How Providence Works
October 10, 2019
“God has not brought us this far to cause us to fail.”
I first heard those words when a friend preached his senior sermon at Dallas Seminary. Four decades later that statement seems as true today as it did then.
All Christians believe in the sovereignty of God
All Christians believe in the sovereignty of God. We understand that even in the most confusing moments, God is at work in us and through us and all around us. But sometimes it is easier to doubt God’s plan than it is to believe it.
Those who read my words are in many different situations:
Some are near to Christ—even at the door of salvation.
Some are spiritually confused.
Some are going through hard times.
Some need encouragement.
Some are praying for a loved one to be saved.
Some have serious health problems.
Some see no hope for the future.
Some are estranged from family and friends.
Some struggle with doubt and others with secret sins.
All of us need the grace of God.
We all need the grace of God
When we say God has not brought us this far to cause us to fail, we’re talking about the doctrine of God’s providence. In English, the word providence has two parts. It’s pro and video put together, literally meaning “to see before.” Though the word itself is not found in most modern translations of the Bible, the concept is certainly biblical. It refers to God’s gracious oversight of the universe. Every one of those words is important. God’s providence is one aspect of his grace. Oversight means he directs the course of affairs. The word universe tells us God not only knows the big picture; he also concerns himself with the tiniest details.
God Doesn’t Roll Dice
The doctrine of God’s providence teaches us some important truths: First, God cares about the tiniest details of life. Nothing escapes his notice, for he is concerned about the small as well as the big. In fact, with God there is no big or small. He knows when a sparrow falls, and he numbers the hairs on your head. He keeps track of the stars in the skies and the rivers that flow to the oceans. He sets the day of your birth, the day of your death, and he ordains everything that comes to pass in between. Second, he uses everything and wastes nothing. There are no accidents with God, only incidents. This includes events that seem to us to be senseless tragedies. Third, God intends to shape his children into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). He often uses difficult moments and human tragedies to accomplish that purpose.
With God there is no big or small
Many verses in the Bible teach these truths, including Acts 17:28 (“in him we live and move and have our being”), Colossians 1:17 (“in him all things hold together”), Proverbs 16:9 (“in his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps”), and especially Psalm 115:3 (“our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him”).
In the words of R.C. Sproul, “God doesn’t roll dice.” Nothing happens by chance. Ever.
With that as background, let’s return to our study of the book of Ruth. We’ve seen how in a time of famine Elimelech moved his family to Moab (a foolish decision). While they were in pagan territory, Elimelech and his two sons die. Ten years later Naomi, Orpah and Ruth prepare to travel to Bethlehem. Orpah returns to Moab, but Ruth pledges her loyalty to Naomi. Together the two widows–one old and one young–return to Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest (April-May). Naomi feels like God has abandoned her because she left Bethlehem full and returned empty.
“Something” is about to happen
As Ruth 1 ends, we can sense that “something” is about to happen, but what is it? How will the story unfold? If it’s true that joy comes in the morning, Naomi feels like she is trapped at midnight. Where is the sunlight of God’s kindness? The first three verses of Ruth 2 begin to unfold the answer. As we study this passage, we can see how God’s providence works behind the scenes to accomplish something stupendous for Naomi and Ruth.
We have the benefit of reading the story from back to front. That is, we know how it ends. But neither of the widows has the slightest idea of what is about to happen. Here’s the question: How does God’s providence work in the lives of ordinary people like Naomi and Ruth?
First, He Prepares the People
“Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side. He was a prominent man of noble character from Elimelech’s family. His name was Boaz” (v. 1).
So far in the book of Ruth there hasn’t been much good news. Hardly any, in fact. You have an ill-advised trip to Moab, three funerals, three widows, and a sad trip back to Bethlehem. Naomi thinks God has treated her harshly. The only bright spot has been Ruth’s declaration of devotion to her mother-in-law. But remember that they returned at the start of the barley harvest (Ruth 1:22). That might not seem like good news, but it meant things were about to change.
Anything can happen because anything happens all the time.
Ruth is one of the most beautiful short stories ever written. Every detail counts. Nothing is added as filler. The beginning of the barley harvest alerts us to the changing fortunes of life. No matter what yesterday was like, we never know what tomorrow may bring. Anything can happen because anything happens all the time.
That’s the background of this verse. In this first mention of Boaz, we learn he is related to Elimelech. Later we will discover he is qualified to be a “kinsman-redeemer,” but for the moment, all we know is that he and Elimelech are related somehow. We also know he is a man of high standing in the community. The phrase “noble character” can also mean something like “mighty warrior” or even “man of great wealth.” Perhaps all three of those ideas come together in Boaz–he is a man of character, a mighty warrior, and a man of wealth. He is the right man in the right place at the right time, but he doesn’t know it yet. He has heard about Ruth’s incredible devotion to Naomi, but at this point he’s never met her.
Verse 1 foreshadows the story that will begin to play out. Although Naomi came back home deeply discouraged, feeling she had no future, God has been at work behind the scenes. Now his plan is about to unfold in a most unlikely way.
God is already at work providing solutions for problems I don’t even know I have yet
Are you worried about next week? Forget it. He’s already there. How about next year? Don’t sweat it. He’s already there. What about tha
While rummaging through an accumulated mountain of mail, I came across an article about “the prevenient grace of God.” The phrase refers to “the grace that goes before.” It means that in every situation God is already at work before I get there.
We often limit our thinking to the fact that God’s presence goes with us as we go through life. That’s true, but it’s only part of the story. He’s not only with us now, he’s also way up the road ahead of us. Let me say it another way: While I’m living in Tuesday, he’s clearing the road for me on Friday. Or to say it yet another way: God is already at work providing solutions for problems I don’t even know I have yet.
Are you worried about next week? Forget it. He’s already there. How about next year? Don’t sweat it. He’s already there. What about that crucial meeting next week? Sleep well. He’s already there. What about that tough decision that looms ahead of you? Fear not. He’s already there.
It would be enough if God simply walked with us through the events of life. But he does much more than that. He goes ahead of us, clearing the way and arranging the details of life so that when we get there, we can have confidence he has already been there before us.
That’s the prevenient grace of God. He goes before his people. He’s at work in the future while we live in the present.
God works in the future while we live in the present
Though Naomi didn’t know it, and wouldn’t have believed it, God was at work during all those hard days in Moab. He was preparing Boaz to come to the rescue at just the right moment. And remember, Boaz didn’t know it either. Ruth certainly had no idea. Each person did as they pleased, yet it all worked out the way God intended.
That’s how providence works. He prepares the people even when they don’t know they are being prepared. He works in ways we can’t see to accomplish his plan through us.
Second, He Arranges the Plan
“Ruth the Moabitess asked Naomi, ‘Will you let me go into the fields and gather fallen grain behind someone with whom I find favor?’ Naomi answered her, ‘Go ahead, my daughter” (v. 2).
Ruth and Naomi came back home broke. They were living somewhere below the poverty line, which is a dangerous place to be if you are a widow. But Ruth has a plan. She asks for permission to go to the field and gather fallen grain. There are several things we need to keep in mind at this point.
Don’t harvest the entire field.
Leave some for the poor
First, Ruth is younger than Naomi and no doubt in better physical condition. Gleaning in the fields was hot, hard, backbreaking work. It meant hours spent following the reapers, hoping to pick up a fallen stalk here or there.
Second, God commanded his people to leave some grain in the field so that the poor would have something to eat.
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands (Deuteronomy 24:19).
In order to make the point clear, God commanded the same thing regarding olives (v. 20) and grapes (v. 21). Don’t be so careful in your harvest that you take every sheaf, every olive, and every grape. Leave some behind so the poor can find food to eat. That’s what happened in Ruth 2.
Trust God and start gleaning!
Third, Ruth shows her character by not wallowing in self-pity. She’s ready to work hard to provide for herself and for Naomi. We might state the principle this way: Do what you have to do each day and trust God for the right results. Ruth moved to meet her basic needs by picking grain left by the reapers. That’s menial labor, but she wasn’t afraid to do it.
Ruth doesn’t have a scheme in mind to catch a husband. She’s not thinking, “If I work in the fields, maybe I’ll meet my future husband that way.” This is not the Old Testament version of eHarmony. She’s desperate to provide food for herself and for Naomi. As we will discover later, God uses her diligence as part of his plan.
Third, He Oversees the Result
“So Ruth left and entered the field to gather grain behind the harvesters. She happened to be in the portion of the field belonging to Boaz, who was from Elimelech’s family” (v. 3).
Let’s start with the fact that Ruth entered “the field.” That refers to a large tract of land divided among various people. Eliezer might have the far northern section and Caleb might have a section in the southeastern corner, Jacob would grow crops on the western edge, and somewhere in the middle you had the property of Boaz. The owners used stones or other markers to indicate the various property lines.
That means Ruth had no idea whose property she might be on at any given moment. From her point of view, she merely happened to end up on the part of the large field owned by Boaz. The King James uses a delightful phrase: “Her hap was to light.” That’s old-fashioned, but it gets the point across. The CEB says, “by chance,” while other translations say, “It just so happened.” The writer wants us to know Ruth never set out to glean in Boaz’s field.
Nothing happens apart from God
That’s true from a purely human point of view, but we know there is no such thing as luck or chance or fate. Nothing in the universe ever “just happens.” I love these words by Alva J. McClain: “From the fall of a raindrop to the fall of an empire, all is under the providential control of God.” If not even a sparrow can fall from a branch apart from God’s control, and if he numbers the hairs on my head (Matthew 10:29-31), then we know he oversees the tiniest details of life. Nothing happens apart from God.
This passage demonstrates how God works behind the scenes to accomplish his will. Only the Lord knows what will happen next. Boaz hasn’t met Ruth, and Ruth isn’t planning on meeting Boaz. Naomi has no idea Boaz and Ruth will one day get married. She certainly doesn’t foresee holding a baby in her arms. She had no idea that God was putting affairs in motion that will put Ruth the Moabite maiden in the line of the Messiah.
A Sunrise, Not a Sunburst
God’s will usually comes to us like a sunrise, not like a sunburst. It doesn’t suddenly appear before us, like the sun shining at noonday. The will of God rises slowly before our eyes, starting with a few rays of light that pierce the darkness. We see a shaft of light here and another one there, but mostly we walk in darkness. As we keep walking, light slowly fills the sky until at last the darkness has vanished, and we are walking in the sunlight of God’s will.
“Blessed is that man who seeth God in trifles!”
Something like that is happening for Ruth, Naomi and Boaz. Little shafts of light are rising in the darkness. Soon the light will fill the sky as God’s plan begins to take shape. All they need to do is watch, wait and obey. Each step takes them closer to the destination God intended from the beginning. That’s how providence works–for them and for us. Providence doesn’t guarantee easy or immediate answers, but it assures us there are answers and that we are not walking blindly through life, left to our own devices. It tells us that through our good times and through our hard times, through our wisdom and through our folly, through our laughter and through our tears, God is working out his plan for us.
The God who took care of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz is our God too. We can trust him.
I ran across this sentence from Charles Spurgeon: “Blessed is that man who seeth God in trifles!” What a positive insight that is. We tend to look at the million-dollar answer to prayer and say, “What a mighty God we serve.” But the God of the large is also the God of the small. The God who hung the stars in space is also the God who numbers the hairs on your head. Why should it surprise us that God arranges for Ruth to “happen” to glean in the field owned by Boaz?
Circumstances are the fingerprints of God. No one saw it clearly that day in Bethlehem. Ruth didn’t see it, Naomi didn’t see it, and neither did Boaz. God’s plan would only become clear later. That’s the way life is for all of us. As John Piper puts it, God is doing perhaps 10,000 things in your life right now. You understand maybe 3 of those things. We can’t imagine all the different ways God is working all things for our own good and his glory. Or we can put it this way: We don’t know what we don’t know. We are like little children peering through a keyhole. We see a tiny bit, but the rest is hidden from our view. Only later will we begin to piece together God’s fingerprints on the circumstances of life.
Children peering through a keyhole
This truth ought to build our faith (“God is at work in my life in 10,000 different ways right now”), and it ought to humble us (“I’m not smart enough to figure out all God is doing in any particular situation”), and it ought to give us hope (“God knows what he is doing, even when my current situation makes no sense to me”).
The providence of God gives us confidence in the moment of confusion. Today many things are unclear, uncertain, and undecided. We all have more questions than we have answers. So much of life seems like stumbling through the fog of haphazard circumstances. One day God will make all things plain, and all his ways will be proved right.
Life is a mysterious journey full of unexpected twists and turns. The path ahead is a mystery to us all. No one can say for sure what is around the next bend. It may be a smooth road through a lovely valley, or we may discover the bridge is washed out, and we have to find a way to cross a deep river. Often the road disappears, or it may seem to go in three different directions, and we won’t know which one to choose. But there is One who knows the way because the past, present, and future are all the same to him, and the darkness is as the light of day. He knows the way we should go.
He knows the way we should go
So I come to the bottom line. God has not brought us this far to cause us to fail. We must say what the Bible says, that “all things” work together as part of God’s unfolding plan of redemption. If this is so, then there is no such thing as luck or fate or chance. Do you believe it? I do.
Let this great truth be the source of your security. Rest in the Lord. Lay your soul upon the solid rock of God’s eternal providence. Rest in his control over all things. Rest there, and you will sleep well tonight.
Stay tuned. The story is about to take an amazing turn when Ruth meets Boaz.