The doctrine of Providence has its sceptics, and all too often even believers do not heartily embrace this doctrine as they should, despite the fact that it is as the comfort to them of a warm blanket in a cold, wide world. Thomas Dwight Witherspoon reminds us of these realities in a sermon titled “Not One Forgotten” (taken from Luke 7:6: "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?”), which is to found in that remarkable volume of sermons, The Southern Presbyterian Pulpit (1896).
Two things in particular mitigate against such an embrace, according to Witherspoon: 1) the apparent insignificance of this world, and especially the seemingly trivial and minor things of this world, in the great scheme of things. Why, after all, should the great God of the universe condescend himself to be concerned with the little things of our mortal life? and 2) The apparent unevenness and irregularity of the events and operations of this world., and the fact that all mortal life ends in death, whether for the righteous or the wicked (Eccl. 9:2).
Witherspoon examines each of these apparent obstacles to embracing the doctrine of Providence and, while granting there is some truth to them, as modern science has shown how big the universe is and how small the globe we inhabit is, and how seemingly disordered and chaotic, yet Witherspoon, with the eye of faith, tells us that they are, ultimately, untenable. And what a comfort that is to the believer!
But, amidst all the confusion and disorder incident to a state of things like this, it is the great joy of the Christian heart to rest in the doctrine of the overruling providence of God, which is so clearly taught in his holy word; to think of the little sparrows, five of which brought less than a cent in the markets of the world in our Lord's day, and to remember that "not one of them is forgotten before God.'
The vast expanse of the universe serves to magnify, not diminish, the power of God and the beauty of his magnificent providence. Out of disorder, he gives meaning and purpose to life. In the midst of great distances of time and space, he shows care and concern for the most minute aspects of his creation.
Many persons are willing to admit that the hand of God is in the great events of nature and of human history. When the pestilence is on the air and thousands are falling victims, when some great earthquake has engulphed cities, or some furious tempest at sea has carried down strong ships with their hardy seamen and their terror-stricken passengers, there are few who believe in a God at all who do not recognize his hand, and say, “Surely God is here.” But that the God who kindled the blaze of the sun supplies also the glow-worm's lamp; that he who ”rides upon the stormy wind” fans also the cheek of the invalid with the gentle zephyr's breath; that he who upholds the stars in their courses guides also the sparrow in its flight; these are the things reckoned incapable of belief. And yet the Scriptures do not more clearly teach the one than the other.
The minuteness of the Providence of God can be described thus:
As the whole machinery of a watch will come to a standstill if one of the almost-invisible jewels be dislodged, or if a grain of dust adhere to one of the thousand tiny cogs in its various attachments, so, if one of these minute events should go awry, the whole order and course of providence would be arrested or disturbed. I stood, not a great while ago, looking at a splendid locomotive about to be put upon its trial-trip. The engineer, proud of his beautiful engine, at a signal from the conductor, placed his hand upon the lever and applied the steam. But, though there was a quiver, as if every nerve of the iron horse w^ere strung to its utmost tension, there was no motion of the great wheels. A second time the lever was applied, but with the same result. Then the quick eye of the engineer detected the cause. A single thumb-screw had been insufficiently turned. There was but the light touch of the fingers upon it, and again the steam was applied, and the train moved gracefully away. These little things which men think beneath our heavenly Father's notice, what are they but the valve-screws of the great engine ? What but the cogs and jewels of that secret mechanism which causes the hands of all human destiny to move upon the dial-plate of time?
Witherspoon concludes with some practical observations and applications that will benefit readers in our day as much as they did in his.
…let me remind you what a sanctity it gives to the little things of life that God's eye is upon them, and that we can have fellowship with him in them. So much of our life is taken up with little things — things that do not seem to tell upon the great issues and interests of Christ's kingdom in the world — that we are likely to feel as if the time spent in them is lost from the service of God. The mother with her little brood about her, the housewife with her busy cares, the merchant with all the inventory of his active brain, the teacher with the tedious routine of the class-room — one and all with the daily throng of little duties, little vexations, little cares — let us remember that not one of all these is forgotten before God. There is a sanctity and a blessedness given to life when we can see God's hand in everything — in leaf and flower, in pebble and stone — and the dull monotony of the most humdrum life may be relieved by this thought of the ever-presence and sympathy of our heavenly Father.
Again, let me remind you that if not one of the least of these dumb creatures is forgotten before God, they should not fail of all due consideration and kindness from us. How much wanton cruelty, how much thoughtless neglect would be avoided, did we always keep before us the consideration that "not one of them is forgot- ten before God." How this thought of our heavenly Father's watchful oversight and tender care binds us, as with a band of gold, not only to the humblest and poorest of our kind, but to all that vaster family whom his loving arms enfold, and who rest upon the bosom of his care.
Thirdly, and lastly, while we know not what the changes or trials of coming life may be, there is one thing we do know, and that is, that not one of us in any of them shall be forgotten. However dark the pathway, God's eye will be upon us as we walk it; his infinite arm will be about us to protect us; his wing of love will overshadow us, and he will make good to us his precious promise, that "as our days so shall our strength be." And if at this hour there be in the sanctuary some child of adversity or bereavement, whose cup seems to be full to overflowing with sorrow, let me say there is comfort for you here. Thou, O child of affliction, art not forgotten. Forgotten before man thou mayest be, forsaken of kindred, deserted of friends, but not forgotten before God. His eye of love is upon thee. His pitying arms enfold thee. He will be with thee in all the way thou goest. “Fear not,” is his message, “I will help thee.” Say, O timid one, "I will trust and not be afraid"; for “the eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms."
Sweet comfort indeed from a 19th century sermon, and worthy of meditation upon this Lord’s Day afternoon.