In good times it is easy to speak of God as the one who provides and protects and preserves. But what does a preacher do regarding the doctrine of providence when God embarrasses Himself and us by not being present in the way we want Him to be with us? What do we have to say when He does not provide the health or security or other temporal blessings we have come to expect as demonstrations of His providing care? How can we make Him look acceptable and relevant when our people are being shaken, perhaps even battered, by events and circumstances that do not fit into the patterns and demands of our expectations of a good and benevolent God?
Martin Luther focused on the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation bestowed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in his early calls for the reform of public teaching. This emphasis remained in his preaching to the Wittenberg congregation. But he also frequently reminded them that God was taking care of them through all the blessings he mentioned in the Small Catechism when explaining the first article of the Creed and the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Floods, poor growing seasons, disease, and plague all haunted the lives of his hearers in Luther’s day, but he never ceased to remind them how God cares for godly and ungodly alike in prosperous times and times of want.
Neither he nor we are, quite obviously, the first to face this problem of wondering where God is and why He seems to not be acting to help us in our troubles. We may turn to guidance for how to proclaim the providence of our Lord precisely where Luther often found it, in the preaching and praying of the psalmists and the prophets. They cast their eyes not to the problems surrounding them but to the Lord, whom they knew was watching over both their problems and their selves. They give us examples of how the people of God have praised the Provider and given Him thanks even during trial and want.
We may turn to guidance for how to proclaim the providence of our Lord precisely where Luther often found it, in the preaching and praying of the psalmists and the prophets.
Trouble can come from weather and other forces of nature that undercut our safety and our ability to find provision for daily needs. Habakkuk concludes his three chapters of mournful soliloquy with the acknowledgment that, “The fig tree is not blossoming, and there is no fruit on the vine. Olive trees are not producing, and there is nothing to eat in the field. The flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls.” Nevertheless, he could exclaim, “I will rejoice in the Lord. I will have joy in the God of my Salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength, for He makes my feet like the feet of the swift deer and leads me over the heights” (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
The psalmist also did not reveal the cause of the distress out of which he called to the Lord in Psalm 118, but he recognized the Lord is listening and stands at our side to triumph over those who hate us. Better than placing confidence in human help and human solutions, he says, is taking refuge in the Lord (Psalm 118:5-14). At times, the Lord’s help comes indeed through human help and solutions, but even then, we acknowledge that these fellow creatures are but instruments in the hands of their Creator.
The author of Psalm 102 was overwhelmed by days passing away like smoke, bones burning like a furnace, a withered heart, and a stomach without the bread he had forgotten to eat. The derision of his enemies made him feel like a lonely bird on a housetop, and his tears diluted his drink. But he was able to say, “O Lord, you are enthroned forever, and your name endures to all generations.” He counted on the Lord to appear in His glory and set free all those doomed to die. He counted himself among the children of God who dwell securely with Him who never changes. The confession of such a faith can also echo into the lives of twenty-first-century North Americans. Even if we seem to have more trouble believing the Lord is present and is providing than our sisters and brothers in places like Asia and Africa, this message can pierce discouraged and disconsolate hearts among us as well.
In Psalm 107 we hear of those who have brought distress—darkness, gloom, imprisonment—upon themselves, of those whose labor bowed them down and left them isolated, and of those who did not want to eat because their sinfulness had brought on them illness and affliction. All cried to the Lord, “…and He delivered them from their distress, brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds apart.” God delivers us in different ways at various times. Occasionally, we think we see clearly what good He was working for us through our tribulation (Romans 8:28), and sometimes that never becomes clear. But like the psalmist, we can count on His presence.
God delivers us in different ways at various times
Finally, prophets and psalmists alike find shelter under or upon the wings of Him of whom Luther wrote in the explanation of the first article of the Creed in the Small Catechism, “He guards and protects me in the face of all evil.” The word we have often translated “from” all evil is not the German word for “from” (von) but the word for “in the face of” (vor). Luther reminds us God does not take us out of a world of evils of various kinds, but He does stand beside us and accompany us, as a shepherd accompanies his sheep, through valleys of shadows of all kinds. The metaphor of a protective mother hen or the shadow of eagle’s wings that lift us as well as protect us depicts a God whose parental tenderness fiercely shields and shelters His people. God had Moses tell Israel He had borne them during their escape from Egypt, “…on eagle’s wings” (Exodus 19:4). As his life ebbed, Moses reminded the Israelites that God had fluttered like an eagle flutters over its young in the nest. The Lord had spread out eagle’s wings to catch them and carry them (Deuteronomy 32:11). Jesus expressed His wish to gather His people under His wings as does a mother hen (Matthew 23:37).
Furthermore, precisely in times of oppression, national collapse from moral and religious revolt against God within Israel, and military threats from other powers, the prophets could break out into songs of adoration, magnifying the name of the Lord despite the appearance that He had abandoned His people. In Psalm 2, the psalmist takes comfort in the face of the nations conspiring and the peoples plotting in vain because, “He who sits in the heavens laughs,” and, “has them in derision.” In Psalm 3, with many foes rising against the psalmist and claiming there is no help for him in God, he responds, “You, O Lord, are a shield around me, my glory; you lift my head.” He is counting on God to smite his enemies and break the teeth of the wicked. While we may not dare to repeat the imprecatory prayer at the end of the lament over exile on the rivers of Babylon recorded in Psalm 137, we can express our faith in God’s providing by marshaling Him to turn those who oppose and tyrannize us to Him instead of having them posed against us. When we curse those who work oppression and injustice around us, we must do so in the spirit of Psalm 109, asking for God to let the enemies of His rule recognize Him. But in the end, we join the psalmist in saying, “With my mouth, I will give great thanks to the Lord… He stands at the right hand of the needy to have him from those who condemn him to death” (109:30-31).
In the face of calamity and the presence of catastrophe, there may be times when we can only turn to God with lament. In distress, suffering shame, David knew in Psalm 4, “The Lord has set apart the godly for Himself; the Lord hears when I call to Him.” Therefore, he could confidently, “…in peace lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” Jeremiah flung one lament after another at God as he sat desolate in the lonely, widowed city of Jerusalem, but at the end of his grieving and mourning over the fate of his land and his people, he could acknowledge, “You, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.” In confidence, he prayed, “Restore us to Yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored. Renew our days as of old,” even as he wondered if God had completely rejected His people. In that struggle, believers today also cling to God when His providing love and care seem dubious or fragile because we have confidence we are passing through these valleys in the company of the Shepherd who will never leave us.