IV. HOW IS GOD INVOLVED IN THE PLACING OF THE CROOK IN THE LOT?
Boston provides the following outline for the next section of his work:
Having seen the crook itself, we are, in the next place, to consider of God’s making it. And here is to be shown, (1.) That it is of God’s making. (2.) How it is of his making. (3.) Why he makes it.
A. God lays the crook in the lot
First, That the crook in the lot, whatever it is, is of God’s making, appears from these three considerations
1. The crook follows as a “penal evil”
The crook, however it comes, is one sense always a “penal evil.” By this Boston means that it comes as a “punishment or affliction.” A crook is by definition something which hurts, it causes harm in terms of its experience (even if the eventual outcome results in something better).
First, It cannot be questioned, but the crook in the lot, considered as the crook, is a penal evil, whatever it is for the matter thereof: that is, whether the thing in itself, its immediate cause and occasion be sinful or not, it is certainly a punishment or affliction.
This does not mean there is a one-to-one correspondence between what we suffer and some particular conduct on our behalf. We cannot look at someone who suffers a lingering disease and saw: this person clearly committed a great sin. This is what Boston means by “whether the thing in itself, its immediate cause and occasion be sinful or not.”
Jesus specifically rejects such thinking:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Luke 13:1–5 (ESV)
What then could possibly be the connection between the falling tower and punishment, if those particular men were not uniquely deserving of death? All death comes as the result of sin’s presence in the world. All of us have been conceived under a sentence of death. To be born is to be brought into a world where the only exit will be death.
Death is the punishment which God has brought upon the world for the presence of sin. And in that sentence of death come all of the lesser trials and losses. God takes complete ownership of sentence. Thus, if God is the only ultimate author of the sentence (God being the only one capable of enforcing the judgment), and God takes credit for such being in the world, and if such is in the world, then God must be the ultimate responsible party:
Now, as it may be, as such holily and justly brought on us, by our sovereign Lord and judge, so he expressly claims the doing or making of it, Amos 3:6. “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” Wherefore, since there can be no penal evil, but of God’s making, and the crook in the lot is such an evil, it is necessarily concluded to be of God’s making.
At this point, someone will ask, yes but what of evil brought upon one in which the pain brought is the result of an actual sin? How is God responsible for a murder? That is an issue which Boston will address later in this work. But that is a real and significant question to be considered.
2. As a general matter, God is sovereign over all that takes place
The Scripture is plain that God is sovereign over all that takes place in human life:
It is evident from the scripture-doctrine of divine providence, that God brings about every man’s lot and all the parts thereof. He sits at the helm of human affairs, and turns them about whithersoever he listeth [he desires or he pleases]
“Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did he in heaven and in earth, in the seas and all deep places,” Psal. 135:6. There is not any thing whatsoever befals us without his over-ruling hand.
This must be grasped:
With reference to the government of Providence, it is said of God, that “he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth.” Even insensible matter is under his control. Fire and hail, snow and vapour, and stormy wind, fulfil his word: and with reference to intelligent agents, we are told that he maketh the most refractory, even the wrath of man, to praise him, and the remainder of wrath he restrains. The whole Bible exhibits Jehovah as so ordering the affairs of individuals, and of nations, as to secure the grand purpose he had in view in creating the world,—viz., the promotion of his own glory, in the salvation of a multitude which no man can number, of all nations, and kindreds, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues. One of the most prominent distinctions between divine revelation and ordinary history is, that when the same general events are narrated, the latter exhibits—(it is its province so to do—it is not able indeed to do more,) the agency of man, the former, the agency of God. Profane history exhibits the instruments by which Jehovah works; the finger of divine revelation points to the unseen but almighty hand which wields and guides the instrument, and causes even Herod and Pontius Pilate, together with the Jews and the people of Israel, to do what the hand and the counsel of God determined before to be done.—George Payne, in “Lectures on Christian Theology,” 1850.
C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Psalms 120-150, vol. 6 (London; Edinburgh; New York: Marshall Brothers, n.d.), 194.
Boston underscores this point with the observation that God’s providence is comprehensive when it comes to our life:
The same providence that brought us out of the womb, bringeth us to, and fixeth us in, the condition and place allotted for us, by him who hath determined the times and the bounds of our habitation, Acts 17:26. It over-rules the smallest and most casual things about us, such as hairs of our head falling on the ground, Matth. 10:29, 30. A lot cast into the lap, Prov. 16:33.
There is a profoundly difficult aspect of God’s sovereignty which concerns our decisions and our will. It is one thing for God be sovereign over the rainfall and the sunshine, but is God sovereign over our decisions:
Yea, the free acts of our will, whereby we choose for ourselves, for, even “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water,” Prov. 21:1. And the whole steps we make, and which others make in reference to us; for “the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps,” Jer. 10:23.
And this applies to all sorts of human actions:
And this, whether these steps causing the crook to be deliberate and sinful ones, such as Joseph’s brethren selling him into Egypt; or whether they be undesigned, such as manslaughter purely casual, as when one hewing wood kills his neighbour with the head of the axe slipping from the helve, Deut. 19:5.
Boston does not unwrap the quandary of God’s providence and human decision making not being the actions of a puppet. But he does begin to open the puzzle as to how God could be involved in sinful actions:
For there is a holy and wise providence that governs the sinful and the heedless actions of men, as a rider doth a lame horse, of whose halting, not he, but the horse’s own lameness, is the true and proper cause; wherefore, in the former of these cases, God is said to have sent Joseph into Egypt, Gen. 45:7. And, in the latter, to deliver one into his neighbour’s hand. Exod. 21:13.
This then raises the confusing question of how could God be sovereign over all, and God order that sin not be committed, and also be sovereign over sin (even if it is permitted and not mandated)? While Boston will spend more time on this question, below, the unwrapping of that riddle is not his aim here. A useful article to begin wrestling with that question can be found here: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god
3. God’s providence is sure
The decisions of God are not potential or suggestive. God’s will is certain and his decrees unchangeable:
Lastly, God hath, by an eternal decree, immoveable as mountains of brass, (Zech. 6:1.) appointed the whole of every one’s lot, the crooked parts thereof as well as the straight. By the same eternal decree, whereby the high and low parts of the earth, the mountains and the valleys, were appointed, are the heights and depths, the prosperity and adversity in the lot of the inhabitants thereof, determined; and they are brought about, in time, in a perfect agreeableness thereto.
If God’s will is set and established before I am even more, then this crook has been laid in my lot from prior to my existence. It was here before I came upon it as I moved through time. It is as if one were hiking through the mountains and came upon a ravine without a bridge. The ravine was there before I began my hike. It could never have not been there when I came to that place:
The mystery of providence, in the government of the world, is, in all the parts thereof, the building reared up of God, in exact conformity to the plan in his decree, “who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will,” Eph. 1:11. So that there is never a crook in one’s lot, but may be run up to this original. Hereof Job piously sets us an example, in his own case, Job 23:13, 14. “He is in one mind, and who can turn him? And what his soul desireth, even that he doth. For he performed the thing that is appointed for me: and many such things are with him.”
This is not an easy matter to assimilate into one’s thinking. The argument from harm, that a good God could not possibly permit harm (and thus either God cannot prevent it, or God is not good, or there is no God), seems to be a baseline assumption of human beings. When we pray that God remove a trouble, I know from experience (my own and others) and that we seem to believe that such trouble may have come as a surprise to God.
That it is God’s will that such trouble come upon us, is a difficult thing to understand. Especially when we also consider promises such as “all things work together for good.” What sort of good entails me watching my child die?
Perhaps our trouble is that we fundamentally misunderstand ourselves, our world, our place in the world, God, and how these things go together.
It is a trite analogy, but it may begin to open a door as to how to think about such things as our trials: A small child cannot understand that candy which tastes good is not good for you. That broccoli which does not taste good is good for you. That the pain of a vaccination is good because it prevents a disease. And so on. Children simply lack the experience and ability to comprehend the incomprehensible things we tell them, things which are true.
If such happens between us and our children, then how much more would there be limits on our understanding compared to an infinite, eternal, all wise God? Think of how little we actually know about what God is doing with creation. Yes, we are not completely ignorant. But think for a moment of how little you can really understand about hints such as:
9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
Ephesians 3:9–10 (ESV). The glib answer “the angels are watching” does not begin to plumb the mystery hinted at here.