We’ve got a lot to cover this evening. As I’ve already said, I want to take this long section together. And as I’ve done previously, let me summarise the passage, making a few comments on the way; and then I’ll make a few main points at the end.
And so, we read in chapter 42 that Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt. And so, he said to his sons:
Why do you just keep looking at each other?
He sounds frustrated, doesn’t he? The famine which was in the land of Egypt had also come to the land of Canaan. And so they had no grain with which to cook. But instead of doing anything about it, and instead of going out to find food, it seems from what Jacob says that his sons had given up. So, he’s saying to them:
Why are you just sitting there, looking at one another? Why don’t you get up and go out and look for food?
And he went on to say that he’d heard there was grain in Egypt. So:
Go down there and buy some of it, so that we will live and not die.
Do you remember what Matt was telling us last week about Malawi? In some areas, there’s too much rain and the fields are flooded and the crops are ruined. In other areas, there’s not enough rain, and the crops have withered. There’s very little grain in Malawi; and the people are hungry. Well, the same thing was happening in the land of Canaan. And it was happening in Egypt too. But, as we read last week, there was still plenty of grain in Egypt, because God had revealed to the Pharaoh that seven years of plenty was going to be followed by seven years of famine; and Joseph has advised the Pharaoh to prepare for the years of famine by storing up grain in the years of plenty. And so, there was plenty of grain in Egypt: enough for the Egyptians and enough for the other nations as well. And so, here’s Jacob, telling his sons to go to Egypt to buy the grain they needed.
And so, we read in verse 3 that ten of Jacob’s sons set off for Egypt. But we also read that Jacob was afraid to send Benjamin, his youngest son in case harm should come upon him. And we can understand, can’t we? Many years before, he’d sent Joseph on an errand. And Joseph never came home. And Jacob had been told that a wild animal had killed his beloved son. So we can understand his reluctance to let his youngest son out of his sight, in case something terrible should happen to him as well.
In verse 6 we read that Joseph immediately recognised his brothers when they came before him in Egypt. However, instead of revealing his identity straightaway, he pretended he did not know them. And according to verse 7, he spoke harshly to them. Now, in case we think that Joseph spoke harshly to his brothers because he hated them and wanted to get revenge for what they had done to him, we only need to look down to verse 24 where we read how Joseph had to turn away from them in order to hide from them the fact that he was weeping. And in verse 30 of chapter 43, we read how Joseph was deeply moved and looked for a place where he could weep. And in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 45, we read how he could not control himself any longer. In other words, he could not control his emotions any longer. And he wept loudly in their presence.
When Joseph spoke harshly to his brothers, it wasn’t because he was angry and full of resentment. No, he was moved to tears when he saw them, just as we might be moved to tears if we saw a long lost relative or friend.
I thought I’d never see you again; I thought I’d never set eyes on you again; but here you are, and it’s wonderful to see you.
If Joseph wasn’t angry with his brothers, and if he wasn’t thinking about getting revenge, why did he speak harshly to them? And why didn’t he reveal himself to them straightaway? We don’t really know; the text doesn’t tell us; we can only guess. So, perhaps he wanted to see what he could learn from them about his father and brother before revealing his true identity. Or perhaps, he was simply conflicted: yes, it was marvellous to see his brothers after all these years; but seeing them again may have reminded him of how they once hated him; and did he want them back in his life again? Was he better off without them? Or perhaps he wanted to test them, to see what they were like. After all, these are the men who once hated him and sold him into slavery. Were they still the same? Or had they changed?
We don’t really know why he spoke to them the way he did. But we do know he accused them of being spies. Apparently it wasn’t uncommon in those days for neighbouring nations to send spies into another country to try to identify their weaknesses before trying to launch an attack. And so, Joseph’s accusation made some sense to any of his servants who overheard it.
They, of course, protested their innocence. But Joseph insisted and announced that he intended to imprison all of them, apart from one, who must go and fetch their youngest brother in order to prove they weren’t spies.
He then imprisoned them all for three days. But at the end of the three days, he appeared to change his mind and he allowed all of them to return home, apart from Simeon who must remain behind. And verse 21 is interesting, isn’t it? They’re trying to figure out why this is happening to them. And immediately they believe that God is punishing them. You see, each of them has a guilty conscience. Each of them is feeling guilty because of what they did to Joseph all those years ago. And now, they think God is punishing them.
It’s interesting — isn’t it? — how long a guilty conscience can last. By now it was 22 years since they sold Joseph into slavery; and what they did to him on that day is still on their mind. I’m always intrigued by Psalm 32 where David says:
When I kept silent [about my sins], my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
Then he says:
Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity; I said: ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ — and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Like Joseph’s brothers, we try to cover up our sins. But it doesn’t work; our guilty conscience works away at us and makes us miserable. So, instead of covering up our sins, we ought — like David in the psalm — to confess our sins openly to the Lord, because that’s the way to find forgiveness and peace of conscience.
But Joseph’s brothers haven’t done that yet. And so, their conscience is bothering them. And they think God is punishing them. But look! Before they leave, we see Joseph’s kindness to them. although they don’t know it. As well as giving them the grain they needed, he had his servants put their money back in their sacks. So, they got all that grain for nothing.
And then, in verses 27 to 38 we read how they returned home and they described to their father what had happened. And then they discovered that their money was in their sacks; and they’re afraid, because they can’t understand what is happening to them. And after listening to them, and after hearing that next time he must send Benjamin, Jacob appears like a broken man, doesn’t he? He said:
My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow.
In chapter 43 we’re told that they needed to return to Egypt to get more grain. Judah seems to have become the leader of the brothers, because he goes to his father and explains that they can’t go unless Benjamin goes with them. And he re-assures his father that he will take care of Benjamin and will be personally responsible for him. Although Jacob is reluctant, he finally realises there is no other option and the eleven brothers set off with some gifts for Joseph.
Verse 11 used to puzzle me: if there was a famine in the land, where did they get the honey and spices and nuts? But, of course, do you remember that photo Matt showed us last week? There was the family who had no maize to eat, but they had mangoes. Mangoes are a nice treat for us, but the people of Malawi can’t live on mangoes. They need their maize to cook with. And so, while the Canaanites may have had honey and spices and nuts, you can’t live on honey and spices and nuts. They didn’t have what they really needed, which was grain.
And so, they set off with these gifts. And as well as bringing gifts, they brought double the money, because they wanted to pay for the first lot of grain they had received. Isn’t that what we do? We discover the shop assistant made a mistake and didn’t charge us the right amount. And so what do we do? Well, we go back if we can and we offer to pay the right amount. And that’s what these brothers intend to do.
Well, in verses 15 to 34, we read of their second encounter with Joseph. And it’s very different from the first time. This time, they’re all brought into Joseph’s home. Now, at first they’re afraid: they think something terrible is going to happen to them, because they hadn’t paid for the first lot of grain. But the servant re-assures them that the grain has been paid in full. And then the servant brought Simeon out to them so that they’re all re-united. And look at verse 24: they’re given water to wash their feet; and their donkeys were given fodder. They’re being treated with kindness. And then when Joseph arrived, he didn’t speak harshly to them or accuse them of any crimes. He merely asked about their father.
And then we’re told something which the brothers didn’t see. We’re told that Joseph was deeply moved when he saw Benjamin, his younger brother. And he had to go and find somewhere where he could weep. It shows us again that they’s not hatred or bitterness or desire for revenge in his heart.
And then, once he’d washed, and regained his composure, they all saw down to eat. And it’s a happy scene, isn’t it?
But then it all goes wrong in chapter 44. The brothers head home again. But this time, as well as telling his servants to return their money, Joseph told his servants to put his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. And after the brothers had gone, he sent his servants to stop them and to pretend that one of them had stolen the cup.
The brothers are baffled at first. And then, when the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack, they’re distraught: we’re told in verse 13 that their tore their clothes. And when they went back, they all fell down before Joseph. And look what Judah does: he explains to Joseph in verse 31 that their father won’t be able to cope with life without Benjamin. And look at verse 33, because it’s remarkable: He offers to take Benjamin’s place:
Spare my father the pain of losing Benjamin. Let Benjamin go free and I will stay as your prisoner.
And so, we come to chapter 45, when Joseph finally revealed to his brothers his true identity. And in verse 5, he tried to re-assure them and to persuade them that he’s not angry with them. And he explained that God had sent him to Egypt to make all the necessary preparations for the coming famine, so that Jacob’s sons would be saved from the famine. Instead of perishing, they would live.
And he then invited them to come and live in the land of Egypt and I will provide for you, he said. And look how the scene ends in verses 14 and 15, because there we read how Joseph embraced his brothers and wept over them. Though they once hated him and treated him cruelly, he’s prepared to pardon them and to be reconciled to them.
God’s will fulfilled
As we turn now to consider some of the lessons we can learn from these chapters, the first thing I want to point out is how God is always able to carry out his will. In the last chapter of the book of Job, Job said to the Lord:
I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
‘No plan of yours can be thwarted.’ Back in chapter 37, we read about God’s plan for Joseph. Joseph had a dream; and in his dream, his brothers’ sheaves of corn bowed down to his sheaf of corn. And Joseph has another dream; and in his dream the sun, moon and 11 stars bowed down to Joseph. Those dreams were a revelation from God and God was revealing in those dreams his plan for Joseph and how, one day, Joseph would rule over his brothers. And, you’ll remember, his brothers were offended. They hated the idea that Joseph would reign over them. And, of course, who at that time would have ever thought it possible? What could possibly happen in that family that would lead to their little brother ruling over them? And certainly it seemed completely impossible once they’d sold him into slavery.
But, what do we find in these chapters? That Joseph is now ruling over his brothers and they are bowing down to him. What Joseph dreamed would happen in chapter 37 has happened. And, of course, God knew it would happen, and he was able to reveal that it would happen, because God had planned it all from the beginning and had decreed that it would take place.
You see, this is how God knows the future. He knows what will happen in the future because he has planned what will happen in the future; and no one is able to thwart or frustrate his plans, because he’s mighty God. He knew that Joseph would one day rule over his brothers, and he knew it would happen because he planned it that way. And no one was able to frustrate his plans: not Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery; not Potiphar’s wife who falsely accused him; not the cupbearer who forgot about him. No one was able to frustrate Almighty God’s plan for Joseph.
In the same way, the Lord Jesus, when he was on the earth, was able to say, again and again, that he was going to suffer and die, but then he would rise again. Well, he was able to say what would happen in the future, because God had planned what would happen in the future. And so, do you remember what Peter said about the Lord’s death on the day of Pentecost? He said:
This man [the Lord Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose [in other words, his plan] and foreknowledge.
He had foreknowledge of it, because he had planned it.
Well, I quoted last week from our church’s Shorter Catechism. Let me do so again this evening, because it’s so helpful. Question 7 asks:
What are the decrees of God?
And here’s the answer:
The decrees of God are his eternal plan, according to the purpose of his will, by which, for his own glory, he has foreordained whatever comes to pass.
There you have it: ‘God’s eternal plan’; ‘the purpose of his will’; and ‘he has foreordained whatever comes to pass’. Back in chapter 37, God had revealed in a dream what he had decreed would happen to Joseph. And in chapters 39 to 45 we see how God was working out his plan; and though it seemed impossible, nevertheless, everything, everything the Lord had planned for Joseph happened according to his plan.
Once we realise that there’s nothing outside of God’s control, then we can face the world and we can face the future with confidence, can’t we? We don’t need to be afraid of what the world might do to us, or what the future may hold for us, because we know that Almighty God is in control and his plans and purposes for the world and his plans and purpose for each one of us cannot be thwarted.
You know that feeling you have when you’re in a car, but you’re not too sure about the person who is driving. You’re not too sure if this person is a good driver. And you’re nervous, because anything might happen. But then think of a small child who is fast asleep in the car. She’s confident that her mum or her dad is in control of the car and knows what they’re doing. So, she’s fast asleep, trusting that her mum, her dad will bring her home safely. Well, we can rest in the knowledge that our loving, heavenly Father is in control. He was in control of Joseph’s life. Look how Joseph confessed three times in chapter 45 that God had sent him there. God was in control of Joseph’s life; and he’s in control of all things.
The mystery of his will
My second point is the mystery of God’s will. Think about how Joseph treated his brothers. As I’ve said, we’re not sure why he treated them the way that he did, and why he did to them what he did to them. The way he spoke harshly to them. The way he accused them of being spies. The way he imprisoned them all for three days on their first visit. The way he kept Simeon from going back to Canaan. The way he insisted that Benjamin must come with them the next time. The way he arranged for his cup to be put in Benjamin’s sack on their second visit. The way he accused Benjamin of having stolen from him. Why did he do all of these things to them?
We don’t know; and they didn’t know either. They were so bewildered and confused and uncertain and unsure. What’s going on? Why are these things happened to us?
And yet, Joseph was also very kind of them. On their first visit, he returned their money to them. He did the same on their second visit. So they got all that grain for free. And remember? On their second visit, he brought them into his home and he fed them well and was kind to them. And we saw as well how he wept when he was with them, because he was so moved to see them again.
So, on one hand, they don’t understand what’s going on. But on the other hand, there are these little indications of his kindness and his goodwill towards them.
The way Joseph treated his brothers is a kind of mirror image of how God treated Joseph, because, you see, Joseph must have wondered what God was doing and why all these terrible things were happening to him. Why did God let his brothers sell him into slavery? Why did God let Potiphar’s wife accuse him falsely? Why did God let Joseph end up in a prison? Why did God let the cupbearer forget all about him for two years? Why did God let all these things happen to Joseph? What was God doing?
Do you see? What Joseph did to his brothers was similar to what God did to Joseph. His brothers didn’t understand what Joseph was doing; and Joseph didn’t understand what God was doing. And yet, in Joseph’s life, there were also signs of God’s kindness, because we read before how God was with Joseph to help him.
And that’s often the way it is, isn’t it? We believe God is in control. He rules and reigns over all and he’s working out his plans for the world and his plan for us. But more often than not, he doesn’t reveal to us what he’s doing and we’re often bewildered and confused and unsure and uncertain. ‘Why is this happening to me?’ we wonder. ‘Why has God let this happen to me?’ we ask. And we wonder those things and we ask those things because we don’t know what God is doing.
And yet he doesn’t leave us without evidence of his kindness and his love. Often we don’t know what’s going on, but the Lord makes clear that he loves us, because every day he fills our lives with good things; and every day he comes to us by his Spirit and he helps us; and he speaks to us in his word to re-assure us; and then, of course, all we need to do is to remember the cross of Christ, and how God our Father did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all. And right there — at the cross — we have the clearest possible demonstration of the greatness of God’s love for us and of his goodwill towards us.
So, though we’re often bewildered, as Joseph’s brothers were bewildered by what Joseph was doing, and as Joseph himself was no doubt bewildered by what God was doing, we can be nevertheless be re-assured that no matter what God is doing in our life, and no matter how strange it may seem, his will for us is good.
And finally, this evening, let me remind you of how the history of Joseph’s life reveals to us the history of our Saviour’s life.
Joseph, the Beloved Son, was hated by his brothers. And they wanted to kill him. And they would have killed him, if it were not for Reuben and Judah who suggested that they sell him into slavery. And so, in due course he became a slave in Potiphar’s house, where he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife. Though he had done nothing wrong, he ended up in prison. And there he remained for years, until — wonderfully, miraculously — he was raised up and exalted to the right hand of the Pharaoh and given the authority to rule over all. And from his place of authority, he was able to save all who came to him from perishing because of the famine. And it seemed to Joseph, as he confessed three times in chapter 45, that God had sent him to Egypt for this reason.
By the story of what happened to Joseph, God was revealing to us the even better story of what would happen to the Lord Jesus Christ, because God the Father sent his Beloved Son into the world to save us. Now, when he came, his brothers hated him and they wanted to kill him. And, though he had done nothing wrong, he was killed and his body was locked up, as it were, in a tomb. But wonderfully, miraculously, he was raised from the tomb, and exalted to God’s right hand in heaven where he now rules over all.
And here’s the thing: just as Joseph was able to save all who came to him, so the Lord Jesus Christ is able to save all who come to him. He’s able to save us from our sin and misery and to give us the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of the resurrection and everlasting life in his presence. Joseph’s brothers, though they once hated him, bowed before him. And instead of punishing them for what they had done to him, he forgave them and embraced them and wept over them and gave them a place to live in Egypt. And instead of punishing us for all that we have done wrong, the Lord Jesus is willing to welcome all who come to him in repentance and faith and he’s willing to forgive us for all we have done wrong and to give us eternal life in his presence.
And so, we all ought to come to Christ, as Joseph’s brothers came to him, and receive from him the forgiveness and everlasting salvation which only he can give. And here’s the thing: Whenever we come to him, and trust in him, he puts his Spirit in us. And his Spirit transforms us and makes us like Christ so that we too will become men and women and boys and girls who are always willing to forgive all those who have offended us.