The word "providence" comes from the Latin providentia (Gk. pronoia [provnoia]) and means essentially foresight or making provision beforehand. On the human plane it may be used positively, as when Tertullus praised Felix by saying, "Your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation" ( Acts 24:2 ), or negatively, as when Paul admonishes us to "make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" ( Rom 13:14, ; RSV ). When applied to God the idea takes on a vastly larger dimension because God not only looks ahead and attempts to make provision for his goals, but infallibly accomplishes what he sets out to do. And because it is God's governance that is in view, it encompasses everything in the universe, from the creation of the world to its consummation, inclusive of every aspect of human existence and destiny. Providence, then, is the sovereign, divine superintendence of all things, guiding them toward their divinely predetermined end in a way that is consistent with their created nature, all to the glory and praise of God. This divine, sovereign, and benevolent control of all things by God is the underlying premise of everything that is taught in the Scriptures.
A doctrine of providence appears in intertestamental Jewish and Greek thought, as well as in the Scriptures. Much of Jewish thought closely paralleled that of the Old Testament and emphasized the freedom of God to accomplish his purposes (1 Macc 3:60) and even used the term "providence." The Wisdom of Solomon identifies the providence of God with his will and wisdom, assuring us that one can embark on even the most perilous journey with assurance because God is in control ( 14:3-5 ). It also speaks of the inscrutability of God's providence and the vain attempts of the wicked to hide from the all-seeing control of God, calling them "exiles from eternal providence" ( 17:1-3 ). At the time of Jesus, one finds varying views on this subject. Josephus describes it this way: "The Pharisees say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our power, and that they are subject to fate, but not caused by it. The Essenes affirm that fate governs all things and that nothing befalls us but what is according to its determination. The Sadducees take away fate, denying there is such a thing, affirming that the events of human life are not subject to it. All our actions are in our own power, so that we are the cause of what is good and we receive what is evil from our own folly" (Antiq. 13.5.9; see also War 2.8.14).
In Greek thought the most highly developed form of the doctrine was found in stoicism, an essentially pantheistic system. God was understood to be the immanent principle of Reason (Logos) within the universe that is ordering all things according to rational principles. The stoic system was essentially a determinism, even if defined as basically benevolent and rational.
The fundamental difference between Jewish (and biblical) understanding of providence and the stoic view lies in the emphasis of Greek thought upon the impersonal, though rational, nature of the divine immanent principle that could be approached by human minds and the personalistic approach of Jewish thought that sees God as a Person calling us to faith, not speculation. Jesus' profound contribution to this is his revelation that God is our heavenly Father, who cares infinitely for his helpless creation. We are to love and trust God, not necessarily to understand all that he does.
Foundational Ideas. Providence is a pervasive idea in the Scriptures, which makes it difficult to summarize. However, there are some general statements that can be made, before a specific look is taken at the various aspects of providence. Underlying any discussion of providence are these fundamental principles. First, God is sovereign in this universe and in complete control of all things ( 1 Chron 29:11-12 ; Psalm 24:1 ; 115:3 ; 135:6 ). Nothing is able to stand up to him, defy him, or do that which will defeat him in the end. Not only is this true on earth; this is true among the so-called gods. In fact, there are no other gods, only idols; God alone is God in all the universe ( Deuteronomy 4:35 Deuteronomy 4:39 ; Isa 45:5-6 ; 1 Cor 8:4-6 ; 1 Tim 1:17 ) and nothing is impossible for him ( Jer 32:27 ; Luke 1:37 ). Second, the one and only God created the world; hence, it is his and subject to him ( Deut 10:14 ; Job 9:5-10 ; Psalm 89:11 ; 95:3-5 ; 1 Cor 10:26 ). It is impossible that anything or anyone, whether in heaven or on earth, whether supernatural being, king, or simple peasant, should imagine that they are self-sufficient or answerable only to themselves ( Isa 45:11-12 ; Jer 37:17-23 ; Dan 4:35 ; Rev 20:11-13 ). Third, the God who alone is God and who made and governs this world has an eternal plan for it. This plan is not just what he desires will be done but is in fact the very essence of this world's existence and the explanation of it ( Psalm 33:11 ; Prov 19:21 ; Eccl 3:14 ; Isa 14:24-27 ; 46:8-11 ). Fourth, God's will and purpose are realized in and through Jesus Christ ( Eph 1:9-10 ; 3:11 ). God's will is not the outworking of some impersonal abstract principle, as with Greek thought, but the personal, saving will of a heavenly Father. God is involved directly in our affairs and we have learned through revelation (reason alone could never have guessed this) that he became one with us through the incarnation of his Son for our redemption. This was part of an eternal purpose that existed before the world began and was effectuated in time at the moment of God's own choosing. He decided when the time had arrived and brought it all to pass. On the basis of this God has spread his beneficence throughout all the ages and will someday draw all things together in Christ, for "from him and through him and to him are all things" ( Rom 11:36 ). Finally, although the plan of God has been partially revealed to us, in its totality it remains an ultimate mystery. We are not capable of grasping what it ultimately means because God himself is ultimately beyond us ( Job 11:7-9 ; 26:14 ; 36:26 ; Eccl 3:11 ; Eccl 11:5 ; Isa 40:28 ; 55:8 ). This limitation on our part is not designed by God to humiliate us, but to humble us, to help us realize our creaturely status and find our appropriate place in his scheme of things. We are not God. We will never understand the depths of God. This should call us to faith and trust in him and teach us to obey him, whether we discern what God intends or not. Our deepest prayer should be, as Jesus taught us, "your will be done on earth" ( Matt 6:10 ).
In summing up the general points that form the groundwork for the scriptural doctrine of providence, we find that the eternal God, who made and governs this universe, has a personal investment in it in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. Through Christ he deals redemptively with the world through all its ages, from creation to consummation. In the depth of the mystery of God's being he has formulated a benevolent, all-encompassing plan that is being worked out. This should evoke from us, not curiosity and speculation, but faith, praise, and submission. We may someday understand some of these things; we may not. But whatever the case, "God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain, " as Cowper said.
The Extent of Providence. Simply put, providence encompasses every aspect of the created order. From beginning to end, from heaven to earth, from animate to inanimate, from individuals to nations, from hours to ages, from weeds to wheat, from birth to death, from catastrophe to calm everything is within the loving presence and involvement of the heavenly father. In his wisdom, power, righteousness, and love he is hastening slowly to work out his own eternal purposes for his own glory and for our eternal good. Because this is such an all-pervasive theme throughout the Scriptures it is possible only to give a selective, though representative account of what is taught there.
God's Involvement in the Natural World Order. It has already been pointed out that God is the originator of the entire created order. Nothing exists (other than himself) that he did not create. In the supernatural created order, often simply called "heaven, " it is taken for granted that God's will is done ( Matt 6:10 ). In John's breath-taking vision of God upon his throne (Rev. 4-5) the picture is of ceaseless adoration and service of God by all that inhabit heaven. Day and night, thunderously and unendingly, all the heavenly beings cry out "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty." God is also accomplishing his will in the material world order. Sun, moon and stars ( Psalms 104:2 Psalms 104:19 ; Isa 40:26 ; Jer 31:35 ; Matt 5:45 ), celestial activity ( Job 9:7 ; Ezek 32:7-8 ; Amos 8:9 ), clouds ( Job 37:15-16 ; Psalm 135:7 ), dew ( Gen 27:28 ), frost ( Psalm 147:16 ), hail ( Job 38:22 ; Psalm 147:17 ), lightning ( 2 Sam 22:13-15 ; Job 36:30 Job 36:32 ), rain ( Deut 28:12 ; 1 Kings 18:1 ; Job 5:10 ), snow ( Job 37:6 ), thunder ( Exod 9:23 ; Jer 10:13 ), and wind ( Psalm 147:18 ; Ezek 13:13 ) are all subject to God's command. They do his bidding under both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances, whether supporting earth functions for the sustenance of life or crashing down judgment upon evil. The earth itself is also included. God works his will through earthquakes ( Job 9:6 ; Isa 13:13 ), famine ( Lev 26:18-20 ; Amos 4:6 ), drought ( Psalm 107:33-34 ; Amos 4:7-8 ), fire ( Ezek 20:45-48 ; Amos 7:4 ), plagues and calamities ( Exod 9:1-4 ; Ezek 38:22 ), floods ( Gen 6:17 ), and normal supply of water ( Psalm 104:10-13 ; 107:35 ). All the forces of nature are subject to the sovereign word of God, who works his will through them.
God also has control over the plant and animal world. Plants, trees, grass, flowers, and crops are all under God's benevolent care ( Psalm 65:9-13 ; 104:14-16 ; Isa 41:19 ; Matt 6:28-30 ). Birds ( Matt 6:26 ; 10:29 ), fish ( Jonah 1:17 ; Matt 17:27 ), animals ( Psalm 147:9 ; Hosea 2:18 ; Joel 2:21-22 ), indeed, every living thing is God's ( Job 12:10 ; Psalm 145:13-16 ) and in their own way they are all praising God ( Psalms 148:3 Psalms 148:4 Psalms 148:7-10 ).
God's Involvement in Israel and the Nations. God rules the destiny of all the peoples of the earth and of his people Israel in particular. This is in accordance with his own benevolent purposes in order to bring them all to a saving knowledge of himself ( Acts 17:24-28 ). Israel, as the nation through which the redeemer would come, was guided by God in a specific way. It included the call of Abraham ( Gen 12:1-3 ), the lives of the patriarchs ( Gen 17:3-8 ; 28:20-21 ; 49:22-25 ), bondage in Egypt ( Gen 15:13 ), redemption from Egypt ( Deut 5:15 ), guidance and sustenance in the wilderness ( Exod 13:21-22 ; Neh 9:19 ; Psalm 105:39-41 ; 136:16 ), entrance into the land ( Exod 15:13-18 ; Deut 4:37-38 ; Amos 2:10 ), and the whole of their history ( 1 Chron 29:10-13 ; 2 Chron 32:22 ; Isaiah 43:1 Isaiah 43:15 ), including the judgments that fell upon them ( Deut 32:15-26 ; Jer 52:3 ; Mal 3:5 ). God also guides the destinies of all the nations of the earth. He is their king and ruler ( Job 12:23 ; Psalm 22:27-28 ; 47:7-9 ; Isa 14:24-26 ; Ezek 29:19-20 ). He has foreseen all that will take place in the course of time ( Isa 22:11 ; 44:7 ), guides the national destinies of the peoples of the earth ( Amos 9:7 ), uses them in his service ( Job 12:23 ; Isa 10:5-14 ; Jer 27:3-7 ), and makes the choice as to who will do what in the accomplishment of his purposes ( Isa 49:1-7 ; 54:16 ; Dan 2:21 ; 4:34-35 ).
God's Involvement in Human Life. Every aspect of human life is included in God's providential orderings. Just as with the formation, growth, existence, fortunes, and destiny of the world as a whole, the nations of the earth, and Israel in particular, so is it with the individual. God formed us in the womb ( Job 10:8-12 ; Psalm 139:13-14 ; Jer 1:5 ), ordained what all lives should be ( Psalm 139:15-16 ), guides us in our life's circumstances ( Job 5:18 ; Prov 3:5-6 ; Acts 18:21 ; James 4:13-15 ), meets our temporal needs ( Lev 26:4-5 ; Job 36:31 ; Matt 5:45 ; Acts 14:16-17 ), sends prosperity and adversity ( Job 36:11 ; Isa 45:7 ; Lamentations 4:5 Lamentations 4:11 ), and ultimately takes us off this earth in death at his own appointed time ( 1 Samuel 2:6 1 Samuel 2:25 ; Job 14:5 ; 2 Peter 1:13-14 ). None of this should cause anxiety. In fact, we are told all of this to encourage and strengthen us in the uncertainties of life. We must remember that it is God our heavenly Father who is ordering our lives. He knows and loves us infinitely; even the hairs of our head are numbered ( Matt 10:30 ). He who clothes the grass and flowers of the field in striking beauty will also take care of us ( Matt 6:25-32 ) and nothing is left to chance. A heavenly Father guides our lives.
Nor should any of this be looked at fatalistically or deterministically. God is not a blind, arbitrary force, crushing the human will into submission, but rather in some mysterious way is a caring, sovereign Father who works his will in and through our wills. This includes even the evil that people intend to do ( Gen 50:20 ); indeed, it includes everything ( Rom 8:28 ). In some instances, God works along with and through human intentions ( 1 Chron 5:26 ; 2 Chron 36:22-23 ; Php 2:13 ), sometimes he overrules them ( Gen 45:5-8 ; 2 Sam 17:14 ; Psalm 33:10 ; Isa 10:5-7 ), but in all cases the intention of God takes precedence and his purposes are ultimately accomplished ( 1 Sam 2:4-8 ; Proverbs 16:1 Proverbs 16:9 ; 19:21 ; Isa 14:26 ; Jer 10:23 ).
There is a special providence for those who put their entire trust in God. Our times are in his hands ( Psalm 31:15 ) and he is directing our steps ( Psalm 40:5 ; 73:23-24 ). Throughout all of our lives there is a special deliverance from evil and calamity ( Job 5:17 Job 5:19-21 ; Psalm 32:7 ; 33:18-19 ; 56:13 ; 91:9-10 ; 2 Tim 4:18 ), healing and help in time of need ( Psalm 30:2 ; 37:40 ; 54:4 ; 103:2-5 ; Heb 4:16 ), preservation and protection ( Psalm 37:28 ; 138:7 ; Prov 3:25 ; 14:26 ; 18:10 ; Isa 43:1-2 ), blessing and strength ( Psalm 65:4 ; 84:11 ; Rom 10:12 ; 2 Cor 4:7 ; 2 Tim 4:17 ).
The eternal destiny of all human beings is in the hands of God. The redeemed know that in some inexplicable way it is God who has planned and effectuated their salvation ( Ephesians 1:3-8 Ephesians 1:11-12 ). To God is due all the praise for the salvation of those who are redeemed. The status of the lost is more problematic, but no one, not even the unredeemed, are ultimately outside the will of God ( Prov 16:4 ; Rom 9:14-18 ; 1 Peter 2:7-8 ). They are not forced to be lost, but choosing to reject God's offer of mercy does not somehow free them from the control of God. Even their rejection has been included in the eternal plan of God. This is perhaps the worst part of it for them. In their attempt to be free from God by rejecting him, even if at the cost of their own souls, they find that there is no such thing. The net of God's providence includes even the vain attempt to be outside the net.
God's Intention in Evil and Suffering. Nowhere is it taught in the Scriptures that God causes people to sin or that evil can be somehow turned into good or dialectically merged with good in such a way that it is neutralized or made necessary. Evil is always evil and, as such, can never be traceable to God. However, God is able to take the evil that human beings do and incorporate that into his plan in such a way that at no compromise to himself he is able to use it for his own good ends. The supreme example of this is the death of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. He was the lamb slain from the creation of the world ( Rev 13:8 ) according to the set purpose and foreknowledge of God ( Acts 2:23 ), fulfilling the prophecies given by God of old ( Isa 53:4-10 ). Yet those who crucified Jesus were responsible for the evil that they had done, as indeed, is everyone who does evil ( James 1:13-17 ). The God who can take the worst that human beings can do and bring out of it the best that he can do is the God who works across the whole spectrum of human action, from good to neutral to unqualified evil, accomplishing his own good ends. God works his purposes sometimes by allowing evil to work itself out ( Hosea 4:17 ; Acts 14:16 ; Romans 1:24 Romans 1:26 Romans 1:28 ), sometimes by directing evil ( Gen 45:8 ; Isa 10:5 ; Acts 4:27-28 ), yet at other times by limiting ( Job 2:6 ; Psalm 124:1-3 ; 1 Cor 10:13 ) or preventing evil from coming to full fruition ( Gen 20:6 ; Hosea 2:6-7 ). There is unquestionably a great mystery here as to how a holy God who cannot even look upon evil ( Heb 1:13 ) can work his will through evil, but that he does it is the clear teaching of Scripture. If something could get outside the ultimate will of God, it would become a god unto itself and a rival to God. Such can never be the case. God alone is God; there is no other.
God also works his will through human suffering. Sometimes there is a correlation between sin and suffering ( Psalm 55:19 ; 119:75 ), sometimes not ( Luke 13:1-5 ; John 9:1-3 ), but in all cases God is able to use suffering to discipline ( Deut 8:5 ), correct ( Job 5:17 ), instruct ( Isa 26:8-9 ), teach ( Psalms 119:67 Psalms 119:71 ), draw us to himself ( Isa 26:16 ; Hosea 5:14-15 ), refine ( Isa 48:10 ), and encourage us ( Heb 12:4-11 ). In all of our afflictions God comforts and sustains us ( Isa 66:13 ; Lam 3:19-28 ; 2 Cor 1:3-7 ) so that we will not be crushed beyond measure. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord ( Rom 8:37-39 ).
Walter A. Elwell
Bibliography. G. C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God; A. B. Davidson, The Theology of the Old Testament; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2:167-85; W. Elwell, TAB, pp. 189-221; B. W. Farley, The Providence of God; P. Helm, The Providence of God.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Providence of God'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".