The Sun of Righteousness Will Rise

1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:1-6 ESV

God has just informed the small remnant of the faithful whose names are written in the scroll of remembrance that they will be spared from future judgment.

“On the day when I act in judgment, they will be my own special treasure. I will spare them as a father spares an obedient child. – Malachi 3:17 NLT

Now He provides greater details concerning that coming day of judgment from which they will be so graciously spared. He describes it as a burning oven in which “the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed—roots, branches, and all” (Malachi 4:1 ESV). But the remnant of the righteous will be spared.

Jesus also provided His disciples with a graphic depiction of this coming day of judgment and left no doubt as to the final fate of the unrighteous.

“…these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:46 ESV

And that is exactly what God communicates to the faithful few living in Malachi’s day.

“But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture. On the day when I act, you will tread upon the wicked as if they were dust under your feet,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – Malachi 4:2-3 NLT

Centuries later, the apostle John would provide further insight into this great day of judgment, placing it on its proper place along the divine redemptive timeline so that we can better understand the future nature of its fulfillment.

And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire. – Revelation 20:11-15 NLT

According to John, this coming day of judgment will take place after the second coming of Christ and at the end of His 1,000-year reign as the King of kings and Lord of lords. After His return to earth, Jesus will set up His kingdom in Jerusalem, where He will sit on the throne of David. This Millennial (1,000-year) Kingdom will be marked by peace and perfect righteousness as the Son of God reigns over the entire earth. One of the unique features of Christ’s earthly kingdom is that it will be inhabited by believers and unbelievers just as the world is today. But it will be devoid of any influence from Satan because he will have been defeated and imprisoned.

He seized the dragon—that old serpent, who is the devil, Satan—and bound him in chains for a thousand years. The angel threw him into the bottomless pit, which he then shut and locked so Satan could not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years were finished. Afterward he must be released for a little while. – Revelation 20:2-3 NLT

With the great deceiver safely locked away, he will be unable to tempt the ungodly or attack the righteous. His influence on the world will be eliminated. During this remarkable period of time, the people on earth will be allowed to live under the leadership of a perfectly righteous ruler whose kingdom will be marked by justice and equity. For the first time in human history, mankind will experience what it is like to live under the righteous rule of God Himself. But at the end of Christ’s earthly reign, Satan will be released from his confinement and allowed to peddle his evil influence once again, and the outcome will be both predictable and unfortunate.

When the thousand years come to an end, Satan will be let out of his prison. He will go out to deceive the nations—called Gog and Magog—in every corner of the earth. He will gather them together for battle—a mighty army, as numberless as sand along the seashore. And I saw them as they went up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded God’s people and the beloved city. But fire from heaven came down on the attacking armies and consumed them. – Revelation 20:7-9 NLT

Those millions of unbelieving people who will be given the opportunity to live under the righteous reign of Christ will turn their backs on Him once again, choosing instead to align themselves with the enemy. This will include all the unbelieving Jews and Gentiles living on the earth at the time. And in the vision he was given of this apocalyptic event, John describes seeing fire coming down from heaven and consuming all those who join Satan in his last futile attempt to dethrone and replace God. And, as a result of his failed rebellion, Satan will meet his final fate.

Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. – Revelation 20:10 NLT

And at at that point, the final judgment will take place. Every human being who has ever lived will appear before the throne of God and give an account for all that they have done. But absent from this judgment will be all those who make up the church, the body of Christ. They will have been raptured long before the seven years of Tribulation and the 1,000-year reign of Christ. But everyone else, including all unbelievers, the Old Testament saints, those who come to faith during the Tribulation, and anyone who places their faith in Christ during His millennial reign, will stand before God to be judged.

In his vision, John “saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books” (Revelation 20:12 NLT). That will be the time when the righteous remnant living in Malachi’s day will find themselves standing before Yahweh. But God assures them that they have nothing to fear because “you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” (Malachi 4:2 ESV). They will be spared the fate of their wicked neighbors, which will be eternal separation from God. In fact, God declared assures them that “you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet” (Malachi 4:3 ESV). 

The tables will be turned. In Malachi’s day, the righteous were being trampled down by the wicked. The faithful found themselves few in number and overwhelmed by the pervasive presence of unrighteous rulers, priests, and fellow citizens who mocked and minimized their faith in God. But God will one day restore justice to the earth and reverse the fortunes of His faithful followers. But in the meantime, God pleads with His people to remain faithful.

“Remember to obey the Law of Moses, my servant—all the decrees and regulations that I gave him on Mount Sinai for all Israel. – Malachi 4:4 NLT

They were not to give up or give in. Instead, they were to place their faith in the faithfulness of God. He will one day avenge and reward them. Their faithfulness will be worth it all.

Malachi, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, closes his book with a promise regarding the coming of Elijah, the great prophet of Israel who never faced death, but was removed from the earth by God (2 Kings 2). God states that it was necessary for His prophet to return “before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5 ESV). In other words, long before the final day of judgment takes place, there would be a reappearance of Elijah. But Luke records in his gospel that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of this prophecy. An angel appeared to Zechariah the priest, informing him that his barren wife, Elizabeth, would bear him a son. And this son would play a vital role in God’s redemptive plan for mankind.

“…he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:16-17 ESV

John would later deny that he was Elijah (John 1:21-23). It seems that his role as Elijah was dependent upon whether the people of Israel would listen to his words and accept Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. When John the Baptist declared of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV), he expected the Jews to believe his words and accept Jesus as their Messiah. But they refused to do so. And later, Jesus would later report that John had simply been repeating the same message as the prophets and law had declared.

“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” – Matthew 11:13-14 ESV

If they would have listened to his message and accepted Jesus as their Messiah, John would have been the Elijah they had anticipated. And they would have enjoyed the blessings associated with Elijah’s message. But sadly, during Jesus’ day, the hearts of the fathers were not turned to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. Instead, they demanded the crucifixion of the one who had come to save them. But God is not done with Israel. His redemptive plan still includes a rescue of a remnant of His chosen people. And it’s interesting to note that the book of Malachi closes out the Old Testament but the New Testament opens with the gospel of Matthew, which begins with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1 ESV). Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, and His coming to earth began the next phase of God’s grand redemptive plan for Israel and the world.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Leadership Is a Privilege, Not a Right

1 “And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and you shall be taken away with it. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may stand, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.” – Malachi 2:1-9 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been given the special privilege of serving God with the responsibility of overseeing the tabernacle and everything associated with it.

Then the Lord said to Aaron: “You, your sons, and your relatives from the tribe of Levi will be held responsible for any offenses related to the sanctuary. But you and your sons alone will be held responsible for violations connected with the priesthood.

“Bring your relatives of the tribe of Levi—your ancestral tribe—to assist you and your sons as you perform the sacred duties in front of the Tabernacle of the Covenant.

“You yourselves must perform the sacred duties inside the sanctuary and at the altar. If you follow these instructions, the Lord’s anger will never again blaze against the people of Israel. I myself have chosen your fellow Levites from among the Israelites to be your special assistants. They are a gift to you, dedicated to the Lord for service in the Tabernacle.” – Numbers 18:1-2, 5-6 NLT

But at the time Malachi penned his prophetic pronouncement, the Levitical priesthood was guilty of neglecting its duties and treating its priestly responsibilities as a burden and not a blessing. The men given the responsibility of caring for God’s house found their duties to be a drudgery, not a delight. They even claimed, “It’s too hard to serve the Lord” (Malachi 1:13 NLT) and rejected God’s commands as too difficult and burdensome. In a real sense, their hearts were not in their work, and that is exactly what God has to say about their behavior.

“If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.” – Malachi 2:2 ESV

God expected heartfelt obedience to His commands, and His emphasis on the condition of their hearts was meant to reveal the true nature of their problem. This wasn’t a case of simple neglect or poor planning. Their failure to follow through on their commitment wasn’t due to overwork or lack of resources. They simply didn’t have the heart for it because their hearts were far from God.

“The word ‘heart’ (leb/lebab) denotes in Hebrew what may be called the command center of a person’s life, where knowledge is collected and considered and where decisions and plans are made that determine the direction of one’s life.” – Footnote 173: H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, p. 40.

These men were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of Israel but instead, they were setting a dangerous precedent for those under their care. If the restored remnant of Israel was going to survive their return to Judah and enjoy the blessings God had in store for them, it would only happen if the priests faithfully fulfilled their God-given responsibilities. But God’s priests were guilty of the very same sin that had led to Israel’s banishment from Judah in the first place.

“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men. – Isaiah 29:13 BSB

God holds spiritual leaders to a higher standard because, as His shepherds, they are responsible for the care of His flock. They serve as His undershepherds and must give an account for the way they have nurtured those under their care. And as for the Levitical priests, they were also responsible for the sacrificial system God had decreed.

“Tell Aaron and his sons to be very careful with the sacred gifts that the Israelites set apart for me, so they do not bring shame on my holy name. I am the Lord.

“The priests must follow my instructions carefully. Otherwise they will be punished for their sin and will die for violating my instructions. I am the Lord who makes them holy. – Leviticus 22:2, 9 NLT

Malachi delivers God’s stinging rebuke to these heartless and faithless priests, warning them that they were about to be cursed for their infidelity.

“I will punish your descendants and splatter your faces with the manure from your festival sacrifices, and I will throw you on the manure pile.” – Malachi 2:3 NLT

“The disgusting picture is of God taking the internal waste of the sacrificial animals and smearing it on the priests’ faces. Consequently both sacrifices and priests would have to be taken outside for disposal. This play on words communicates a double curse.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Malachi

God was threatening to use their defiled sacrifices to defile them. He would no longer allow them to defame His name by their failure to execute their priestly responsibilities with integrity and honor. In a sense, God was warning that He was about to clean house. He remained committed to His covenant with the tribe of Levi.

“They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” – Deuteronomy 33:10 ESV

But these particular men had forfeited their right to serve as God’s priests. And when God’s curse fell on them, they would finally understand the gravity of their sin and the sacredness of the priestly role they had once held. And God provides them with a much-needed reminder of how their forefathers had faithfully lived up to their job description, bringing God’s blessings upon the people.

“The purpose of my covenant with the Levites was to bring life and peace, and that is what I gave them. This required reverence from them, and they greatly revered me and stood in awe of my name. They passed on to the people the truth of the instructions they received from me. They did not lie or cheat; they walked with me, living good and righteous lives, and they turned many from lives of sin. – Malachi 2:5-6 NLT

God had kept His word and restored a remnant of His disobedient people to the land of Judah. Seventy years after Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, God had sovereignly arranged for King Cyrus to issue a decree that allowed a small band of exiled to make the long journey home and begin the restoration of Jerusalem. Under the leadership of such men as Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, the walls had been rebuilt, the gates rehung, and the temple had risen majestically from the rubble. And the priests had been given the opportunity to renew their role as the spiritual leaders of Israel, providing instruction in the law and overseeing the recently reinstituted sacrificial system. Yet, despite all the blessings God had poured out on the nation of Israel, the priests had dropped the ball.

“But you priests have left God’s paths. Your instructions have caused many to stumble into sin. You have corrupted the covenant I made with the Levites…” – Malachi 2:8 NLT

It’s essential to understand the serious nature of their sin. These men had not just led poorly, they had purposefully misled and misguided the people. Their teaching of the law had been inaccurate and confusing. They were guilty of misinterpreting and misrepresenting God’s commands, causing the people to unknowingly violate the will of God. Their propensity to offer unacceptable sacrifices meant that the peoples’ sins were never really atoned for. Unlike their forefathers, these men were liars and cheats, living unrighteous lives and causing the people to follow their example. And God was unwilling to allow their devastating actions to continue any longer.

“So I have made you despised and humiliated in the eyes of all the people. For you have not obeyed me but have shown favoritism in the way you carry out my instructions.” – Malachi 2:9 NLT

According to Numbers 18:32, their penalty should have been death, but God had chosen to punish them by diminishing their stature in the eyes of the people. Their fall from God’s good grace would be painful and swift. They had been set apart by God and given the responsibility of leading and feeding His flock. But they had ended up treating both their position and God’s flock with disdain. After 70 years in exile, the people of God desperately needed solid biblical instruction, godly leadership, and a sacrificial system that provided true atonement from sin. But these men provided none of the above. They twisted God’s words, misled His flock, and defiled the very sacrifices that should have brought atonement to God’s people.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Problem of Polluted Priests

“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. 10 Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. 11 For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. 12 But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and its fruit, that is, its food may be despised. 13 But you say, ‘What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. 14 Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.” – Malachi 1:6-14 ESV

Malachi now turns his attention to the priestly leadership of Israel. These men had returned with the exiled from Babylon and, with the rebuilding of the temple, had been given the task of reinstituting the sacrificial system and the worship of Yahweh. As members of the tribe of Levi, their priestly responsibilities had been God-ordained and their role was vital to the overall well-being of the people. God had given them clear instructions regarding their job description.

“They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” – Deuteronomy 33:10 ESV

Levi was the third son born to Leah and Jacob, and he would become the father of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of Moses and Aaron. During the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Canaan, God appointed Aaron and his sons as the first priests of Israel.

“You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and wash them with water. Then you shall take the garments, and put on Aaron the coat and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and gird him with the skillfully woven band of the ephod. And you shall set the turban on his head and put the holy crown on the turban. You shall take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him. Then you shall bring his sons and put coats on them, and you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.” – Exodus 29:4-9 ESV

These men had been set apart by God as mediators between Himself and the people of Israel. They were given the task of ministering in the tabernacle during their journey to Canaan and, later, in the temple Solomon built in Jerusalem. Their role was critical to maintaining the spiritual integrity of the nation, and their faithful allegiance to God was intended to establish a precedence for all the people of Israel. As the priests went, so did the people.

I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God. – Exodus 29:44-46 ESV

But post-exile, the priests had lost sight of their God-given responsibility and were treating their role with disdain and their God with disrespect. One of their responsibilities was to teach the people God’s law (Deuteronomy 33:10). And they were to serve as judges over the people (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). But Malachi points out that they had failed at both. It was almost impossible for them to teach the law when they regularly violated it themselves. And how were they to judge others when they were incapable of keeping God’s commands? They had become hypocritical and, therefore, ineffective models for the people of Israel.

As their Father, God demanded to know why they refused to honor Him. In doing so, He was accusing them of violating one of the foundational requirements found in the Ten Commandments.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. – Exodus 20:12 ESV

God had created them and consecrated them for His service, but they refused to treat Him with the honor and respect He deserved. They enjoyed the distinct privilege of having been set apart by God to serve Him as His sons. But they showed their Heavenly Father little reverence and awe. Not only that, they refused to treat God as their Master and Lord.

“If I am your father and master, where are the honor and respect I deserve? You have shown contempt for my name!” – Malachi 1:6 NLT

As priests, these men bore the name of God, and their actions had brought shame on His name. They were His representatives among the people and their behavior was dishonoring His reputation and diminishing the worthiness of His character. As the people viewed the godless lifestyle of the priests, they were tempted to mimic their behavior. And since the priests were cutting corners in their worship of God, the people were prone to do the same thing.

But these pious men refused to acknowledge their guilt, choosing instead to question the charges God had leveled against them.

How have we ever shown contempt for your name? – Malachi 1:6 NLT

“How have we defiled the sacrifices?” – Malachi 1:7 NLT

In a sense, they were demanding that God prove His accusations against them. In their pride and arrogance, they refused to acknowledge that they had done anything wrong. But God pulled no punches when detailing the egregious nature of their sins.

“You defile them by saying the altar of the Lord deserves no respect. When you give blind animals as sacrifices, isn’t that wrong? And isn’t it wrong to offer animals that are crippled and diseased? Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – Malachi 1:7-8 NLT

They were guilty of using their priestly office for profit. It seems that these men were sacrificing lame and injured animals as sacrifices to God, in direct violation of His law.  It seems likely that the people were bringing unblemished animals to be sacrificed but the priests were substituting those healthy animals with injured ones. In doing so, they were able to keep the healthy ones for their own consumption. By offering unacceptable sacrifices on behalf of the people, they invalidated the whole sacrificial system. No sins could be atoned for by offering up an unacceptable sacrifice. God would not and could not be appeased. God had been very specific regarding this matter.

“Give Aaron and his sons and all the Israelites these instructions, which apply both to native Israelites and to the foreigners living among you.

“If you present a gift as a burnt offering to the LORD, whether it is to fulfill a vow or is a voluntary offering, you will be accepted only if your offering is a male animal with no defects. It may be a bull, a ram, or a male goat. Do not present an animal with defects, because the LORD will not accept it on your behalf.” – Leviticus 22:18-20 NLT

God expected His priests to be holy and He demanded that the sacrifices they offered be holy as well.

“They must be set apart as holy to their God and must never bring shame on the name of God. They must be holy, for they are the ones who present the special gifts to the Lord, gifts of food for their God.” – Leviticus 21:6 NLT

And Malachi picks up on this theme of presenting gifts of food for God by describing their blemished offerings as “contemptible food” that “defile the Lord’s table” (Malachi 1:12 NLT). They wouldn’t dare to serve the royal governor tainted meat but they had no problem offering God unacceptable sacrifices. And God displays His anger by declaring His desire to shut the doors of the temple to bring an end to their hypocrisy. It’s important to remember that the sacrificial system had just been reinstituted. It had been more than 70 years since the people had been able to have their sins atoned for, and now, they ran the risk of losing this vital opportunity once again. All because of the sins of the priesthood. 

But these men remain unrepentant, choosing instead to blame their behavior on the overwhelming nature of the entire sacrificial system. It is just too hard, they say. They find it all so wearisome and difficult to maintain. So, they treat God’s words with disdain and dismiss His commands as optional. But God will have none of it. He marvels at the sheer arrogance of these men, pointing out the mind-boggling audacity of their actions.

“Think of it! Animals that are stolen and crippled and sick are being presented as offerings! Should I accept from you such offerings as these?” – Malachi 1:13 ESV

Their behavior is unthinkable and their gifts are unacceptable. And God pronounces a curse upon these men.

“Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.” – Malachi 1:14 ESV

Their set-apart status would not protect them from the anger of God. He would judge and punish them for their actions. If they were unwilling to honor His name, God would do it Himself. Their refusal to live up to their responsibility as His priests and the peoples’ shepherds would bring down the wrath of God. Their failure to honor God by keeping His commandments would result in His just and righteous judgment of them. A returned people and a restored temple meant nothing if the priests of God refused to lead the people of God to repentance.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Learning to Recognize God’s Love

“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!” – Malachi 1:2-5 ESV

Whether we can accurately determine Malachi’s identity or not is irrelevant. What is important is that the author more than lives up to his God-given title of “my messenger.” Every word he has recorded is a message from Yahweh to His covenant people, the nation of Israel. For generations, these descendants of Abraham had enjoyed a unique, one-of-a-kind relationship with God that had made them the beneficiaries of His love and blessings. God had set them apart and declared them to be His prized possession, among all the nations of the earth. When He had successfully freed them from their 400-year captivity in Egypt, God had led them to Mount Sinai, where He spoke to Moses and delivered give the following message:

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

And the people had eagerly responded, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8 ESV). Even before God had communicated the terms of the covenant, they had agreed to keep it. They liked the idea of being God’s treasured possession, so they wholeheartedly declared their intentions to keep whatever conditions He set forth. But it was three days later that God called Moses up to the top of Mount Sinai and delivered the content of the covenant agreement to which they had already pledged their allegiance.

When Moses returned from the mountaintop, he shared with the people all that God had told him.

Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” – Exodus 24:3-8 ESV

Moses revealed to the nation of Israel the Ten Commandments and all the associated laws that were intended to regulate their behavior as God’s chosen people. This God-ordained code of conduct was a non-negotiable regulatory document that would distinguish the nation of Israel from all the other nations of the earth. As long as they remained obedient to the covenant, they would be blessed. But should they choose to disobey, they would find themselves suffering severe and inescapable consequences.

But the history of the people of Israel reveals their epic failure at keeping their word. Once God had successfully planted them in Canaan, the land He had promised as their inheritance, they began to reveal their propensity for disobedience and unfaithfulness. They repeatedly violated the terms of the covenant and, despite constant warnings from God, they refused to repent and return to Him. Generation after generation carried on a dangerous love affair with the world and its many false gods, choosing the snub their noses in the face of the one true God. And eventually, God was forced to fulfill His warnings of retribution and destruction. That is why they had spent 70 years living as captives in the land of Babylon. God had warned them time and time again that He would remove them from the land of promise if they continued to violate His covenant and, in 587 B.C., the Babylonians had overrun the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and taken thousands of its citizens back to Babylon as slaves.

At the time Malachi wrote his message from God, a remnant of the exiles had been living back in Judah for years. The walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt, the temple had been restored, and the sacrificial system had been renewed, but the people remained just as rebellious and disobedient as ever. So, through His “messenger,” God delivered a powerful reminder of His unrequited love and patience with his stubborn people.

Through Malachi, God declared the reality of His steadfast, unwavering love. Despite all they had suffered over the last 70 years, He had never fallen out of love with them. “I have always loved you,” He reminded them. And even their time in exile had been an expression of His affection because “the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 ESV).

But the people had a difficult time viewing the destruction of their city and their seven-decade-long internment in Babylon as evidence of God’s love, so they asked, “Really? How have you loved us?” (Malachi 1:2 NLT). From their perspective, it appeared as if God was angry with them and, even now, they suffered constant threats from their enemies and lived in a city that was little more than a shadow of its former glory. They had no king, no standing army, and little hope of ever seeing their fate reversed. As a result, they were distrustful of God, questioning His goodness and doubting His word concerning their wellbeing.

So, God reminded them of how they came to be His chosen people in the first place. He took them back to the births of Esau and Jacob, the twin boys born to Isaac and Rebekah. Malachi’s audience knew the story well. Before the boys were born, God had told Rebekah that the infants inside her womb represented two separate nations.

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the older shall serve the younger.” – Genesis 25:23 ESV

God informed Rebekah that the younger of the two boys would become the greater nation. According to tradition, the elder son should have been the recipient of the father’s inheritance and the one to bear the blessing of the firstborn. But, through a series of somewhat underhanded, but clearly God-ordained events, Jacob, the younger of the two siblings, would become the next in line to receive the inheritance that had been passed down through Abraham to Isaac. Jacob had been “loved” by God.

“When He said here that He hated Esau, He meant that He did not choose to bestow His favor on Esau to the extent that He did on Jacob (cf. Psalm 139:21). He made this choice even before they were born…” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Malachi

God had chosen to break precedence and set apart Jacob rather than Esau, and it had nothing to do with either boy’s value or worthiness. In fact, the apostle Paul points out the undeserving nature of either child and explains the sovereign nature of God’s will concerning His decision.

…before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.” – Romans 9:11-13 NLT

From a human perspective, it appears as if God showed greater favor to one son while disfavoring the other. But God did not completely abandon Esau. He simply chose to make His covenant commitment to the descendants of Jacob. God eventually gave Esau the land of the hill country, located around Moun Seir in Edom. In a sense, God blessed Esau by providing him with land as an inheritance, but Esau would prove to be unfaithful and idolatrous. His descendants, the Edomites, would be a constant thorn in the side of the Israelites. And when the Babylonians invaded the region, the Edomite cities and towns were also destroyed.

And when the Edomites declared their intent to reclaim and rebuild their devastated homeland, God warned them that he would prevent them from doing so.

“They may try to rebuild, but I will demolish them again. Their country will be known as ‘The Land of Wickedness,’ and their people will be called ‘The People with Whom the Lord Is Forever Angry.’ – Malachi 1:4 NLT

The Edomites would become an illustration of the futility and hopelessness that faces all those who are not in a covenant relationship with God. The only reason the Israelites had been able to return to the land and rebuild their former capital was that God had ordained it. The decree set forth by King Cyrus of Persia that had allowed a remnant to return to Jerusalem had been God’s doing. He had orchestrated it all. And, in doing so, He had proved His love for His chosen people yet again.

As the Israelites looked around them, they would soon realize that none of the neighboring nations that had fallen to the Babylonians would experience the same degree of revitalization as they had. Not even the Edomites, the descendants of Isaac, would ever rebuild their cities or reestablish their hold on the land. And this should have caused the Israelites to declare, “Truly, the Lord’s greatness reaches far beyond Israel’s borders!” (Malachi 1:5 NLT).

Both the Israelites and the Edomites were descendants of Abraham and Isaac, and both had suffered the judgment of God, having been destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century. Yet only Israel had enjoyed restoration after judgment. Despite what appeared to be their less-than-ideal circumstances, the Israelites were experiencing the love of God in the form of His covenant commitment. He had restored them just as He said He would do and He was not yet done blessing them. But, as the following verses will reveal, God did expect to see significant changes among His people.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Unwavering Faith In An Unfailing God

14 After he had buried his father, Joseph 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. – Genesis 50:14-26 ESV

Joseph and his brothers returned to Egypt after having buried their father Jacob in Canaan. It must have been difficult to leave behind the land of promise yet again. But for the time being, Egypt had become their home away from home. So, having interred their father’s body in the cave of the field at Machpelah, they made the long journey back to Egypt.

It appears that, along the way, Joseph’s brothers became apprehensive about what might happen upon their return. With their father and protector dead, perhaps Joseph would take advantage of the situation and enact his revenge for their former treatment of him. Their fear of Joseph had never really subsided, despite the many ways he had shown them love and honor. It had been Joseph who had personally subsidized their food allotment all throughout the years of the famine. He had helped arrange their resettlement in Goshen. And yet, deep down inside, his brothers still did not trust him.

Upon their return to Egypt, the brothers held a discussion on the matter and reached a consensus.

“Now Joseph will show his anger and pay us back for all the wrong we did to him,” they said. – Genesis 50:15 NLT

So, they crafted a message and had it delivered to Joseph.

“Before your father died, he instructed us to say to you: ‘Please forgive your brothers for the great wrong they did to you—for their sin in treating you so cruelly.’ So we, the servants of the God of your father, beg you to forgive our sin.” – Genesis 50:16-17 NLT

His brothers had never really believed that Joseph had forgiven them. And they had always feared that he would one day use his power to repay them for the crime they had committed against him. They wrongly assumed that their father’s death would provide the perfect opportunity for Joseph to seek vengeance.

At the heart of their distrust was disbelief. It wasn’t that they failed to trust Joseph, it was that they lacked trust in the promises and provision of God. Years earlier, when Joseph had revealed his identity to his brothers, he had clearly told them that their actions against him had been part of God’s sovereign plan to preserve their people.

“I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into slavery in Egypt. But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh—the manager of his entire palace and the governor of all Egypt.” – Genesis 45:4-8 NLT

And yet, they couldn’t bring themselves to believe that their God had been orchestrating every facet of their relationship with Joseph. By this time, they must have realized that Joseph’s dreams, which had infuriated them, had come true. They had lived to experience Joseph’s prediction that they would one day bow down to him. And despite all the ways in which God had miraculously preserved them, they couldn’t seem to believe that He would continue to do so. They saw Joseph’s power as a problem, not a God-ordained proof of divine protection.

Joseph was grieved by their message. What more could he do to prove his love for them? He longed to be restored to a right relationship with all of his brothers and he harbored no ill will toward any of them. So as he read their message, he wept bitterly. But, once again, Joseph took action, calling his brothers into his presence. He refused to allow this divisive wedge to remain between him and his brothers.

The brothers arrived at Joseph’s palace ready to throw themselves at his mercy. In fact, as soon as they entered they threw themselves at his feet, declaring, “Look, we are your slaves!” (Genesis 50:18 NLT). Preferring to face a lifetime of slavery rather than death, they begged Joseph for mercy. But what they got was another powerful reminder of the sovereignty of God.

“Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, that I can punish you? You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” – Genesis 50:19-21 NLT

Joseph knew what they had done. Not only that, he knew he would have been fully in his rights to seek revenge against them. He not only had the motive, but he had the power to pull it off. But that is not what Joseph wanted because it was not what God had intended. Their crime against him, while untenable and contemptible, had been part of God’s providential plan for protecting and preserving the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Joseph fully believed in the sovereignty of God and he wanted his brothers to put aside their fears and replace them with faith in the God of their father.

For 25 chapters, Moses has chronicled the life of Jacob and his family. And now, as his history of Jacob’s lineage comes to a close, Moses reminds his readers that Yahweh can and should be trusted at all times – regardless of how dire and desperate the situation may appear. And this was a message they needed to hear. The original readers of Moses’ book had been the Israelites whom he had led out of Egypt to the edge of the promised land. Moses died before the people had ever entered the land, so this historical narrative would have been intended to provide them with impetus and encouragement as they prepared to enter the land without him. Even as Moses faced death and knew he would never enter the land of Canaan, he composed a song for his people to sing. And, in that song, he mentioned the days that Jacob had spent in Egypt.

 “For the people of Israel belong to the Lord;
    Jacob is his special possession.
He found them in a desert land,
    in an empty, howling wasteland.
He surrounded them and watched over them;
    he guarded them as he would guard his own eyes.
Like an eagle that rouses her chicks
    and hovers over her young,
so he spread his wings to take them up
    and carried them safely on his pinions.
The Lord alone guided them;
    they followed no foreign gods.
He let them ride over the highlands
    and feast on the crops of the fields.
He nourished them with honey from the rock
    and olive oil from the stony ground.
He fed them yogurt from the herd
    and milk from the flock,
    together with the fat of lambs.
He gave them choice rams from Bashan, and goats,
    together with the choicest wheat.
You drank the finest wine,
    made from the juice of grapes.” – Deuteronomy 32:9-14 NLT

God had cared for the descendants of Jacob for more than 400 years. He had protected them and provided for all their needs. He had multiplied them in number and miraculously transformed the 12 sons of Jacob into a vast army of more than 600,000 men by the time they left Egypt.

The story of Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers is intended to be a reminder of the sovereign power of the Almighty God. His plan is never thwarted. His will is never overcome. What Joseph’s brothers had done to him had been meant for ill, but God had intended it for good.

Joseph assuaged the fears and guilt of his brothers, assuring them that he had no intentions of bringing them harm. And he lived alongside them in peace until he reached the age of 110. Joseph lived long enough to become a great-great-grandfather, witnessing three generations worth of descendants through his son, Ephraim. But with death closing in, Joseph took one last opportunity to encourage his brothers to maintain their faith in Yahweh.

“Soon I will die,” Joseph told his brothers, “but God will surely come to help you and lead you out of this land of Egypt. He will bring you back to the land he solemnly promised to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” – Genesis 50:24 NLT

Joseph never stopped believing in the promises of God. He had taken his father’s body back to Canaan because he knew that was their true home. Egypt had been nothing but a divinely ordained detour. The day would come when God would restore His people to the land He had promised to them. And Joseph believed his brothers or their descendants would live to see that day. His faith was so strong that he demanded his brothers swear an oath to take his mummified body with them when they returned to Canaan. He, like his father Jacob, had always harbored an intense desire to go home.

It’s interesting to note that the book of Genesis began with a couple who displayed their lack of faith in God by questioning His Word and disobeying His command. Rather than trusting God, they tried to become like him. But the book ends with a man of faith who never stopped believing in the promises of God. In fact, Joseph is mentioned in the great “Hall of Faith” found in the 11th chapter of Hebrews.

It was by faith that Joseph, when he was about to die, said confidently that the people of Israel would leave Egypt. He even commanded them to take his bones with them when they left. – Hebrews 11:22 NLT

Joseph died in Egypt, but his heart had always been in Canaan. And one day, his faith in God was proven worthy, because his body was returned to the land of promise, just as he had hoped.

Thus the Israelites left Egypt like an army ready for battle.

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear to do this. He said, “God will certainly come to help you. When he does, you must take my bones with you from this place.”

The Israelites left Succoth and camped at Etham on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went ahead of them. He guided them during the day with a pillar of cloud, and he provided light at night with a pillar of fire. – Exodus 13:18-21 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Little Is Much When God Is In It

1 So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

Then Jacob set out from Beersheba. The sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to carry him. They also took their livestock and their goods, which they had gained in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob and all his offspring with him, his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters. All his offspring he brought with him into Egypt.

Now these are the names of the descendants of Israel, who came into Egypt, Jacob and his sons. Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, and the sons of Reuben: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi. 10 The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman. 11 The sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. 12 The sons of Judah: Er, Onan, Shelah, Perez, and Zerah (but Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan); and the sons of Perez were Hezron and Hamul. 13 The sons of Issachar: Tola, Puvah, Yob, and Shimron. 14 The sons of Zebulun: Sered, Elon, and Jahleel. 15 These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob in Paddan-aram, together with his daughter Dinah; altogether his sons and his daughters numbered thirty-three.

16 The sons of Gad: Ziphion, Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi, and Areli. 17 The sons of Asher: Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, Beriah, with Serah their sister. And the sons of Beriah: Heber and Malchiel. 18 These are the sons of Zilpah, whom Laban gave to Leah his daughter; and these she bore to Jacob—sixteen persons.

19 The sons of Rachel, Jacob’s wife: Joseph and Benjamin. 20 And to Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera the priest of On, bore to him. 21 And the sons of Benjamin: Bela, Becher, Ashbel, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh, Muppim, Huppim, and Ard. 22 These are the sons of Rachel, who were born to Jacob—fourteen persons in all.

23 The son of Dan: Hushim. 24 The sons of Naphtali: Jahzeel, Guni, Jezer, and Shillem. 25 These are the sons of Bilhah, whom Laban gave to Rachel his daughter, and these she bore to Jacob—seven persons in all.

26 All the persons belonging to Jacob who came into Egypt, who were his own descendants, not including Jacob’s sons’ wives, were sixty-six persons in all. 27 And the sons of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt, were two. All the persons of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy. – Genesis 46:1-27 ESV

As Jacob and his family began their journey from Canaan to Egypt, it must have been a bitter-sweet moment for this aging patriarch. While he must have been ecstatic at the thought of seeing his long-lost son, Joseph, it could not have been easy for him to leave behind the land that had been promised by God to his father and grandfather. The land of Canaan was supposed to be his inheritance and that of his children. But it had been devastated by a famine and was no longer capable of sustaining Jacob’s growing family. He really had no other choice but to leave Canaan behind and accept Pharaoh’s generous, yet unexpected, offer. So, motivated by the promise of good land and the prospect of being reunited with Joseph, Jacob and his family set out.

But Jacob made one last stop before crossing the southern border of Canaan and entering the wilderness of the Negev. He instructed his son to lead the caravan to Beersheba, a region that held special significance to Jacob and his family. It was there that Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, had purchased a well from Abimelech, for the prices of seven yew lambs. The name Beersheba means “well of seven,” and it was there that “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree…and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God” (Genesis 21:33 ESV).

Years later, Isaac, Jacob’s father, would return to Beersheba and receive a vision from God, telling him, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake” (Genesis 26:24 ESV). And Isaac “built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 26:25 ESV).

Jacob returned to this familiar spot, likely in the hopes of receiving a word from God that might confirm his relocation to Egypt. Jacob was understandably reluctant to leave the land that God had promised to give him as an inheritance. What would happen in his absence? Would they ever return? Would the promise every be fulfilled? This was a watershed moment for Jacob and he sought assurances from God. And God did not disappoint.

After offering sacrifices to God on one of the altars that his grandfather or father had constructed, Jacob went to sleep. And during his sleep, God visited him in a dream and delivered a much-needed word of assurance.

“I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” – Genesis 46:3-4 ESV

Jacob had the permission he had been seeking. God had sensed Jacob’s reticence and provided him with divine permission to relocated his family to Egypt. And not only did Jacob have permission to go, he was given the assurance of God’s presence as he did so. Then God upped the ante by reconfirming his promise to turn the clan of Jacob into a mighty nation. This was familiar refrain that had been heard for three generations but had yet to happen. God had told Abraham:

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2 ESV

And God had informed Abraham how this transformation would take place.

“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. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. – Genesis 15:13-14 ESV

Even when Abraham was 99-years-old and still fatherless, God had reconfirmed his promise to make of him a great nation.

I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.” – Genesis 17:6 ESV

And as Abraham anxiously waited for a son, God continued to reiterate His promise.

“Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.” – Genesis 18:18 ESV

Now, years later, Jacob and his family were on their way to the very land where God had said the offspring of Abraham would “sojourn.” This trip had been God-ordained and had been part of the divine plan all along, just as Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers and the famine had been.

Having received confirmation from God, Jacob and his family continued their journey. And Moses uses verses 8-25 to give a detailed description of all the “sons” of Jacob. This list contains all the male descendants who had been born to Jacob while he lived in the land of Canaan. And while the list seems lengthy, it all adds up to a far-from-impressive number.

All the persons belonging to Jacob who came into Egypt, who were his own descendants, not including Jacob’s sons’ wives, were sixty-six persons in all. – Genesis 46:26 ESV

Riding in the wagons that Pharaoh had provided and eating the provisions he had sent, this little ragtag band of Israelites made their way to Egypt. They were small in number and facing an uncertain future in a foreign land where they would be in the minority and little more than aliens. But that had always been their lot. At no time in Canaan had Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob enjoyed the benefit of overwhelming numbers or superior strength. They had always been outsiders, living in a land that was occupied by others. They owned little land, occupied no cities, and garnered little respect. And now they were moving to a country where nothing was familiar and there hopes of inheriting the land of Canaan was a quickly fading memory.

Even if you add in Joseph, his wife, and two sons, the total number of Jacob’s family was a mere 70 individuals. But God was not phased by this seemingly insignificant and insufficient head count. As the creation account revealed, God is fully capable of creating something from nothing. And the entrance of 70 people into the land of Canaan was about to prove true the words of the old hymn, “Little Is Much When God Is In It.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

I Fear God

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 remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, 20 and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so. 21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” 23 They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. 25 And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them.

26 Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. 27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money in the mouth of his sack. 28 He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”

29 When they came to Jacob their father in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, 30 “The man, the lord of the land, spoke roughly to us and took us to be spies of the land. 31 But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we have never been spies. 32 We are twelve brothers, sons of our father. One is no more, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan.’ 33 Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, and take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. 34 Bring your youngest brother to me. Then I shall know that you are not spies but honest men, and I will deliver your brother to you, and you shall trade in the land.’”

35 As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack. And when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were afraid. 36 And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” 37 Then Reuben said to his father, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” 38 But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.” – Genesis 42:18-38 ESV

Zaphenath-paneah (Joseph), the governor of Egypt, ordered the sons of Jacob to return to the land of Canaan, with instructions to bring back their younger brother, Benjamin.  This would provide proof that they truly were innocent foreigners is search of food to survive the famine. But Joseph was seeking to ensure that they had not treated his younger brother with the same hatred and disdain as they had shown to him. He wanted to Benjamin with his own eyes. And to ensure that the men returned, Joseph help Simeon as collateral. This was likely a test of his brothers’ character as well. Would they return as ordered and spare their brother’s life or would they abandon him to his fate in Egypt?

When Reuben and his brothers heard the governor’s instructions, they were filled with guilt and regret. They couldn’t help but conclude that this was all God’s divine judgment for what they had done to their brother years earlier.

“Clearly we are being punished because of what we did to Joseph long ago. We saw his anguish when he pleaded for his life, but we wouldn’t listen. That’s why we’re in this trouble.” – Genesis 42:21 NLT

And Reuben made matters worse by reminding them that he had been the one who had tried to talk them out of their ill-fated plan to get rid of Joseph.

“Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy?…But you wouldn’t listen. And now we have to answer for his blood!” – Genesis 42:22 NLT

This only added to their sense of guilt and shame. They freely aired their dirty laundry right in front of the royal governor, thinking him incapable of understanding their language. But as they bickered among themselves, Joseph listened in, taking note of every word they spoke. And upon witnessing the bitter acrimony among his siblings, Joseph was moved to tears. All the memories of his past came rushing in and overwhelmed his emotions. When he regained his composure, Joseph took Simeon as a hostage and ordered the nine other brothers to take their allotment of grain and return home. Their brother would be released as soon as they returned with Benjamin.

Joseph ordered Simeon be bound with ropes as his brothers looked on helplessly. This was meant to be a vivid and painful reminder of their callous treatment of Joseph so many years before. Simeon’s fate was in their hands. And, for the second time, the brothers found themselves returning home with devastating news for their father. But this time, rather than fabricating a lie, they would be telling the truth.

Before they left for Canaan, Joseph had the grain they had purchased loaded onto their pack animals, and then provided them with provisions for their journey. He also played a rather cruel trick on them, ordering that the money they had paid for the grain be returned in full, and secretly dispersed among the bags of grain. When the brothers stopped for the night, they each discovered the money had been returned to the sacks in which the grain was contained. This made them look like thieves. And they immediately concluded that this was a punishment from the hand of God.

“What is this that God has done to us?” – Genesis 42:28 ESV

Could things get any worse? Their brother was a prisoner in Egypt. They were returning to Canaan with grain they had not paid for, making them guilty of theft. And, on top of that, they were going to have to somehow convince their father to send his youngest son back with them to Egypt. It was all a never-ending nightmare.

When they finally returned home and told their father all that had happened, Jacob was beside himself with grief and fear.

“You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” – Genesis 42:36 ESV

It was more than he could bear. His sons had returned with much-needed food, but they had left their brother behind. To make matters worse, the Egyptian governor was demanding that Jacob send his youngest son back to Egypt if he ever wanted to see Simeon again. This put Jacob in the unenviable position of risking the life of one son or possibly both. If he refused to send Benjamin, he would never see Simeon again. If he agreed to the governor’s demands and sent Benjamin, he had no guarantee that either would ever return. In fact, he had to face the very real possibility that none of his sons would return if the governor accused them of stealing the grain they brought back from Egypt.

Sensing his father’s dilemma, Reuben promised to bring back Simeon and Benjamin, offering his own two sons as sacrificial substitutes should he fail to do so. He was putting his own family line in jeopardy by doing so, but he was willing to take that risk to guarantee Simeon’s release. Jacob reluctantly agreed to send Benjamin back to Egypt, along with his 10 older brothers. This decision must have been gut-wrenching as he considered the very real possibility that he might never see any of them again.

In reading this emotionally charged story, it’s easy to overlook a statement made by Joseph that establishes the tone for all the takes place. After placing his brothers in confinement for three days, Joseph had them brought before him. Then he said something that must have caught them by surprise. After all, they believed they were standing before a powerful Egyptian dignitary who was speaking to them through an interpreter. But as the translator relayed Joseph’s message, they must have been surprised and encouraged.

Do this and you will live, for I fear God.” – Genesis 42:18 ESV

They must have looked at one another in astonishment as, out of the mouth of this Egyptian lord, came the name of ‘ĕlōhîm, the God of Israel. While hiding his true identity from his brothers, Joseph was not disguising his faith in God. He wanted his brothers to know that their fate was in God’s hands, not his own. If they would only obey his orders and return with their younger brother, all would go well. Their brother Simeon would be cared for while they were gone and be released upon their return. And it must have surprised these men to have someone whom they thought to be a pagan to encourage them to trust their own God. This Egyptian was showing more faith than they were. It seems apparent that Joseph could see God’s sovereign handiwork behind all of the events of the last three days. And, somehow, he knew that good was going to come from it all.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

An Awkward Family Reunion

1 When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him. Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.

Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” 10 They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”

12 He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” 13 And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.” 14 But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. 15 By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16 Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” 17 And he put them all together in custody for three days. – Genesis 42:1-17 ESV

Moses now turns the reader’s attention back to Israel (Jacob) and his family, living in the land of Canaan. It has been years since Jacob received the devastating news of his son’s death. He had mourned the loss of Joseph but then had been forced to move on with his life. He was the patriarch of a large and rapidly expanding family. Many of his 11 remaining sons had married and started families of their own, but they remained a close part of the Israelite clan. So, when the famine spread to Canaan, Israel found himself with a crisis on his hands. There was no grain for purchase in the land of Canaan, which made it difficult for Israel to feed his family and livestock.

Upon hearing that grain was for sale in Egypt, Israel assigned his sons the unenviable task of making the long trip to the land of the Pharaohs and returning with as much grain as they could purchase. But Israel and his sons had no idea what awaited them in Egypt. Their objective was to buy temporary relief from their troubles. But God had something far more significant in mind.

Years earlier, God had told Israel’s grandfather, Abraham, that his offspring would end up living in a foreign land for four centuries. But God had also promised that He would deliver them from that land and return them to Canaan.

Then the Lord said to Abram, “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. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” Genesis 15:13-16 ESV

So, as Israel’s 10 sons made their way to Egypt, their only aspiration was to return with grain so that their clan could survive the famine back home. But they were about to play important roles in a divine drama that would preface the next chapter in the story of God’s chosen people.

Upon arrival in Egypt, the sons of Israel were ushered into the presence of the royal governor, who was responsible for the sale of all grain in Egypt. It just so happened that this dignitary was their long-lost brother, Joseph, but they failed to recognize him. He was years older and, most likely, dressed in Egyptian garments. And the last thing they expected to find in Egypt was their long-forgotten brother.

But Joseph had not forgotten them. And upon recognizing the faces of the very men who had sold him into slavery, Joseph decided to keep his identity veiled so that he could ascertain the state of affairs back home. He had no reason to trust his brothers and it must have concerned him that they had shown up in Egypt without their father and younger sibling. Had his father died while he was away? Did his jealous brothers do to young Benjamin what they had done to him? Joseph had so many unanswered questions, so he continued to portray himself as Zaphenath-paneah, the governor of Egypt until he could determine the trustworthiness of his brothers.

Moses indicates that Joseph kept up a convincing charade, speaking to his brothers in stern tones and displaying a suspicious attitude toward them.

…he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. – Genesis 42:7 ESV

A wave of emotions must have swept over Joseph as he stood staring into the faces of the men who had treated him with such disdain. Driven by nothing more than jealousy, these so-called brothers had conspired to kill him. And if it had not been for his brother Judah’s intervention, they would have left Joseph to rot in an abandoned cistern. But Judah had come up with the idea of selling Joseph to Ishmaelite traders. That way, they could be rid of him without being guilty of spilling innocent blood. And each of his brothers had been complicit in their betrayal of Joseph. Even Reuben, who had hoped to extricate him from the pit and return him to their father, had eventually caved into his brothers’ demands.

Now they stood before Joseph, like groveling slaves before their master. And the scene brought to Joseph’s mind the vivid images he had seen in his long-forgotten dreams. It was his sharing of these dreams that had turned his brothers against him.

One night Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers about it, they hated him more than ever. “Listen to this dream,” he said. “We were out in the field, tying up bundles of grain. Suddenly my bundle stood up, and your bundles all gathered around and bowed low before mine!” – Genesis 37:5-7 NLT

Soon Joseph had another dream, and again he told his brothers about it. “Listen, I have had another dream,” he said. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me!” – Genesis 37:9 NLT

And, while these dreams infuriated his brothers, “his father wondered what the dreams meant” (Genesis 37:11 NLT). Now, years later, they were all about to find out. As Reuben, Judah, and their eight other brothers kneeled before the powerful governor of Egypt, they feared for their lives because he was accusing them of being spies. They vehemently denied the accusation and swore that their sole intention was to purchase grain for their families back in Canaan.

“Your servants have simply come to buy food. We are all brothers—members of the same family. We are honest men, sir! We are not spies!” – Genesis 42:10-11 NLT

Their claim to be honest men must have struck a nerve with Joseph. How could these deceivers and betrayers dare to consider themselves to be honest and trustworthy? Nothing from Joseph’s memory could support such a claim. So, he continued to question the veracity of their story.

Desperate to convince the governor of their innocence, they reveal that they have a young brother who has remained at home with their father. But because Joseph knew his brothers to be liars, he was reticent to trust them. How was he to know if Israel or Benjamin were alive or dead? He knew his brothers were capable of just about anything, so he came up with a test to determine whether they deserved his favor or anger.

“This is how I will test your story. I swear by the life of Pharaoh that you will never leave Egypt unless your youngest brother comes here! One of you must go and get your brother. I’ll keep the rest of you here in prison. Then we’ll find out whether or not your story is true. By the life of Pharaoh, if it turns out that you don’t have a younger brother, then I’ll know you are spies.” – Genesis 42:15-16 NLT

Joseph was anxious to know that Benjamin was alive and well. After all, he and Benjamin shared the same birth mother, Rachel. And since Rachel’s death, Benjamin had become near and dear to Joseph’s heart. Yet, because of his brothers’ actions, Joseph had been denied the joy of watching his younger sibling grow up. So much time had passed and he longed to be reunited with his father and brother. And God was using Joseph’s desires to instigate a plan that would eventually fulfill the very words that God had spoken to 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

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

When Dreams Come True

16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, 17 and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.” 18 And Joseph answered and said, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. 19 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you.”

20 On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a feast for all his servants and lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. 21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. 22 But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.

1 After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh. – Genesis 40:16-41:8 ESV

Joseph had provided Pharaoh’s cupbearer with a favorable interpretation of his dream, and this caught the ear of the second royal official who had been imprisoned by Pharaoh. The chief baker had also experienced a vivid and rather disturbing dream and desired to know its meaning. Hopeful that he too would receive a positive interpretation, he shared its contents with Joseph.

“I had a dream, too. In my dream there were three baskets of white pastries stacked on my head. The top basket contained all kinds of pastries for Pharaoh, but the birds came and ate them from the basket on my head.” – Genesis 40:16-17 NLT

Whereas the cupbearer’s dream had featured three branches that bore grapes, the baker dreamed of three baskets full of pastries. Each envisioned something having to do with their particular occupation in the royal court. But while Joseph had informed the cupbearer that Pharaoh would restore him to his former position, the baker received much more disturbing news. Without a moment’s hesitation, Joseph told the anxious baker that his dream was a dark omen foreshadowing his death.

“This is what the dream means,” Joseph told him. “The three baskets also represent three days. Three days from now Pharaoh will lift you up and impale your body on a pole. Then birds will come and peck away at your flesh.” – Genesis 40:18-19 NLT

Joseph made no attempt to soften the blow and there’s no expression of sorrow or regret in his delivery of the fateful news. He simply blurts out the details of the dream’s meaning in a rather blunt and matter-of-fact manner. And Moses provides no details regarding the baker’s response to this shocking news. He simply indicates that, three days later, Pharaoh invited the cupbearer and baker to join all the other royal officials at a birthday banquet in his honor. It’s likely that they were allowed to bath and provided with clean garments to wear in the Pharaoh’s presence. And this invitation from Pharaoh must have left both men in a state of high anxiety. How were they to know that Joseph’s interpretations had been accurate? The cupbearer had been told he would be restored to his original position, but there was no way to know if Joseph was right. And the baker must have been beside himself with fear as he considered Joseph’s prediction of his pending death.

As they stepped into the royal court, both men quickly discovered that Joseph’s interpretations had been spot on. In the midst of the royal birthday party, Pharaoh restored the cupbearer to his former position and then had the baker impaled. And the one person in the room who would have recognized the significance of Pharaoh’s actions was the cupbearer. He had heard both of Joseph’s interpretations and had just witnessed the proof of their accuracy. Everything had all turned out just as Joseph had predicted. In a sense, Pharaoh, whom the Egyptians considered to be a god, had done exactly what the God of Joseph had said he would do.

But in the heat of the moment, and having just witnessed the execution of his associate, the cupbearer was glad to be alive. And Moses indicates that he forgot all about Joseph. Restored to his former position and resplendent in his royal robes, the cupbearer put the prison and his former cellmate in the back of his mind.

the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him. – Genesis 40:23 ESV

It’s important to recall that Joseph had explicitly begged the cupbearer to remember him and put in a good word to Pharaoh on his behalf.

“…please remember me and do me a favor when things go well for you. Mention me to Pharaoh, so he might let me out of this place. For I was kidnapped from my homeland, the land of the Hebrews, and now I’m here in prison, but I did nothing to deserve it.” – Genesis 40:14-15 NLT

But for the greatly relieved cupbearer, Joseph was soon out of sight and out of mind. With a new lease on life, he simply moved on and allowed Joseph to become a distant and fading memory.

Meanwhile, back in the prison, life went on as usual for Joseph. When neither the cupbearer nor baker returned to their cells, Joseph must have been convinced that his interpretations had been accurate. But as the days passed, he must have grown increasingly more concerned that he had not been summoned before Pharaoh. Had the cupbearer forgotten him? Or did the story of his unjust imprisonment fail to sway the mind of Pharaoh? Perhaps Potiphar had intervened and demanded that Joseph remain imprisoned for his purported attack on his wife.

For two long years, Joseph remained in prison, suffering for a crime he hadn’t committed. And we’re provided with no details concerning his life during that long delay. But it’s safe to assume that Joseph continued to enjoy a remarkable measure of success even in those less-than-ideal circumstances, because “The Lord was with him and caused everything he did to succeed” (Genesis 39:23 NLT).

God had not forgotten Joseph. And while the days passed by with painstaking regularity, God was actively orchestrating his divine plan for Joseph’s release. From a human perspective, two years is a long time, but for an infinite and eternal God who operates outside the confines of time and space, Joseph’s two-year delay was little more than the time it takes to blink. As the psalmist wrote:

For a thousand years in your sight
    are but as yesterday when it is past,
    or as a watch in the night. – Psalm 90:4 ESV

God operates on an eternal calendar that spans well beyond the days of a man’s life or the centuries of a nation’s existence. Joseph’s extended incarceration was a necessary part of God’s plan because His timing is impeccable and “his way is perfect” (Psalm 18:30 ESV).

The Lord is righteous in all his ways – Psalm 145:17 ESV

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord. – Lamentations 3:25-26 ESV

Joseph continued to work and wait. And as he did, his God was working behind the scenes, preparing for just the right moment to unveil the next phase of His redemptive plan for Joseph, the people of Israel, and the nations of the world. And it’s not surprising that the next chapter of Joseph’s amazing life began would include yet another dream. But this time, it wasn’t Joseph, a cupbearer, or a baker who were awakened from their sleep by a God-ordained dream, it was Pharaoh.

One of the most powerful men in the world was shaken from his slumber by a disturbing vision. This so-called deity was being robbed of rest by Yahweh, the one true God. And Pharaoh would receive two different, yet similar visions that left him disturbed and disconcerted. Yet, none of his court magicians or royal conjurers could explain the meaning behind his dreams. And this vacuum within Pharaoh’s royal court would prove to be a God-ordained opportunity for Joseph to utilize his interpretive skills one more time. Pharaoh had a dream. Joseph had a gift. And God had a plan.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Dreams, Nightmares, and Visions

1 Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker committed an offense against their lord the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined. The captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them, and he attended them. They continued for some time in custody.

And one night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation. When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled. So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in custody in his master’s house, “Why are your faces downcast today?” They said to him, “We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.”

So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph and said to him, “In my dream there was a vine before me, 10 and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” 12 Then Joseph said to him, “This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days. 13 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as formerly, when you were his cupbearer. 14 Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. 15 For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit.” – Genesis 40:1-15 ESV

To understand the events recorded in this chapter, it’s essential to remember that Joseph was imprisoned in “the place where the king’s prisoners were confined” (Genesis 39:20 ESV). In a sense, this was a prison reserved for those whom we might consider guilty of committing “white-collar” crimes. This doesn’t mean their offenses were minor in nature, but that they were not petty criminals. As an official member of Pharaoh’s administration, Potiphar had been able to have Joseph confined to this minimum-security prison where he was surrounded by others who had been charged with crimes against the state.

And it was in this environment that Joseph would come into contact with two additional “officers” from Pharaoh’s court. One had served as Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer while the other had held the title of chief baker. Both of these men had committed offenses against Pharaoh that landed them in prison, where they awaited notification of their fate. Like Joseph, they had no way of knowing how long they would remain imprisoned or whether they would ever see the light of day again. And neither of these men had any way of knowing that God was going to use them as part of His sovereign plan for Joseph’s eventual release and meteoric change in social status.

Moses ended the previous chapter with a revealing statement regarding Joseph: “the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed” (Genesis 39:23 ESV). While it would be easy to view Joseph’s presence in prison in a negative light, Moses wants his readers to know that Joseph was under the gracious and all-powerful care of the sovereign God of the universe. This young man, who had been falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned, was right where God wanted him to be. And God was providentially overseeing every aspect of Joseph’s life, pouring out His unmerited favor and ensuring Joseph’s ultimate success. 

So, it should come as no surprise that God had preordained for the cupbearer and baker to be incarcerated in the very same prison as Joseph. And, not only that, but He had arranged for both of these men, on the very same night, to have their sleep disturbed by a dream. And when Joseph saw them the following morning, he could sense that something was wrong. Their countenance revealed that something had greatly disturbed them and he inquired as to the nature of their distress. When they revealed their desire to know the meaning of their dreams, Joseph offered to act as their interpreter.

“Interpreting dreams is God’s business,” Joseph replied. “Go ahead and tell me your dreams.”  Genesis 40:8 NLT

Joseph was familiar with dreams. After all, he had experienced a few of his own. And he knew from personal experience that the meaning behind a dream could produce some pretty serious consequences.In one of his own dreams, Joseph had envisioned he and his brothers as bundles of grain. And in the dream, all of the other “bundles” had bowed down before his. It was his brothers who had assessed the meaning of the dream, stating, “So you think you will be our king, do you? Do you actually think you will reign over us?” (Genesis 37:8 NLT).

And this dream had been followed by a second one that Joseph eagerly shared with his brothers, and with his father and mother.

“The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me!” – Genesis 37:9 NLT

And as before, Joseph was given the interpretation, along with a stern rebuke from his father.

“What kind of dream is that?” he asked. “Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow to the ground before you?” – Genesis 37:10 NLT

So, for Joseph, discovering the interpretation of a dream didn’t seem to pose a big problem. If God was behind the dream, He could easily provide its meaning. Joseph wasn’t claiming to have the gift of dream interpretation. He simply believed that if God was behind the dream, its meaning would not remain obscure or hidden. After all, his father and brothers had managed to interpret his dreams without a problem.

Anxious to discover the meaning behind his dream, the chief cupbearer spoke first.

“In my dream,” he said, “I saw a grapevine in front of me. The vine had three branches that began to bud and blossom, and soon it produced clusters of ripe grapes. I was holding Pharaoh’s wine cup in my hand, so I took a cluster of grapes and squeezed the juice into the cup. Then I placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”  – Genesis 40:9-11 NLT

And almost as if he had done this a thousand times, Joseph boldly and confidently declared, “This is what the dream means…” (Genesis 40:12 NLT). Then he promptly shared his interpretation of the rather cryptic and surprisingly disturbing dream. Without batting an eye, Joseph stated, “The three branches represent three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift you up and restore you to your position as his chief cup-bearer” (Genesis 40:12-13 NLT). And that news was like music to the cupbearer’s ears. Much to his relief, whatever he had done to deserve imprisonment was not going to  result in his death or further confinement. In fact, within three days time, he would be released and restored to his former position.

Having delivered the good news, Joseph took the opportunity to appeal to the cupbearer’s sense of fair play. Since Joseph had given the cupbearer a new lease on life, he asked that the man show his gratitude by putting in a positive word for him to Pharaoh. Joseph explained that he was an innocent victim, having been sold tin slavery by his own brothers and then unjustly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Joseph was hoping that a good word from the cupbearer might prompt Pharaoh to intervene on his behalf. He desperately wanted to get out of prison but it’s unlikely that Joseph believed he could be released from his status as a slave. Perhaps Pharaoh could find him a place to serve in the royal court. ”

But Joseph’s interpretation skills were still required. The baker, having witnessed the positive outcome of the cupbearer’s dream, eagerly divulged the content of his own personal nightmare. But his high hopes would soon come crashing to the ground as Joseph shared the less-than-promising interpretation of his dream.

But through it all, God was speaking, leading, working, and orchestrating every facet of Joseph’s complicated and highly conflicted and life. Nothing escaped His attention. No one was outside His range of influence. Even the dreams of men were subject to His sovereign authority. The cupbearer and the baker were in the prison because of their own crimes, but the timing and the place of their captivity had been completely up to God. The slowly unfolding story of Joseph’s life continues to point to the faithfulness and omnipotence of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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