Has it ever seemed to you that everything in your life is against you? That your life is a crescendo of problems, one after another, piling up, so that everything looks black and hopeless?
In our series on the life of Joseph, we have again and again run across the important truth of God’s sovereign providence, which is a theme in the story of Joseph. Providence teaches us that God is sovereignly in control of everything that happens in this world, and that in His love He works in and through every circumstance of the lives of His people for their good. At the end of this story, in Genesis 50:20, when Joseph’s brothers are afraid that he will retaliate against them for the evils they did against him, Joseph says, “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.” Joseph does not only look at the evil his brothers determined, but he sees God’s hand; he lives constantly and consciously before the face of God. All through his life this is Joseph’s perspective, and because of this we observe in him a series of amazing responses to difficult providences.
Today, in contrast to that, we see Jacob’s unbelieving response to God’s providence. And it is recorded in Scripture, not only as a contrast to Joseph, but also to teach us how not to respond to the difficult troubles of life in this world. In this life we will have trials and tribulations. That is undisputed. We could list many different trials that believers have to face. But the important question is not, what are your trials? or do you have a difficult life? No, the important question is, “How are you responding to the troubles of life?” Jacob, in the passage we look at today, has two sinful responses.
First, at the end of chapter 42, verse 36, he says, “All these things are against me.” That is an unbelieving response. Now, I didn’t say that Jacob was an unbeliever. No, he was a child of God, but in a period of sinful reaction, when he took his eye of faith from God, he uttered these unbelieving words. The child of God, the believer, should never respond to the troubles of life this way.
Now before we judge Jacob too harshly, let us look at ourselves, and realize that very often this is exactly our response to the troubles of life, and let us see that Jacob’s response was quite understandable, considering his circumstances. If we were in his situation, we would be tempted to say exactly the same thing. This is not to justify or excuse it, but simply to put it in perspective. Jacob has had a troubled life.
Think of his experiences. He experienced hatred. For most of his life, his brother Esau wanted to kill him, so that he even had to run away from home for decades.
He experienced abuse and mistreatment. His father-in-law, who was also his boss for many years, first gave him the wrong daughter to be his wife, and then changed his wages again and again.
He experienced grief through death. First the death of his parents, Isaac and Rebekah, and then the death of his most loved wife, Rachel. And then, following that, his most loved son, Joseph, had suddenly gone missing, apparently eaten by a wild animal. For 20 years now, he has been grieving over this.
He experienced trouble in his family life. His four wives were always competing for his love, and competing with one another, and in turn they produce children that are at odds with each other. Of course, he was largely to blame for this, not only in marrying multiple women, but also in favoring one wife and her children, Joseph and Benjamin. Of course this would breed resentment. But now, since Joseph is missing, he has had to deal with the guilt of that.
He has experienced the pain of having unbelieving and wicked children. Joseph was such a godly young man, a son with whom he could freely speak of the things of God, the best of his boys. His other sons were wretchedly wicked. The oldest had violated Jacob’s own marriage by incest with one of Jacob’s wives. The next two sons had committed genocide in the city of Shechem, ruining the reputation and the witness of Jacob’s family in Canaan. The fourth son had committed adultery with his own daughter-in-law, thinking she was a harlot. Two of his grandsons had been killed, by God, because of their wickedness. No wonder he missed Joseph so sorely.
What a troubled life. What a cloud seems to hang over this man’s life and over his family. And now recently, his family has been experiencing famine. There is no food, and the situation gets so desperate that his sons have to travel for weeks to Egypt to get food, otherwise they face starvation and extinction.
And so, he sends them to Egypt. At least then they have hope of surviving. Spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally, Jacob is simply surviving. He is in survival mode.
And then his sons, who are always getting themselves into trouble, come back from Egypt with more bad news. Jacob had kept his youngest son, Benjamin, home. He did not let him go to Egypt, because he did not want anything bad to happen to Benjamin. Imagine that you are one of the other sons—”our life does not matter, but beloved Benjamin, he must be protected!” And now, here is the bad news from his sons returning. Yes, they have food, but in Egypt they were roughly treated by the ruler. He accused them of being spies, and said that he would believe that they were not, only when they returned with Benjamin, and meanwhile he held Simeon, another son, imprisoned as a ransom.
And then when they open the sacks containing their grain, there was all their money. They are also going to be accused of theft.
So this is the troubled life of Jacob. I wonder if perhaps you can identify with some of his troubles—perhaps the grief of the family troubles, or being hated, or experiencing famine and poverty. How do you respond?
In despair, Jacob says to his sons, and to God, “Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me.” He means, everything in my life is against me. He is referring not only to a few things in his life, but all things. He believes that they are all calculated against him, to destroy him, and that their increasing intensity means he is simply going to die under the burdens of life.
Back in chapter 37, when Joseph goes missing, he simply says, “I will go down into the grave mourning”—I will bear this grief the rest of my life. Now, he says that if mischief should befall Benjamin, “ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.” He means, this will kill me. So deep is his trouble. He is not just sad and afraid, but overwhelmed by his trouble.
And so his response. All these things are against me.
But was everything against him? No. It only seemed that way to Jacob. And that was because Jacob took his eyes off God. He was not living by faith. Taking his eyes off God and His promises, Jacob looked at his experiences and circumstances, he looked at everything from an earthly point of view, and it seemed black. Instead of looking at his earthly circumstances from God’s point of view, he turned that around and looked at God from his earthly point of view, and he complained against God. He charged God with foolishness. He said here, to God, “You don’t know what you’re doing. You’ve made a mistake. You don’t love me and you’re destroying my life.”
And Jacob said this, even though he knew better. Back in Genesis chapter 28, when Jacob is alone at Bethel, fleeing from Esau, God came to him and promised, not that his life would be trouble free, but “I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest.” And there God made the covenant promise to Jacob, which meant that He would not destroy him and his family, but would give them the promised land of Canaan, and would preserve them so that the Messiah could come. Jacob takes his eye off God’s promises.
To make matters worse, Jacob becomes very selfish and he begins to accuse the people around him. ME, he says, ME have YE bereaved of my children. This is your fault, he says to his sons. Yes it was, but Jacob had no way of knowing that. Instead of saying, “Oh, my children, all these things seem to be against us,” he resorts to self pity and introspection. Instead of seeing his own sin in the history of his family, and instead of seeing God’s hand in the events of his life, he blames others.
And you see, when we do not respond in faith to the troubles of life, this is exactly what we will do too. We will exaggerate our grief, we’ll start a pity-party for ourselves, we will not be able to see the needs of others, we will not see our own sins, and we will start hurling accusations at others. Jacob’s response, though we can understand it, is sinful and unbelieving. This is how not to respond to the troubles of life. Whenever we complain about our life, no matter how difficult it may be, we are complaining against God and His providence. We are not trusting His love and promises.
The proper response should be the response of Job, when God afflicted him: “The Lord has the right to do this to me, and blessed be the name of the Lord.” Rather than opening our mouths to complain about how difficult our troubles are, we should respond like the psalmist in Psalm 39:9: “I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.” The psalmist is talking of a severe blow in his life. He speaks of how his heart burned within him and his soul stirred him up to speak. But he refrained, he held his tongue, lest he should defame the name of his God. Instead, he quietly prayed, “Lord, make me to know my end, to know how frail I am, so that, Lord, I trust in thee.” That should be our response.
In the beginning of chapter 43, we have another response of Jacob to providence. It is not the same response, but it is another sinful response.
At the end of chapter 42, Jacob says to Reuben concerning Benjamin, “My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he is left alone.” But, in chapter 43, circumstances have changed. Now they are out of food again, and so Jacob tells his sons to go back to Egypt for more food. Apparently, for a good while, as long as their food lasted, they had been silent about the demands of the ruler of Egypt. But now Judah speaks and says to his Father, “If you don’t send Benjamin with us, we will not go down to get food. You must send him, or we and our little ones will die of hunger.”
Now, let us pause and see God’s hand of providence in this. Jacob had perhaps thought that the famine would be soon over and they would not need to go back to Egypt for food. But God had different plans. The famine would last seven years, and so the circumstances would force Jacob to do something he did not want to do. God would make him face the inevitable question of Benjamin going to Egypt.
Sometimes God will do that with us too. Sometimes circumstances will make our lives very difficult, and other times they will force us to make a decision that we might not want to make, or to do something that we might not want to do. That is what God is doing in His providence here in the life of Jacob.
How does Jacob respond? First, he tells his sons to take a gift of nuts and spices to the ruler. Second, he says, take your brother. And third, he says this, “And God Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he may send away your other brother, and Benjamin.”
So far so good. But then this, “If I be bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.”
What’s that? It’s fatalism. Jacob admits that God has hand in his life. He admits that he cannot change the purposes and the ways of God. He admits that he needs mercy from God. But still he does not trust in God, but rather he simply resigns himself to what he sees as the inevitable. Things happen in your life that are bad, and you just cannot do anything about it, so bite your lip and go on.
Here we might again be inclined to excuse Jacob’s response, maybe even to praise him a little for it. At least now he’s not resisting God’s way, and he is not vocalizing a complaint against God. But still, this is another sinful and unbelieving response to the sovereign providence of God.
How so? Well, this is equivalent to saying that the God who loves me is powerless to help me. It is a denial of the sovereign control of God in the circumstances of my life. It is saying, God cannot change the course of this world, He does not control evil in this world. The best He can do is help me to bear it. It denies the loving purpose of God in the things that happen to us in this life.
And again, this is how not to respond to the troubles of life. We may not complain against God, but we also must not simply resign ourselves to the inevitable. Instead, we must see that God loves us and that in faithfulness to us He afflicts us. In Psalm 119:75, David says exactly that, “Thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.” Job says, “though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” That is not blind resignation, but Job realizing and confessing that if God brings death to him, God does that in love, and so he will trust Him.
Now I want to conclude with the positive truth that we should take from this passage. We should not just see a negative rebuke here of Jacob’s sinful responses, but rather we should see how things really were for Jacob. We should look at Jacob’s life from God’s perspective.
But before I finish with that, I want to say this. The things that I am going to say about the providence of God are not generally true for all people. In His love, God works all things together for good to those who love Him, but He does not work everything out for good for everyone. If you are unbeliever, I do not want you to take comfort from this message. If you are an unbeliever, I want to tell you that the only way to know this comfort is to repent of your sins and believe in Jesus Christ. All things are for our good only when we love God and when we are those whom He has purposed to save. The book of Proverbs tells us that the curse of the Lord is on the house of the wicked. If you are living a life of sin and unbelief, then everything will be against you. Everything is against the reprobate and leads to their eternal destruction. The Bible says that those who are without God in this world are without hope. But if you are an unbeliever you must not take a fatalistic attitude toward this. You must not say, well, it is what it is, I am on the road to hell. No, you must repent and turn to the Lord in love and faith, so that you can have this confidence that all things are for your good. May God graciously work that in your heart.
Well, let us finish with the positive truth here. It seemed to Jacob that everything was against him, but in fact, at this point in his life, everything was for him. Jacob’s response was not true. The truth is, in Romans 8:28, that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose. The truth is that, if God be for us, who can be against us? The truth is that, if God loves us, nothing can destroy us.
Never in all of Jacob’s life was God’s providence for him so much as at this moment. Jacob is on the threshold of discovering that his son Joseph is alive, and that Joseph is in fact the one man in the earth with food. Jacob is on the verge of his family being saved, not only of food being provided for them, but of his wicked sons coming to repentance, and of there being a marvelous reconciliation in his family. This is the truth of the situation. This is what God is doing in all these things. It is not all against him, but for him. Jacob is wrong.
And, dear child of God, as you look at the black circumstances of your life, and it seems that everything is against you, remember this, it is not as it seems. Do not look at God through the eyes of your life, but look at your life through the eyes of God and His promises.
Because of His love, nothing can stand against us to destroy us. Because of His power, He is able to control all things in our lives to work for our good. Because Jesus, His Son, experienced on the cross that all things, including God, were against Him, we can be sure that nothing will ever be against us.
Does this mean life will be easy and free of troubles? NO! but it does teach us to keep our eyes fixed on heaven and on God.
Father, we give thanks for the confidence that we can have that nothing shall ever separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Lord, we believe, help Thou our unbelief. We do not always respond as we should to the troubles of life. We fail to see Thy love. We sometimes foolishly charge Thee with sin. Lord, forgive us, and give us faith and grace to persevere with joy. For Jesus’ sake we pray, Amen.