Divine Providence Book ReviewJanuary 7, 2023 Book Review
Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the good suffer? Godly men in the Bible asked these questions. The prophet Jeremiah cried, “Why do all who are treacherous thrive? You plant them, and they take root; they grow and produce fruit; you are near in their mouth and far from their heart” (Jer. 12:1–2).
In our fallen world, inequality and suffering are the painful by-products of original sin; yet, the God of the Bible demonstrates that he sovereignly governs injustice and accomplishes his holy purposes through dark providences. Puritan Stephen Charnock observed: “Providence is mysterious because God’s ways are above our human methods. Dark providences are often a smoldering groundwork laid for some excellent design that God is about to reveal.”[i]
Written over three hundred years ago, Divine Providence by Charnock explores how God exercises a providence that is holy, wise, and good. To study God’s mysterious ways, the author bases this work on 2 Chronicles 16:9: “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.” This verse, rendered in the King James Version, helps us to understand the purpose of God’s providence—“to show himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.”
Through good times and bad times, God shows himself strong for his people. His Word reveals that his providence works for the good of his church. Charnock’s treatment of this singular truth—God’s providence is designed for his children—is the chief strength of this book and what makes it a classic.
Puritan Stephen Charnock (1628–1680)
Born in 1628, Stephen Charnock lived in tumultuous political and religious times. As the son of an attorney, he received a privileged education, earning his BA from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and his MA from New College, Oxford. He accompanied Henry Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell’s son, to Ireland as a chaplain and pastored a church where he delivered sermons that nourished the head and heart. When Charles II issued the Act of Uniformity in 1662, requiring all worship to be conducted only by the dictates of the government as outlined in the Book of Common Prayer, Charnock refused to submit to the unbiblical order. With other pastors, he chose to be ejected from the pulpit, facing ridicule and persecution. In the furnace of these dark times, Charnock penned Divine Providence.
Created during intense suffering, Puritan literature stands the test of time because in these works, sound biblical doctrine unites with the writer’s poignant experience of knowing God as Redeemer and Lord. Like many of his Puritan counterparts, Charnock did not simply know biblical languages, he knew the God of the Bible and experienced what it is to draw near to the living God and take refuge in him. The pages of this classic overflow with reverential worship and doxology to God.
Although treasured works, the archaic English of the Puritans put off many readers. This is why editor Carolyn B. Whiting’s modern translation of Divine Providence issued by P&R Publishing is a gift to the church—an outstanding reproduction of a classic. Charnock’s original work has been thoughtfully organized into chapters and subheadings that guide the Christian reader through profound biblical truths. The analytical outline and the study questions that conclude each chapter make this an excellent resource for Sunday School and Bible Studies.
Providence Works for God’s Church
Structured in three parts, Charnock devotes two-thirds of this work to exploring how God designs and exercises his providence for the good of his people. He argues that God’s universal providence exists for God’s glory and the welfare of his church, asserting that “the world is ordained for the church.”[ii] Thus, God makes nations and the state of the world subservient to his gracious purposes for his children. How could Charnock pen these biblical ideas when from outward appearances, the enemies of the church held the reins of power in his time?
The careful reader will notice that Charnock, too, struggled to understand the bitter providences of his day. He shares: “God seems to manage the church today more by his wisdom than his power, and his wisdom is not as easily understood by us as the palpable effects of his strength.”[iii] It is easier to see God’s power manifested in miraculous works such as the parting of the Red Sea than it is to see his power demonstrated in our day-to-day ordinary lives.
Study Providence with Prayer
Because we are finite creatures who only know today, the author teaches that “we must study providence with much prayer, because we are not capable of knowing why things take place. We are shallow creatures and cannot discern the infinite, wise methods God employs in managing all things.”[iv]
The relationship between providence and prayer is a biblical subject that I desire to study. Chapter 23, “The Mighty Force of Prayer,” prods me to grow in my prayer life. Charnock presents Isaiah 45:11: “Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him: ‘Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?’ ” Pondering the biblical truth that the church is the body of Christ and God cares deeply for his own flesh, Charnock invites us to discover the powerful influence our prayers have on God’s governance.
When the prayers of God’s people align with his covenantal promises, Scripture explains these prayers are like incense before God; they are a pleasing aroma of worship to him (see Rev. 8:3–5). This is the antithesis of Job’s dismal outlook: “What profit do we get if we pray to him?” (Job 21:15).
Praying according to God’s Word requires daily practice. When we approach the Lord, opening the Bible and pondering how God relates to his people helps us to grow in prayer. Charnock highlights that God is a father who provides, mother who suckles, husband who loves, and brother who counsels (see Isa. 64:8; 49:15; Eph. 5:25–29; John 20:17). As a father is bound to his children, a mother to her infant, a husband to his wife, and a brother to his kindred, so God is bound to his people in these intimate ways. In prayer Charnock teaches us to reflect on these tender relationships so that we can perceive that God is profoundly moved by the cries of his people.
Living in Light of Providence
Charnock concludes Divine Providence by identifying ten duties from Scripture that providence requires. Since providence works for the good of the church, do not fear the enemies of the church. Rather, wait on God’s providence and trust his timing to show himself strong for his people. Then his mercy is no longer an abstract idea or remote theory, but like the psalmist, we taste and see that the Lord is good!
[i] Stephen Charnock, Divine Providence: A Classic Work for Modern Readers (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2022), 34.
[ii] Charnock, 139.
[iii] Charnock, 254.
[iv] Charnock, 129.