A Classic Study by John Flavel (1628–1691)
God’s Sovereignty Over Prosperity
Doth trading fail, and voyages prove bad;
If you cannot discern the cause, ’tis sad.
There are many sad complaints abroad (and, I think not without cause) that trade fails, nothing turns to account. And though all countries are open and free for traffic, a general peace with all nations, yet there seems to be a dearth, a secret curse upon trading. You run from country to country, and come losers home. Men can hardly render a reason of it; few hit the right cause of this judgment.
That prosperity and success in trade are from the blessing of God, I suppose few are so atheistical, as once to deny or question. The devil himself acknowledges it: "Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land" (Job 1:10, AV). It is not in the power of any man to get riches: "Thou shalt remember the Lord thy God, for it is He that giveth thee power to get wealth" (Deut. 8:18, AV). It is His blessing that makes good men rich, and His permission that makes wicked men rich. That maxim came from hell, Quisque fortunae suoe faber: Every man is the contriver of his own condition. Certainly, "the good of man is not in his own hand" (Job 11:16, AV). "Promotion cometh not from the east nor the west" (Ps. 76:6–7, AV).
This being acknowledged, it is evident that in all disappointments, and want of success in our callings, we ought not to stick in second causes, but to look higher, even to the hand and disposal of God. For whose it is to give the blessing, His also it is to withhold it. And this is as clear in scripture as the other: It is the Lord that takes away the fishes of the sea (see Hos. 4:3; Zeph. 1:3). "It is He that curseth our blessings" (Mal. 2:3, AV).
This God doth as a punishment for sin, and the abuse of mercies; and therefore in such cases we ought not to rest in general complaints to, or of one another, but search what those sins are that provoke the Lord to inflict such judgments.
And here I must request your patience, to hear a plain, and close word of conviction. My brethren, I am persuaded these are the sins among many others, that provoke the Lord to blast all your employments:
1. Our undertaking designs without prayer. Alas! How few of us begin with God, interest Him in our dealings, and ask counsel and direction at His mouth! Prayer is that which sanctifies all employments and enjoyments (see I Tim. 4:5). The very heathen could say, A Jove principium: They must begin with God. O that we had more prayers, and fewer oaths!
2. Injustice and fraud in our dealings. A sin to which merchants are prone, as appears by this expression: "The merchant uses dishonest scales; he loves to defraud" (Hos. 12:7). This is that which will blast all your enjoyments.
3. An over-earnest endeavor after the world. Men make this their business: they will be rich. And hence it is, they are not only unmerciful to themselves, in wearying and wasting their own spirits with carking cares, but to such also as they employ; neither regarding the souls or bodies of men, scarce affording them the liberty of the Lord’s day, (as has been too common in our Newfoundland employments), or if they have it, yet they are so worn out with incessant labours, that that precious time is spent either in sleep or idleness. It is no wonder God gives you more rest than you would have, since that day of rest hath been no better improved. This overdoing hath not been the least cause of our undoing.
4. Lastly, our abuse of prosperity, when God gave it, making God’s mercies the food and fuel of our lusts. When we had affluence and confluence of outward blessings, "this made us kick against God" (Deut. 33:15), "forget God" (Deut. 4:14), yea, grow proud of our strength and riches (Ezek. 16:13 and Jer. 2:31). Ah! How few of us in the days of our prosperity, behaved ourselves as good Jehoshaphat did? "He had silver and gold in abundance, and his heart was lifted up in the way of God’ commandments" (II Chron. 17:5–6), not in pride and insolence.
Are these the sins that blast our blessings, and wither our mercies? O then let me cease to wonder it is no better, and rather admire that it is no worse with me; that my neglect of prayer, injustice in dealings, earthly-mindedness, and abuse of former mercies have not provoked God to strip me naked of all my enjoyments. Let me humbly accept from the Lord the punishment of my iniquities, and lay my hand upon my mouth. And O that these disappointments might convince me of the creature’s vanity, and cause me to drive on another trade for heaven; then shall I adore thy wisdom in rending from me those idolized enjoyments. Ah, Lord! When I had them, my heart was a perpetual drudge to them: how did I then forget God, neglect my duty, and not mind my eternal concernments! Oh, if these had not perished, in all probability I had perished. My God, let my soul prosper, and then a small portion of these things shall afford me more comfort than ever I had in their greatest abundance. "A little that a righteous man hath, is better than the riches of many wicked" (Ps. 37:16).