Dark Days - Joseph in Prison
B. E. Avery, Cheltenham
There can be times in a believer's experience, when circumstances seem to combine to bring about disappointment, frustration, distress and maybe real hardship. Days seem dark, and it is at such times that our faith in God is tested, often severely. Perhaps we begin to worry and become restless, even hearing, as it were, the voice of the Lord crying to us "Where is your faith?", and we have to admit that we wonder really where it is, or at least, how much we are in the good of it.
A consideration of Joseph's experiences, culminating in Genesis 40, may serve to encourage us at times, or enable us to comfort others. Joseph, at twenty-eight years of age, over ten years having passed since he left the shelter of his home, and the loving fellowship with his father, is found in such a condition that he must have wondered why God had allowed such things to come to pass. We, with the help of Scripture, are able to consider this scene and see things very much as God must have viewed them at the time. How different the divine judgment of Joseph's circumstances, circumstances against which he might well have been tempted to rebel! Why was he here, apparently forgotten, his service so restricted and his freedom so drastically curtailed?
There were, however, in the light of future events, no less than five answers to such an obvious question. If Joseph had fully realized any one of them he would doubtless have acquiesced willingly with God's will in this matter. Let us consider them.
1. God had Joseph in mind concerning his training. God was to put Joseph in a place of great authority, in a position where he could so easily have been turned aside from simple dependence upon God, to boast in that position and to take advantage of his wicked brethren. His earlier experience was to fit him and provide proof that here was one whom God could trust and who would not, like so many others (Gideon and king Saul being typical examples) fail in days of prosperity,, position and power. What a wonderful training ground this was, as we shall see.
2. God had Joseph's wicked brethren in mind concerning their transformation ~ not for judgment, but for blessing! How could God bless such - by "looking over" their past sins? Only by bringing them to a sense of shame, of need and of repentance. How remarkably this was achieved in later days. So God had not forgotten the needs of Jacob's family either.
3. God had the whole populace in Egypt and the countries around in mind as to the threat of famine. Little did Joseph know the part he was to play in providing for those who would otherwise, without divine leading and revelation, have wasted away and even starved to death. A greater thought:
4. God, in His foreknowledge, had Christ in mind as to type. Joseph, without realizing this either, was of course a remarkable type of Christ. In more than twenty instances a direct comparison can be drawn between the lives of both, and there can surely be little doubt that the ways of Joseph oft refreshed the heart of God as He saw in them at that time a shadow of those which were fully to satisfy His heart in the earthly sojourn of His Beloved Son. Finally,
5. God had us in mind as to our teaching. These events would never have been recorded in the Bible, were they not of value to those who find time to study them today. How would Joseph have felt, had he known all this? What an honour, what a privilege to serve God and to be preparing to save, not only himself, but his family and the nations around; also to be a type of Christ, and a lesson to the saints down through the ages! We must remember that Joseph was entirely ignorant of these things, as we watch and admire the life of one who lived in the good of the fact that "the Lord was with him", Gen. 39. 2, 21. How beautifully this comes out in verse 9. What to Potiphar's wife and to many a worldly young man would have been “the pleasure of sin for a season” was to Joseph, “great wickedness, and sin against God”! How a consciousness of the Lord's presence alters that which would so naturally emanate from the flesh! In chapters 39 and 40, again and again we see the restraining and refining influence of the Lord shining through in Joseph's actions and attitudes. Now to consider chapter 40.
Joseph here is brought into contact with two men. They had been in similar circumstances in favour with the king, and now shared the consequences of his wrath! Joseph was entrusted with their welfare. He was a man who could be trusted. How much such men have been needed through the years! Firstly he was trusted by his father to see after his brethren. How easily, because of the fear of his jealous, scheming brothers, could he have turned back at Shechem, 37. 14-17, but he went on. "The fear of man bringeth a snare". Fear did not dissuade him from carrying out his father's will. Secondly, he was trusted by Potiphar. Lust and intrigue did not cause him to betray that trust. Here, he is trusted by the captain of the guard, and depression or self-pity did not hinder him in God's service even in the prison. In chapter 41, Pharaoh was to put his "trust" in Joseph, and he was not to be deflected by prosperity either! (cf. Deut. 6. 10,12, "when . . . then"). Adversity had been Joseph's portion in great measure, and what he learned then was to stand him in good stead when his circumstances so suddenly and dramatically changed.
In Genesis 40. 5, we read of the two prisoners' dreams, and in the following verse discover that they had been sufficiently vivid to affect their countenances in the morning! Joseph, on seeing them, immediately takes an interest; he who could so easily have been introspective and sad himself is quick to note and enquire after the cause of their dejected manner. Verse 8 is full of instruction. Consider how Joseph might well have reacted, for this was not the first occasion he had been connected with dreams, 37. 5, 9. He could have told them that he had "believed" in dreams once, but not any more! Or, he could have gone to the other extreme, and let the anxious men be regaled with details of his wonderful ability as a dream interpreter. How like the natural man this would have been! But no, he gives glory to God so simply, and yet so readily, and waits for them to speak.
Unknown to him, in two years time he was to interpret yet two more dreams. His first experience of such had not,, naturally, given him any encouragement. But Joseph was still in the good of God's presence, and that is what made, and still does make, all the difference in our circumstances. This, the second pair of dreams, had to do with only two men, affecting themselves only, at least initially. The next, and final pair of dreams in Joseph's recorded experience, would affect virtually everybody, and again be a matter of life or death. What will Joseph have to say on this final occasion? "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much", Luke 16. 10. Will he now fall victim to natural pride? No, rather does he humble himself even more than in the prison: "It is not in me", he says, "God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace". Gen. 41. 16.
How lovely! But to return to chapter 40, if the reader will pardon a personal reminiscence. As a small and not so small child, I had always felt so sorry for the baker and his fate. Compared with that which befell the butler, it hardly seemed fair. But in maturity we must consider the facts. Verse 9 recounts that the butler spoke first. Were it not for verse 16. we might be forgiven for thinking that he just happened to be the first to speak. But was this so? No, the butler spoke first because he was the most enthusiastic! Why should he be? Verse 16 suggests that if the interpretation of this dream had been an unpleasant one, the baker would not have bothered to recount his dream to Joseph at all! Surely this would point to the fact that the butler recounted his dream because he believed in God (remember verse 8). Why should he, a heathen Egyptian, manifest faith in these circumstances? Might it not have been in the light of Joseph's testimony, and as a result of his attitude there in the prison? What a lesson for us. Does our testimony encourage others to believe God, and listen to His Word? Do we firstly "shine as lights in the world", and secondly (the order is important) "holding forth the word of life"?, Phil. 2. 15, 16. The Lord was the perfect Example of this, "do . . . and teach", Acts 1. 1; not the other way round -such a danger with us, causing our testimony to be marred or even rendered ineffective.
A word concerning the dreams. They contained some striking similarities, but there was one great difference, reflecting the great difference in the two dreamers. The butler took what God had provided to present to Pharaoh; the baker took what he had made, yet what was spoilt by the birds (the full extent not being noticed by him). What a contrast! What a picture of the saint and the sinner, and the fundamental difference between them! How white the baskets, how well-prepared the fare! What head knowledge! yet spoilt by that which speaks of evil.
To return to Joseph. How unhesitatingly he interprets the butler's dream. But more, he is quite certain of the outcome; see Gen. 40. 14. Yet in the midst of such a marvellous display of faith and dependence upon God there is a turning aside, and in verse 14 we see him put his trust in man. What an illustration of 1 Corinthians 10. 12, but a lesson not completely learned for in Genesis 48. 18 a lack of faith is discernible again. But who are we to judge? Yet this very fact mentioned here reminds us that Joseph was human. It is so easy to feel that these great men of God were somehow different from us, but were they, and were the weak and feeble disciples so unlike us also? What a glimpse of the feelings of one with whom we can indeed sympathize and understand. But of course, man lets Joseph down, 40. 23. How Joseph might well have thought of this, after the first day, week and month had come round subsequently. The first anniversary may well have found Joseph wondering if the butler would think of him. But Joseph had to learn that "it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man", Ps. 118. 8. Now that of the butler was not the only dream which Joseph interpreted. How different the baker's; he might well have shrunk from the task. But as we see his faith in verse 14, so we see his faithfulness in verse 19. Are toe ready to warn men of the dreadful fate that awaits them if they do not turn from their wilful or self-righteous ways and take the great salvation which God offers them in Christ? Joseph could hold out no hope for the baker, yet he was faithful; may we be too.
We must conclude by looking a little way into chapter 41. Joseph is brought out at last, God had not forgotten him. He shaves himself, and changes his raiment. Five times we read of Joseph's garments. He loses each of the first four in remarkable circumstances, and in a great hurry, 37. 23; 39. 12; 41. 14,42 (a study in itself). Pharaoh now recognizes the power of the Spirit of God in Joseph. How humbly Joseph makes his plea in verse 33. But Pharaoh has no difficulty in finding the man "discreet and wise" and Joseph, after all his trials, is now exalted, to become the succourer and saviour of his people. The story is by no means over, but the man whose history is so dramatically concerned with such diverse things as dreams, garments, tears and cups, has, as we have already mentioned, many lessons to teach us as we read of that which befell him, and what he proved of God in Genesis 40. May God graciously help us to be found serving the Lord, even in dark days!