Joseph’s life was marked by wisdom, whether he was locked in a dungeon as a prisoner or standing by Pharaoh’s side as an exalted official. Reminding us that there is no “ideal” place to serve God, Alistair Begg looks at the evidence of Joseph’s wisdom and discernment both in the workplace and in family life. In obscurity, prominence, and everything in between, we are to serve the Lord for His glory with the gifts He gives us.
Once again, our God, we have told you in our song that the genuine desire of our hearts is that we may love you with an untrammeled love. We recognize that our desire to reach is greater than our actual ability to grasp, but we thank you that you have laid hold upon us, and we marvel at the height and the length and the breadth and the depth of your love for us in the Lord Jesus Christ, that we should be called the children of God. And we pray that, as we turn in these moments to your Holy Word, that you will speak to us, and then as we gather around your holy table, that you might meet with us, and we might have the joy of entering into another day in this new week having been in the company of he who is our wisdom and all of our knowledge. For we ask it in his name. Amen.
As I mentioned this morning, I planned to return to our study in Genesis 41, which we left in midsession this morning, having noted that this Joseph who was in charge was a man who was in touch, and that he was in touch with the living God, and one of the key evidences in his life was the fact of his wisdom. What I’d like to do this evening is to go on with you and to acknowledge the fact that his wisdom was to be manifested, obviously, in all of his life, but it is referenced, primarily in the concluding section of the chapter, in relationship to his everyday routine—namely, wisdom in the workplace—and then in this matter of his family living—wisdom in family life. And so I want to take a moment or two on wisdom in the workplace, and then a little longer on wisdom in family life, and then we will gather our attention around the Lord’s Table.
If a man is going to be marked, or a woman, by this kind of wisdom, then it is going to be tested significantly in the everyday events of life. And so we would expect that Joseph, in going about the position that he has now been entrusted with, would declare the evidences of a wise and discerning mind. And I want simply to point out to you the way in which his wisdom is revealed in this arena.
First of all, his wisdom is displayed in his clarity of purpose. You actually need to backtrack to verse 36, where we noted that his obvious concern in the plan which he had suggested to Pharaoh was, in the final phrase of verse 36, “so that the country may not be ruined by the famine.” And his wisdom in conceiving the plan is revealed in the fact that his plan was purposeful.
At the same time, his wisdom is declared not only in the clarity of his purpose, but also in the extent of his endeavor—or, if you like, his hard work. And if you look, for example, at verse 46, it says in the second sentence, “And Joseph went out from Pharaoh’s presence and traveled throughout Egypt.” You get this picture of him saying, “All right, I understand what my job is, and I am clear as to the purpose that has been established, and now, in order to give myself wholeheartedly to the task, I must leave the comfort and presence of Pharaoh here and get on and about my business.”
Thirdly, his hard work is more than matched by his strategy. If he is going to display his wisdom, then he clearly is going to have to have something to say to the various cities and towns at which he presents himself. Having been entrusted with such a unique role, it really would be most unfortunate if, when asked what his plan was to be or how he intended to achieve his overall purpose, he was unable to articulate himself with clarity. But not so; he has a strategy, and it is there revealed in verse 48: he “collected all the food produced in those seven years of abundance in Egypt and [he] stored it in the cities.” Indeed, his strategy was that “in each city he put the food grown in the fields surrounding it.” He determined that presumably there was no good reason to start transporting it all over the place, but he would take the produce of the immediate environment, and he would then store it at a central location so that when the days of famine arrived, the people would be able, without traveling vast distances, to be able to access the food that they would so desperately need. There’s wisdom in that. A lesser mortal may have come up with a more elaborate scheme, but it would have been far less effective.
And indeed, effectiveness, in verse 49, is the next indication of his wisdom at work. We’re told that Joseph “stored up huge quantities of grain, like the sand of the sea”—so much so that he actually “stopped keeping records” because they had gone beyond the ability to adequately summarize what they were taking in. And so the plan that had been suggested, conceived in his own mind, so willingly and warmly accepted by Pharaoh and his officials, once implemented with clarity of purpose and with a clearly stated strategy, accompanied by his own honest endeavor and hard work, yields this wonderful overflow. And, as we noted before, not only did this plan provide a hedge against the impoverishment of the nation of Egypt itself, but it really was quite successful insofar as it bolstered up the balance of payments, making it possible for Egypt to engage in an export market—so effective was his strategy.
And then, finally, his wisdom is revealed in his ability in leadership. That’s why we’re told in verse 55 that when the people cried to Pharaoh, Pharaoh told the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph. Joseph is the man that I have appointed, and Joseph is the one to whom you should go.” And so we’re told in verse 56 that “when the famine had spread … Joseph opened the storehouses and [he] sold [the] grain to the Egyptians”—and actually, “all the [surrounding] countries came … to buy grain from Joseph, because,” we’re told, “the famine was severe in all the world.”
“Well,” you say, “is there a point of application in this? Certainly we observe these factors as you’ve pointed them out. Indeed, it’s really quite straightforward. We can read it.” Well, I think the point of application, as obvious as it is, needs to be helpfully made: namely, to acknowledge the fact that each of us—each of you, in particular—has a unique sphere of influence in the marketplace of your life. You have been set in the place of God’s appointing, wherever that might be and whatever the task may involve, however elaborate or however apparently inconsequential. Nevertheless, it is God’s divine calling for you. Whether it is at a kitchen sink, as a bank teller, as a teacher, as a student, as someone in the sports industry, in the realm of the media, in medicine, in whatever it might be, God has determined that he would gift you in such a way that you might be the man or the woman of his choosing, so that the “ministers” of Parkside Church amount literally to thousands.
Every so often you go to a church and they say, “What’s the minister’s name?” Especially in Scotland, they would say that: “And who’s the minister of your church?” And they would say, “Oh, the Reverend Johnston is the minister of our church.” And the poor fellow often is the minister of the church, because they have him not only preaching, but visiting and running hither and thither and doing all manner of things they decided that he should be the minister of the church. But in actual fact, the ministers of the church are the members of the congregation. The pastors are called to shepherd the church, and the ministers together are called to live effectively. Have you identified your ministry? Have you identified that which God has given you to do? And if not, then do so. The hymnwriter in the children’s hymn of years ago says,
There’s a work for Jesus, ready at your hand,
’Tis a task the Master just for you has planned.
Haste to do His bidding, yield Him service true;
There’s a work for Jesus none but you can do.
Don’t be looking around at others. Don’t be worrying about this person or that person, or what they’re able to do, or why they’re accomplishing this, or why they’re involved in this or that. Simply look up to the Lord Jesus and say, “Here I am, and I’m ready for your service.”
And remind yourself as you do that as I’ve said to you so many times, from the authority of God’s Word itself, it is the unseen parts of our body which are performing the most vital functions—in the renal function, in the neurological functions, in the double circulatory system of our blood flow. They are not apparent on the surface, but they are vital for staying alive. And so, to some who are here tonight and think that because you do not have a position that is noticeable, remember that every act of service is notable to God, who put you in that place of usefulness. And Joseph was about his business, yes, with prominence, but what we know of him is this: that whether he was in obscurity or in the limelight, he understood that being in touch meant being involved, and his involvement declared his wisdom.
Isn’t it interesting that there is no record of him spending his days in pleasure? Many of us—I fear I would have been tempted when I got that new chariot and those clothes and the signet ring and the chance to buzz around. Oh, I can’t but think of all the things I would have planned to do. I would have planned immediately for a long spell of travel, perhaps, and roaming here and there, and playing with the signet ring. But he doesn’t waste his time in pleasure.
I don’t know about you, but I might have been tempted, since I was now second-in-command in the whole of Egypt, to go settle some old scores. “So Potiphar thought he was a tough guy, did he? Stuck me in the jail, did he? And his wife—what a vagabond she was. Wait till she sees my signet ring,” I might have said. “Wait till I stamp her into the jail for a year or two.” No recriminations. He doesn’t even go and chase up the cupbearer and say to him, “Oh, so you finally woke up, did you, after two years? I’ve got a job for you, cupbearer.” No. He simply recognized that he’d been placed in a position of usefulness for the good of the people and for the glory of God, and so he gave himself in unwearied activity so that he would not prove unworthy of the trust which the pharaoh had given him. Joseph, then, is a wonderful example of faith-at-work at work. If my faith is not at work at work, then my faith is not at work at all. I hope you do not have a Sunday faith. I hope you have a seven-times-twenty-four, whatever that is, faith. (I was trying to work out what it was, so … 168. Thank you.)
Now, finally, in chapter 41, if his wisdom was going to be displayed in his workplace, then it was going to have to be displayed in family matters. And one of the most significant things about your family is your name. Your name is very precious and very important. You don’t want the name of your family besmirched, nor do I. And so to be given a new name is a significant thing. It’s significant at every point in the Bible: Jacob’s name was changed to Israel; Abram had his name changed; Daniel had his name changed; and we’re told in verse 45 here that Joseph had his name changed. Not uncommon in the ancient days for some special event to be marked by the receiving of a new name. In this case, it was a mark of respect and of honor, and Joseph would have understood it to be such. It was an indication of the high esteem in which Joseph was found by the pharaoh. And his new name would be declaring that to those who met him from this point on in his life. Oh, he would always be Joseph, as it were, inside. He was always going to be Joseph to his dad. He would always be Joseph to his brothers when they reappeared. But within the context of the jurisdiction of Egypt, he now bore this new and significant name, which probably described that which he had most recently achieved in the interpreting of the dream; and the name probably means “the revealer of secrets,” and so it is most appropriate. And he was certainly deserving of this mark of recognition.
I haven’t done a lot of this, but I do hope you will note as we go through here the foreshadowings of Jesus that we find frequently in the story of Joseph. Even in the mention of his name here, it is a reminder to us; it points us forward to the name of the Lord Jesus himself, the great revealer of the Father’s will. If Joseph was able to reveal the dream of Pharaoh, here was to come one down through the corridors of time who would reveal God’s will in all of its fullness, who would provide for us a knowledge of salvation through the redemption of our sins, and his name would be, and is, the name that is above every name. If Joseph was to be the deliverer from a physical famine, this Jesus who was to come was to deliver from the spiritual famine that ravages our lives.
So he had a new name, and he was also given a wife. Do you notice that? In verse 45, he was given “the name Zaphenath-Paneah,” and he was also given “Asenath [the] daughter of Potiphera, priest of On.” Now, it’s interesting, is it not, that this should be reported in such a matter-of-fact fashion. There is no great pomp and circumstance attaches to it, no great blowing of trumpets and heralding of the event. It simply says that he was given a wife, and it tells us who his father-in-law was. Interestingly, we know nothing further of this particular lady, nor do we know anything other than this about her father. And it should be understood, as well, that to be given a wife, to be connected this way further into the Egyptian society and culture, was again an indication of the esteem and affection of Pharaoh for Joseph. And, again, Joseph would have understood it as such.
However, the question is this: Should we find fault with Joseph for forming a connection with the family of a priest by marrying his daughter? Is this a side-step by Joseph? Is this a mistake by Joseph? Did Joseph sin in getting married to this lady? Now, some people would answer—and do answer in commentaries—with a resounding yes. “Absolutely,” they say. “Joseph made a major error here, and he would never be the same again. It simply shows to us,” they say, “that the best of men are men at best, and although Joseph was a diligent, God-centered young man, he could succumb to things even though we had seen him successful in other areas, and so when the chips were down and he got the car and he got the clothes and he got the clout, he just couldn’t resist having to take the wife with the package, and so he went along with it.” Now, of course, it doesn’t say that. So when it doesn’t say that, nobody can say that with great conviction—no more than I can say what I’m about to say with great conviction, because the fact of the matter is, we are not told these things.
However, I’m not so quick to draw the conclusion that Joseph was wrong, for a number of reasons. For example, Jethro’s daughter was not rejected by Moses simply because Jethro was the priest of Midian—so that others within the context of the biblical record had engaged in similar marriages, or were to engage in similar marriages. And as it falls out in the story of Jethro, it would appear that this man seemingly was a fearer of the true God, or at least he was open to the truth when it was presented to him. And so we cannot say categorically just what it was that made this man Potiphera tick, but if Potiphera was a really bad heathen priest—if he was all that we might expect him to be as a pagan—does it inevitably follow that his daughter also was a pagan? Have not some of us grown up in paganism and been redeemed by an outstretched hand? Do some of us not pray for our parents and for our families because of the way we have been set apart from them? It certainly is possible.
It is also possible that she, in some special way, was prepared to receive the truth from Joseph. And although she may not have been marked by the truth, I can’t but imagine that—almost immediately—that this relationship would be established and the covenant sealed in marriage, that this young, God-centered man did not immediately get about the business of saying to this girl, “Asenath, hey, listen! Let me tell you about what’s the most important thing in my life, just right from the start, so that you may understand me and that we may go on together.” I can’t but imagine that he was about the business, if you like, of evangelism.
We’re going to have to wait for heaven to unravel that, but you can make your own conclusion for now. I am tempted to believe that Joseph, a God-centered, disciplined, focused young man, did not neglect to acknowledge God in this vital matter of marriage. In fact, if he had been forced, as he probably was circumstantially, to marry a woman brought up in idolatry and in superstition, let none of us assume that he provides an excuse for Christians to choose unbelievers as their marriage partners. For if he was forced to that from which he could not disengage himself, he clearly does not establish a model for those of us who are free to choose and to make wise decisions concerning the family of faith.
If Joseph had died in the dungeon, he would have died a happy man because he would have gone to heaven. Indeed, his bride had more reason to be thankful for the position to which he had ascended than even Joseph himself, because the position to which Joseph ascended added nothing to his eternal destiny, but it is at least possible that the position into which Asenath was thrust, in an arranged marriage, was to become the very gateway of heaven for her. Every person who finds themself as an unbeliever joined in marriage to a godly believer should thank God, ask many questions, be very honest, and listen carefully. Everything does not fit our compelling desire for total definition and clarity in these areas.
I’m sure many of you, when I mentioned before the two-volume biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, immediately ran out and bought the copies for yourself, and so you will be well familiar with its pages. And, as I studied this passage, it triggered something in my mind. And I went back, and I had recalled correctly, and I found it. Lloyd-Jones married his wife in January of 1927, and they went to a place called Sandfields where he began his ministry, she also a doctor. And speaking of the congregation and the change that took place in the congregation, the biographer says, “It took some time. I was there from February to July,” says Lloyd-Jones, “without a single conversion. The first conversion was in July, and that was not a striking one. Then we went away on holiday. After we had come back, E.T. Rees was converted on the first Sunday in October, and that did seem to start something, [and] it went on from there.” You sense something of his evangelistic passion as he is looking for people to come to faith in Christ. But here’s the striking thing:
But Dr. Lloyd-Jones knew that more was happening even in 1927 than was apparent. For his own wife had come into a state of concern and conviction. Having attended church and prayer meetings from childhood, Bethan Lloyd-Jones had always believed that she was a Christian. Not until she heard [her husband] preach for the first time, on his second visit to Sandfields in December 1926, was she confronted in his sermon on Zacchaeus with an insistence that all men are equally in need of salvation from sin. The message shook her, even frightened her, and she almost resented the teaching which had appeared to place her in the same condition as those who had no religion at all. In a sense, she had always feared God. Her life was upright and yet she knew that she had no personal consciousness of the forgiveness of sins, no sense of inward joyful communion with Christ. In Mrs. Lloyd-Jones’ own words, “I was for two years under Martyn’s ministry before I really understood what the gospel was.”
So Martyn Lloyd-Jones married a non-Christian—albeit someone who thought she was, and presumably declared herself to be. But she wasn’t!
And I mention it for multiple reasons, but not least of all—and I haven’t finished quoting—to help some of you to understand this clear distinction between being “brought up in a Christian environment,” “believing in Jesus all my life,” “blah, blah, blah, blah, religious blah,” and actually coming to personal, living faith in Jesus Christ. There is all the difference in the world! It is the difference between life and death, heaven and hell, reality and unreality. And our purpose at Parkside is not to produce little religious people, brought up correctly, mouthing all the right stuff, and believing that the message of the gospel is for some poor pagans that we will go out and find. The message of the gospel is for each of us, for we are all dead in our trespasses and in our sins, and unless we are made alive in Christ—recognizably so, understandably so, individually so—then we remain in our sins.
Do you understand? I hope so. “I used to listen to him on Sunday morning and I used to feel, well, if this is Christianity, I didn’t really know anything about it. On Sunday night, I used to pray that somebody would be converted. I thought you had to be a drunkard or a prostitute to be converted. I remember how I used to rejoice to see drunks become Christians and envy them with all my heart because they were full of joy and free and here I was in such a different condition.”
Some of you are just like Mrs. Lloyd-Jones, I am convinced of it. And you feel yourself trapped because you’re not honest enough to admit that you have never really come to personal faith in Jesus Christ, and you hear people give their testimonies in baptism, and you share their joy, but it closes down a piece of you, because you know that you have no such personal testimony to give. Wouldn’t you be bold enough tonight to acknowledge it—just where you sit, just as you listen to this scenario unfold, just as God grips your heart—and cry out to him and say, “Lord, I am just like that lady, and I need what she sought. I need you.” “I recall,” she says,
sitting in the study at 57 Victoria Road and I was unhappy. I suppose it was conviction. I felt a burden of sin. And I shall always remember Martyn saying, as he looked through his books, “Here, read this.” He gave me John Angell James’ The Anxious Inquirer Directed. I have never forgotten what I read in that book. It showed me how wrong was the idea that my sin could be greater than the merit of the blood of Christ. His death was well able to clear all my sins away. And there at last, I found release, and I was so happy.
Somewhere along the line I believe that this Asenath girl came to a similar commitment. But we shall have to wait till heaven to find out who’s right and who’s wrong.
Now, let me just in a word—’cause I got into preaching there out of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s book, I acknowledge—let me just acknowledge with you, in verses 50–52, that he not only had a new name and a new wife, but he was given two sons, and in the naming of his sons he declared his wisdom. He did what Solomon instructed his son to do in the Proverbs: he drank water from his own cistern; he rejoiced in the wife of his youth. If he’d had a baby as a result of adultery with Potiphar’s wife, it would have all have been tragedy and shame and heartache and dreadfulness. In saying no to temptation and saying yes to righteousness, he enters into the joy of the birth of these two lovely boys.
The first one he calls Manasseh, acknowledging God’s hand in all of his adversity and all of his prosperity. He says, “I gave him the name Manasseh. It’s because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” Well, it clearly doesn’t mean that all remembrance of his father’s household had been removed, because the very fact that he mentions it makes it clear that he hadn’t forgotten about it. He can’t have forgotten about it and then mentioned it, because you have to remember it in order to be able mention it. So what does it mean? Well, I think what it means is this—not the memory of his father had been obliterated, but I think it means simply this: that the awareness of God’s blessing and benefits towards him had been such in the intervening years that some of the sadness and the pain and the badness and the blackness of those events had been eradicated from his mind.
God, my loved ones, is able to do that for you. He wasn’t limping through his days as a recovering pit dweller, you know: “Hello, my name is Joseph, and if you want to know about me, I’ve been in a pit. Hello, my name is Joseph, and my father doted on me, and that’s why I’m kind of warped. Hello, my name is Joseph, and I lived with the abuse of my brothers, and that explains who I am.” No, he says, “Hello, I am Joseph, and God is a great God. He is able to give me all of his blessings and benefits and has enabled me to forget the bad and to recall the good.” Learning how to forget is a grace of God as well. And I thank God for the memory he’s given me, and I thank God for the ability he has given me to forget. If in twenty-one years of pastoral ministry I should have kept a record of all the offenses that I had caused to others and those done against me, I would never have been able to hold up my head in public company. But God has given the ability to forget, and Manasseh marks that for him.
Ephraim does likewise. “Ephraim is a reminder to me,” he says, “of God granting fruitfulness to me. He has made me fruitful, not in the land of my birth, but in the land of my affliction.” Isn’t that interesting? That in the place where he had a lovely home and great opportunities, apparently, nothing happened; and far from his own home, from his own language, from his own family, and from his own background and friends, God granted him fruitfulness there.
It is a reminder to us, loved ones, in conclusion, that we should leave God to choose for us the place of our lives and the place of our service. We’ve noted before that there is no ideal place to serve God. And indeed, if we find ourselves in places that we never wished, then simply submit to the will of the Father and serve him there. For surely, that is not only the example of Joseph, but it is the example of Jesus, who in the darkness of the garden of Gethsemane, in a place that he would never have wished to be, facing a death that was going to be agony in all of its fullness, he wrestled in his own heart and mind—not in a spirit of disobedience or defiance, but in his humanity—shrinking from all that awaited him, and then finally to say, “[Nevertheless] not my will, but yours be done.” And out of that came redemption, and forgiveness of sins, and life, and hope, and heaven, and joy, and our Communion service here tonight.
Let me quote a hymn to you as a conclusion. I went looking for this hymn as I wrapped my studies up earlier in the week, and I only had a line of it in my mind, but I was able to find it, and gladly so. And it may be of help to some of you. Thinking of the submission of Joseph to the will of God, whether in the pit or the pinnacle, the chains or the chariot, in success and in failure, the hymn writer says,
Thy way, not mine, O Lord,
However dark it be;
Lead me by thine own hand,
Choose [thou] the path for me.
Smooth let it be or rough,
It will be still the best;
Winding or straight, it leads
Right onward to thy rest.
I dare not choose my lot;
I would not if I might;
Choose thou for me, my God,
So shall I walk aright.
Take thou my cup, and it
With joy or sorrow fill,
As best to thee may seem;
Choose thou my good [or] ill.
Choose thou for me my friends,
My sickness or my health.
Choose thou my cares for me,
My poverty or wealth.
Not mine, not mine, the choice,
In things or great or small.
Be thou my guide, my strength,
My wisdom and my all.
And those great words of Horatius Bonar from the nineteenth century would have been gladly sung by the lips of Joseph.
Let us bow in a moment of silent prayer.
Just as you’re seated there this evening, I trust that each of us will respond to God as he prompts us in our hearts. It was not my intention to apply the message as I did in relation to the conversion of Bethan Lloyd-Jones; I do feel very much that I did so with purpose, that I may well have spoken into the lives of a few people here this evening who were planning to go ahead and take Communion again, as you always do, on the strength of a Christianity which you’ve always known, on a framework that you’ve always embraced, and with that same hollow feeling, because you cannot mark a time in your life when Jesus Christ laid hold of you and you responded to his grace in repentance and in faith. Well, just where you’re seated, tell God that you know yourself to be a great sinner, and that you know him to be a great Savior, and cry to him for mercy and for forgiveness, and ask him to give you a new heart and make you a new creation and give you the joy of salvation.
Father, hear the cries of our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 Genesis 41:48 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 41:56–57 (NIV 1984).
 Elsie Duncan Yale, “There’s a Work for Jesus, Ready at Your Hand” (1912).
 See Exodus 2:15–22.
 Iain H. Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years, 1899–1939 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 166.
 Ibid., 166–67.
 Proverbs 5:15, 18 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 41:51 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 41:52 (paraphrased).
 Luke 22:42 (NIV 1984).
 Horatius Bonar, “Thy Way, Not Mine, O Lord” (1857).