February 18, 1996
Joseph went from being the child of a caring father to a slave at auction. In the face of such trying circumstances, he could have become bitter and resentful. Instead, he trusted God. Alistair Begg points us to the life of Joseph to demonstrate that there is no ideal place to serve God except where He has established us. We may not know how God is at work, but we can trust that He will use life’s difficult times for His glory.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Can I invite you once again to turn with me to Genesis and to the thirty-ninth chapter? And as you open to that part of the Bible, let’s pause once again and ask God to help us as we study it together:
Lord, we thank you that you have chosen that, when your Word is preached in the power of your Spirit, that your voice is heard. And so we pray that that may be our experience now—not the futility of listening simply to a man talk about an ancient book, but the reality of you choosing to take mere broken, fallible human instrumentation and, by the power of your Holy Spirit, to match your Word to lives this morning, some of whom in this instant are not even ready to hear your truth. Only you can do this, and to you alone we look. Save us, then, Lord, from every distracting influence, and help us to concentrate on you as you speak to us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
A radical change has taken place in the life of this young man Joseph. From being the object of his father’s special interest—essentially, the object of a doting dad who loved him with a passion perhaps beyond what was even suitable or sensible—he has now become the focus of the attention of individuals who are in the market for a slave. Now that’s dramatic! Some of our circumstances have changed over a period of time by means of geography, or by social deprivation, or whatever it might be; I’m not sure that any of us have made such a stoop as this, have made such a crashing groundfall as this. And we do well to remind ourselves—indeed, it would be wrong for us to assume that the background to the verses before us this morning is anything other than distasteful, ugly, humiliating, and, without doubt, cruel.
The picture with which the chapter opens, with which the other one concludes, is not that of Joseph, now in Egypt, going from place to place looking for a job, but rather it is Joseph in the context of an auction. And in order for us to get a picture of it, we should probably think in terms of cattle auctions—for, mercifully, none of us, I trust, have ever been in the realm of slavery in the state of our days. It certainly is a horrible and sorry aspect of our history; I hope none of us have experienced it. But we have experienced cattle auctions. And if you have ever gone to Middlefield on a Monday (I think it’s Monday), it’s an amazing and wonderful experience. Indeed, if you haven’t gone to Middlefield on a Monday, then you need to plan a Middlefield Monday. And when you go there, there are a number of important places that you should visit. And I’m not on the tourist board for Middlefield or anything, but one of the places that you need to sit in on is the cattle auction there, surrounded by all of the Amish folks and various Yankees besides. And you will be privileged to observe the procedure as it unfolds with regularity: as the door swings open and one sorry beast comes in through the door, whacked by a big stick and prodded into its position of prominence, and then the various nods and winks and scratchings of the heads and grunts proceeds, till finally the beast now has a master, and then the door opens on the other side, and out it goes and on its sorry journey. Be careful if you’re taking your children, because some of them become very quickly attached to these things, and there is a dreadful temptation to buy a piglet. And I have come within a whisker of a piglet on more than one occasion. What I would do with the thing once I had it, I haven’t the foggiest idea, but they do look particularly cute. I have hastened to go through and see what they become, and that has prevented me from that kind of foolishness.
But here is the picture for Joseph. The dreamer has hit the dirt. He is far removed from the security of his family home. He has been placed, probably, on a platform in full view of the crowd, a leering crowd, doubtless chained to a block for security’s sake, stripped bare—perhaps they did [him] the kindness of leaving him with a loincloth, but probably not—and there he stands, as a teenager, subjected to the investigations and proddings of his potential master. Every teenage boy understands the developmental phases of life and would want to guard against any kind of exposure in this way, and so to be subjected to this kind of humiliation was something that would have ripped into the very core of this young man Joseph.
Try with me to get a sense of the pain and the confusion in the life of this teenage boy as he sought to understand what it was that was happening to him, and as in the course of events he realized that he couldn’t understand what was being said to him, for he was in a foreign country—couldn’t understand the words of the people around him and was left simply to try and read their eyes to see what they were actually thinking and what they were planning on doing. And they must have roved the crowd, even as the people cast their gaze upon him, looking to see whose eyes would be the eyes that would finally become his captor.
And then the ordeal would have been over, and he would have been escorted, probably under some kind of guard, into the palatial surroundings of this man Potiphar, who was, we’re told in verse 1, “the captain of the guard.” We might equally translate that, in terms of contextualizing it in some way, “the chief of the secret police,” or “the chief of the royal police,” or “the man in charge of the executions of all political insurrectionists.” Those who sought to bring down the pharaoh would be put in the custody of the chief of the royal police, and he would make sure that they wouldn’t be bringing anybody down. And with a very great sense of clinical efficiency, he would remove such a threat from his boss. He was a powerful man, and he probably had the potential for cruelty, or at least he could absorb it and deal with it in the course of his day-to-day routine. So it is an understatement to say that the circumstances into which Joseph now is brought are less than ideal.
Years later, when his father was reflecting upon the circumstances of Joseph’s life in Genesis 49:23, Jacob reflected, “With bitterness archers attacked him; they shot at him with hostility”—a very graphic picture of the vulnerability, now, of Joseph; as if, as it were, there were a group of archers all around him, and they were simply taking potshots at him, and he found himself exposed, and alone, and disappointed, and fearful, and wondering.
Now, loved ones, here we discover again—and we discover it with frequency in the Bible—an essential, vital, simple truth that has something to say into each of our lives this morning, and namely this: there is no ideal place to serve God except the place in which he sets you down. There is no ideal job. There is no ideal location. There is no ideal office. There certainly is no ideal church to join in which to fellowship or to pastor. There are good ones; there are no ideal ones. And those who constantly search for the ideal, for perfection, forgetting that all that is ideal and all that is perfect is saved for heaven, send themselves—send ourselves—on a journey that is marked by frequent disappointment. And here we discover again this essential truth: that for Joseph this was not ideal, and yet he would have had within him all kinds of emotions to run away, to hide, to give up, to become antagonistic; and somehow or another God, as we will see, takes him through the valleys as well as through the high spots.
The psalmist, responding to similar circumstances in his life in Psalm 11:1, says to himself, “In the Lord I take refuge. How then can you say to me: ‘Flee like a bird to your mountain’?” I don’t remember who sang the song, but it went like this: “We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.” Remember that song? No. Okay. And some of us have come from a week with the refrain of the song reverberating in our brains and circumstances and people and counsel, and our own spirits inside of us are starting to say, “You know, if you could only get away. If you could only get up to the cottage. If you could only get down to there. If you could only get to the sun.” And while all of those things may be temporary palliatives, the fact of the matter is, as the psalmist says, “In the Lord I take [my] refuge. How can you say to me, ‘Flee like a bird to your mountain’?” Flee if you choose, but you’ll take yourself there. And I don’t know about you, but I’m my biggest problem. Not my circumstances, not my colleagues, not my boss—me. And Joseph looks at his environment, and we look at his environment, and we look at our own, and we may find ourselves saying, “You know, I never bargained for this. I never imagined being trapped in these circumstances. I never ever thought it would become like this.” And presumably that’s a little of how Joseph was feeling.
So let’s trace a line through these opening verses. Let’s notice four things about Joseph. Number one: he was protected. He was protected. In the course of all of this, the protecting hand of God upon him is quite remarkable. We saw it last time in the way in which he was almost dead and then in the pit; and then he was in the pit and not dead, but going to be dead; and then he was in the pit, but he was getting out of the pit; and then he was in the pit and on the camel; and now he’s still alive. He’s been protected. He hasn’t been protected from the circumstances; he has been protected in the circumstances. And so often we make it a sad thing for ourselves by asking God constantly to change the circumstances, or to remove the circumstances, or to remove us from the circumstances, when, in point of fact, most of the time what God seems to do with his children is that he doesn’t change the circumstances for us, but he changes our attitude towards the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And when we start to pray for someone who is an aggravation to us, when we start to be kind to someone who’s a disappointment to us, the personnel remain the same, but our experience may well change.
You see, God could have done different things in Joseph’s life. God chose to allow these events to unfold in order, in part, I’m sure, to deal with the blemishes in his character. It was not going to be good for Joseph, who had essentially had seventeen years of everything being hunky-dory, for him—in the expectations of God—for him to have the next twenty years similarly. And God purposed that it would be “through many dangers, toils, and snares” that he would bring his servant in order that he may fashion him and deal with the blemishes in his character, even as he’s doing with us—and in Joseph’s case, pride, amongst other things.
So we find Joseph protected, first of all, by God’s presence. He is protected by the presence of God. He left his earthly father behind in Canaan, but his heavenly Father accompanied him to Egypt. His presence with him was the source of his protection. He would have been happy with the words of the psalmist, and I just want to quote a few to you. You can turn to them if you choose; you can note them and find them later. They are a selection of a vast company of such truths and verses. Psalm 9:9: “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.” The Twenty-Seventh Psalm: “For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.” Psalm 46:1: “God is our refuge and [our] strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Psalm 138:7: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life.”
Now sometimes, loved ones, what we need to do in the midst of our days, as we find ourselves disappointed and enslaved and broken and unable to alter our circumstances, we do well to go to the soul’s medicine chest—and if the Bible is the soul’s medicine chest, then one of the best potions in the chest is in the book of Psalms—and to take the Psalms, and to read there of the psalmist’s experience and realize how again and again his experience of God is descriptive of what we long for.
And what the psalmist sings, God’s people experience. For example, in the book of Exodus, when Moses is talking to God about the prospect of leading the people and the sense of fearfulness that he has in relationship to the leadership of the people; in Exodus 33:12, Moses speaks to the Lord, and he says to him,
“You[’ve] been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you[’ve] not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” [And] the Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Moses was afraid: “I don’t want to do this on my own. I don’t want to go this alone.” And the Lord says to him, “Don’t worry about that. My presence will go with you.” And Moses replies in verse 15, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us?” In other words, it is the accompanying presence of God in the life of his servant that makes the servant distinctive. It is not ultimately the servant’s ability to articulate theology. It is not ultimately our ability to pronounce certain things about the way of the world and everything. But it is that in some strange way it becomes apparent to people, that there is this dimension upon the life of the child of God which is evidence of the fact of God’s protection in the life of his servant protected by his presence.
You get the same thing: God speaks through his servant the prophet in Isaiah 43:2, and he says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” Matthew 28:20: the words of Jesus telling his disciples, “I’m going to heaven, you’re staying here. Let me tell you what to do: Go into all the world, preach the gospel, make disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and as you can see the eyes of his disciples widening all the time in the prospect of the absence of Jesus, and he says to them, “And, lo, I am with you always, even [to] the end of the [age].” Protected by God’s presence.
Secondly, protected from. The protection of God not only was made clear to him in his presence with him but was clear insofar as you find that Joseph was protected from certain things. Now, this is not overtly here in the text; it is covertly here in the circumstances as they unfold. But you are sensible people, and you follow this through with me and see if you don’t agree that we can say with confidence that God protected Joseph from the silent killers—from the silent killers, three of which are these: resentment, self-pity, and bitterness.
For Joseph was a sitting duck for any one of these. If ever there was an individual whose most immediate experience had legitimized the possibility of a response marked by feeling sorry for himself, becoming resentful of what others had done, and becoming embittered by the whole process, Joseph was a number one candidate. For surely in those early days, as he tossed and turned on his bed within the custody of Potiphar’s home, his mind must have been filled with so much confusion. His dreams—’cause he was a dreamer—must have been filled with the happy and the sad aspects of it all: in the night, waking up in a sweat with the eyes of his brothers gazing into him in the pit as he reached out his hands to his elder brothers, and he said, “Oh, no, don’t leave me here!” and as one after another looked at him and cursed him and walked away and left him—and suddenly he was awake in the night, and rattled by his chains into an awareness again, he realizes that he is a captive in a foreign home, and his circumstances are dreadful.
Or what of the nights when he has those dreams, the same kind of dreams that you have when a loved one dies, and in the watches of the night you dream that you’re with your loved one again, and all is restored, and all is fine, and you walk together and you talk together, and you awake and you realize it was a cruel fable? How he dreamt of his dad, and of the times with his dad, and his wee brother Benjamin, who was five years old and for whom Joseph must have been a hero: separated by twelve years, enough for Joseph to be the big guy on campus—at least on Benjamin’s campus. And how he probably dreamt of times with Benjamin in the fields, and taking him here, and taking him there. And in his dreams he’s with him and answering his questions and introducing him to the beasts of the field, and suddenly he’s awake. And he looks around at the walls of the same old room, and up impaled upon the wall are the temptations to resentment and to self-pity and to bitterness.
Some of us feel ourselves to be in that kind of room this morning at this period in our lives. We waken to the dawning realization that our circumstances are not what we like: physically they aren’t, in terms of medical prognosis; emotionally they’re not, in terms of interpersonal relationships; employment-wise they’re not, in terms of the peculiar difficulties of our days. And it’s as though there are these neon lights that flash to us in the early hours of the morning, “Just bury yourself in resentment. Feel sorry for yourself. Just become an embittered soul.” And what do we do? Well, we need the protection of God—not only the protection that comes by way of his presence, but the protection from these things. And Joseph didn’t allow himself to become imprisoned by the walls of bitterness.
In the circumstances that each of us face, known only to us and ultimately to God, we need to ask God to enable us that we might resolve, with his help, no matter how difficult our days, to respond in a way that prevents a bitterness of spirit and produces instead within us soft hearts. Ephesians deals with this wonderfully, in Ephesians chapter 4, where Paul says to the believers there in Ephesus, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only [what’s] helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Well, how will we do that? “Well, listen,” he says: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage … anger, brawling and slander.” Just get rid of them.
As easy as that? No, not as easy as that, but as straightforward as that. “Well, I can’t.” Don’t tell me you can’t; tell me you won’t. The problem isn’t “can’t.” The problem’s “won’t.” There’s never a command in the Word of God that we are able to answer to, “I can’t.” It’s always, “I won’t.” Because he never calls us to an action that he does not enable us to complete the action. So if he says, “Get rid of something,” you can be dead certain that he applies the power of the Spirit within our lives to enable us to do what he just asked us to do. And so when I live with bitterness, resentment, and self-pity, I made the dungeon for myself, make no mistake, and I cannot lay the charge at God. And that’s why the wonder of Joseph here is so marvelous: young guy, protected by God’s presence, protected from the silent killers—and protected for a unique purpose.
You see, God was at work in the life of Joseph, planning him and preparing him for something yet to come. His body might be chained, but his spirit wasn’t chained. Somehow or another in his mind, the dreams plus the disasters were leading somewhere. He maybe had an inkling of what Solomon was to later write in Proverbs 3: “My son, [don’t] despise the Lord’s discipline and [don’t] resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” The greatest of all tragedies is the tragedy of an undisciplined son or daughter, for they live in the worst of confusions, wondering why it is that since they know what they’re about to do is harmful to them, why their father would not intervene for their protection, even though they know that they will resent the intervention of their dad. It’s a strange and wonderful, weird deal.
So then, he was protected by God’s presence, from man’s perversity, and for God’s purpose.
Secondly, he was prospered—prospered. Verse 2: “The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered.” Straightforward little phrase. In less-than-favorable circumstances, as we’ve noticed, Joseph was to discover that God was caring for him. The Lord could clearly have restored him to his house; his father could have showed up one day and cut a deal with Pharaoh or with Potiphar, potentially so. There are a number of ways that he could have been restored to his home. But the Lord chose not to do that; he had lessons for him to learn, he had discoveries for him to make. And there were discoveries that he could only make in this circumstance that would not have been made elsewhere.
You see, Joseph had lost his coat, but he hadn’t lost his character. And if all that he’d had was a coat, then he’d be done; but there was a character inside the coat. Indeed, his character was being formed and was being framed in the crucible of Potiphar’s control. And somewhere along the line, sooner rather than later, Joseph must have sat down and said to himself, “I’m gonna make the most of this.” And the day that we do that is a great day, because it is a day of liberation. Because what we do is we say, “This is where I am, this is where I work, this is what I face. Here are all the bad things, I can’t hardly see any good things, but guess what? I’m gonna make the most of this. I’m gonna make the most of this because I believe it’s right to do so, and I’m gonna make the most of this because I believe that God will enable me to do so.”
And so Joseph must have, as of that day, quit doing what is normal to do in a foreign country when you really don’t want to get involved in things, when all you want to do is establish your own little Caledonian Society (which is a Scottish society), or your own little United States Servicepeople Society, and live in a cocoon within the world in which you live, and you go around saying, “Sorry, me no speak Frenchy. Me no speak Egyptian. Sorry, can’t answer your questions. Can’t speak Egyptian. I don’t want to be involved, I don’t want to get involved, I don’t want to hear from you,” whatever it is. Joseph must have decided, said, “You know what? I’m gonna learn to speak Egyptian, and I’m gonna give myself to it big time, because this is where I am.” He must have sat down, wrestled with it, said, “I’ve got it. I’m Potiphar’s slave—that’s who I am. I used to be Jacob’s son. I’m still Jacob’s son, but nobody knows and nobody cares. What they know me as now is Potiphar’s slave. So guess what? Although I am apparently Potiphar’s slave, I am actually God’s slave. And since I am God’s slave, serving Potiphar, I’m going to be the best slave that Potiphar ever had in his life. He’s not an ideal boss, this is not a perfect spot, it is actually not what I was looking for, nothing along the lines of what I was planning, but here I am, and I am going to make the most of it.” And the same disciplined commitment which attached to his search for his brothers in their shepherding in Shechem, about which we read in chapter 37, he now determines to apply to his role as a slave in the realm of a pagan master.
Now, loved ones, there’s a tremendous amount to be learned from this in these days. And I want to prevent myself from red herrings, but notice this: it is in the crucible of the most undesirable circumstances—not in protesting the paganism of Egypt, not in resenting the mastership of Potiphar, not in trying to reorientate the whole culture in which he’s living. None of that was open to him or potential to him. The only opportunity he had for witness and for testimony was to do what? Was to be a good slave. For that was his job. So he says, “That’s what I’m going to be. I’m going to be diligent, obedient, reliable, industrious, and conscientious.”
Anybody here who employs people is scribbling down these five words now for the next interview, if they’re sensible, because in the course of it all this is what you would like: diligent, obedient, reliable, industrious, and conscientious help. Say you’re there? You’re there. Say you work the full time? You work the full time. When there’s a need for a little extra, you can count on him, you can count on her. And that’s exactly what Potiphar starts to get from this character Joseph. He just picked him up in the market. Someone said, “Maybe we should take this kid,” and he said, “Fine, bring him in.” And he brought him in, and now all of a sudden he recognizes that there is a measure of favor, there is a blessing which is on this young guy’s life.
Notice: Joseph didn’t tell Potiphar that there was blessing on his life; Potiphar saw that there was blessing on his life—verse 3: “When his master saw that the Lord was with him.” See, I don’t think it is so much that Joseph is going around saying, “Hey Potiphar, let me tell you something: You think you’re a big shot? The Lord is with me. You better look out, Potiphar.” That would have been insurrection. He’d probably got his head chopped off for that. No. He’s polishing, he’s doing his business, he’s sweeping, just doing the things that slaves do. And when Potiphar comes around, he keeps saying to himself, “You know, there’s something about this kid. I’ve had many slaves in my time, but this boy has something.” Oh, to be that kind of person in the marketplace of life!
The favor of God rests on the shoulder of Joseph. When God’s blessing is on a life, we won’t have to telegraph the news. It will be apparent—and sometimes, even as in Potiphar’s case, it will be apparent to the pagans. I came across these little four lines that express it fairly succinctly and well:
It isn’t the style nor the stuff in the coat,
Nor is it the length of the tailor’s bill.
It’s the stuff in the chap inside of the coat
That counts for good or ill.
See, you can dress up like John the Baptist—wear a big hairy jersey, eat locusts and wild honey, and try and grow a beard, and you can walk up and down, and you can roar—you can dress up like him without any influence of God, but you cannot speak like him without the hand of God. And some of us are in grave danger of relying on the clothes, or “the length of the bill of the tailor” as it were, and are missing the fact that it’s the chap or the girl inside of the suit that really counts. And Potiphar was smart enough to pick it up.
Now, can I ask you this morning: Are you making the most of it? That’s why I gave it the title “Making the Most of It,” if you happened to look at the notes in the bulletin. “Making the Most of It.” Are you making the most of it? “Making the most of what?” Well, making the most of anything! You making the most of your singleness? “Well, no, I don’t really want to be single. I was hoping to be married by this time.” I understand, but are you making the most of it? Making the most of your marriage. Making the most of every opportunity, of your employment opportunities, etc.
There’s a fable told of two grasshoppers which were thrown into a pail of milk. And the first grasshopper began immediately to sulk, gave up, and drowned. The second grasshopper began to kick like fury and work hard at it and, making the best of it, churned the milk into butter. And then he walked out on the top of the block of butter. Now, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything: that’s what a fable is. But it’s a good picture. “Two guys in the same jail, two men behind bars, one looks out and sees mud, the other sees stars[O5].” Is the bottle half full or half empty? Are you gonna suck it up, or suck air—suck milk—and die, or are you gonna kick and paddle around and climb out on the top of the butter? Are you making the most of it, for the glory of the Lord Jesus? To say to the watching world, “With Christ, I can jump over a wall. With God, I can run through a troop.” Now, we may say that through our teeth clenched, we may be able to say that only after agony, but the fact of the matter is, where God’s protection abounds the possibility remains. He was prospered on account of God’s goodness.
For twelve years, John Bunyan was in a jail in Bedford in England. The reason he was in jail was because he refused to preach within the framework of the Anglican Communion. He wasn’t a Church of England clergyman, but he loved to preach, and so he preached all over the place. And they told him, “Bunyan, cut it out or we’ll put you in jail.” And Bunyan said, “I can’t cut it out. I have to preach.” And he preached everywhere he went. So they came and manacled him and took him to the jail, and they buried him in Bedford for twelve years. Rotten circumstances. Within a small matter of time, historians tell us that there was music coming from Bunyan’s cell. But Bunyan had no musical instruments taken into the cell with him: all he had in the cell, apart from his bed and a couple of possessions, was a three-legged stool. And it became apparent that he had removed one of the legs of the stool, and he had carved it into a flute. And when the guards came by to Bunyan in the most miserable of circumstances, instead of in there shouting expletives and resentful and embittered and dissolved in a pool of tears for his own self-pity… And what else was he doing? He was writing a book—a book that has become the classic book after the Bible in the whole history of Christianity: Pilgrim’s Progress. No other book sold so well over so long a period of time to such great impact in the lives of so many than a book written in the worst of circumstances by a tinker—a street person—from Bedford, England. He prospered in the worst of circumstances. And so did Joseph.
Indeed, there’s a lot of drudgery in Joseph’s day. There’s a lot of drudgery in everybody’s day. I mean, it doesn’t matter: You see the captain on the airliner, and he looks so nice with his starched shirt and the hat, and your shoes look so terrible in standing next to him, and you feel your pants could do with a crease, and so on, and you say to yourself, “Oh, if only I was flying the plane, you know, that would be fantastic.” And he actually is looking at you saying, “I wish I didn’t have to wear this dumb hat, and I wish I was simply just sitting back and taking an orange juice on the plane,” and so on. Everybody has routine and drudgery into their days. And the key to life, I believe—the key to fulfillment in life—is not in managing to work ourselves to the position where, as a result of financial prosperity, we are able to buy for ourselves the little release valves from the drudgery. Those things we may be thankful for and should, and for times of vacation and for the down times. But loved ones, the most successful people I’ve ever seen in life are the individuals who are able to take the routine experiences of life—the potential for drudgery—and to see the shining of the blessing of God on those day-to-day circumstances, whatever they are.
George Herbert, writing in the sixteenth century a poem entitled “The Elixir,” deals with this in a very helpful way—in fact, with such help that it became a hymn in Great Britain. In addressing this issue of seeing our responsibilities as opportunities to reveal our dependence upon God and the evidence of God’s shining on us, Herbert writes,
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in any thing,
To do it as for thee:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
Our whole consumer society and our whole leisure time preoccupation is to build a mindset into our existence that constantly says, “Okay, we know it’s Monday. But don’t worry, it’s gonna be Friday.” Well, a quarter to seven on a Monday morning when you’re driving to the office, I don’t know about you, but that’s not a tremendous encouragement, because I can’t do a lot of math, but I can do enough math to know that’s a lot of minutes before I get to five or six o’clock on Friday afternoon, so it’s no great help to me to tell me that there’s a cherry at the end of the drudgery. What we need is somebody to say, “Do you realize that you were created for his pleasure? Do you realize that you were made for his glory? Do you realize that every matter that you deal with, every moment that you spend, every move that you make is an opportunity to bring glory and praise to God?” And in such a life, we may expect prosperity.
Protected, prospered; thirdly, promoted. Verse 4. Hardly surprising: you do your annual reviews and you look through your slaves—on the strength of this, Joseph’s gonna come out on top, don’t you think? And “Joseph found favor in his eyes.” In the same way that he didn’t tell Potiphar that the Lord was with him, but Potiphar saw that the Lord was with him, he didn’t ask Potiphar for favors; he found favors. Lawson, the Scottish commentator, says, “When men are precious in God’s sight they are honorable, whatever be their station in life.… It is good to have those for our friends and for our servants who are beloved by the Lord. His kindness towards His people overflows to all with whom they are connected.” And that’s exactly what had happened here in Potiphar’s house. Every fellow in Potiphar’s situation would look for the opportunity to create a context where he had someone to whom he could delegate the most of his day-to-day routine. Indeed, archeologists have found that on the tombs of prominent people in the Egyptian context, they have discovered not only an inscription to the memory of the one who is entombed but also, accompanying that, a diagram, a picture, or some reference to that individual’s steward or attendant, because that individual was vital in the development of this great man. And that is exactly what Joseph became here, because Potiphar recognized that a good one of these could make him and a bad one could break him.
And Potiphar realized he had a good one, and so he very quickly expresses his confidence in this young man and puts everything into his care: “He entrusted everything to him. He kept only for himself the decision making as it related to his food.” Everything else, he let it go. And he was delighted to, because the more he delegated it to this young guy, the more blessing. He gave him, if you like, his portfolio, and he said, “Joseph, I want you to look after this as well.” And Joseph started to handle his investments, and they were way up from anything he had ever known. He said, “Joseph, I want you to look after the fields,” and suddenly they were far more prosperous than they had ever been. Why? Because God determined, of his sovereign purpose, that he would take this young lad Joseph and he would bless him.
And God does that. He singularly blesses certain people at certain times in certain ways, and you know what? It’s fantastic if we happen to be around while someone’s getting blessed like that. Because the blessing spills over, and you can get up to it and cozy under it and benefit from it—to be in the presence of a fellow or a girl who is singularly being blessed of God, even when we’re pagans. And business people would tell you that within the framework of their day-to-day routine in running the same business plan, using the same marketing strategy, employing the same methods, and selling the same product, all of a sudden the thing’s gone right through the roof! And they look for all kinds of human explanations: “Oh, I think we’ve been following up better; oh, I think we’ve done this a little better,” or whatever it might be. But, you know, when they sit at home and they lay it all out in front of them, they say to themselves, “There is no human explanation for what’s going on here.” And then suddenly they say, “You know what? It’s a funny thing, but this all started since I hired that Christian kid. There’s something about that girl. It’s as though the hand of God is on everything she touches. I’ve never known somebody for curing the bitter tongue of a disgruntled rep better than her. It’s amazing the way when people are in the coffee room and she comes in, there’s a sort of harmony and tranquility about the place, and we used to have all this animosity.”
’Cause that’s exactly what was happening in Potiphar’s house. And it was because God determined that this young fellow Joseph, in responding correctly to the most awful of circumstances, would be the recipient of his favor and of his blessing, and as a result of that Potiphar’s eyes would be made to see what can happen with a life given over to God. It’s a remarkable story, and it opens the possibility for Potiphar to sit with Joseph and to say, “Joseph, can you please explain this to me?” See, that’s the way it’s supposed to work; that’s what Matthew is about: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good [deeds], and glorify your Father [who] is in heaven.” When they see, they’ll ask. When they don’t see, there’s nothing to ask.
The story of Joseph is saying at least these things to me: number one, reminding me that when we shun trials, we miss blessings; that when all you have is sunshine, all you have is desert; that more spiritual progress is made through failure and tears than is made through success and laughter. I think it was Browning who penned the well-worn words,
I walked a mile with Pleasure [and]
She [chattered] all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
[And] I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she,
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.
Not that we would go out and seek sorrowful circumstances, but that we would recognize that in the progress of life is the inevitable pain of human experience and relationships, and that through it all God is working all things out for good according to his great plan and purpose.
So do not let us wrestle, then, and try and manipulate the hand of God, or even our circumstances. Do not let us stay awake at night trying to make it all work for our good. Let us take the questions of our hearts and not allow them to overturn our faith, but let us allow our faith, albeit the size of a mustard seed, to overturn the questions of our hearts.
Father, I pray that your Word may be written in our hearts today, for your glory and for our encouragement and good, for we ask it in the name of your Son. Amen.
 Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, “We Gotta Get out of This Place” (1965).
 John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779).
 Psalm 27:5 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 28:19–20 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 28:20 (KJV).
 Ephesians 4:29–30 (NIV 1984).
 Ephesians 4:31 (NIV 1984).
 Proverbs 3:11–12 (NIV 1984).
 Emphasis added.
 Author unknown.
 Frederick Langbridge, “All Windows Look South in Sunny-Heart Row,” A Cluster of Quiet Thoughts (1895). Paraphrased.
 Psalm 18:29 (paraphrased).
 See Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 4.
 George Herbert, “The Elixir,” The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), 640–41.
 George Lawson, Lectures on the History of Joseph (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 30.
 Genesis 39:4, 6 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 5:16 (KJV; emphasis added).
 Robert Browning Hamilton, “Along the Road,” in Best Loved Poems, ed. Richard Charlton Mackenzie (Garden City, NY: Permabooks, 1948), 125.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.