A Little Lesson on Divine Providence

August 17, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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Last week, in my personal devotions, I read through Numbers 26, which recounts a census taken near the end of Israel’s 40 year wandering through the wilderness. Here’s a taste of the bean counting:

The descendants of Gad by their clans were: through Zephon, the Zephonite clan; through Haggi, the Haggite clan; through Shuni, the Shunite clan; through Ozni, the Oznite clan; through Eri, the Erite clan; through Arodi, the Arodite clan; through Areli, the Arelite clan. These were the clans of Gad; those numbered were 40,500. Er and Onan were sons of Judah, but they died in Canaan. The descendants of Judah by their clans were: through Shelah, the Shelanite clan; through Perez, the Perezite clan; through Zerah, the Zerahite clan. The descendants of Perez were: through Hezron, the Hezronite clan; through Hamul, the Hamulite clan. These were the clans of Judah; those numbered were 76,500. (Numbers 26:15-22)

I won’t blame you if you found yourself skimming over these verses. Biblical censuses and genealogies are items we tend to skip so we can get to the good stuff. Names we don’t know and numbers we don’t care about can quickly lull us to sleep. But as snooze inducing as these stilted sections of Scripture might sometimes feel, my commitment to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible still calls me to see God’s merciful hand at work. And God’s merciful hand is indeed at work in Numbers 26.

Numbers 26 represents the second census in this book. The first one is in Numbers 1, near the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. From Numbers 1 to Numbers 26, approximately 38 years have passed. These years, it should be noted, have not been particularly pleasant ones. There has been grumbling (Numbers 11:1-6; 14:1-4), dissension among Israel’s leaders (Numbers 12), a refusal to enter the land God had promised to Israel (Numbers 13), defeats in battle (Numbers 14:40-45), rebellions (Numbers 16), and plagues (Numbers 21:4-9; 25). This is in addition to the natural and normal difficulties that come with camping out in a desert for decades on end. Yet, by the time all is said and done, the population of Israel between the first census in Numbers 1 and this census in Numbers 26 has remained remarkably stable. The population has decreased by only .3 percent. It turns out that for all the hardship Israel experienced and for all the sin they committed, God, out of His providence, took good care of His people. They endured even when, by all accounts, they should not have.

As remarkable as God’s providential care for Israel over 40 years of wandering in the wilderness was, it pales in comparison to God’s providential care for His Church. Through persecutions, hostilities, scandals, and political and intellectual assaults, the Church has not only endured, it has grown. As this map elegantly visualizes, what began as a band of twelve now claims nearly a third of the world’s population. Forget a .3 percent decrease. How about an 18.3 billion percent increase?

I realize that in our day and age, the remarkable story of Christ’s Church can sometimes be hard to recognize and remember. I was talking to a friend just the other day who wanted to know what we, as Christians, needed to do to beat back the encroachment of secularism. I understand his concern. If you’re not at least a little unsettled by the state and trajectory of our culture, you’re not paying attention. Still, I think secularism has a lot more to worry about than Christianity. After all, secularism can’t claim the history, the increase, or, for that matter, the truth that Christianity can.

In Luke 4, Jesus is preaching in His hometown of Nazareth. His text for the day is from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Isaiah 61:1-2)

The Jews of Jesus’ day understood Isaiah’s words eschatologically. The believed God would set right what was wrong with the world on the Last Day. This is why, immediately after Isaiah talks about “the year of the LORD’s favor,” he speaks of “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). Judgment Day, Isaiah says, is coming. But Jesus, when He preached on these words, interpreted them in a way no one expected.  After reading from Isaiah, Jesus announces, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Huh? How could this be?  Judgment Day had not yet come.  The world had not yet been set right.  The poor had not been made rich. Broken hearts remained. Israel was still under captivity to the Romans. Prisons were still open. And the Lord’s favor, though it may have been touted by the Jewish religious leaders as a theological truism, still felt distant as a practical reality. How could Jesus say Isaiah’s words had been fulfilled right then and there? Because Jesus knew the census numbers from Numbers 1 and Numbers 26. Jesus knew that God was taking care of His people even when life felt like a wilderness wandering. Jesus took the long view of history and saw God’s fingerprints all over it. Jesus knew God’s providence. And Jesus knew the setbacks and sin of this world are no match for the promises of God.

May we know what Jesus knew. After all, what Jesus knew not only gives perspective when the world feels tempestuous and hostile, it gives hope.

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