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.” 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 the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But 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. – Genesis 50:15-21 ESV
Jacob dies and immediately his sons begin to worry. They fear that Joseph, who they sold into slavery and who now rules over them as the second-most powerful man in Egypt, will take revenge on them now that their father is gone. They assume he was only biding his time until Jacob was out of the picture. They wrongly believe that Joseph, out of love and respect for their father, had been unwilling to give his brothers what they deserved. But now that he was gone, all bets were off. Or so they thought. They even concoct a story saying that, on his deathbed, Jacob had given them a message to give to Joseph. It was Jacob’s dying wish that Joseph forgive his brothers for their sin against them. Nowhere else in the text does Moses record that this conversation ever happened between Jacob and his sons, so we can assume that it was a fabrication, a lie concocted by Joseph’s brothers in an attempt to save their own necks from the hatred they believed Joseph still harbored for them. But they were in for a pleasant surprise.
Joseph, displaying a profound grasp on the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, tells his brothers they have nothing to fear. First of all, Joseph assuages their concerns by letting them know that revenge is the prerogative and purview of God. Even if he was still angry with them, Joseph knew he had no right to enact judgment or to seek revenge on his brothers. In asking the rhetorical question, “am I in the place of God?” (Genesis 50:19 ESV), Joseph reveals his understanding of and respect for God’s rule and reign over any and all. He portrays a humble and quiet confidence in God’s unwavering rule over the affairs of his life. During his forced exile from his family, Joseph had been able to see first-hand the remarkable proof of God’s providence in so many ways. Enough time had passed that any lingering anger against his bothers or desire to seek revenge had been replaced by a peace with his circumstances that came from a growing trust in God’s providence. God was in control. So much so that, in Joseph’s estimation, what his brothers had meant for evil, God had intended for good. This is one of the most powerful statements regarding God’s providence found anywhere in the Scriptures.
“Behind all the events and human plans recounted in the story of Joseph lies the unchanging plan of God. It is the same plan introduced from the very beginning of the book where God looks out at what he has just created for man and sees that ‘it is good’ (tob, 1:4-31). Through his dealings with the patriarchs and Joseph, God had continued to bring about his good plan. He had remained faithful to his purposes, and it is the point of this narrative to show that his people can continue to trust him and to believe that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).” – John H. Sailhamer, “Genesis,” in Genesis-Numbers, vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary
With the simple words, “God meant it for good,” Joseph spoke volumes concerning the rule and reign of God over the affairs of men. He does not excuse his brothers’ actions, but instead clearly states that what they had done to him was intended by them for his harm, not his good. Their intentions had been evil. But God, as part of His divine plan, had hijacked their intentions, redeeming their sinful actions to accomplish holy and righteous will. The Hebrew word Moses used is chashab and it carries the idea of a carefully calculated plan or intention. Sick and tired of their Joseph’s favored position with their father and his dreams and visions of superiority, the brothers had “devised” a plan to rid themselves of Joseph once and for all. But God had bigger and better plans. It had been His plan all along that the descendants of Abraham would end up in Egypt. Years earlier He had told Abraham, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13 ESV). God had intended it all for good. Every bit of it. From Joseph’s undeserved betrayal by his brothers to his false arrest and imprisonment. The events of Joseph’s life were not the result of fate or chance. He had not been the lucky winner of the lottery of life. He had been under the sovereign control of an all-powerful, all-knowing God who had a plan in place long before Joseph or his brothers had been born.
Joseph had developed an expanded vision of the affairs of life. He had learned to look beyond the immediate circumstances and view things from a divine perspective. Which is what led him to say that God had intended, planned, and orchestrated Joseph’s life, “to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20 ESV). Joseph knew it was about much more than him. His life had a God-ordained purpose that was far greater and bigger than his own success or failure. This wasn’t about his personal comfort or convenience. It had little to do with Joseph’s position or prominence, except for the fact that God was using Joseph’s rise to power to “preserve the lives of many people.”
As Christians, when we read Paul’s words in Romans, “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 ESV), we tend to have a bit of skepticism about them. We silently doubt whether they are really true. We wonder if ALL things really do work together for good. We question whether we have ever seen Paul’s words proven true in our own lives. But the problem seems to be that we want to define what “good” means. We want to dictate to God what it is we want Him to accomplish in and through our lives. And we demand that any good He brings about must be to our advantage and within our lifetime. It must be according to our terms. But Joseph knew better. He had learned that God’s will was far greater than his own. He had ascertained that the ways of God sometimes entailed difficulty, betrayal, disappointment, awkward moments of seeming abandonment by God and prolonged periods of waiting. But God was always at work. His divine plan was always active and moving towards its ultimate conclusion. All things really do work together for good. But sometimes that good is not what we might expect. It might not always come about when or how we want it to. God’s definition of good was about far more than good things happening in Joseph’s life. Joseph’s rise to power was not about his own comfort and convenience. It had a much more expansive and far-reaching purpose behind it. Joseph understood and accepted his role in God’s sovereign, providential plan. He was content to be used by God, leaving the definition of “good” up to God. He was fully confident that his life was in God’s hands and that anything and everything that had or would happen to him was within the will of God. God had a greater good in mind. He had a bigger plan in place. His will was not limited to the days of Joseph’s life or the land of Egypt. It went well beyond the sons of Jacob and the tribes of Israel. God had a plan to bless all the nations of the earth and to bring salvation from something far more devastating than a famine. God had in mind the sins of mankind and the salvation of the world in mind. And all that He has done or will do is intended for good.