The working of one mighty hand.
Alexander Maclaren on how to understand the past.
You are, no doubt, familiar with the idiom, “Hindsight is always 20/20.” As someone who’s worn glasses since the second grade, I’ve always been somewhat envious of this expression, only because 20/20 vision is something I don’t possess. Nonetheless, this expression is suggestive of the clarity and certainty at which we arrive after events are over. Those details that weren’t obvious before suddenly become clear as crystal, to use another turn of phrase. What appeared foggy and nonsensical is suddenly understandable. And the same is true in our spiritual lives, as well. We often gain the clearest, surest comprehension of what God is doing in our world, in our lives, after our current season of life is over and we are segued into a new one. This, I think, is articulated exceptionally by Rev. Alexander Maclaren in his sermon, “The King ‘Blessing’ His People,” from 1 Kings 8, where he declares:
We look on the past most wisely when we see in it all the working of the one mighty Hand, and pass beyond the great names of history of the dear names which have made the light of our homes, to the ever-living God, who works through changing instruments . . . We read the past most truly when we see in all its vicissitudes God’s unchanging faithfulness, and recognise that the foes and sorrows which often pressed sore upon us were no breach of His faithful promises, but either His loving chastisement for our faithlessness, or His loving discipline meant to perfect our characters. We read the past best from the vantage-round of the Temple. From its height we understand the lie of the land. Communion with God explains much which is else inexplicable. (2.2.177)
We are rarely, if ever, aware of what God’s doing in the moment. “The heat of the moment” has a blinding quality to it, which prevents us from being fully aware of God’s ways and works. It is also, to be sure, due to the fact that we’re humans and he’s God — his wisdom is beyond us (Isa. 55:8). But the point remains, the sequence of moments we call “life” is often shrouded in uncertainty, with the only light capable of illuminating such times being the Light himself. And this, I think, is why it’s so important to remember what David declares in Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” God gives his children the assurance that their way will be lighted, but that light isn’t for what lies far ahead but for what lies close at hand. The certainty God gives us is that while the One who is lighting our path, illuminating our feet, is very aware of what lies ahead, his program is to nurture our faith by keeping us living by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).
It’s that faith that’s close at hand which allows us to “look on the past most wisely” and notice how the contours of it are the impressions made by “one mighty Hand.” On the other side of each chapter of our lives, faith allows us to see one truth, one thread through it all: the goodness of God. Hindsight, for the Christian, is better than 20/20. It is, to employ another Christian idiom, “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good.” And though that can be seen as a tired, over-used locution, it is nonetheless true (Ps. 119:68). The Christian faith is tethered to the belief that God’s wisdom and grace pervades each and every twist and turn of our lives. And though it is often difficult to perceive in the moment, in the midst of upheaval and stress, his goodness persists. Ours is a stubbornly good and gracious God whose mighty hand sees to it that all things wind up exactly as he purposes. The debris of the past is, by him, reconfigured into a tapestry of his grace and goodness.
Grace and peace to you.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).