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Joseph was about seventeen years of age when he went out, at his father's request, to make inquiry concerning the well-being of his brethren. We find from the text that he was now thirty years old. Think of thirteen years being required for the fulfilment of a dream! The Lord counteth not time as men count it. He sitteth upon the circle of eternity. He seems to be always at leisure: though doing everything, to be doing nothing. A thousand years in his sight are but as yesterday, and all time is but as a watch in the night. But what about the effect of this long suspense upon the mind of the dreamer himself? It is hardly any comfort to us to know that God can afford to wait centuries and millenniums for the fulfilment of his purposes. There is another, there is a weaker side to this great question of the dreamer. Here is a young man exiled from his lather's presence and the comforts of his home; labouring under the vilest imputations and the gravest suspicions; wasting, as it appears to us, thirteen prime years of his life. What about this waiting on the part of God, so far as Joseph is concerned? See, for example, how likely it was to discourage his faith in things spiritual. The youth had a dream, a vision, granted him as he believed of God; and yet through thirteen years his dream takes no shape, his vision is but a spectre of the memory not a grand ruling fact of the life. Mark how his faith comes down accordingly. He reasons thus with himself: "Up to this time I have had faith in the God of my fathers. I have believed that dream and vision, strange token and wonderful signal, all meant something in the Divine providence and government of the world. I thought my own dream had a great meaning in it: but I waited twelve months and nothing came of the dream; and twelve months more, and my vision was as nothing; and another year, and I have suffered nothing but ill-treatment, and all this ill-treatment has come to me through this very dream of mine. Verily, it was but a vexatious nightmare; or, if a vision of God, it was sent to mock my ambition and to destroy my peace."
If the young man had run off into some such soliloquy as that, he would be a very mighty man who could justly rebuke him for taking that view of the affairs which constituted so large a portion of his life. It is so with ourselves, my brethren. There are many things which conspire to destroy our faith in the invisible, the spiritual, the eternal. There are daily occurrences which teach us that there is something higher than matter; yet there are things occurring around us which are perpetually rebuking our trust in the distant, the intangible, the spiritual, the Divine. And who are we, that we should speak to men who for thirteen years have been groaning under heavy burdens, and chide them, as if all the while they ought to have been musical, bright with Divine hope and beauty, and not sad and heavy-hearted, mournful and pathetic in tone? We should look at such things seriously, with consideration. It is a terrible thing for some men to believe in God! It takes the whole stress of their nature, and all the help which can come of their personal history and their family traditions, to bind them to the belief that, after all, though God is taking a long time to fulfil their dream, yet he is working it out, and in his own good hour he will show that not a moment has been lost, that all the dozen years or mote have been shaped into a peculiar and bright benediction.
Then look at the inferential rectitude of his brethren. Joseph might have turned in upon himself in some such way as this: "Though my brethren dealt very harshly with me, yet they had keener and truer insight into this business than I had. They saw that I was the victim of a piece of foolish fanaticism. I thought I was interpreting to them a dream of Heaven, a vision of God. When I told my dream they mocked me; they visited me with what appeared to be evil treatment. But now that I have had thirteen years of disappointment, vexatious delay, and all the consequent embitterment of spirit, my brethren were right after all. They might not have taken, perhaps, the very best method of showing that they were right; yet now I forgive them, because they were right on the main issue, and they were called of God to chide my fanaticism, my imbecility and folly." Well, there is a good deal of sound sense in that monologue. It does appear as if the brethren were right and Joseph was wrong. The brethren can turn to thirteen years' confirmation of their view of Joseph's dream. They could say: "Where are his dreams now? He had a vision of greatness. All the sheaves in the field were to bow down to his sheaf, and all the stars were to make obeisance to him as the central sun. Where are his dreams now?" It is even so with ourselves. There are views of life which I get that impress upon me this conclusion: Bad men are right after all. There are what are called "facts," which go dead against the good man's faith and the holy man's prayer. There are men today who can tell you that they have prayed and struggled and fought and endured, and for twelve years nothing has come of their holy patient waiting upon God, nothing that is worthy of being set against the stress under which they have suffered, the discipline that has pained them, the misunderstandings which have troubled and tormented their lives. There have, indeed, been little flecks of light upon their daily course; there have been little compliments and social courtesies; but, putting all these things together, they are not worthy to be named in comparison with the poignant anguish that their souls have endured. Yet will not history be to us a tone without language, a messenger without a message, a wasted thing, if we do not learn from this incident that if we have waited twelve years, yet, in the thirteenth, God may open the windows of heaven and pour out upon us a blessing that there shall not be room to contain? It is not easy to wait. It does not suit our incomplete nature to tarry so long. But we fall back upon history, which is God interpreted, and we find in that an assurance that when the heart is right, the outward circumstances shall be shaped and directed to our highest advantage.
Some men's dreams do take a long time to fulfil. The butler and the baker's dreams were fulfilled in three days. But what was there in their dreams? Everything depends upon the vision we have had of God. If we have had a butler's dream we shall have a butler's answer. If we have had such a dream as a great nature only can dream, then God must have time to work out his purposes. Joseph is not the only man who has suffered for his dreams. God oftentimes punishes us by making dreamers of us. Some men would be thankful today if they could close nine-tenths of their sensibility, if they could become leathern or wooden, to a large extent. This power of feeling of feeling everything to be Divine, and to have a Divine meaning in it: this power of seeing beyond the visible right into the unseen: this power of dreaming and forecasting the future brings with it severe pains and terrible penalties. Here is a man who dreams of the amelioration of his race. He will write a book, he will found an institution, he will start certain courses of thinking, he will seek to reverse the thought of his contemporaries and turn it all into a directly opposite channel. He sees the result of all this. He tells his dream, and men laugh at him. They say, "It is just like him, you know. He is a very good sort of man, but there is a great deal of fanaticism in him. He has always got some new scheme, and some very beautiful vision floating before him." And men who never dreamed except it was that their wretched little house was being broken into feel called upon to snub him with their contempt, and to avoid him as a man who is too good or too clever for this poor common world. What are we to make of history, if we do not get out of it this lesson? that there are dreams which God gives, and there are dreams which take a long time to fulfil. We do not make history we interpret it. God causes the facts to transpire, and he says to us, "Be wise, be understanding: draw the right inferences from these circumstances." But was it worth waiting thirteen years for? A good deal will depend upon the answer we give to that inquiry. Is there nothing worth waiting thirteen years for? Some men require twenty-five years' hard, good schooling before they are quite as they ought to be. Other men may require only two days, and they are as sharp and clear as any scholar need be. Others require thirteen years on the treadmill, thirteen years' discipline and scourging, thirteen years' weaning from old affections and old associations. Observe, God was now training a spoiled child, and spoiled children cannot be drilled and put right in two hours. Some of us have been spoiled in various ways. Some with excess of goodness, and some with excess of harshness, it may be, yet spoiled. Our nature has got a twist, or we have got ideas which require to be taken out of us; and only chastisement, suspicion, imprisonment, scourging, loss, hunger, affliction, and the very gate of death itself, can bring us to that measure of solidity and tenderness and refinement which God wants, in order to start us on the highest course of our manly service Was it worth waiting thirteen years for? Yes. All countries, according to the Biblical statement, came to Joseph for food, and all countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy corn, because that the famine was sore in all lands. He was the feeder of the nations, the father, the preserver, the benefactor of innumerable multitudes! It seems to us to be an easy thing to step into that position. But we do not see the whole case; we do not see the temptations which beset it, the difficulties which combine to form that position; we do not know all the collateral bearings and issues. Let God be judge. He took thirteen years to make this man; and this man was the benefactor, and, under God, the saviour of nations. Why should not we endeavour to learn that lesson? We should like now to be second to Pharaoh. Some of us have the notion that we are tolerably ready, today, to receive all the homage which people can give us. That is our mistake. If we wait thirteen years, we shall be better; we shall be stronger and wiser, than we are now. The years are not wasted to souls that make a right use of them. Every year that goes by should lift a man up, give him enlargement of capacity, and tenderer sympathy, and sensitiveness of feeling. So Joseph waited thirteen years. But after he had waited, he went before Pharaoh, and was as Pharaoh to the people of Egypt.
"Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another? " ( Gen 42:1 ).
The old man was perfectly innocent: he had no evil tormenting associations with the word Egypt. If his sons had heard there was corn many a mile farther off than Egypt, surely these stalwart, active, energetic men would have been off before the old man chided them by this speech of his about waiting and looking upon one another. But, corn in Egypt! Some words are histories. Some words are sharper than drawn swords. Egypt was a keen double-edged weapon that went right into the very hearts of the men whom Jacob sought to stimulate. Jacob saw only the outward attitude. The sons appeared to be at their wits' end. Jacob thought his children were inactive had no spring or energy in them; that they had faded away into ordinary people, instead of being the active, strong-limbed, energetic, and, as he thought, high-minded men of old. Men do not show all their life. Men have a secret existence, and their outward attitude is often but a deception. I have seen this same principle in operation in many stations of life. I have seen it in the Church. I have known men, whose interest in the sanctuary has begun to decline, who have been inattentive to the ministry, who have fallen off in their support of Christian institutions, and, when asked by the unsuspecting Jacobs, "Why is this?" they have said "that they do not care so much for the minister as they used to do. There is not food for the soul; they want another kind of thing; and, therefore, until some change has taken place, they must withhold support from this and from that." So the minister has had to suffer: to suffer from unkind words, from chilling looks, from attitudes which could not be reported or printed, but which were hard to bear. And the poor minister has endeavoured in his study to work harder, and to get up the kind of food which such souls souls! could digest. He has toiled away, and in six months it has turned out that the wretch who criticised him and made him a scapegoat, was preparing for bankruptcy, and was edging his way out of the Church, that he might do it with respectability and without suspicion. Such a case is not uncommon. It may vary in its outward aspects and the way of putting it. But there are men that seek to get out of duties, and out of positions, by all kinds of excuses, who dare not open their hearts and say, "The reason is in myself. I am a bad man. I have been caught in the devil's snare; I am the victim of his horrible temptation and cruelty." It is the same, I am afraid, with many of you young men in the family circle. You want to throw off restraint. You want to alter this arrangement and that in the family; and you speak of your health, your friends, or some change in your affections. You put altogether a false face and a bad gloss upon the affair, so that your unsuspecting father and mother may not know the reality, the reality being that your heart is wrong, or your soul has poisoned itself. You want to be away, to do something that is truly diabolic, and which you would not like those who gave you birth and who have nourished you through life to see. Believe this, that not until the moral is right can the social be frank, fearless, happy. When men's hearts are right they will not have anything to hide. They may have committed errors of judgment, but these have been venial, trifling. But where there is no deep villainy of the heart, men can bear to tell their whole life, and show how it is that they are fearful concerning this, or despondent concerning something else.
This law of association is constantly operating amongst men. A word will bring up the memories of a lifetime. You had only to say to ten great-boned men in the house of Jacob and say it in a whisper Egypt! and you would shake every man to the very centre and core of his being. If you could have met the oldest, strongest, sturdiest of them on a dark night, and said to him, Egypt! you would have struck him as with the lightning of God. Yes, it is a terrible thing to have done evil! It comes up again upon you from ten thousand points. It lays hold of you, and holds you in humiliating captivity, and defies you to be happy. That this may be so I think is tolerably clear from the twenty-first verse of the forty-second chapter. The men were before Joseph, after they had been cross-examined by him.
"And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore, is this distress come upon us" ( Gen 42:21 ).
Many years after the event! Their recollection of that event was as clear as if it had transpired but yesterday. Learn the moral impotence of time. We say this evil deed was done fifty years ago. Fifty years may have some relation to the memory of the intellect, but it has no relation to the tormenting memory of the conscience. There is a moral memory. Conscience has a wondrously realising power, taking things we have written in secret ink and holding them before the fire until every line becomes vivid, almost burning. Perhaps some of you know not yet the practical meaning of this. We did something twenty years ago. We say to ourselves, "Well, seeing that it was twenty years ago, it is not worth making any to-do about it; it is past, and it is a great pity to go twenty years back, raking up things." So it is, in some respects, a great pity to bother ourselves about things other men did, twenty years ago. But what about our own recollection, our own conscience, our own power of accusation? A man says, "I forged that name twenty-five years ago, and oh! every piece of paper I get hold of seems to have the name upon it. I never dip the pen, but there is something in the pen that reminds me of what I did by candle light, in almost darkness, when I had locked the door and assured myself nobody was there. Yet it comes upon me so graphically, my punishment is greater than I can bear!" Time cannot heal our iniquities. Forgetfulness is not the cure for sin. Obliviousness is not the redeemer of the world. How, then, can I get rid of the torment and the evils of an accusing memory? The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin. "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." That is the kind of answer men want, when they feel all their yesterdays conspiring to urge an indictment against them as sinners before the living God. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Can I impress this upon myself and upon you? Time cannot redeem us. Ten thousand ages hence, a man's sin will confront him, scourge him, and defy him to enjoy one moment's true rest. Who then can destroy sin, break its power? Whose arms can get round it, lift it up, and cast it into the depths of the sea? This is a Divine work, God's work! It is not to be done by your ethical quacks and your dreamy speculators. It is to be done only by the mighty redeeming power of God the Son, Jesus Christ! This is the gospel I have to preach to men. Fifty years will make no difference in your crimes. Conscience makes us live continually in the present; and only the blood of Jesus Christ can wash out the stains of evil deed and unholy memory.
"And Reuben answered them, saying, Spake I not unto you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and ye would not hear? therefore, behold, also his blood is required" ( Gen 42:22 ).
Showing how bad men reproach one another, how little unity there is in wickedness, what a very temporary thing is the supposed unanimity of bad men, how bad men will one day turn upon one another, and say "It was you!" Ha! such is the unanimity of wicked conspirators! "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not"; they will turn against thee some day. Though your swords be pointed against one man at the present hour, and you may be unanimous in some wicked deed, God's great wheel is going round and round, and the hour cometh when the men who urged thee to do the evil deed, and share with them their unholy counsels, will seek thy heart, will accuse thee, will charge thee with participation in their nefarious, hellish designs and work. The way of transgressors is hard! Smooth for a mile or two, and then hard, thorny ravenous beasts there, serpents lurking here. It is very difficult to get back when you once start upon that way. I have known young men who have said, "We want to go just a mile or two down this road, and when we find it becomes rather intricate, we intend to turn right round; and then, after all, you will see that we have only been sowing a few wild oats, and just doing a few odd things, and by-and-by we shall settle down into solid men." I am not so sure about it. If a man goes into the evil way, and the great Enemy of souls goes after him, he will blot out his footprints. So when the man says, "I will now go back again; I can put my feet where I put them before," he looks for his footprints, but they have gone, and he cannot tell which is east, west, north, south! Footprints gone; landmarks altered; the whole metamorphosed, and to him downward is upward. None so blind as he, the eyes of whose soul have been put out!
All this, too, was in the hearing of Joseph. Joseph heard them say that he was their brother. They used to call him "dreamer." He heard them say "the child," tenderly. Once they mocked him. He heard them speak in subdued, gentle tones. He remembers the time when their harsh grating voices sent a terror through his flesh and blood, and when he was sold off to travelling merchantmen. It was worth waiting for to see further into one another, after such experiences as these. He never would have known his brethren, but for this terrible process. Some disciplines open men's nature and show us just what they are. "His blood is required," said Reuben. Certainly, such requirements made life worth having. There are pay days. There are days when bills become due. There are times when business men are particularly busy, because the day has come on which certain things are due and must be attended to. And shall a paltry guinea be due to you or to me, and a man's blood never be due? Shall we be very conscientious about pounds, shillings, and pence, and forget the virtue we have despoiled, the honour we have insulted, the love we have trampled underfoot? God will judge us by our actions, and will charge upon us that we were conscientious in little things, in trivial relationships, and forgot that sometimes man's blood is due, and man's honour comes with a demand to be satisfied.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 41". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany