The Ways of God

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 4 - The Wondrous Ways of God

"Thy way was in the sea, and Thy paths in the great waters, and Thy footsteps were not known. Thou leddest Thy people like a flock, by the hand of Moses and Aaron" (Psalm 77:19-20).

What a strange contrasting of similes! It would be difficult to have a greater contrast than we have in those two verses - the pilot through the sea, and a shepherd with his flock. The sea in a rage and an uproar, tempest, storm; and right alongside of it, the shepherd and his flock. One is a picture of unrest, disturbance, anxiety, stress and mighty forces in action. The other is a picture of tranquillity, restfulness and calm. What a contrast! - and yet brought together in one statement as to what the Lord is to His people - a pilot and a shepherd.

You need to read the whole psalm to get the full value of that. The first part of the psalm is a record of distress, perplexity, confusion; a cry­ing out in trouble, the cry of agony, "Has God forgotten to be gracious?" "Is His lovingkindness clean gone for ever?" (v.7,8). And then the writer recollects and says, "This is my infirmity... I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High" (v.10), and the whole tone changes. There is recollection and review of how it all worked out in the long run - reassurance. It is a summary at the end, and yet also an introduction, be­cause undoubtedly the last two verses of this psalm are an introduction to the next one, that great historic record of the Lord's dealings with His people - Psalm 78. What a long psalm that is, telling of the movements, guidance and dealings of the Lord with His people! With all there is here for helpful, encouraging, reassuring meditation, we will only look now at the gist of the matter.

I am going to change the metaphor again from the pilot through the storm, the shepherd with his flock, to the mountaineer. There are three peaks which every child of God has to master, the peaks that are suggested by this psalm. We are not really qualified for the service of the Lord, nor for life itself in relation to the Lord, until we have mastered these three peaks. They will challenge us and they may again and again challenge us, but somehow or other we have got to be the masters of them and they have got to be things that have lost their terror and dread for us, and their power to defeat and weaken us.

Divine Purpose Governing All

The first of these peaks which arises out of this psalm so clearly is Di­vine purpose governing all. You know how this mountain presented itself to Israel at the beginning of their history as a return to the sea and His paths in great waters. What is the psalmist talking about? Undoubtedly about the Red Sea as it confronted them. Oh, what a terror, what a dread that night! The east wind no doubt howled and the water lashed. What a dread that sea was to the people, with what fear and trepidation did they approach its banks, even though its waters were standing up. It was a terrible night, the passing through the Red Sea. It was, in a sense, a mountain to be negotiated and a mountain of - for them - terrible possibilities. But do you notice what the psalmist says? He says that these waters were in a certain condition; our translation does not give us the exact word. They were troubled, in anguish, groaning, and the original word which was used to describe the state of the waters was that they were in travail, the sea was in travail, and the nation was born in that sea that night. A nation was born in the Red Sea that night, and the waters were in anguish. It is an illustration.

You see Divine purpose working in the tempest. Behind the fear, the terror and everything that seemed so awful that night, Divine purpose was governing, producing a nation, bringing a nation to birth - paths in the great waters. That is one thing that we have sooner or later got to settle, that the raging, the terror, the dread, the threatening, the thing that seems to mean our undoing, is being governed by Divine purpose to produce something of tremendous value to the Lord. The recollection of that saved the psalmist when he was crying out with these questions: "Has God forgotten to be gracious? Is His lovingkindness clean gone for ever?" The psalmist was in a state of distress. I think he was expressing the state of the people at that time, and wondering whether the Lord had not forsaken His people altogether and left them. Then he says, 'Let us look back, let us go back to our beginning as a nation; were we not born in a threat? Did we not begin our history in what seemed to speak destruction? Was it not in the most terrible tempest that we, by the mighty power of God, came forth as His people, delivered, saved, set apart?' That recollection saved the psalmist in his hour, and we have to get to the place where we say with every new tempest raging, every threat, all dread and fear, fierce attack, whatever it is: 'God has something in this; purpose governs.' But then, that involves something else.

Divine Wisdom Dictating

The other mountain peak is this: Divine wisdom dictating; not only that there is purpose which is the end, but wisdom dictating the way to that end. The psalmist looked back and saw, 'Oh, at the time we could see no wisdom of God at work, the way we were going seemed to be such a confused way, a contradictory way; it seemed to be anything but the dictating of Divine wisdom; but now I can see. God chose the way, the method and the means which He knew would most effectively reach His end, and we have to negotiate that mountain.' It does seem so strange, the way the Lord takes. What is the Lord doing? Why? We ask all these questions. Wisdom is dictating the way to the end.

Divine Love Controlling

And then, Divine love controls. The end, the way, the motive, the pilot... but not a disinterested detached pilot just doing his job without any heart relationship to the people in his care. The metaphor changes at once - 'Ah, there is something more in it than that; God is not just negotiating through difficulties in a cold, detached way; He is a shepherd.' And if there is one picture in the Bible of a heart relationship to others, it is the picture of the shepherd. God's heart is bound up with His people, and the psalmist says an interesting thing here. "Thy way was in the sea, and Thy paths in the great waters, and Thy footsteps were not known." What does he mean? Go back again, after it is all over, to the other side of the Red Sea. The wind has quieted down, and the tempest has come to rest, and you look to see where His footprints are, and you cannot find them. You cannot say, 'He did it like this and that.' The fact is He did it; that is all, and you cannot explain how. The psalmist is saying: 'That is how God does things.' He does it, the most wonderful thing, the things which involve the whole question of life and death for us. He did it, and now you just cannot see any trace of how He did it, but it was done. Do we not have to say that? Yes, we come up against a situation like the Red Sea and say, 'How are we going to master this? What is the Lord going to do with this problem?' We look back and say, 'The Lord has done it again and again, but how, I do not know.' "Thy footsteps were not known." You cannot trace out how the Lord does things, but He does them. He brings the mighty tempest to serve His end by His wisdom, in His love, because He is the Shepherd of His flock; that is, His heart is bound up with us. It matters to Him about us.

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