I’d like to present one more example of providence, one I think is the crowning example.
God raises up kings and sets them down again. One of those kings, Nebuchadnezzar, comes to recognize that fact when God turns him into the crazy uncle down the street, eating grass in front of the county courthouse, and then restores him again to his throne—and nobody objects (Da 4.28-37).
Just before this episode, God has revealed his plan to Nebuchadnezzar in a dream (Da 2.26-45). The prophet Daniel interprets the dream to predict that after Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire will come the kingdom of the Medes and Persians, and then Greece, and then Rome.
And it all happens, just as God predicted.
Six centuries later Persia and Greece have come and gone, and Rome has conquered the Mediterranean Basin, including the little province of Judaea, the southern tip of the old land of Canaan, waaaay down at the end of the Sea.
It’s on the list of provinces, and it has a governor appointed by Rome, but it is of little if any concern back in the capital.
What is of concern, though, is the stupendous amount of money needed to run an empire, particularly one with an army large enough to keep the conquered peoples in check. Along about 750 AU (on the Roman calendar), the emperor, Caesar Augustus, decides he needs more money. He orders a census to organize the tax rolls. The order means that all the inhabitants of Roman provinces need to report to their family’s town of origin and sign up.
In the backwater village of Nazareth, in what used to be the tribal allotment of Zebulun back in the Israelite days, lives a construction worker named Joseph. We don’t know his age at this time, but we do know that he’s engaged to be married to a young woman—perhaps a teen—named Miriam. He has a lot on his mind; he’s learned that his fiancée is pregnant–without his help–and soon after, he’s learned that the child is the supernaturally conceived, promised Messiah of Israel. Miriam is now approaching full term.
Both he and Miriam are descendants of David, the great king of Israel from a millennium earlier. Everyone in Israel knows that David was from Bethlehem, in the territory of Judah. So Joseph and Miriam now have to travel overland to Judea to register for the census.
I’m sure Joseph thinks, “Look, I really don’t need this right now.” A full-term pregnant woman has no business traveling close to a hundred miles by any conveyance, let alone donkey.
So they go, at great inconvenience and almost certainly against their will.
When they arrive in Bethlehem, she goes into labor.
And she has a Son.
Now, we already know that this is no ordinary son. An angelic messenger has told Joseph, “He shall save his people from their sins” (Mt 1.21). He is the promised Messiah.
Promised, indeed. There has been a flotilla of promises made over the centuries about this child, beginning in the Garden of Eden (Ge 3.15).
And one of those promises (Mic 5.2) is that he would be born in Bethlehem.
Not just any Bethlehem, either. There’s a village named Bethlehem just 6 miles northwest of Nazareth (Jos 19.15). Joseph might well have taken care of the census business there with a day trip. But the prophecy says “Bethlehem Ephrata,” which is the one down in Judah, where David was from.
So in far-off Rome, the most powerful man in the world, who doesn’t care about Judea or Jews or Messiahs or construction workers or prophecies, operating from the least religious motive imaginable, decides that the Empire will be upended and millions of people inconvenienced for his own convenience, and thus forces a full-term pregnant woman to travel a hundred miles on the back of a donkey.
And the rest is History.