One of the most shocking truths in all the Bible is that God rules over all things. Not just the big things, but the “all things.” Galaxies and subatomic particles, as we confess in our Leadership Affirmation of Faith. God rules over all persons, all places, all things, all events, down to the very smallest and most seemingly insignificant details of our lives. Even those who choose evil are not outside God’s rule and control but unwillingly accomplish his purposes (as in Revelation 17:17).
This “sovereignty of God,” as we often call it, is almost always unnerving at first, but when we come to understand it rightly, it becomes one of the most comforting truths in all the Bible.
Coming to discover, in the Bible, that God is sovereign is perhaps the single greatest change I’ve experienced as an adult. I grew up in church and made a profession of faith as a child, and sat under Bible instruction as a teen, and even tried to read the Bible for myself some, but it wasn’t until college that I stood face to face with passages like these:
Psalm 115:3: Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
Proverbs 21:1: The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.
Daniel 4:35: God does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand.
Job 42:2: Job says to God, “Now I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
Romans 11:36: From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
God is sovereign. He is the king of the universe — and king in such a way that he rules over everything, down to every detail. As we’ve said before in our sermons on James 1, though he does not stand behind good and evil in the same way, God is sovereign over all, over both good and evil. And his sovereignty is not diminished or compromised by human choices or actions. He is sovereign over and under and behind and through and in our real choices and real actions, with all their causes and influences and consequences — which should not make us passive but free us to be active.
And today as we turn to Genesis 24, we come to the first extended story in the Bible that lingers over the details of God’s exhaustive sovereignty and involvement in human affairs. Here the curtain comes back, as it were, on the rapidly moving Genesis story, and we see what is often the unseen hand of “providence.”
Marvel at His Providence
What we find here in Genesis 24 is not an ancient manual on how to find a spouse, though we could identify a few key principles here. What we find is an ancient celebration of God’s sovereignty and perfect providential timing, along with the faithful actions of his people. God means for us to marvel at what he did to provide a wife for Isaac and keep his word to Abraham.
And a key lesson to learn in this chapter is that God’s providence doesn’t typically bring about his will despite his people — though that is the case sometimes — but God’s usual pattern is furthering his purposes in history through his people and their faithful engagement (mind, heart, will, actions) in the world he made.
Genesis 24 marks a big moment in history in the transition from Abraham to Isaac. After all the ups and downs we’ve been through with Abraham — to Egypt and back, splitting with and rescuing Lot, Hagar and the Ishmael project, Sarah’s barrenness and laughter, Isaac’s sacrifice and substitute — now Abraham’s promised offspring needs a wife for the promise to continue. (Abraham’s name appears twice as often in the story as Isaac’s.)
As we marvel here at God’s sovereignty in Genesis 24 in working against all odds to fulfill his promise to Abraham, let’s look at three (awe-inspiring) models of faith-filled activity under the sovereign hand of God.
1. Abraham (vv. 1–9)
Through the many tests of his faith, and ups and downs, he has become a model, as we have seen, of basing his life and decisions on the promises of God. He has learned to trust God and not cut corners or take things into his own hands. Here Abraham doesn’t pray, “Oh that Isaac might take a Canaanite wife!” He has encountered one barrier after another: first with land, then with offspring; first no heir, then no wife for his son. Now, at the end of his days, he has become a beautiful portrait of mature faith (and as we’ll see, it’s rubbed off on his servant). His instructions to his servant are very clear, in verse 6 and then again in verse 8: “do not take my son back there.” These are his last recorded words. He has his servant make a solemn oath (hand under the thigh — whether it’s a sign of submission or commitment to Abraham’s seed, the point is Abraham is dead serious; the servant will not forget this moment and pledge).
Why is Abraham so serious? He quotes specific words from God. He is living his life based on what God has said. He is not living his life naturally but supernaturally. Normal fathers in Abraham’s situation do not think and act this way. They find a wife for their son nearby, or if need be, make peace with him moving for the thriving of the marriage and offspring.
But not Abraham. He has a twofold promise: land and offspring. He refuses to have his son take a wife from Canaan, and refuses to have his son leave Canaan. Because he is living in light of God’s promises. He bases his decisions, big and small, on what God has said. And not just vaguely but specifically. In verse 7, he quotes God’s exact words from Genesis 12:7: “To your offspring I will give this land.”
How often have we heard God confirm and rehearse this promise since Genesis 12:7? (Three big ones in addition to several singular mentions of just offspring or land.)
Genesis 13:15–17: “All the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17 Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”
Genesis 15:7, 18: “So shall your offspring be. . . . I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess. . . . To your offspring I give this land.”
Genesis 17:7–8: “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
So don’t think that living by faith means living without repetition! This is how God does it. He says it again and again. He drives his promises deep into our souls. He means for his words to shape us, our heads, our hearts, our will, our lives.
God means for us to saturate our lives in his words. It is an indescribably precious thing that we have the promises of God. When we open this Book, we hear God’s voice. Abraham had so comparatively little to what we have in the whole Bible, Old Testament and New. Abraham had particular promises from God, and he learned to live in light of those promises. That was supernatural living then. And that is what supernatural living is today. God’s clear words shape us to discern his will when it’s not as clear (Romans 12:1–2).
So, through a life of ups and down, Abraham learned to base his life on God’s particular promises. And here, at our last glimpse of him, we see a model life of faith.
(A quick aside about dating and marriage from this chapter: We will see in Genesis 26:34 that Esau took Canaanite wives that made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah. The main principle here in Genesis 24 for dating and marriage today would be, Don’t marry a Canaanite but from your own kindred in Christ. 1 Corinthians 7:39: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord”; 2 Corinthians 6:14–15: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?”)
2. Rebekah (vv. 15–20)
Rebekah voluntarily and energetically meets a stranger’s needs. Look at verses 15–20:
Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. 16 The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up. 17 Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water to drink from your jar.” 18 She said, “Drink, my lord.” And she quickly let down her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. 19 When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels.
Abraham’s servant devises a wise test. It’s not whether she’s attractive enough, but whether she will volunteer to help a stranger in an inconvenient and costly way. He wants to find a wife for Isaac who will see needs and take initiative to meet them. He prays in verses 12–14,
O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. 13 Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. 14 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.”
Now, I’m told camels can drink up to 25 gallons of water, and he has ten camels! And verse 16 says, “She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up.” This was not an easy thing to get the water. But then, amazingly, in verse 20: “she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels.”
Rebekah goes above and beyond to volunteer to meet the needs of a stranger. Not only Abraham’s servant, but his ten camels. And she does it with energy. Verse 20: she “ran again to the well to draw water.” Which is another glimpse of faithful action when God is sovereign. Man do I want to be like this. Not bent inward in selfishness, but bent outward, ready to help others. With energy. Like Abraham in Genesis 18:2–7 (twice it says he “ran” to serve his guests; three times “quickly”). (Unmarrieds, want to get ready for marriage? Give yourself to seeing and meeting others’ needs. Few things will prepare you better.)
Christians are the people in the world who have the most reason to be like this — to volunteer, and them go above and beyond, to serve others. Our God is sovereign. He has conquered sin and death in his Son. He has made astoundingly great promises to us and secured for us an eternity of unending, ever increasing joy — if we could only, like Abraham, live by faith in his lavish promises, and base our lives on his word, we would be the freest people in all the word to not only meet others’ needs, even strangers, but do so proactively with energy and enthusiasm.
So Abraham shows us a life of faith that only makes sense in light of God’s promises. Rebekah shows us the beauty of energetically meeting others’ needs. Finally Abraham’s nameless servant shows us how to pray with our eyes open — meaning expectantly.
3. Abraham’s servant (vv. 26–27)
We never get the servant’s name. Which is part of what makes him an ideal servant: his willingness to embrace obscurity and be known only by his master’s name. He leads a caravan of ten camel making the 21-day journey of some 550 miles to Abraham’s hometown. When God has granted success to his mission, and he sits at table in the house of Rebekah’s mother, he puts his master’s commission ahead of his own comfort, not even pausing to eat (in verse 33) before addressing the family.
And when he retells the story (verses 34–49, he does so skillfully, tailoring the account to what he knows about Rebekah’s family, seeking to be maximally persuasive.
We’ve already seen his prayer in verses 12–14. As Rebekah serves him, meets the test, and God answers his prayer, we see his open eyes in verse 21: “The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether the Lord had prospered his journey or not.” This is not a creepy gaze, but the gaze of faith. He has prayed. Now he watches God at work in Rebekah’s work — expectantly — and then what does Abraham’s servant do? He completes the cycle of prayer. He doesn’t just receive the gift, but his eyes travel up the beam back to the Giver, and he worships. Verses 26–27 may be the most important in the story:
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.
God has not only answered his prayer, and Abraham’s hopes, but he has done exceedingly and abundantly above all they could have asked or even expected. Not only has God been faithful to his promises to Abraham and provided a wife for Isaac, but he has come to Abraham’s own kinsmen. And the servant worships.
God has not forsaken “his steadfast love and faithfulness” toward Abraham. This is the same language we will see when God reveals himself to Moses in Exodus 33–34. He is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” And then, throughout the Old Testament (and in the Psalms in particular), we will of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness — his covenant love to his covenant people.
(Verse 49 gives us an interesting angle on this phrase. Abraham’s servant appeals to Rebekah’s family, “Show steadfast love and faithfulness to my master.” In other words, family loyalty. Families are built by marriage covenants. We are covenanted together. Show my master family loyalty. Covenant faithfulness.)
Marvel at God’s Work
As we close, one question you might have, among others, in this long chapter is why does it tell the story twice — the first time by the narrator and the second time by the servant? For one, as we mentioned, it shows the servant’s wisdom. The second account isn’t exactly the same as the first. He selects what to mention, leave out, and emphasize in an effort to be maximally persuasive to the family. But even more than that, so that we the readers don’t miss the point, which is to marvel at the hand of God and worship him. That we would say, with verse 50, “The thing has come from the Lord.”
Abraham’s servant may be the central character of this chapter, but God is the chief actor, mentioned seventeen times. The story is meant to make us stand back and say, Look what God did! Look how loyal his is to his children! He is the one who took the initiative and made promises to Abraham, by which Abraham learned to base his life and decisions.
And God is the one who answered the servant’s expectant prayer. And when Rebekah sees a need, takes initiative to meet it, and expends herself with energy at great cost, she is being like God. Behold your God. The servant wanted a wife for Isaac who resembled (faint as it may have been) not just Abraham himself, but even more, the God of Abraham.
Eat and Drink Providence
As we come to the Table, here on this first Sunday of Advent, we could marvel at the providential hand of God in moving a Roman emperor to call a worldwide census to move Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem for Messiah’s long-prophesied birth. We could marvel that when God easily could have arranged for a rich family, a warm bed, and creature comforts for his incarnate Son, he left no room in the inn, and had his Son born in a stable and laid in a manger. Why such strange providences, so starkly different from the amazingly good providences of Genesis 24? Because his Son’s mission wasn’t ending at Christmas, but just beginning.
Here at the Table, we marvel at the sovereign hand of God in bringing about the greatest good the world has ever known through its greatest evil: the crucifixion of his Son.
This Table is not to the product of accident but providence. According to Acts 2:23, Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” and according to Acts 4:27–28, when Herod and Pilate, Gentiles and Jews “gathered together against” Jesus, they did, as the early church prayed, “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28).
When we eat and drink at this Table, we kiss the sovereign hand of God. What man meant for evil, God meant for good. The God who orchestrated a wife for Abraham’s son, and orchestrated Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, is the God who orchestrated his death with life-giving intentionality and a resurrection that broke the back of death itself.
At this Table, we do not eat and drink the accident of the cross. We eat and drink providence.