Today we turn to the last chapter in the book of Genesis to conclude our study of the life of Joseph, Genesis 50:14-21, with our focus especially on what Joseph says in verse 20 to his brothers. “As for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass as it is this day, to save much people alive.”
These words of Joseph state an important biblical truth, the truth of God’s sovereign providence. The Bible teaches that God has absolute control over all things and over every event in the history of this world. There is no creature that can move and not a thing that can happen apart from the will of God. He determines even the evil deeds of wicked men, and He uses all these things to accomplish His eternal purposes in the salvation of His chosen people through Jesus Christ. That is the truth that Joseph states here.
But, understand, this is not simply a doctrinal statement. Joseph does not sit in a classroom or at a desk and study the Bible to come up with this truth. Rather, it is spoken in the context of the experiences of his life. It is a confession that he makes as a believer, in response to the difficulties and troubles that have come to him in his life. Here we see that truth matters in very practical ways. Instead of Joseph becoming bitter and vengeful, and getting back at his brothers, he forgives them, because he realizes that though his brothers intended evil against him, God is sovereign, and He had a greater purpose in the events of his life. He responds to God.
These are words that Joseph spoke to his brothers after their father Jacob had died. For 17 years Jacob and his family lived in Egypt. All this time, Joseph continued in his position of authority as the governor of Egypt. When Jacob died, Joseph and his brothers, as well as a host of Egyptians, took the body of Jacob back to the land of Canaan to bury it there with the bones of Abraham and Isaac. After this they returned to Egypt, and then we read this in Genesis 50:15: “And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him.”
There are several things going on here.
First, the brothers are still dealing with the guilt of what they had done to Joseph. Even though 17 years have passed, they still feel extremely guilty for the evil they had committed.
Second, they judge Joseph by themselves. In their thinking, the only reason Joseph has been kind to them to this point is that their father was still living, that because of Jacob’s presence, Joseph avoided causing a disruption in the family.
And so, third, they act irrationally, and what is irrational is their fear of Joseph. For 17 years Joseph had cared for them and shown them forgiveness. There was peace in this family, and just now they had come from a family funeral in unity, and with great hope in the covenant promises of God to them. But, all the while, these men, plagued by their guilt, were afraid of Joseph. They are so afraid that, rather than going to Joseph themselves, they send a messenger to him.
Verses 16 and 17: “They sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying, So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father.”
Was this a lie, or were they telling the truth? Were they making something up in order to manipulate Joseph, or did Jacob their father actually say these words?
Well, we do not know the answer to that question, and the answer is not really all that important. To Joseph, it made no difference. More important is what the brothers were communicating to him in these words, and that is what Joseph heard. What were they saying? Three things.
One, they were openly confessing their sin to Joseph. You see that in the candid words they use to describe what they had done. Twice they call it trespass, once they use the word sin, and once the word evil. They do not use mild and indirect language. They do not call their sin a mistake or a lapse in judgment, as is so often done today. Up to this point in the story of Joseph, we have not read such an open confession from the brothers of their sin. Maybe, because of the grace of forgiveness in Joseph’s heart, that had not been necessary. But the brothers, because of their continued guilt, need it now.
That is the second thing in what they say to Joseph. Twice they plead, Forgive us, Forgive us. This is a cry that comes from guilt-ridden hearts. They experienced the graciousness and kindness of Joseph, but they want forgiveness affirmed.
And then third, they speak as believers. Joseph hears that from them too. They say, “Forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father.” Those words express their true humility and repentance. Like David in Psalm 51, “Against thee, thee only have I sinned, and in thy sight done this evil,” they repent before God. They come before him as lowly servants.
And that is what Joseph hears. Irrational as their behavior and their fear are, Joseph sees that his brothers are still hurting because of the pain of their guilt, he understands that they need to have his forgiveness affirmed to them, and so he responds with grace.
When the messenger comes to Joseph with word from his brothers, Joseph weeps. And when his brothers hear this, they come bowing before him, saying, “We are thy servants.” And Joseph weeps again.
Why does he weep? Why is he sad? It is because his brothers are afraid of him, because they still come bowing before him, treating him as a ruler, and not as a brother. He loves them, he has forgiven them, and in his view the relationship is completely restored. But they are afraid. They still feel estranged. This is what makes him weep. That is clear from the answer he gives to them, in which he repeats the words, “Fear not.” His answer is, “Don’t be afraid of me, don’t be afraid of me, I have forgiven you, completely.” He wants them to know this, and so in verse 21, at the end of his words, he affirms his forgiveness by telling them that he will not repay them evil but will continue to nourish them and their little ones. And verse 21 also says that he comforted them and spake kindly to them. He overflowed and abounded in words of love and forgiveness to them.
But there is something unique about his forgiveness, and that is what we see in verses 19 and 20. He does not just look at his brothers and say, “I’ve forgotten it, we will go on from here as brothers as though it didn’t happen.” That is something that it is really impossible to do. What is unique is that Joseph responds not just to his brothers on the horizontal, but before God. And doing this, he commits to God’s care what his brothers had done, and he confesses that God intended these things to happen, and so he is not going to be bitter about them. That is what is amazing here. The sovereignty of God overrules the evil that his brothers have committed.
Joseph gives his brothers two reasons not to be afraid of him.
The first is in verse 19, where he says through tears, “Fear not, for am I in the place of God?”
Certainly Joseph could have played “god” here. The Egyptians had hailed him as the savior of the world. And at this time he was pretty much the most powerful man on earth. To play “god” in his brothers’ lives, and to execute a little divine justice in behalf of God here would have been very tempting. But Joseph, because of his clear view of God and of himself as a man before God, had no desire to get back at his brothers. He understood that the righting of the wrongs done against him was not his to administer, and so he committed it to Him who is faithful. He left it in God’s hands.
Now, how often are not the troubles in our relationships caused by our attempting to be “god” in the lives of others? We think that we understand justice, and we make others pay for the evils that they have committed against us. And we justify it in the name of justice. Sin, we say, has consequences. And by doing that, we make reconciliation and forgiveness all the more difficult. Whereas the Bible says, in Romans 12:19, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” And, “See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men” (I Thess. 5:15).
Joseph had no desire to play “god” in the lives of his brothers, so they had no reason to be afraid of him.
A second reason that they need not be afraid was that Joseph believed in the sovereignty of God over their evil, and he responded not just to their evil, but before God. Doing this, he was able to see that God had a good purpose even in the evils that he experienced.
Joseph says, in verse 20, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”
Now, notice, just like his brothers, Joseph does not minimize the evil they had committed. He does not say, “Don’t worry, it was nothing,” but rather, “Ye thought evil against me.” That comes out especially in chapter 37, at the beginning of this story, where there is a build-up of hatred that leads to a murderous spirit towards him. They first hate him because he is the favorite son, then they hate him because of his godliness and honesty, and then they hate him for his dreams, sent from God. And so, when he comes to check on them, they say, “Here comes the dreamer, let’s kill him, and then we’ll see what becomes of his dreams.” They thought, they intended, evil against him. And their selling him as a slave and lying to their father about it did not lessen their evil intentions. In their hatred, they wanted him out of their lives, and so they disposed of him, and for 22 years lied also to their father.
Joseph experienced this as evil and hatred too. He cried out from the pit for mercy, he toiled in slavery, he hurt from iron shackles in prison, and the memory of those pains stayed with him, even when he became ruler of Egypt. When his two sons are born, he gives them names that remind him and us of all that he has gone through. In Genesis 41:51-52, “And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: For God, said he, hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. And the name of the second called he Ephraim: For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.” He mentions his toil, his father’s house, and he calls Egypt the land of his affliction.
The pain of it was especially these two things: 1) it came from those closest to him, his own flesh and blood, and 2) it was completely unjust. He was wronged by his own brothers, and it resulted in immense pain for him for many years.
But Joseph says to them, “Don’t be afraid of me, even though you’ve done this evil. I understand what you’ve done, I understand the guilt you are experiencing, but you see, God meant it for good, and I am responding, not to you, but to God.”
You remember when Joseph first revealed himself to his brothers, 17 years earlier, in Genesis 45, he said, “God sent me before you to preserve life.” Here he reiterates that to them, explaining to them why he has forgiven them, and how he can do so. He sees God as sovereign over the evils he experienced. In his mind, his brothers and their evil purposes are really not the important thing. Instead, it is that God decreed and planned and brought about what happened to him in his life.
In the verse here there is a parallel between what the brothers did and what God did. In the original Hebrew, it is the same word, something that not all the English translations capture. Joseph says, “you planned evil, but God planned good.” Even their evil purposes and deeds were a part of God’s purpose. God does not merely allow evil to happen, and then overturn it, but He includes evil in His plans and purposes. Through the evil, God brings about a greater good. Evil men have one purpose by their wickedness, but God has another, and their evil purposes serve His good purpose. The prophet Amos put it this way, “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” That’s what Joseph is saying. This evil that came on me, God brought on me. He did it, and He did it with a saving purpose.
Joseph explains God’s good purpose this way: “to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” Now, Joseph does not mean merely that his family and the Egyptians were spared from starvation during the famine. Rather, he has in mind the salvation of God’s covenant people, the preservation of the church, and the keeping alive of the covenant promises of God. That comes out in the last verse of the chapter, where on his deathbed he tells his family that God will remember them and bring them back to the promised land of Canaan, and where he asks to be buried with the patriarchs in Canaan. Joseph sees that God’s purpose is salvation, the salvation of His people, in the coming seed of the promise, Jesus Christ. Hebrews 11 tells us that in faith Joseph “made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.” In faith Joseph believed the promise of God, the promise being Christ, who would come. He saw Christ afar off, and he believed that God was working in everything, even the evils in his own life, to bring the promised Messiah.
That’s the beautiful truth here. And in the same way, God also controlled the action of Satan when he came into the garden of Eden and drew Adam and Eve into sin. God decreed and purposed that, so that Christ could come as Savior. That is also true of the most wicked thing that man has ever done, the crucifixion of the Savior. In Acts 2:23, Peter says to those who had killed Christ, “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” Notice, just like Joseph, he does not minimize the wickedness of what they did. They had crucified Christ by wicked hands, and what Peter says pricks them in their heart; but at the same time, God determined that they would do this to His Son. God by His causative decree made it happen. And God sovereignly used their evil to accomplish His purpose in our salvation through the death of His Son. Paul says, in I Corinthians 2:8, that if they had known this, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
This is the sovereignty of God in providence.
So, why did Joseph have to go through all that he experienced? Why the hatred of his brothers, the life as a slave, the isolation from his family, the imprisonment? Think of Joseph, and of all the pain he experienced for so many years. Why? He went through all this for the salvation of God’s people—his own salvation, the salvation of his family, and the salvation of the entire church of God. That is why.
God in His decree works out every detail of our lives with that same saving purpose. In the New Testament, that is summarized in Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
The first three words of that verse are often overlooked, but they are the most important. “And we know….” Joseph knew. And we know. How do we know? Because we look up to God. We believe in the sovereign providence of God. Through faith, we know.
And so, no matter what may happen to you in the future, God is in control. The reins never slip from His hands. Whatever happens is decreed by Him. Man may intend evil against you, or against God’s church and people, but God means it for good.
When you can see that from Scripture, and say that in connection with your life, it changes everything. If you don’t say this, you will become bitter against people, you will blow up when things seem out of control, or you will clam up and withdraw when you are hurt. But when you truly believe this, you will learn in the troubles of life to respond to God and not man. Instead of bitterness will be forgiveness. Instead of anxiety will be trust and peace. Instead of doubt, there will be confidence. Instead of paralyzing guilt, a joy.
Our God is in the heavens; He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased.
Let us pray.
Father, we rest in Thy power and grace. The purposes for us are always good, and by Thy power everything is used for our salvation. Lord, in whatever troubles we experience, give us to believe this, and comfort us through this word, we pray. Amen.