Joseph in the Hands of God
Scripture Reading: Genesis 39:1-23
Text: Genesis 39:1-6
Sermon by Rev. Martin Overgaauw
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Bowmanville, Ontario
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 20, No. 1
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ:
Today we return once again to God’s work of redemption as He deals with the generations of Jacob. Remember how verse two of chapter 37 begins. “This is the history of Jacob.” The Word of God then proceeds to unfold for us the account of Joseph as he lived in the house of Jacob. We saw how he was set apart, as it were. It doesn’t come out and say in so many words, but the idea certainly comes across loud and clear. The whole character of Joseph and how it clashes with that of his sinful brothers, his relationship with his father, his dreams — these all set the stage.
But then we were suddenly confronted with a dark chapter in the history of Jacob. It’s the sort of account that one would normally keep as a skeleton in your family closet, hidden from general knowledge. Its not the sort of thing you want getting around. But this is the Word of God, and each account serves the purposes of God and gives the glory to God. In the midst of this darkness we see the hand of God rest favorably upon the tribe of Judah, and in particular, upon the offspring produced from the dalliance between Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar. For it is through the line of Judah and through the child of Tamar that God chooses to bear the lineage of our Lord and Savior.
What a picture in contrasts between chapter 37 and this chapter with that of chapter 38. We see that Christ descended from a covenant line tainted and tarnished from sin. But that was to show that His glory and majesty was not derived from His ancestors but rather from His own person. Judah, who stood far nearer to a covenantal environment than Joseph did, fell and stumbled in sin far easier than Joseph, who was far removed from that scenario. But that too, was for the glorious purposes of our mighty God. Joseph’s characteristics were what the Lord desired to use so as to bring the children of Jacob into the land of Egypt, so as to preserve them for future generations — allowing them to establish themselves and grow in numbers and in strength.
The long and short of it all is that Joseph served God’s purposes as did Judah — each in their respective roles. But now we return to the account of Joseph and we continue precisely where we left off. Genesis 37:36 reads, Joseph was “sold in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard.” Genesis 39:1 reads, “Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, bought him.”
Today our theme is “Joseph in the hands of God.” Let us follow this theme as it takes us through our text and see first, God takes Joseph down; second, God lifts Joseph up; and third, God makes Joseph an instrument of His blessing.
Well, as we have already mentioned, Joseph was brought down into Egypt. In that sense he was taken down. He was brought low. This is the last place where Joseph expected to be. This is not according to his dreams. Its not clear as to Joseph’s inner reactions to all of this as he sits in the wagon — a prisoner in the hands of the Midianites, being taken down to Egypt. Nothing is said of his disappointment in that what he had dreamed of, that which he also told to his family, now looked to be history. Its not known if his confidence and hope in the Lord was such that even in the face of this adversity he remained steadfast, clinging to these visions, trusting that they would yet unfold as he had dreamed them. He could not see the future, and Joseph is not one of those whose faith looked forward to the fulfillment of these dreams. What Hebrews 11 says of Joseph is that “By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones” (Heb.11:22). There is nothing there that would indicate Joseph’s faith that spoke of how God would follow through and cause his brothers to bow down to him. He was far away from home, alone, a prisoner with nothing but unknown ahead of him. Was he afraid? It is not said. But that in itself is a testimony to the hand of God being upon Joseph.
During the time of Joseph, Egypt has the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and huge deserts to the east, west and south. It was a great trading partner with the rest of the world at that time in spices used for the preservation of bodies. History reveals that Egypt had a great demand for slaves. Pharaoh himself was surrounded by wise councilors, gifted horse men, musicians, astrologers, interpreters of dreams, librarians, treasurers of the kingdom, treasurers of the tombs, royal fan bearers, cup bearers and more. He had personal body guards and military men of great might at his disposal — always near, standing on his left side.
Potiphar, it would seem, was not one of these men at Pharaoh’s left side. He was more like the chief of the Egyptian State Police, which was a branch of the army. And everything in that day was written down, and the records were kept safe. Paintings on the walls of tombs give a picture of this history.
These pictures also told the tale that the husband and wife lived very close together. They attended parties together where there were great tables of fruits and food, and gifts of sweet-smelling perfumes and flowers and where female dancers danced provocatively. What these women wore didn’t leave anything for the imagination.
The Pharaoh had a harem, as well as concubines who were available to him at his beck and call. The Pharaoh’s wife sat next to her husband while these dancers danced and while he was surrounded by all of this debauchery. It is noted that although Egypt had strict marriage laws and a divorce was difficult to obtain, still adultery and fornication were common. On top of all this came the fashion of the day. You may have your struggles with the fashion of today where you don’t know where to by a pair pants high enough and a top long enough for your daughters to wear, let alone a simple dress that doesn’t cling. But consider the fashion found in Egypt. Wives wore garments that allowed certain aspects of the upper portions of the female body to be clearly visible. I relate this all to you so that you might obtain a clear picture of what Joseph was faced with. This is the environment into which Joseph was brought. It is like taking your eldest son and placing him on Bourbon Street in the French quarter of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. The temptations were prevalent everywhere.
This is the level to which God brought Joseph. “Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there.” Think for a moment on those Christians who live in countries where the name of Christ is forbidden to be spoken. The day may come when we will be whisked away from family and friends and placed in prisons, but there is one thing that cannot be taken from us and that is the Lord. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.” We may be placed in prison for our beliefs, and those prison doors may close behind us, shutting out any light from the outside world, but we can never be turned away from the throne of grace.
Joseph no longer walked freely and he no longer wore his beautiful coat of many colors that revealed the love of his father, but Joseph was not stripped of grace. That was ever present. What did we hear last Sunday? “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.” You know, it must be very hard to be a parent in the United Sates who has a son or a daughter in the army serving in Iraq. It must be even harder to know that your son is a prisoner of these radicals who have no respect for life — who think nothing of beheading their prisoners, who bring themselves into a frenzied condition following these atrocious acts of cowardice. Yes, the Lord brings us down, but His hand is yet upon us. He does not turn away from those who are His. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things” (Rom.8:32).
But consider Jesus Christ. What Joseph goes through, and what God may call us to go through, is nothing compared to the self-humiliation of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was in the form of God, but He “did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond servant and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil.2:6-7). Joseph is a picture of Christ who humbly went down into slavery. He is the fore runner of the humiliation of Christ. Yes, God brought Joseph down. Yes, He brings the prisoner and the hostages of these rogue armies down, but notice the first five words of verse two. “The Lord was with Joseph.”
We see that, as God’s hand rests upon Joseph, He lifts him up. “The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian.”
You know, it so often follows this same pattern. Everything seems to be going in favor of the wicked. It seems as if it is only they who prosper — that it is their wishes and desires that are fulfilled. But these ones are not blessed with God’s favor. It is never well and good with man except when the Lord reveals Himself and bestows His grace on them. The psalmist goes through a whole story of how the wicked prosper, but his conclusion in the end is “God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps.73:26). What does God say in Exodus 33:19? “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.”
How then can the grace of God lift someone up who has been brought into slavery? How do we see the hand of God on such a one in such a situation? How is this one made to be successful? Well, the success and the prosperity that is given to Joseph is not material wealth, as we might imagine — it is spiritual prosperity. Joseph was not one who was monetarily successful. He wasn’t wealthy in gold and riches and in the choicest garments, but he was exorbitantly, spiritually wealthy. And God made him that way.
If we would closely examine our own lives, we would possibly come to the conclusion that we are spiritual failures — many possibly are. But the Lord was with Joseph, and on that basis he was made to be a successful man. It hinges on the fact that God was with Joseph. He didn’t do anything exceptional except that which was given him to do. Joseph’s little secret was that he was always conscious of God. We would hardly find someone who is doing well whom the Lord was not with. Joseph lived before the face of God, and so he was able to rise above the circumstances of adversity. He was a slave to his master, but not to his adversity. His adversity made him a gentler, kinder person, more filled with the grace of God.
What a testimony of the mighty hand of God as it rests upon his servant! Is there any reason that we should see ourselves as spiritual failures? If the Lord is with us, then who are we to fear? We are able to walk boldly in the Lord. But how much effort do we expend in trying to lift the Lord’s hand from off of us, seeing it as a burden, weighing us down, thinking that He has given us far too much? Beloved, to be lifted up in the face of adversity is not like hanging to a hot air balloon that will take us up given the right amount of heat. To be lifted up and to be made spiritually prosperous is to be conscious — ever conscious of God’s presence. He is always near. It is to live Coram Deo — before the face of God. And this has an effect on the world around us. They too begin to see.
Look at verse 3, “And his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand.” Potiphar was not a dumb person. He could easily see that everything that Joseph did, he did well. He could see what others couldn’t see. He could see that the Lord was with him. Others might think that Joseph was an excellent administrator. Some might add to that fact that Joseph had a beautiful character and an outgoing personality. And they each might say that it was these things that caught the attentive eye of Potiphar. Beloved, it was none of these. It was in the fact that “the Lord was with him, and that the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand.” And so, as we read in verse 4, “Joseph found favor in his sight, and served him. Then he made him overseer of his house, and all that he had he put under his authority.”
Beloved, prosperity comes not by chance, nor does it come because our timing is right — prosperity comes because, “the Lord was with Joseph.” God’s hand was upon Joseph. Joseph was in the hands of God. He who is prosperous — that is spiritually prosperous — is he with whom the Lord is. Is there a Joseph in the world today? Is there one who upholds the ways of God and is recognized by the world and given a place of stature? We have just had our say when we elected this minority government in Canada. There is not one of the two main party leaders of whom we can say “the Lord was with him, and the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand.” Our Prime Minister will have to fight for everything. He will struggle in every decision he will make. Not Joseph. Everything came to Him because the Lord was with Him.
Without the omniscience and the omnipotence of God governing all things, without Him in control, no good will come to any. “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows; for so He gives His beloved sleep.” (Ps.127:1-2) What a great testimony to us! Our efforts are nothing without the hand of God to lead, to guide and to bless. Is the Lord with you?
Finally, we see Joseph in the hands of God, as God makes Joseph an instrument of His blessing. Look at verse 5. “So it was, from the time that he had made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had in the house and in the field.” The blessing of the Lord was upon all in the house of his master, upon those in his fields, upon those of his servants. But notice that it does not say that he and his household are blessed, only “all that he had in the house and in the field.” This did not include Potiphar himself.
“The Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake.” Beloved, this goes far deeper than physical blessings. This is way beyond that. This is not simple prosperity that is being discussed. There was spiritual blessings that came upon those in the fields and those in the house. Grace was bestowed upon certain ones in the house of Potiphar. The whole order of salvation was exercised in the hearts of some in this household. God had His own people in the house of Potiphar. Does this not point to predestination? Can we not say that God has His own in the world — those who are unknown to us? How important it is then for us to recognize the significance of our testimony to others in the world!
God had long ago promised that through Abraham’s seed the nations would be blessed — all the families of the world. So there are God’s elect with whom we may come in contact with on a daily basis, except we don’t know who they are. We don’t have any idea whom God would desire to enter into His kingdom. We have no idea if He would use us as an instrument of blessing. Do we then patiently wait to hear from the Lord? Do we discount the fact that we are nobodies and that God wouldn’t use us? God calls on each one of us to be faithful. We are to always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us.
Beloved, Joseph was in the hands of God. He was used by God. We must see him as an ordinary man used by God in an extraordinary way. He didn’t purpose in his heart to be elevated to any such stature as being an instrument in the hands of God and neither do we strive to that end. But we are called on to be faithful. We are called on to be ever conscious of God — aware of His everywhere presence — aware of His nearness. We are called on to trust in Him. We are called on to bloom as it were, where God plants us. It may be in the stink of adversity — it may be on the green sunny slopes of prosperity — it may be right in the middle — it may be in a crowd of unbelievers — it may be in any number of difficult and challenging situations — wherever it is that God places us, be sure that we are in His hands. Take comfort knowing that your covenant God has so ordained the circumstances of life so as to fulfill His promises to us. He does not blindly see us through. I’ve said it before. There is nothing haphazard about God. We, on the other hand, are a picture of haphazard. But by the grace of God we are made partakers of salvation. Tell that glorious story to your neighbor! It is not an easy thing to do. Our old nature dares not step out of its comfort zone. Maybe God will pull us out of that zone where we are forced to react and to manifest the glory of God. May it be that we do exactly that in all situations to the glory of God. Amen!