God’s Providence is a wonderful thing. The Westminster divines spoke of it in these terms: ‘God's works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions’ (WSC 11). The Heidelberg Catechism captures in warmer tones like this: ‘God's providence is
his almighty and ever present power whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds
heaven and earth and all creature and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand’ (HC 27).
Both statements are true, but the Heidelberg definition resonates in a way that perhaps is not true of its Westminster equivalent. This is not because it is any less true; but, rather, it reflects the way we are wired to most fully receive God’s truth.
It shows how God has chosen to make his truth known in Holy Scripture: not just by reasoned proposition, as is typical of Pauline revelation; but also by poetry, prophecy and history – history in which the truth of who God is and how he works is ‘fleshed out’ in real stories.
The Heidelberg formulation deftly picks up on this in its reference to God’s ‘hand’ by which he upholds and governs all things. This is an anthropomorphism – a form of words by which God accommodates himself to our finite, fallen understanding. God does not have hands; but in his word he speaks of ‘his hand’ being upon all kinds of people, things and events as he steers the course of history.
We see this beautifully in the Genesis account of Joseph. For those who know the story (it is arguably the best loved of all the accounts of the Patriarchs), its punch line comes at the very end in Joseph’s words, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…’ (50.19). In the midst of the murk and confusion of human intent and action, God was quietly, but purposefully steering all things towards the goals he had planned from eternity. That is, the intermediate goal of ‘…the saving of many lives’ [from famine] through Joseph; but also his ultimate goal of ‘…the saving of many lives’ [from hell] through Jesus.
God’s ‘hand’ in this unfolding story can be seen in many ways; but it is portrayed for us quite starkly in one particular episode: the ugly moment when Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt (Ge 37.12-36). At one point in the narrative, there is a surprising cluster of ‘hand’ references in relation to Joseph’s brothers intent to do him harm (37.21-22, 27). In that sense the author is signalling that, from a human perspective, the handprints of the brothers were all over this sordid incident. Their hatred for ‘the dreamer’ spawned a plan for fratricide.
But, against this backdrop we see another set of curious details. The brothers may have been trying to orchestrate one plan; but clearly there was another ‘hand’ at work steering the outcome in a different direction.
We see it in the irony of the ‘chance happenings’ that actually bring Joseph to his brothers in the first place and subsequently seem to seal his fate. Jacob had sent his son to find his brothers (37.12-14); but Joseph can’t find them. Instead a stranger ‘finds’ him wandering around in the fields and he tells them where they are likely to be (37.14-17). Then later, after Reuben has devised what he hopes will be a reprieve for his younger brother, a caravan of Ishmaelites comes over the horizon and the brothers’ plan to kill Joseph is changed as they saw an opportunity to make some money out of his disappearance (37.21-22, 25-27).
It’s only when we stop and ponder the interconnection of these events and the timings bound up with them that we realise there is more going on than meets the eye. The chance encounter with the stranger near Shechem combined with the moment the slave-traders appeared out of nowhere (this was not some busy Interstate highway) all flag up a different signal: there is another hand controlling these events. But the full disclosure of whose hand it is and what lies behind its operations will not become clear for many decades to come – and even with that, full disclosure would only become clear with the coming of Christ.
The significance of the link between God’s providence and his ‘hand’ becomes clearer as the history of redemption unfolds. Classically, reflecting on the twists and turns of his own life in light of his faith in God, David declares, ‘My times are in your hands’ (Pr 31.14-15). This elaborates on David’s cry made earlier in the psalm, ‘Into your hands I commit my spirit’ (31.5). He was acknowledging that from beginning to end his life was in God’s wise and loving hands.
It is, however, the denouement of David’s words that are so striking. It comes on the cross when Jesus takes them on his own lips, quoting them verbatim in his dying breath. But think for a moment about what was bound up with this calm committal. The hands into which he was entrusting his spirit were the hands that had knit his unformed body together in Mary’s womb, had led him into exile in Egypt in his infancy, had kept him in obscurity in Nazareth for almost 30 years, had taken him into the desert to be tempted by the devil. They had not only led him through the joys of public ministry; but its sorrows as well – culminating in his being despised, rejected, acquainted with grief and now immolated. As Peter would tell his audience on the Day of Pentecost, the human hands that crucified our Lord were directed by the hand of God himself (Ac 2.23).
So as Jesus uttered those words, ‘Father, into your hands…’, he knew they were ‘safe hands’ – not because they had made his earthly life run smoothly; but because he knew it had run according to plan, even through the darkness and pain, and would culminate in the joy set before him in heaven.
It is the deepest longing of the human soul to know that our lives are in ‘safe hands’ and none are safer than the hands of the God whose providence works in concert with his promise of eternal salvation.