CHAPTER 8. –JOSEPH
No more signal illustration of the ways of providence is to be found in the whole of the scriptures than the case of Joseph—the most illustrious of all the sons of Jacob. It is not merely that great results came out of unpromising experiences; this might happen when the results are not of God, for there are things that are not of God. But the whole case is declared to be a case of divine manipulation. Thus Joseph told his brethren who had sold him into Egypt:
“God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth. . . . So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God” (Genesis 45:7-8).
Again, after his father’s death, when his brothers, fearing Joseph’s resentment for what they had done to him, sought to propitiate him, he said, after reassuring them,
“As for you, ye thought evil against me, but God meant it unto good to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Genesis 50:20).
So, also, we have the oft-recurring remark, “And the Lord was with Joseph:” and the statement of David in Psalm 105: God “sent a man before them, even Joseph, who was sold for a servant.”
In studying the events of Joseph’s life, therefore, we are studying a case in which God was at work beyond all question; and from which, therefore, we shall be able to learn instruction with regard to the experiences of our own lives, if our lives, like his, are framed in the fear of God and committed to His keeping in prayer and well-doing; for his case, like all the others, was “written for our learning.”
Joseph enjoyed a sunny youth at home till he was seventeen.
“Jacob loved him more than all his children.”
But this sunny youth was not unclouded. The ill-feeling of his brothers was a shadow in the sky. This existed without any cause from Joseph—at least without a cause for which he could be held responsible. He dreamt prophetic dreams. Perhaps he did not know they were prophetic. At all events, he told them to his brethren, who were angered at them because they exhibited Joseph in the position of supremacy over them all. These dreams were of God, as we may understand Joseph afterwards recognised from his declaration to Pharaoh:
“It (the power to interpret dreams) is not in me: God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace;”
And also his question to the butler and the baker in prison:
“Do not interpretations belong to God?”
All dreams are not of God: very few are. Dreams come of the multitude of business (Eccles. 5:3).
“He that hath a dream, let him tell his dream; but he that hath My word, let him speak it faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat, saith the Lord” (Jer. 23:28).
Yet there were dreams that were from God:
“If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make Myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream” (Numbers 12:6).
Of this order are the dreams referred to in the promise of the latter-day outpouring of the spirit:
“Your old men shall dream dreams.”
This was the nature of Joseph’s dreams—divinely communicated forecasts of coming events. They were communicated as a part of the agency that was to develop the future to which they pointed. The narrative of them by Joseph filled the minds of Joseph’s brethren with envy—a bitter feeling that banishes mercy. Their self-esteem was hurt by dreams that appeared to them the mere embodiments of a petted boy’s complacency, and thus they were predisposed to act the part that was to send Joseph to the sphere of his discipline and promotion.
“They could not speak peaceably to him.”
Their feelings settled into hatred, and hatred was ready to seek and find an opportunity of putting its object out of the way. Joseph was perfectly innocent of anything to justify their malignity. He was free of guile, a lover of righteousness, loved of his father, and loved of God; and behold him the object of gathering clouds of enmity! A short-sighted view would have judged the situation impossible. It would have said an innocent youth would have been shielded from malice; and, in the opposite experience, it would have complained of injustice, or, at the least, of a bewildering inscrutability in the ways of God. The facts of Joseph’s case at this juncture confute such views. Joseph was innocent and excellent, but Joseph was young and untried, and God had a great purpose with him that required that he should be matured and perfected in character as men only can be perfected—in the school of adversity. Joseph had to be fitted for exaltation and the exercise of power, and therefore Joseph had to suffer for Joseph’s own good and for the bringing about of a great result to the whole house of Israel. Joseph was allowed to become the object of his brethren’s successful hatred. Therefore, if sympathy sheds a tear, the understanding admires, while Joseph is bound by unfeeling brethren, and in spite of his frantic entreaties, lowered into a pit where death appears inevitable, both in his own estimation and that of his brothers. No greater evil short of death could befall a human being than that which thus came to Joseph. A spectator on the spot would have said it was evil in which it was not possible to imagine any good purpose. There was no explanation of it. Joseph was not permitted to know the meaning. He could not have understood if told. It would have frustrated the object for him to know. Let us recollect this when in any matter similarly situated. Circumstances may be dark; calamity unmixed; the situation such that enemies may appear to speak the truth if they say, “There is no help for him in God;” yet God may be at the bottom of all the trouble for purposes of goodness which the future alone will reveal. The only policy is, in all circumstances, to commit ourselves to the keeping of our Creator in faith and well-doing, as the Spirit commands:
“Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass. And He shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light and thy judgment as the noonday.”
The object of Joseph’s brethren was to kill him. They proposed to do this out and out before casting him into the pit (Gen. 37:20); but this would have interfered with the purpose of God. They were therefore diverted from their purpose. Reuben was touched with compassion for his brother, and proposed that they should do nothing violent to him, but merely put him into a pit, and let him come to die there—his object being to release him afterwards, and take him back to his father. Reuben’s proposal was accepted; and Joseph, arriving, was seized and stripped of his outer coat. Nothing is said in the narrative of Joseph’s terror; but it comes out in their remarks one to another in Egypt twenty years afterwards,
“We saw the anguish of his soul when he besought us, and we would not hear.”
The poor boy was let down into a living death, as it seemed, appealing in vain to the mercy of his hard-hearted and grown-up brothers. Had Reuben’s idea of coming back alone and taking him up again been carried out, God’s purpose would have been interfered with. So something occurs—we are not told what—to take Reuben away from the company of his brothers for a short time. While he is away, a company of travelling merchants, en route for Egypt, come in sight. An idea occurs to Judah:
“Let us sell Joseph: let us not kill him.”
The brothers willingly adopt a suggestion that delivers them from the crime of fratricide, while relieving them of the object of their hatred. Joseph is taken out of the pit and sold in Reuben’s absence. The merchants take their terror-stricken property and depart. Joseph’s brethren also go their ways. Reuben, by and by, comes to the pit expecting to put an end to his brother’s agonies. Alas, he is gone! —Reuben knows not whither—and he gives way to his grief.
Follow Joseph in his journey. From one dreadful experience he has plunged into another, and far worse. A father’s favourite, accustomed to the ways of love and the surroundings of comfort, he finds himself in the hands of unfeeling and mercenary strangers, who regard him as a chattel, and think only of how much he will fetch when they arrive in Egypt. It is written, “Oppression maketh a wise man mad.” Judge, then, the violent revulsions of feeling to which Joseph the choice of Jacob’s family, must have been subject in the custody of the Midianites as a slave going to a strange country. It was enough to break his heart altogether. Probably, we should have thought it was broken if we could have seen him “all of a heap,” exhausted with grief, broken down, unable to cry any more. It is not possible for human situation to be more agonising; human prospects to be darker; or human grief more poignant or more unavailing than Joseph’s at this part of his life. And yet “God was with him,” and was directing his way, and fitting him for exaltation and for untold usefulness in the execution of the divine purpose. The fact is to be pondered by every son of God in all possible evils that may befall them; for these things were “written for our learning.” The kingdom of God lies ahead, and Paul has told us that “through much tribulation we must enter therein.” How much, and what sort we require, God knows, and not we ourselves. Therefore, let us “humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God; and He will exalt us in due time.” Joseph’s agonising journey to Egypt was a journey to exaltation; and so is ours, if, like Joseph, we fear God, do His commandments, and commit our way to Him. But exaltation comes not at once. There were dark and dreary years before Joseph. Let us not be impatient.
Arrived in Egypt, the Midianite merchants find a ready market for Joseph, who was a “goodly person and well-favoured” (Gen. 39:6). A government official—Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh’s guard, buys him of their hands, and takes him into his house as a servant. Here we have to consider an instructive feature of the case. Joseph cheerily and faithfully addresses himself to the duties of his position. Had he been like some, he might have considered himself justified in sulking and dawdling, seeing that he was stolen and unjustly brought into his position. In that case, the Lord would not have been with Joseph; for the Lord is not with those who are slothful and contemptuous, from whatever cause. He is only with those who faithfully act their part in the circumstances into which He may bring them. “Ay,” may the Son-of-Belial class rejoin, “we would submit to any position the Lord brought us into, but we do not mean to put up with the injustice of man.” They have not eyes to see that the very injustices of men are often the Lord’s agencies to subject His people to the proof and to guide them at last into ways of blessedness. There was nothing to tell Joseph that the act of his brethren was the act of God: but he feared God and submitted himself, knowing (as all true sons of God know and recognise) that God ruleth in the kingdoms of men even now, and orders the steps of those who please Him by their faith and submission.
Joseph acted his part faithfully, and God worked with him and prospered what he did.
“His master saw that the lord was with him, and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand. And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him, and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand. And it came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake: and the blessing of the Lord was upon all that he had in the house and in the field.”
The Egyptian was an unenlightened natural man, and, as such, was not an object of interest to God, who “taketh pleasure in them that fear Him, and them that hope for His mercy” (Psalm 117:11). It was not for his sake that He prospered the Egyptian’s affairs, but for Joseph’s sake, who was of the specified character—a fact the Egyptian seems somewhat to have recognised. Are there no Josephs now? They are very scarce—very. But, wherever they are, there is the same favour from God on their behalf; for God is “the same yesterday, today, and for ever;” and—
“All things work together for good to those who love Him and who are the called according to His purpose”—
All things, absolutely, including the very worst occurrences, as Joseph was again about to experience.
Things went well with Joseph in Potiphar’s house for some years, when, suddenly, the earth clave beneath his feet, and precipitated him into an apparently bottomless abyss of woe. Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph to hide her own shame, and Potiphar, believing his wife commits Joseph to prison as a malefactor. We read the statement lightly, perhaps; but consider what it meant. Joseph’s desolate servitude was becoming somewhat mitigated with the lapse of time and the honour and comfort of the position to which his owner had promoted him as the responsible steward of his affairs; and here he is suddenly plunged into a lower deep than ever. He is not only in a strange land, but disgraced, and in a position debarring hope—not only a slave, but a branded slave; not only a prisoner, but a prisoner under circumstances that shut off all prospects of a possible release. In the first moments of his incarceration, Joseph must have been in a dreadful state of mind. We know what came after, which makes it difficult for us to realise the darkness of his situation. Joseph did not know what was coming after. He only knew the dreadfulness of his position—a prisoner and an outcast, unjustly banished from his country, in the first instance, and now the victim of a false accusation. He had said,
“How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”
And this was the consequence. Had such an one as Job’s wife been near, she would have had capital occasion for her foolish speech:
“Dost thou still hold fast thine integrity? Curse God and die.”
Perhaps she would have received the answer with which that woman’s truly wise husband rebuked her folly:
“Thou speakest as one of the foolish: shall we receive good at the hands of the Lord, and shall we not receive evil?”
It would have been an answer to her to say:
“The steps of a good man are ordered of the Lord,” and that “all things work together for good to them that love God; to them who are the called according to His purpose.”
It seemed very unlikely that this was being realised in Joseph’s case. Joseph, doubtless, bemoaned his position with many tears. The “stoical grin” with which educated Britons are taught to meet misfortunes is a part of the polished Paganism of the times. It results from imperfect development of the moral nature and the consequent false standard in vogue among those who, clever enough and proud, know not God, and obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It belongs not to the school of which Job, David, Jeremiah, and the Lord Jesus are prominent examples. These recognise that “there is a time to weep” as well as a time to laugh, and they do not require to invent the weeping time: it lies hard upon them in the present constitution of things in general upon the face of the earth, and sometimes comes close to them in the piercing sword of dire personal calamity, like that which shows us Joseph prostrate in an affliction which seems to lack a single ray of hope, and yet in which God was guiding him to great blessedness.
Joseph gets habituated to his grief and his position. By and by, God lets in a little light upon his darkness.
“The Lord gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners that were in prison; and whatever they did there, he was the doer of it. The keeper of the prison looked not to anything that was under his hand, because the Lord was with him; and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper” (Genesis 39:21-23).
Thus was Joseph’s position, as a prisoner, greatly mitigated. Thus does God lessen the troubles of His children after they have suffered awhile, that they may be established, strengthened, settled (1 Peter 5:10). He does not let their troubles press to their destruction. He afflicts with an object, and when the object is accomplished, the affliction is eased. If men will but commit themselves to Him in well-doing, He will guide their steps and frame their way for comfort and well-being. It is where they leave Him out of account and follow their own devices for their own purposes that He may leave them to be snared in their own way. Joseph was not of this class. He feared God and was afraid of sin, and God was protecting him in the midst of evil, and slowly guiding his paths to exaltation and honour. But the work was all apparently natural. It had been so up to this point. It continued to be so for a good while. Two fresh prisoners arrived. They were both domestics of Pharaoh. Their arrival was a link in the chain of Joseph’s deliverance; but he knew nothing of this: it was, to all appearance, a commonplace circumstance. They had offended Pharaoh, and were naturally rueful enough at their position—a ruefulness increased by striking dreams, which they both thought had a special meaning beyond their understanding. On the morning after the dreams, Joseph asked them the cause of their extra sadness, and being told, remarked,
“Do not interpretations belong unto God? Tell me I pray you.”
And they told their dreams; and Joseph interpreted them as indicative of their coming treatment at the hands of Pharaoh, which was realised in harmony with his interpretation. The butler Pharaoh restored to his office: the baker he hanged.
Here, doubtless, comes in the extra-natural element which distinguished the case of the fathers from ours of these barren days, namely the endowment in the case of Joseph of special faculty in the discernment of special dreams, but the use of this faculty by Joseph and its relation to the operations of providence were all in a natural way. Joseph did a neighbourly turn to the two interesting prisoners in his charge, and out of this came his own deliverance—not immediately, however. The train was being laid but nothing was hurried. Joseph made the most of the circumstances to bring about his release to no purpose. When apprising the butler of his coming liberation, he said,
“Think on me when it shall be well with thee, and show kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house. For indeed, I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews, and here (in Egypt) also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon” (Gen. 40:14-15).
But alas! The butler was like the ordinary run of mortals. When he found himself in prosperity, he was satisfied to enjoy his portion without a thought for the welfare of others.
“Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him” (verse 23).
However, the butler was to be made use of. Joseph’s deliverance was not to come through the butler’s gratitude, not at once. It was to come after a considerable patience-requiring lapse of time, through the providentially-developed baser desire of the butler to please Pharaoh.
In two years or so, Pharaoh has a dream which troubles him, and of which no one can give an interpretation—not even a guess. The thing is known in all the palace. It is talked of among the servants. When every assistance has been mooted in vain, the butler remembers the realisation of his own and the baker’s dream as interpreted by Joseph. For the first time, he speaks of the matter to Pharaoh. Joseph is hurriedly summoned. The rest is familiar as a household word. Joseph finds himself transferred in a moment from a dungeon to a throne. The blackness of midnight gives way to a sudden burst of noonday splendour which abides with him through a long and illustrious day. God delivers him from all adversity, and, as he expressed it, “made him forget his toil and his father’s house.” From a prison keeper’s servant, he is transformed into a governor of Egypt—the king’s minister: an object of universal deference, and controller of the land’s pouring treasure. It was God’s work in providence. God’s hand was visible at one or two points; but in the main, it was accomplished in an unseen manner by means of perfectly natural circumstances.
See, also, how naturally God brought about Joseph’s sweet revenge on his brothers. They came to buy corn. They did not know him; for, whereas he was seventeen when they sold him, he is now over thirty-seven, and attired as an Egyptian official, speaking the Egyptian language, which he has learnt during his servitude. But he knows them, for they were grown men when he saw them last, and they are in the main unaltered, and they are dressed in the same way as when they handed him over to the Ishmaelites. They are most obsequious in their deference. He uses the whip severely, because he knows the end will be sweetness for all. He speaks roughly to them, and puts them through direful exercises of mind, until he can stand it no longer. No more exquisite story was ever written or conceived. It breaks down the strong man today every time it is realised. It is part of a story yet unfinished, for Joseph has yet to reappear in the land of the living to learn of the deliverance of his people from Egypt, and of the long, sad, yet God-illuminated history coming after; and to take part in a still more thrilling situation when another, who, like himself, was hated by his brethren, and sold for thirty pieces of silver, makes himself known to his misguided brethren for the joy of Israel and the blessedness of all mankind.
Meanwhile, the lesson of Joseph’s life is unmistakable. It is what we have already seen illustrated, that God works when His hand is not apparent, and often when it would seem as if He must be taking no notice, and by means that seem to exclude the possibility of His being at work. The conclusion is comforting to those who commit their way to God. It may seem to them that God is not only working with them, but actually working against them. Let them remember the agony of Joseph in the pit, in slavery, in false imprisonment and learn that the darkest paths of their life may be the ways appointed for them to reach liberty and life, wealth and honour—yea, a throne in the kingdom of the anti-typical Joseph, who himself had to tread the dark and tearful valley of humiliation, and who, in the day of his glory, will introduce all his brethren, amongst many bright stars, to the most interesting of Jacob’s sons.
Berean Home Page