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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 40

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-23

Joseph In Prison

Gen 39:20

We now know enough of the history of Joseph, to see that he had not done anything worthy of imprisonment and pain. Let us keep steadily in mind the fact that there are false accusations in human life. There is a tendency to believe charges against men, without patiently and carefully going into particulars, without making such moral inquest into them as ought alone to justify our belief in any charge that may be made against a human creature. We are prone to say, when an accusation is lodged against a man, "After all there must be something in it" We reason that it is impossible to get up a charge against a man Without that charge having, at least, some foundation. We think it charitable to add, "That probably it is not quite so bad as it looks; yet, after all, there must be something in it." Here is a case in which that doctrine does not hold true at all. There is nothing in this but infamy. May it not be so amongst ourselves, today? Has human nature changed? Are there not, today, tongues that lie, hearts that are inspired by spite? We are in danger, I think, of being very pathetic indeed over historical characters, and forgetting the claims of modern instances. There are people who will be exceedingly vehement in their pity for Joseph, who can say spiteful or unkind words about their neighbour who is labouring under an accusation quite as groundless and quite as malicious as that which ended in the imprisonment of Joseph. There are men who will preach eloquent sermons about the fall of the Apostle Peter, who will yet, in the most unchristian spirit, expel and anathematise brethren who have been overtaken in a fault. And the worst of it is, they are apt to think that they show their own righteousness by being very vehement against the shortcomings of other people.

Now, history is wasted upon us if we do but shed tears for the ill-used men of far-gone centuries. See how easy it is to do mischief! You insinuated against a certain man that there was something wrong in his case. You never can withdraw your insinuation. You lie against your fellow-creature, and then apologise. You cannot apologise for a lie! Your lie will go where your apology can never follow it. And men who heard both the lie and the apology will, with a cowardice that is unpardonable, say, when occasion seems to warrant their doing so, that "they have heard that there was something or other about him, but they cannot tell exactly what it was." So mischief goes on from year to year, and a lie is, in the meantime, more powerful than the truth. It is always easier to do mischief than to do good. Let us, then, be careful about human reputation. The character is the man. It is better to believe all things, hope all things, endure all things, in the spirit of Christ's blessed charity, than to be very eager to point out even faults that do exist. There are men today who are suffering from accusations as false as the lie of Potiphar's wife. There are other men who have been sinned against by false accusations who have received withdrawments and apologies. But such, alas! is the state of so-called Christian charity, that, though we have a memory for the indictment, we have no recollection for what ought to have been a triumphant, all-inclusive, and all-delivering vindication. Terrible is the state of that man who has a good memory for insinuations, charges, innuendoes, and bad suggestions, but no recollection for things that are beautiful, and healing, and redeeming, and helpful. That man's destiny is to wither away.

"But the Lord was with Joseph, and showed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison" ( Gen 39:21 )

What a poor compensation! The man's character is taken away, and the Lord gives him favour in the sight of a jailer! There are honours in life which are aggravations. My name is blasted, my home is broken up, my whole life is withered right away down into the roots, and on either side there is a turnkey somewhere who says he has great confidence in me! Why not have vindicated the man before Potiphar? Why not have withered up the accuser who took away his dear fair name? That would have been compensation. If, when the woman's mouth had opened to tell the lie, God had locked her wicked jaw, that would have been vindication. Instead of that, Joseph has the wonderfully good luck of being thought well of by a jailer This is the danger of our criticism. We mistake the process for the result. We rush at the semicolon as if it were a full stop. We judge God by the fraction, not by the integer. I am prepared to grant that if the whole scene had ended here if this had really been the culminating point, the completion of the sad romance the favour which Joseph received of his jailer would have been a mockery, and he might have thrown such favour back in the face of God, as a poor compensation for the injury which had gone like iron into his soul, for suffering which had destroyed his sleep, and turned his days into wintry nights.

The difficulty of the critic is to be patient. He is so anxious to make a point that he often ruins himself by his own sagacity. He jumps in upon the way of God with such impetuosity that he has to spend the remainder of his days in apologising for his rudeness, his want of patient saintly dignity in waiting until God himself said, "It is finished." Still, the point of the favour accorded to Joseph by the jailer ought not to be forgotten in making up our view of life, for this reason: We shall redeem ourselves from much suffering, help ourselves towards a nobler, stronger, manlier endurance, by looking at the one bright point which remains in our life. Is there any life that has in it no speck of light? any day that has not in it one blue spot? What is the moral use and purpose of a glint of light and speck of blue? It is a reminder that there is still light; that the blue morning may come back again; and that God hath not though the day be dark and cloudy and the wind be bitterly cold forgotten to be gracious. Our honours may chafe us. We may reason from them that having so much, we ought to have more. What we require, when such impatience has reached us, is a devout, urgent desire that God will tame our impetuosity, and teach us the sweet mystery and the mighty power of childlike waiting.

"And it came to pass after these things, that the butler of the king of Egypt and his baker had offended their lord the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was wroth against two of his officers, against the chief of the butlers, and against the chief of the bakers. And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound" ( Gen 40:1-3 ).

No man liveth unto himself. There is a little upset in the king's house, and, somehow or other, that will be linked with all these events that are happening a little way off. You run against a man in the dark; he remonstrates with you in a vexed tone, and, in that vexed tone, you hear the voice of your own long-lost brother. You go over the street without knowing what you have gone for, and you meet the destiny of your life. A child tells you its little dream, and that dream awakens a blessed memory which throws light upon some dark and frowning place in your life. Some people do not believe in dramas, not knowing that all life is an involved, ever-moving, ever-evolving drama. Life is a composition of forces. The chief butler gives Pharaoh the cup with a fly in it, and the chief baker spoils his baking. These things are to be added to some other things, and out of this combination there is to arise one of the most pathetic and beautiful incidents to be found in all the treasure-house of history. We do not know what is transpiring around us, and how we are to be linked on to collateral processes. There is a main line in our life; there are also little branch lines. You jostle against a man, and get into conversation with him, and learn from him what you would have given gold for, had you known where it was to be found. Everything in life has a meaning. Mistakes have their meanings. Misunderstandings will often lead to the highest harmonies. No man can do without his fellow-men. It is a very sad thing, indeed, that we have to be obliged, in any sense, to a butler or a baker. But we cannot help it. It is no good attempting to shake out of the sack the elements we do not like. We cannot colonise ourselves in some fairy-land, where we can have everything according to our pick and choice. The labourer in the streets, the child in the gutter, the poor suffering wretch in the garret, all these, as well as kings and priests, have to do with the grand up-making and mysterious total of the thing we call human life. God is always coming down to us through unlikely paths, meeting us unexpectedly, causing bushes to flame and become temples of his presence. We go out for our father's asses; we may return crowned men. There are some people who do not like religion because it is so mysterious, not knowing that their own life is a constantly progressing mystery. Whenever they would deliver themselves from the presence of mystery, they must deliver themselves from their very existence.

"And they dreamed a dream both of them, each man his dream in one night, each man according to the interpretation of his dream, the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, which were bound in the prison" ( Gen 40:5 ).

The chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and Joseph said unto him, This is the interpretation of it. There are dreamers and there are dream interpreters. There are men who live by their ideas. Men who seem to be able to do nothing, and yet society could not get on without them. You see fifty men building a great house, and there is a man standing amongst them with his hands idle, and a black coat on. You say the fifty men are building the house, and a lazy man is standing there with his hands in his pockets, and your notion of political economy is that such men ought to be put down. Put them down, and you will have no more building. The man that is standing there, apparently doing nothing, is the inspiration of the whole thing. Men in the world poor, poor men who have nothing but ideas! If they were to sell bricks, they would eventually retire to detached villas and tennis lawns. But, if they have nothing but ideas, they retire into the workhouse. A man builds a bridge, and he is a great man; another man puts up a cathedral, and he, too, is a great man. I will not take away one iota from the just fame and honour of such men. We cannot do without them. We should be poor, if we had not such men amongst us. They are the glory of civilisation. But is it nothing to give a man an idea that shall change his life? to tame the tiger-heart and make it gentle as a lamb's? to put into man thoughts, and stir in him impulses, that shall heal him in his sorrows, chasten him in his joys, interpret to him the darkest problems of his life, and hold a light over his way when he passes into the wonderful dark Unknown?

The preacher does not build stone cathedrals. But does he not build temples not made with hands? He cannot say, "See in these mighty stoneworks what I have done"! But he may be able, through God's mighty grace, to say, "Look at that man: once he was the terror of his neighbourhood, the torment of his family, and now he is a strong, pure, kind man." Is that nothing? Stoneworks will crumble; time will eat up the pyramids. But this man, this soul, shall be a glorious unfading light when the world, and all the wondrous works upon it, shall be burned up. Be cheered, then, preacher of the gospel, teacher of the young, obscure one who can only work in the family, giving direction to young thought and young feeling, dropping into the opening heart seeds of Divine truth! Thou art doing a work which, though it cannot be valued by any human figures or by any arithmetic, is prized, and shall be rewarded, by God, who is not unrighteous to forget your work of faith and your labour of love.

Life is a dream, a riddle, a mystery, a difficult problem. But there is one Interpreter. What is his name? Where can he be found? His name is Jesus Christ, and he can be found wherever there is a heart that wants him. You have a dream you cannot call it by any other name about sin. You know there is something wrong somewhere. You cannot explain it; you cannot set it down in order, proposition after proposition. It is as unsubstantial as a dream and impalpable as a vision. Yet it haunts you, and you want to know more about it. Christ is the Interpreter, and he alone can explain what sin is: show it in its reality, and give the soul to feel how terrible a thing it is. You have dreams about truth. Sometimes you see an image that you think is the very angel of truth herself. Sometimes that angel comes quite near you, and you are almost on the point of laying your hand on the glittering vision. You cannot quite do so. It leaves you, escapes you, mocks you! Jesus Christ is the Interpreter of that dream. He knows truth, he reveals truth, he sanctifies man by truth, he enriches the human mind with truth, and he alone has the truth. Why? Because he is the truth. It is one thing to have a truth. It is then a possession, something to be pointed out and described. It is another thing to be the truth. Christ himself had not the truth in our poor sense of the term, for he was the truth. He did not so much preach the gospel as be the gospel. You are conscious of glimmerings of objects: dreamings about better states of things. You have a moral nature that now and again gives you hints about right and wrong, and truth and falsehood. You have an imagination that will go out beyond the present and the visible. Are you content to be tormented and mocked by these dreamings, half visions, spectral revelations, and tempting fancies? Why not take them all up to the Son of God, and say, "We have dreamed this! We cannot make anything of its harmonies, anything truly beautiful. Yet we think it ought to be made into something beautiful, because look what glittering pieces there are here what wondrous shapes, what marvellous adaptations we think there are to be found amongst these pieces." If you go up to him so, he, more readily than ever Joseph or Daniel did, will show you the interpretation of the dream, and will bless you with revelations of what is in yourself, as well as what is in God.

You cannot get on without the interpreter of dreams, without the man of thought, without the inspired teacher, without the profound interpreter of God. I know very well that when you get among your day books and dust of various kinds, you are apt to think you can do without ideas, imaginings, and dreams, and mere thinking. But there are times in your life when you begin to feel that without thought, idea, impulse, emotion, life would be but a mockery, and death itself would be the welcomest guest that ever crossed your threshold. Ho! every one that desires to know the highest thought, and the highest feeling in the universe, this can be found only in the book of God and in communion with the Holy Ghost.

"But think on me when it shall be well with thee, and shew kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house" ( Gen 40:14 ).

The first touch of humanity we have seen in Joseph: human nature is in this little plea. He would have been far too great a man, if I had not seen this little trace of human nature coming out after all. I have wondered, as I have read along here, that he did not protest and resent, and vindicate himself, and otherwise come out as an injured man. He has been almost superhuman up to this point. Now the poor lad says, "The chain is very heavy, this yoke makes me chafe. I cannot bear this any longer." And he tells the butler, who has good luck before him, that he would like to be taken out of the dungeon. There are times when we want to find a god even in the butler; times when our theism is too great for us, and we want to get hold of a man, when our religion seems to us to be too aƫrial, afar off, and we would be glad to take hold of any staff that anybody could put into our poor trembling hands. This is natural, and I am not about to denounce Joseph, nor to reproach him, as though he had done some unnatural and unreasonable thing. I am glad of this revelation of his nature; it brings me near to him. Though God will not substitute himself by a butler, but will give Joseph two more years' imprisonment, yet God will make it up to him somehow. He shall not want consolation. It was very human to seek to make a half-god of the butler to get out of that galling bondage. We shall see, in the course of our reading, whether God be not mightier than all creatures, and whether he cannot open a way to kingdoms and royalties, when we ourselves are striving only for some little, insignificant, and unworthy blessing.

After this the baker told his dream. He was a long-headed man. He waited to hear how the case would go with the butler, and when he heard all that the butler could know about his vision, he went and told his dream, and Joseph told him, "Within three days thou shalt be hanged." The interpreter of dreams must not always tell good news. The interpreter must not tell people's fortunes according to his own ideas. He must do as Joseph did. He must say, "Interpretations are with God. I am but the medium on which the Infinite Silence breaks into language. It is not in me to tell the meaning of the mystery. It is in God, and with God alone." This is a lesson for preachers of the gospel. It would be a joyous thing to say to every man, "You are right; you are on the road to glory; nothing can stand between you and heaven." That would be a very gracious thing to say. But if I fail to warn the ungodly man, to tell him that God is angry with the wicked every day, and yet that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, that the Son of God has died for the sins of the world, that there is no man too vile to be received and to be redeemed by the Great Sacrifice, then shall I fail in my mission, and my word of joy for a moment shall be a mockery and a cruel thing, and your pale and reproachful countenance, on the last day turned upon me, would be an everlasting punishment. No, we must be faithful. There are interpretations that are favourable and helpful; there are interpretations that mean ruin, punishment, death.

May God make his servants faithful, that they may speak the cheering, the life-cheering word; and that they may speak the terrible word with self-restraint and with heart-breaking pathos, that men may begin to feel that there is something in the message that ought to make the heart quake, and turn their minds to devout consideration. To every man's dream, and thinking and scheming about life there is an answer in One alone, and that One is Jesus Christ, son of Mary, Son of God, God the Son, Emmanuel, God with us! He never refuses to have long, long talk, either by night or day, with the man who goes to him tremblingly, devoutly, penitently. Try if this be not so.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 40". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/genesis-40.html. 1885-95.
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