Slave to Sovereign
(16) When he called for a famine in the land and broke all supply of bread, (17) he sent a man before them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. (18) His feet were afflicted with fetters. He was imprisoned in irons. (19) Until what he said came to pass, the word of Yahweh tested him. (20) The king sent and released him. The ruler of the peoples set him free. (21) He made him master of his house and ruler over all his possessions, (22) to instruct his leaders as he pleased and to teach his elders wisdom.
In this segment the psalmist recounts the story of Joseph. Two significant repetitions should be noted. First, in a play on words, the author uses the same Hebrew verb translated “he was imprisoned” (lit. “came into irons”) in the very next line in the expression, “what he said came to pass.” While the first use of “came” is negative, the second is quite positive (vss. 18 & 19).
In the second repetition, “ruler” occurs twice (vss. 20 & 21). In the first instance the word refers to Pharaoh, Egypt’s sovereign. In the second it refers to the high position Pharaoh conferred on Joseph as his regent. As Pharaoh said, “You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you” (Gen. 41:40).
I. Joseph sold as a slave and tested in Egypt (16-19)
II. Joseph elevated to high office to save Egypt and his family (20-22)
In God’s sovereign plan, what seems quite negative can turn out to be quite positive when we trust him for the outcome.
The Joseph story is one of the most beloved narratives in the entire Old Testament. In one verse, Joseph summarized what transpired. To alleviate his brothers’ fears that he might still seek revenge for the shameful way they had treated him, he assured them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).
The old cliché, “Man proposes, but God disposes,” fits this story well. Its meaning is evident. We can make all the plans we want, but the outcome remains in God’s hands. In the case of Joseph’s brothers, they had hoped by selling him into slavery to be rid of someone who had deeply annoyed them with his troublesome prophecies as well as the favored treatment he had received from their father. The fact that God used their evil action to accomplish great good does not excuse their behavior. It simply underlines the truth that God’s sovereign grace will inevitably prevail over anything we might seek to accomplish.
Through his many trials, Joseph never lost hope that God would work all things out for the good (Rom. 8:28). What a great example he sets for us when we experience adversity and suffer from the malice of those who seek to harm us! It is a great comfort to know that God is fully aware of all that we are enduring, loves us unceasingly, and promises to keep us safe no matter how hopeless things may seem in our present circumstances.