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Divine Providence: Joseph

The story of Joseph is one of those undying narratives which have been of deepest interest to all readers for more than three thousand years, and will be to the end of time. It is interesting to children, to many adults who might spend but a little time on it and thereby understand it the same; and it is still more interesting to students, teachers, and scholars, who understand it the best. It occupies a larger space in the Old Testament than any other personal narrative, except that of Abraham.

Have you never wondered why this simple story was allowed so much space? Whether there was any design in it beyond that of entertaining and interesting the reader, as a novel or a fine poem entertains and interests us? And have you never, in studying the story, wondered why Joseph, after he became Governor over Egypt and had command of his own time, spent the whole seven years of plenty and two years of famine without going to see his father, who lived only two hundred miles away over a smooth road? And finally, has not the question occurred to you, why did God select to be the heads of ten of the twelve tribes of His own people, ten men who were so cruel, so inhuman as to take their seventeen year old brother and sell him into bondage in a foreign land? The task I have undertaken in the discourse this morning, will be to give, as well as I can, an answer to these three questions, and in doing so, to point out a striking example of the providence of God.

In regard to the design of allowing this story to occupy so much space, I think I may safely say that there is nothing recorded in this Holy Book, which has no higher purpose than to entertain and interest the reader. There is always in the divine mind something beyond and higher than that. If you will read a little further back in the book of Genesis, you will find that on a certain occasion, God, after having promised Abraham again and again that he should have offspring who would inherit the land of Canaan as their possession, commanded him one day to slaughter some animals and lay them in two rows. He did so, and seeing that the birds of prey were gathering to devour them, he stood guard and drove them away until night came, and they went to roost. Then he also fell asleep, and “a horror of great darkness” fell upon him. I suppose it was a terrible nightmare. He then heard the voice of God saying to him, “Thy seed shall be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they shall be afflicted four hundred years. After that, I will judge the nation by whom they shall be afflicted, and bring them out, and bring them into this land, and give it to them as an inheritance.”

From these solemn words, Abraham now knows that it is to be four hundred years, and more, before his people will inherit this promised land, and that they shall pass, in the meantime, through four hundred years of bondage and fearful affliction; but that then the good word of the Lord will be fulfilled. It gave him a totally different view of those promises, from that which he had entertained before.

We learn by the subsequent history, what Abraham never did learn, that the foreign land in which his people were to be bondmen, was Egypt; and that a removal of his posterity to that land was necessary to the fulfillment of Jehovah’s words. He lived and died, however, in Canaan. His son Isaac lived one hundred and eighty years, and died and left his children, his servants and his flocks and herds, still in Canaan. Jacob, although he had spent forty years in Paddan-Aram, still lived in Canaan with hiw twelve sons and his flocks and herds; and up to the very hour when his sons came back from Egypt the second time, and said, “Joseph is alive, and is governor over all Egypt,” and he saw a long line of wagons coming up and bringing the warm invitation of Pharaoh and Joseph to hasten down and make their home in Egypt-up to that hour he had never entertained the idea of migrating to Egypt. He as little thought of it as we do of migrating to the moon. What then was it that brought about, after so many years, that migration of the descendants of Abraham into Egypt, and led to the four hundred years of bondage? You are ready to answer, that the immediate cause of it was the fact that Joseph, the son of Jacob, was now governor over all Egypt, and wanted his father and his brothers to be with him. That is true. But, how had Joseph happened to be governor over all the land of Egypt? You say, the immediate cause of it was, that when he predicted the seven years of plenty and the seven years of famine, he proposed to the king that a man be selected to go out and gather up grain during the years of plenty, to save the people from starving in the years of famine; and that Pharaoh had the good sense to accept the proposal, and to appoint Joseph governor.

But then, how is it that Joseph predicted that famine? You say it was the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream; and so it was. But how did he happen to interpret that dream? You say, because all the magicians of Egypt had been called on to interpret it, and had failed. They not only could not me the real meaning of it, but they did not venture a supposition as to what it meant. A dream in which a man saw fat cows coming up out of a river! The idea of cows coming up out of a river! And then, other cows, lean cows, coming up out of the same river, and devouring these fat cows, and looking just as lean and thin as they were before! Why, that went outside of all the rules for interpreting dreams that the dream interpreters of that age had invented; and they could not give the remotest suggestion as to what it meant. The failure of the magicians then, was one necessary cause of Joseph being called on to interpret the dream.

And then, how did Joseph happen to be called on? If that butler had not forgotten his promise to Joseph, made two years before, to speak to the king and have Joseph released out of an imprisonment which was unjust, Joseph would have been released most likely, and might have been anywhere else by this time than in the land of Egypt. The forgetfulness of the butler, who forgot his friend when it was well with himself, was a necessary link in the chain. He says, when all the magicians had failed, “I remember now my fault;” and he told the king about a young Hebrew whom he met in prison, who interpreted his dream and the baker’s, and both came to pass; “Me he restored to my office, and the chief baker he hanged.”

The king immediately sent for Joseph. But how did he happen to interpret the dreams of the butler and the baker? That depended upon their having the dreams, and upon their having those dreams in the prison, and upon Joseph being the man who had charge of the prisoners, and who, coming in and finding the two great officers of the king looking very sad, asked what was the matter.

But how did Joseph happen to have the control of the prisoners, so as to have access to these officers? Why, that depended upon the fact that he had behaved himself so well in prison as to win the confidence of the keeper of the jail, and had been promoted, until the management of the whole prison was placed in his hands.

Well, how did Joseph happen to be in prison? Why, you will say that the wife of Potiphar made a false accusation against him. But have you not wondered why Potiphar did not kill him? An average Kentuckian would have done it “instanter.” I think it depended upon the fact that Potiphar knew his wife well and knew Joseph well, and had about as much confidence in Joseph’s denial as in her accusation. And how did it happen that she had a chance to bring such accusations against Joseph? Why, because Joseph had won the confidence of his master as a young slave, till he had made him supreme director of everything inside of his house. He had access to every apartment, and provided for his master’s table, so that the text tells us there was nothing inside of his house that Potiphar knew of, except the food on his table. It was this that gave the opportunity to the bad woman.

But then I ask further, how did Joseph happen to be there a house-boy in the house of Potiphar? Well, he bought him. He wanted a houseboy, and went down to the slave market, and found him there and bought him. How did he happen to be in the slave market? Because his brothers sold him. But suppose he had never been sold into Egypt! Would he ever have interpreted dreams? Would he ever have been governor of Egypt? Would he ever have sent for his father and brothers to come down there?

But how did he happen to be sold as a slave? If those traders had been fifteen minutes later passing along, Reuben would have taken the boy up and let him loose, and he would have gone back to his father. Everything depended on that. But how did he happen to be in that pit from which Reuben was going to deliver him? You my they saw him coming from home to where they were grazing their flocks, and they remembered those dreams. They said, “Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, let us slay him and cast him into one of the pits.”

Then they would see what would become of his dreams. Dissuaded by Reuben from killing him outright, they put him in a pit to die. It was their jealousy that caused them to put him into the pit. But then, how is it that those dreams had excited their jealousy to such a pitch? I do not suppose that they would, if they had not already been jealous because of the coat of many colors.

Now we have traced these causes back from one to the other, back, back, back, till we have reached the source of all in the partiality of the old father in giving the coat of many colors. And brethren, let me say here by way of digression, that the history of many a family trouble, with its trials and alienation and distresses, running sometimes through generations, is traceable to jealousy springing from parental partiality. But now, every one of these causes that I have mentioned stands like a link in the long chain by which God, having determined that these Hebrews should dwell in Egypt for four hundred years, after predicting it two hundred years before, draws them down where He wants them to be.

And what are the links in this chain? Some of them are desperately wicked deeds; some of them are good deeds. The fidelity of Joseph; sold to be a slave, but evidently saying within himself, “As I have to be the slave of this man, I will be the best slave he has. I will be the most faithful one. I will win his confidence. I will do my duty like a man.” And thus he rises. And then he shows the same kind of fidelity when he is cast into prison. “As I have to be in prison, I will be the best prisoner in this jail. I will do what I ought to do here in the fear of my God.” Thus he rises to the top again; illustrating the fact, and I wish I had young men in abundance to speak this to-that a young man who has true character, unfaltering fidelity, and some degree of energy and ability, can got be kept down in this world. You may put him down, but he will rise again. You may put him down again and again; but he will come up. A young man like that is like a cork; you may press it under the water, but it will soon pop up again. Oh that the young men of our country had such integrity, such power to resist temptation, such resolution and perseverance, as this Jewish youth had.

So then, this long story is told as an illustration of the providence of God, by which He can bring about His purposes without the intervention of miraculous power except here and there; for in all this long chain of causes God touched the links only twice, directly: once, when He gave power to Joseph to interpret the dreams of the butler and the baker, and once when He gave him power to interpret the dream of Pharaoh. Just those two instances in which the finger of God touched the chain; all the rest were the most natural things in the world, and they brought about God’s design just as effectively as though He had wrought one great miracle to translate Jacob and his children through the air, and plant them on the soil of Egypt.

The person, who studies the story of Joseph and does not see this in it, has failed to see one of its great purposes. And what is true in bringing about this result in the family of Jacob, may be true — I venture to say, it is true — in regard to every family of any importance in this world; and it extends down to the modes by which God overrules our own acts, both good and bad, and those of our friends, and brings us out at the end of our lives shaped and molded as he desires we shall be.

Now let us look for a moment at the second question. Why did Joseph not go and see his father and his brothers during the nine years in which he could have gone almost any day? I think that when we reach the answer we will see another and perhaps a more valuable illustration of the providence of God. In order to understand the motives which actuate men under given circumstances, we must put ourselves in their places and judge of them by the way that we would ourselves feel and ad; for human nature is the same the wide world over, and in all the different nations of men.

Suppose then, that you were a boy of seventeen. Your brothers have all been away from home, sixty or seventy miles, with the flocks, until your father has become anxious about them, and sends you up to see how they do. You go, as Joseph did, but you fail to find them. While you search you meet a stranger who tells you they are gone to Dothan, fourteen or fifteen miles farther away. With this news Joseph continued his journey, and how his heart leaped at last to see his brothers again! How glad a welcome he expected from them, and inquiries about home, father, and all. But when he came up, he saw a scowl upon every face.

Instead of welcoming, they seized him, and with rough hands, stripped the coat from his back, dragged him to the mouth of a dry cistern, and let him down in it. “Now we will see what will become of his dreams.”

How did the boy then feel? I have thought that perhaps he said to himself “My brothers are only trying to scare me. They are just playing a cruel joke on me, and don’t mean to leave me here to perish.” But perhaps he had begun to think they were in earnest, when he heard footsteps above, and voices. He sees one of their faces looking down, and a rope to draw him up, and he thinks the cruel joke is over. But when he is drawn up and sees those strangers there, and hears words about the sale of the boy, and his hands are tied behind him, and he is delivered into their hands, and they start off with him, what would you have thought or felt then? If the thought had come into his mind that it was another joke, he might have watched as the merchants passed down the road, on every rising piece of ground he might have looked back to see if his brothers were coming to buy him back again, and to get through with this terrible joke; but when the whole day’s journey was passed, and they went into camp at night, and the same the next day, no brothers have overtaken him, what must have been his feelings? When he thought, “I am a slave, and I am being carried away into a foreign land to spend the rest of my life as a slave, never to see father and home again,” who can imagine his feelings? So he was brought down into Egypt and sold.

But it seems to me that Joseph must have had one thought to bear him up, at least for a time. “My father loves me. He loves me more than he does all my brothers. He is a rich man. When he hears that I have been sold into Egypt, he will send one hundred men, if need be, to hunt me up; he will load them with money to buy me back. I trust in my father for deliverance yet.” But he is sold into the house of Pharaoh, and years pass by. He is cruelly cast into prison, and years pass by, until thirteen long years of darkness and gloom and sorrow and pain have gone, and he has never heard of his father sending for him. He could have done it. It would have been easy to do. And now, how does he feel toward his brothers and toward his father? Would you have wanted to see those brothers again? And when he found his father had never sent for him, knowing, perhaps, how penurious and avaricious his father had been in his younger days, may he not have said, “The old avaricious spirit of my father has come back on him in his declining years, and he loves his money more than he loves his boy?“

And when that feeling took possession of him, did he want to see his father any more? Or any of them? Could he bear the thought of ever seeing those brothers again? And could he at last bear the thought of seeing that father who had allowed him to perish, as it were, without stretching out a hand to help him? The way he did feel is seen in one little circumstance. When he was married and had his first-born son placed before him, he named him Manasseh, forgetfulness, “Because,” he says, “God has enabled me to forget my father’s house.” The remembrance of home and brothers and father had been a source of constant pain to him; he never could think of them without agony of heart; but now, thank God, I have forgotten them. Oh, brethren, what a terrible experience a boy must have before he feels a sense of relief and gladness that he has been enabled to forget all about his father and his brothers in his early home! That is the way Joseph felt when Manasseh was born. And would not you have felt so, too?

Everything was going on more pleasantly than he thought it ever could, with him-riches, honor, wife, children; everything that could delight the heart of a wise and good man — when suddenly, one day his steward comes in and tells him that there are ten foreigners who desire to buy some grain. He had a rule that all foreigner must be brought before him before they were allowed to buy grain. Bring them in. They were brought in, and behold, there are his brothers! There are his brothers! And as they approach, they bow down before him. Of course, they could not recognize him, dressed in the Egyptian style — governor of Egypt. Even if he had looked like Joseph, it would only have been a strange thing with them to say, He resembles our brother Joseph. There they are. It was a surprising sight to him and a painful one. He instantly determines to treat them in such a way that they will never come back to Egypt again. He says, “You are spies; to see the nakedness of the land you are some.” “No” they say “we are come to buy food; we are all the sons of one man in the land of Canaan. We are twelve brothers. The youngest is with our father, and one is not.”

That remark about the youngest awakened a new thought in Joseph. Oh how it brought back the sad hour when his own mother, dying on the way that they were journeying, left that little Benjamin, his only full brother, in the hands of the weeping father! And how it reminded him, that when he was sold, Benjamin was a little lad at home. He is my own mother’s child. Instantly he resolves that Benjamin shall be here with him in Egypt, and that these others shall be scared away, so that they will never come back again; so he says, “Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, that your words may be proved, or else by the life of Pharaoh, you are spies.” He cast them all into prison; but on the third day he went to them and said: “I fear God; if you are true men let one of you be bound in prison, and let the others go and carry food for your houses; and bring your youngest brother to me; so shall your words be verified, and ye shall not die.”

When he said that, they began to confess to one another their belief about the providential cause of this distress, when Reuben made a speech that brought a revelation to Joseph. He said to his brethren, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do not sin against the child;’ and you would not hear. Therefore, behold his blood is required.”

Joseph learns for the first time that Reuben had befriended him, and, this so touched his heart that he turned aside to weep. He passes by Reuben and takes the next to the oldest for the prisoner.

He now gave the directions to his steward to sell them the grain; and why did he order the money to be tied up in the mouth of every man’s sack? They were once so mean and avaricious that they sold me for fifteen petty pieces of silver. I will put their silver in the mouths of their sacks, and I will see if they are as dishonest as they were then. If they are, I will never hear of that money again.

Not many merchants in these days, if you go in and buy ten dollars’ worth of goods, will wrap the ten dollars in the bundle to see if it will come back. I will see, thought Joseph, if they are honest.

Time went on–a good deal more than Joseph expected, on account of the unwillingness of Jacob to let Benjamin make the journey. But finally the news is brought that these ten Canaanites have returned. They are brought once more into his presence, and there is Benjamin. They still call him the “little one” and “the lad;” just as I have had mothers to introduce me to “the baby” and the baby would be a strapping fellow six feet high. There he is.

“Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke?” He waits not for an answer, but exclaims, “God be gracious unto thee, my son.” He slips away into another room to weep. How near he is now to carrying out his plan–to having that dear brother, who had never harmed him, to enjoy his honors and riches and glory, and get rid of the others.

He has them to dine in his house. That scared them. To dine with the governor! They could not conceive what it meant. Joseph knew. He had his plan formed.

He wanted them there to give them a chance to steal something out of the dining-room. They enjoyed the dinner. They had never seen before so rich a table. He says to the steward, “Fill the men’s sacks with food; put every man’s money in his sack’s mouth, and put my silver cup in the sack’s mouth of the youngest.”

It was done, and at daylight next morning they were on their journey home. They were not far on the way when the steward overtook them, with the demand, “Why have you rewarded evil for good? Is it not this in which my Lord drinks, and with which he divines? You have done evil in so doing.” They answered, “God forbid that thy servants should do such a thing. Search, and if it be found with any one of us, let him die, and the rest of us will be your bondmen” “No” says the steward, “he with whom it is found shall be my bondman, and you shall be blameless.”

He begins his search with Reuben’s sack. It is not there. Then one by one he takes down the sacks of the others, until he reaches Benjamin’s. There is the cup! They all rend their clothes; and when the steward starts back with Benjamin, they follow him. They are frightened almost to death, but the steward cannot get rid of them. Joseph was on the lookout for the steward and Benjamin. Yonder they come, but behind them are all the ten. What shall now be done?
They come in and fall down before him once more, and say, “We are your bondmen. God has found out our iniquity.” “No” he says, “ the man in whose hand the cup is found shall be my bondman; but as for you, get you up in peace to your father.”

Joseph thought that his plan was a success. They will be glad to go in peace. I will soon have it all right with Benjamin. They will hereafter send somebody else to buy their grain. But Judah arose, drew near, and begged the privilege of speaking a word. He recites the incidents of their first visit, and speaks of the difficulty with which they had induced their father to let Benjamin come. He quotes from his father these words: ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons; one of them went out from me, and I said surely he is torn in pieces; and I have not seen him since. If you take this one also from me and mischief befalls him, you shall bring down my grey hairs with sorrow to the grave.” He closes with the proposal, “Let thy servant, I pray you, abide instead of the lad, a bondman to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brethren.”

Here was a revelation to Joseph — two of them. First, I have been blaming my old father for these twenty-two years because he did not send down into Egypt and hunt me up, and buy me out, and take me home; and now I see I have been blaming him unjustly, for he thought I was dead–that some wild beast had torn me in pieces. O what self-reproach, and what revival of love for his old father! And here, again, I have been trying to drive these brothers away from me, as unworthy of any countenance on my part, or even an acquaintance with them; but what a change has come over them! The very men that once sold me for fifteen paltry pieces of silver, are now willing to be slaves themselves, rather than see their youngest brother made a slave, even when he appears to be guilty of stealing. What a change! Immediately all of his old affection for them takes possession of him, and with these two revelations flashing upon him, it is not surprising that he broke out into loud weeping. He weeps, and falls upon his brothers’ necks. He says, “I am Joseph.” A thought flashes through his mind, never conceived before, and he says, “Do not be grieved, or angry with yourselves that you sold me here.”

He sees now God’s hand all through this strange, sad experience, and using a Hebraism, he says, “It was not you that sent me here, but God; God sent me before you to preserve life.”

When he was a bondman in Potiphar’s house, he did not see God’s hand in the matter. When he was a prisoner there in the prison, he did not see God’s hand. I suppose he thought that it was all of the Devil; but now that he has gotten to the end of the vista and looks back, he sees it is God who has done it. He sees in part what we saw in the first part of this discourse. O, my friends, many times when you shall have passed through deep waters that almost overwhelm you, and shall have felt alienated from all the friends you had on earth, thinking that they had deserted you, wait a little longer, and you will look up and say it was God; it was the working of grand, glorious, and blessed purposes that he had in his mind concerning you.

The last question we can dispose of now very quickly, because it has been almost entirely anticipated. Why did God select ten men to be the heads of ten tribes of his chosen people, who were so base as to sell their brother?

O, my brethren, it was not the ten who sold their brother that God selected, but the ten who were willing to be slaves instead of their brother. These are the ten that he chose. If you and I shall get to heaven, why will God admit us there? Not because of what we once were, but because of what He shall have made out of us by His dealings with us. He had his mind on the outcome, and not on the beginning. If you and I had to be judged by what we were at one time, there would be no hope for us. I am glad to know that my chances for the approval of the Almighty are based on what I hope to be, and not on what I am. Thank God for that!

And they were worthy. Not many men who, when the youngest brother of the family was clearly guilty of stealing, and was about to be made a slave, would say, “Let me be the slave, and let him go home to his father?” Not many.

And what had brought about the wondrous change which they had undergone? Ah, here we have the other illustration of God’s providential government to which I have alluded. When these men held up the bloody coat before their father, and said, “This we have found; know now whether it is thy son’s coat or not,” they entered into an experience of which they had not dreamed. There they stood, guilty and helpless before their grief-stricken father, knowing that Joseph was not dead, as he supposed, but not able to tell him so because the truth would be still more distressing than the fiction. What father would not rather a thousand times over that one of his sons should be dead, than that one of them should be kidnapped and sold into foreign bondage by the others?

If their father’s grief was inconsolable, their own remorse was intolerable. For twenty two long years they writhed under it, and there is no wonder that then they should prefer foreign bondage themselves rather than to witness a renewal of their father’s anguish. The same chain of providence which brought them unexpectedly to Egypt had fitted them for the high honors which were yet to crown their names.

Is there a poor sinner here today, whom God has disciplined, whether less or more severely than he did these men, and brought you to repentance? If so, the kind Redeemer stands ready to forgive you more completely and perfectly than Joseph forgave his brethren. He has found out your iniquity; he knows it all; but he died that he might be able to forgive you. Come in his appointed way; come guilty and trembling, as Joseph’s brothers came, and you will find his everlasting arms around you.

(This sermon by John W. McGarvey was delivered in Lexington Kentucky Sunday morning August 20, 1899. The scriptural quotes have been updated and the content edited to remove a few anachronisms.)