And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. (Genesis 28:12-14)
In today’s passage, God demonstrates a few remarkable truths at once.
First, Jacob receives a vision of a ladder between heaven and earth. Angels ascend and descend and God stands above it. The odd claims of mystics that this ladder represents growing in grace and wisdom toward God in further and further steps (attaining a perfect knowledge of divinity) may be summarily dismissed. What is taught here is the Providence of God. God is always interacting with the earth, His counsel always being executed upon earth and the affairs of earth being brought to Him and known by Him. God is not wholly other than His creation; however, He is not removed nor distant from it. God’s wisdom stands at the top of the ladder and is (as Matthew Henry notes) “directing all the motions of second causes to the glory of the first Cause.”
Next, God reveals a further action of His Providence: covenant. It is important that we consider covenant in the context of God’s providence. For some theologians – especially in the Reformed tradition – covenant theology has become “hyper-covenantalism”, filtering all doctrines through the lens of the covenant. However, Scripture reveals that God works both providentially and covenantally. This is aptly demonstrated by Jesus in Matthew 10:29-31:
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.
The sparrows are upheld by God’s providence; those in covenant with God are a part of His special providence through the covenant. Westminster 7.1 explains this distinction quite well and I’d recommend reading it today.
The principle behind this is to understand that God is more than what He has revealed, covenantally speaking, and that we must understand that all that He has revealed does not sufficiently describe Him. In our studies, God is always the object of study; yet there are limits to this. As Calvin relates to us in this passage: “we must diligently cultivate that sobriety which teaches us not to desire to know more concerning him than he reveals unto us.”