The study of the providence of God has been highly recommended to us. We are told that John the Baptist, while living his retired life in the wilderness of Judea, studied the providence of God in nature. We are told that Jesus Christ Himself studied carefully the providence of God during His years at Nazareth. We are also told that He loved to go out into the mountains around Nazareth, into the forests and glens to find places to pray and to study the providence of God. We have an example of this providence in action recorded in Matthew 15.
Jesus was not always easy to understand, at least it seemed so to the disciples. But you have to look at it from His standpoint, too; they were not always easy to teach. He had a very difficult lesson that He needed to teach them at this point in their educational experience. To teach them this particular lesson, He set up what appeared to be a five—day seminar. He took them over the hill country from Galilee to the area of Tyre and Sidon, fifty or sixty miles to the northwest. I would estimate that it took them at least two days to go, two days to come back, with one day spent there.
What was this special effort all about? Was it for a woman who had a devil-possessed daughter? Well, yes; but that is only a small part of it. That was the easiest thing that Jesus had to do on this particular journey. His biggest job was not to deal with the devil-possessed daughter of a woman but to deal with the tradition-possessed minds of the twelve disciples. They thought like Jews; they lived like Jews, and they were Jews. They had imbibed the spirit of the rabbis, which had a particular view of the world that Jesus had to deal with. It was not appropriate for His cause and for His disciples to have the world view of the rabbis. The Jews had a saying, “Just as the best of serpents should be crushed, even so, the best of Gentiles should be slain.” This was an opinion that all of His disciples held. Before He could use them as missionaries to the Gentile world, Jesus had to get a new idea into their minds.
Preparation before Commission
Just before His return to heaven, Jesus said to His disciples, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you; and ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” Acts 1:8. If Jesus had not done some special educational work for them, they would have choked and sputtered when He said Samaria. When He said, “Unto the uttermost part of the earth,” they would have just been aghast. (Out there was where those curs, those mongrels, those horrible Gentiles lived.) He had a job to do before they would even consider such a thing.
We have now the woman to consider. We are told that she was a woman of Canaan. The Canaanites, were the oldest race of people who lived in that area. Actually, however, she probably did not know herself who her ancestors were. Centuries before, the Assyrians, a small but ambitious nation of people, sought to control the whole country. To accomplish this, they first used force and cruelty, believing that if they were mean and cruel enough, nobody would ever dream of rebelling against their power. This did not work, however, and people rebelled anyway. Later in their history, they resorted to the practice of relocation people. By taking them away from their homelands and mixing them all up, they hoped to leave them without sufficient strength in numbers to be able to mount a rebellion. This resulted in the people encountering, and to a large degree assimilating, various types of cultural and religious attitudes.
Many years later, when Cyrus permitted the Jews from Babylon to go back to Jerusalem, secular historical tell us that he did the same thing for many other people. Under his rule, if you could still remember and if you had a desire to do so, you were allowed to return to your ancestral homeland. This resulted in another great transmigration of people all over the vast area. There had been a great deal of inter-marriage with the different peoples. So if you lived in the area of Tyre and Sidon, like this woman did, and you were referred to as a woman of Canaan, that did not mean very much. It would be very, very difficult for you to be sure whose blood was in your veins; but for certain, it was not the blood of Abraham.
On the other hand, before a Jewish boy learned to read and write, he learned his pedigree. He learned to prove that he was descended from Abraham; so by groups of seven, he memorized the most outstanding ancestors of his ancestral line. He did not try to remember all of the but enough to show you that he was indeed in line with Abraham. If you called upon him to tell you who he was, he would not just say, “I am Joseph, ” or “I am David.” He would say, “I am Joseph, son of, son of, son of, son…” all the way back to “son of Abraham.” That is what counted. You had to be a son of Abraham. So people with an attitude like this looked at this woman as if she were just a cur, or mongrel. Because of this situation, she was ideally suited to be the subject of this seminar.
The stage is set; the players are there: the pagan, the prejudiced disciples, and the compassionate Saviour. But as we watch the action unfold, we may be at first as puzzled and bewildered as the disciples were.
The woman comes with her first appeal to Jesus. “Lord, have mercy on me; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.” Jesus’ first answer to her is silence. So what does the silence mean? The disciples think, of course, that it means rejection. That is what they understand his apparent indifference to mean. They cannot understand why He does not finished the job and get rid of the woman. But Jesus knows what He is doing, and He works carefully in this educational situation.
Now as we look on and see somebody appealing to the Saviour and His answer is silence, we possibly can identify with that because we have had that experience, have we not? Have we not presented some request to the Lord and received silence as an answer? A young college girl was talking to me about some of her problems one day. I asked her, “Have you talked to the Lord about it?”
She answered, “Yes, I have. But it seems like God just doesn’t say anything.” That is not so uncommon. I think that it is really quite common that we talk to the Lord about something and the answer appears to be silence. What does the silence mean? This is a question that we can reflect upon with profit.
Does it mean that God does not hear? Does it mean that He does not care? Does it mean that the answer is no? Well, certainly it cannot mean that He does not hear. We know that He hears. Certainly it does not mean that He does not care, whether we are looking at this situation or our own situation. After all, He had walked fifty miles or more just to get to this woman to take care of her problem; so He certainly cares. In our case, we know that He died for us; He lives for us, so He cares. So it cannot mean that He does not hear; it cannot mean that He does not care. Well, does it mean that the answer is no? Not necessarily. What, then, does it mean?
We may get a clue from Romans 8:26 where we are told, “We know not what we should pray for as we ought.” In The Desire of Ages, 200, we find these words: “The Saviour longs to give us a greater blessing than we ask.” The Saviour wants to give us something bigger and better than we are asking for. Well, why does He not do it? What is holding Him back?
We need to think about that for a moment. Physical things can be given by surprise, but spiritual things cannot. We can surprise somebody with a gift of money or property or land or personal things. We even have surprise parties where everything is a total surprise to somebody. And that works. You can put something physical in a person’s hand, but you cannot put something spiritual into someone’s heart by surprise. That is impossible. The heart must be wanting that spiritual gift before it can be given. I think that if you will just do a little thinking about it, you will see that this is true. How can you give a spiritual gift of peace or happiness or joy or anything like that to somebody whose heart is just far, far away and not concerned about peace or happiness or joy? It cannot be done. Because a spiritual gift cannot be given unless it is desired, God sometimes finds it necessary to delay an answer to our prayers. You see, we are carnally minded.
Here is a simple illustration. Suppose the pastor of a church says, “Wednesday evening at 7:30 there is going to be prayer meeting and everybody who comes is going to receive a blessing. The Lord has promised it.”
So we go to the pastor and ask, “What did you say that we are going to receive Wednesday night?”
He answers, “A blessing.”
“What can I do with a blessing? Can I eat it?”
“No, you cannot eat it.”
“Can I wear it?”
“No, you cannot wear it.”
“Can I put it in the bank?”
“No, you cannot put it in the bank.”
Suppose that on Sabbath morning the pastor were to say, “We are going to have prayer meeting on Wednesday night and everybody who comes is going to get a new $20 bill.” Do you think that you could make it to prayer meeting? On, yes! We understand this. We would be there, everyone of us, young and old. We put so much more value on money than we do on what the Lord has promised, and that is a problem. That is a problem that God has to deal with, and one of His ways of dealing with it is with His silence.
“Lord, I need a new pair of shoes.” Silence. “Lord, this is the second time that I am telling You that I need a new pair of shoes.” Silence. “Lord, pardon me for mentioning this third time, but I need a new pair of shoes.” Silence. “What is the matter with God?” Silence. “I wonder if it could be something the matter with me.” “Now we are getting somewhere,” God says.
You see, God delays the answer to our prayer because He wants to give us something better than we ask. Why do we always have to talk about shoes?” He asks. “Why can’t we talk about something important? Did I not promise you that I would take care of all things? Did I not say, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you?’ Why do you always come to Me with a list of physical things that you want?”
Record, or try to remember all of your praying for a week, making a list of all of the physical things that you ask the Lord for and a list of all of the spiritual things that you ask for. I suspect that the list of physical things will be quite a bit longer because we have to talk about shoes, clothes, our house, and all of our other things. All the while, God is saying, “Talk about something important. You need the joy of Christ in your life far more than you need new shoes. Why can you not talk about that?”
As we move along, we take notice of His disciples’ confusion on this point. You see, He answered the lady twice and He spoke to the disciples once. When they noticed that He was not answering her, they interpreted it to mean rejection and they said, “Send her away; for she crieth after us.”
He said, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That throws them into confusion and this is what He wanted to do. You see, His body language, if we want to call it that, and His speech did not agree. “I am only sent unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Therefore, I am not sending her away.” What? “What is He saying?” the disciples mutter one to another. He should be saying, “I am only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; therefore I am sending her away.” That would make sense. But He says one thing with His body language and He says something else with his words; so they begin to puzzle, and that is what He wants.
It was with this point that He drove His first wedge and opened a crack in that big wall of prejudice. “He is surely not suggesting to us that this mongrel, this cur, is a lost sheep of the house of Israel, is He? Or is He? Could that be what He is saying?” This is the thought that He wanted to be forming in their minds.
We now come to His second answer to her, and it seems even worse than the first. He had just been ignoring her as if He did not even see her, but now He stops and looks at her and she pleads again, “Lord, have mercy on me.”
Looking at her, He says, “You are a dog.”
Well that is even worse than the silence. We wonder that she even held on. We are told that she saw something in His face that He could not hide (see The Desire of Ages, 184), so she latched on to that. If you have ever worked among third-world people, you may have discovered something. They may not have the greatest education, but it is very difficult to fool them. They are very shrewd judges of human nature. They read your face, your eyes, your actions. This Canaanite woman probably had very little education; she may not have known how to read or write, but she could read His face. She saw something there that she latched on to. So when Jesus said to her, “You are a dog,” instead of walking away, she replied, “You say I’m a dog and I do not deny it; but if I am a dog, where are my crumbs? You do not look like a man who would starve His dog to death.”
Jesus answered, “Okay, okay, you win.” What else could He do when she said, “I am not basing my plea on my character; I am placing it on Your character?” As Martin Luther said, “She threw His bag of promises down in front of Him, and He couldn’t step over it.”
Well, she got what she wanted and the disciples learned something. This was a hard lesson to learn, but they learned it. As the Jewish nation hardened itself and raised more and more barriers against the gospel message and the disciples were called upon to move farther and farther out into the Gentile world, they remembered this experience. They remembered that a mongrel cur can be a child of Abraham.
Originally, Paul and the disciples believed, “If ye be Abraham’s seed, then you can approach Christ.” Christ turned it right around. “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:27-29
We often experience the silence of God when we pray. Does it mean that He does not hear? Oh, no. Does it mean that He does not care? Oh, no. It means that He wants us to think. He wants us to think about something that we are not thinking about because our mind is so taken up with shoes and socks and all of the physical things of life. “The Saviour longs to give us a greater blessing than we ask; and He delays the answer to our request that He may show us the evil of our own hearts, and our deep need of His grace.” The Desire of Ages, 200. He deliberately chooses to answer us with silence.
“Sometimes answers to our prayers come immediately, sometimes we have to wait patiently and continue earnestly to plead for the things that we need. We are to keep on asking, even if we do not realize the immediate response to our prayers.
“There are precious promises in the Scriptures to those who wait upon the Lord. We all desire an immediate answer to our prayers and are tempted to become discouraged if our prayer is not immediately answered…this is a great mistake. The delay is for our special benefit.” Counsels on Health, 380
“The God of providence still walks among us. Though His footsteps are not seen, though His positive and direct workings are not recognized or understood, the God of providence is still walking among us making journeys to reach us perhaps.” Reflecting Christ, 98
Thank God for His providence. Thank Him for His mercy, for His understanding, for His willingness to go anywhere, to do anything to bring any one of us to the salvation of the Lord. Thank God for the fact that every one of us has a page in the book of providence where every detail is numbered. Nothing happens to us except by His permission.