The Scope of Providence

Text: Genesis 47

Proposition: The Providence of God through blessing and adversity reminds me that I am in all aspects of my life, in His hands.                                                        

Introduction: A. Samuel Mattson tells a story about times when jobs were hard to find, in New York City, in 1930.  “Just 19, I was fresh off the boat from Sweden and didn’t speak any English. When I'd boarded the train in my hometown of Karlskrona, Sweden, a woman next to me had asked, “Where are you going?” “America”, I said, “to make a new start.”  “My cousin Lars works in New York City, at the Steinway piano factory. Look him up when you get there”. She wrote on a piece of paper, handed it to me and said, “God be with you”.      This is what happened when he arrived in New York…                                                                                                          

 “It was a sweltering New York day when I set out in search of the factory. I had no idea where it was. I wandered the city for hours, showing people that scrap of paper, which bore four words: Lars Olsen-Steinway Piano. Nobody was able to help me. I was disappointed, and so tired. When I saw a parked car I opened the door and slid into the front seat. Where I was from anyone could rest in someone else’s wagon or cart. I hoped the same was true here. I soon fell asleep, but was jolted awake by the blast of a whistle. Workmen streamed out of a nearby building. One of them yelled at me, in English. I answered instinctively in Swedish that I was sorry. Amazingly, he responded in Swedish, “What are you doing in my car?”  I explained and then showed him that piece of paper. The man smiled, he said the whistle I had heard announced the end of the workday at Steinway & Sons. Then he walked me around the corner and introduced me to someone who got me a job as a painter. The man who owned the car… that was Lars Olsen.”                                             

This morning we are going to talk about the Providence of God, sometimes best recognized through stories like this and yet the scope of God’s providence is much more complex than we might have thought. Let’s read Genesis 47 and begin to discover just how encompassing the Providence of God is.

I. The Providence of God is More Than Just Isolated Blessings. When we think about God’s providence we think of the times when things went really well, when we were blessed or favored in some way. At the turning point of the Second World War the Allies invaded Europe with a strategic assault on the beaches of Normandy. That morning on D- Day, a fog rolled in concealing the allied assault on Nazi-held France enabling them to gain a crucial victory. Many would say that this was more than mere coincidence, they would say it was providential. But God’s providence is more than things just working in our favor, that D-Day morning was also providential for Germany. Both the Victor and the Vanquished  experience Providence. Listen to how the Heidelberg Catechism defines God’s Providence, “the almighty and ever-present power of God whereby He still upholds, as it were by his own hand, heaven and earth together with all creatures, and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but by His fatherly hand”

By this definition the seven year drought which caused famine to Jacob’s family was an act of Providence, the placing of Joseph in a position of power in Egypt was Providence, the shelter that Jacob and his family found in Pharaoh’s care in Egypt, that too was Providence and then when the drought had gone away, when a new Pharaoh took power and enslaved the people of Israel for 430 years… that too was Providence.

Providence applies to nature, to individuals, to nations, and to all aspects of life. Providence means that God is present and active in our lives, personally involved in countless aspects of human life and the world around us. It means that the world is not ruled by chance or fate, but by a personal God intimately involved in it.

That expands the scope of what we would usually call ‘Providence’ by expanding the way we see the hand of God in all the good and the difficult details of our lives.

II. The Scope of Providence Just in Genesis 47 is Astonishing.

By God’s Providence five of Joseph’s brothers now stand before Pharaoh as favored people being given the best of the land of Egypt to live in. Though they had sinned in envying Joseph to the point of selling him into slavery, though the Egyptians were a racist society and treated the Hebrews contemptuously, God’s Providence redirected the sinful actions of man to still bring about God’s purposes. The greatest demonstration of this principle was in the actions of sinful men mocking and beating and crucifying the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Providence accomplished the cross, not the Pharisees, not the Romans, not even Satan. It is astonishing that God’s Providence overcomes the sinful intentions of man and turns them to His good purposes.

It’s also astonishing that after Joseph has brought his brothers to Pharaoh he then brings his father Jacob and introduces him to Pharaoh. What’s amazing here is not so much the respect that Pharaoh shows this Patriarch of Israel but it is what Jacob does after this. Jacob tells him that he is 130 years old, that his whole life has been a pilgrimage, not a pursuit of the Promised Land but a pilgrimage in pursuit of God. Then Jacob the Hebrew blesses Pharaoh of Egypt. This is astonishing because the Pharaoh’s considered themselves deity and here a Hebrew shepherd asks the blessing of his God upon this earthly version of a god. The Providence of God reaches past the Hebrew people to all the peoples of the earth, it’s what God said He would do providentially through Abraham way back in Genesis 12, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” I wonder if Jacob had intended to do this when he got up that morning. Listen to these statements about providence:

Proverbs 16:1… “The plans of the mind belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.”                                                                                                                                 Proverbs 16:9… “A man’s mind plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps”                                                                                                                                                                      Proverbs 19:21…“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established” It is astonishing that Providence even guides what we end up saying to people as God directs our steps.

It is also astonishing that God’s Providence overrules our political and economic systems. When you read verses 13 to 26 what you see  God doing providentially through Joseph is changing the economy of Egypt from a free market economy to a state run economy, you see a 20% taxation rate initiated and you see changes put in place that remained in place long after the drought and famine had passed. So God’s Providence is greater than democracy, greater than free markets or stock markets, greater than Communism and greater than any tyrant or dictator. But what it means is that God can redirect these to His purposes, God has a political agenda and an economic agenda and a spiritual agenda… it’s called His kingdom, and it’s coming to earth as it even now is in place in heaven. That’s God’s Providence and it is astonishing.

III. God’s Providence, Great As It Is, Doesn’t Take Away Our Responsibility. In the closing verses, seventeen years have passed and Jacob calls Joseph and has him promise, putting his hand under his thigh, to bury Jacob back in Canaan, in Hebron at the cave of Machpelah. It is Joseph’s responsibility according to what his father has asked of him, by faith it is entrusted to Joseph to do this. Does Joseph have free will to either obey his father or do what is convenient for him and just bury him in Egypt? Absolutely, responsibility through the actions of our will is what God demands we use. But does the concept of Providence, of God directly or indirectly orchestrating all things destroy any possibility of free will? If God is in complete control, how can we be truly free in the decisions we make? In other words, for free will to be meaningful, does there have to be some things which are outside of God’s sovereign control? That view of free will blows a hole through the understanding of what sovereignty really is. If we can do what we want to do and God has no say in the matter and that is how we define ‘free will’, then God is no longer sovereign, we are.  So when we talk about this encompassing view of Providence there has to be room for responsibility and free will to exist without doing violence to the reality of God’s sovereignty. It’s been said that, “Divine providence does not destroy our freedom. Rather, divine providence is what enables us to properly use that freedom.” It’s like what Paul said to the philosophers of Corinth in Acts 17:28:“For in Him we live and move and have our being…”. Within Providence, within Christ we do live and move and have our being of free will, yet all to His glory. God’s providence, it’s astonishing!

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