A cause and a cure for misery: J.W. Alexander

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In a precious volume titled Consolation, consisting of discourses addressed to the suffering people of God, James W. Alexander tells us about the main ingredient that is needed to make life miserable. And then, thankfully, he explains what is needed to set things right.

Spiritual Quiet is favoured by Submission.

The first law of religion is submission. “Thy will be done;” and where it does not exist there is no piety, and just as truly there is no tranquillity. What a hideous sight to see a human creature in full rebellion against God’s providence; repining at his allotments; fighting against his dispensations, and cursing his judgments! But it is not more sinful than it is wretched; and hell is not only wickedness, but woe: the wickedness makes the woe, or rather is the woe. The true recipe for miserable existence is this: Quarrel with Providence. Even in the smaller measures of this temper there is enough to prevent tranquillity. And hence, when God means to make us happy, he teaches us submission — a resignation of every thing into his hands, and an acknowledgment that whatsoever He does is wisest and best. O how sweetly even afflictions fall when there is such a temper to receive them! “Shall we receive good at the hands of the Lord’, and shall we not receive evil?” “Why should a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?” Such dispositions tend to stillness of soul; and even amidst chastisement there is internal quiet.

Robert Lewis Dabney on the Source of True Courage

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On the first Sunday of June, 1863, Robert Lewis Dabney delivered a memorial sermon for General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in Richmond, Virginia. The sermon (found in Volume 4 of his Discussions as well as individually on Dabney’s page) was entitled “True Courage,” and took as its text Luke 12:4-5, “Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that, have no more than they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him which, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell: yea, I say unto you, fear him.” Dabney speaks about the true nature of courage, and proceeds to give several reasons why it is the Christian who can be the bravest individual. The second reason is found in God’s special providence, which is over all His creatures - but over them that fear Him, for their good only. Dabney’s description of the providence of God is well worth five minutes of your time today:

By that almighty and omniscient providence, all events are either produced; or at least permitted, limited, and overruled. There is no creature so great as to resist its power, none so minute as to evade its wisdom. Each particular act among the most multitudinous which confound our attention by their number, or the most fortuitous, which entirely baffle our inquiry into the causes, is regulated by this intelligent purpose of God. Even when the thousand missiles of death, invisible to mortal sight, and sent forth aimless by those who launched them, shoot in inexplicable confusion over the battle-field, his eye gives each one an aim and a purpose, according to the plan of his wisdom. Thus teacheth our Saviour.

Now, the child of God is not taught what is the special will of God as to himself; he has no revelation as to the security of his person. Nor does he presume to predict what particular dispensation God will grant to the cause in which he is embarked. But he knows that, be it what it may, it will be wise, and right, and good. Whether the arrows of death shall smite him or pass him by, he knows no more than the unbelieving sinner; but he knows that neither event can happen him without the purpose and will of his Heavenly Father. And that will, be it whichever it may, is guided by divine wisdom and love. Should the event prove a revelation of God's decision, and this was the place, and this the hour, for life to end; then he accepts it with calm submission; for are not the time and place chosen for him by the All-wise, who loves him from eternity? Him who walks in the true fear of God, God loves. He hath adopted him as his son forever, through his faith on the righteousness of the Redeemer. The divine anger is forever extinguished by the atonement of the Lamb of God, and the unchangeable love of God is conciliated to him by the spotless righteousness of his substitute. The preciousness of the unspeakable gift which God gave for his redemption, even the life of the Only-begotten, and the earnest of the Holy Ghost, bestowed upon him at first while a guilty sinner, are the arguments to this believer, of the richness and strength of God's love to him. He knows that a love so eternal, so free, so strong, in the breast of such a God and Saviour, can leave nothing unbestowed, which divine wisdom perceives to be for his true good. "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things" (Rom. 8: 32). And this love has enlisted for his safeguard, all the attributes of God, which are the security of his own blessedness.

Why dwelleth the divine mind in ineffable, perpetual peace? Not because there are none to assail it; but because God is conscious in himself of infinite resources, for defense and victory; of a knowledge which no cunning can deceive; of a power which no combination can fatigue. Well, these same attributes, which support the stability of Jehovah's throne, surround the weakest child of God, with all the zeal of redeeming love. "The eternal God is his refuge; and underneath him are the everlasting arms'' (Deut. 33: 27). Therefore saith the Apostle, that the believer hath "his heart and mind garrisoned by the peace of God which passeth all understanding" (Phil. 4:7). And therefore our Saviour saith, with a literal emphasis of which our faint hearts are slow to take in the full glory: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you" (John 14: 27). In proportion as God's children have faith to embrace the love of God to them, are they lifted in spirit to his very throne, and can look down upon the rage of battle, and the tumult of the people, with some of the holy disdain, the ineffable security, which constitute the blessedness of God. “Their life is hid with Christ in God.”

"Not One Forgotten" - A sermon by T.D. Witherspoon

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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.

A heavenly art to learn - William S. Plumer

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A practical gem and a word of encouragement from a classic work on Providence:

How entirely do just views of God's word and providence change the aspects of every thing. He, who has any right views, would rather be with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the furnace, or with Daniel in the lions' den than with Nebuchadnezzar on the throne. Paul bound with a chain was far more to be envied than Nero wearing the imperial purple. Paul and Silas were far from being the most unhappy men in Philippi the night their feet were in the stocks. There are two sides to every providence, as there were to the pillar of cloud and of fire. The bright side is towards the children of God. It ever will be so. God has ordained it. He will make good all his promises. "Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright." Therefore, ye heroes of the cross, gird on your armor. Fight the good fight of faith. Never yield to fear. Endure hardness. Live to please him who has called you to be soldiers. Jesus reigns. Hear him proclaiming: "All power in heaven and earth is given unto me." He is King of kings. He rules in the kingdoms of men. He is God in Zion. He loves the church more than you do. He died for it. He loves his people as the apple of his eye. Nothing shall harm those who are the followers of that which is good. O shout and give thanks. Robert Southwell, awaiting martyrdom in prison, wrote to his friend: "We have sung the canticles of the Lord in a strange land, and in this desert we have sucked honey from the rock, and oil from the hard flint." Learn this heavenly art. — William S. Plumer, Jehoveh-Jireh: A Treatise on Providence, pp. 164-165

William Swan Plumer on the Greatness of God's Goodness

William Swan Plumer’s Commentary on the Psalms is filled with nourishment for the soul of the believer. His comments on Psalm 31:19 are a case in point. David writes, “How great is Your goodness, which You have stored up for those who fear You…” Plumer remarks:

The goodness here referred to seems to be God’s providential goodness in this life - a sure token indeed of greater goodness yet to come; but yet a great thing in itself. Several things commonly heighten the displays of God’s providential goodness to his saints:

1. Its principal acts are usually very unexpected. At such a time as men look not for him Jehovah appears.

2. It is very seasonable. A day or an hour sooner or later would have quite changed the aspect of the whole event.

3. God’s operations are commonly noiseless. He comes not with observation. God made a world with less noise than man makes a coffin.

4. When God manifests his providential goodness he does it effectually. The enemies are all gone; the victory is complete. Not an Egyptian was left alive at the Red Sea.

5. If means and instruments are used they are so inadequate, so unexpected that our wonder is greatly increased. Ahithophel’s suicide breaks the neck of Absalom’s rebellion.

6. God’s providential goodness to the righteous is by covenant and according to a fixed plan. He always designed to lift up David’s head above all his enemies round about. His goodness is laid up, hidden, reserved, or treasured up for the saints. It is hidden in God’s purpose. It is hidden as treasure of great value. It is laid up as a portion, an inheritance that none but they shall have.

May the Lord grant us faith to commit our souls into the good hands of our sovereign God.

T.B. Balch on the Agency of Providence in Small Events

Have you heard it said — or perhaps said it yourself — “That was providential!"? We often apply this expression to cases where the extraordinary providence of God is evident. But are not the small things in life as well as the great all part of God’s providence?

Thomas Bloomer Balch explores this thought within The Ringwood Discourses under the title “The Agency of Providence in Small Events” using Matt. 10:29 as his text: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one shall not fall to the ground without your Father.”

As Balch notes, the glory of God was promoted by Galileo looked upward to the heavens to take of celestial bodies with his telescope; but God would be equally glorified had he instead looked downward through a microscope at the small, invisible things all around us. Each has its meaningful place within God’s creation and providential plan.

In the providence of God, as Balch shows, “from diminutive incidents, great results have arisen.” Thus, our view of providence ought not to be restricted to those great results, but should encompass the little things as a marvelously-fashioned chain that connects all.

In this way, God is most glorified, when we see His hand in the mundane, the accidental, the seemingly inconsequential, as well as the earth-shaking and life-changing events that mark our lives and mark history.

Peruse this discourse by Balch and follow along as he helps us to trace God’s providence from the small to the great. His insights are worthy of consideration. May God be glorified as we better understand what His providence means for us all, even in every-day things.

The Providence of God is Our Consolation

Some words of wisdom from two Princeton men on how a right understanding of and faith in the Providence of God is a great comfort to us amidst the troubles and trials of our daily pilgrimage in this earth.

“A firm faith in the universal providence of God is the solution of all earthy troubles. It is almost equally true that a clear and full apprehension of the universal providence of God is the solution of most theological problems.” — B.B. Warfield, “God’s Providence Over All” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 1, p. 111

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”Men are prone to think of God, says the excellent Melancthon, as of a shipbuilder, who, when he has completed his vessel, launches and leaves it. In opposition to this error of the Epicureans and Stoics, we are to be reminded that God never abandons his work, but is as much with it the last day as the first. This governing presence of God with all his creatures and all their actions, is called Providence, from a Latin word which means to see beforehand….

The view which we here take of Providence, regards the universe of mind and matter, not as a machine, wound up and left to run its career of centuries, without the Maker’s care, but as requiring and receiving at every moment his mighty influence, a stream of power perpetually proceeding from the Godhead. The very essence of God is, therefore, everlastingly present with every atom and every spirit. This is exactly accordant to those places in Scripture where God is spoken of as the universal cause, and is said to do those things which are done, secondarily, by creatures. Ps. 104:8, 30. And to this is referred the supporting of life in the most insignificant birds. Matt. 10:29. Enough has been said in regard to this primary acting of divine Providence, in preserving all things. How God does this it would be madness for us to inquire. The simplicity of the divine acts causes them to elude our faculties. He wills it, and that is enough; just as at the beginning he willed creation. What we chiefly need is to bear this in mind, with daily faith, awe, and thankfulness. Such is God’s preserving of the creature, as a part of Providence….

It is our privilege, not only to hope in Providence, with regard to the lesser affairs of life, but to recognize it — to see God’s hand in our daily walk, with wonder and love. ‘They that observe providences, shall have providences to observe.’ The simple faith of the patriarchs saw God’s hand in every thing that befell them; and so might we. I appeal to aged and observant Christians, whether the happiest persons they ever knew, have not been those who were most ready to eye God in all the events of life: in health and sickness, in business, and in family occurrences. Let us hope in Providence. Let us hope mightily. ‘But I will hope continually, and will yet praise thee more and more.’ Do days look dark? O remember, every cloud is governed by the God of truth and the God of power. The house in which you dwell is not without a master.” — James Waddel Alexander, “The Providence of God a Ground of Consolation” in Consolation, pp. 37, 40-41, 54-55

Lessons from Job by William S. Plumer

The person of Job is referenced in many ways throughout William Swan Plumer's classic volume Jehovah-Jireh: A Treatise on Providence (1867), but there is one chapter where lessons are gleaned in particular from his remarkable experience that we can greatly benefit from today.

 In chapter 15, titled "Alternate light and darkness in providence, illustrated in the case of THE GREAT MAN OF UZ," Plumer examines the doctrine of providence as reflected in the life and trials of the patriarch. The chapter is brief but golden; it is a short but profitable read. The concluding observations are very valuable and practical lessons from which we can all benefit. 

1. How vain are all merely earthly possessions! How unstable is popular favor! How uncertain are riches! How soon our pleasures may be followed by pains! When parents rejoice at the birth of a child, they know not how soon they may weep over his dead body without an assurance that his soul is saved. Solomon thoroughly tried the world. His sober inspired judgment was that all was vanity. The sooner we reach that conclusion ourselves, the wiser shall we be.

2. Let us always be more afraid of sinning against God than of offending our nearest earthly friends. Job instantly repulsed the wicked assaults of his wife, saying, "Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh." Job ii. 10. To his own disciple, Peter, Jesus was compelled to say: "Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savorest not the things that be of God but those that be of men." Matt. xvi. 23. No human friendship may for a moment interfere with our fidelity to God.

3. Although God generally chooses the poor as his children, yet he offers mercy to the rich, and receives all such as humbly seek his grace. Job's riches did not debar him from the kingdom of heaven. By reason of depravity riches tend to alienate the heart from God; yet sovereign grace can remedy that evil. He, who is rich in this world's goods, and also rich in faith and good works, is loudly called to sing the praises of Jehovah. Nothing but almighty power could thus make the camel go through the eye of the needle, or preserve the soul from the burning flames of insatiable covetousness.

4. Weight of character and a high order of talents are by no means confined to the enemies of God. "Why should they be? Piety is wisdom. Who ever stood higher for wisdom in council, for soundness of judgment and for prowess in war than did the man of Uz? In proportion to the number of consistent professors of religion, there cannot be found any number of men who surpass God's people for calmness of inquiry, soberness of mind and practical wisdom. True religion is worthy of the most earnest and solemn attention.

5. Good men are not always good in proportion to the degree of light which they enjoy. Job is supposed to have lived before the time of Moses, under the obscurity of the patriarchal dispensation; yet he was a burning and a shining light. He neither saw nor heard many wondrous things well known to us. Yet how far did he and Abraham and Enoch and other ancient worthies excel the great mass of even good men of these latter days. Truly we ought to blush for our short-comings. Guilt is in proportion to light. Surely then we must be very guilty for our sad deficiencies.

6. When malice, or envy, or suspicion, or evil sur- mising exists, no established reputation, no want of evidence of guilt can "tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue." By a long and holy life Job had given incontestible evidence of the purity of his character. His friends could bring no proof of his criminality in anything. Yet they charged him with cruelty, rapacity and hypocrisy. Such wickedness has not yet left the earth. It is no new or rare thing for the best men to be charged with the basest plans, principles or practices. It will be so until grace shall reign through Jesus Christ over all hearts. A propensity to evil thoughts and evil speeches is among the last faults of character from which even good men are delivered.

7. If friends accuse us falsely and act as enemies, let us not forget to pray for them. Job set us the example: Job xlii. 8. Enmities arising between old friends are generally more violent than others. "A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle." Prov. xviii. 19. But we must not yield to passion. We must forgive and seek blessings on those who falsely accuse us and cruelly entreat us. It was not till Job prayed for his accusers that God turned his captivity. Let us never carry a load of malice in our hearts. It is worse than any evil we can suffer at the hand of man.

8. When our characters are assailed, we are at liberty to use Christian measures to remove an evil report. It is then best to leave the whole matter in the hands of God. Lawsuits for character may be lawful and sometimes expedient. But when bad passions are excited no character is so unspotted that malice will not spew out its venom against it. We may deny our guilt; we may call for evidence against us; we may bring evidence of innocence; but with men of heated imaginations and strong prejudices, evidence never has its just weight.

9. It is very dangerous to become involved in a labyrinth of reasoning concerning God, his character and providence. Things which are revealed belong to us and our children. We may safely follow where-ever revelation leads; but we are no judges of what is proper to be done under the government of God. The attempt to criticise the divine proceedings is always a failure and iniquity.

10. It is important to study the Scriptures and learn all we can concerning the plans and providence of God. Had Job clearly known what we by patient study may learn, it would have removed much of the pungency of his grief. God's word is a light and a lamp. Let us walk by it.

11. What is the grief of each one? Is it poverty, poor health, want of reputation, loss of religious comfort? Whatever it be, take for an example of suffering affliction Job, the narrative of whose trials was written for our comfort. Like him, let each one say of the Almighty, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him." Job xiii. 15. Never was pious confidence in the Lord misplaced. Never did any trust in him and was confounded.

12. The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him. The greatest secret God ever reveals to his people is the mystery of redemption. Of this Job was not ignorant. By this he triumphed. His own language is explicit: "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold and not another." Job xix. 25-27.