Sent, Sold, Sad, Safe
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Sent, Sold, Sad, Safe

Genesis 37:17–36  (ID: 1849)

After his brothers threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery, Joseph surely must have felt that his life had hit rock bottom. Reflecting on Joseph’s plight, Alistair Begg implores us to consider how these tragic events actually bear witness to God’s steadfast, good, wise, and loving care for His servant. We would do well to follow Joseph’s example and put our faith and trust in our Good Shepherd.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Hand of God, Volume 1

Genesis 37:1–41:57 Series ID: 21904

Sermon Transcript: Print

Genesis 37, and we pick up the story of Joseph. This story of Joseph is quite wonderful. And at the moment, it’s my favorite story, and I hope it’s increasingly yours. We saw last time that Joseph was the object of his father’s special interest, he was the object of his brothers’ jealous hatred, and he was the object of God’s providential care. We have said on each occasion that there is probably no greater illustration in Holy Scripture of the truth of God’s providential care than that which we find in the life of Joseph. Joseph was not at the mercy of fate or chance; he’s not driven along by some blind and impersonal force, and nor are we. We need not be concerned about Sagittarius and Gemini and horoscopes and the moving of the planets and the silly preoccupations of the minds of the pagans. “The pagans run after all these things.”[1] They believe that if there ever was a creator—and they’re questionable about that—since he finished creation, he’s had his hands off it, and the whole matter and all of the ups and downs and ebb and flow of human history is churning along somehow helplessly and hopelessly in space, and we, these poor peons, are caught up in the midst of this mechanism. But “No, no,” says Jesus to the disciples in Matthew 6, “why would you be worrying about this and worrying about that, and worrying about the next thing? Leave the pagans,” he says, “to worry about all of that. You just keep your eyes on me, and I’ll take care of you, for there’s not a sparrow falls to the ground but I know it, and the very grass of the field is clothed by my mighty power, and I’m going to look after you, too.”[2] So in other words, it is a wonderful picture as well of the truth of Romans 8:28, that “we know that in all things,” says Paul, “God works for the good of those who love him [and] who have been called according to his purpose.” All of our days and our desires, our hopes and our heartaches, our fears and our failures are being worked out as a child of God according to the beneficent bestowal of the wise and gracious, loving, compassionate mind of God. And even if you drove here alone this morning, spent last evening alone, and are fearful of the prospect of the week, allow the Word of God to come in and warm and fill your heart today with the intimate awareness of a Father’s love and tender care, for this we find in the life of Joseph.

Now, one of the challenges of navigating through a narrative like this is to find a way to break it up in bite-size chunks so that we can follow along without imposing a structure on the narrative that makes people in listening say, “I don’t know where he got that from.” And it’s very easy to do that and I value your prayers that I don’t do that. I want to give you four words to help us track to the end of the chapter. With the focus on Joseph—with the camera, as it were, on Joseph—I want us to notice that he was sent, sold, sad, and safe—sent, sold, sad, safe. And if you can’t find that in there, it’s probably not there. But I think it is and I want to show you.

Joseph Was Sent

First of all, he was sent. There’s no problem with this. Seventeen years old, obedient to his father’s directive, he is given the responsibility of going to check on the well-being of his brothers and actually to see how the flocks are coming along as well. That’s verse 14. His dad says, “Here you are; got a wee job for you Joseph. I want you to go check on your brothers and the flocks and then bring me word back.” Straightforward? Every father wants to nurture in his children responsibility, to increasingly give them opportunities which force them into regions and realms which will test them and will train them, which will give them the opportunities of taking initiative in solving problems and essentially standing on their own two feet. And Jacob, in the process of doing this, perhaps after some of the disasters of his earlier boys, figuring that he might do a better job now with young Joseph, puts together one such plan: “I want you to go, check, and report back.” Straightforward. And so it was that Joseph went off down the road from his father’s house, from the dwelling. As he went off down the road, he could never have imagined that it would be twenty long years before ever he looked into the eyes of his dad again. Twenty long years before he got another hug. Twenty years before he heard his voice. Twenty years before he enjoyed his fellowship and the warmth of his company. “Parting,” says the poet, “is such sweet sorrow.”[3] That’s why bus terminals and railway stations and airport terminals are such fascinating places, because they’re so full of human emotion, and not least of all the emotion of hellos and goodbyes. And hellos and goodbyes say something about us, insofar as the way you say hello and the way you say goodbye—me too, I mean us—says something about what goes on inside of us.

Now think about this for just a moment. Did his father watch him down the road? What do you think? Yes or no? Yes. Most of you think yes. I’m sure, you know, even though it was supposed to be a brief journey, I think his dad watched him go. Do you think he waved goodbye? Yes or no. Yes. Okay. That’d be quite unusual for a seventeen-year-old, so it’s interesting that many of you said yes. Did he wave goodbye? Yes, he did. I personally think that his dad watched him for a long way, and I’d not be at all surprised if Joseph turned ’round a lot. And every time he turned around he was saying that this parting was a sweet sorrow. Every gaze from his father, even in the distance, was a gaze of love and a gaze of compassion. It’s as though the love of the father follows with the boy: “Lord, bless this boy and watch him and keep him and oh, bring him back safe to me.” I remember one of my friends telling me about the first time his son went to college—his oldest of four children went to college—and how he was quite looking forward to it, and it was okay and even on the morning when they woke up and even when they had breakfast and even when they put the stuff in the car and even when he got into the car. But he said as soon as the car turned out of the driveway and went ’round the first bend of Warm Springs Drive, the father just broke down in tears because of all that is represented in that kind of parting.

Can I say just a little word of exhortation to parents? Would you teach your children to greet people properly? To speak when they’re spoken to? Now, I may be an ogre, I don’t know. I may have somethin’ sticking out of my head that I haven’t seen. But it is interesting to me that the average child under ten is increasingly unresponsive to the common courtesies of adult initiative. “Hi, honey. How are you?” Nothin’. “That’s a lovely hat.” Nothin’. Now, that starts in your house and in mine, and when your children and my children are unresponsive in greeting, it’s because we have largely made them unresponsive. Now, I know that you’ve taught them, “Don’t speak to strange men,” and maybe that’s what happening to me, okay? But I don’t think so. I think it’s something other than that. Now, within the framework of who you are and your personality, it is an important thing, and it is very important as they grow up. When you see these people who walk around with their eyes on the ground, who can’t catch the gaze of somebody … I overheard a lady last week at brunch, and it just was a voice from the past, and I heard this young mother saying to a child, and it made me turn around. I heard this phrase: “Look at my eyes.” And I turned around, I said, “Whoa, here we go! We got contact here,” and I stood back and watched. And the mother said, “Now, look in my eyes.” Because in your eyes I see your soul. In your eyes I find out who you are. You got to teach your children how to look in people’s eyes when they speak to them, how to respond to them, how to say “Hello,” how to say “Cheerio.” That’s how “it’s a wonderful world,” Louie Armstrong told us, remember? Huh?

I see friends greetin’ friends
Sayin’ “How do you do?”
And they’re really sayin’
“I love you.”
And I thinks to myself,
What a wonderful world.[4]

(Boy, I love that guy! What a trumpet player, what a singer!)

I was in Starbucks every morning this week in Chicago. I sit [in] the same place, same newspaper, Chicago Tribune, little bench, little stool, just to watch the world go by, 6:00 a.m. I see “friends greetin’ friends sayin’ How do you do?” You say, you’re not making a bit much of this? Yeah, maybe. But I wanna tell you something: there is a last time for every journey. You’ll never know when it’s the last time you said goodbye to your wife. You’ll never know when it’s the last time you kissed your mum goodbye. You’ll never know when that day is, and so it is good to make much of our partings, and it is good to make much of our hellos. And if we don’t teach children that hellos and goodbyes are significant events in life, then they will go through their days with hardly any consideration of it at all.

Now, I have to confess to you, it has become epidemic in my family. Some years ago, I don’t know when it was, beyond the realm of common human sense, somebody in waving farewell to a member within our family circle took a brush or something and waved it out a second-floor window, and that started a whole tradition in our family. I mean, it’s completely weird; but when I was in Shropshire in November, and I bid farewell to my sister, and I left in the car from the front of her house, everyone was there, and in Britain nobody closes the door on you. Everybody closes the door on you here in America. You say “Cheerio!” okay? You go to your car, you put the key in, and you turn ’round to say “Cheerio!” for the second time and hey! It was “Cheerio!” the first time. Say, where did that guy go? I only said my first “Cheerio!” This guy, that was his last one. Hey, hey, we got places to go, people to see, you know? So, we did the first six cheerios at the front, which was enough. And I drove the car around, up here to the end of the drive, down the end of another drive, and out onto the main road, and the house goes back across this property line. By the time I start the car down the road, they’re all up at the bedroom window. They had an Anglepoise lamp, swingin’ out of the window, like this. Now, this is a fairly respectable neighborhood, and the people looking, saying, “What’s the deal with the Anglepoise lamp?” I’ll tell you what it is. “Hey Al, thanks for coming. I love you. I want you to come back. I can’t wait to see you. I don’t want you to ever forget me.” And if it takes swingin’ an Anglepoise lamp, let it swing!

There is an increasing callousness about dwellers in the late nineties. Don’t let us miss the chances in the common, simple everyday events of life to declare the difference that Jesus makes when he gives us a sensitive, tender, honest, interested heart. “See ya, Dad. I’ll be back.” “See ya, Joseph. Remember, look out now, son. Just find them, check on them, and come straight back.” “I’ll be back, Dad. I’ll see ya, Dad.” And “I’ll see ya, Dad,” must have rung in [Jacob’s] head for twenty years because he had captured it as the last statement from his son, believing that his son was dead, and he would never see him again.

I mentioned this in the first service. Between services somebody sent me this note: “Alistair, you were so right.” (This is encouraging. I mean, this is amazing. I’m gonna read these fast, you see?) “Alistair, you were so right when you spoke about our goodbyes this morning. We do never know when we’re saying goodbye for the last time. Today we are coping with the suicide of a friend and well-loved teacher of three of my children, thirty-one years old. Wednesday night he closed the garage door, turned on the car, and was gone. We never knew he would do this, and we never realized that when we saw him Tuesday, it was the last goodbye.”

He was sent, and in verse 15 you can only imagine him wandering—wandering around in the fields—and the chap comes to him and says, “What are you looking for?” And he says, “Well, my brothers, they’re somewhere around there with their flocks.” “Oh,” says the fellow, “they’ve moved on. You’ll have to go into the Dothan region,” and on he goes. You can imagine him as he wanders, he wonders about their location, about the potential of the reception he will receive. Will absence have made the heart grow fonder? Will they love him a wee bit more or will they still not be speaking to him? Will they abuse him? He wondered about those dreams; they kept coming back to mind, strange and haunting dreams. There is an almost guileless simplicity about Joseph at this point in his life.

Joseph Was Sold

Sent. But notice that he was also sold. Verse 28 tells us that he was sold. He was sold for twenty shekels. It didn’t amount to much. Just a couple of shekels each for the brothers’ dirty money. I can’t imagine that they enjoyed what they bought with it. Horrible money, ill-gotten gain in your pocket, rotting through your pocket.

But what led to his being sold? Well you need to backtrack through the narrative. You find him coming in the distance. And it says in 18, that “they saw him in the distance.” How did they see him in the distance? Did he walk funny? He may have. He may have had a peculiar, you know, a peculiar gait. He may have swung his head from side to side or something; we don’t know. The chances are that they saw him in the distance because of what? His coat. See, you are such a bright group. You really are. Right? His coat. ’Cause his coat—they couldn’t think about anything else except his coat, because that coat represented to them everything they detested in the young guy, and indeed the very appearance of Joseph, we’re told, aroused their fury.[5] They saw him in the distance and before he even reached them, before they had the chance to hear his voice, understand why he had come, or anything about it, they began to plot to kill him. “Here comes the dreamer,” they said—verse 20—“we’ll kill him. Throw him in the cistern, lie about it, say that a ferocious animal ate him up, and then we’ll see if he’s doing any more dreaming after that. Ha-ha-ha-ha,” they must have said to one another.

When a man or a woman hates, they just hate. All that it needs is just a corner in a selfish heart, and from that little vantage point, hatred and fury and venom and vengeance will be out.

Over time, these brothers had sown the seeds of hatred in their heart, and these seeds had found fertile soil. They’d watered them with jealousy, they’d cultivated them with selfishness, and now they begin to flower and bloom in an ugly, horrible, spreading, viruslike substance. Their hatred was disproportionate to any and all of Joseph’s offenses against them. You know, if this kid had been a really bad actor, we could have said, “You know, well, it’s not surprising that they felt the way they felt.” But he hadn’t gone out and purchased the coat so that everyone would see that he had a wonderful coat. He hadn’t initiated the dreams; they had come from a source other than his own fertile imagination, as we will see. So their hatred of him was absolutely disproportionate to the offense, and it is a reminder to us that hatred doesn’t need a reason. When a man or a woman hates, they just hate. All that it needs is just a corner in a selfish heart, and from that little vantage point, hatred and fury and venom and vengeance will be out.

Now, the original plan for his destiny according to the brothers, is there in verse 18; we’ve noticed that. Reuben comes in with an intervention in verse 21. He proposes an amendment to the motion in verse 22: “Don’t let’s shed his blood,” he said. “Why don’t we just throw [him] in the cistern, and that way we won’t lay a hand on him.” Now we’re told why he did this: he did this so that he could rescue him from them and take him back to his father, so he was motivated by the best of reasons. The fact of the matter is that the brothers bought it, not knowing that Reuben was trying to rescue him. So there is nothing nice about the brothers’ response because, if you think about it, to be killed and then go in the cistern is better than going in the cistern and dying in the cistern, ’cause the way you die in the cistern is a long, slow, agonizing, dehydrating, starving-to-death death, whereas if they chop your head off and then put you in the cistern, at least when you’re in the cistern, you don’t know. So when he said, “Let’s just put him in the cistern,” don’t let’s think for a moment the brothers said, “Now, that’s a much nicer way to do it.” It was only that somehow or another they were able to fiddle in their minds with the ramifications of their own conscience.

Reuben. Do you remember Reuben in chapter 35 and verse 22? Do you remember the last time the camera zoomed in on Reuben’s face? Genesis 35:22: “While Israel,”—that is, Jacob— “was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine.” He slept with Bilhah, who was essentially his father’s wife. So, the last time that Reuben steps up on the scene is in the most gross way, in the most heinous of crimes which offend against God, against his father, against the family, against the woman, and against himself. Instinctively, then, we assume that Reuben’s a bad apple, right? And certainly he’s not particularly nice if he’s prepared to pull a stunt like that. But are we to conclude that he is incapable, then, of genuine compassion and sympathy? Are we to conclude, as most of the commentators suggest, that Reuben was not motivated by any sense of genuine concern or compassion, but he was motivated only because he saw it as an opportunity to balance out his iniquity, so that his dad had a thing against him and now if he could produce Joseph and explain that the rest of the naughty brothers had a bad plan for him, and he brought him back, then maybe his dad would think well about him. Well, that’s a possible interpretation. I don’t know why, but I just want to cut Reuben a wee bit more slack than that.

What’s your particular problem with sin? And what happens to you when you’re left all alone by yourself, nobody watching, just you? Do you gravitate towards despair and discouragement? Do you gravitate towards lust and impurity? Do you gravitate towards jealousy? What is it? What’s your thing? James says that every individual, in succumbing to temptation, is enticed and led away by their own evil desire—that all of us face temptation, but not all of us are tempted by the same things. [6] So the fact, you see, that Reuben was peculiarly tempted in this area does not mean that it gives us the right to assume that he didn’t have any compassion in his heart for his younger brother. Says George Lawson, the commentator from Scotland in the middle of the eighteenth century, he says, “Let not the worst of men be held worse than they really are.”[7] Now that’s not in any way to mitigate 35—it’s simply to say we don’t have to read 37 in the light of 35. It may well be that Reuben was so broken by the events that had previously happened—his father had responded to it in such a way that he said, “I just don’t want to deal with it; I don’t want to talk about it”—there was therefore no occasion for him to come to his dad and speak in any way, and he was probably cryin’ out for an opportunity to do something that would be an expression of his repentance. And here he sees the opportunity, and that’s why later on when he comes back and he finds that Joseph is gone, he says, “Where’s the boy gone? What am I going to do now? I’ve lost my one opportunity to declare to my father that I am genuinely sorry.”

Now, consider in verse 23 the way the events unfold. Look at this tragic picture in verse 23. Try and, as it were, squeeze your eyes. You know when you’re in the art class and you’re supposed to look at these pictures, and you’re looking at them, and you’re not seeing anything? And the art teacher says to you, “Squeeze your eyes.” So you squeeze your eyes shut, he goes, “No, not shut, idiot; you gotta still see the picture. Squeeze it a little like this and now you can just make out the outline of it. You can see what’s in the foreground, what’s in the distance. You gotta learn how to look at these things. See?” Never worked for me, but that’s what you’re supposed to do. Now in the same way, you gonna have to squeeze your eyes here. Squeeze your eyes a wee bit. Think about this, because many of us are so familiar with this story. Squeeze your eyes and see this happen. What a tragic picture of man’s inhumanity to man, of the way that brothers in the same earthly family can treat one another. “They stripped him of his robe.” Now, we shouldn’t read that in terms of, “May I take your coat for you, Joseph?” It wasn’t that way; it was, “Hey!” And then they bound him, and then they threw him down into this pit, into this cistern, and “the cistern was empty”—there was no water in it—the writer letting us know that there was no possibility of him drowning, there was no possibility of him drinking, there was only the possibility of him crashing and ripping his open back as he went down finally into the depth of it all. And so the seventeen-year-old brother was left according to these men to dehydrate and starve to death, and indeed, the best of all solutions would have been that some savage animal did actually come and kill him.

Now look at verse 25, one of the most graphic statements in the whole of the book of Genesis. It’s an unbelievable statement: “As they sat down to eat their meal …” Does anything put you off your food? Some of us can eat like horses anytime, I believe, but most people dealing in the realm of human emotion have faced occasions where they just said, “I’m sorry, I can’t eat. Maybe later on. Maybe when I get over this, but I can’t eat.” You stand outside in that room, you walk up and down the hall when the loved one is in surgery, and you wait and wait and wait and people offer you this and offer that and [you] say, “Thanks a lot, but I can’t eat just now. I can’t eat.” Those meals after the funeral are so helpful and so wonderful for the people who come from the distance and everything and an opportunity for fellowship, but I’ve observed something: the widow, she doesn’t eat much; the widower, he doesn’t eat much, ’cause it’s splanchnizomai, it’s got right in his heart, it’s right in there, it’s, “Ah! I can’t eat.” But I’ll tell you something. When you can tear the clothes off the back of your seventeen-year-old brother, bind him by his hand and feet, throw him down a hole in the ground and leave him there to die, and then turn and say, “Hey, has anyone got ketchup for these fries?” you know you’ve got a problem. And that is exactly what we find happening.

The question in verse 26 introduces us to Judah’s intervention. Now we have another amendment to the motion. These traders come by, and Judah sees an opportunity. He asks a question in verse 26: “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?” They were too sensible to answer incorrectly to that. They realized, “We’re not going to gain a lot; we’ll only gain heartache,” so the question registered. He then follows it up with a suggestion in verse 27:“Why don’t we sell him to the Ishmaelites? We won’t lay our hands on him. After all, he’s our brother, he’s our own flesh and blood.” A little tinge of conscience here creeping in now in the life of Judah. And so they take action in 28—the question in 26, the suggestion in 27, and the action in 28. “So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled [him] up out of the cistern … sold him for twenty shekels of silver,” and they took him off into Egypt. In other words, their consciences registered the fact that they shouldn’t kill Joseph, but their jealousy demanded that they must at least sell him.

So, there you have it. Joseph is gone by the time Reuben returns; I’ve mentioned that to you earlier there in verse 30. And the brothers in 31 to 36 go back to their father full of hypocrisy and deceit—a deception which they were to maintain for some twenty years.

It is virtually impossible to commit one sin. I actually defy you to have ever committed just one sin, i.e., “I’m just gonna … I just did one sin.” Well no, cause you just … No, you didn’t. When you sin, you’ll sin again and mostly in the area of lies.

Now, let me say something in passing. It is virtually impossible to commit one sin. I actually defy you to have ever committed just one sin, i.e., “I’m just gonna … I just did one sin.” Well no, cause you just … No, you didn’t. When you sin, you’ll sin again and mostly in the area of lies. When a man is prepared to kill, don’t be surprised if he will tell thousands of lies to protest his innocence and shield himself from the shame of his actions. It is to be expected. And therefore, it is no surprise that these brothers, who were capable of the grossest of indecency, of the worst of their venom being meted out on their brother, it is no surprise that they are then guilty of the worst kind of hypocrisy and duplicity and of lying. And they weaved for themselves a web in which they tie themselves up and trap themselves.

If you become a liar, you will weave a web for yourself that will strangle you in the end and will trip up countless other people in the process.

I want to say a word of warning to you this morning, especially if you are a young person and you’ve started to take refuge in lies. You might be ten, you might be twelve, fourteen, six, seven, whatever it is. Let me tell you something on the authority of God’s Word: If you keep this up, you will destroy your life. If you become a liar, you will weave a web for yourself that will strangle you in the end and will trip up countless other people in the process. If you’ve started it in your business, and you have woven a web of deceit in your business dealings, you know you’re in the worst of all positions for your integrity is shot; your personal conscience is ruined; you are always trying to work out what the other person is thinking, saying, doing, imagining, because you have become such a liar, and you’ve assumed that everyone else lies just like you—and maybe they do. If you imagine telling lies in terms of taking a piece of thread out of your mother’s closet when she sews the buttons on your shirt, and you take one piece of thread and wrap it round two of your fingers just once, and that’s the first couple of lies you told. Just break it apart with your fingers. You can do it. You say to yourself, “See? That wasn’t so bad. I got away with a couple of things. I covered up a couple of things, and nobody found out. My dad doesn’t know, and the teacher doesn’t know, and it worked quite well.” So when Tuesday dawns, we do it again. This time we wrap a second string. And Thursday, and a couple more on Friday, and two or three on the following Tuesday, and let’s say you just told an average of a lie a day, you know, it would be 365 a year. So after you’ve been going at it for 10 years, you know, you had a backlog of 3,650 or 36,000 or whatever you had—I don’t know ’cause I can’t do math—but a real lot. In other words, you’ve got your fingers so tied up you can’t scratch your head properly again for the rest of your life.

I’m speaking to somebody this morning, to people this morning, who have begun to weave a web of lies in your life. It’s keeping you from the kingdom, it’s keeping you from usefulness, and it will destroy your life. And I say to you: repent of it, be done with it, and ask God’s help to liberate you from it. I met people this week in Chicago who came to tell me that their whole life had been a lie. Their whole lifestyle had been a lie; that they were living a life in front of their families, and their families didn’t know all that was going on inside of them and behind them, and that is exactly what these chaps were doing now, for the next twenty years.

There is no pit deep enough, there is no cistern wide enough, there is nothing that we can find in which we may be able to hide our sin from the eye of an all-seeing God. You’ll never do it. There’s only one way to handle it: come clean. Come clean today.

Beware it! There is no pit deep enough, there is no cistern wide enough, there is nothing that we can find in which we may be able to hide our sin from the eye of an all-seeing God. You’ll never do it. There’s only one way to handle it: come clean. Come clean today. Clean it up, move on. Otherwise you’ll trip yourself up, and others will fall down with you. “Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” The person says to me, “You can’t deal with him; he is a pathological liar.” I tell you how it began: “No. No, I didn’t touch the cookies.”

Joseph Was Sad

He was sent. He was sold. Thirdly, and very briefly, he was sad. This goes without saying, doesn’t it? Maybe, but one of the things we have to beware in this is we don’t allow our familiarity with the story to dull our sense of sensitivity. This is a seventeen-year-old boy. Any seventeen-year-olds here? Just hold up you hand if you’re seventeen. Right. One, two … Two. Okay, that’s good. Two. Fine. Do you remember when you were seventeen, old folks? Is your memory still working enough? You remember that weird time of life? You look in the mirror, you say, “Who am I? What am I? What am I going to be? Will anyone like me? What shall I do next? I don’t know.” You got a driver’s license—at least I did (we’re a bit slow over there; it takes an extra year)—but you got your driver’s license, and the world was at your feet. Janis Ian was singing about being seventeen, remember that? Nobody does? Okay, well I won’t sing the song. It’s a famous song about seventeen, the teenage girls with zits and things, and no one invites them to the prom, and at seventeen and seventeen … I mean, everybody knew that song, goodness, gracious![8] It’s a famous song! The reason that it sold so many copies was because people said, “I remember seventeen. I am seventeen.”

Well this kid was seventeen. “Hey Joseph, do you remember when you were seventeen?” “Yeah, I do.” “What stands out for you, Joseph, about your seventeenth year?” “Oh, that’s easy. That’s when my dad sent me to Shechem. I was supposed to go there for a few days and come back. I went there. I was gone twenty years.” “That’s pretty memorable.” “Yes, it is. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined it would end up like that, and I had some pretty wild dreams. When I got to my brothers, I thought they were only interested in my coat ’cause they tore it off. I thought they wanted to share it, wear it. I found out they wanted me. I couldn’t believe they hated me that much. They threw me in the pit. I cried in the pit. I cried from the pit. I cried for mercy. I cried for my life. I cried, and I asked them to help me. At one point they pulled me out, and I thought I was in the clear, but they actually pulled me out to tie me up to a bale of straw, put me on the back of a mangy camel, and shipped me off to Egypt. And I cried on the back of the camel. And actually, every time that I could try and turn my neck and look back down the dusty path, I looked and I longed and I wondered if my dad would find out, send a little party of guys, get me, take me off the camel, and take me home ’cause I wanted to go home. All I wanted to do was just go home. But nobody came, and I didn’t go home, and I was gone.” You say, “Well, you don’t want to start making the story up, Al.” Well, no I don’t. You say, “Well, are you sure he was distressed and sad?” Yeah, it doesn’t say it in 37, but it does say it in 42—[Genesis] 42:21: The brothers are talking to one another in a different context, and they say, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we [wouldn’t] listen.”

Joseph Was Safe

That brings me to my final word. It’s the word safe—safe. “So, Joseph, what was it that kept you? What was it that kept you?” Now, this is conjecture on my part; when we get to heaven you can check, but I think in part he would have said this: “One of the things that kept me was the memory of my grandpa’s stories”—the memory of my grandpa’s stories. They say, “Now, Alistair, you’re getting a little soft on us here.” No, hold on for just a minute. You remember who his grandpa was, right? Isaac. And any kid who loves their grandpa loves their grandpa’s stories. You get up on your grandpa’s knee; you say, “Tell me about the first World War,” if he was in the first World War; otherwise you shouldn’t do that unless it’s an intelligence test or something, you know. “Tell me about the old days. Tell me about the things that happened to you when you were small. Tell me about my dad. Tell me about some of that stuff.” And the stories would have come. And as he layered through them all, he comes to Genesis 22, and he tells the amazing story there of the provision of the lamb, of the ram caught in the thicket, and how it was that he was liberated—how he who was to be the sacrifice was to become the one who walked free on account of the provision of God. And how the grandpa must have said, “And Joseph, if you will trust in God—if you will trust in the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of your father Jacob—if you will trust in him, you will discover that no matter what happens to you, son, no matter where you go, no matter how difficult life becomes, God himself will provide for you, Joseph.” And I can only but imagine, I have no other explanation for how this boy comes out the way he did except for the fact that somehow, even in the extremities of these things, he was aware of the fact that God was still in control of his life, that he was learning to say with the psalmist, “I [have] believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”[9] His earthly father stayed in Canaan, but his heavenly Father came with him into Egypt.

You see, this whole story is moving to the conclusion in Genesis 50, and you almost can’t do the previous sections without constantly acknowledging Genesis 50:19. Joseph, speaking to his brothers now in Egypt, says to them, “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”[10] So it was that this seventeen-year-old boy was being given the opportunity to understand that even in the exercise of his brothers’ hatred, God was working. That God was providing for young Joseph in the intervention of Reuben, so as to prevent his death and put him in the pit. It was God’s intervention that enabled Reuben’s brothers to comply with the proposal. It was not chance. It was not by chance that a caravan of Ishmaelite-ish merchants arrived at just the right time. They were there by divine appointment. “Oh, you mean that somehow or another God moved them there miraculously?” No, they were just going the way they were going. They were doing business the way they were doing business, and they reached the point in the road at just the right moment in time for Judah to look up and say, “Hey, I’ve got another idea.” It was the providence of God that determined that they ought to buy him. They could have taken a look at him and said, “Forget it, we don’t want the hassle of it. We don’t need him.” It was the providence of God overruling their response. It was divine providence that had inspired the thought in Judah, and it was the divine providence of God that enabled the brothers to go along with it. If we’d asked the brothers, “Why did you sell Joseph into slavery?” they would have said, “to be rid of him and his lousy dreams.” If we’d asked the Ishmaelite people, “Why did you buy him?” they would have said “to turn a profit.” And that’s all of it. And yet in each case, in order to serve themselves, both the brothers and the Midianites did a great service to Joseph because their selfish interests became, in God’s providence, instrumental in saving Joseph’s life and indeed saving the lives of the very brothers themselves.

The center of God’s will may be for us the very eye of the storm.
Some of us are just not as useful as we might be because in shunning the trials, we missed the blessings, and we do not have the tender eyes that come from nights of tears.

Let me just say this to you this morning, out of all of this—and it will repay our further thoughtful, prayerful study—there are a number of lessons to be learned: one is that the center of God’s will may be for us the very eye of the storm. Another is simply this: that “if God is for us, who can be against us?”[11] Another is this: that God will accomplish his purposes even though for the time being it might appear as though we’re strapped to the back of a mangy camel, and we’re going to who knows where. That’s not a very nice way to describe a Monday, but that might be exactly how you feel. And it also is a reminder to us that, as A. W. Tozer once said, “It is doubtful that God will ever use us greatly until we have been hurt deeply.”[12] And some of us are just not as useful as we might be because in shunning the trials, we missed the blessings, and we do not have the tender eyes that come from nights of tears. We don’t want to seek them, but they come from a Father’s hand.

Let us pray together:

Our gracious God and loving Father, thank you for preserving for us in the Bible this wonderful story of Joseph. And now by your Spirit, bring it to bear upon our lives in such a way that in hearing its truth and understanding it, we may be brought to see our need of you and that we may be brought to repent of the sin of lying, that we may be brought to give up our preoccupation with selfishness and self-pity, and that we might be brought to the place of genuine encouragement which recognizes that you “love [us] with an everlasting love,”[13] that all our days and all our doubts, all our fears and all our failures, all our fractured relationships and our broken-up dreams, are under your watchcare, and that you are far more willing to bless us than we are ever to take the time to ask you. So may the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen.


[1] Matthew 6:32 (NIV 1984).

[2] Matthew 6:25–34 (paraphrased).

[3] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2.

[4] Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, “What a Wonderful World” (1967) (paraphrased).

[5] Genesis 37:4.

[6] James 1:14 (paraphrased).

[7] George Lawson, Lectures on the History of Joseph (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 16.

[8] Janis Ian, “At Seventeen” (1975) (paraphrased).

[9] Psalm 27:13 (KJV).

[10] Genesis 50:19–20 (NIV 1984).

[11] Romans 8:31 (NIV 1984).

[12] A. W. Tozer, The Root of Righteousness (Camp Hill, Pennsylvania: Christian Publications, 1986), 137 (paraphrased).

[13] Jeremiah 31:3 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.