Teaching God's Providence in History
In a recent church service, my pastor referred to a quotation in which Abraham Lincoln was called "one of the greatest theologians of America." At first I was taken back by this statement. Over the decades, Lincoln's fame has won him many accolades, but "theologian" was not one I had heard before, not one I would have given to him.
My pastor continued, "Lincoln did not earn this title because he produced some system of doctrine or defended a particular denomination's teaching, but because he saw the hand of God immediately in the affairs of nations." Now this meaning of "theologian" made sense. From what I had studied about Lincoln (although I do not know if he was saved), he constantly referred to God's providential leading and control in history. This illustration prompted me to think about the teaching of history. Would that every teacher of history be such a "theologian," constantly settling before his students the great truth of God's providence in history.
"History, when rightly written, is but a record of providence; and he who would read history rightly, must read it with his eyes constantly fixed on the hand of God." This statement of a nineteenth-century historian sums up the responsibility of the Christian teacher of history, for "he who would teach history (or any subject matter) rightly, must teach it with his eyes constantly fixed on the hand of God."
Such a task must start from a Biblical viewpoint. The French Protestant preacher Massillion wrote, "God, who hides himself in other events reported in our own histories, appears as revealed in [the Bible]; and it is in this Book alone that we must learn to read the histories which men have left us." The Bible is the only reliable and trustworthy record for interpreting the events of history. It is God's record, revealing the purpose, character, and actions of God in history. Scripture is the touchstone by which we should analyze and interpret historical data and events. "Scripture never offers an interpretation of facts apart from faith."
From the Scriptures we find basic truths that may serve as the foundation of our teaching of history. The first basic truth is that God is in control of history. "Remember the former things of old," the book of Isaiah says, "for I am God, and there is none else; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure" (46:9-10).
God's control may take the form of caring, governing, protecting, sustaining, and preserving. He exercises His will through divine superintendence or by divine intervention; it may involve God's "general" care as evidenced through His creation or by His "special" care, as demonstrated by His supernatural power.
God's rule is over all--nature, animal life, people, and nations. We must be careful not to assign the providence of God solely to His dealings with the people of God. There is a danger in overemphasizing "sacred" history to the neglect of "secular" history. In doing so, we might give our students the wrong impression that God is only in control of those things related to the church. All history is under God's control, both secular and sacred.
Another foundational truth is that God has a plan for history. History is providential, not accidental. Etymologically, the word providence means "to foresee." This carries the connotation of forethought or foresight to attain a particular end or goal. What a beautiful picture this is of God's role in history. His omniscient foresight orders, sustains, and cares for His creation, accomplishing His divine purpose. "Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world" (Acts 15:18).
Many today, however, would have us believe that an indescribable fate determines the course of history. Man's destiny is left to mere chance. History is viewed as a series of unrelated circumstances. But to the one who seeks to discern the hand of God, history will have purpose, meaning, and direction.
An incident recorded in the book of Esther illustrated this truth. The very night the wicked Haman built gallows on which to hand Mordecai, the Persian king could not sleep. The king asked his servants to read to him out of the royal records, probably hoping that the boring documents would make him drowsy. The servants read about Mordecai who saved the king's life by exposing a plot against him. On further inquiry the king discovered that nothing had been done to reward Mordecai for this service he did for the king. So on the very night that Haman planned Mordecai's death, the king decided to honor Mordecai. Was it mere "coincidence" that the king couldn't sleep that night? Was it mere chance that the servants read the document extolling Mordecai's unrewarded service to the king? Such "coincidences" are but incidents in God's providence.
Another great truth is that Jesus Christ is at the center of God's plan for history. He is the focal point of history. "Providence is God's gracious outworking of His purpose in Christ which issues in His dealings with man." There is perhaps no greater example of God's providence in history than is evidenced in the divine preparation of the ancient world for the coming of His Son. Through natural and supernatural means, God directed the course of history over centuries to """make the world ready" for the Incarnation. God makes no vain preparations. When the time of preparation was completed, "the fulness of the time was come" (Gal. 4:4). It has been said that ancient history was but a preparation for the coming of Christ and that subsequent history is but an anticipation of the return of Christ.
Fourthly, history is part of the battle of the ages. Satan is opposed to God's purpose and plan of history; thus, history is the arena in which the conflict between righteousness and unrighteousness rages. These contrary courses have been called the way of Abel and the way of Cain. Augustine referred to them as the city of God and the city of man. To properly understand history, we must recognize that this battle is being waged in the lives of individuals and among the nations.
These basic truths ought to always be before us as we establish a framework for historical instruction. At the same time we ought to acquaint our students with some of the methods God employs as He accomplishes His purpose. Many of these methods God reveals to us through His Word. There we can receive understanding and find examples of the working of God in the affairs of men.
God uses supernatural means. From creation, to the parting of the Red Sea, to the turning of the water into wine at Cana, God used the miraculous to accomplish His purposes. More often than naught--but still just as miraculous--God uses natural means to accomplish His ends. The forces of nature, for example, are attentive to His bidding. His power over His created universe is evident in the plagues of Egypt, the storm involved in the sinking of the Spanish Armada, the cloud cover at Dunkirk, or the iceberg that struck the Titanic. "The Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet" (Nahum 1:3b).
God often will use the wrath of men for His design. "Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee" (Ps. 76:10). Joseph being sold into bondage by his brothers gives an example of God's providential working. Although Joseph's brothers sought to get rid of him, God used their wrath to bring Joseph to a place where he could save his family. As Joseph remarked to his brothers, "Ye thought evil against me: but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive" (Gen. 50:20). In the plotting of Haman or in the Roman persecution of the church, we find God turning the schemes of the wicked into triumphs of His glory.
Another instrument used by the hand of God is the heart of man. Proverbs 21:1 states, "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will." From Pharaoh to Hitler, in Congress or courts, God is able to channel the hearts and minds of men to do His bidding.
God not only works through individuals, but also through nations: "The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men" (Dan. 4:17). From the Old Testament, we find God used nations both as instruments of punishment and preservation. The Assyrians were among the most ruthless people of the ancient world. Yet God used them to punish the wickedness of the children of Israel. In Isaiah we find that God calls the Assyrians the "rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation" (10:5). The powerful Chaldean civilization lead by the proud king Nebuchadnezzar was called God's "servant" (Jer. 27:6) as God sent them against Jerusalem. God raised up the ancient Persians as instruments to return his people from captivity. Cyrus the Great, called by God his "anointed" (Is. 45:1), allowed God's people to return from their captivity. Under Xerxes, God delivered the Jews from the wicked plot of Haman and under Artaxerxes I, Nehemiah was allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its walls. The Persians, though a pagan people, nevertheless, were instruments in the hand of God.
These are but a few of the means we find in Scripture through which God accomplished His purpose. The more we know of God and His Word, the more we will understand His workings in history. God expects us to learn from the past. There we can find both instruction and warning. "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Rom. 15:4).
This becomes another avenue for communicating God's providence in history to our students--teaching the valuable lessons that history affords. The Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 10 recounts some of the historical events of the children of Israel's sojourn in the wilderness. He concludes his historical survey with the inspired remarks, "Now all these things happened into them for ensamples; and they are written for our admonition" (10:11).
Teaching "lessons" of divine providence derived from the study of the Word of God and of history provides a rewarding challenge for the Christian teacher. It opens a great door of opportunity to make a practical application of Biblical and historical truths to the lives of our students. It allows the students to see that the Lord of the Bible is the Lord of history and wants to be the Lord of their lives. The God who has a plan for history has a place in that divine plan for each of our students. Teachers can also remind their students that the same God who rewards obedience and punishes disobedience on the pages of history, will so likewise do to us today--"for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7).
Another lesson that such a study affords is that what God promises, He will do. This assurance, grounded in faith, is supported historically by a myriad of fulfilled prophetic utterances, bolstering our assurance that unfulfilled prophecy awaiting its consummation will come to pass--just as God said!
This then is the great challenge of the Christian teacher of history: (1) to lay a foundation of Biblical truth so that his students can view history from a Biblical perspective; (2) to instruct his students in the same ways of God as revealed in His Word so that they can see the hand of God readily at work in history; and (3) to make practical application of history--its lessons, its warnings--to the lives of the students. Thus, teaching the providence of God in history becomes a valuable vehicle to communicate to our students not only that God's providential hand is over history, but also that His concern and care is over their lives. May Joshua's words of instruction to the children of Israel ring loud and long in our classroom: "That all the people of the earth might know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty: that ye might fear the Lord your God for ever" (Josh. 4:24).
For more information on this topic, see The Providence of God in History, a booklet available from BJU Press.