“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick” says the Scripture (Proverbs 13:12). We have all known some hoped-for thing come to nothing. Just when it looked like it would happen, it did not. The disappointment is hard to bear. And when a “false dawn” comes several times it can make us sick at heart.
It was like this for Joseph. The following verses record three times when his hopes were raised, then dashed.
Genesis 37:28 “Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.”
Genesis 39:20 “And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison.”
Genesis 40:23 “Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him.”
Of all the trials Joseph had, he must have found this element among the hardest to bear. They happened at three key points in his life and brought bitterness into his soul. It afterwards become clear, however, that they were necessary to the Lord fulfilling His purposes for Joseph, and through him for others too. Let us look at this more closely.
Joseph’s two dreams (Genesis 37:5-7; 9-11) were a divine forecast of events to come. He would be high over his brothers, and they would bow to him, signifying their dependence upon him. This was fulfilled when he became Egypt’s Prime Minister. In charge of storing grain during the plentiful years, Joseph sold it in the years of famine – including to his subservient brothers! The fulfilment is recorded in Genesis 42:6 (cf verse 9); 43:26,28; 44:14; and 50:18.
To make this happen, though, God in providence brought Joseph through raised – and dashed – hopes those three times. Painfully disappointing though these were, it was how Joseph came to that blessed place where he could look back and see that it all was meant for good. In the end, his disappointed hopes were fulfilled beyond what he imagined.
The same for us
And in principle it is the same for us. Has 2016 been a year of “hope deferred” for you? Are you tempted to think that the New Year will be no different? Resist the temptation to be disillusioned – even cynical. Considering what happened to Joseph – and the wonderful way all led to God’s expected end (Jeremiah 29:11) – can help us have renewed confidence in the God whose way is perfect, and who makes our way perfect (Psalm 18:30,32).
Let us look at the three occasions when the Lord led Joseph to expect deliverance and renewed blessing, only to see these hopes fail. We can then see that such debacles happen for a purpose, and that they fit into God’s unfolding purpose for our lives. It is not that He has failed us, or that the devil has prevailed, or that we are at the mercy of people and circumstances. It might seem like all of these, but it is all in the providence of God, for our greater good and His revealed glory.
1. The Hope Of Being Spared
Genesis 37:28 “and they lifted up Joseph out of the pit … and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.”
1] Here, Joseph is in danger and anguish.
The jealousy and anger of his brothers culminate in their plotting his murder. Approaching them in Dothan, they determine to frustrate his dream-prophecies, “Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit … and we shall see what will become of his dreams (37:20). They would see what became of his dreams, but in a different way from what they thought! They “imagined a vain thing” (Psalm 2:1), for “the counsel of the LORD, that shall stand” (Proverbs 19:21).
Then on second thoughts they decide to put Joseph into a pit, presumably to leave him there to die (verses 23,24). They heartlessly had their meal before moving on (verse 25a). This shows how stifled their conscience was, able to eat their food and ignore his pleadings (Genesis 42:21). To Joseph it must have seemed the end of everything.
2] Then came hope.
“They drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit” (verse 28). Eating, they saw in the distance approaching traders, en route to Egypt with their goods. An idea occurs: instead of killing their brother, they would sell him to these men. They would then not be guilty of murder, and be better off financially as well! Sometimes it seems that wickedness prospers at the expense of the righteous – but not for always!
Joseph, not knowing this new scheme, must have felt great relief. His hateful brothers have relented, and they are sparing him! As they lifted him out of that pit he could look forward to going home again. However, imagine the horror: “they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver” (verse 28)! What a cruel and crushing disappointment!
3] It had to be.
The extra detail says it: “and they (the Ishmeelites) brought Joseph into Egypt” (verse 28b). Egypt is where Joseph’s future lay: where his dream-forecasts must be fulfilled, and where he was going to be made a blessing to his family and the world. The Lord was working, even by the callousness of his brothers, and the mercenariness of the Ishmaelites. Who would have thought? One day he would look back and see it. God often works like this. As John Flavel observed: “Some providences, like Hebrew letters, must be read backwards.”
Remember: hope deferred is not hope denied.
2. The Hope Of Things Improving
Genesis 39:20 “And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison, etc.”
If his brothers thought that Joseph would vanish and be forgotten in Egypt they were mistaken. Not reckoning on the providential overruling of their wickedness, they were God’s servants to send Joseph there (45:4,5). And there the Lord had another instrument ready: Potiphar. He “just happened” to need another household servant, and was at the market when Joseph was there. Bought by Potiphar, Joseph finds himself in palatial surroundings – very different from Hebron and its fields and flocks.
His great comfort is: “And the LORD was with Joseph” (39:2). The fruit of the Lord’s present help was that Joseph could submit to his new circumstances and serve the Lord in them. This was grace, as James Smith wrote: “Religion is intended to make men happy, not by changing their circumstances, but by changing the disposition of their minds. A deeply-taught child of God, thoroughly sanctified by the Holy Spirit, could be happy anywhere, but another man could not.”
And Joseph found that Psalm 1:3 was fulfilled to him: “whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” As time went by things improved because “he was a prosperous man … the LORD made all that he did to prosper in his hand” (39: 2,3). Moreover, “And his master … made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand” (39:3,4).
1] Things had become bearable for Joseph.
If he must be far from home in a foreign land, this is not so bad. Perhaps in time, having so pleased his master, he could ask for a “leave of absence” and visit home and assure his father all is well. Meanwhile, he is blessed in the Lord, and in his upward mobility. Maybe he thought this was how he was going to rise even higher, eventually to the fulfilment of those dream-prophecies.
2] But, alas!
We find all Joseph’s hopes collapse in unexpected disappointment. From 39:7 we read that Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce the handsome young Joseph. He repeatedly rejects her advances in the gracious fear of the Lord. Deeply scorned, she hatches the plot that brings him down: to her husband she falsely accuses Joseph of these advances, producing his coat as fabricated evidence.
Not for the first time has the innocent been falsely accused by the guilty. And now Joseph exchanges his high position in Potiphar’s house for a low place of punishment in his prison (39:20). This second debacle must have been hard for Joseph to bear.
a] He has done what is right, and yet has unjustly suffered for it.
And where is “them that honour me I will honour” (1 Samuel 2:30) now? He had reasoned, in Matthew Henry’s words, “Better to lose a good coat than a good conscience.” But now he has lost his liberty as well.
b] He is in prison, surely to the shutting up of all his hopes.
Joseph has no way of knowing if he will ever be released. And even if he were, there could be no going back to Potiphar’s house.
c] This was real suffering for Joseph.
An extra detail comes in Psa.105:18 “Whose feet they hurt with fetters: he was laid in iron.” Yet, the physical suffering was not so intense as the sufferings of his heart.
3] This was the Lord’s way.
The grievous turn of events meant that Joseph met in prison the two servants of Pharaoh (40:3,4). It connected with the king of Egypt through his butler. The day will come when his memory divinely-jogged, he will mention Joseph to Pharaoh, who will only be too keen to meet him (41:14). And it will be the beginning of Joseph’s real rise.
For now, though, Joseph must walk by faith, and trust in the Lord who is with him (Proverbs 3:5,6). If he could have seen the outcome, the prison would have afforded more joy and light than his freedom. But faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). As Matthew Henry wrote, “God designed to pave the way to his enlargement.
Remember, hope deferred is not hope denied.
3. The Hope Of Deliverance
40:23 “Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him.”
1] In prison, Joseph discovers what the Lord can be to him.
As in Potiphar’s house, he finds that no place shuts him away from God. Before long, he rises in trust and responsibility in the prison (40:21-23). The Lord makes up to Joseph his loss of liberty (Psalm 69:3) so that he becomes virtually the prison Governor. Here is comfort for all Christians imprisoned unjustly for the gospel’s sake, because they can do good wherever they are. In the story of Eric Liddell, life in the Weihsien Japanese internment camp was lifted immeasurably by his cheerful organising of things for the children, helping the elderly, and keeping up a good spirit among his fellow-internees.
2] There came encouragement.
Joseph is afterwards joined by two of Pharaoh’s important servants: the chief butler, and the chief baker (40:3,4). His quick mind sees significance in this: they have dreams that forecast their future! This must have made him think of his dreams and their meaning. Moreover, the Lord enables him to correctly interpret both men’s dreams, leading to the butler being restored to his position of service to Pharaoh (40:13).
Here, surely, is hope raised again! Joseph sees his opportunity, and asks the butler, when restored, to mention his case to Pharaoh, explaining the injustice of all that has happened to him (40:13-15).
Some have questioned the rightness of what Joseph does here. That by his resorting to this device, he is not trusting the Lord but looking to man. However, it can as easily be understood as Joseph using lawful means to help bring about the answer to his prayers. In providence, it is usually the rule that if there are lawful means to be used, they are themselves providential and can be the way the Lord takes to answer prayer (e.g. 2 Samuel 15:31-34). When this is so, to overlook means is presumptuous.
3] However, once again Joseph is disappointed.
The fulfilment of the two men’s dreams were as Joseph had said: Pharaoh restored the chief butler and hanged the chief baker. However, as the days passed and no one came to Joseph’s cell, no enquiry was made into his case – Joseph finally realised, “Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him” (41:23). This was a crushing blow, yet again. Perhaps Joseph’s last hope is now gone. And this lasted for two years (41:1).
Perhaps this is familiar. Someone you looked to for help has let you down. Maybe a good friend has turned against you. It may even be someone in the family has grievously disappointed you. We all know that sinking feeling as our heart is made sick. We are not alone. Joseph, one of the best men in the Bible, experienced more of this than we are likely to know. And God’s choicest saints must come this way. Be encouraged now as we consider the sequel.
4] It all ended wonderfully well.
After the two years – “two full years” – for God is never too early or too late – something happened. God visits Pharaoh with similar dreams to Joseph’s and the butler’s and baker’s, because they are divine forecasts of the future. The dreams deeply perplex Pharaoh because he cannot understand what they predict. None of his so-called magicians can tell him its meaning. He desperately needs someone to interpret – and that jogs the butler’s memory (41:9ff).
Now Pharaoh sends for Joseph. Before, Joseph has hoped that he might send to Pharaoh for help. When God’s time comes, Pharaoh sends for him: “they brought him hastily out of the dungeon … and came in unto Pharaoh” (41:14). The word for “hastily” is in the margin: “made him run.” Not one moment longer is Joseph left a disappointed man. When God’s time comes, there is no delay (cf Luke 18:8 “he will avenge them speedily”). We know the rest of the story. Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and thus his own eminent future, which soon unfolds.
Joseph’s brothers – the very ones who tried to thwart his future – are now brought to Egypt to be part of that future. The whole family come to Egypt to be “nourished” by Joseph. And so, another stage in the unfolding drama of redemption takes place. Ahead will be the sufferings in Egypt, the exodus, entrance to Canaan, the kings – all the way to “the fullness of the time” when, of that nation of Israel our blessed Lord will come.
Joseph little knew what great things were bound up in his three disappointments. But he lived to see that God “hath made every thing beautiful in his time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and so will we. Dear reader: hope in God, and from the depths of disappointed hopes still look to Him. His guiding Hand is on your life, and your minutest circumstances are subject to His care. Your times are in His hand and He will bring you through to that place where you can see all the way He has led you, and He has done all things well. Learn these lessons,
a] Our disappointments are His appointments.
In order that He might bring us to our desired haven of blessing.
b] Negative providences are still providences.
He reserves the right to close doors as well as open them.
c] Be thankful for everything that has not happened.
They would have gratified your desires for a while, but you would have missed God’s best.
Thy ways, O Lord, with wise design
Are framed upon Thy throne above,
And every dark and bending line
Meets in the centre of Thy love.
With feeble light and half obscure
Poor mortals Thine arrangements view,
Not knowing that the least are sure
And the mysterious just and true.
Thy flock, Thine own peculiar care,
Though now they seem to roam uneyed,
Are led or driven only where
They best and safest may abide.
They neither know nor trace the way;
But whilst they trust Thy guardian eye,
Their feet shall ne’er to ruin stray,
Nor shall the weakest fail or die.
My favoured soul shall meekly learn
To lay her reason at Thy throne;
Too weak Thy secrets to discern,
I’ll trust Thee for my Guide alone.
(Ambrose Serle, 1742-1812)
by Rev. John Thackway, Pastor of Holywell Evangelical Church
Used with kind permission of the author