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THE LEADINGS OF PROVIDENCE.
(Being the substance of an unpublished Sermon preached in Clapham Church,
December 11, 1803, by the late Rev. JOHN VENX, Rector.) “ Then they told David, saying, Behold, the Philistines fight against Keilah, and they rob the threshing-floors. Therefore David enquired of the Lord, saying, Shall I go and smite these Philistines ? And the Lord said unto David, Go, and smite the Philistines, and save Keilah. And David's men said unto him, Behold, we be afraid here in Judah : how much more then if we come to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines ? Then David enquired of the Lord yet again. And the Lord answered him and said, Arise, go down to Keilah; for I will deliver the Philistines into thine hand.” (I. SAM. xxii, 1–4.)
The only part of my text which I propose for our consideration is that which relates to David's enquiring of the Lord,-a subject which may be interesting to us, as it will occasion an examination whether we, at this day, may expect any direction from the Lord in affairs of importance; and, if at all, in what manner, to what extent, and in what cases, it may be expected.
David lived under the Mosaic dispensation. Now, that dispensation, as it was remarkable for many extraordinary circumstances, was so more especially for the particular revelation which God was pleased to make in it of Himself to mankind upon special occasions. God was Himself the Lawgiver and the Judge; He was also the immediate Sovereign of the Jews,—the Sovereign, not as He is of all creatures, but of the Jews in particular, in the place of any other sovereign; hence the sin of their asking for a king when the Lord Himself was their King. And He revealed His will to the people either by the inspiration of such men as Moses, Joshua, and the Judges, or by means of the priests, part of whose regular office it was to consult the Lord, and to declare His will to the people. The will of the Lord appears to have been made known in five several ways: (1) By voice, as when God conversed with Moses by an audible voice; and with Samuel, when he was yet a child. We read in I. Samuel, that in Eli's time the word of the Lord was precious, i. e., God did not often reveal Himself by voice; but He afterwards revealed Himself in this way more fully to Samuel, for it is said, and all Israel knew, that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord, for the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel by the word of the Lord. (2) By dreams. (3) By visions, in which a prophet in an ecstasy, without being asleep, saw some striking parabolic representation of what was about to take place. In the time of Eli we are told there was no open vision. (4) By special revelation, in which was communicated to a prophet, pro
bably by some remarkable impression on his mind, which clearly discovered its Divine origin, the will of God, or the notification of some future event. And (5) By Urim and Thummim. These two Hebrew words signify Light and Perfection; and they are used to denote the precious stones on the breastplate of the Priest when he put on his ephod, by means of which an answer was given to the enquirer, but in what manner is not now known. This was the regular and standing way in which God communicated His direction in particular cases. The Priest put on his ephod, and after the question had been propounded, an answer was collected from inspecting the precious stones in the ephod.
During the Jewish theocracy, therefore, it was usual upon all great important occasions, as upon any military expedition, to consult the Lord, who, unless He was highly displeased with the Israelites or the enquirer, generally returned an answer in some way. There is a remarkable incident respecting Saul recorded in I. Samuel xxviii. 5, which throws light upon this subject: “And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled. And when Saul enquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.” And, again, we find it was the frequent custom of David thus to enquire of the Lord, as is related in my text, and many other places. A priest with his ephod generally accompanied him, even in his wanderings in the wilderness, on this account.
We may remark, then, upon the whole of this account, that the enquiry made by David of the Lord was one of those peculiar circumstances which belonged in an exclusive manner to the Jewish dispensation ; and that God did not even then always answer the enquirer, and when He did, only in what way and manner seemed good to Him. We may observe also, that, after the Babylonish captivity, the standing revelation of God by the ephod entirely ceased, and the occasional manifestation of His will by prophets grew less and less frequent, till that mode of communication also entirely ended with Malachi, who lived about 420 years before our Lord.
When our blessed Saviour's Gospel was first promulgated upon earth, the Spirit was poured out from on high in various gifts to believers in His name. To many the gift of prophecy was communicated ; but it does not clearly appear what was the express nature of this gift, or how far it might be made useful in directing persons in the important affairs of life. There certainly do not appear any traces of its being so applied; and it rather seems that this, in common with the other gifts of the Holy Spirit, was confined to the interpre. tation of Scripture, to the foretelling future events which concerned the Church or the distinguished members of it, or to the performance of social worship in a more edifying manner, and with more of the apparent power of God. It does not seem that there was any gift resembling the ancient mode of determining the Divine will regarding enquiries made of God on common occasions. Even the Apostles seem to have been at a loss, and to have entertained different opinions respecting their conduct in particular instances.
When the primitive Church had been some time established in the world, a practice prevailed amongst some of its members of consulting the Scriptures as a directory of conduct—the Bible was opened at random, and the passage which first presented itself was considered as indicating the Divine will. An ingenious fancy would readily construe any passage so as to bear in some way or other on the point in hand; but it was soon found that the interpretations must often be extremely strained and forced to bear any allusion whatever to the subject; and the event frequently contradicted the prophecy. It was considered also that there was no test by which to distinguish the suggestions of Satan from the will of God; moreover that it was recurring to a practice which had prevailed among the heathen, in which, though not the Scriptures, other writings were employed in the same design; and finally that it had no warrant from the Word of God.
By degrees, therefore, this practice came to be generally disused, and men were contented to remain in ignorance concerning events before them, trusting only in the general superintendence of Providence. They were satisfied still to walk by faith rather than by sight.
Another way by which many persons have in all ages endeavoured to discover the direction of God respecting their conduct, has been by observing what they have termed the leadings of Providence ; that is, by attentively considering those impressions on the mind, or those extraordinary circumstances, by which they suppose God may point out His will that they should act in this or that way.
In determining upon marriage, in changing the place of our abode, in making choice of a profession, in a word in every matter of importance, a natural anxiety is felt to obtain, if possible, some divine direction; and a religious mind is often extremely perplexed to know whether the step about to be taken is likely to be sanctioned by the Divine approbation. No wonder that the mind thus circumstanced turns on every side to obtain some ray of light to guide it through the surrounding darkness; and not finding any clear indications, is ready to lay hold on the most dubious symptoms, and to attribute to them a degree of information they were not intended to give. The mischief of such a mistaken rule of conduct is very great: just notions of duty are often sacrificed to it; the conscience is perplexed and bewildered; a false presumption is sometimes cherished, and at others an unwarranted depression of mind is experienced.
In elucidating this subject, I think it is of great consequence clearly to distinguish between the revealed and the secret will of God. The revealed will of God is contained in the holy Scriptures, and it relates solely to the duties of men,to the dispositions they ought to feel,—to the virtues they ought to practise. The secret will of God refers to the events which He intends, or will permit, to take place in the earth. This He keeps secret within His own breast;and well it is for us that He does so, for nothing perhaps would be a source of greater calamity to us than the knowledge of the events God intended should take place. Now it is the revealed will of God alone in which we are interested. That is given for our instruction, and is "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” “Secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of His law.” With the secret will of God, therefore, we have nothing to do: we are not to make that either the rule or guide of our duty; we are not to perplex ourselves about it. If we even could probably foretell what He intended to do, that should not be made the rule of our conduct, but His written word only; and we may be guilty of tempting God by too scrupulously enquiring what He purposes to do, rather than by attentively marking the plain path of duty which in His holy word He has pointed out as our road.
The reasons for attending to this distinction are obviousthe secret will of God we can only guess at, and therefore it must ever be an uncertain rule; the motives of God we cannot comprehend, and are continually deceived in judging of them, besides that He has nowhere given us a warrant to make His secret intention the rule of our conduct; on the contrary, He has laid down a plain and determinate rule, which is neglected and slighted by us while we seek for any other. Prejudices also, and the various fancies of our imagination, are so apt to mislead us in judging of God's intention, that it is more than probable we may delude ourselves by mistaking them for the Divine will. Add to this, that events are of far less importance than the exercise of just principles and right dispositions; these are the points to which God is continually directing our attention, and yet it is from these that we are apt to be diverted by the substitution of another rule of conduct.
But it will be asked, Are not promises of direction and guidVol. 68.- No. 376.
ance given to us in Scripture? Are we do 1. tibi de ses of a poi han are ordered ly the Lord, ad ane TED Cinto acknowledge God in all cur wars, abi assume 14 will then dirut our patiens. Des pot ide Psa 351 C Limbcil in the persuasion that God woud garde I LES Cuml, and woud be bis guide eren osto deait ; ai are me Dot continua ly told that they that seek the Lord . " I 20 Dianber of thing that is good, and that a graciles pr ove will ever watch over them and bless tben?
In answer to this, I beg that you would care as obserte that the question now before us is entirely a distint Cle na that of a superintending Providence. That God does waict over His faithful servants and bless them,that He is costar doing them good,--that He preserves them remarkab.s frus many dangers, delivers them from numberless erils,-itat in a thousand instances He so orders the course of events, that His good hand may be plainly seen protecting and enriching them with various blessings,-can be no question with any serious mind, and the belief of it forms the strongest source of consolation to every Christian while he is passing through this stormy and troublesome world; but that God may deliver us, and that we shall beforehand see how He will deliver us; that God will direct our path, and that we shall know beforehand how He will direct it,--are two questions entirely distinct from each other, and to confound them is a source of great error and confusion.
The promises of divine guidance and superintendence relate either to our spiritual or to our temporal state. Those which relate to our spiritual state assure us that the Holy Spirit will bless us, but in the use of the appointed means of grace; if we pray constantly, if we read the word of God carefully, if we strive steadfastly against sin, if we do the will of God, our feet will be kept in the way of truth, the Spirit will impress upon our minds the doctrines revealed in the written Word, and make the Scriptures profitable for our reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, that we may be perfect, throughly furnished unto every good work. Now precisely in the same way as the Holy Spirit guides us in spiritual things, through the uso of the means of grace; so in temporal, God will direct our path in the use of all the proper means of instruction which He has provided for that purpose. For our guide in temporal things, God has given us our understanding. By this we are to weigh and compare the probable consequences of our actions; we are to listen to the opinions and advice of friends; we are to consult the histories of persons in similar cases; we are to divest our minds of prejudico; and, in a word, to direct ourselves by the best rules of prudence which we can devise; but above all