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  • Writer's pictureWayne Shelton

It's Not as it Seems

Genesis 42:35-38


One of the oldest sayings of the ancient church summarizes the essence of the relationship between God and His people: Deus pro nobis. It means “God for us.” That is what the doctrine of providence is all about. It is God’s being for His people. “What then shall we say to these things?” Paul asks. If God is for us, who can be against us, and who can separate us from the love of Christ? Is it going to be distress, peril, the sword, persecution, suffering, sickness, or human hostility? Paul is saying that no matter what we have to endure in this world as Christians, nothing has the power to sever the relationship we have to a loving and sovereign providence.


R. C. Sproul, in his writings on the doctrine of providence notes:


“The word providence is made up of a prefix and a root. The root comes from the Latin videre, from which we get the English word video. Julius Caesar famously said, “Veni, vidi, vici“—”I came, I saw, I conquered.” The vidi in that statement, “I saw,” comes from videre, which means “to see.” That is why we call television “video.” The Latin word provideo, from which we get our word providence, means “to see beforehand, a prior seeing, a foresight.” However, theologians make a distinction between the foreknowledge of God and the providence of God. Even though the word providence means the same thing etymologically as the word foreknowledge, the concept covers significantly more ground than the idea of foreknowledge. In fact, the closest thing to this Latin word in our language is the word provision.”


The first time we find the word providence in the Old Testament is in the narrative of Abraham’s offering of Isaac upon the altar. God called Abraham to take his son Isaac, whom he loved, to a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice. Quite naturally, Abraham anguished under a great internal struggle with God’s command, and as Abraham prepared to obey, Isaac asked him, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). Abraham replied, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (v. 8). Abraham spoke here of Jehovah jireh, “God will provide.” That is the first time the Bible speaks of God’s providence, which has to do with God’s making a provision for our needs. And of course, this passage looks forward to the ultimate provision He has made by virtue of His divine sovereignty, the supreme Lamb who was sacrificed on our behalf.


If we fast forward to Joseph’s life, we find it stamped with God’s providence. And it is summarized poignantly in Genesis 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” The teenager we met at the beginning of the story is now an aged man. His life has come full circle, and he is addressing his duplicitous brothers. Their actions, in selling him into slavery, had nothing but evil intent written all over it. Their malevolence can in no way be lessened by the knowledge that things did not turn out as they might have done. Truth is, God overruled their evil actions to accomplish a purpose that neither they nor Joseph could have fathomed. God brought good out of evil. In the words of the Westminster Confession, God in His providence “upholds, directs, disposes and governs all creatures, actions and things” to bring about a sovereignly pre-determined plan (5.1).


This, God had accomplished through a variety of actions. Joseph’s descent into slavery, followed by a false accusation of rape resulting in a lengthy imprisonment, spelled his downward spiral to the bottom. His life could hardly have been much worse. Only now, from the vantage point of what God had, in fact, accomplished — ensuring that an heir of the covenant promises was in the most powerful position in Egypt at a time when famine engulfed Canaan to ensure the survival of the covenant family — could Joseph look back and see the hand of God. As the puritan John Flavel has been so frequently cited as saying, providence is best read like Hebrew, backwards! Only then is it possible to trace the divine hand on the tiller guiding the gospel ship into a safe harbor. No matter how dark things get, His hand is always in control. Or, as the poet William Cowper wrote in verse:


Judge not the Lord by feeble sense but trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast; unfolding every hour.

The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.


I hope you can join us this week as we continue our study in the life of Joseph. We will be at Genesis 42:35-38 as we consider Jacob’s response to the brothers’ return in the context of the doctrine of providence. See you this Lord’s Day.


In Christ’s love,

Pastor Wayne

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