Like the doctrine of predestination, which our Confession teaches "is to be handled with special prudence and care" (WCF III.8), so the works of God's providence are not to be "curiously" pried into or misapplied (WLC 113). Nevertheless, they are among the ways in which God makes himself known in the earth (Ps. 9.16; WLC 112) and we are therefore to take notice of and distinguish between both his general and special providences (WCF 5.7) and to mark them well (Lam. 3.38-40; Ps. 107.43; Rom. 11.34; Ps. 101.1; Ps. 28.5; Fisher's Catechism 11.42-44).
Robert Dabney (Systematic Theology, Chap. 21) teaches that the doctrine of general providence necessarily requires the adjoining doctrine of special providence. Special providence refers to God's moral government over the affairs of men with particular regard to the church of God in all ages (John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity, Book III, Chap. 4; Rom. 8.28). God is not an absentee landlord as conceived by Deists who think of Providence as the Watchmaker who steps back and lets the watch run its course, but rather he is intimately and minutely involved in all of the affairs of men, from the least to the greatest. Thus, the Reformed who acknowledge God's sovereignty over all things confess that "my times are in thy hand" (Ps. 31.15).
It is within the scope of God's general providence for the rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5.45). It is not possible to discern the eternal love or hatred of God upon men simply by observing their state of well-being on earth (Job; Ps. 73; Luke 16.19-28; Fisher's Catechism 11.49). However, it is within the scope of God's special providence for temporal judgments (Amos 3.6; Isa. 45.7) to come upon men, both God's elect (2 Tim. 3.12; Heb. 12) and the wicked (Ps. 58.11; Luke 12.20; Luke 13.1-5). It is not always possible to discern a 1:1 correlation between sin and temporal judgment, for we all deserve condemnation all the time (excepting the pardon of our sins through Christ), though we know that God's mercy in withholding judgment upon sinners has its purpose too (Rom. 2.5). Yet, as Augustine said (quoted by John Flavel in The Mystery of Providence), "If no sin were punished here, no Providence would be believed; and if every sin should be punished here, no judgment would be expected."
God deals with men individually and collectively, as within the church (1 Pet. 4.17) "in all ages" (John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity, Book III, Chap. 4) and as with nations (Ps. 2.10-12; Ps. 9.17; Ps. 22.28; Prov. 14.34; Rev. 19.16; Rev. 21.24). God is Lord of the universe and there is no part of his creation that is exempted from his dominion. This is no less true today than it was before the canon of Scripture was closed. In fact, the mediatorial kingship of Christ commenced during Christ's ministry (Ps. 2.6-8; Isa. 9.6-7; Matt. 3.17; Heb. 1.5-8) and his death, resurrection and ascension (Matt. 28.18). He reigns even now (Heb. 2.8; 1 Cor. 15.25) and holds magistrates accountable to rule according to his revealed will (Ps. 2.10-12; Ps. 82.6; Dan. 2.21; Prov. 8.15-16; Prov. 16.12; Rom. 13.1-4). The raising up of both good and bad kings is by the providential hand of God, and tyrants are said to be a scourge, or a judgment, of the Lord (Prov. 29.2; Isa. 10.5-6; John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity, Book III, Chap. 4) while good kings are said to be a blessing to the people (Prov. 29.2). Likewise, national calamities such as wars, famines, pestilence, drought and the like ought to move us to national soul-searching, if not national repentance (William Gouge spoke of "God's three arrows: plague, famine, sword").
The third commandment requires that we treat all of God's means and modes of revelation with reverence, including his works of providence. William Perkins taught that one particular violation of the third commandment is to be insensible to God's providential judgments in the earth, that is, God's rod:
XIV. Lightly to pass over God's judgments which are seen in the world. Matthew 26:34, “Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice." Luke 13:1-3, “There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." (The Order of Salvation and Damnation)
Fisher's Catechism 11.42:
Q. 44. Is it not dangerous to overlook the operations of divine providence?
A. Yes; for it is said, Psalm 28:5 -- "Because they regard not the works of the Lord, nor the operation of his hands, he shall destroy them, and not build them up."
Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the LORD. (Jer. 8.4)
George Swinnock notes, Works, Vol. 2, pp. 465-466:
(6) The observation of times and seasons. It is thy prudence to take notice of the storms of judgments, and sunshine of mercy. "The stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the Lord," Jer 8:7.
Matthew Poole writes on Jer. 8.7:
Jer 8:7. In the heaven, i.e. in the air, which is often called heaven, where the birds fly, Ps 8:8; compare Jer 7:33, who possibly observe the fit time by the temperature of the air. Knoweth her appointed times, i.e. observeth the several seasons of her going and coming by some natural instinct, and this is said of the stork: what kind of fowl is here meant is disputable: see English Annotations and Latin Synopsis. Observe the time of their coming; the same thing diversified in these several fowls, that know also their seasons. But my people know not: this notes the great stupidity of his people, seeming not to have as much sense in them as the birds in the air, not knowing their summer of prosperity, to make a good use of God's favours, nor the winter of adversity, either to prevent or remove that wrath of God that hangs over their heads, Isa 5:12; Luke 19:42,44; they know not their time for repentance, and making their peace with God, compared also, on the same account, to the beasts of the field, Isa 1:3; and thus Christ upbraids the Pharisees, Matt 16:2-3. The judgment of the Lord; either God's vengeance in general, or particularly hovering over Jerusalem and Judea; or rather, the manner of God's dispensations with them. So the word is used 1 Sam 2:13; 1 Sam 8:11.
Matthew Henry adds even more emphatically:
III. They would not attend to the dictates of providence, nor understand the voice of God in them, Jer 8:7. It is an instance of their sottishness that, though they are God's people, and therefore should readily understand his mind upon every intimation of it, yet they know not the judgment of the Lord; they apprehend not the meaning either of a mercy or an affliction, not how to accommodate themselves to either, nor to answer God's intention in either. They know not how to improve the seasons of grave that God affords them when he sends them his prophets, nor how to make use of the rebukes they are under when his voice cries in the city. They discern not the signs of the times (Matt 16:3), nor are aware how God is dealing with them. They know not that way of duty which God had prescribed them, though it be written both in their hearts and in their books. 2. It is an aggravation of their sottishness that there is so much sagacity in the inferior creatures. The stork in the heaven knows her appointed times of coming and continuing; so do other season-birds, the turtle, the crane, and the swallow. These by a natural instinct change their quarters, as the temper of the air alters; they come when the spring comes, and go, we know not whither, when the winter approaches, probably into warmer climates, as some birds come with winter and go when that is over.
There is also a second commandment duty to worship God particularly during extraordinary occasions by fasting or thanksgiving, which requires discernment of God's dealings with us in order to worship him appropriately in such a context.
Fisher's Catechism 50.27 (speaking of the duty of religious fasting):
Q. 27. What are the occurrences in providence, which are a call to this extraordinary duty?
A. "When some great and notable judgments are either inflicted upon a people," Dan. 9:3, 12-14, "or apparently imminent," 2 Chron. 20:2-4; "or, by some extraordinary provocations notoriously deserved," 1 Sam. 7:3, 6; "as also when some special blessing is to be sought and obtained," ver. 5, 8, 10.
Therefore, notable providences -- that is, events that may in fact be described as judgments or deliverances -- are to be seen as calls to the extraordinary duty of fasting or thanksgiving. They are calls to worship God which cannot be dismissed and are as binding as any other duty solemnly laid upon us by God in his Word.
Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession (on WCF 21.5):
Stated festival-days, commonly called holy-days, have no warrant in the Word of God; but a day may be set apart, by competent authority, for fasting or thanksgiving, when extraordinary dispensations of Providence administer cause for them. When judgments are threatened or inflicted, or when some special blessing is to be sought and obtained, fasting is eminently seasonable. When some remarkable mercy or deliverance has been received, there is a special call to thanksgiving. The views of the compilers of our Confession respecting these ordinances may be found in "The Directory for the Public Worship of God."
The Directory for the Public Worship of God:
Concerning Publick Solemn Fasting.
WHEN some great and notable judgments are either inflicted upon a people, or apparently imminent, or by some extraordinary provocations notoriously deserved; as also when some special blessing is to be sought and obtained, publick solemn fasting (which is to continue the whole day) is a duty that God expecteth from that nation or people.
The way of wisdom is to both acknowledge that God's ways are far above our ways (Isa. 55.8-9) and that the secret things do belong unto the Lord (Deut. 29.29) but also that the manifest works of God in providence are to redound to his glory and to be known of men (Ps. 107.43). When Job was chastised or when Joseph was sold into slavery, who could have understood completely why it had to be so? Yet, we know that chatisements will come upon the godly (Heb. 12) and that oftentimes God afflicts both the just(ified) (WCF V.5) and the unjust(ified) (WCF V.6). What then is our duty when such notable events come? It is our duty to be sensible to the Lord's dealings with us. God makes himself known by means of judgments in the earth. Therefore, we should always examine our ways (Lam. 3.38-41; Ps. 139.23-24). We should not be proud when the wicked fall (Prov. 24.17; Luke 13.1-4) but we should take the opportunity to "likewise repent." When God's people experience hard providences, that is a chastening. Matthew Poole on Heb. 12.12 says that this passage is speaking of "the doctrine of God's chastening providences." Thomas Case likewise notes concerning Heb. 12 that "God hath consecrated thy sufferings by his teachings: afflictions have taken orders, as it were, and stand no longer in the rank of ordinary providences, but serve now in the order of gospel-ordinances, officiating in the holy garment of Divine promises, and to the same uses." (Treatise on Afflictions). (See also Thomas Brooks' The Mute Christian under the Smarting Rod and Thomas Boston's The Crook in the Lot.) We should then employ every means to discover within ourselves whether there is an Achan in our heart (Josh. 7). It is not introspective navel-gazing to examine one's heart (although in excess and without reference to the work and person of Jesus Christ it can become so). This is true collectively as well as individually, and especially applicable to the ministers in their duty.
Preface to the Westminster Directory of Public Worship:
"...but that each one, by meditation, by taking heed to himself, and the flock of God committed to him, and by wise observing the ways of Divine Providence, may be careful to furnish his heart and tongue with further or other materials of prayer and exhortation, as shall be needful upon all occasions"
Yet, it is also equally true that the inscrutable ways of God may not lend themselves to an understanding of the immediate purpose of chastisement. An answer may not be evident to us, or at least not right away. Though the mystery of providence will one day be revealed to us in full (1 Cor. 13.12; Rev. 10.7; Fisher's Catechism 11.53), yet in our day we are called unto faith in God no matter what the trial (Heb. 11.1-6; Rom. 4.18-20). Therefore, as the doctrine of special providence is matter of great importance that joins things evident around us with things unknown to us, and must be handled with care, so there is a duty to be wise and understanding of the times (1 Chron. 12.32) and to trust in God no matter what and commit our way unto him (Job. 13.15; Ps. 37.5; Fisher's Catechism 11.55), not anxious, not murmuring against the Lord's providence. Then we may say with the Psalmist, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted: that I might learn thy statutes." (Ps. 119.71).
I submit that Christians ought not to dismiss out of hand the duty laid out in Scripture to be wise and understand the times. As uncomfortable as it is and against the grain of our modern notions, God does deal with people and nations for their sins, and his judgments are in fact over all the earth. "He is the LORD our God: his judgments are in all the earth" (1 Chron. 16.14; Ps. 105.7). Do we see great and terrible events? Do we see corresponding notable sins? The calamities that befall us ought to cause us to search our hearts and see if there be any wicked way in us. When the heart of America's military (Pentagon) and economic (World Trade Center) idols are struck by Islamic terrorists, or when a hurricane demolishes a city (New Orleans) that is notorious for its wickedness, is it presumptuous not only to affirm that the Lord has done it (Amos 3.6), but that he has done so in response to particular notable sins? The lesson from the Tower of Siloam (Luke 13) is not that God does not judge men for their sins on the earth today, but rather that those who see such judgments should not presume themselves better than those who are punished temporally but rather they should tremble and repent. Such a fear of the Lord and acknowledgment of his dealings with us is the path of wisdom. The Lord calls us to reverence his works of providence in the earth, not to deny with Deists that he judges men and nations. Even Thomas Jefferson said, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever..."
The wise observation of the dispensations of Divine Providence is a duty laid upon God's people in all ages. "Whoso is wise, and will observe these things, even they shall understand the lovingkindness of the LORD." (Ps. 107.43) This means we have a duty to search out the works of God in the light of his Word.
Thomas Boston, A Body of Divinity, Vol. 1, p. 212:
Whosoever would walk with God, must be due observers of the word and providence of God, for by these in a special manner he manifests himself to his people. In the one we see what he says; in the other what he does. These are the two books that every student of holiness ought to be much conversant in. They are both written with one hand, and they should both be carefully read, by those that would have not only the name of religion, but the thing. They should be studied together, if we would profit by either; for being taken together, they give light the one to the other; and as it is our duty to read the word, so it is also our duty to observe the work of God, Psal. xxviii. 5.
Though his ways are far above our ways, and good men have erred in correlating events with God's will, the Scriptural doctrine of special providence, including the duty to reverence God by responding to his calls -- by providential temporal judgments and deliverances -- for extraordinary worship is writ large throughout the Bible in both Testaments. Discernment is required of God's people to understand events in the light of his Word aright, which requires that we apply our hearts unto wisdom. God grant that we would -- at the very least -- aspire to be men like "the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do."