The history of Joseph unfolds to us the trials and duties of a servant of God. The evils and failure of human nature are not brought before us in his course, as in that of some we have already studied. Joseph is regarded primarily as a servant and instrument for God's work ; and consequently we have to trace the exercises and purgation to which he must be subjected in order to fit him for that work.
The first notice we have of him is respecting his position in his father's house. " Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors." Thus loved and signalized by his father, his heart was enlarged. Tasting the sweetness of affection, his own was drawn out ; for nothing generates affection in us so much as the assurance of its existence for us ; as it is written, " We love him, because he first loved us." When love asserts its claim, every other claim is acknowledged and valued as only opportunities for its expression. So Joseph's heart, in tender age, expanded in the genial atmosphere of his father's love; but this, at the same time, exposed him to the envy of those who had proved themselves unworthy of it. " His brethren hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him." While, on the one side, he learned the tenderness and resources of his father's affection, on the other, he suffered reproach and persecution for being so favored. If the one attracted him to his father, the other painfully warned him that he must be dependent on his affection, for outside of it, and on account of it, he was a sufferer.
Thus, early in life and in the domestic circle, did Joseph learn (as indeed do all God's servants) the elementary principles of that truth which must sustain him in the highest services by-and-by; even that as the loved of God he is the hated of man. The love of his father, conspicuously indicated by the coat of many colors, must compensate him for the hatred of the brethren; must nerve and prepare him for all their opposition and envy. This is the first and greatest lesson which the servant of God has to learn on entering his course, and that which Christ (of whom Joseph is the type) so fully and perfectly apprehended : He who, ever dwelling in the full consciousness of the Father's love, was thereby enabled to meet unmoved all the hatred and malice of man. And still further, the one who knows best the Father's love must be the best exponent of that love-the best qualified servant for the Father to send on a mission of interest to those who were ignorant of it. " The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." Joseph, still bearing out his character of type and servant, is deputed by his father to see how his brethren fared ; but before this event there are two intimations given him of the position which he must occupy by-and-by with respect to these communications. He receives no support from his father, who rebukes him, and this with the concomitant and increased opposition of his brethren, laid the groundwork of that dependence on God, and independence of man, which so distinguished his after course. The prospects which divinely occupy my soul may be ill-received by all around me, even by valued friends and guides ; but they are mercifully given in order to confirm the soul, and still more to convince me, when the realisation supervenes, how true and constant has been God's care of me.
How little we notice or value the small circumstances of our early life, and the large effect they exercise on us! From infancy we are forming for the place destined for us of God; and our whole history is but a succession of processes preparing us for the end, the very first of them, in all material points, bearing strict analogy to the one which closes our course. Thus was it with David. The first notice we have of him is feeding sheep in the wilderness, from whence he was taken, after an intervening process of discipline, " to feed Israel his people, and Jacob his inheritance," a position which he held, in many a varying circle, to the end. So also with Moses. Alone for God, with God, and under God, in the ark of bulrushes, every era of his life is of the same order, whether in Midian, in the mount, or on Pisgah at last.
Joseph then starts on his mission, assured of his father's love, aware of the hatred of his brethren, and secretly impressed with an unknown, and as yet incomprehensible, idea of future greatness. Responding to the will of his father, he did not shrink from the post of danger, which his father did not apprehend for him. If the One greater than we are, in love and in wisdom, appoint us a path of service, which would be grateful to Himself, and He, knowing all, apprehends no danger for us, we may surely enter on it in simple confidence. It is the only true and happy spirit for any path of service. Emerging from the private home-known expression of our Father's love to launch into the tumultuous ocean of unreasonable and unloving brethren, and be messengers of the Father's interest respecting them. Thus Christ came, and thus must every true servant of His be sustained and useful. Joseph, pursuing this path of service, bearer of his father's message and exponent of his father's interest, came to Shechem, but is checked in the execution of his mission by finding his brethren not there. Such checks often occur in order to test our reality as to whether the Father's will is wholly our desire. Joseph's heart was evidently set on its accomplishment, for, instead of returning when he could not find them, he lingers at his post until he gets tidings of them, and then follows them to Dothan, unprepared for the murderous and malicious reception which awaited him.
After various modifications of these evil purposes (for wicked counsels must always be multifarious, whereas there is but one way for doing right), Joseph is sold to the Ishmaelites, and again sold by them into Egypt, unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, and captain of the guard. What a change for him, from the glow of a parent's love, uppermost and chief, to be first murderously assailed by his own brethren, and now a bondsman in Egypt! Had the divine communications vouchsafed to him in his dreams made him independent of everything from man (be it love or hatred), and dependent only on God? If they had, he needed it at this juncture ; and, undoubtedly, that was the value of the discipline he was now undergoing. Truth is communicated to us first, and we may greatly value the acquisition of it ; but the winter can alone season the succulent growths of spring and summer. The great reality of the truth must be learned by us ; Joseph must be cast on God.
But the winter is seldom without some gleam of sunshine ; and often before its depths, as well as before its conclusion, a bright season intervenes. Before the sternest part of the discipline befalls us, we are often cheered by an unexpected reprisal. Thus Joseph is a prosperous man in the captain's house. But from this he is soon driven snare being there prepared for him by the adversary of souls, which he has integrity and dignity to fly from; for it only addressed the depravity of his nature, and offered no alleviation to his condition as a slave. We may regard Potiphar's wife as a type of the world, the allurements of which she symbolises; and which, failing to attract the servant of God, becomes his direst and most unscrupulous foe. Evil association too often accompanies prosperity ; but prosperity in evil association cannot be retained by the God-fearing soul. The latter will extinguish the former if there be faithfulness. But how great is the compensation for the loss of both! God remains-unto whom, and before whom, Joseph now distinctly acted. How chequered is the life of this future witness for God! First sold as a bondsman for being the messenger of his father's love unto his brethren ; and now cast into prison by his master because he was the righteous guardian of his master's property ; he learned that neither love nor righteousness could be comprehended by man. To God alone he must look, and on God alone he must be cast. And God did not disappoint him. " The Lord was with Joseph, and showed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison." The one who is really cast on God improves the circumstances of trial in which he is, whether they be temporary or permanent. No adverse circumstances can crush the true living energy, however they may limit and determine it. The scene may be changed, but not the spirit of it. Moses in Midian helps the women, and waters their flocks, when no longer allowed to help and serve the Hebrews ; he is a saviour in Midian as well as in Egypt to the nation of Israel : and the Lord becomes a sanctuary to him, and provides alleviation for him in his bondage and sorrow. And Joseph also is found, ere long, to be as useful in prison as he was in the house of the captain of the guard. " The keeper of the prison looked not to anything that was under his hand; because the Lord was with him, and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper."
In every trial, however gloomy, there are gleams of light and relief ; but full deliverance is often delayed by our anxiety to obtain it. God Himself, and not the deliverance, is to be the satisfaction of His servant ; consequently the deliverance is often postponed until we are without prospect or expectation of it; and then it may be accorded in a manner so transcendently beyond our conception, that we must see and understand the love and interest which surrounded us during the whole period of our trial. Thus was it with Peter in Acts 12, with Paul and Silas in Acts 16, and with Joseph in the sequel of what we are considering. His abilities as God's servant, and as one acquainted with His mind, are first in the most distinct manner displayed in the prison. Trials, the effect of man's enmity, do not obstruct the truth of God. Opportunity for its development will occur in apparently the most disastrous circumstances. Paul in prison is blessed to the gaoler: Joseph in prison reveals to the chief butler the judgments of God ; but he probably errs in soliciting the latter to negotiate for his release; and two full years longer must he remain a captive. He is again taught that no confidence can be placed in man. The prolonged incarceration must have deeply tried one who was conscious of having done nothing to merit it. It must have almost seemed as if God had forgotten him; and nothing is so painful as the sense that one from whom you expect much knows of your need, and does not come forward to your help. This was job's great trial-that God did not manifest care for him, and John the baptist's, when he heard in prison of the works of Jesus.
Whether Joseph felt thus we are not told ; but we know that God had a purpose in his prolonged imprisonment, and when that purpose was answered, " the time came, and the word of the Lord tried him; the king sent and delivered him, even the ruler of the people, and let him go free." How little we understand the exercises and purgation to which the faithful branch must be subjected that it may be fit for God's service 1 Chastening is needed to take out of the way that which we do not seek to remove ; but it is purging which rids us of what we desire and seek to be rid of. Joseph underwent a deep process of purgation from the day he left his father's house clad in the coat of many colors as a distinguishing mark of love. He had to learn, through a remarkable series of sorrow and discipline, that, in order to be fit for God's service, he must find that the favour of man is deceitful ; he is allowed to taste of it from time to time, in order to show him how little it can avail him in any moment of need; and slowly, but surely, he learns what it is to be from God and to God. But deliverance comes in the end, and Joseph appears before Pharaoh, in the highest sense, as a servant and witness of God. He declares things to come, and receives the distinction and position to which righteously he is entitled, and which the world even is compelled to accord him. All this time, probably, he knew little of the service which he was to render to his brethren, or how fully that which he once attempted to render to them, and which was so wickedly rejected and requited, would now be offered, and so humbly appreciated. God all the time was working for His people and preparing for them; and in the process of time Joseph knew this, and fulfilled it.
In his several interviews with his brethren he presents to us the loveliest portraiture of the man of divine wisdom and judgment struggling against the finest emotions of the heart; restraining the expression of his affection until he were assured that the right and safe time for the denouement had arrived. How touching the anxiety and distress which he inflicts on his brethren, in order to secure to them the ways and doings which his heart craved! His love for them prompted it all; and in surveying his behaviour we cannot but see how self-possessed and controlled he had become, and how fitted for the service he was called to render and maintain. What a moment it must have been to this once suffering and humbled, but now exalted and disciplined man, to present himself to his father, fall on his neck and weep! What a course of preparation he had passed through before this great climax of his life and service was attained! But attained it was. He had through mercy accomplished and provided for every need of his brethren, evincing at the same time how equal he was to the mission he first entered on at the commencement of his course--namely, to convey to them a just idea of their father's love.
In conclusion, we have only to observe the faith for which he was distinguished. After all the eminence he had attained in Egypt, and all the service he had performed, by faith he sees a better and a greater inheritance beyond it. When about to die, he makes mention of the departure of Israel, and gives commandment concerning his bones. Thus, as a faithful servant, he closes his course, testifying of the proper object of hope ; serving the people of God to the full, and according to their need, while he lived ; and, when dying, leading them to the only true prospect and hope of their souls--even the inheritance of the promised land. No present advantages must cloud or intercept this. Faith overlooks the brilliancy of present things, and faith fully serving his people to the end, he enjoins on them, with his latest breath, their proper hope and future course.
Thus terminated the career of one of the most disciplined and honoured of servants, after great trials, but greater successes ; great sorrows, but greater joys ; great humiliation, but greater exaltation; and a grateful study it is for every suffering servant of God-to whom be praise for ever and ever.