We approach another Thanksgiving Day, and I think few understand the point. It is not supposed to be about sales, nor eating, nor even thanking other people—it’s about acknowledging God and praising him for his steadfast love.
That’s what George Washington had in mind in 1789, when, in response to a request from Congress, he issued a proclamation calling for a day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, “to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
It’s what Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he issued a similar proclamation in 1863. Though the nation was in the midst of a bloody civil war, it still prospered.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
…. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
Notice, these presidents did not thank the American people for their patience and longsuffering. They did not thank the soldiers for fighting hard. They did not praise generals or politicians. They did not give credit to any humans for anything. Instead, they praised God. They saw him as being in charge. They saw him as holding our destiny, as individuals and as a nation, in his hand. They saw a Divine purpose being worked out, and were awed as they saw traces of that purpose revealed in the actions of history. We call this “Divine providence,” and their recognition of it led them not to boast, but to praise God, and to call all Americans to join them in thanksgiving.
We don’t find the word, “providence,” used in Scripture often. But we do see the ideas that the concept entails. The Bible tells us that God is in control. He is the ruler of creation. He not only sees what will happen, but he directs human history towards his own end, which he has foretold and which he will accomplish.
Our scripture reading, Psalm 104:24-34, is a good place to start. The sea was something feared by ancient men—they saw their helplessness on the face of the deep—but God controls it; he knows all the living things in it; the monsters that most terrify us, he made to play in it. God gives food to all creatures—“when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things; when you hide your face they are terrified.” He has life and death in his hands: “When you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” The Psalmist’s response is to praise God through it all.
Praise was Job’s response when disaster struck and robbed him of his children and his possessions: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
Jesus said all benefit from the Father’s care. Matthew 5:45, “he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” In the following chapter, Matthew 6, he taught not to worry; consider the lilies of the field—God clothes them in a beauty greater than that of Solomon. If he is concerned for something we casually toss in a fire, will he not care for your needs?
In Matthew 10 Jesus sends out the apostles, and tells them not to take extra clothes or provisions, or to worry about what might happen. “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.”
The Bible teaches that God not only provides generally for all, but is directly involved in the lives of individuals: 1 Samuel 2:7-8 “The LORD maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, and he hath set the world upon them.”
It was for this that Daniel praised God when he gave him the secret of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: Daniel 2:20ff “Daniel answered and said, Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding: He revealeth the deep and secret things: he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him.”
Nebuchadnezzar imagined he could change God’s decree. He thought he could make his golden kingdom last forever. He arrogantly praised his work—“Is this not great Babylon, that I have built?” But God struck him down, as we read in Daniel 4. And God gave the Babylonian kingdom to another. And it came to pass as God had decreed 150 years before Nebuchadnezzar was even born, when God said to Isaiah that a Persian king, Cyrus, would overcome Babylon, and would accomplish God’s will. As we read in Isaiah 45:
Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut; I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron: And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the LORD, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.
And God did just as he said he would.
Many stories in the Bible underscore the point that God’s will cannot be thwarted. He allowed Joseph to be thrown into captivity, and then used Joseph as a tool to provide for the hungry in a famine; he then used him as an instrument to bring the people of Israel into Egypt, where they would be slaves—but he determined to deliver them. And in that act of deliverance, God caused Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened so that his glory would be seen when he brought Israel forth. When Israel was in the wilderness, God caused Balaam to bless Israel, when Balaam intended to curse them. God called Jonah to preach a message to Nineveh, and brought him back from the ends of the earth in the belly of a fish when Jonah tried to avoid the call.
When Job gave long speeches justifying his own actions and trying to explain God, God roared from the whirlwind and shut him up. Job responded in humility, in Job 42,
“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
That’s why Lincoln was led to repentance, when he considered what God had done for the nation. To see God as providing all and directing all must lead us not only to thank him—but to see ourselves for what we are. Helpless.
That can be frustrating—even discouraging—to see yourself as held captive by a force you cannot fight. That was the experience of Jeremiah. God said to him, in Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” Jeremiah tried to resist, but God would not let him go. Jeremiah cried out in frustration, chapter 20:7—
O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me. For since I spake, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil; because the word of the LORD was made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily. Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.
Jeremiah’s frustration is understandable. What choice did he have? He was caught up in something he could not control. We speak of free will—but where was Jeremiah’s? Where was Jonah’s? Where was Balaam’s? Where was Pharaoh’s? In these stories their freedom took second place to God’s determination to use them for his purposes.
And I’m not bothered by that.
In fact, I am comforted by it.
Because what these stories tell me is that God will do what he has said. He will not be stopped. And thus, when he tells us he will do something, we can believe him. We can take him at his word. We can trust him to be true to his promise. Isaiah 55:8ff.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
So when God says he will care for us, we can know that he will. When he says he will forgive us, we can believe that we are forgiven. When he says that nothing will take us from his hand, we can rest in assurance. When he says he will come again, and establish his eternal kingdom, we can look forward in hope. Because nothing can keep God from doing what he has said he will do.
And God does tell us what he will do. He doesn’t keep us in the dark. When we do evangelistic series, we build our presentation upon the promise of Amos 3:7. “Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.”
These are the different facets of divine providence. God not only created us, but he sustains all that he created. He stays involved in his creation, caring for each living thing. He holds the powers of the earth in his hands. He pushes all creation towards the destiny he intends. He holds before us the promise of the return of Christ, and the end of sin, and a new creation—and he will accomplish that purpose.
Does this mean we have no freedom? No, because there are other verses in Scripture that tells us we do. God’s light enlightens every man, his grace is present to all, he wants all to be saved, he gave his Son for all—and he says to us, “Choose.” But that’s a sermon for another day.
Today’s sermon is that you are not alone. It doesn’t all rest on your choice. It doesn’t depend upon your power, and your strength, and your knowledge, or even on the quality of your faith. God has given us promises of what he will do—and he can be trusted. “What if some did not believe?” Paul asks in Romans 3. “Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar.”
God will be true. We can believe it, because he has shown himself in the past to be true. We have seen the evidence in our own lives. We see it day by day.
Thus, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose.” Romans 8, verses 28 and following.
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.