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New Coat, Big Dreams, Deep Pit

From Series: The Hand of God, Volume 1

It is good to rejoice in the triumphs and successes of others. Far too often, though, we are instead consumed by jealously and envy. Alistair Begg encourages us to consider the effects of such sins in the life of Joseph, who was shown special favor by his father, but despised by his brothers. Even so, God set him apart for a special purpose. As followers of Christ, we too are called to put aside jealousy and delight in His loving care for His children.


Sermon Transcript:

Let’s turn together again to Genesis 37, and as you turn there, let’s ask for God’s help as we study this passage:

“Lord, speak to me that I may speak in living echoes of thy tone; as thou hast taught, so let me teach thine erring children lost and lone.”[1] We cry out to you that what we now share from your Word may be taken to our minds and hearts and wills by your Spirit so that we may know ourselves to hear the very voice of God through the pages of Holy Scripture, and then to respond accordingly. We earnestly cry to you as we come in our need, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Genesis 37:2 tells us that Joseph was seventeen years old and involved with his brothers in the task of shepherding. As we noted last time, by the time Joseph reached the age of seventeen he had seen more of the ugly side of life, the seamy side of family life, than many people ever experience in a lifetime. The events that had unfolded since the day of his birth involving his brothers’ cruelty and all manner of chaos within the family structure are such that it is quite remarkable the young man to whom we’re introduced as we find him in his seventeenth year. His background was prosperous, his family was large, and he was already living with an increasing sense that somehow, in some special way, God had something planned for him. There are just these little inklings of it that we have come to already and which we’ll find again this morning, indeed, throughout the whole of this record of the life of Joseph.

Now, in reading the verses as we did up until the eighteenth verse—and we could have gone right through to the end of the chapter—it’s immediately obvious that we could profitably engage in a number of topical studies which emerge from the text. And that would not be wrong to do; there would be value in that. But we’ve set our purpose as looking at the life of Joseph in terms of God’s dealings with him, and particularly having identified him as one of the classic Old Testament illustrations of the truth of Romans 8:28—namely, that “all things work together for good to [those who] love God, who are the called according to his purpose.” And this morning as we look at this further unfolding of the record of Joseph’s life, we do so with respect to that.

Now, what I would like to do is to consider this from three angles in particular: to view Joseph first of all as he is revealed to us being the object of his father’s special interest, then the object of his brothers’ jealous hatred, and then thirdly the object of God’s providential care. All right?

The Object of His Father’s Special Interest

First of all, then, we see Joseph here in these verses before us as the object of his father’s special interest. Now, this is clearly stated in verse 3: “Now Israel”—that is, the new name that was given to Jacob—“Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons.” That’s the fact as it’s given to us. Is it right? No. But it’s the fact. That is exactly what he was dealing with, and it is exactly what we find before us.

Now, we are immediately given an explanation of this. Why was it that he “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons”? Answer: “because [he’d] been born to him in his old age.”[2] Now, in one sense there is no surprise to this. These other boys were older. Actually, they were much older, they were considerably older. And we might have understood if they had found it in themselves to recognize that it was ultimately no real disservice to them that Joseph had become, in some peculiar way, the object of his father’s love. Calvin put it like this: “Sons of a more robust age, by [the] dictate of nature, might well concede such a point.”[3] And although they clearly didn’t share their father’s love for their brother, they might have found it in themselves to excuse something of this affection in their dad—because after all, everybody loves a puppy. And no matter if you’ve got a beautiful dog that you’ve had for years and you’re walking down the street with it, there’s something about a puppy that is attractive. And in the same way, to be going through your life and to reach a significant age as Jacob had already done, and then to discover as the object of your affection this child born to the wife of your great lifetime love—namely, Rachel—it’s not surprising that there would be this unique sense of affection tied up with this young lad. And after all, once the kids grow up a little bit and are able to move around on their own, go places with their friends, then the father is sort of left, and he wonders who he’ll spend time with. And here he is given this gift of another boy, and when he goes to the hardware store, this kid comes; and when he goes over to see the man on the farm next door, this boy comes; and just by nature of the ebb and flow of life there is a unique affinity which is established between the elderly dad and the tender-aged child. Now, there’s wrong in it, as we’ll see, but that’s the explanation of it. And it’s not immediately such that we ought to be pointing the finger of criticism—at least I don’t feel so.

The explanation of this special interest that he was taking in Joseph is then expressed in a gift which he gave him. And we’re told of this “richly ornamented robe” which he had made for him and which Joseph obviously enjoyed wearing.[4] Why would it be, though, that a coat could engender such hostility? I mean, your mother and father take one of the other children in the house to the mall and they buy them something and they come back; you may be a little bit peeved, but in the back of your mind you say, “It doesn’t matter, I’ll go the next time. Maybe there will be something for me on that occasion,” and you learn to deal with it. It would be of great surprise if somebody showed up with something and it established in your heart the most venomous, brutal, treacherous response. Indeed, if a coat can do that to somebody, they’ve got a problem that is far deeper than the coat. And if somebody can get that venomous in their response to something which is a gift to another, then they’re dealing with a deep-seated issue in their lives. And of course, the brothers were.

Now, it wasn’t so much that the coat was very valuable, although I’m sure it was a very nice coat, nor was it simply that the coat was a display of their father’s affection, because there were other ways in which they were picking that up. But it was that the coat set Joseph in a class apart; that there was something about the wearing of this coat that spoke of leadership—a leadership which wouldn’t naturally fall to the seventeen-year-old in the house. It would most naturally fall to Reuben, who was the oldest child, the son of Leah. And yet Reuben had violated his father’s confidence in the sorry events which we saw last time in his involvement with one of his father’s wives. And so it would be only natural that in the mind of Jacob as he thought of the transition of leadership within his home, he would then go to the son born to the wife of his affection—namely, born to Rachel—and although he was only seventeen, he was already establishing himself as an individual of character and trustworthiness and so on. And in giving him this lovely coat, he sets him apart; he exempts him, in one real sense, from the menial tasks which the other brothers had to face. And obviously, it ticked them off. I mean, it was unavoidable: every time he put the coat on, they just said, “Oh man, I hate that coat, and I hate him. I hate the way he wears that coat!”

Do you know that people have left churches over coats? They have. And I don’t mean ’cause someone stole their coat. I mean because the lady could not focus on the words in the Bible or on the words in the hymnbook ’cause she couldn’t get her eyes off somebody’s coat four rows in front! So don’t let’s immediately distance ourselves from this as if somehow or another we could never be found guilty of these kinds of considerations. Not so fast.

Now, before we move on, let us just pause and recognize that there was in the actions of Jacob that which was unwise—poor judgment as a father to display such obvious favoritism. No matter how much we are able to say in mitigation of him in terms of the whole idea of the junior member of the team and the natural affinities that would be there, it was really stupid of Jacob to display favoritism in such an overt and striking fashion—and particularly so with a little understanding of Jacob’s life, because Jacob himself had been the object of undue favoritism. His mother had preferred him over his brother, and as a result of that he had been introduced to all kinds of chaos. His relationship with his brother had been destroyed for years. And you would have thought that that alone would have prevented Jacob from taking such precipitive action in relationship to this boy of his affection, but not so: history repeats itself. He probably said to himself, “I know this happened to me, but I won’t let it happen to him.” We’re not in control of that; as soon as we let the cat out of the bag, there’s no saying what happens.

Beware the folly of favoritism and the fury which will so often accompany it. All of our children are unique gifts from God.

So let us notice in passing,especially as fathers: beware the folly of favoritism and the fury which will so oftenaccompany it. All of our children are unique gifts from God, and we need to learn to cherish each child with obvious love, obvious affection, recognizing their unique personalities, their individual capabilities, and their special needs. And it is imperative, especially in those who are born a little later, to make sure that we do not cherish the older over the younger or the younger over the older, and we will have to labor hard and long to make that clear.

Favoritism within family life is a foolishness that leads to fury.

I remember staying in the home of a friend, and he had written to one of his children a note, and he has two sons and two daughters. In fact, I was staying in the boy’s room. And as I opened a book on the bedside which had been left there for my own perusal, I noted that it had been written to his son, and it said, “Although you are my second son, you never could have second place in my affections. I love you. Dad.” And to the degree that we give any of our children the sneaking suspicion that we prefer one over the other, for whatever reason it might be—or, “Well, she’s more her mother’s kid, you know, because they like that kind of stuff, but he’s more my kind of …”—that sort of nonsense fractures and breaks up and destroys. To have this young man Joseph as his favorite might have been a means of lighting up Jacob’s life, but it simply cast dark, deep, destructive shadows over the life of Joseph. Favoritism within family life is a foolishness that leads to fury. And we see it clearly here.

The Object of His Brothers’ Jealous Hatred

So then, here he is, the object of his father’s special interest. Secondly, we notice that Joseph is the object of his brothers’ jealous hatred. And hatred it is. There’s a progression here: we’re told that “they hated him” in verse 4, they “could[n’t] speak a … word to him”; in verse 5, “they hated him all the more”; in verse 8, “they hated him all the more” all the more; and in verse 11, they “were jealous of him.” It wasn’t just they kinda didn’t like him. It wasn’t that they kept saying to their dad, “Oh, do we have to take Joseph with us?”—you know, the way you see kids playing in playing fields, and they’re all about the same age, and then there’s some poor little tyke, you know, who’s hanging around kicking the goal posts and being sent to get the ball from here and sent to get the ball from there, and it’s part of his punishment from inveigling himself into the process—and they said, “Oh, do we have to take Joseph again? Goodness gracious, he’s such a pain in the neck.” It wasn’t anything as superficial as that. It wasn’t that they just marginally disliked him; they hated him with a passion which was capable of expressing itself, as we see, in the most detestable forms of cruelty.

And the narrative makes it clear that there were three contributing factors in relationship to their hatred. Their hatred of Joseph was provoked first of all by the “bad report” mentioned in verse 2. Now, there’s little doubt that the closeness that Joseph enjoyed with his dad would in one sense encourage this kind of talebearing. There is nothing that says here that Joseph was motivated by badness or by unkindness. We may infer that from the text, but not legitimately. It simply says, “he brought their father a bad report.” Now, if there was a reason to bring a bad report, that was it. If there wasn’t, of course, and he was making up, that was wrong. But the little bit that we’ve read about these brothers in the last few chapters makes me think that there was plenty of reports to be brought. And indeed, if he only brought them a bad report, that was really very nice of him, because he could have brought lots of bad reports. Whatever it was, he came to his dad, and he was no better or wiser than any other teenager who notes with dismay the unacceptable behavior of his older brother.

I remember being with one of my friends, Graham, in the back garden of his house, the occasion of memorable events—various golf balls going through the kitchen windows of ladies in neighboring houses, etc. But I remember anticipating the arrival of his elder brother home from the Navy. I was looking forward to him and his uniform and his muscles and his stories. But I was totally unprepared for his unacceptable behavior. I’d never heard such stories in my life. I’ve forgotten a lot of them, but some of the best and the worst of them are stilled locked in my computer. And I remember Graham going to his dad and giving a bad report of his brother. He was just a teenage kid, and he said, “Do you know what he was saying? Do you know what he was doing? Do you know what he did in Singapore?” And so his brother determined it would be better for him to be back in the Navy than to hang around with this kid brother of his who thought that he would just use the occasion to get him in his father’s bad books. And that’s what he did. And the brothers didn’t like it.

Secondly, they hated him because of this coat. We’ve mentioned that already: in verse 4, he had this “richly ornamented robe.” But the reaction to it is disproportionate to any kind of offense: “they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” So in other words, if you imagine them sitting around the table at breakfast time, it was one of those scenarios where the fellow said—you know, Reuben said to his father, “Would you ask Joseph to pass me the salt?” or, “Could you please tell Joseph that his donkey’s in the shed?” or, “Could you please tell Joseph this?” But they never gazed in one another’s eyes, they never engaged one another in conversation, because the hatred and the jealousy and the venom that was inside these older brothers would just spill out on every occasion. And so they determined it would be better if they kept quiet.

Now, the root of this is given to us in verse 11—a simple phrase: “His brothers were jealous of him.” That’s it. Flat out, that’s the problem: jealousy. And that’s the problem in many families since then, right up until today. How many families are fractured, how many friendships are dissolved, and the root of the disintegration is jealousy? No matter how you try and cloak it up, no matter how you explain it away, no matter what you try to do in mitigation of the facts, the problem is flat-out jealousy. There are people who have not written to their brothers or their sisters, called them, spoken to them, done anything with them over significant chunks of time, and although you tell me about why this and that and the next thing, in many cases the problem is in one word: jealousy.

It is a monster—a giant that will eat you alive and eat me alive. Jealousy is everybody’s problem.

It is a monster—a giant that will eat you alive and eat me alive. Jealousy is everybody’s problem. The happiness and success of other men is poison to the bloodstream of the jealous—the happiness and success of other men and women is poison in the bloodstream of the jealous. That’s why it’s easier for you to get demoted in your work than to get promoted: because when you get promoted it reveals the character of the people around you. And it’s very, very hard for people to come and say, “Oh, I am so pleased that you had such a wonderful promotion, and I’m glad that you passed over me in the pecking order of things,” and so on. Very hard to do that. Very hard to do it; let’s just be honest.

So before we get up on our kind of spiritual high heels condemning the brothers here, let’s just not be too quick in case the baseball hat with “Jealousy” on the front, we find it fits perfectly on our heads, and it’s a pro model, and it’s the exact size! Wrestlers aren’t usually jealous of doctors, and doctors aren’t usually jealous of athletes, and pastors aren’t usually jealous of golfers—usually. People tend to be jealous within their own thing, you know. So you get jealous of the people who’re doing what you are doing more than you get jealous of someone else. You know, there’s a lady who is a fantastic diver, and she dives from thirty meters, you know—that’s great, I’m not jealous of that. But pastors, they get jealous of one another. Oh, yes. “Well, how many do you have?” “How many do you have?” “What was your picture like in the brochure? Did you get the inch picture, or did you get the magnifying glass picture?”

F. B. Meyer, who was a great preacher, tells of how Campbell Morgan came to preach in the same location as himself, and suddenly there was a drift from the population into Campbell Morgan’s congregation and away from Meyer, and F. B. Meyer could hold his own with anyone. And he writes of how envy and jealousy began to grip his soul, and how the only liberation he could find was to pray for Campbell Morgan, and to pray that God would bless his ministry, and eventually to pray that God would bless his ministry so much that there wouldn’t be enough seats to hold all the people who wanted to hear Campbell Morgan, and then they would come and listen to F. B. Meyer.

“The odious passion of [jealousy],” said a Scottish commentator of 200 years ago, “the odious passion of [jealousy] torments and destroys one’s self while it seeks the ruin of its object.”[5] Jealousy destroys the jealous person, not the object of envy. It’s like self-pity: it eats you up. It doesn’t do anything to the other person. The Greeks have in their history the story of a statue that was erected in honor of a famous athlete—took a position of prominence in the Greek city. And a rival athlete, so jealous of the success and the triumph of his colleague, determined that he would try and destroy the statue. And the story goes that under the cover of darkness, the rival and jealous athlete would come in the evening with a hammer and a chisel, and he would work away at the foundation of this statue. And his purpose was clear: to weaken it and to bring it down. And he finally weakened it enough and brought it down, and it fell on him, and it crushed him to death.[6] If we’re going to make sure that we avoid the folly of favoritism, we need also to ensure that we don’t end up in the jail cell of jealousy.

Now you see, if Joseph’s brothers had understood or were prepared to consider the essential unfolding principle in this, then they would have been saved from this horrible, envious hatred. If they had understood that God sovereignly does things in people’s lives, that God somehow or another had sovereignly determined that Joseph was going to be the object of his favor, his affection, and his usefulness, then they would have had no occasion to be envious of it, or at least they would have been able to understand. But they refused to track in that way. If they had understood that, then they would have been prepared to accept their less significant position, although it might have been hard for them.

How do you explain D. L. Moody and the amazing human success of his ministry? Check his family background and then there’s nothing there. Check his education and there’s nothing there. There’s only one explanation: God sovereignly purposed to take D. L. Moody out of a shoe shop in Boston and use him as his servant for the proclaiming of the Gospel at a period in history to tremendous response. And to the degree that Moody was humble enough to understand it, Moody was usable enough in the Master’s hands. And when other people would look at him, if they understood: “God did this.” There’s nothing special about D. L. Moody; everything is special about God! God sets people up. God brings people down. Therefore, the people who get set up mustn’t get fat heads, and the people who don’t get set up mustn’t get discouraged. And if the brothers had only clocked onto this, then they would have been saved a lot of heartache. Someone put in a little couplet: “It takes more grace than I can tell to play the second fiddle well.”[7] That’s the hardest spot on the team: the second spot.

John the Baptist played it to a T. You remember John the Baptist? You read of him in the opening chapters of John: how God had given him a ministry as a forerunner, how he was there proclaiming the repentance that there was and baptizing lots of people, and he was really having a quite tremendously successful ministry. He understood what he was doing; his disciples didn’t fully appreciate it, and on one occasion he says to the disciples that are with him, he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,”[8] and his disciples must have said, “Uh-huh, okay, that’s fine.” And then in John 3:26 we read that these disciples came to John the Baptist, and they said to him, “Rabbi, the man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—well, he’s baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”[9] “Hey John, you’re losing your crowd. John, you’re losing your appeal. John, I think it’s starting to dwindle. Everybody’s going to him!”

Now you see, it’s in that experience that the reality of our hearts begins to open up, at least to us and to God, even if we can conceal it from other people. And John the Baptist replies, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.”[10] You see, he knew that God had made him a voice, but he hadn’t made him the Word. He knew that God had made him a forerunner, but he hadn’t made him the Messiah. And he knew that God had made him a herald, but he hadn’t made him the King. But he was happy to be a “voice crying,”[11] a finger pointing, a light shining, a herald speaking, a forerunner preceding, and he understood he was not the King, he was not the Messiah, he was not the Word.

Whatever arena of life we find ourselves in this morning—academics, craftsmanship, art, journalism, business, homemaking, decorating—whatever it might be, God is the one who sets up and brings down.

Now, we’re speaking in very biblical terms here; the fact of the matter is, we can all translate this into whatever arena of life we find ourselves in this morning—academics, craftsmanship, art, journalism, business, homemaking, decorating—whatever it might be, God is the one who sets up and brings down. And it’s all in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive? Nothing. Then if you received it, why do you glory as if you didn’t receive it?”[12]

Thirdly, the reason that he was the object of his brothers’ cruel, jealous hatred was on account of his dreams. They hated him jealously because of the bad report he brought, they hated him because of the richly ornamented robe he wore, and they hated him because of the dreams that he had. Now, obviously, these dreams were no ordinary dreams. Because if you think about this: everybody dreams. Some people remember their dreams, and some don’t, and at breakfast time it’s sometimes quite a laugh and a hoot, you know, to hear your dreams: “Did you dream about anything last night?” “Oh, yeah, it was such and such,” and so on. And you laugh them off. And sometimes you say, “You know, you gonna have to not eat so much before you go to bed. And you gonna have to go to single cheese on the pizza instead of the double cheese, ’cause man you are crazy, some of the stuff you’re comin’ out with.”

And it would have been perfectly possible for the brothers to do that: “Oh man, he’s crazy. What a dumb idea—silly dreams, silly coat. Doesn’t he look daft in his coat? Ha-ha.” And it would all have washed off them. But it didn’t. And the reason that it didn’t: because it was obvious in some significant way that God was involved in these dreams, that these were no ordinary dreams, that these were portents of what God would yet do, and that God was speaking by means of dreams in order that when the events unfolded as they do (and we’ll discover that), it would become apparent to everybody that these things had not happened fortuitously, but that they had happened underneath the overarching unfolding of God’s plan.

And so it is that he tells his brothers these extraordinary dreams. Should he have told them? Well, probably not. We could excuse him the first one; the second was a bad error of judgment, I think, you know? “Well, I had a dream and I was standing up and you were bowing down.” “Fine, thank you very much. Thank you. Thanks for that, Joseph. Get your coat and take off.” “Oh, by the way, hang on: I had another dream.” “Uh-huh.” “Yeah, well this time the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down and worshipping me.” “Joseph, we hate you. Did you tell Dad this one? What did he say?” “Well, he rebuked me. He said something like, you know, ‘Will your mother and father and your brothers come and bow down to you?’”[13] You see, something was involved in this. There was within these dreams the strong hint that Joseph was the object of God’s special favor and the servant of his special purpose. And that, of course, was exactly the case, and that is why there is this increasing intensity in the hatred of the brothers.

Now, this was no gravy train for Joseph: seventeen years old, and nobody really likes him. His father, who is putting up with him and has had affection for him, he’s beginning to cool a little bit on it as well, it would seem. And his brothers, they just want nothing to do with him. Do you remember when you were seventeen? Do you remember how important approval was? Do you remember how long you used to stand combing your hair? (Or maybe this is just some kind of Freudian exposé on my part.) Because you couldn’t have it being wrong! It’s gonna have to be right—at least right in terms of the approval that comes from around you. So the last thing in the world you want to be is a kind of isolated person, an endangered species, wandering the corridors with no one to talk to and no one who talks to you, without any kind of in-crowd, with no gang to hang out with, with no point of identification beyond yourself. That’s the worst possible predicament. And that was Joseph’s predicament. His brothers had no time for him. He was seventeen years old.

We would not have been surprised if the Joseph that emerges from this context had drawn into his shell and, in the pain of his life, had become inward-looking—he was full of fear, he was full of resentment, and all he did was lie on the floor and listen to CDs. I mean, that’s just to bring it into the twentieth century. In other words, he just went in his room, closed the door, and listened to really bizarre music, because when he went out of the door it was into a world that hated him, a world that was alien from him, a world that even in the production of things that were expressions of love caused him confusion and discord and the fracturing of relationships, and so we might have anticipated that he would have become some introspective little weed.

No! Look at him: resilient, focused, clear, ready to obey, with a vision of the future. In fact, for me the resiliency of his personality is absolutely striking, and it’s part of the charm and the intrigue of his story. Because in human terms, Joseph shouldn’t be like this. Right? Seventeen years of chaos—incest and confusion and disruption and murder and intrigue—and he’s coming out of the most dramatic soap opera, far worse than Dallas ever was at its heyday. And yet look at him.

The Object of God’s Providential Care

The providence of God is that act of his grace and kindness by which, in his wisdom and power, he preserves and governs all the events of the lives of his creatures.

Why is that? Why is that? Well, that brings me to my third and final point: it’s because not only was Joseph the object of his father’s special interest and the object of his brothers’ jealous hatred, but he was in and through it all the object of God’s providential care—God’s providential care. The providence of God is that act of his grace and kindness by which, in his wisdom and power, he preserves and governs all the events of the lives of his creatures. And God was providentially involved in these events in Joseph’s life.

Look at him in verse 12 as he goes to find his brothers: “And Israel”—verse 13—“said to Joseph, ‘As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.’” Now, we might have anticipated that the verse then reads, “Oh, please don’t send me. Couldn’t you send a servant? Don’t you realize my brothers hate me? Don’t you know they never talk to me? When I get there, it’ll be terrible. It’s miles away,” and so on. “Hey, I’m going to send you to them.” Answer: “That’s fine, Dad.” “‘Very well,’ he replied.”[14] “Very well. I’ll go.” Now, how do you explain that in the life of a seventeen-year-old? I can only explain it in terms of the fact that there was, somehow or another, increasingly earthed in the very center of Joseph’s being an awareness of the fact that God, who was his heavenly Father, was providentially in control of his life, and that somehow or another in these dreams and in the coat and in the chaos and in the background, he was Master and sovereign over it all. And so he said, “I will go in obedience to seek out those who hate me and will not speak a word to me.”

I don’t know how tuned in Jacob was, to even send him on this journey. Did he realize that he was putting his boy in jeopardy? Did he realize that there was danger in the journey? Or was he just so tuned out by this time that he could pay no attention to it, and he was only superficially aware of the vitriolic hatred of his older boys for this younger son? It’s possible for parents to lose touch with it, and to try and explain it away; it’s much easier for me to explain the fact that it’s not as it is than to face the difficulty that is really there. “Oh, I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think,” he may have said to himself. “I know they sometimes don’t speak to him, and I know that they didn’t like that coat, and I know they got ticked off with the dreams, but—ach, I don’t think they really hate him! After all, how can you hate your brother, you know? No, you go on Joseph; you’ll be fine. Go on now. You go find your brothers.”

If Jacob had realized that when his boy turned his back on him and began to walk off toward Shechem, or to ride off toward Shechem—if Jacob had realized that the back of his son’s head, his seventeen-year-old’s head, was the last he would see of his boy for the next twenty years, I’m not so sure he would still have decided to dispatch him on the journey. Because when Joseph walked out that day, neither he nor Jacob realized that he’d never see his dad again for twenty years.

And God was providentially in control of those circumstances. It was actually better for Joseph to be isolated from his home in the center of God’s plan than for him to be living in his home in isolation from God’s purposes. And that, you see, is the mistake that we make when we try and determine God’s guidance on the basis of what is most comfortable to us and what is most acceptable to us and what is most rationally obvious to us. “Well, he surely wouldn’t want me gone for all that time, to leave my father and my mother and my brothers and my sisters,” and so on, we would explain, when in point of fact God in his providential dealings will take care even of those fracturings, and even of those separations, and even of those jealousies.

What an amazing picture it is of him arriving now in the region, having gone some fifty miles from Hebron to Shechem; finding this individual wandering in the fields and saying, “Have you seen my brothers?”; discovering that they’ve moved on another fifteen miles into the region of Dothan; and so, now as a result of some sixty-five miles of travail through hilly terrain and difficult country, he finally gets his brothers in his gaze, and they in turn get him in their sights. And so we read in verse 18, “But [when] they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. ‘Here comes [the] dreamer!’ they said”[15]—“here comes the kid with the coat.” And together they conspired in treachery to do away with his life.

The irony of it is surely not to be missed: as they sit watching the appearance of Joseph, they are plotting to kill the very person without whom they will be unable to live. Isn’t that right? For God is purposing to take him into Egypt so that in the time of famine they will not die in the famine but will be the recipients of God’s providential care, and through the life of the very one they are trying to kill. And so as he comes across the horizon, they plan to kill the only one who can save them! Keep that thought in your mind; I’ll come back to it in just a moment. Indeed, we’ll come back to the whole detailed account on our next occasion.

But for now, let me make one or two, as it were, bullet points of observation and application in drawing this to a close.

God’s Sovereignty, Our Jealousy, and Jesus’ Suffering

God is on the throne and is providentially interested in the affairs of our lives.

First of all, let us recognize that as in Joseph’s circumstances, so in ours: God is as much in control of the trauma and of the cistern and of the pit and of the hatred and of the difficulty as he is in the fulfillment of the dreams in raising Joseph to a position of unique usefulness. “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, nor try his works in vain. God is his own interpreter, and he will make things plain.”[16] When we cannot understand why it is that we would be the object of such hatred, that we would be on the receiving end of such difficulty, that we would be facing nothing more, as it were, than a lousy hole in the ground with no prospect of escape, at that point we need to recognize that God is on the throne and is providentially interested in the affairs of our lives.

That’s not easy, but it is necessary. And many of you have walked that road in the months that have passed, have been rolled into that CAT scan machine—or worse still, have watched your loved one wheeled into it—and have emerged to deal with the trauma and the emptiness and the pain of it all, and the temptation to say, “Well, where is God in all of this? Couldn’t we simply go on vacation and have a nice time?” And the answer is, God is as much sovereignly in control of all of this as he ever is in all of the blessing.

Secondly, in just spinning, as it were, the diamond to take another facet and glint from it, we need to learn with Joseph not to be grieved when God determines to prosper us, and in so doing, others become jealous. This is a hard lesson for many people to learn. And I find people going around trying to explain that, “Well, I’m not really, you know … no, I don’t really have that, and I’m not really that good, and I’m not really that bright, and I don’t play the piano that well, and I’ve not been this successful in business,” and so on. It’s a bunch of absolute hooey! You’re phenomenally successful! And that’s why people are jealous. People are naturally jealous of success. So do you want to bury yourself because everyone is jealous about you when you know you weren’t smart enough to put the business deal together in the first place? When you know that the very breath you breathe is a gift from God’s hand, and you can only explain the bottom line in terms of something that God has chosen to do, and the reason he didn’t do it for the guy who has the factory next door you have no explanation for, but he has chosen to do it for you? Listen to Calvin: “Let us not be grieved if at any time the shining of the grace of God upon us should cause us to be envied”—let us not be grieved if God shines his grace upon us and other people envy us.[17] If the brothers had a beef, they had a beef with the father. They didn’t have a beef with Joseph. Joseph never asked for the coat. Joseph never produced the dreams. Think it out.

God’s providential care expresses itself in wonderful and in unusual ways. Out of this dark cistern he is about to shine in the light of victory and power and provision. And so let us not see the dark times and the disappointing times as that which thwarts the unfolding of his purpose, but let us trust him.

Also, let’s recognize that God’s providential care expresses itself in wonderful and in unusual ways. Out of this dark cistern he is about to shine in the light of victory and power and provision. And so let us not see the dark times and the disappointing times as that which thwarts the unfolding of his purpose, but let us trust him.

And finally, I want you to notice something that I hope has already been triggered in the minds of at least a few. Do you find yourself being propelled forward from Joseph to Jesus? Do you see Jesus in this story? Do you see how in the experience of Joseph there is a foreshadowing of a far greater who is to come? And if you don’t, let me explain to you what I mean: It was on account of envy and jealousy that Joseph ended up in the cistern, in the dumper. It was on the account of envy and jealousy that he was put into slavery and faced the prospect of death. And when Pilate—in Matthew 27 we have the record of it—when Pilate asks the crowd, “Who would you have me release to you? Would you like me to release Barabbas? Or would you like me to release Jesus?” and the crowd says, “We would rather have Barabbas,”[18] and then Matthew records, “You see, Pilate understood that it was on account of envy that Jesus had been delivered over to him.”[19] It was flat-out jealousy on the part of the religious leaders. They did not like the fact that God had sovereignly purposed to do in the person of Jesus Christ, to unfold the reality of who he was. And the envy of the brothers threw Joseph in a cistern; and the envy of those who had all the benefits of the prophets, all the wisdom of the Old Testament, all the expectation of the Messiah who was to come, it was the envy of those same people who put Jesus on the cross.

We also have a picture of Jesus insofar as we find Joseph traveling across the country in search of his brothers, looking diligently for those who will reject him. Isn’t that what Jesus has done? That he has come diligently across the terrain of life, looking earnestly for those who upon seeing him say, “Let’s kill him”?[20] Who, like the brothers in response to Joseph, are saying, “Do you think you are going to reign over us? Do you think that we will bow down to you?”[21] And Jesus comes in his Word, and he comes in human friendship, and he comes, as the hymn writer says, although “there are ninety-nine that are safely in the shelter of the fold,” Jesus the Good Shepherd goes out over the hill country looking for the one individual, looking for you, searching for you, drawing you, wanting you.[22] Are you going to respond like the brothers: “I won’t have him ruling over me. I don’t mind a Jesus in the backseat of the car, I don’t mind a Jesus in the trunk, I don’t mind a Jesus as an insurance policy for something, but I don’t want a Jesus to whom I have to bow down”? Then there is no Jesus for you, for the Jesus who comes is the Jesus before whom we bow, even as the brothers would bow at the feet of Joseph. For Joseph, you see, held in his hands the answer to their deepest needs, as Jesus holds in his power the answer to ours.

Joseph was despised and he was rejected by those who he would one day rescue. What a wonderful picture of Isaiah 53. This could equally be said of Joseph: “He was despised and rejected by men, he was a man of sorrows, and he was familiar with suffering, and like one from whom men—particularly his brothers—hide their faces he was despised, and we hated his guts.”[23] But the prophet speaks not of Joseph; he speaks of him who “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows [and] we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. [And] he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”[24]

I almost want to do the story of Joseph in one seven-hour sermon, quite honestly, because I just can’t hardly stop myself from going forward. When you get to the scene where he is reunited with his brothers, and they come and they speak to him, and they speak through an interpreter, because by this time he is fluent in the Egyptian dialect, and so he speaks in Egyptian—they can’t recognize him all these years on, and in his finery, and in his position of glory; after all, the last time they saw him was as a seventeen-year-old flung down a hole, and then strapped to a bale of hay on the back of a camel, being carried off into oblivion—and as he speaks through the interpreter to them, and as they explain the poverty of their condition and of their great need of provision, Moses tells us that Joseph went into a room on the side and he wept. And he wept for his brothers! He cried great sobbing tears, and then he had to compose himself and come back out to them. That is Jesus over Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who stoned the prophets, how often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not come to me.”[25] “O Cleveland, Cleveland, you who reject the Word of God, you who stone those who speak in truth to you, how often would I have gathered you to myself? But you would not come.” We will not bow down to him. We will not come in contrition to him.

A coat, the dreams, and a dark well. Joseph, the object of his father’s special interest, the object of his brothers’ cruel hatred, the object of God’s providential care, and the shadow of the Christ who was to come.

Today, as we hear God’s voice—in whatever area it’s telling us to step away from jealousy, to let go of favoritism, to quit our bellyaching, to understand that God is in control, to bow down before the Christ who came, whatever it is—today, if we hear God’s voice, let us not harden our hearts.[26]

Let us pray:

O God our Father, we thank you for your Word. We thank you that its truths are timeless, that its impact is dynamic, that its appeal is all-embracing. And we pray that we might in the words of a mere man hear the voice of the living God, and that we may respond accordingly.

And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of each one, today and forevermore.[27] Amen.

 


[1] Frances R. Havergal, “Lord, Speak to Me, That I May Speak” (1872) (paraphrased).

[2] Genesis 37:3 (NIV 1984).

[3] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. John King (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1847), 259.

[4] Genesis 37:3 (NIV 1984).

[5] George Lawson, Lectures on the History of Joseph (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 5.

[6] Pausanias, Descriptions of Greece 6.11.6 (paraphrased).

[7] Referenced in C. H. Spurgeon, The Salt-Cellars: Being a Collection of Proverbs, Together with Homely Notes Thereon, Vol. 1 (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1889), 284.

[8] John 1:29 (paraphrased).

[9] John 3:26 (paraphrased).

[10] John 3:27 (NIV 1984).

[11] John 1:23 (paraphrased).

[12] 1 Corinthians 4:7 (paraphrased).

[13] Genesis 37:10 (paraphrased).

[14] Genesis 37:12 (NIV 1984).

[15] Genesis 37:18–19 (NIV 1984).

[16] William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774) (paraphrased).

[17] Calvin, Genesis, Vol. 2, 262 (paraphrased).

[18] Matthew 27:21 (paraphrased).

[19] Matthew 27:18 (paraphrased).

[20] Genesis 37:20 (NIV 1984).

[21] Genesis 37:8–10 (paraphrased).

[22] Elizabeth Cecelia Clephane, “The Ninety and Nine” (1868) (paraphrased).

[23] Isaiah 53:3 (paraphrased).

[24] Isaiah 53:4–5 (NIV 1984).

[25] Matthew 23:37 (paraphrased).

[26] Hebrews 3:15 (paraphrased).

[27] 2 Corinthians 13:14 (paraphrased).

Thankfulness: A Mark of Grace
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