The Characteristics of Providence According to
the Old Testament

many passages of the Old Testament (e. g., Wis. 6:8; 8:1; 11:21; 12:13; 17:2), the doctrine about providence is expressed in terms that are formal and explicit, and implicitly it is indicated in a multitude of other texts. Indeed the Book of Job is devoted entirely to the consideration of providence in relation to the trials the just endure; and wherever we find mention of prayer, we have an equivalent affirmation of providence, for prayer presupposes it.

The Old Testament teaching on this subject may be summed up in these two fundamental points:

1) A universal and infallible providence directs all things to a good purpose.
2) For us providence is an evident fact, sometimes even a startling fact, though in certain of its ways it remains absolutely unfathomable.

We have chosen an abundant array of Scriptural texts, and grouped them in such a way that they explain one another. The words of the texts are more beautiful than any commentary can make them.
A universal and infallible providence directs all things
to a good purpose

1) The universality of providence, reaching down to the minutest things, is clearly taught in the Old Testament. The Book of Wisdom declares it repeatedly: "God made the little and the great, and He hath equally care of all" (6:8); "Wisdom reacheth from end to end mightily and ordereth all things sweetly" (8:1); "Thou hast ordered all things in number, measure, and weight" (11:21); "There is no other God but Thou, Who hast care of all, that Thou shouldst show that Thou dost not give judgment unjustly" (12:13). The author then gives this striking example:

Again, another, designing to sail, and beginning to make his voyage through the raging waves. ... The wood that carrieth him the desire of gain devised, and the workman built it by his skill. But Thy providence, O Father, governeth it: for Thou hast made a way even in the sea, and a most sure path even among the waves, showing that Thou art able to save out of all things. ... Therefore men also trust their lives even to a little wood, and passing over the sea by ship are saved (14:1-5).
This simple description of the confidence shown by those who sail the seas on a "little wood" proclaims more clearly than all the writings of Plato and Aristotle the existence of a providence extending to the minutest things. We find the same explicit declarations in certain beautiful prayers of the Old Testament: for instance, in Judith's prayer before she set out for the camp of Holofernes:

Assist, I beseech Thee, O Lord God, me a widow. For Thou hast done the things of old, and hast devised one thing after another: and what Thou hast designed hath been done. For all Thy ways are prepared, and in Thy providence Thou hast placed Thy judgments. Look upon the camp of the Assyrians now, as Thou wast pleased to look upon the camp of the Egyptians ... and the waters overwhelmed them. So may it be with these also, O Lord, who trust in their multitude, and in their chariots, and in their pikes, and in their shields, and in their arrows, and glory in their spears: and know not that Thou art our God, Who destroyest wars from the beginning. And the Lord is Thy name. ... The prayer of the humble and the meek have always pleased Thee. O God of the heavens, Creator of the waters, and Lord of the whole creation, hear me a poor wretch, making supplication to Thee, and presuming of Thy mercy (Judith 9: 3-17).

Here, besides the existence of an all-embracing providence and the rectitude of its ways, there is also brought out the freedom of the Divine election regarding the nation from which the Savior was to be born.

But what is the manner of this Divine ordinance?
2) The infallibility of providence touching everything that happens, including even our present and future free actions, is stressed in the Old Testament no less clearly than its universal extent. In this connection we must cite especially the prayer of Mardochai (Esther 13:9-17), in which he implores God's help against Aman and the enemies of the chosen people:
O Lord, Lord almighty King, for all things are in Thy power, and there is none that can resist Thy will, if Thou determine to save Israel. Thou hast made Heaven and earth, and all things that are under the cope of Heaven. Thou art the Lord of all, and there is none that can resist Thy majesty. Thou knowest all things, and Thou knowest that it was not out of pride and contempt or any desire of glory that I refused to worship the proud Aman. ... But I feared lest I should transfer the honor of my God to a man. ... And now, O Lord, O King, O God of Abraham, have mercy on Thy people, because our enemies resolve to destroy us. ... Hear my supplication. ... And turn our mourning into joy, that we may five and praise Thy name.

Not less touching is Queen Esther's prayer in those same circumstances (14:12-19), bringing out even more clearly the infallibility of providence regarding even the free acts of men; for she asks that the heart of King Assuerus be changed, and her prayer is answered: "Remember, O Lord, and show Thyself to us in the time of our tribulation, and give me boldness, O Lord, King of gods, and of all power. Give me a well ordered speech in my mouth in the presence of the lion: and turn his heart to the hatred of our enemy; that both he himself may perish, and the rest that consent to him. But deliver us by Thy hand: and help me who hath no helper, but Thee, O Lord, Who hast the knowledge of all things. And Thou knowest that I hate the glory of the wicked. ... Deliver us from the hand of the wicked. And deliver me from my fear." In fact, as we read a little later on (15:11), "God changed the king's spirit into mildness; and all in haste and in fear [seeing Esther faint before him], he leaped from his throne and held her in his arms till she came to herself." Thereupon, after speedily assuring himself of Aman's treachery, he sent him to his punishment, and lent all the weight of his power to the Jews in defending themselves against their enemies. [1]

From this it is plain that Divine providence extends infallibly not only to the least external happening but also to the most intimate secrets of the heart and every free action; for, in answer to the prayer of the just, it brings about a change in the interior dispositions of the will of kings. Socrates and Plato never rose to such lofty conceptions, to such firm convictions on this matter of the Divine governance.
Many other texts in the Bible to the same effect are repeatedly insisted upon by both St. Augustine and St. Thomas.

In Proverbs, for instance, we read (21:1): "As the division of the waters, so the heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord: whithersoever He will He shall turn it. Every way of man seemeth right to himself: but the Lord weigheth the hearts." Again, in Ecclesiasticus (33:13) we read: "As the potter's clay is in His hand, to fashion and order it: all His ways are according to His ordering. So man is in the hand of Him Who made him: and He will render to him according to His judgment." Again, Isaias in his prophecies against the heathen (14:24) says: "The Lord of hosts hath sworn, saving: Surely as I have thought, so shall it be. And as I have purposed, so shall it fallout: that I will destroy the Assyrian in My land ... and his yoke shall be taken away from them." "This is the hand," the prophet adds, "that is stretched out upon all nations. For the Lord of hosts hath decreed, and who can disannul it? And His hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it away?" Always there is the same insistence on the liberty of the Divine election, on a universal and infallible providence reaching down to the minutest detail and to the free actions of men.
3) For what end has this universal and infallible providence directed all things? Though the psalms do not bring that full light to bear which comes with the Gospel, they frequently answer this question when they declare that God directs all things to good, for the manifestation of His goodness, His mercy, and His justice, and that He is in no way the cause of sin, but permits it in view of a greater good. Providence is thus presented as a Divine virtue inseparably united with mercy and justice, just as true prudence in the man of virtue can never be at variance with the moral virtues of justice, fortitude, and moderation which are intimately connected with it. Only in God, however, can this connection of the virtues reach its supreme perfection.

Again and again we find in the psalms such expressions as these: "All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth" (24:10); "All His works are done with faithfulness. He loveth mercy and judgment [Heb., justice and right]; the earth is full of the mercy of the Lord" (32:4-5); "Show, O Lord, Thy ways to me, and teach me Thy paths. Direct me in Thy truth, and teach me; for Thou art God my Savior, and on Thee I have waited all the day long. Remember, O Lord, Thy bowels of compassion; and Thy mercies that are from the beginning of the world. The sins of my youth and my ignorances do not remember. According to Thy mercy remember me: for Thy goodness' sake, O Lord" (24:4-7). "The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing. He hath set me in a place of pasture. He hath brought me up on the water of refreshment: He hath converted my soul. He hath led me on the paths of justice, for His name's sake. For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff: they have comforted me" (22:1-5). "In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped, let me never be confounded. ... My lots are in Thy hands. Deliver me out of the hands of my enemies, and from them that persecute me. Make Thy face to shine on Thy servant: save me in Thy mercy. ... O how great is the multitude of Thy sweetness, O Lord, which Thou has hidden from them that fear Thee! Which Thou has wrought for them that hope in Thee, in the sight of the sons of men. Thou shalt hide them in the secret of Thy face from the disturbance of men. Thou shalt protect them in Thy tabernacle from the contradiction of tongues" (30:1, 16, 17, 20).

Here we have the twofold foundation of our hope and trust in God: His providence, with its individual care for each one of the just, and His omnipotence. All these passages in the psalms may be summed up in St. Teresa's words already quoted: "Lord, Thou knowest all things, canst do all things, and Thou lovest me."

Since providence is of such absolute universality, extending to the minutest details, and since at the same time it is infallible and directs all things to good, surely it ought to be quite evident to those who are willing to see it. How, then, in its ways is it so often impenetrable even to the just? The Old Testament more than once touches on this great problem.

Providence is for us an evident fact, yet in certain of its ways it remains absolutely unfathomable. According to the Bible, the evidence that providence in general exists, is obtained either from the order apparent in the world or from the history of the chosen people or again from the main features of the lives of the just and of the wicked.

The order apparent in the world, declare the Psalms, proclaims the existence of an intelligent designer:

"The heavens show forth the glory of God: and the firmament declareth the work of His hands" (18:2); "Sing ye to the Lord with praise: sing to our God upon the harp; Who covereth the heavens with clouds, and prepareth rain for the earth; Who maketh grass to grow on the mountains, and herbs for the service of men, Who giveth to beasts their food, and to the young ravens that call upon Him" (146:7; cf. Job 38:41); "All men are vain, in whom there is not the knowledge of God: and who by these good things that are seen could not understand Him that He is. Neither by attending to the works have acknowledged Who was the workman. ... They are not to be pardoned. For if they were able to know so much as to make a judgment of the world, how did not they more easily find out the Lord thereof?" (Wis. 13:1, 4, 8.)
Providence is no less clearly seen in the history of the chosen people, as the psalms again remind us, especially Ps. 113, In exitu Israel de Aegypto:

When Israel went out of Egypt... the sea saw and fled: Jordan was turned back. ... What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou didst flee? and thou, O Jordan, that thou wast turned back? Ye mountains that skipped like rams, and ye hills like lambs of the flock? At the presence of the God of Jacob: Who turned the rock into pools of water, and the stony hill into fountains of waters. Not to us, O Lord, not to us: but to Thy name give glory. For Thy mercy and for Thy truth's sake. ... The Lord hath been mindful of us and hath blessed us. He hath blessed the house of Israel. ... He hath blessed all that fear the Lord, both little and great. ... But we that live bless the Lord: from this time now and forever.

Lastly, providence is clearly shown in the general life of the just, in the often perceptible happiness with which it rewards them. As we read in psalm 111:

Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord: he shall delight exceedingly in His commandments. His seed shall be mighty on the earth: the generation of the righteous shall be blessed. Glory and wealth shall be in his house: and his justice remaineth forever and ever. To the righteous a light hath risen up in darkness: He is merciful, compassionate and just. ... His heart is ready to hope in the Lord, his heart is strengthened: he shall not be moved until he look over his enemies. He hath given to the poor: His justice remaineth forever and ever.

The providence of God is especially to be seen in the case of those in tribulation, "raising up the needy from the earth and lifting up the poor out of the dunghill. That He may place him with the princes of His people" (Ps. 112:7).

On the other hand, the malice of the wicked receives its chastisement even in this world, often in a most striking way, another sign of the Divine governance: "Be not delighted in the paths of the wicked. ... Flee from it, pass not by it. ... They eat the bread of wickedness. ... But the path of the just, as a shining light, goeth forward and increaseth even to a perfect day. The way of the wicked is darksome: they know not where they fall" (Prov., chap. 4). [2] God withdraws His blessing from the wicked and delivers them up to their own blindness; but to His servants He lends His aid, sometimes in marvelous ways, as when He said to Elias (3 Kings 17:3): "Get thee hence and go towards the east and hide thyself by the torrent Carith. ... I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there." In obedience to the word of the Lord he departed and took up his abode by the torrent of Carith; and the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and eventide, and he dranK water from the torrent.

Although providence is thus evident in the life of the just taken as a whole, nevertheless in some of its ways it remains inscrutable. Especially is this so in its more advanced stages, where the obscurity is due solely to an overpowering radiance dazzling our feeble sight. An outstanding example is that passage from Isaias which predicts the sufferings of the Servant of Yahweh, or the Savior.

Again in Psalm 33:20, we read: "Many are the tribulations of the just; but out of them all will the Lord deliver them." Judith says:

Our fathers were tempted that they might be proved, whether they worshiped their God truly. ... Abraham was tempted and, being proved by many tribulations, was made the friend of God. So Isaac, so Jacob, so Moses, and all that have pleased God, have passed through many tribulations, remaining faithful. ... Let us not revenge ourselves for these things which we suffer. But esteeming these very punishments to be less than our sins deserve, let us believe that these scourges of the Lord, with which like servants we are chastised, have happened for our amendment, and not for our destruction (Judith 8:21-27).

The prophets often spoke of the mysterious character of certain ways of providence, especially when, like Jeremias, they realized the comparative futility of their efforts. Isaias (55:6) writes:

Seek ye the Lord while He may be found: call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unjust man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord; and He will have mercy on him: and to our God; for He is bountiful to forgive. For My thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways My ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are My ways exalted above your ways, and My thoughts above your thoughts.

We find the same expressed in psalm 35:7: "Thy justice, O Lord, is as the mountains of God: Thy judgments are a great deep."

Nevertheless, in this higher darkness, so different from the lower darkness of sin and death, the just mart discovers which way his true path lies: he learns to distinguish more and more clearly these two kinds of darkness, which are at opposite extremes. [3] Let us say with the just Tobias (13:1) after the trials he had endured:

Thou art great, O Lord, forever, and Thy kingdom is unto all ages. For Thou scourgest and Thou savest: Thou leadest down to Hell, and bringest up again: and there is none that can escape Thy hand. Give glory to the Lord, ye children of Israel: and praise Him in the sight of the Gentiles. Because He has therefore scattered you among the Gentiles, who know not Him, that you may declare His wonderful works: and make them know that there is no other almighty God besides Him. He hath chastised us for our iniquities: and He will save us for His Own mercy. [4] Be converted, therefore, ye sinners: and do justice before God, believing that He will show His mercy to you.

These, then, are the principal statements in the Old Testament concerning providence. It is universal, extending to the minutest detail, to the secrets of the heart. It is infallible, regarding everything that happens, even our free actions. It directs all things to good, and at the prayer of the just will change the heart of the sinner. For those who will but see, it is an evident fact, yet in certain of its ways it remains inscrutable. This teaching shows us what confidence we should have in God and with what wholehearted abandonment we should surrender ourselves to Him in times of trial by perfect conformity to His Divine will; then will He direct all things to our sanctification and salvation. And so the Gospel proclaims: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice: and all these things shall be added unto you" (Luke 12:31).

1. Cf. also Daniel 13:42: The prayer of Susanna.
2. Ps. 36:10-15: "Yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: and thou shalt seek his place, and shalt not find it. But the meek shall inherit the land: and shall delight in abundance of peace. The sinner shall watch the just man: and shall gnash upon him his teeth. But the Lord shall laugh at him: for He foreseeth that His day shall come. The wicked have drawn out the sword: they have bent their bow. To cast down the poor and needy, to kill the upright of heart. Let their sword enter into their own hearts: and let their bow be broken." Ps. 33:22: "The death of the wicked is very evil: and they that hate the just shall be guilty."
3. In certain difficult problems presented by the spiritual life in a concrete case --- to decide, for example, whether one who at times is in close union with God but is gravely ill, is being inspired by God in certain courses --- the outcome of the inquiry will be obscure, but whether the obscurity is from above or from below will depend upon the method pursued.
4. One of the councils of the Church says the same with St. Prosper: "That some are saved is the gift of Him Who saves; that some perish is the fault of them that perish" (Council of Chiersy, Denzinger, n.318).