Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hope in the Midst of Hardship (Exodus 1-2)


“Preach to hurting people, and you will never lack an audience.” That is what one of my preaching professors told me over twenty years ago. As a young man barely over 21, relatively new in the Christian faith, I didn’t know much about the Bible or much about life. So, it sounded to me like bad advice – I mean who would want to hear messages about comfort and overcoming suffering all the time? Well, what I have learned in the ensuing years is that suffering is always relevant because we are always suffering. You might say, “Well, not me, I’m not suffering!” Just hang in there. You will get your turn, I assure you. And even when we are not suffering personally, people we love are suffering, and we suffer with them. But not only have I learned that suffering is always a relevant subject to preach about, I have also discovered that one cannot preach the Bible faithfully without regularly dealing with the subject of suffering and apart from having a sound theology of suffering. The subject does not arise “here and there,” or “on occasion” in Scripture. I can hardly find a page of the Bible that doesn’t deal, in some way, with suffering. So it has taken me a long time, but I have finally learned that the old professor was right. Preach to hurting people – because that’s the only people there are in the world – and you will never lack an audience – because the subject is relevant to everyone at all times.

When we begin to read the book of Exodus, it does not take us long to discover that the Israelites were suffering in Egypt. Of course, few (if any) of us will ever experience the magnitude of suffering that they did. The circumstances and intensity of suffering vary from person to person, even if the experience of it is generally universal. But what is unchanging from person to person and circumstance to circumstance is the source of genuine hope in the midst of our hardships. So, when we read these words in Exodus and see how God was bringing hope to His people in the midst of hardships, we have every reason to believe that this same God is still bringing hope to His people in the midst of our hardships as well. So, let us look at our text and discover several truths about hope in the midst of hardship that are evident in our text and applicable to our experience in the world today.

I. God’s people are not immune to suffering (1:1-14).

In school we all learned rules of grammar and syntax. One of them was to never end a sentence with a preposition. For some reason, someone just decided that ending a sentence with a preposition was something up with which they would not put. And another rule – well, I just broke it – is that we should never begin a sentence with a conjunction. Now, I have finally found a way around this rule, but it isn’t easy. If you will take three semesters or more of Hebrew, and become proficient in handling the Hebrew Bible, you can show your teacher that the Scriptures which God inspired contain many sentences that begin with a conjunction, and some entire books of the Bible begin with a Hebrew conjunction. Exodus is one of them. If we were to be excessively literal in our translation of the Hebrew here, we would begin verse one something like this: “And these are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob.” There are a variety of rules of Hebrew syntax which explain the use of this conjunction at the beginning of this book, but the most basic reason it is there is that this is a continuation of the story of the book of Genesis.

The first seven verses are all almost exact quotations of verses in Genesis. The names are the same, only the setting has changed. Having just completed a quick survey of the book of Genesis, we are familiar with these people and how they came to be in Egypt. You will recall that they were not there for the same reason that they would later be in exile in Babylon. In that case, they were deported to Babylon as a punishment for their sin. In this case, they are refugees in Egypt to escape a devastating famine. They came at the invitation of Joseph, who had become prime minister of Egypt, and his invitation was ratified by the Pharaoh himself. Moreover, upon departing for Egypt, Jacob received a divine affirmation from God that Egypt was exactly where He wanted His people to be for this season (Gen 46:2-4). He had also revealed to Abraham in Genesis 15 that the people of God’s covenant would be strangers in a land that is not theirs for a period of four hundred years. So, in their coming to Egypt, the descendants of Israel were merely being obedient to the will of God.

There are some who hold a theology not unlike that of Job’s friends, who say that if someone is suffering, it must always be the result of disobedience and a manifestation of divine displeasure. In some cases, you can connect the dots between disobedience and suffering, but not all. It was not true for the Israelites in Egypt, and it may not be true in our lives when we suffer. In many cases, even when we are obedient, as the Israelites had been in coming to Egypt, we are still subject to suffering and hardship.

Not only does obedience not insulate us from the potential of suffering, neither does the blessing of God. In verse 7, we read that “the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them.” One commentator says, “Moses packed into the verse about every possible way of saying that the Israelites rapidly increased in number.”[1] They came into the land as a family of 70 members. They would leave Egypt as a nation of approximately 600,000 men, not counting women and children (Ex 12:37). Conservative estimates would put the total population at two to three million. To what can we attribute this amazing boom to Israel’s population? It was the blessing of God.

When we look back at the creation of humanity, we find that God “blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’” (Gen 1:28). So, one of the blessings God gave humanity in the beginning was the privilege and responsibility of procreation. Not only this, but more specifically, God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that He would bless them by giving them descendants who would be as innumerable as the sand of the seashore or the stars in the sky. God was faithful to His word, and the blessing flowed immensely. But God’s blessings do not protect us against the experience of suffering. No matter how richly God has blessed you, you are still subject to the same hardships of life as any person living in a sin-corrupted body in this sin-corrupted world.

In fact, we should expect God’s blessings to coincide with suffering because “in a fallen world, the blessings of God are often so in conflict with the prevailing corrupt values of this world’s culture that they function as a threat to those who are not aligned with God’s will.”[2] We need look no further than the earthly life and experience of Jesus Christ to see the supreme manifestation of this truth. No human being was ever more obedient or more blessed than He was; and yet no human ever suffered so much as He did.

So, in spite of God’s people’s obedience and His blessing on their lives, the Israelites found themselves suddenly outside of the good graces of Egypt’s power structure and the object of their animosity. It came about as a result of a regime change. Verse 8 says, “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” In light of all that Joseph had done to rescue the Egyptians for perishing in the days of famine, it seems very unlikely that anyone could ascend to the throne without having some familiarity with his name or legacy. Rather, we must understand this to mean that the new king chose to neither to remember nor act upon any commitments made to Joseph and his descendants by the preceding regime. While it is difficult to reconcile the biblical chronology with that of Egyptian history, we can be fairly certain that this regime change corresponds in some way with the transfer of power in Egypt either to or from the dynasty of the so-called Hyksos kings. The Hyksos were a family of foreign peoples from the Near East who had infiltrated Egypt and seized power. Some have suggested that the new Pharaoh who knew not Joseph was the founder of the Hyksos dynasty, while others suggest that the new Pharaoh marked the end of the Hyksos dynasty and a return to native Egyptian rule. In either case, it would not be surprising for the leader of the new regime to be suspicious of such a vast number of foreign people living in the land.

The population of Israel, which was the direct result of the obedience and blessing of God’s people, was a threat to the new Pharaoh’s sense of national security. He reasoned that if an uprising or invasion were to occur, the Israelites may align with the rival power and overthrow him. The phrase in verse 10, “and depart from the land,” is an unfortunate mistranslation of the Hebrew. If the fears of this Pharaoh are well-founded, then the departure of this multitude would be music to his ears. But, in every other occurrence of this Hebrew phrase in the Old Testament, the idea is of something rising up to overtake a land. So, Pharaoh devised a plan to “deal wisely” with them and control the growth of their population. This plan involved subjecting them to the harsh conditions of brutal slavery. Their hardships are stated in a succession of terms of increasingly intense vocabulary: “afflict them with hard labor” (v10); “compelled … to labor rigorously” (v13); “made their lives bitter with hard labor”; “labors which they rigorously imposed on them” (v14).

The Israelites were forced to make bricks and carry out the grandiose building projects of the Pharaoh, in addition to performing backbreaking agricultural labor. The idea must have surely been that such affliction would make the strong and healthy Israelites weak and sickly, and take the lives of those who were already frail and infirm. Additionally, such deployments of labor would mean that men were removed from their homes for long seasons of time, and when they returned, they would be too physically fatigued to procreate with their wives. But the plan backfired. Verse 12 says, “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel.” The Egyptians could not understand why these foreigners were so hard to stamp out of existence!

But we know why. Their growth was a result of their obedience to God and God’s blessing on them. It did not make them immune to suffering, but neither did their suffering hinder God’s power to bless them and continue to prosper them, even as He had done for Joseph in the midst of all the sufferings he unjustly endured. And so we may confidently apply this truth to ourselves today. Let no one tell you that each and every instance of suffering in your life is a result of your disobedience to God, or the withholding of His blessing from your life. No, in fact, your obedience and His blessing does not prevent you from suffering and may even precipitate your suffering. But in the midst of it, hope can be found in knowing that your suffering need not hinder you from continuing in obedience to Him, and it need not prevent Him from blessing you in spite of your suffering.

Permit me to make one more point of application specifically for us as American Evangelicals in the twenty-first century. The Israelites had for several generations enjoyed a sense of cultural favor and were admired by the rulers and citizenship of Egypt, just as American Christians were for a long time since the founding of our nation. But winds of change blow across cultures sometimes slowly and sometimes swiftly. Those who were held in high regard by former administrations may suddenly find themselves the objects of fear, suspicion, and hatred. In America, it did not happen with the ascension of a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, but with a tidal shift in popular perception that began around the turn of the twentieth century and accelerated through that millennia. We must not be surprised by these changes. In fact, cultural prominence and influence has been something that the people of God have rarely enjoyed anywhere at any time in the world. When it has been found, it has been temporary and fleeting. So, we may never again see the day when Bible-believing American Christians represent a “moral majority,” but we must never forsake our role as a “missional minority.” In spite of the antagonism and animosity of Pharaohs who know not Joseph and the cultures they represent, we must continue in obedience to God and under His blessing to be His people and do His will.  Our once culturally favored status never protected us or prevented us from experiencing hardships and sufferings; but neither must the hardships and sufferings of the people of God stand in the way of our obedience to Him or His blessing on us.

 Now, we must move on to the second truth pertaining to hope in the midst of hardship.

II. God alone is worthy of our greatest fear and trust (1:15-2:10).

“If, at first, you don’t succeed, try again.” That’s the advice many of us were given as we were growing up. I prefer the one that says, “If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.” Pharaoh’s plan to curtail the growth and expansion of the Israelites had not succeeded, but he did not give up the effort. He intensified it by implementing a plan of selective genocide.

The plan began with subtle secrecy. Pharaoh conferred with two Hebrew midwives about the implementation of it. It is highly unlikely that these were the only Hebrew midwives, but probably they were the “senior” or “supervising” midwives. He gave them the plan in verse 16. When the midwives were assisting in the delivery of a Hebrew birth, once they could determine that the child was male, he should be killed. The midwives had a strategic advantage in carrying out this plan. At various points in the delivery process or immediately thereafter, they could strangle or suffocate a child without the mother even noticing what happened. Why only the male children? Did not Pharaoh need them as laborers in the building of his empire? No matter how much he may need more laborers, his greater need was for fewer potential fighting men who may seek to overthrow him. In time, with dwindling numbers of Hebrew males, the surviving females could just be absorbed through marriage into Egyptian culture and society and the Hebrew nation would dwindle to nothing. Now, we are not told specifically, but we must assume that there was some leverage applied to these midwives – a “do this, or else.” It seems hard to believe that Pharaoh would expect these women whose entire lives had been dedicated to the preserving of life to callously take innocent lives unless they were compelled to do so by a great fear.

Now, these women did have a great fear – but their greatest fear was not of Pharaoh. Verse 17 informs us: “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them.” They surely feared the king, but they feared the King of kings all the more, and preferred obedience to Him over obedience to Pharaoh. In a culture of death, they stood for life in reverence to a God of unrivaled authority. And God did not fail them. Because they feared Him, He “was good” to them, and He blessed them with households of their own (vv20-21). The idea there in verse 21 is that it seems that midwives were often those who had no children or families of their own. These two were likely beyond the age of marriage and childbirth, but God honored their fear and faithfulness to Him by granting them what they had helped so many others enjoy at the risk of their own safety and personal sacrifice. Moreover, God caused their names to be recorded in Holy Scripture as a memorial to these two heroic women: Shiprah and Puah (meaning, Beauty and Splendor). What was the Pharaoh’s name? It would answer a great number of questions of historical interest and curiosity if we knew. But, we are not told. We are, however, told the names of these two women, that their legacy of fearing the Lord would never be forgotten.

Now, let me interject something here that shouldn’t be passed over. When Pharaoh found out that the midwives were not killing the male babies, he confronted them and asked them why they had disobeyed him. Verse 19 says that their response was, “Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.” And so much ink has been spilled on the problem of God blessing these women for telling a lie. Now, let me ask you, does the Bible say that they lied? Does the Bible say that they exaggerated the truth for a greater good? It does not. So when we assume that they lied, we impugn not only their character, but also God’s. Now, I will admit, just because they did not lie, it does not mean that the necessarily told everything they knew. All they said was that the Hebrew women gave birth before the midwives could get to them. Because Pharaoh’s plan was secret and subtle at this stage, it had to be carried out in that brief window of time when the midwife could kill the baby without the mother’s notice and call it a stillbirth. Now, it is entirely possible that these midwives, upon getting word that they were needed at a Hebrew home, may have taken their sweet time in arriving so as to miss the opportunity to carry out Pharaoh’s evil wishes. And it is also possible that in saying that the Hebrew women were “vigorous,” the idea is that they were more involved and attentive in the birthing process. The Egyptian women perhaps sedated themselves and remained somewhat aloof in the birth process. But perhaps the Hebrew women were very attentive and ready to have the baby handed off to them as soon as he emerged from the womb. In any case, the point to be made is that the Bible does not say that God blessed a lie or honored some well-intentioned sin for a greater good. From what we are told, we have no reason to believe that they told Pharaoh the truth – even if not the whole truth – and for their bold fear of God, they were honored and blessed.

In Puah and Shiprah we see that God is worthy of our greatest fear. But in another heroic woman, we find that He is worthy of our greatest trust. With the subtle plot of the midwives foiled, Pharaoh intensified the pogrom once more. This time, in 1:21, he ordered everyone in the nation to join in the savagery. If you see a Hebrew infant male, cast him into the Nile. Why the Nile? The Nile not only brought water into Egypt, it carried waste out of Egypt. It was at one and the same time a water line and a sewer line. There would be no mess to clean up, no evidence of the crime. Between the swift current and the insatiable crocodiles, those little Hebrew babies would be carried away in no time. But also, the Nile was personified as a deity in the Egyptian pantheon. It was the god who gives life and takes it away. So, casting the babies into the Nile becomes a sort of perverted act of pagan sacrifice and worship, with the idea being that if the Nile takes the baby, then the baby deserved to die; and if the baby didn’t deserve to die, then the Nile would spit it back out.

Now, into this burgeoning holocaust of infant lives was born a “beautiful” boy (2:2) to a yet to be named set of Jewish Levite parents. The word rendered “beautiful” has a broad range of meaning. Suffice to say that this mother saw something special in her child, and though she knew what the law of the land required, she trusted God to protect this child. For three months, she did her best to protect him herself – hiding herself away with him during those months when babies sleep more than they are awake and when their cries can be quickly silenced with a feeding. But the day came soon enough when her efforts to hide the boy would no longer suffice. She had done all she could do to protect the boy, but now she had to demonstrate how much she trusted the Lord to do what she could not. So she got a wicker “basket” – the Hebrew word is used in one other place in Scripture: this is the same word translated as “ark” in the contexts about Noah’s flood. It is a floating vessel designed to preserve life. Into that makeshift ark, she placed this boy and put it into the river, not that the pagan deities may have their whims and ways with him, but that the Sovereign God who measures the waters in the hollow of His hand (Isa 40:12) may accomplish His will through this act of trust.
A big sister follows closely behind, watching as the basket winds along the river, coming to rest at the very spot where the daughter of Pharaoh had gone for a ritual bath. And she had a characteristic that her father lacked: “Pity.” When she heard the cries and saw the child, she knew at once he was one of the Hebrew babies. How did she know? Undoubtedly because he had borne the mark of the covenant – circumcision – since the eighth day of his life. A life that her father had wished to kill, she was now prepared to save. But would that mean that Moses would grow up outside of the blessings of God’s covenant and know nothing of the God of his people? God could be trusted for that too. At the suggestion of the baby’s older sister, his own mother was recruited to nurse the child until the age of his weaning. And in those formative years, his true identity was grounded in the religious and cultural heritage of Israel. Upon being weaned, he became the adopted grandchild of the Pharaoh who had wanted him dead. But not before first becoming a part of the covenant community of God through the influence of his godly parents. It was God who spared the boy’s life, but it was his mother’s great and complete trust in God which provided the opportunity.

God alone is worthy of our complete fear and trust. Are you afraid of the threats of those who wish to harm you, who wish to do ill to you or to manipulate you to do evil to others? Are you afraid of the consequences of disobeying the laws of the land, or of falling out of step with the cadence of this godless culture? All of those fears have their place, but their rightful place is in subjection to the ultimate and overriding fear of the Lord. And when matters get beyond your ability to control them, when the outcomes of your circumstances exceed your power to influence to them, you can have confidence in knowing that God is able to be trusted. Just as this mother put her baby in the river, you can cast all your cares on the Lord and trust that He will carry it along. Fear Him above all else; trust Him above all else. Because He alone is worthy. That is an essential truth for having hope in the midst of hardship.

Now thirdly …

III. God’s will must be done God’s way (2:11-22).

Here is a statement that can be overheard in the hallways of church buildings on a pretty regular basis: “You know, there is this problem, and SOMEBODY ought to do something about it!” You have heard it. You may have said it. I have said it, but I try not to say it anymore. I have learned that there is a reason some people seem oblivious to the needs and problems which are so obvious to us at times. It is because God allows those to see the need whom He is raising up to meet the need. So my philosophy is not, “Find a need someone else can meet,” but rather, “See a need, meet a need.” How do I know I am the person to meet that need? One factor is that God has given you an awareness of the need. That awareness is evidence of His calling and purpose for you to meet the need.

Israel desperately needed a deliverer. Many of them didn’t even realize it yet. Many of them, we will find out later, didn’t even want it. But Moses was in a unique position. Having been rooted in the Hebrew culture, and having access with the halls of Egyptian power, he could see that a deliverer was needed. But Moses didn’t say, “You know someone ought to do something about this.” Moses saw the need, and realized that he was God’s appointed agent to meet that need. When Stephen spoke of Moses in Acts 7, he said, “(W)hen he was approaching the age of 40, it entered his mind to visit his brethren … (a)nd he supposed that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him” (Ac 7:23, 25). The idea that he was to be the deliverer of his kinsmen entered his mind because God put it there. He was dead right about what God was calling him to do. But he was dead wrong in how he went about the task initially.

Moses went out to observe the conditions of his fellow Israelites, and he observed one of them being severely abused by an Egyptian. Being convinced that he was God’s appointed deliverer, he set about to God’s will, but he did not do it God’s way. He killed the Egyptian and quickly buried him in a shallow, sandy grave. He must have felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment about this, because the next day, when he came upon two Hebrews fighting with each other, he assumed they would welcome his interference. They did not. In fact, they said, “Who made you a prince or judge over us? Are you intending to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” The secret was out, and rather than causing the Israelites to look to him as God’s appointed deliverer, they saw him as a vigilante street-fighter and wanted nothing to do with him. His attempt to God’s work in his own way rather than God’s way disqualified him as a leader in the eyes of his people and actually interposed a delay in the accomplishing of God’s will.

We have to wonder if Moses thought he could deliver the Israelites by knocking off the Egyptians one by one. Not only would that take forever, it was out of step with God’s greater purposes. Though God’s purposes may have been delayed by Moses’ impetuosity, it was not derailed. Pharoah sought to take the life of Moses, but God would not have that. He got Moses out of Egypt so that he might get Egypt out of Moses. He led Moses to the wilderness of Midian where Moses could learn a different way of leading than by brute force. He would learn to be a sherpherd-servant, and would learn the desert ways, that he might be able to lead and sustain the people of God when the time came for God’s will to be done God’s way and at God’s appointed time.

Moses’ instincts were right, but his methods were wrong. By the time he got to Midian, God was already shaping him into a vessel fit for use. Again he saw injustice taking place. Some roughneck shepherds were driving some defenseless women and their flocks away from the well, and again Moses intervened. But this time he did it with a different spirit. He didn’t strike them down, he simply “stood up” to them. That is what Moses would need to do in Egypt. If there was to be any striking down, God could handle that without Moses’ help. Moses’ job would be to stand up to Pharaoh and let the Lord fight for him and for his people.

Next, Moses “helped them and watered their flock.” Later, he would spend 40 years shepherding God’s people through these same desert sands, helping them and watering them like a flock of sheep as a shepherd-servant. He still looked the part of an Egyptian, but God was transforming him from the inside out into a man he could use to do His will His way. And as a result of this transformation, God gave Moses a home away from home there in the desert – a new family, and a son of his own whose name represented Moses’ newfound identity: “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land”.

Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” When we are in the midst of hardship, rather than finding our hope in the Lord and His ways, we often try to manufacture hope for ourselves by acting in our own power and according to our own nature. This always ends in destruction and disaster, just as it did for Moses. Hope would come for the people of God in their hardship, but first, God’s chosen deliverer had to learn to do God’s will God’s way. And so it must be for us. In the midst of our hardships, when we resort to “common sense” thinking, “do it yourself” tactics, or “bootstrap” theology, we short-circuit God’s plan to bring about hope His way in His time. Our culture has instilled in us some bad ideas and bad habits, just as Egypt had instilled in Moses. God has to take those ideas and habits out to the desert and transform us. And when He has prepared us to do His will, we will do it His way, in His time.

Now finally, the last truth in our passage related to hope in the midst of hardship is this all-important one.

IV. Our hope is not in changing circumstances, but in an unchanging God (2:23-25).

Verse 23 says that “it came about in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died.” Was this the hope for which the people of God had been longing? Would there now arise a new Pharaoh who did remember Joseph and his descendants and who would lift the burden of oppression from their necks? That would have been nice, but it is not what happened. Any sighs of relief from the Israelites were soon drowned out by renewed sighs of anguish “because of the bondage.”

Every four years or so in America, we start to hear the trumpets give an uncertain sound of change coming. And many American Christians mistakenly look toward Washington, D. C., expecting the Kingdom of God to come flying in on Air Force One to take up residence in the White House. And disappointment invariably results. In the same way, there are many who feel that their burdens would be lifted if only they had a different job, a different spouse, a different set of circumstances. But any positive difference that these changing circumstances may stimulate are fleeting and temporary at best. Hope, real hope, hope that can secure us and uplift us from the depths of personal hardship, can never be found in changing circumstances. It can only be found as we look to the unchanging God.

So it was, in the wake of the Pharaoh’s death, with the reality dawning on the Israelites that their burden had not been lifted, that they did what we all must do. “They cried out, and their cry for help because of their bondage rose up to God.” Hear me carefully here: Prayer is essential. But prayer is not ultimate. Our hope is not in our prayers, but in the God to whom we pray. We do not pray because prayer works. Prayer works because we pray to a God who works on our behalf. And we see here in the closing verses of Chapter 2 that God did four things in response to the prayers of His people to bring them hope.

God heard their groaning. Their prayers had an audience with the most high. Hope wasn’t found in the throne of Pharaoh but in the throne of grace, and the One who sits on that throne had heard them.

God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It doesn’t mean that He ever forgot it, but that the time had come for Him to act upon that covenant. Sometimes the greatest truths can be found in the most unlikely places, and the greatest definition I have ever found of the word “Covenant” comes from Sally Lloyd-Jones’ children’s bible, The Jesus Story Book Bible. She says that “covenant” refers to “a never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love.”[3] That kind of love is the bedrock on which the covenant promises of God are anchored. And just as God acted upon that promise to His people in response to their prayers, we can bring God’s promises found in Scripture back to Him in prayer and know that He remembers His own Word and will act upon it.

God heard, God remembered His covenant, and God saw the sons of Israel. No matter where you are or what you are going through, hope is found in never losing sight of this: He has never lost sight of you. God sees you. He sees what you are going through. You are not alone, you are not forgotten. He sees you and looks upon you in His love. No one else may see the depths of your suffering but God sees it, He knows it, He hears you in it, and He will fulfill His promises to you in spite of it.

And that leaves the fourth action of God: He “took notice of them.” If I could put it more plainly: He cares for you. It would be of precious little comfort to know that God hears, remembers or sees us in our hardship if it were not for the fact that He cares for us. But because we know that He cares for us, we can have hope in our hardship, knowing that this good God who is all-powerful and all-knowing, whom we fear and trust above all else, and who is able to transform our circumstances around us and us in the midst of them, actually cares for us and is going to act on our behalf to accomplish His purposes for our good and for His glory.

After all, when we cried out to Him from the bondage of our sin, did He not hear us and remember His promise to save? Did He not look upon us and demonstrate His care for us in placing our sins upon the Lord Jesus as He died on the cross? And if we can trust Him to handle this matter of ultimate, infinite, and eternal gravity on our behalf, can we not trust Him with all else that we endure as well? “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:31-32).

This is hope in the midst of hardship: to know that we are not immune to suffering, but neither are we hindered by it from obedience or prevented from living in the blessing of God; to fear and trust the Lord above all else in this world knowing that He will honor that fear and trust by His grace and good providence; to be transformed in order to do God’s will in His own way and in His own time; to know that hope is found in Him alone and not in the changing circumstances of life; for He has proven Himself to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.  

[1] Douglas Stuart, Exodus (New American Commentary, vol. 2; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 61.
[2] Stuart, 60.
[3] Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Story Book Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 36.

Monday, May 15, 2017

God and His People (Genesis 45-50)

Some of us, myself included, grew up as part of the MTV generation. If you did, not only will these words be familiar to you, but you will also be able to envision a very specific visual in your mind as I read these words:

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

Whether or not you are familiar with those lines from the Talking Heads, you may be able to identify with the sentiment. How did I get here? And what does this have to do with Genesis? Quite a lot, actually. The book of Genesis was written by Moses around the time when he led the nation of Israel out of Egypt 430 years after the events we just read about. Egypt was the only home they’d ever had. Though they had been slaves there for several generations, those alive at the time of Moses had never known any other way of life. Moses was a man they hardly knew, and he was telling them they had to pack up and leave for a place they’d never been. Through this writing, they would learn of how the world came into existence, and how from the human race, God chose a particular family to be His people in the world. They would learn how they got to Egypt in the first place, and why God never intended for it to be home. Through the stories of their patriarchs, they would discover how God works in, through, and on behalf of, the people He has chosen and called to be His own.

Like the Israelites in the days of Moses, we too were born in slavery, but we didn’t realize it. We were not slaves to a foreign power but to a spiritual power – to sin and Satan. This fallen world, filled with evil and suffering has not always been happy but it has always been the only home we have ever known. And along comes Jesus, telling us how He is going to prepare a place for us, and the only way to get to that place is to follow Him. He introduces us to the God who has chosen and called us to be His own people, that He may be our God, and that we may dwell with Him forever. So the Gospel of Jesus Christ does for us what these words of Moses did for Israel in Egypt. It tells us how we got here, it helps us make sense of the world in which we find ourselves, and how God has been working in, through, and on behalf of His people.  

So with a view toward the Gospel, let us consider how the first audience of these inspired words of Scripture would have come to understand these theological principles concerning God and His people.

I. God is sovereign over the sins and sufferings of His people (45:1-11).

There are two universal and unavoidable realities in the course of human existence: sin and suffering. Everyone sins, and everyone suffers. There are no exceptions. Sometimes suffering is a result of one’s own sin, or the sin of others. Sometimes suffering happens simply because our bodies and this world have been corrupted by sin. It has been my observation over the course of nearly twenty years of pastoral ministry that almost every case of pastoral counseling comes down to the issue of sin. A person may be seeking counsel because they have sinned, and their sin has produced a burden of guilt and remorse, or unpleasant consequences in his or her life. Or a person may be seeking counsel because they have been sinned against, and the actions of others have victimized them and brought harm upon them. In both cases, it is of great importance that the individual comes to see that his or her life does not consist of the sum total of their sins and sufferings, but rather of what the God who is sovereign over the sins and sufferings of His people is able to do by His grace and for His glory.

We see a picture of this in the encounter between Joseph and his brothers. They have sinned against him. He has been victimized by them. But they both have to realize that neither of these conditions has to be terminal. By looking to God, they can see Him work powerfully in and through their circumstances to bring about good for them and for others. In the previous passage, we saw how Judah spoke for the brothers in repentance of their sin. He said to Joseph, “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants” (44:16). Having heard a genuine confession and received repentance from the contrite hearts of his brothers, Joseph was able to reveal himself to them. Prior to this point, he had kept his identity hidden in order to test their character. They have now passed the test, not by insisting upon their own goodness, but by owning up to their own badness.  

It was only after this repentance that Joseph could give them words of comfort. Until sin is confessed and repented of, there is no comfort to be found. But at this point Joseph could speak of how God was at work in their sin and in his suffering to bring about His good purposes. Notice in verse 5: “Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here.” That was probably not what they expected to hear. Grief and anger are appropriate responses to sin, but once the Lord wipes those sins away by His forgiving grace, we can move beyond the grief and anger over it. They sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, yes, but over and above this, God was doing something different. Joseph says, “God sent me before you to preserve life.” In verse 7, he says it again, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.” Therefore, he can say with all confidence in verse 8, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.” And in verses 8 and 9, Joseph sees how God has transformed, not only the sinful act of his brothers, but his own suffering as well. He says that God “has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” None of that could have ever happened had his brothers not sold him into slavery, and had he not been falsely accused and imprisoned with the royal cupbearer, who remembered Joseph before Pharaoh.

Now, we need to be clear about something. What God can do in, with, through, or in spite of our sins and sufferings is not the same thing as why God allowed it to happen. There are mysteries of providence which are known only to God. There is also such a thing as gratuitous evil and suffering in the world. It is not what God intended or purposed for us. It carries with it severe consequences and we bear full responsibility for it. Never once did Joseph minimize either the evil of his brothers’ actions or the severity of his own suffering. But while he did not minimize those things, he maximized God’s sovereignty over them by showing that none of it was beyond His ability to transform into an occasion for the furthering of His purposes.

Long ago Marcus Dods wrote these profound words:
God does not need our sins to work out His good intentions, but we give Him little other material; and the discovery that through our evil purposes and injurious deeds God has worked out His beneficent will, is certainly not calculated to make us think more lightly of sin or more highly of ourselves…. The knowledge that God has prevented our sin from doing the harm it might have done, does relieve the bitterness and despair with which we view our life, but at the same time it strengthens the most effectual bulwark between us and sin – love to a holy, overruling God.[1]

Putting it more succinctly, William Taylor says, “It is a comforting thought, that while we cannot undo the sin, God has kept it from undoing us, and has overruled it for greater good in ourselves and greater blessing to others than, perhaps, might otherwise have been attained.”[2]

In this, we see a wonderful picture of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The cross represents the most heinous sin ever committed in the history of the world, and the most horrific suffering ever experienced by anyone. God had come into the world in human flesh to rescue humanity from self-destruction, and what did mankind do to Him? We murdered him. And I say “we,” because it was not merely the betrayal of Judas, or the denouncement of the Sanhedrin, the decree of Pilate, or the hammers of the soldiers which nailed Jesus to the cross. The Bible is clear that Jesus’ death was the necessary atonement for all of our sins. The punishment inflicted upon Him was for the sins that you and I have committed. The cross was what we deserved. And the agony of it was not merely the physical pain of torture, but the unbearable weight of being separated from God the Father, as Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” That is the cry of the damned, and those words deserve to come out of our mouths, not His. But God has taken the most heinous sin of history, and indeed all the sins of humanity, and the most indescribable suffering ever inflicted upon a living being, and transformed for good and for glory by His grace. The cross is God’s way of saying to us, “I know everything you have ever said, thought, or done, and I love you anyway and will save you if you turn to Me in repentance and faith.” As Peter said on the day of Pentecost, “you nailed (Jesus) to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death.” Nothing changes the weight of human responsibility for this sin and suffering. But, he also says, “this Man (Jesus, was) delivered over to you by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Ac 2:23). Again in Acts 4, the church prayed, saying, “there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Ac 4:27-28). What Joseph said in Genesis 50:20 can be said with even greater truth by Jesus, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”

Has the grief and anguish for sin driven you to repentance? Are you looking God-ward in the midst of your suffering? Because of God’s sovereignty over the sin and suffering of His people, it does not matter what you have done, or what has been done to you. Nothing is beyond His ability to transform it into something good for His own purposes and for blessing to us and to others. He can save you from it, and change you in it, and change it to bring about good according to His will and for His glory. Just as God is willing to forgive you of unspeakable sin, He is also able to supply you with the grace to forgive those who have sinned against you, and from both your sin and suffering and theirs, He is able to bring about good if we will turn it all over to Him and look to Him in the midst of it. If we are to understand how God works in, with, and on behalf of His people, we are going to have to recognize His sovereignty over our sin and suffering, because we give Him precious little else to work with.

II. God is patient in the fulfillment of His promises (45:24-46:7).

Some of you know what it is like to pull up stakes and move far away from home. While the excitement and adventure of a new life in a new place provide a strong allure, there is a sense of fear and uncertainty as we leave the comforts of a familiar place and familiar people behind. No matter how difficult any of the moves we have made in our lifetimes may be, nothing could compare to the move that Jacob had to consider. Oh, to be sure, the excitement of seeing his beloved son Joseph once more before he died was almost too much to consider. We read in 45:26 that “he was stunned and did not believe” his sons when they told him about the prospects. A son that he had long since considered dead was still alive. Moreover, he had arisen to the second most powerful position in Egypt and was extending an invitation for his father to come and join him there. Concerns about the famine would be alleviated by Joseph’s promise to provide for the family. He had a guarantee of safe passage and the best part of the land to live in, offered not only by Joseph but by Pharaoh himself, most powerful ruler in the world at that time. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to launch into this opportunity?

Well, there is a factor in Jacob’s situation that is quite unparalleled, and made this appealing offer very difficult to consider. The land in which he was now living, Canaan, had been deeded to him by God Himself. God had sovereignly deeded this land to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, and to his father Isaac, and to Jacob. We sing, “This land is your land, this land is my land,” but no one could sing that like Jacob could of Canaan. Now his sons, even Joseph, and the Pharaoh of Egypt were all beckoning him to walk away from it.

Because of his desire to see Joseph, he went, but he went with much fear in his heart. How do we know that? Because in Chapter 46, as he is on the way to Egypt, God spoke to him “in visions of the night,” saying, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt.” The only reason you ever tell someone not to be afraid is if they are. Perhaps Jacob felt like he was abandoning God’s purpose for his life and his family by fleeing Canaan. Maybe he feared that his faith had faltered in not trusting God to provide through the famine. Maybe he feared that this was all some sort of elaborate trap that had been set for him. But God reassured him, saying, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again.” This was the language of God’s original promise to Abraham, to be with him, to make him into a great nation and to bring him into the land of promise. God had ever been with His people. As yet, they had not become a great nation, but they would. And as for the possession of the land of Canaan, it wasn’t so much a “No,” but a “not yet.” God is patient in fulfilling His promises to His people, and we must learn to be patient as we wait for Him to do so.

In Canaan, the family of the patriarchs numbered around 70 people. In Egypt, they would grow to millions in number, just as God had promised. They would be given a vast area of land to spread out and grow in, and because they were shepherds and the Egyptians found them detestable, there would be no intermarrying to dilute the lineage of God’s promise of innumerable descendants. The land of Canaan wasn’t going anywhere. It would still be there and still be theirs, just not now. God had revealed this to Abraham in Chapter 15. Had he not passed it down to Isaac and then Jacob? Or had they forgotten? We cannot know, but God’s message to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16 was that his descendants would be strangers in a land that is not theirs, enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But God would judge that nation, and deliver His people out of it in the fourth generation. The reason for the delay: He had to prepare the nation for the land, and the land for the nation. He said to Abraham, “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” The Amorites were an idolatrous and immoral people who occupied the land of Canaan. God was giving them ample time to turn to Him in repentance and be saved, but He knew they wouldn’t. So, He would use the nation of Israel to bring about His divine judgment on the Amorites and other pagan peoples of the land as they took conquest of it in the days of Joshua.

God has made equally spectacular promises to all who are in Christ. Jesus said He is coming again to take us to the place He has prepared for us. He has promised us a new heaven and a new earth. He says that we shall inherit the earth and judge the angels. He says He will crush Satan under our feet. He has promised us new bodies that will no longer be subject to the limitations, ailments, and injuries that we experience here and now. He says we will dwell in His presence forever, and there will be no more crying or mourning or pain, because there will be no sin there – not in heaven, and not in us. That all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? No, it sounds AMAZING! But, we do not have it yet. We have the promise, and we have the Spirit of the Risen Christ as the guarantee of the promise, but we do not have the actual things themselves. What we have is what the Israelites had in Egypt. We live as strangers in a world that is not our home. We are enslaved and oppressed. But on this foreign, enemy-occupied soil, we have the opportunity to grow into a vast nation by sharing the good news of Jesus with others. In the midst of the famine, we have the bread of life in God’s word to feast upon. He is preparing heaven for us (Jn 14:1-6) and us for heaven. But we wait patiently for the fulfillment of the fullness of His promises, because He is patient in fulfilling them. Some might say that He is slow about it. But there is a difference between slow and patient. Second Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Just as God gave the Amorites centuries to repent and be saved from judgment, He tarries in the fulfillment of His promises to allow all people the opportunity to hear and believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved lest they perish in sin. Rather than growing impatient in our longing for all that has been promised to us, we should occupy ourselves in the business of heaven here and now, serving the Lord Jesus and serving others in His name.

If God seems to be taking His time in fulfilling His promises in your life – promises to provide, to protect, to prevail – it is because His timing is perfect and we must wait for it with patience, because He is working with patience to fulfill those promises.

How does God work in, with, and on behalf of His people? He is sovereign over the sins and sufferings of His people. He is patient in the fulfillment of His promises. And thirdly …

III. God is faithful in the upholding of His purposes (Chs 47-50).

When Adam and Eve fell into sin in the Garden of Eden, God promised a Redeemer who would come into the world as the Seed of Woman. Over the ensuing generations, He clarified that promise, revealing to Abraham that it would be through His seed that all nations of the earth would be blessed. That promise was passed down to Isaac and to Jacob. Through this family, God was working to bring the blessing of redemption from sin to all the peoples of the world. But the outworking of these eternal, divine purposes was confronted by many dangers, toils, and snares. God’s people were faced with one trial after another, some of which threatened to terminate the line of promise and undo God’s purposes completely, if it were possible. But it is not possible. The upholding of God’s purposes is not contingent on the faith or faults of His people. Neither is conditioned by the fires of oppression and persecution. The upholding of God’s purposes rests squarely and securely on His own unfailing faithfulness.

Lest God’s people starve to death in a famine and bring His purposes to naught, God established Joseph as Prime Minister in Egypt. He was God’s man, and he was used for God’s plan by advising Pharaoh on the storage of grain to provide for the people during the famine. He came in as an indentured servant and died as an empowered ruler. He brought the blessing of God into the land of Egypt. And when his old father Jacob came into Pharaoh’s presence, one might expect him to come in and humbly plead for the Pharaoh’s blessing. But the Bible says in 47:10 that Jacob blessed Pharaoh. God’s purpose for His people to bring His blessing to all peoples was being upheld by His faithfulness.

Lest Israel remain a nation no larger than an NFL football roster, embattled on all sides by pagan people, God gave Joseph favor with Pharaoh to secure a broad place for Israel to dwell and grow in Egypt. And lest they forget that it was not their true home, Jacob gave orders that his corpse be taken up and buried back in the land God had promised them. Joseph gave the same orders concerning his bones. These men knew that God’s purposes would not fail, and that the Israelites would return again to that land one day.

And lest the sons of Israel think that they had out-sinned the grace of God and become entirely useless to Him; lest they forget God’s promise to bring that Seed of Woman into the world through the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; dying Jacob gathered his sons to his side and began to prophesy over them. Coming to Judah, the one whose idea it was to sell Joseph into slavery, the one who violated God’s will in egregious ways in his own family life, old Jacob said in 49:8-11, “Judah, your brothers shall praise you. Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; Your father’s sons shall bow down to you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He couches, he lies down as a lion, And as a lion, who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. He ties his foal to the vine, And his donkey's colt to the choice vine; He washes his garments in wine, And his robes in the blood of grapes.

Centuries would pass until a silent night in a cattle cave in Bethlehem, when a young virgin who was a descendant of Judah would give birth to a Son. He would be the One to whom every tribe of Israel and every nation of earth will bow and confess as Lord. Judah will hold the scepter of authority, and in his descendant David and his lineage, this was fulfilled in part. But when Jesus Christ was born, the Seed of Woman, the Seed of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and David had come. This is the Shiloh who had the right to hold that scepter forever. The word Shiloh is variously interpreted by scholars, but the consensus is that it means “the one to whom it rightly belongs.” The scepter of Judah and the throne of David rightly belong to Christ. But He did not come to establish that throne in His first coming. He will do so in the second coming one day. But in the first coming, He came in humility, riding not the white stallion of the conqueror, but the donkey’s foal of a servant. He has tread the vineyard of God’s wrath on our behalf, and the blood that stained His robes served to make our own robes clean. So, when the Apostle John was shown a vision of heaven and the throne of God, he saw One standing between himself and the throne who appeared as a lamb that had been slain. But this Lamb of God was called the Lion from the tribe of Judah, and He has overcome.

When that Lamb who is the Lion is revealed, heaven erupts in a song of worship, proclaiming, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). In that moment, John was able to see the consummation of it all – how God had faithfully upheld His divine eternal purpose, from the Seed of Woman to the Lion of Judah, in the person of Jesus Christ. In this descendant of Abraham, God has blessed all the nations of the earth. And in Him, all of God’s promises and purposes are yes and amen to the glory of God. Because He is faithful, nothing which He has purposed for you or the world will fail.

How does God work in, with, and on behalf of His people? He is sovereign over our sins and suffering. He is patient in the fulfillment of His promises. And He is faithful in the upholding of His purposes. Moses wanted the Israelites in Egypt to know this – to know how they got there, and how God was working through their hardship, fulfilling His promises and upholding His purposes. And as we understand these theological principles, we will discover He is doing the same for us through Jesus Christ.

[1] Marcus Dods, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1896), 245.
[2] William Taylor, Joseph the Prime Minister (New York: Doran, 1914), 138. 

Sunday, May 07, 2017

From Death to Life (Genesis 43-44)

Surveys are often conducted about the things we fear in life. Invariably, and understandably, the fear of death and dying ranks high on the list. If it were possible to broaden the research out to cover the entirety of human history, based solely on anecdotal and literary evidence, it seems that this has been the most fearful thing for people, regardless of the place or time in which they have lived. Much human behavior and belief is driven by a fear of death, and the subject occupies much conversation today and in ages past, at least as far as we can ascertain.

Just take our passage and its broader context, for example. Joseph’s brothers had plotted to kill him, and deceived their father into thinking he was dead. Then Jacob said that he was going to mourn himself to death because of it. Then there was a famine that caused Jacob to send his sons to Egypt, saying, “so that we may live and not die.” Then Joseph was talking to them about what they must do in order to not be put to death on the charge of spying on Egypt. They had to go back and get Benjamin while Simeon remained hostage in Egypt, where he may die. Then when they told Jacob about all this, he refused to let Benjamin go because he was convinced Simeon was already dead and that Benjamin would die too. Then Reuben offered his own sons’ lives in exchange for Benjamin if he died. Then Jacob again said he was going to grieve himself to death. Then they start starving to death again because the grain is running out, and that is where our text picks up again.

When we think about this family, it is hardly a wonder that they are so filled with anxiety about death. Jacob, of course had deceived his brother and his father. His sons had a rap-sheet a mile long, ranging from incestuous adultery (two-times over), mass murder and pillaging, and the betrayal of their own father following the murderous schemes and human trafficking of Joseph. With all of that on their conscience, who would not dread the possibility of facing God in judgment after death? And perhaps this is the reason that the fear of death is so common. After all, the Bible says that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that the wages of sin is death, resulting in an eternal separation from God and experience of unending torment. Even if we are unaware or do not believe the Bible, we see ourselves in the mirror and we examine ourselves when we are alone with our thoughts, and feel the prick of our own consciences convicting us of our moral failures. When we consider our words, thoughts, and deeds, we are aware of the unavoidable truth. We do what we ought not do. We do not do what we ought to do. And this pattern of repeat behavior presents itself in us from the moment we are capable of conscious action. So many people wonder why they are constantly plagued with guilt, but the reason is because we are guilty people before God. And the Bible says that it is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment (Heb 9:27).

Perhaps someone may say that all this talk of death and judgment is nonsense, and only creates and fuels an irrational and superstitious fear of death. They may be convinced that death just marks the terminal point of existence, after which life is completely extinguished into nothingness, without any conscious experience of any sort of so-called afterlife. That is a pervasive opinion, but we have to acknowledge that it carries with it some very high stakes. The philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested that every person is essentially gambling with his or her life on whether or not God is real. But the truth will be irreversibly revealed at death. Betting with your life that God is real and that we will face Him one day, Pascal says, carries no risk – only the potential of an infinite reward. But betting that He does not exist carries seemingly no reward – only far greater risks. A person betting against the reality of God and eternal judgment carries with him or her a terrible burden of fear of death. The possibility exists that he or she could be wrong, and if wrong, destructively so.

Now, what does all this have to do with our text? Well, we have a situation here in which there is a judgment of sorts that is unavoidable. The brothers must take their stand before Joseph, who remains unknown and unrecognizable to them, and give an account for themselves. Already plagued by a nagging conscience, they are set to come before one who has the power of life and death over them. And in an even greater way, every person must consider what it will be like to stand before the Judge of all the earth when the day of accounting and reckoning comes. So, how can we move from the fear of death to the hope of life? How can we prepare for that encounter? In our text, we see several strategies, which taken together, help us to overcome the fear of death and judgment and stand in the confidence of knowing that we will be received well when we come before the throne of judgment.

I. Trust in works must give way to faith in God (43:1-14)

As Chapter 43 opens, we find Jacob and his family back in Canaan – minus Simeon, who is imprisoned in Egypt awaiting the return of his brothers with Benjamin to secure his release. The famine is still intense, and the grain that they procured on their first journey to Egypt has been depleted. Ever the man with the plan, Jacob’s strategy seems simple enough: “Go back, buy us a little food” (v2). If there is a problem, there must be some simple work that can be done to escape the trouble. But there is a snag in Jacob’s plan. Remember, they cannot go back to Egypt unless they take Benjamin with them. Not only will taking Benjamin secure Simeon’s release, but it also proves that they are not spies, and essentially secures all of their freedom. But Jacob has been, thus far, unwilling to send Benjamin. Always one to play favorites, it seems that Jacob has been content to let Simeon undergo whatever consequence awaits him – in fact, he has already reckoned him dead – so long as his favorite son, Benjamin, is safe at home. But Judah gives him the ultimatum. The brothers will not go to Egypt without Benjamin.

Human nature is prone to resort to old habits, and Jacob demonstrates that here. In verse 6, he says, “Why did you treat me so badly be telling the man whether you still had another brother?” Deception has been a profitable tactic in his past, and it seems he has not fully outgrown the tendency. Here, as in days of old, his strategy seems to be that of bending the truth to save his own skin. But the judge that awaits the brothers in Egypt knows too much. They cannot hide the truth from him. They’ve already told him that they have another brother – but remember, they didn’t have to, because he already knew. He was not the stranger that they thought him to be. He was their brother in disguise. And as such, he knew all that there was to know about these men. Deception will not work in the courtroom of Egypt because the judge knows the truth, whether or not it is spoken.

Jacob, it seems, has no alternative. His worst fear must be faced, and Benjamin must go with his brothers to Egypt. As I mentioned before, every time these guys leave the house, they seem to come home a man down. So Jacob ups the ante. He tells the brothers to try to bribe the man in Egypt with a sampler collection from Whole Foods. He says in verse 11, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the best products of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man as a present a little balm and a little honey, aromatic gum and myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds. Undoubtedly, he says, “a little,” because the famine is so intense that “a little” is all they could spare. But what they seem to have plenty of is money. That’s the thing with a famine like this. It affects the rich and the poor alike. The poor have no food and no money; the rich have money, but what good is it when there is no food to be bought. So Jacob says that with the little supply of delicacies, they are to take a lot of money – double the amount needed – half to pay back what ended up in their sacks upon returning to Canaan, and the other half to buy more.

This is how some people strategize their encounter with God in judgment. Maybe we can withhold information from Him? No chance. He has complete and perfect knowledge of all that you are and all that you have done. Maybe He can be bought off with some good deeds? You know, we could try to do more good than the bad we have done, and sweeten the deal with some extra money given to church or charity, and some extra hours of volunteer work, and nice things like that? No way. In this fallen world, filled with its imperfections, we find the very notion that justice can be swayed by bribes and schemes to be deplorable. And yet, do we think that God has a lower standard of justice than this world has? God is the very definition of justice. Justice is essential to His nature. There must be a recompense for what has been done, and schemes, deeds, and bribes cannot undo it. It would only add to the offense before God.

In his heart of hearts, Jacob knows that his efforts to secure favor before the judge in Egypt by his own works and schemes is futile. So, he comes to the end of such thinking and resorts at last to casting himself upon the Lord in faith. He says in verse 14, “May God grant you compassion in the sight of the man, so that he will release to you your other brother, and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” He entrusted himself fully to the Lord’s mercy for the outcome, little knowing that compassion was the one thing that the man in Egypt had been longing to show these people all along.

As we consider the prospects of standing before the Lord, we fear because we envision Him as One who desires to do us harm. It is right for us to be concerned about that, because we have done evil in rebellion against Him. But at the core of His nature, God longs to shower mercy and compassion on those who trust in Him. He is described repeatedly in Scripture with these words: “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (cf. Ex 34:6-7, et al.). It is not by our deceit, our schemes, or our works that we will escape the torment of eternal judgment. It is by casting ourselves by faith upon His infinite mercy, which He longs to show us.

II. Self-righteousness must give way to confession (43:15-44:16)

The second scene of this narrative unfolds back in Egypt as the brothers are received in Joseph’s home and a meal is prepared before them. They tried to repay the money that they found in their sacks upon their return home, but Joseph’s steward protested and insisted that the grain had been paid for in full. He said, “Be at ease, do not be afraid, Your God and the God of your father has given you treasure in your sacks” (43:23). In reality, Joseph had paid for their grain without them knowing about it. All that Joseph had been doing behind the scenes in their experiences with him was for their good, but they did not know it and could not comprehend it. He continued to work in ways that they could not perceive. He had them seated around the table in the order of their birth. How could he possibly know that? Verse 33 says they were astonished by this. How could this have happened by chance?

In their last encounter in Chapter 42, we noted how Joseph had subjected them to several tests to see if there had been any change in the character of the men. One of them had been the test of their loyalty to one another. Would they take the money and run, abandoning Simeon in Egypt as they had done two decades before with Joseph? Now they demonstrated that they had passed that test. There would now be two more tests. As the meal was served, Benjamin was given five times as much food as the rest of the men. How would they respond to this clear demonstration of favoritism? In the past, when one of their brothers was shown favor by their father, they hated him and plotted to get rid of him. Joseph undoubtedly watched with careful attention to see how they responded to his lavish generosity with Benjamin. They seemed to give it little notice at all. The text merely says that they all “feasted and drank freely” (v34). They seem to have moved beyond sibling rivalry, and this spoke well of them. So far, things are looking up for them, but one test remained.  

As the brothers prepared to depart, thinking all had gone far better than they could have expected, Joseph had his steward to place a silver cup into Benjamin’s grain sack. Throughout the passage, it is referred to as a “diviner’s cup.” In pagan cultures, divine mysteries were thought to be revealed through superstitious rituals like the reading of shapes in the cup as oil and water, or wine and water, were mixed together. We find this sort of thing still in the world today, with people reading tea leaves or something like that. Joseph was a man of God. He did not practice this sort of occult ritual. He had a personal relationship with the God who reveals Himself to His people. But as part of the charade before his unknowing brothers, he plays the part of a pagan sorcerer. A cup of pure silver would be a valuable enough item, but one with which the mysteries of the gods could be discerned would be irreplaceable and priceless.

Joseph set up this test to determine if the brothers would abandon Benjamin when he was caught red-handed with the cup. Were they still cold and heartless toward their father as they had been when they sold Joseph? Were they still embittered by favoritism? Would they be loyal to a brother who was out of step with the rest of them in terms of his character and conduct? This test would reveal the truth. So, as expected, the steward caught up with them on their way out of town and accused them of stealing the cup. And it is their response to this which I want to call our attention to.

Notice in verse 7 that they said, “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants to do such a thing? Behold, the money which we found in the mouth of our sacks we have brought back to you from the land of Canaan. How then could we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house?” And then they risked it all on their assertion of self-righteousness: “With whomever of your servants it is found, let him die, and we also will be my lord’s slaves.”

Self-righteousness bristles against the accusation of sin. It demands that no wrongs have been done, and no penalty is deserved. It boasts of its own perfection, and scoffs at the thought that any fault can be found. And such is the attitude that many will have as they strut before the Lord of Glory on the day of judgment. In their minds, they are falsely confident that they will impress God with their upstanding moral character as they rehearse their good deeds and impressive list of accomplishments before Him. But God knows the full truth, and will act on the basis of that truth.

The truth of the matter here of course is that the men were innocent of stealing the cup. But that does not mean that they were innocent men, and nowhere near as innocent as they insist. They are aware of their guilt. In Chapter 42, they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother.” But they had yet to say it to anyone else – not their father, and not their brother who had been standing face to face with them beyond their recognition. Instead, before Joseph, they spoke only of their upstanding character. In the previous encounter they insisted repeatedly that they were honest men. Here, they declare that theft is something beyond the limits of their moral fiber. But these protests are hollow in the face of one who was himself stolen by them, plotted against with murderous schemes, and trafficked away for financial gain. To charge them with the theft of the cup was to let them off easy for far greater crimes than this of which they were plainly guilty. And so, they have reached a dead end in their long journey to outrun their sin. There is only one thing left to do: confess.

In 44:16, Judah says, “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s slaves, both we and the one in whose possession the cup has been found.” Remember that Benjamin had not been party to their plot against Joseph. Judah’s statement here does not argue for the guilt or innocence of Benjamin regarding the cup. He is willing for Benjamin to get what he deserves concerning the cup. But moreover, he says that all their lies and excuses, and attempts to present themselves as righteous men have been silenced. He says, “God has found out the iniquity of your servants,” and he subjects himself and his brothers to whatever penalty the Egyptian master sees fit to administer.

This is a true confession. And every one of us must come to the point when we do likewise before God. We must humble ourselves before Him and say, “Lord, all my efforts to excuse, explain away, and erase my guilt are silenced. My mouth is shut.” Galatians 3:22 says that the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin. We know what God requires, and we know we have failed to do it. So the excuse making and the attempts to present ourselves as righteous might fool some people some time, but it will never fool God at any time, so we are just simply shut up before Him, with no other recourse but to confess. We confess before Him that we have not merely sinned, but that we are sinners. As far as Judah knows, the Egyptian before whom he stands has no knowledge of their dealings with Joseph twenty years earlier. But God knows. And though they are innocent concerning the cup, they are guilty of far worse, so whatever consequences they are to experience now are past due and well deserved. True confession doesn’t say, “OK, I blew it and I admit it, so go easy on me.” True confession says, “I have sinned because I am a sinner, and whatever consequences that requires of me are well deserved and I submit myself to them.” And when we come to that place, having cast ourselves on God’s mercy by faith as Jacob did, and acknowledged our sin guilt as Judah did, then the glorious light of the gospel dawns upon us that we may move from death to life and be saved.

III. The sinner must entrust himself to a Savior (44:17-34).

So, here is the dilemma in which we find ourselves. We are sinners who must stand before a holy God and give account on the day of judgment. We cannot do enough good works to compensate for the wrongs we have done, and we cannot appeal to any righteousness that is inherent within us, because we don’t have any. We are silenced of anything but confession before the Lord, and we place all of our hopes in His mercy and grace because we believe that God is good and that He loves us. But we also believe that He is a God of infinite justice and holiness. When He revealed Himself to Moses, He declared that He was a God of grace and compassion, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and sin. That is good news. But He also said that He will “by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex 34:6-7). That is bad news. So the great mystery of the universe and the riddle of human existence is this: How can God be so loving that He is willing to forgive sin, and yet so holy and just that He must punish sin? The unfolding narrative of Scripture reveals the answer to this mystery progressively from one generation to the next until the final piece of the puzzle falls into place when Jesus Christ comes into the world. But here in our passage, we see a beautiful foreshadowing of what He will do, and we find that imagery in a surprising place – in the person of Judah.

Prior to this passage, the Judah whom we have seen has many obvious moral flaws. It was Judah who suggested the plan of selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites as a slave for financial profit. He unwisely married a Canaanite woman. You have to understand that the prohibitions in the Bible against intermarriage are never based on race, ethnicity, or nationality. They are based on spiritual compatibility. God’s people, in both the Old and New Testament, are commanded to not marry unbelievers, lest they be led astray by them. Judah knowingly violated this prohibition and reaped what he sowed in his children. He became sexually immoral and committed fornication unknowingly with his daughter-in-law. But by the time we come to Chapters 43 and 44, a change has taken place in him. We see him rise up to be the leader of his family –more noble than even his father Jacob. We see him taking personal responsibility for his brethren.

Here we see a picture of the glorious grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, a deplorable sinner has been transformed from the inside out. He has had a change of heart that leads to a change of action. We now longer see Judah as typifying all of us in our sinfulness. Now we see him typifying the Lord Jesus, who acts on behalf of others to save them. It was Judah who insisted to his father that the brothers must go down to Egypt to rescue Simeon, and it was Judah who insisted that only by taking Benjamin could such a thing happen. It was Judah who pledged himself as personally responsible for Benjamin’s safety, saying to Jacob in 43:9, “I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame before you forever.” For a while, it looked as if all was going according to plan, and he would not have to follow through on his promise to save Benjamin from harm. But when the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack, Judah had a decision to make. He could go back and stand before his father to confess his failure, or he could follow through on his promise and offer himself up in Benjamin’s place.

In 44:18, he petitions the Egyptian overlord for a sidebar conversation. In this conversation, he sets out the full facts of the situation. He declares that he has been sent on this mission by his father to rescue and secure the welfare of his brothers. Over and over again, he makes his case on the grounds of carrying out his father’s wishes and will for his brethren. And finally he says in verse 32, “For your servant became surety for the lad (Benjamin) to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then let me bear the blame before my father forever.’ Now, therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me—for fear that I see the evil that would overtake my father?” He offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin in order to save Benjamin from judgment.

Centuries of history would come and go before the dawn of what Scripture calls “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4) when God would act to save humanity from sin. I suppose that God could have done this in any number of ways, but there was only one way that would preserve both the mercy and justice of His nature. And so we read, “In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son.” John 3:16 says it so well: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” In “sending His Son,” God was becoming a man. Choosing to be born into the human race, God could have chosen any vessel of humanity to bring about the birth of His Son, but He came into the world as an earthly descendant of this man Judah. Jesus Christ is “the lion from the tribe of Judah” (Rev 5:5). And He came to do the will of His Father.

Just as Judah came down to Egypt from Canaan to do the will of his father to save his brother, in an infinitely more gracious and glorious way, the Lord Jesus has come down into this sin-wrecked world from heaven to do the will of His Father to save humanity from sin. He said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise Him up on the last day” (Jn 6:38-40). And this is how He did it. He stood in our place and took our condemnation that we deserve upon Himself in His death on the cross. The full penalty of our sin was placed upon Him that our sins might receive their just judgment in the substitute sacrifice, that we might be set free and forgiven, saved, and transferred from death to life. In Jesus Christ, and His death on the cross, God was demonstrating Himself to be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).

So, all of us who are as guilty before God as the Judah we see prior to this passage, must come to commit ourselves by faith to the One who is from Judah and greater than Judah, who has pledged Himself as our surety before His Father, and took our place to receive our judgment in Himself. We have the assurance that we will be brought alive into the Father’s presence forever, because our elder brother Jesus has become our substitute under wrath. Through Christ’s death, we have been set free from the fear of death if we have trusted in Him (Heb 2:14-15). The fear of death, for the follower of Jesus, is replaced by the hope of life everlasting.

The day is coming for all of us when we must, in the words of Amos 4:10, “prepare to meet your God.” If the prospect of that day causes us to fear, then this passage helps us to overcome that fear as we turn from trusting in our works to trusting by faith in the mercy of God; as we turn from boasting in our self-righteousness to confessing ourselves as sinners who sin against the Lord; and as we turn from the ways of our past to entrust ourselves to Christ, who has become a surety for us in laying down His life to rescue us. If you never have before, then today, surrender yourself fully to Him and be saved. And if you have, then go and share this good news in word and deed with those around you who are enslaved to the fear of death. Bring them into the hope of life as you make known to them that Jesus Christ the Lion of the Tribe of Judah has overcome sin and death for us and will save forever those who draw near to God through Him (Heb 7:25).