A Providential Outlook on Life

A Providential Outlook on Life

Having celebrated our precious Lord Jesus’ last days of earthly life beginning with the joyous Palm Sunday celebration—to his torturous death on the cross on Good Friday—to his irrepressible rising from death on Easter Sunday, this morning we return to our study of Joseph’s life. When last we saw Joseph, he was governor over Egypt and had just been reunited with his brothers over twenty years after they had so heartlessly and cruelly sold him into slavery.[1] But at this juncture only Joseph was aware of the fact that this was a reunion for though he had recognized his brothers who had gone down to Egypt to purchase grain, his brothers didn’t recognize him since he had been but a boy of seventeen when last they’d seen him. Perhaps out of the pain they had caused him, Joseph spoke harshly to his brothers, accusing them of being spies and demanding as proof of their innocence that they return to him with their youngest brother, Benjamin. But upon hearing his brothers speak of that terrible day so many years ago when they had sold him into slavery—and then hearing Reuben recount how he had stood up to his brothers for the evil they planned to do against him—Joseph “turned away from them and began to weep….”[2] This is where we’ll pick up on this poignant account.

As stated in the latter half of verse 24, after Joseph had wept, he “came back” to his brothers, “spoke to them again,” and “had Simeon taken from them and bound before their eyes.” This was in accordance with what he had earlier told them. Simeon was to be kept as insurance, as a guarantee that they would return to him with Benjamin.[3] It’s interesting that Joseph took Simeon, the second oldest, rather than Reuben, the eldest brother. I can’t help but wonder if the reason for this was that since he had just heard Reuben tell how he had stood up for Joseph—unlike Simeon and the rest who initially intended to kill Joseph—he decided to allow Simeon’s life to be placed in peril should they not return rather than Reuben’s. Whatever the case, Joseph, verse 25, “gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to put each man’s silver back in his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey.”[4] We’re not told why Joseph had their silver returned to each of them but, as we’ll see, his doing so would provide yet another moment of reckoning for his brothers.

Now it wasn’t until after the brothers had left Joseph and “stopped for the night,” that, beginning with verse 27, “one of them opened his sack to get feed for his donkey, and he saw his silver in the mouth of his sack. 28 ‘My silver has been returned,’ he said to his brothers. ‘Here it is in my sack.’” Not surprisingly, upon making this discovery, “[t]heir hearts sank and they turned to each other trembling and said, ‘What is this that God has done to us?’” What is this, indeed? Now when I first read this, I thought that this response on the part of the brothers was due yet again to the guilt they had earlier expressed over having sold Joseph off into slavery recounted earlier in the chapter. However, the more I’ve reflected upon it, the more I believe that this time the brothers’ response was more of a genuine expression of their belief that everything that happens to us in life has first been filtered through God’s providential involvement. For this time there was no mention of God punishing them “because of our brother” nor of the distress they had witnessed “when he pleaded with us for his life” and they hadn’t listened. This time there was no conclusion stating, “that’s why this distress has come on us.” [5] No, what we see here is more of an acknowledgement that they were living their lives in the presence of God. Therefore, even an unforeseen—not to mention inexplicable—event that was negative was understood as having passed through God’s hands: “What is this that God has done to us?”

It’s interesting to see that the brothers continued to interpret things that Joseph had done as things that God was doing. So, again, when the governor of the land—who was really Joseph whom they hadn’t recognized—spoke roughly to them, they had assumed that God was punishing them for having sold off their brother into slavery over twenty years earlier. And now that Joseph—without their knowledge—had had the the silver in their sacks replaced, they again wondered what God was doing. Judging by how the brothers were responding to their circumstances, it certainly would appear that the faith in God that their great-grandfather Abraham—and their grandfather Isaac—and their father Jacob (or Israel) had displayed, had been both taught and caught by Jacob’s twelve sons as they sought to make sense of what in the world God was doing in the midst of their present trials.

Well, as stated in verse 29, once they had returned “to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them”:

How, verse 30, “The man who is lord over the land spoke harshly to us and treated us as though we were spying on the land;”

And of how they had assured him that they were honest men, not spies, verse 31;

And that they had let him know that they were twelve brothers in all, “sons of one father.” And that “One is no more, and the youngest is now with our father in Canaan,” verse 32.

And how the man who was lord over the land had told them that if they were, indeed, honest men then one of them would need to stay behind while the others returned home with food. However, they would have to bring their youngest brother to him. In this way, and this way only, would he be convinced that they were honest men rather than spies. Then, once they returned with their youngest brother, he would allow the imprisoned brother—that is, Simeon—to be released and they all would then be free to trade in the land or perhaps, to “move about freely,” another possible translation, verse 34.[6]

After recounting all of these matters to their father Jacob, we learn that, verse 35, “As they were emptying their sacks, there in each man’s sack was his pouch of silver! When they and their father saw the money pouches, they were frightened.” It was only at this point that they discovered that it wasn’t just one of the brothers who had had the silver he used to pay for grain returned to his sack but all of the brothers similarly found that their silver had been replaced. Is it any wonder that they were frightened? How in the world could this have happened? They were in dire straits, indeed, for if the man who was lord over the land were to learn of this, he would no doubt conclude that the brothers surely were not honest men but that they were thieves in addition to being spies.

Jacob, having lost Joseph and fearing the same outcome for Simeon responded to this adverse turn of events by saying to them, verse 36, “You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!” Reuben, however, sought to allay his father’s fears, saying to him, verse 37, “You may put both of my sons to death if I do not bring him back to you. Entrust him to my care, and I will bring him back.” Jacob, however, showed no interest in Reuben’s rash and outrageous—not to mention sinful—offer of allowing his own two sons to be put to death should they not return with Benjamin. As one commentator observes, “Jacob is unlikely to entrust Benjamin to someone who cares so little for the lives of his own sons.”[7] Too, although Reuben may have been trying to make right his past wrongs, he couldn’t erase the fact that he had, after all, once slept with his father’s concubine.[8] Therefore his offer was probably viewed by Jacob as being suspect. Jacob could hardly have found Reuben to be trustworthy even if, as we’ve noted, twenty years earlier he alone had sought to keep his brothers from killing Joseph in order that he might rescue and return him to his father.[9]

No, Jacob was not inclined to accept Reuben’s offer. He determined instead not to comply with the request made by the lord of the land saying, verse 38, “My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow.” Having lost one son—that is, Joseph, the favorite son[10] of his favorite wife Rachel[11] who had died giving birth to his now next favorite son Benjamin[12]—Jacob didn’t dare risk losing his youngest son. To lose him as well would result in his dying in sorrow. Therefore they did nothing, choosing instead to live off of the grain that Jacob’s sons had brought back with them from Egypt.

However, Jacob’s refusal and denial did not make the famine go away. As stated in the opening verses of Genesis 43, “1 Now the famine was still severe in the land. So when they had eaten all the grain they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, ‘Go back and buy us a little more food.’” This, of course, was the one thing his sons couldn’t possibly do. Therefore Judah—from whose line God’s promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, would one day come[13]—now attempted to talk with his father, trying to see if he might succeed where Reuben had earlier failed. As stated, beginning with verse 3, Judah said to his father, “The man warned us solemnly, ‘You will not see my face again unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother along with us, we will go down and buy food for you. But if you will not send him, we will not go down, because the man said to us, ‘You will not see my face again unless your brother is with you.’” Judah understood that “the man”—that is, Joseph—had been serious in his insistence that they must return with their youngest brother—or else. To return to Egypt without Benjamin would be pointless for they would be denied the opportunity to again meet with the governor of the land.

Israel replied to Judah’s words by asking, verse 6, “Why did you bring this trouble on me by telling the man you had another brother?” Therefore his sons yet again recounted how matters had unfolded as they told him, verse 7:

How “the man” had questioned them closely about themselves and their family;

How he had asked if their father was still living and whether they had another brother;

The brothers tried to explain to their father that they had “simply answered his questions.” They had no way of anticipating that the man would demand that they bring his brother back with them.[14]

After this recounting Judah made a second attempt to convince his father of the necessity of their taking Benjamin with them when they returned to Egypt. But he made a more reasonable offer than the one made by Reuben. As stated, beginning with verse 8, Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy along with me and we will go at once, so that we and you and our children may live and not die. I myself will guarantee his safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life. 10 As it is, if we had not delayed, we could have gone and returned twice.” With these words, Judah made clear his willingness to accept complete responsibility for whatever might occur for he both guaranteed Benjamin’s safety and promised to bear the blame for the rest of his life should he fail to return Benjamin to his father.

Judah’s words achieved their desired effect for with these reassurances his father finally conceded as he said to his sons, beginning with verse 11,

If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift—a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds. 12 Take double the amount of silver with you, for you must return the silver that was put back into the mouths of your sacks. Perhaps it was a mistake. 13 Take your brother also and go back to the man at once. 14 And may God Almighty grant you mercy before the man so that he will let your other brother and Benjamin come back with you. As for me, if I am bereaved, I am bereaved.

Israel provided his sons wise counsel in telling them:

to be sure to give the lord of the land some of the best products of their own land;

to return with double the amount of silver since their original silver had been returned to their sacks;

and, yes, to take Benjamin with them on their journey.

Finally, he prayed that God Almighty, El-Shaddai, might grant them mercy so that they all might return to him and, if they didn’t, if he had to be bereaved of sons, then so be it.

What we see displayed in the lives of Israel and his sons is a providential outlook on life. They understood that God Almighty, El-Shaddai himself, was involved in everything that took place in their lives. He was involved in the good; he was involved in the bad; he was involved in the ugly. Nothing that occurred to them was beyond his purview. A few weeks ago we noted a similar providential outlook expressed in the lives of Joseph—and of the author of Psalm 150—and of Stephen in the New Testament.[15] In fact, I would argue that teaching us to view our lives through the eyes of God’s providence is one of the key reasons that he has left us his Holy Scriptures. For the Old and New Testaments tell us about who God is and about his providential dealings with his image-bearers from the time that he created them and the world to the time that he returns for his creation’s final consummation.

So, too, in our New Testament passage from the fourth chapter of James, we see a similar outlook displayed. Beginning with verse 13, James states, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’” In these verses James is addressing traveling merchants, i.e., those who “carry on business and make money”—and specifically, as verses 16–17 go on to make clear, merchants who have been boasting about their “arrogant schemes” who are therefore not doing “the good they ought to do” and are thereby sinning.[16] As one commentator suggests, James’ point is that “Every business decision must be based on submission to God’s will.”[17]

But I think that James’ teaching can—and should— be applied not only to every business decision, but to every decision we make. For in a more general sense what James has described here is similar to the kinds of things all of us have said at one time or another—hopefully, without the evil intent of the merchants noted. Haven’t we all made plans for the future? Haven’t we all planned a vacation or made plans to visit friends or family? I know that Ron and I—covid restrictions and vaccinations permitting—later this summer are hoping to attend a reunion of a singing group he was involved with while in college as well as the possible wedding of one of my nephews—fingers crossed on both! So what is James saying? Is it wrong for Ron and me—is it wrong for you—to make plans for the future? Is James’ point, as the saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!”?

No, I don’t think it’s that at all. I think that James’ greater point is that whatever we do, we should do so with the understanding that our plans ought to be made with the awareness that all of our lives are in God’s hands. Life is unpredictable. At least it’s unpredictable to us who are but mortal and are therefore burdened with a myopic outlook that is unable, at times, to see the larger picture. To use James’ words, verse 14, “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Indeed, life is short. No one can know what the future may hold.

This being the case, what ought we to say instead? James provides the answer in verse 15: “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (emphasis added). There’s no harm in making plans but, when we do, we should acknowledge that our lives are ever in the hands of our Maker and Lord. Isn’t this the example that James’ half-brother, our dear Lord Jesus, gave? Recall how at a moment of extreme suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he anticipated dying for those who would believe him, he prayed to his Father in heaven—not once, not twice, but three times—“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”[18] “If it is possible….” “If it is the Lord’s will.” Both Jesus and James agree. We should seek to live our lives intentionally before God, with the understanding that he has made us; that he knows best how we ought to live; that, given his goodness—and greatness—and compassion—and justice, his will will always be better for us than our own.

This providential outlook on life is what we see displayed in the lives of Joseph—and his brothers—and their father, Jacob; this providential outlook on life is what we see displayed in the life of our Lord Jesus; this providential outlook on life is what James is exhorting us to. For a providential outlook on life—a vantage point that knows that God is good and understands that he is always on our side—will look to him in good times and in bad. A providential outlook on life understands that though we may suffer at the hands of Satan and his minions—or at the hands of others—or as a result of the faulty care and decisions we make for ourselves, God is always God. He is always great; he is always good; he ever loves and desires for us to turn to him in good times and in bad. For, as Jesus teaches, if God dresses the flowers in the field with a splendor greater than that of Solomon;[19] if every sparrow that falls is under our heavenly Father’s care;[20] if our heavenly Father even knows the number of hairs on our head,[21] then, as Jesus concludes, we ought never be afraid—for we are worth far more than many sparrows![22] This is what it means to live out our faith in God’s providence and goodness that is available to all who seek and turn to him.

Let us pray.

Benediction: Romans 15:13: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.




[1] Genesis 42:6: Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground.

[2] Genesis 42:24a.

[3] Genesis 42:19–20: 19 If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households. 20 But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die.” This they proceeded to do.

[4] Genesis 42:25–26: 25 Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to put each man’s silver back in his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey. After this was done for them, 26 they loaded their grain on their donkeys and left.

[5] See Genesis 42:18–21: 18 On the third day, Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19 If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households. 20 But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die.” This they proceeded to do. 21 They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

[6] If Joseph made the point concerning trade or moving about freely in the land, it wasn’t included in the original account from Genesis 42:33–34: 33 “Then the man who is lord over the land said to us, ‘This is how I will know whether you are honest men: Leave one of your brothers here with me, and take food for your starving households and go. 34 But bring your youngest brother to me so I will know that you are not spies but honest men. Then I will give your brother back to you, and you can trade in the land.’”

[7] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 42:36–38.

[8] Genesis 35:22: While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.

[9] Genesis 37:19–21: 19 “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. 20 “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” 21 When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. 22 “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.

[10] Genesis 37:3: Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him.

[11] Genesis 29:30 tells how Jacob’s “love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah.”

[12] Genesis 35:16–18: 16 Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. 17 And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, “Don’t despair, for you have another son.” 18 As she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin.

[13] Genesis 49:10: The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.; Revelation 5:5: Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

[14] Genesis 43:7: They replied, “The man questioned us closely about ourselves and our family. ‘Is your father still living?’ he asked us. ‘Do you have another brother?’ We simply answered his questions. How were we to know he would say, ‘Bring your brother down here’?”

[15] See sermon preached on March 14, 2021, The Value—and Hope!—of History on Genesis 41:33–57.

[16] James 4:16–17: 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. As suggested in the Study Bible note on James 4:14: “Planning and investing are not wrong, but arrogant self-confidence and boasting are.”

[17] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on James 4:15.

[18] Matthew 26:36–44: 36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” 39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” 40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. See also Mark 14:32–41: 32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” 35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”39 Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. 40 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. 41 Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Luke 22:39–44: 39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

[19] Matthew 6:29–34: 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

[20] Matthew 10:29: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.

[21] Matthew 10:30: And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.

[22] Matthew 10:31: So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.