The Cross-dressing Preacher Who Rode His Horse into the Sea

NPG D29746; John Flavel by Michael Vandergucht

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. Ruth 1:1-5

…him who works all things according to the counsel of his will… Ephesians 1:11

Did you know that to read the Hebrew Bible, you have to read it backwards? The letters go from right to left. Even though the Hebrew language has been around a lot longer than English, we think it strange that it has to be read backwards. Maybe Moses would be perplexed to read from left to right? Maybe reading from right to left is normal? I’m not trying to discuss the validity of reading right to left, I’m really just trying to prepare you for something that one of my heroes, John Flavel, said, so let’s just get to it:

“Some providences, like Hebrew letters, must be read backwards.”

Flavel is right. And if you don’t believe him, just ask Naomi and Ruth. There is no way that they could see that, through all of their pain, God was working for their good. But by the time Ruth gave birth to baby Obed, they would both affirm that God was indeed working for their good all along.

I think you can believe John Flavel’s words because he lived it. He was no stranger to suffering. His father was a pastor who was thrown in prison and then died from the plague. Flavel’s wife Joan died while giving birth to their first child. Their baby died as well. Flavel remarried again and his second wife died. He married for a third time and his third wife died. Kind of sounds like the opening verses to the book of Ruth, huh?

John Flavel experienced many hardships in his pastoral ministry. He was ejected from his pulpit by the government for nonconformity, but he continued to meet secretly with his parishioners. On occasion he would preach for them in the woods where some meetings lasted until midnight. Once he even had to dress as a woman on horseback in order to reach a secret meeting place so that he could preach and baptize people. Another time he was pursued by the authorities and had to plunge his horse into the sea and swim through rocks (which severely cut him) in order to escape. He suffered greatly in ministry and his final words demonstrate the perspective that he had through it all-

“I know that it will be well with me.”

John Flavel knew that even though he suffered much, God had a plan in it all. God indeed does work all things according to the counsel of His will. So you can trust Him. When things happen that you don’t understand and that make you scratch your head, know that He is working.

John Flavel also said, “Providence is like a curious piece of tapestry made of a thousand shreds, which, single, appear useless, but put together, they represent a beautiful history to the eye.”

You only have a piece of the puzzle now. One day you will see the complete picture.

Some providences, like Hebrew letters, must be read backwards. One of these days we’ll all read backwards and see just what God was doing in every situation of our lives.



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