Proverbs 16:33
Great Texts of the Bible
The Sovereignty of Providence

The lot is cast into the lap;

But the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.—Proverbs 16:33Sometimes lots are cast to refer the decision of a matter to what we call chance. When Jesus was crucified, the soldiers who were left on the ground to guard the cross divided His garments among themselves; and they seem actually to have gambled for His coat while He was hanging above them on the cross, dying for the sin of the world. They decided by a cast of the dice-box whose property it should become.

Devout men in ancient times also used the lot on occasions of special importance; but they did so in the fear of God, and as an act of worship. The practice was an appeal to the Divine judgment. The cast of the lot showed the Divine will. Thus on the great Day of Atonement in Israel the choice of the scapegoat was made by lot. The Twelve Tribes had their territories in the land of Canaan apportioned by lot. Saul was chosen by this method to be the first king of Israel. In this way Jonah was found out to be the cause of the storm upon the Great Sea. Matthias was selected by lot to fill the vacancy in the company of the Twelve Apostles. These are a few examples from the Bible of the solemn use of the lot on important occasions.

In casting lots the Jews probably used stones which differed from one another in shape or colour. These were thrown together into the “lap,” or loose fold, of a man’s garment; and then they were shaken about so that there should be a perfect mixing of them, to prevent all preference of one stone over another on the part of the person who was to draw the lot.1 [Note: C. Jerdan.]

There are two thoughts in this old Hebrew proverb:

I.   The Incalculableness of Life.

  II.   The Reliable Providence of God.


The Lot

“The lot is cast into the lap.”

1. The drawing or casting of lots looks like an appeal to chance, for the result of the operation seems to depend upon chance. And our life in the world, to the outward view, often appears as if it were a lottery. People speak of being fortunate or unfortunate, lucky or unlucky. One says, “I had the good fortune to find him at home.” Another says, “As ill luck would have it, he was not at home.” The Roman general called to the pilot in the storm, “Fear not, you carry Cæsar and his fortune.” Among the Romans, Fortuna was the goddess of luck, fate, or fortune. It used to be said of Oliver Cromwell that he had his lucky days. And how few are there who do not recognize chances in life, events of great moment which seem to come upon them quite fortuitously?

Have you ever, in a collected hour, and aided by a good memory, gone over the events of your own life—gone over them in some little detail? To many people there comes at some time either a period of enforced inactivity, or some critical juncture, which makes their thoughts range over the past, turning its yellowed leaves, stopping a little here and sighing a little there, with now a half-sad smile and now a sharp twinge of regret, and once or twice the recollection of a great joy which even yet sheds its radiance over the page. If you have ever indulged in such a survey, you must have been struck with one thing—the unexpectedness, the incalculableness of life, the utterly unforeseen and seemingly trifling circumstances that proved to be decisive, as a drop of water falling this side or that of the Great Divide will be carried to the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean.

Take, for instance, Luther and Loyola. What turned the former to a religious career—what caused him to enter the monastery from which he emerged to challenge the Pope—was a narrow escape from being struck by lightning; while what made Loyola from a soldier and courtier into the founder of the Jesuit order was the cannon ball which laid him low as he stood on the walls of Pampeluna. Men of iron will and mighty genius they both were, but the occasion, the impulse, which brought out their genius and gave direction to their will, they neither created, nor foresaw, nor resisted. Think as highly as we will of our own initiative, of our power to deal with the materials life supplies us withal, the extent to which unforeseen circumstances have shaped our course must touch the most confident at times with a strange humility, and make him echo the old words, “It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.”1 [Note: J. Warschauer, The Way of Understanding, 321.]

2. It cannot be denied that advantage or disadvantage often comes to a man, irrespective of his moral worth, of his native gifts, or of any equivalent he has rendered for it of industry and self-denial. Two youths, let us say, enter a business house about the same age, and at the same time. They are, as near as can be, equally matched in equipment to command success. In this respect there is little to choose between them. One begins entirely on his merits; he has no influence behind him to open doors before him as by some invisible hand. The other has influence; no matter what it is, or how it works, he has it, and it operates distinctly in his favour. A few years after, and the latter has far outdistanced the former in position, salary, and outlook. And the reason is not the capacity of either; it is the arbitrary advantage, the piece of luck, that one has had over the other from the start.

A cloth-worker in Yorkshire, by carelessness or inadvertence, raises the nap of a given fabric a shade above the regulation height. He is dismissed, and the cloth is laid aside as spoiled. A French buyer comes into the place, and casting his eyes on it, instantly sees for it a future. That touch of heightened nap has done it. The manufacturer has his wits about him, and what a week before was a mistake is now a new and valuable design which, in a couple of years, makes for him what some of us would regard as a substantial fortune.2 [Note: A. Shepherd, Men in the Making, 66.]

3. The omnipresence of God and of law is not questioned But concurrent therewith there is human action, which is partly free and sometimes irrational. This gives luck its loophole, and at the same time prescribes its limits. Do we seriously believe that nothing irrational ever happens in the universe? Does everything happen in accord with God’s plan for the world Does fore-ordination account for all things? Is human freedom quite an illusion? Is it not merely conditioned by circumstances and by habit, is it really non-existent? All this and more must be asserted if we are to hold that law accounts for all and that luck is nowhere. Indeed, we shall abolish human responsibility and sin—in theory, at least. There is no choice but that between a mechanical world, absolutely ruled by fore-ordination, in which there is no spontaneity or moral possibility, and a world in which there is some chance, some luck. Human action, if at all free and if ever foolish and wrong, introduces an element into history which ensures that among all the unerring certainties of nature there shall mingle a little of the erratic and the whimsical. Man moves nature to produce many results. These must reflect the irrational in him, and must influence not only himself, but his fellows. Therefore we have luck, good and bad, in life. It would be simpler, and would save much confusion, if we could say without qualification all is law, everything happens as God ordains. But then things are not simple, and we must accept their complexities. This disturbing factor of luck must be reckoned with.

Chance or Providence! Chance: or Wisdom—one with nature and man; reaching from end to end, through all time and all existence, orderly disposing all things, according to fixed periods—as he describes it, in terms very like certain well-known words of the book of Wisdom—those are the “fenced opposites” of the speculative dilemma, the tragic embarras, of which Aurelius cannot too often remind himself as the summary of man’s situation in the world. If there be such a provident soul “behind the veil,” truly, even to him, even in the most intimate of those conversations, it has never yet spoken with any quite irresistible assertion of its presence. Yet that speculative choice, as he has found it, is on the whole a matter of will—“’Tis in thy power,” again, here too, “to think as thou wilt.” And for his part he has made his choice, and is true to it.1 [Note: Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean.]

I remember a small boy of six saying to his father, who was entertaining him with a tale, “God always knew—long before ever you were in the world—that you would make that up for me some day.” Well, perhaps so; but did God also foreknow and foreordain that some hapless human being, as yet unborn, should some day commit such and such a crime, and suffer the dire penalty for it? Are we really, in the Persian poet’s phrase—

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays

Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;

Hither and thither moves, and cheeks and slays,

And one by one in the Closet lays?

In that case, shall we not have to continue in the same strain, and address Him thus—

O Thou who didst with Pitfall and with Gin

Beset the Path I was to wander in,

Thou wilt not with Predestined Evil round

Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin?

If we believe in Providence to this full extent, are we not brought back to the conclusion that it is no use trying to be or do one thing rather than another, since we can be or do only what He ordains—and “who withstandeth his will”?1 [Note: J. Warschauer, The Way of Understanding, 327.]


The Lord

“But the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.”

But now, let us see what the wise man says. Does he say that all that comes to us in life comes by chance? Does he say that any event whatever is wholly a matter of luck? On the contrary, he says that “the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.” Whatever we believe about the freedom of the will, we must believe that we are in the hands of God, and that just as much in the small as in the great things.

Would the Eternal be so great as He is, if by reason of His greatness He necessarily lost sight of the little? Could the world justly be called a masterpiece of art if the same artist whose hand is visible in the vast did not also show itself in the minute? I never see one of those ancient cathedrals—where even the lowest edge of the groundsel is elaborated in the same spirit and with the same affectionate pains as the tower which shoots aloft into the heavens—without perceiving in it a likeness to the work of the great Architect of the world. Here, too, it may be said—

If imaged in the smallest part it be,

You then the beauty of the whole will see.

No; He must be great in what is little as well as in what is large.

The daisy on the mountain sod,

Withdrawn from human view,

Was planted by the hand of God,

The hand that fashioned you.

That flower His care protects whose call

Did countless worlds create;

By condescending to the small,

He proves that He is great.1 [Note: A. Tholuck, Hours of Christian Devotion, 146.]

1. This world cannot be the plaything of accident, because obviously it is not the outcome of accident. There is nothing chaotic, capricious, unreliable about the operations of the forces of nature. The millionth combination of the same chemical substances in the same proportions will yield the same result as the first. The eclipse predicted by astronomers for a certain date comes neither a day too soon nor a day too late. The filaments of all the thousand varieties of snow-crystals form angles of exactly 60 to 120 degrees, neither more nor less. That does not look like arbitrariness or want of control at the centre of things. But there is more than that. All we have learnt of the world’s past history shows us not only order but purpose at work, a steady progress towards something more and better. What science calls evolution is only another term for the unceasing action of Providence on a cosmic scale, a deliberate working towards a foreseen and predetermined aim, the gradual unfolding of a vast and majestic design.

Slowly but surely the old deistic theory of the world has been undermined. The one absolutely impossible conception of God, in the present day, is that which represents Him as an occasional Visitor. Science had pushed the deist’s God farther and farther away, and at the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out altogether, Darwinism appeared, and, under the disguise of a foe, did the work of a friend. It has conferred upon philosophy and religion an inestimable benefit, by showing us that we must choose between two alternatives. Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere. He cannot be here and not there. He cannot delegate His power to demigods called “second causes.” In nature everything must be His work or nothing. We must frankly return to the Christian view of direct Divine agency, the immanence of Divine power in nature from end to end, the belief in a God in whom not only we but all things have their being, or we must banish Him altogether. It seems as if, in the providence of God, the mission of modern science was to bring home to our unmetaphysical ways of thinking the great truth of the Divine immanence in creation, which is not less essential to the Christian idea of God than to a philosophical view of nature.…

No doubt the evolution which was at first supposed to have destroyed teleology is found to be more saturated with teleology than the view which it superseded. And Christianity can take up the new as it did the old, and find in it a confirmation of its own belief. It is a great gain to have eliminated chance, to find science declaring that there must be a reason for everything, even when it cannot hazard a conjecture as to what the reason is.1 [Note: Aubrey Moore, in Lux Mundi.]

2. Every free action is surrounded by and dovetails into events absolutely determined by law. The presence of a man in the place where a flood happens, or his owning property there, may have a little chance in it. But the flood itself has a chain of causes which fully account for it. There may be some chance in the discovery of a gold-mine. But there was none in the formation of the gold or in its being deposited where it was found. That tree which fell so disastrously had the direction of its fall determined a century ago when it was bent as a sapling. Forces under law mingle with all that seems free, catch it up, and deal with its results. So that “nothing walks with aimless feet.” God is constantly reducing even human life to order. As we develop there is found less and less of the incalculable in us. “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord.” So are those of an evil man. Now to the extent to which human action becomes blessedly or cursedly automatic, to that extent chance is eliminated.

When Napoleon was returning from Egypt to France, Nelson was on the watch for him, and even lay for a while with his whole fleet close to the two ships of the fugitive. A thick fog, however, settled down between them; and had it not been for that fog, the state of the world would have been different from what it now is. In solemn grandeur the ancient avalanches lie couched on the icy mountain-tops, and repose from year to year, until, perhaps, the wing of a bird, as it flies quickly past, touches them, and by their fall some thousands of human beings lose their lives. It is true that little touches do not make great revolutions, and that as little do trivial incidents hinder them. It is true that the avalanche must have been accumulating for many a year if it was to destroy the city, and that Napoleon must have been the man he was if the fog was to change the condition of the world. Still the touch of the bird’s wing and the curtain of fog were likewise necessary to bring about the issue.1 [Note: A. Tholuck, Hours of Christian Devotion, 144.]

Of all the old superstitious stories, I think one of the most interesting is that told by Cicero, because it not only illustrates the habit of mind, but throws a curious sidelight upon the pronunciation of Latin. He was at Brundisium, I think, about to start by sea for Greece. A vendor came along the quay, crying Caunean figs for sale. “Cauneas! Cauneas!” “Of course,” said Cicero, “I decided at once not to go, and took measures accordingly.” The fact is that Cauneas was the usual pronunciation—thus much is clear—of the Latin words, Cave ne eas (“Mind you don’t go”). But the odd thing is that it does not seem to have occurred to Cicero to warn his fellow-passengers of the prognostication. He only considered it as a sign which he had been fortunate enough to be able to interpret. And this is very characteristic of the general attitude. Providence is regarded, not as a just dispenser of good and evil, but as powerless to avert a catastrophe, and only able to intimate to a favoured few, by very inadequate means, the disasters in store; and it is this that makes the whole thing into rather a degrading business, because it seems to imply that there is a whimsical and malicious spirit behind it all, that loves to disappoint and upset, and to play men ugly and uncomfortable tricks, like Caliban in Setebos.

Loving not, hating not, just choosing Song of Solomon 2 [Note: A. C. Benson, Along the Road, 165.]

(1) God does not intervene in the detailed use we make of His gift of freedom—else were it not freedom at all. Our liberty is providentially bestowed, but not the employment we choose to make of it. It is foolish to charge Heaven with man’s misdeeds, foolish to imagine that our sins and the evil we inflict upon ourselves and each other lie at Heaven’s door, or were fore-ordered by the Most High. “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good,” but He contents Himself with the showing: He asks for a free, not a forced, obedience, and holds us responsible for our choice. True, this gift of liberty involves much sorrow and suffering; but only by the exercise of free-will can character be formed, and we know that sorrow and suffering—while we would not choose them for their own sakes—have often and often been the means of bringing out the finer qualities of men and women.

There are three great principles in life which weave its warp and woof, apparently incompatible with each other, yet they harmonize, and, in their blending, create this strange life of ours. The first is, our fate is in our own hands, and our blessedness or misery is the exact result of our own acts. The second is, “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” The third is, “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong”; but time and chance happen(eth) to them all. Accident, human will, the shaping will of Deity: these things make up life. Or rather, perhaps, we see a threefold causality from some defect in our spiritual eyesight. Could we see as He sees, all would be referable to one principle which would contain them all; as the simple, single law of gravitation embraces the complex phenomena of the universe; and as, on the other hand, by pressing the eyeballs so as to destroy their united impression, you may see all things double.1 [Note: Life and Letters of the Rev. F. W. Robertson, 243.]

(2) And yet God does not let us go our own way; He stands aside, but only a little way aside, watching all the while, and holding the issue in His mighty hands. We cannot read history or individual experience without coming to the conclusion that here and there, unperceived at the time, but none the less real, was God’s guiding, God’s restraining influence. Some deep grief, which at the time almost crushes us, proves an inspiration; some pitiful tragedy which wrings our heart is the starting-point of triumph; our light affliction worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. Mrs. Josephine Butler’s loss of a beloved daughter makes her devote herself to the rescue of other mothers’ daughters from a fate worse than death; John Brown is shot at Harper’s Ferry for his anti-slavery principles, but his soul goes marching on, and his memory serves to win liberty for the slaves of America; Jesus is nailed to a shameful cross, and that cross becomes the power of God unto salvation.

“Unless the hairs of your head are all numbered there is no God.” The words are George MacDonald’s, and they put the challenge to faith in its clearest and boldest form. We all want to believe that our hairs are numbered; that we are the objects of a special loving care. We feel with Michelet: “Let the sentiment of the loving cause disappear, and it is over with me. If I have no longer the happiness of feeling this world to be loved, of feeling myself to be loved, I can no longer live. Hide me in the tomb.” Yes, the hairs of our head are all numbered. Whenever we pray we affirm that. And we can match this affirmation, in our being’s highest act, against all the materialisms and all the devil’s advocacies, from whatever quarter they come. For the soul here is sure of itself. It moves here in a sphere the world cannot enter, still less conquer. Quis Separabit? In face of life’s sternest tragedies, of its utmost extremities, it joins in the Apostle’s triumphant hymn of faith, knowing with him that neither life nor death, things present nor things to come, can shut it off from the Infinite Love.1 [Note: J. Brierley, The Secret of Living, 157.]

3. There is less luck in human affairs than is popularly supposed, and he is foolish who fears or trusts it. The truth is that chance is nothing but a vocable which we employ when there is a gap in our wisdom, and our insight into the connexion of cause and effect is at fault. It is more a name for something in ourselves than for anything in nature without. We designate as chance those effects which do not seem to have proceeded from purpose and design. Thus we call it chance when any event occurs which was not intended by man; just as our Lord says, “By chance there came down a certain priest that way.” And in that case the word has no objectionable meaning. We also speak of chance, however, when a thing happens which seems to us contrary to the plan and intention of God, and then the word is a mere word. We speak of necessity when the weary veteran, after the eyes—the windows of sense—have been closed, and the door of the mouth seldom opens, and the grey head has long worn the livery of death, dies by the decay of nature. For we perceive that there is a plan and design in the mowing down of the grain when it has reached maturity, and in the discharge of the labourer from the field when his blunted tools are of no further use. When, however, the youth is unexpectedly snatched away, by such a casualty as the fall, perhaps, of a tile from the roof; when the goodly framework is shattered before the spirit it contained has unfolded its wings,—we then speak of chance, because we do not here see the Divine purpose.

“Chance” is a relation. The word does mean something; and it is, therefore, foolish to tell children, that “there is no such thing as chance.” It is a relation in which the connexion between cause and effect is too subtle for our discovery or too complex for us to calculate. The planet’s motion, for instance, we can reckon and predict; the fall of dice we cannot, not because the case is too subtle, but because the calculation is too complex. So, too, with a projectile like a cannon ball,—given the direction and quantity of force, we can tell where it will light. It is different with the fall of a leaf, owing to its irregular shape and the uncertain impact of the gusts of wind that may carry it we know not whither. Yet, in the strict sense, there is as little “chance” in the fall of the dice as in the course of the planet, or in the fall of the leaf as in the destination of the cannon ball. Chance is not a thing, but a relation. With God there is no chance—because He knows all forces and their direction.1 [Note: A. A. Hodge, in Princetoniana, by C. A. Salmond, 172.]

A man was speaking to me not long ago about one of the leading commercial men in this city. “What is there in him or about him to explain his success?” asked the man, and he answered his own question with the round assertion that “it was all luck.” It happened that I had some reliable information about the man under discussion, and I want you to have it. Thirty years ago he was working from ten to twelve hours in the day as just an ordinary workman. At the close of each day’s toil he had his programme of studies, which, in the range and character of the subjects attacked, would not have disgraced a good student at any university. Eventually his attention to business and his marked attainments won for him the recognition of his employers, which meant in after years a place which was ultimately a leading place, as one of them. Yet this was the man who was said to have won his success by a lucky turn of the wheel.2 [Note: A. Shepherd, Men in the Making, 73.]

Sir Frederick Treves once said to the students at the Aberdeen University: “The man who is content to wait for a stroke of good fortune will probably wait until he has a stroke of paralysis.”


Jerdan (C.), Manna for Young Pilgrims, 107.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Esther, etc., 204.

Shepherd (A.), Men in the Making, 57.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Morning by Morning, 354.

Tholuck (A.), Hours of Christian Devotion, 141.

Warschauer (J.), The Way of Understanding, 320.

Christian World Pulpit, Ixiv. 138 (T. Templeton); Ixix. 249 (A. Shepherd).

Church of England Magazine, lxviii. 56 (C. Jenkyns).

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