Recognizing Divine Sovereignty
Topic: Sovereignty of God Passage: Genesis 50:1–50:26
“RECOGNIZING DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY”
1 Then Joseph fell on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. 2 And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel. 3 Forty days were required for it, for that is how many are required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.
4 And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, 5 ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.” Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.’” 6 And Pharaoh answered, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear.” 7 So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, 8 as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household. Only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen. 9 And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen. It was a very great company. 10 When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they lamented there with a very great and grievous lamentation, and he made a mourning for his father seven days. 11 When the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning by the Egyptians.” Therefore the place was named Abel-mizraim; it is beyond the Jordan. 12 Thus his sons did for him as he had commanded them, 13 for his sons carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. 14 After he had buried his father, Joseph to returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.
15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16 So they sent a message to Joseph saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17 Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.” And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
22 So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s house. Joseph lived 110 years. 23 And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation. The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were counted as Joseph’s own. 24 And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob,” 25 Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” 26 So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.
We arrive this morning at the conclusion of our three-month long investigation into the life of Joseph, as recorded in the 37th through 50th chapters of Genesis. Although we have traced his path him from the pit to the prison to the palace, we have discovered that it has not actually been Joseph—but rather the Lord—who has been the main Character of the story. It is the sovereign hand of God that has guided and sustained him through days of adversity and days of prosperity.
Whenever we speak of the sovereignty of God, it is possible to approach the topic in a purely academic manner. For example, A.W. Pink has written of God’s exercise of sovereignty this way: “Subject to none, influenced by none, absolutely independent; God does as He pleases, only as He pleases.” And while that is true, we must make sure that truth applies not just to our minds, but to our hearts as well. The failure to do so results in “knowing that sovereignty is sweet, but being unable to taste its sweetness.”
Charles Spurgeon likened the sovereignty of God to “a soft pillow upon which you can lay your head at night.” It is a beautiful thing knowing that not only is God in control over all things, but that He is working out everything—both the “good” and the “bad”—for His glory and the ultimate good of His people.
There are three principles regarding divine sovereignty that are found in Genesis 50. The writer takes us through three scenes—the death and burial of Jacob in verses 1 through 13, the forgiveness and reassurance of Joseph’s brothers in verses 14 through 21, and the death and legacy of Joseph in verses 22 through 26. From each of these scenes, we are able to glean a significant truth about the providential ways of God in the lives of His people.
The first of those principles is in verses 1 through 13, where we see that...
Divine sovereignty includes grief (Genesis 50:1-13).
That may not seem like the most positive place to begin, but it is a fact nonetheless and it is a truth that we must come to grips with.
Jacob had died. We saw that at the end of the last chapter. He had just addressed his final words to his sons, and we were told that he “breathed his last and was gathered to his people” (cf. Genesis 49:33). And just as the Lord had earlier promised, it was Joseph—his beloved son...the one he had given up for dead years earlier—who was present to “close (his) eyes” and when he passed (cf. Genesis 46:4).
Because Joseph had risen to a position second only to Pharaoh in all the land of Egypt, his father was honored with a “state funeral” that is elaborately described in verses 2 through 13. It began with an “embalming” of his body. Under normal circumstances, Jewish law would have forbidden such a practice—just as it forbade cremation. Typically, those were the pagan practices of foreign nations. But because Jacob had earlier made Joseph vow to transport his body back to Canaan and bury him there (cf. Genesis 47:29-31), preserving the body in this way was necessary because of the time needed to arrange the details of the trip.
“Embalming” a body was a part of Egyptian religious rites, meaning that priests as well as physicians played a role in the process. You will notice that the text does not mention “priests” in this case...only “physicians.” That seems to have been a special dispensation granted out of respect for Joseph and the God he worshiped. This was purely a medical and practical expedient, given the circumstances.
Most of what we know about the ancient Egyptian “embalming” process comes to us from the Herodotus, the Greek historian who lived in the 5th-century before Christ. The major organs of the body were removed, washed, and treated with a preservative solution, wrapped, and placed back into the body which was then fully wrapped and laid in a coffin. The text tells us that the entire process “required” forty days.
Verse 3 also adds that “the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.” Such an extended period of mourning was generally reserved for the Pharaoh and members of the royal family. This was an extraordinary gesture that once again testified to the esteem in which Joseph and the members of his family were held. Let’s not forget, it was because of Joseph that the nation had been spared many lives and much suffering during the lean years of famine.
“When the days of weeping for (Jacob) were past,” Joseph sent word to Pharaoh asking to be granted further favor to travel to Canaan in order that he might fulfill the oath made to his father to bury him there. In response, Pharaoh not only gave his blessing but ordered a royal funeral procession to go with him. Verse 7 says, “So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household.” And verse 9 adds, “And there want up with him both chariots and horsemen. It was a very great company.”
You will notice in verse 8, however, who did not go: “Only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen.” Had they gone, it would have constituted a “move.” It could have very well been an opportune time for that. But in verse 5, Joseph had promised Pharaoh that he would “return.” Why wasn’t the trip to Canaan a more permanent relocation? The famine was not long past and there was no practical need of remaining in Egypt? Wouldn’t it have been the ideal time, following the death of the patriarch, to return to the land God had promised to give to His people?
Perhaps Pharaoh had insisted that the “children...flocks...and...herds” be left behind in order to ensure the return of Joseph and his family. Or perhaps Joseph was aware of what God had told Abram years earlier that His people would “be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and (would) be servants there, and they (would) be afflicted for four hundred years” (cf. Genesis 15:13). Four hundred centuries had not yet passed, and perhaps Joseph determined that the failure to return would be a stepping out of the revealed will of God.
In time, the descendants of this present generation would go up to possess the land, but this was not that time. And one day, as Zechariah (8:23)would centuries later prophesy, “Men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go up with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
Whatever Joseph saw as the reason, the Egyptian entourage made its way to the eastern side of the Jordan River, stopping at “the threshing floor of Atad,” where they mourned and lamented for “seven days.” Lest we overlook the fact, it was the first time Joseph had set foot in his homeland in nearly forty years.
Arriving in Canaan, they at last laid Jacob to rest in the very place where Jacob had requested. As we were told in the last chapter (cf. Genesis 49:29-32), it was where Abraham and Sarah his wife...Isaac and Rebekah his wife” were buried. It was also where Jacob had earlier laid Leah to rest.
Isn’t it intriguing that he had asked to be buried with Leah, and not Rachel—Leah, the wife he had been deceived into taking and the one who was “unloved” (cf. Genesis 29:31, NASV)? How providentially appropriate, for it was through Leah that Judah had been born...Judah who would become the ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 1:3ff). Even in his death, Jacob’s testimony looked forward to “the Coming One.”
Death, whether it be our own or the passing of someone near and dear to us, is rarely fully anticipated. No matter how we may try, we never seem to be prepared for the loss and the pain we feel when that moment of separation occurs. Such is the nature of death....and, consequently, we grieve.
Seven times in this paragraph the verb “bury” is used. There is a note of finality when someone or something is “buried” or “laid to rest.” But as we know from the resurrection of Jesus Christ, death does not have the final say. For those who know Him as Savior and Lord, there is life—real life, abundant life, everlasting life—beyond the grave. It is part of God’s sovereign plan to bring eternal life out of temporal grief. Have you discovered that yet?
In addition to including grief,
Divine sovereignty includes grace (Genesis 50:14-21).
We see that in verses 14 through 21. The days for mourning the death of Jacob have passed. Joseph, his brothers, their families and the entire Egyptian entourage have “returned to Egypt.” Life has returned pretty much to normal...except for one nagging problem on the part of the brothers. When the full reality of their father’s passing began to sink in, they looked at one another and said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”
That statement suggests that they were concerned that Joseph’s kindness toward them had only been out of his devotion for their father, and now with Jacob “dead and buried,” their younger brother might decide to enact revenge for the “evil” they had done to him. One might even wonder if Jacob had ever learned the full story of Joseph’s sudden disappearance and the devious actions of his other sons. The text leaves that part unclear. We read in verses 16 and 17, “So they sent a message to Joseph saying, ‘Your father gave this command before he died: Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.” And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of God your father.’”
I want to believe that the brothers were being honest...that the words they now spoke to Joseph were of a truth spoken to them by their father before he died. Regardless of whether they were or not, the earnestness of their request to be assured of their brother’s forgiveness was genuine. And herein lies the major question that every one of us faces: “Can there ever be real and lasting forgiveness?” It is the question that only the Bible can truly answer.
Repeatedly the New Testament informs us that the forgiveness of sins comes exclusively through the sacrificial, substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus Christ. He, the perfect God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NKJV).
The brothers’ concern and the manner in which they presented it to Joseph sets up one of the most gripping scenes found in all of Scripture. It would appear that the question caught him completely off guard. Hadn’t he already demonstrated his forgiveness of them? Hadn’t they yet grasped that he held no animosity toward them? The end of verse 17 says, “Joseph wept when they spoke to him.” No further exchange of words was necessary. His heartbroken response said it all.
Overcome by their own emotion, and perhaps fear, the brothers themselves “came and fell down before him,” willing to become his servants. We “flash back” to Genesis 37(:5-8) and the dream Joseph had as a teenager: “Hear this dream that I have dreamed,” he told them that day. “Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” Indignant at the time, the brothers began hatching a plot to rid themselves of him once and for all. And they very nearly succeeded...but, in the end, divine sovereignty won out.
Joseph could have boasted over them nearly forty years later when they actually bowed low before him. This marked the fourth time they had done so since they first arrived in Egypt asking for food (cf. Genesis 42:6, 43:26, and 44:14). Rather than choosing to lord it over them, as he understandably might have, we read verses 19 through 21, “Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
You will notice that Joseph did not minimize their guilt. Instead he emphasized the grace that overcomes guilt. Able to perceive God’s sovereign grace throughout his life, he was able to dispense it to others. How many of us are able to say to those who have hurt us or harmed us or offended us in much lesser ways, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”? Many have called Genesis 50 and verse 20 “the Romans 8:28 of the Old Testament.” Indeed it is. “For those whom love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” You see, God is able to includes man’s guilt as an essential ingredient in His saving activity.
As followers of Jesus Christ, you and I know that God overrules the most heinous sins of man for His glory and the ultimate good of His people. The classic example of that is, of course, Judas Iscariot. As someone has said, “Man proposes, but God disposes.” Even a Jewish commentator—who would pay little credence to Romans 8:28—must admit that “the malignant intentions of human beings can realize the intentions of God.”
Joseph’s response to his brothers in verses 19 through 21 reveals three important truths:
- In the first place, God is the ultimate Judge over all things. Joseph may have been God’s instrument, but he was not God’s “substitute.” There is not the least suggestion that at any time God was not in control.
- Second, God is the ultimate Governor of the universe. He is the One who holds the strings of divine providence over all things...those we can see, and those we cannot. Earlier, when he had first revealed himself to his brothers, he had told them, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5). “You sold me,” but “God sent me.”
- And third, God instructs His people to repay evil with forgiveness and affection. That is what “grace” means. Twice Joseph told his brothers to not be afraid. “I will provide for you and your little ones.” “Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” Jesus’ haunting words from His Sermon on the Mount should regularly remind us of this truth: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). Forgiveness does not come naturally to most of us, but followers of Christ learn to forgive because they have been forgiven a far greater debt.
Divine sovereignty includes grief, as we see with the passing of Jacob. Divine sovereignty also includes grace, as we have just seen in Joseph’s willingness to forgive and love his brothers. Furthermore,
Divine sovereignty includes glory (Genesis 50:22-26).
Some sixty years separate verses 21 and 22 in our story. Joseph has reached the age of 110 years, considered to be the ideal lifespan in the Egyptian society of that day. Despite the exemplary, though imperfect, life he has led, Joseph does not attain the longevity of Abraham (175 years, cf. Genesis 25:7), Isaac (180 years, cf. Genesis 35:28), or Jacob (147 years, cf. Genesis 47:28). Nevertheless, he has lived to see his great grandchildren.
Apparently he did not outlive his older brothers. This can be inferred from verse 24, where we learn that as the time of his death drew near, he expressed to them his final wishes. He made them swear—as his father had made him swear years before—to transport his body to Canaan. Hebrews 11:22 records it this way: “Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.”
You see, it was a pledge that would not be carried out for nearly four hundred years. Like Jacob before him, Joseph’s body would be “embalmed,” but rather than being taken to Canaan for burial in a timely manner, it would lay “in a coffin in Egypt” for nearly four centuries...to the time of the Exodus. That was due, in large measure because, following the death of Joseph, the Scriptures reveal that “There arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph,” and he would turn against the once-welcomed guests of the land and make them his slaves (cf. Exodus 1:8-14).
It is not until Exodus 13:19, and having begun their overnight departure from the land of Egypt that we read, “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, ‘God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.” In fact, his final resting place is not even referred to until conquest of the land. In Joshua 29:32 we are told, “As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem”...which, if you recall, was the very location where he had been sold into slavery by his brothers (cf. Genesis 37:12).
Derek Kidner’s closing words in his commentary of Genesis are fitting at this point. He writes,
The book of Genesis, like the Old Testament in microcosm, ends by pointing beyond its own story. Man had traveled far from Eden to a coffin, and the chosen family far from Canaan to Egypt, but Joseph’s ‘charge concerning his bones’ was a gesture of faith (Heb. 11:22), which would not be disappointed (Ex. 13:19; Jos. 24:32). No funeral procession like Jacob’s was to set out for Canaan: the matter could bide God’s time and a better exodus. So the promise was signified as well as spoken, and would germinate one day in the mind of Moses (cf. Acts 7:23-25) to awaken him to his mission. Joseph’s dying words epitomized the hope in which the Old Testament, and indeed the New (cf. Rev. 22:20), would fall into expedient silence: God will surely visit you.
At times we may wonder, even though we know God loves us and we cling to His Word...”why this?” and “why now?” I assure you that He has neither forgotten not forsaken us. As the sovereign Lord of all, He has every right to chart the details of our course through life and impose whatever delays He deems necessary in bringing about His greater purposes. It is helpful for us to remember that none of God’s acts are arbitrary, random, or spontaneous. Everything that He does has been written in His eternal plan ahead of time. It has been set in motion from before the universe was created.
And that includes His plan for you and for me. Spurgeon was right, for the follower of Jesus Christ, the sovereignty of God to “a soft pillow upon which you can lay your head at night.”
As we bring to a conclusion our look at how God’s sovereignty has played out in the lifer of this one individual, Joseph, it is easy for us view him as a man of the highest integrity whose example we cannot possibly live up to. Few others in Scripture compare with him in terms of righteous conduct in trying and tempting circumstances.
Sold treacherously by his own brothers, he did not react with bitterness or a defeated life of sin. Tempted by a beautiful married woman, he knew that to give in to his lust would be to sin against the holiness of God. Wrongly accused by her, he did not lose heart and hope even when cast into prison.
Joseph was also capable. Not only was he given a high position in Egypt, but he was able to hold it and distinguish himself in it. He apparently remained in that position for many decades through the rest of his life. In time he came to understand that he had experienced both the pit and the pinnacle by God’s sovereign hand as a means of both preserving the people of God and preparing the way for them to enact God’s foreordained plan.
Whether is adversity or prosperity, Joseph could rightly be labeled a “man of God.”
In many ways, he has been shown to be a “type” of Jesus Christ...not a perfect “prototype,” but one whose life and experiences have flashed preview of the greater One who would come in fulfillment of the promises made to the patriarchs regarding the God’s plan for God’s people.
Christians do not need to be persuaded to believe that God is sovereign. We accept that as fact. What we do need to understand, however, is that this is more than a theoretical proclamation. It has immense practical significance. For example...
- When we say God is sovereign in His world. That means, for example, that our prayers are not attempts to force God’s hand, but are instead humble acknowledgments of our helplessness and dependence upon Him. He is in control of all things, and not one thing occurs outside of his foreordained plan.
- In addition, when we say God is sovereign in salvation, we recognize that we did not save ourselves or merit His salvation is any way. He saved us, and our proper response is thanksgiving, praise, and worship. He saves whom He will and whatever manner He chooses to save. Therefore, the proper response to salvation is thanksgiving.
Those statements neither eliminate nor minimize human responsibility and accountability. If they did, then all of the commands of Scripture would be meaningless. Scripture teaches that as sovereign Lord, God orders and controls all things—human actions among them—according to His own eternal purpose. It also teaches that as Judge, He holds every person responsible for the choices He makes and the courses of action that are pursued. At times these seemingly polar extremes are found in the same passage...such as Genesis 50:20, which summarizes Joseph’s entire story: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
Our speculations are not the measure of God. He is both sovereign Lord and righteous Judge. For us to consider Him less is not only to do Him a disservice, but to imperil our relationship with Him.
The God of Scripture, the Lord of all creation, is larger than you could ever possibly imagine. He has known you from before you were conceived, and not one hair from your head throughout your life has fallen to the ground without His knowledge. He has planned your destiny from before the foundation of the world, and He is aware of every joy and every sorrow you have felt. He knows every thought and intention of your heart, and still invites you to cast your every care of Him. He is able to forgive your every sin because He is the One who sacrificed His own Son to bear the wrath and pay the penalty that you deserved.
If you do not know God through His Son, Jesus Christ, then know for certain that “Whoever comes to (Him He) will never cast out” (John 6:37). If you have not yet done so and are walking with Him by faith, will you turn away from your sin and trust Him today?
And Christian, be encouraged today...and everyday, knowing that “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Our Lord is sovereign...He is sovereign over all.