March 8, 11:30 a.m.
Speaker: Austin Duncan
Topic: A Remnant Preserved by Grace
Passage: Genesis 38
John Flavel once said, “The providence of God is like Hebrew words—It can only be read backwards.” God’s providence can only be understood down the road, looking back. We can see in hindsight how God has worked together the choices we’ve made and circumstances we’ve experienced for our good.
This is true in Genesis 38—looking back at it following the thread of the Bible, we see something profound that highlights the preserving grace of God in His remnant. This chapter shows how through all of human history, all this sin, God sustains His grace to His chosen people. God’s messianic prophecy lands on Judah in a powerful way: his line will lead all the way to Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah (Genesis 49:8-12).
The story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 is an integral part of biblical history, not an interruption in the Joseph story. This scene is perfectly crafted into the story of the promise. You cannot understand the promise that Yahweh gave to Abraham apart from Judah’s story. He is the first of Jacob’s sons to realize God’s providence—the first to remain a son of favor and show how God can use an unrighteous man as a portrait of His grace.
In the beginning of chapter 38, we see the remnant in jeopardy. Through deaths and unfaithfulness, there is no line for Judah. He has no heirs to carry on his name.
But God preserves His remnant through the mire. Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar, is desperate. She knows about God’s covenant promise and she has waited for Judah to do what he is supposed to—secure an heir for her by arranging a marriage with his son. Tamar is the only one concerned about what God is concerned about—the preservation of the chosen line of Judah.
But holiness takes a second place to Judah’s apparent happiness, and God’s revealed will is put aside for a plan that seems right to Judah. He begins this story unconcerned and dishonest. He is unwilling to obey God because the cost seems so great. He postpones and delays, never intending to obey God’s design. He walks by sight, not by faith. And it takes the beguiling treachery of his Canaanite daughter in law to get his head on straight.
So Tamar tricks her father-in-law into fulfilling what he was unwilling to do himself. She accomplishes her purposes her way.
But despite the wickedness of this situation, the remnant remains, always and only by God’s grace. In a remarkable turn of God’s providence, He shows his providence by changing Judah’s heart. In a turning point in Judah’s life, he expresses awareness that he didn’t do what he was supposed to. He recognizes that Tamar—the prostitute—is more righteous than he is, and he finally does right by her. Even in this convoluted, sinful scenario, the stunning grace of God is on display. Judah sees it now and he sees that God’s promise will carry on.
When read backwards, the question of whether Judah is morally fit to carry the promised seed is answered. Instead of writing Judah off based on this story, as we may be prone to do, we must look at his turning point. He’s dishonored his responsibilities and God puts a stop to it. Judah shows that he is weak and compromising after he lies to Tamar and shows his grieving daughter-in-law that he will not do the right thing. Judah is a bad guy. But he gets tricked by his daughter in law in a scene where ultimately, his response is honorable.
Judah does not discount himself or disqualify himself from carrying on the promise, here instead, he gains the reader’s interest because he does the hard thing. Like every true display of gospel grace in someone’s life, Judah’s repentance bears fruit.
The scene ends, and the story returns to Joseph. But we see Judah’s repentance continue to bear fruit in Chapter 44, perhaps the most climactic moment in the Joseph story.
When it looks like Joseph is going to hold his brother Simeon hostage to pay his brothers back for what happened to him, Judah rises up. He is willing to assume the guilt of his brother. He intercedes as a substitute for Simeon. And because of this act of substitution Joseph gives in. Judah’s sacrifice shows that he understands the providence of God: He trusts in the sovereignty of God, no longer scheming, believing that God will fulfill his promise regardless.
Judah’s willingness to lay down his life is a reminder that one day, someone in his tribe would be a righteous king, a man after God’s own heart. This man would have an even greater Son, a King like no other who would sit on David’s throne and rule and reign forever. This Man would be a perfectly righteous Judean who would sacrifice Himself for the sins of the unrighteous.
Judah here is functioning as a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ. His act is a picture of the noble sacrifice that will mark the tribe of Judah and the scepter that they carry.
A story like this reminds us to fix our minds and hearts on God’s good, gracious, wise, sovereign providence and rule. It gives us the assurance that even sinners like us can be changed, saved, redeemed, and used to accomplish God’s sovereign purposes. God can overcome the sin and darkness in our own lives, histories, and choices and use them to accomplish His ultimate good.
The preservation of the remnant is solely a product of God’s grace. God’s people will be preserved despite sin’s societal decay and Satan’s devices. Christ will accomplish all his good purposes. His church will grow, His shepherds will be sustained, and His sovereign grace will be magnified. You can bank on these promises because God saved a Judahite by His grace all those years ago, and God will always preserve that remnant.
Someday, we will all read providence backward and see that every sinful episode, every intervention of God’s grace, every tear and every sorrow will lead like a river to the throne of God, where we will see that Lion-like ruler, Judah’s descendant and Judah’s Lord. And when we see Him, it will all be worth it, and it will all have been because of God's preserving grace toward His remnant.