ate. Even in the dark night of Gethsemane he knew that his Father was still watching him and his way was not hid from him. Jesus Christ was born at just the right time, his days where all written in his Father’s book- nothing was ever outside his eternal will and good purpose. And as the rejected King hung on a cross, he was surrounded by bloodthirsty men. And it was his Father’s will that he be raised from the dead and set to rule over the lives of his children moment by moment.  

Isn’t it a wonderfully comforting thought that this is the God we worship and have come to know in the Lord Jesus? Isn’t it a warm contrast to the pagan way of thinking that our lives are tossed about by impersonal chance and fate- that there is someone not only watching over us, but lovingly at work in us, through us and all around us, writing a story with our lives which will count in eternity.

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