The Preciousness Of Providence And Submission

Read Genesis 24 at esv.org.

INTRODUCTION

In the midst of a book filled with sin, rebellion, sacrifice, and difficulty, this passage is a sort of sweet respite. It’s easy to imagine how hard it would have been for Rebekah to leave her family on such short notice, but even that is cast in a light of rightness and willingness. This chapter is one of obedience, grace, trust, warmth, and the clear unfolding of the plans of God concerning His promises to Abraham.

Genesis 24 is one of the longer chapters in the bible, but its basic story can be summed up in just twelve words: God provided a wife for Isaac through the faithful submission of others. Wrapped up in the length and simplicity we find two absolutely profound themes that continue on throughout the entire bible: providence and submission. While these words often illicit all kinds of thoughts and emotions, the main gift this passage provides is that it helps us see the preciousness of both when they are rightly understood and applied. Let’s pray then, that God would help us see and apply these things in even greater ways as we look in on the next stage in God’s covenant faithfulness to His people. That is, may we delight even more in God’s good governance and our submission to it.

THE PRECIOUSNESS OF GOD’S PROVIDENCE

The first thing I’d like to draw your attention to is the preciousness of the providence of God that is on full display in this chapter. Let’s start with a definition. And let’s start our definition with a pair of contrasts.

Providence vs. Deism

What is God’s providence? It is not deism. According to deism god has no direct involvement in the affairs of the world at all. A deistic god is like an absent watchmaker; who made a watch, wound it up so that it would continue on its own, and then left the watch to continue functioning without intervention. In deism there is no specific direction or plan for creation, only outer boundaries and basic inner rules. There are many possible outcomes in any given situation and god has no influence over (and possibly no preference about) any of them. In deism god is entirely hands off. Anything that looks like divine involvement is at most a remnant of the past.

Providence vs. Fatalism

What is God’s providence? It is not fatalism. Fatalism is the idea that some force (external, internal, or both) has fixed every single outcome. All things are predetermined. We experience reality unfolding exactly as we take in a movie—we don’t know what happens next until it happens, and we might not understand everything that happens, but nothing can be altered, it has all already been entirely determined. In fatalism mankind is entirely hands off (in any truly meaningful sense anyway). Anything that looks like real choice is at most an illusion.

Providence

If God’s providence isn’t deism or fatalism, what exactly is it? It is the manner by which God continually directs all things in a particular way for the good of His creatures.

Here’s how the Heidelberg Catechism words it (27): ” The almighty and ever present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.

The heart of the meaning of providence is God’s provision of all good things through His all good rule of all. At the same time, it’s important for us to understand that within God’s providential rule His creatures make real choices that really affect the world. In divine providence both God and man are hands on. Anything that seems entirely natural or fixed is simply a misreading of our circumstances.

The first time God’s providence shows up explicitly in the bible is just two chapters earlier in Genesis. In Genesis 22, as Abraham neared the place of sacrifice and Isaac asked where the lamb of sacrifice was, Abraham replied “God will provide for himself the lamb…” (v.8). The word “provide” is where we get the word “providence”. God’s providence would take care of everything. Abraham and Isaac chose to obey, but God ultimately provided.

Perhaps the clearest example of how God’s providence works alongside human will is found Philippians 2:12-13. The word itself isn’t used, but the concept is clearly there. The Apostle Paul commanded the Philippian Christians to, ” work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling…” You, fight the good fight of the faith. Kill your sin. Hope in God. Obey the Word. V.13, however, shows what’s really under and over and in all of that: the providence of God. “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” You work toward your salvation. If you don’t you will not be saved. BUT, do so in the full knowledge that God’s providence is over it all. He is already providing everything you need to do what God commands.

To be clear, every moment of reality is the unfolding of God’s providence. In that sense we see it everything, always. Sometimes, however, as in Genesis 24, we’re given a clear explanation of exactly what we’re seeing. Where, then, do we clearly see God’s providence in our text?

We see it right away in v.1 (and again in 35-36) where we’re told that God “blessed Abraham in all things.” That’s just another way of saying that God’s kind providence was upon Abraham in everything. Highlighting the sovereign, providing hand of God throughout this story is Moses’ unmistakable intent.

We see God’s providence in v.7 (and again in 40) when Abraham’s servant wondered aloud what he should do if no woman from Abraham’s clan would return with him to be Isaac’s wife. Abraham replied that he ought to trust in the providence of God, “The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there.” The God who has provided will provide, Abraham said. Trust in that providence.

The practical application of this particular providential display is that just Abraham wanted nothing to do with this mission if it fell outside of God’s providence, neither should we. “…if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine…”. Abraham had resigned himself to this singular truth: If God was not in it, he did not want it. May we learn to think and act this way, Grace. God granting us our will is the scariest thing imaginable (Romans 1:24).

We see it in v.14-16 (and again in 42-47). Abraham’s servant prayed for God to show His providence in very specific ways, ” Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

And “Before he had finished speaking [praying], behold, Rebekah…came out with her water jar on her shoulder.” The servant immediately asked her the question of his prayer and she answered exactly as he asked. Grace, God’s providence is truly unmistakable in this exchange. The repetitiveness of this chapter is meant to highlight that.

Thus, in 26-27 we read, “The man bowed his head and worshiped the LORD 27 and said, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the LORD has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen.'” In other words, Abraham’s servant saw and praised the presence and preciousness of God’s providence over all of this.

Grace, would you notice the difference a right understanding of God’s providence makes? Apart from this view Abraham’s servant would have undoubtedly considered how good of a job he’d done (perhaps counting himself lucky). He’d probably begin imagining a hefty bonus from his master for going above and beyond expectations. It’s not hard to imagine the servant spiraling into bitterness if Abraham failed to notice or reward his faithfulness. How many times has something like that happened in your own mind and heart? Recognizing God’s providence changed everything though. It caused Abraham’s servant not to boast or become greedy, but to worship, thanking God for His faithfulness and kindness. Oh what a difference this makes!

We see God’s providence in v.50. When Laban and Bethuel, Abraham’s kinsman and Rebekah’s brother and father, heard the servant’s recap of what had happened they replied simply, “The thing has come from the LORD…”.

Consider once again the difference this understanding of God’s providence makes. Apart from it, filled primarily with worldly wisdom and affection for their sister/daughter how many questions and objections might these men have raised? Instead, recognizing the clear presence and preciousness of God’s providence in this situation, they both immediately knew they could do nothing but gladly consent, “…we cannot speak to you bad or good. 51 Behold, Rebekah is before you; take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has spoken.” Grace, let this attitude mark our lives.

We see it clearly in v.56. We see God’s providence in Abraham’s servant’s reply to Rebekah’s family’s request for her to remain with them for a bit that they might say goodbye. To that the servant replied, “Do not delay me, since the LORD has prospered my way.” The servant didn’t want to interrupt the good work God was doing.

Grace, one more time, do not miss the fact that Moses intentionally draws our attention to God’s providence yet again in v.60. Here, certainly without knowing it, Rebekah’s family sang a song of blessing over her that was a virtual echo of God’s promise to Abraham concerning the number of his offspring and the status of his enemies. You it will do your soul well to spend some time this week comparing Genesis 22:17-18 with 24:60. God provided confirmation of His providence in miraculously giving the two parties one mind.

Again, Grace, make no mistake, God’s providence was on every aspect of this story, and every story, and every aspect of creation since the beginning, and it will continue into eternity. It is never a question of whether or not God’s providence is at work. It is only a question of whether we recognize it for what it is. In passages like this one—by design—it’s easy to see and understand and most of all it’s easy to appreciate it’s preciousness.

All of this is particularly precious in that it so clearly mirrors our own experience. What I mean is that although God is working continually throughout this passage, He does so entirely in the background. Apart from the narrator we wouldn’t know any more about God’s involvement in this story than we do our own. From the perspective of every character in Genesis 24 God was only seen through eyes of faith. Grace, God is always working in our lives in exactly the same way He is here—providentially. And so we ought to respond exactly as the characters in this story do—praising God for His constant kindness in working to provide our ultimate good.

So what are we to make of this providence of God? Again, the Catechism says that because of God’s precious providence (28), “We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing in creation will separate us from his love. For all creatures are so completely in God’s hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.”

THE PRECIOUSNESS OF GODLY SUBMISSION

In other words, when we discover the precious providence of God we ought to gladly submit to it. And that leads to the second main theme and gift of this passage—the preciousness of godly submission/obedience.

Before we look at this in the text, I’d like to dispel a few of misconceptions about submission. First, submission is not a concept rooted in sin. As I mentioned in the beginning, submission might not ring pleasant bells in your minds and hearts. Perhaps you’ve been asked to submit to a tyrant. Perhaps the submission you’ve been charged with has come at your expense rather than for your good. And perhaps you’re simply a rebellious person who struggles to submit to anything outside of yourself. While all of these things may be true, we cannot let them confuse us concerning the true nature of submission. Grace, even before the Fall, even while all things were still very good, all creation was called to submit to God, Eve was called to submit to her husband, and the animals were called to submit to Adam and Eve. Submission is not a concept rooted in sin even though sin has corrupted much of it.

Second, submission is not something reserved for the weak or vulnerable. It is not inherently a sign of inferiority. Grace, eternally the Son and Spirit of God have submitted to the will of the Father even though they possess all the power and glory of the godhead.

Third, submission is not a punishment. Godly submission to godly leaders, as I hope to help you see from Genesis 24, is a precious gift; something to seek rather than avoid.

And forth, submission is not for women only. God does call women to submit in some unique ways, but submission is not unique to women. In this chapter alone we’ll see the submission of a leader, a servant, a son, a daughter, a father, a mother, and a brother. Let’s consider how good and rewarding their submission was.

Abraham Submitted to God

The key for us to keep in mind here is that the glad-hearted submission we see in each of these people was rooted in their understanding of the presence and preciousness of God’s providence. It is precisely because they knew God was at work for their good in the situations they faced that submission came so easily and joyfully.

The passage begins with Abraham submitting, once again, to the LORD God. Although his role in the story is quickly relegated to the background, we see his simple submission in two ways. First, we see it in the fact that he worked to secure a wife for his son in order that God’s promises might continue through him. God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky but He also called Abraham to participate in obedience toward the fulfillment.

Second, we see Abraham’s obedience in the fact that he wouldn’t take a wife for his son from the Canaanites.

3…swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites…

The Canaanites were a people who refused to submit to God and that Abraham’s offspring would, according to God’s command, eventually conquer and dispossess from the land. Therefore, it would not do to take a wife from among them. This entire chapter is shaped by this simple act of obedience from Abraham. And this simple act of obedience was entirely shaped by his certain belief in the precious providence of God over it.

Oh how easy it is to take shortcuts and to justify simple compromises in light of “prudence and wisdom”. Grace, look to Abraham and the unfolding of this story as a kind reminder that submission to God is always greater.

Abraham’s Servant to Submitted Abraham

We see the preciousness of right submission in Abraham’s servant as well. In fact, Abraham’s servant is the main character in this story and his glad-hearted submission, rooted in his unwavering belief in God’s good providence, drives it from the beginning.

The nameless servant’s submission begins with his willingness to make a solemn oath before his master, Abraham (2-4). His submission continued as he obediently left on the assignment of faith (10-11). He willingly complied with Abraham’s charge to go to a land he didn’t know and find from among a people he didn’t know a wife for his master’s only son.

As the story unfolds, even apart from his master’s judging eye, Abraham’s servant would not be distracted from his obedience. Not even by the kind hospitality of Abraham’s kinsmen could turn him one way or the other.

33 Then food was set before him to eat. But he said, “I will not eat until I have said what I have to say.”

And even once his charge had been secured, Abraham’s servant would not rest until it was delivered. Confronted with a seemingly reasonable request (please give us a week and a half to say our goodbyes), he replied straight-forwardly, “Do not delay me, since the LORD has prospered my way. Send me away that I may go to my master.”

It’s so easy to see the rightness (not to say easiness) of this man’s submission, isn’t it? The story is so simple and in its simplicity it is so clear. What can get muddled in our own lives is plain to see here. Abraham’s servant submitted without exception and its goodness is unmistakable. Let us learn from this, Grace. Where you are rightly charged to obey, you have found something truly precious.

Rebekah’s Father and Brother Submitted to God

We see simple submission to the will of God in Rebekah’s father and brother as well. As we’ve already seen, confronted with the request to give their young woman in marriage, convinced of the clear hand of God over it, the men simply replied, “The thing has come from the LORD; we cannot speak to you bad or good. 51 Behold, Rebekah is before you; take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has spoken.”

Again, we cannot miss that their precious submission was fueled by their clear belief in the precious providence of God. The two have to go together if we are to truly honor God. Living without a view of God’s good governance won’t do, but neither will living without a view of the goodness of submitting to it regardless of the worldly consequences.

Rebekah’s Brother and Mother Submitted to God

A short time later Laban and (this time) his mother were faced with yet another decision to submit or not. Again, having made the reasonable request of Abraham’s servant to “Let the young woman remain with us for a while, at least ten days (55),” at the servant’s objection Laban and Milcah quickly relented. Again, Grace, consider the severity of this submission. Not only would they let Rebekah go, they would do so mere hours after the idea was first presented. Yet again, because of the clear providence of God, the rightness and sweetness (the preciousness) of this act of submission was easy to see.

Rebekah Submitted to God

There are two more clear and remarkable acts of sweet submission that we mustn’t miss. First, consider young Rebekah in all of this. For several reasons it can be easy to fail to press ourselves up against what we find here; to fail to ask ourselves what we would do in her place. Again, then, consider Rebekah, maybe 14 or 15 years old. She was going about her day as usual when a stranger approached her. Having received a rather routine request (for water), and having replied in a rather routine way (sure thing), Rebekah would certainly have noticed the man looking at her in a less-than-routine manner (“21 The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether the LORD had prospered his journey or not” and then “26 bowed his head and worshiped the LORD”). After hearing his claim to be on a mission from a wealthy kinsmen, preceded by the angel of the LORD, and according to the covenant of God, Rebekah ran to tell her family who promptly invited the man inside for dinner. Before he took a bite, however, (again, imagine Rebekah sitting there in curious wonder) Rebekah found out that she was the reason for all of this and that she was to be made the wife of a stranger the next day.

With that as the backdrop, how would you feel? What would you do? If you were asked by both a stranger and your family whether you’d consent to leave with him to be married to someone the next day, what could possibly compel you to answer as Rebekah did, “I will go” (58)? Just as the preciousness of Rebekah’s submission is plain once again, so too is the answer to our question. Rebekah knew, without a doubt, that this was of God, according to His providence, and so she went. How sweet is that? How right is that?!

Isaac Submitted to God

Finally we see glad-hearted submission to the providence of God in Isaac as he took Rebekah as his wife according to his father’s covenant-keeping wishes. There’s no mention of Abraham checking in with Isaac concerning this whole arrangement, but because Isaac trusted his father and his God, he was glad to submit and take Rebekah for his wife.

CONCLUSION

O, the preciousness of God’s providence and our submission to it. Neither are always easy to see or immediately pleasant, but both are always precious. Is there a passage in all the bible where we see these things more clearly than we do in this one? Let us therefore learn to love and live in light of both. Let us delight increasingly in the kind rule of God and glad-heartedly submit to it. Again, both are on wonderful display as this story of covenant faithfulness continues on into the second generation.

But as remarkable as all of this was, it points to something far more remarkable still. The unfolding of the story of Abraham over the course of generations and centuries is actually a part of the unfolding of an even greater story. As clear as the preciousness of providence and submission are in this passage, there’s another passage in which both are even clearer still. Let’s conclude, then, with a glance at a scene involving one of Abraham’s countless descendents in Luke 22(:42).

According to the sweet and bitter providence of God, our Lord Jesus was brought to the point where, like Abraham and Isaac, submission meant being a willing sacrifice before God. But submission to God’s providence for Jesus meant even more still; it meant becoming sin and being forsaken by His Father. What would Jesus do? How would He respond as the cross loomed ever nearer. Knowing the preciousness of His Father’s providence, as simply as Rebekah He responded, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” Hebrews (12:2) tells us that it was for the providential joy set before Him that Jesus submitted to the will of the Father by enduring the cross, scorning its shame, and therein securing salvation for all who would receive Him in faith.

In its own right Genesis 24 is a remarkable story of the preciousness of providence and submission. But its real glory is in the fact that it moves us along toward and points us to the greatest act of providence and obedience of all time. Glory to God in Christ. Amen.