Reading Providence (Ruth 2)

“So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech.” —Ruth 2:3 (ESV)

Things happen, but things never just happen. Can you picture the wry smile of the author as he pens this line? Can you see the Spirit’s joy as he moves the human author as his pen? Can you see God’s smile as he etches these events in history?

It is not as though God does the big stuff like famine and harvest and leaves the dust to settle where it will. It isn’t as though God sits in the comfort of the air conditioned cab of his tractor, mindful of acres of work but oblivious to the ant mound he just plowed over. God isn’t so big that he passes over the details. He is so big no detail is passed over.

We must look at all reality through these eyes. This was indeed a divine moment—as every moment is. We mustn’t presume, but we must believe in providence. Presumption occurs when we think we can read providence and that it is a story about us. “It was a divine moment—a God-thing. I saved thousands of dollars.” Funny how me-centered your God-thing is?

John Flavel said that “the providence of God is like Hebrew words—it can be read only backwards.” The author wrote this story from the vantage point of the Davidic covenant. We read it from the vantage point of the new covenant. Don’t presume to be able to read the events of your life with the same kind of clarity.

Nonetheless, believe that there is a God ordering all events, some more significant, others less so, but all ordered for His purpose without one ant marching out of place. Providence isn’t meant to be understood but believed. Our confidence and joy in God’s sovereign goodness flow not from our understanding the details God’s plan, but knowing a God of all understanding has a plan to exalt the King of His people.

A Beat of Hope Interrupting a Dark Rhythm (Ruth 1)

“In the days when the judges ruled…”

These were grim days. The evils of the latter kings and the exile to come were but the harvesting of idolatrous seeds sown only a generation after the death of Joshua. Here is the dark rhythm of Judges:

“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals (Judges 2:11).”

“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth (Judges 3:7).”

“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD (Judges 3:12).”

“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD after Ehud died (Judges 4:1).”

“The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years (Judges 6:1).”

“The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook the LORD and did not serve him (Judges 10:6).”

“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years (Judges 13:1).”

As you advance through the book, the minor key persists, but a motif of hope is added:

“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6).”

“In those days there was no king in Israel (Judges 18:1).”

“In those days, when there was no king in Israel… (Judges 19:1).”

“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).”

The hope is a king.

Set in the midst of these local military leaders, these flawed superheroes, you have the pastoral setting of Ruth. It is a welcome reprieve from the violence and evil of Judges and a hopeful transition to the era of kings.

In the midst of such sin, we see the beauty of God’s grace. Here, God’s providence takes the ordinary stuff of life and brings extraordinary mercy to his people. God’s sovereignty works in the regular hurts and glories of all His saints towards the same end we see in Ruth—the glory of His King. The King who will turn the hearts of His people back to God.

More than Good Directions (Exodus 13:17–22)

God doesn’t defeat the enemies of His people and redeem them, only to wave goodbye from the steps of His embassy in the defeated nation, giving them good directions to make it the rest of the way home on their own. The God who comes down to His people goes with them.

Modern evangelicals are not allergic to all doctrine. There’re some doctrines they’re fond of. One of them is guidance. Unfortunately, we’re severely misguided concerning guidance. Culpably, we are misguided because we don’t like where Biblical guidance goes.

Where does God lead His people? He leads them to a mountain, and then to the promised land. He leads them to a mountain where they receive His law, that they might know how they are to live in that land unto Him. God leads His people into holiness and He leads them home. Holiness is the path home, for home is a place of holiness.

A young man struggling with pornography asks what God’s will is for his life. What he want’s to know is where to go to school, what career to pursue, and who to marry. He want’s to know how to live in a sweet spot so that he can live Disney ever after. Many evangelicals have tried to baptize prosperity theology and make it clean. Such a pursuit of God’s will is nothing but idolatry. What is God’s will for the young man? Stop looking at pornography. Be holy.

We want to be Christian Jedi Knights, in touch with the Spirit, traversing a mine field of danger with supernatural knowledge. We think we’re guided by the Spirit when we miss a traffic accident. True enough. But you were also guided by the sovereign God when you had a traffic accident. God’s guidance isn’t something passive, but active. He is guiding. He faithfully guides His redeemed people into holiness until they come all the way home.

God guides His people into Egypt where they’re oppressed. He guides Moses back, and heavier loads are laid on them. He delivers them and lead them south away from the promised land. He leads them by the Sea where there is no retreat. He leads them in the wilderness. And He leads them home. God’s guidance comes with cloud and fire. It is omnisciently wise and gloriously peculiar. It is an unfailing, active, consistent guidance. It comes not at a distance, nor quietly. It is near and clear.

If your notion of divine guidance causes you more anxiety than peace, you’re doing it wrong. As is often the case, many sing their theology better than they confess it:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
—John Newton

The Penning Pastor: The Lord Will Provide

“The Lord Will Provide”

Though troubles assail
And dangers affright,
Though friends should all fail
And foes all unite;
Yet one thing secures us,
Whatever betide,
The scripture assures us,
The Lord will provide.

The birds without barn
Or storehouse are fed,
From them let us learn
To trust for our bread:
His saints, what is fitting,
Shall ne’er be denied,
So long as ’tis written,
The Lord will provide.

We may, like the ships,
By tempest be tossed
On perilous deeps,
But cannot be lost.
Though Satan enrages
The wind and the tide,
The promise engages,
The Lord will provide.

His call we obey
Like Abram of old,
Not knowing our way,
But faith makes us bold;
For though we are strangers
We have a good Guide,
And trust in all dangers,
The Lord will provide.

When Satan appears
To stop up our path,
And fill us with fears,
We triumph by faith;
He cannot take from us,
Though oft he has tried,
This heart–cheering promise,
The Lord will provide.

He tells us we’re weak,
Our hope is in vain,
The good that we seek
We ne’er shall obtain,
But when such suggestions
Our spirits have plied,
This answers all questions,
The Lord will provide.

No strength of our own,
Or goodness we claim,
Yet since we have known
The Savior’s great name;
In this our strong tower
For safety we hide,
The Lord is our power,
The Lord will provide.

When life sinks apace
And death is in view,
This word of his grace
Shall comfort us through:
No fearing or doubting
With Christ on our side,
We hope to die shouting,
The Lord will provide.

—John Newton, Works

Reading Backwards for Greater Comprehension (Exodus 2:1–25)

The immediate audience Moses intended Exodus for wasn’t reading it blind. They experienced the events blind, but now, through this narrative, they are allowed to revisit their recent history and see things as they really were. Like reading a great novel a second time, they’re able to see images, metaphors, symbols, and foreshadowing they missed because now they know the ending. “The providence of God,” says John Flavel, “is like Hebrew words—it can only be read backwards.”

The people of Israel are crying out to God for deliverance. God has already raised up the deliverer, from the Levites, who will act as their mediator, and though whom they will receive instructions concerning a tent. Israel will be delivered from the bondage of building store cities for Pharaoh, to the freedom of building a tabernacle for God, with the spoils of His victory, so that He as their king might dwell in their midst.

By faith, we read this story not only looking back, but looking forward. The true and better Moses has come. He has defeated the serpent tyrant and released us from our bitter bondage to sin and death. We’re sojourners, but, we can be sure that He will lead us all the way home. We know the ending, but one day, when this present age is past, we’ll read backwards with even greater clarity and see that God never forgot His covenant and we will ask our Father to tell the story again and again.

Satan: God’s Good Farmer (Exodus 1:1–22)

God was faithful to His covenant; in Egypt He made of Jacob a great nation (Genesis 46:3–4), and, in Egypt, they were afflicted (Genesis 15:13–14). Affliction and multiplication were both His brushstrokes. He steps back from the canvass saying, “Very good!” God’s blessing brought persecution; both were part of His plan.

The multiplication led to the oppression, but that isn’t what Moses says in v. 12. He doesn’t say the more they multiplied the more they were oppressed, but, the more they were oppressed the more they multiplied. The serpent tries to stomp out the seed but his stomping is God’s sowing. The people of God are like cells that when you cut them they don’t die, they multiply. God writes blessing bigger than the serpent’s eraser. He also puts a pencil lead into Satan’s eraser. The greater his rage, the more marks there are. The more marks there are, the greater his rage. Repeat cycle. God turns the serpent’s eraser into a pencil to tell His tale.

It always works this way. When the serpent bit the heel of the Seed of the woman, the Seed did die, but He sprouted from the ground the Firstfruits of the harvest. When death tried to kill Life, Life wasn’t extinguished, it was multiplied.

The serpent tries to stomp the seed of Abraham plural. He only makes it more plural. Cells are split, the body of Christ grows. The church caught on quickly. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” says Tertullian. Satan still rages, meaning, he still writes—God’s story. In 1920 the church in China comprised an estimated 2.3 million souls. Now, some say conservatively, thanks to hostile communism, there are 100 million. One could say that the persecution was a brutal as the growth was exponential, but the persecution came first. The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied. As punishment for his sin against man, God is making Satan write Exodus 1:12 on the board a trillion times, and then, hell to follow.

God has not forgotten His covenant. He is multiplying His people still. He is using the serpent still. Don’t get comfortable in this world, find peace in God’s covenant. We’re in Egypt. God is multiplying, but we’re not home yet. The greater Moses has come, and is sure to return.