Did it ever seem remarkable to you, as it has seemed to me, how many chapters of the Bible are taken up with the history of Joseph--a young man who, on the most memorable occasion in his life, said "I fear God," and had no other argument to use?
Thirteen chapters of the book of Genesis are mainly devoted to the tale of this one young man. Doubtless his father Jacob's going down into Egypt, was one of the most important events in the history of the Jews: we might expect, therefore, to hear much about it. But what need was there to spend four chapters at least in detailing Joseph's meeting with his brethren, even to minute accounts of the speeches on both sides?
Those who will may suppose that this is the effect of mere chance. Let us have no such fancy. If we believe that a Divine Providence watched over the composition of those old Scriptures; if we believe that they were meant to teach, not only the Jews but all mankind; if we believe that they reveal, not merely some special God in whom the Jews believed, but the true and only God, Maker of heaven and earth; if we believe, with St. Paul, that every book of the Old Testament is inspired by God, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works--if we believe this, I say, it must be worth our while to look carefully and reverently at a story which takes up so large a part of the Bible, and expect to find in it something which may help to make us perfect, and thoroughly furnish us unto all good works.
Now, surely when we look at this history of Joseph, we ought to see at the first glance that it is not merely a story about a young man, but about the common human relations--the ties which bind any and every man to other human beings round him. For is it not a story about a brother and brothers? about a son and a father, about a master and a servant? about a husband and a wife? about a subject and a sovereign? and how they all behaved to each other--some well and some ill--in these relations?
Surely it is so, and surely this is why the story of Joseph has been always so popular among innocent children and plain honest folk of all kinds; because it is so simply human and humane; and therefore it taught them far more than they could learn from many a lofty, or seemingly lofty, book of devotion, when it spoke to them of the very duties they had to fulfil, and the very temptations they had to fight against, as members of a family or as members of society. "One touch of Nature (says the poet) makes the whole world kin;" and the touches of nature in this story of Joseph make us feel that he and his brethren, and all with whom he had to do, are indeed kin to us; that their duty is our duty too--their temptations ours--that where they fell, we may fall--where they conquered we may conquer.
For what is the story? A young lad is thrown into every temptation possible for him. Joseph is very handsome. The Bible says so expressly; so we may believe it. He has every gift of body and mind. He is, as his story proves plainly, a very clever person, with a strange power of making every one whom he deals with love him and obey him--a terrible temptation, as all God's gifts are, if abused by a man's vanity, or covetousness or ambition. He is an injured man too. He has been basely betrayed by his brothers; he is under a terrible temptation, to which ninety-nine men out of one hundred would have yielded--do yield, alas! to this day, to revenge himself if he ever has an opportunity. He is an injured man in Egypt, for he is a slave to a foreigner who has no legal or moral right over him. If ever there was a man who might be excused for cherishing a burning indignation against his oppressors, for brooding over his own wrongs, for despairing of God's providence, it is Joseph in Egypt. What could we do but pity him if he had said to himself, as thousands in his place have said since, "There is no God, or if there is, He does not care for me--He does not care what men do. He looks on unmoved at wrong and cruelty, and lets man do even as he will. Then why should not I do as I will? What are these laws of God of which men talk? What are these sacred bonds of family and society? Every one for himself is the rule of the world, and it shall be my rule. Every man's hand has been against me; why should not my hand be against every man? I have been betrayed; why should not I betray? I have been opprest; why should not I oppress? I have a lucky chance, too, of enjoying and revenging myself at the same time; why should I not take my good luck, and listen to the words of the tempter?"
My dear friends, this is the way in which thousands have talked, in which thousands talk to this day. This is the spirit which ends in breaking up society, as happened in France eighty years ago, in the inward corruption of a nation, and at last, in outward revolution and anarchy, from which may God in His mercy deliver us and our fellow-countrymen, and the generations yet to come. But any nation or any man, will only be delivered from it, as Joseph was delivered from it, by saying, "I fear God." No doubt it is most natural for a man who is injured and opprest to think in that way. Most natural--just as it is most natural for the trapped dog to struggle vainly, and, in his blind rage, bite at everything around him, even at his own master's hand when it offers to set him free. And if men are to be mere children of nature, like the animals, and not children of grace and sons of God, like Joseph, and like one greater than Joseph, then I suppose they must needs tear each other to pieces in envy and revenge, for there is nought better to be done. But if they wish to escape from the misery and ruin which envy and revenge bring with them, then they had better recollect that they are not children of nature, but children of God--they had best follow Joseph's example, and say, "I fear God."
For this poor, betrayed, enslaved lad had got into his heart something above Nature--something which Nature cannot give, but only the inspiration of the Spirit of God gives. He had got into his heart the belief that God's laws were sacred things and must not be broken, and that whatever befel him he must fear God. However unjust and lawless the world looked, God's laws were still in it, and over it, and would avenge themselves, and he must obey them at all risks. And what were God's laws in Joseph's opinion?
These--the common relations of humanity between master to servant, and servant to master; between parent to child, and child to parent; brother to brother and sister to sister, and between the man who is trusted and the man who trusts him. These laws were sacred; and if all the rest of the world broke them, he (Joseph) must not. He was bound to his master, not only by any law of man, but by the Law of God. His master trusted him, and left all that he had in his hand, and to Joseph the law of honour was the law of God. Then he must be justly faithful to his master. A sacred trust was laid on him, and to be true to it was to fear God.
After a while his master's wife tempts him. He refuses; not merely out of honour to his master, but from fear of God. "How can I do this great wickedness," says Joseph, "and sin against God?" His master and his mistress are heathen, but their marriage is of God nevertheless; the vow is sacred, and he must deny himself anything, endure anything, dare any danger of a dreadful death, and a prison almost as horrible probably as death itself, rather than break it.
So again, in the prison. If ever man had excuse for despairing of God's providence, for believing that right-doing did not pay, it was poor Joseph in that prison. But no. God is with him still. He believes still in the justice of God, the providence of God, and therefore he is cheerful, active--he can make the best even of a dungeon. He can find a duty to do even there; he can make himself useful, helpful, till the keeper of the prison too leaves everything in his hand.
What a gallant man! you say. Yes, my friends, but what makes him gallant? That which St. Paul says (in Hebrews xi.) made all the old Jewish heroes gallant--faith in God; real and living belief that God is--and that He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.
At last Joseph's triumph comes. He has his reward. God helps him--because he will help himself. He is made a great officer of state, married to a woman of high rank, probably a princess, and he sees his brothers who betrayed him at his mercy. Their lives are in his hand at last. What will he do? Will he be a bad brother because they were bad? Or will he keep to his old watchword, "I fear God?" If he is tempted to revenge himself, he crushes the temptation down. He will bring his brothers to repentance. He will touch their inward witness, and make them feel that they have been wicked men. That is for their good. And strangely, but most naturally, their guilty consciences go back to the great sin of their lives--to Joseph's wrong, though they have no notion that Joseph is alive, much less near them. "Did I not tell you," says Reuben, "sin not against the lad, and ye would not hearken? Therefore is this distress come upon us."
Joseph punishes Simeon by imprisonment. It may be that he had reasons for it which we are not told. But when his brothers have endured the trial, and he finds that Benjamin is safe, he has nothing left but forgiveness. They are his brethren still--his own flesh and blood. And he "fears God." He dare not do anything but forgive them. He forgives them utterly, and welcomes them with an agony of happy tears. He will even put out of their minds the very memory of their baseness. "Now, therefore, be not grieved nor angry with yourselves that ye sold me hither, he says; for God sent me before you, to save your lives with a great deliverance."
Is not that Divine? Is not that the Spirit of God and of Christ? I say it is. For what is it but the likeness of Christ, who says for ever, out of heaven, to all mankind, "Be not grieved nor angry with yourselves that ye crucified me. For God, my Father, sent me to save your souls by a great salvation."
My friends, learn from this story of Joseph, and the prominent place in the Bible which it occupies--learn, I say, how hateful to God are family quarrels; how pleasant to God are family unity and peace, and mutual trust, and duty, and helpfulness. And if you think that I speak too strongly on this point, recollect that I do no more than St. Paul does, when he sums up the most lofty and mystical of all his Epistles, the Epistle to the Ephesians, by simple commands to husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, as if he should say,--You wish to be holy? you wish to be spiritual? Then fulfil these plain family duties, for they, too, are sacred and divine, and he who despises them, despises the ordinances of God. And if you despise the laws of God, they will surely avenge themselves on you. If you are bad husbands or bad wives, bad parents or bad children, bad brothers or sisters, bad masters or servants, you will smart for it, according to the eternal laws of God, which are at work around you all day long, making the sinner punish himself whether he likes or not.
Examine yourselves--ask yourselves, each of you, Have I been a good brother? have I been a good son? have I been a good husband? have I been a good father? have I been a good servant? If not, all professions of religion will avail me nothing. If not, let me confess my sins to God, and repent and amend at once, whatever it may cost me. The fulfilling these plain duties is the true test of my faith, the true sign and test whether I really believe in God and in Jesus Christ our Lord. Do I believe that the world is Christ's making? and that Christ is governing it? Do I believe that these plain family relationships are Christ's sacred appointments? Do I believe that our Lord Jesus was made very man of the substance of His mother, to sanctify these family relationships, and claim them as the ordinances of God His Father?
In one word--copy Joseph; and when you are tempted say with Joseph, "Can I do this great wickedness, and sin--not against this man or this woman, but against--God."
Take home these plain, practical words. Take them home, and fear God at your own firesides. For at the last day, the Bible tells us, the Lord Jesus Christ will not reward you and me according to the opinions we held while in this mortal body, whether they were quite right or quite wrong, but according to the deeds which we did in the body, whether they were good or bad.