John Angell James (1785—1859)
"How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?" Genesis 39:9
The Bible, viewed apart from its highest character as a revelation of divine, eternal, and immutable truth, and from its design as intended to make men "wise unto salvation," is the most instructive, entertaining, and interesting volume in the world—uniting, as it does, every species of writing, every variety of subject, and every style of composition. Hence the testimony of Sir William Jones, a man who, by the exertion of rare intellectual talents, acquired a knowledge of languages and literature which has seldom been equaled, and scarcely, if ever, surpassed. "I have carefully and regularly perused the Scriptures," says this truly great man, and am of opinion that this volume, independent of its divine origin, contains more sublimity, purer morality, more important history, and finer strains of eloquence, than can be collected from all other books, in whatever language they may have been written." Such a testimony, borne by a scholar who was intimately acquainted with twenty-eight different languages, and with the best works which had been published in most of them, deserves attention, and must carry weight with every considerate mind. The page of Holy Writ on which we open in this chapter justifies this eulogy—for where is the judge of literary composition who will not pronounce the history of Joseph to be one of the most exquisitely touching narratives ever written?
Before I proceed to enter upon the character of Joseph, I will point out what, besides the exhibition of a splendid example of human excellence, appears to me to be the design of God in preserving his deeply interesting and eventful history. This narrative is a representation of PROVIDENCE in miniature. Here we see God working out his wise and benevolent schemes by means and instruments the most varied, the most unlikely, and seemingly the most opposite; and by a series of events, which as they arise singly and separately, appear to favor the designs of the bad and to oppress the good—but which are all made to terminate in the triumph of virtue and piety.
Here, on a small scale, we see a wonderful and complicated mechanism, numerous wheels moving in opposite directions, but all made to subserve one wise and holy purpose, and thus to furnish a historical and beautiful illustration of the declaration, that "All things work together for good to those who love God." In many parts of Scripture we hear Providence speaking, but here we see it acting; and making evil, without altering its nature or excusing its agents, subserve the good man. Here we see that though truth and holiness for a while may be trodden down by the iron heels of falsehood, vice, and power—they shall at length lift up their heads with joy, and be crowned with glory and honor.
But we now take up the other purpose of this beautiful narrative, and that is, to exhibit, for admiration and imitation, an extraordinary pattern of human excellence. Much of the Bible is historical and biographical. It is a gallery of portraits, both of good and bad men; some merely sketched in outline; some showing part of the figure only, and some drawn at full length. This makes the Scriptures at once interesting and instructive. We see SIN in living shapes—depraved, leprous, beastly, diabolical—and learn to hate it. We see HOLINESS, fair and beautiful, though by no means perfectly angelical and heavenly—and we are by such examples taught to love it, and helped to acquire it.
Let us, then, now contemplate the character of Joseph. It is not my intention, for it is not in my power, in a single chapter to enter very much at length into details of his touching history. I must take for granted your acquaintance with them, and can do nothing more than give you so much of the narrative as shall help you in studying his character.
And, first of all, let us look at Joseph in that situation where the seed of all his future excellences began to develop—his father's tent. There, were laid, in his filial piety and his true religion, the foundations of that noble and lofty character which all nations and ages have delighted to contemplate. It is unquestionably true, and should ever be borne in mind by parents and children, that the rudiments of character are formed in early life, and at home, and then and there those seeds of good or evil are sown which bear in future years their appropriate fruits.
Joseph was the favorite child of his father, who in a manner most injudicious in itself, most dangerous to the object of his preference, and most destructive of his own peace, displayed his partiality by "the coat of many colors," and other marks of parental distinction. This partiality, though unwisely manifested, was grounded in part on Joseph's exemplary conduct, for he was a most dutiful son, and one that feared God. At the same time, however, he was the object of hatred and envy to his brethren. This was caused partly by his father's partiality; partly by his artless simplicity, not perhaps untinctured by vanity, which had been increased by indulgence, and which showed itself in relating his dreams; and partly by the information which he gave of the misconduct of his brothers; for all these things tended, doubtless, to increase and exasperate their ill-will. But their enmity was produced chiefly by his good conduct and blameless character. They hated him because "their own deeds were evil and their brother's righteous." It was the enmity of the wicked towards the good. He was their constant reprover by the silent reproach of his holy example. I scarcely know a situation more trying, or requiring more firmness, humility, meekness, wisdom, and caution—than that of a pious and dutiful child, loved by his parents on account of his excellence of character, and surrounded by brothers of an opposite description. If any of you are in that situation, pray earnestly to God to make his grace sufficient for you.
With the murderous conspiracy of Joseph's cruel and unnatural brothers you are well acquainted. I shall draw no picture of his cries and entreaties, when he was seized by them, and cast into a pit to be left to starve; but I will for one moment suggest how in that horrible situation he must have been sustained and comforted by the true religion he had learned at home; and what else could meet his case? What a situation for one who had never until now been from beneath the protection of paternal care and tenderness; whose face the wind of heaven had never, hitherto, visited too roughly; whose spirit, mortification had never galled; whose heart, affliction had never yet pierced. But his gracious God and his easy conscience were with him there; and in those mournful and desolate circumstances he found that he was not alone. O true religion! O divine and seraphic companion and comforter, you will never leave us—however forlorn our condition or gloomy our prospects.
I also pass by the successful intercession of Judah for his life, and the providential arrival of the Arabian caravan, and follow Joseph down into Egypt, to witness his conduct in the house of Potiphar, to whom he was sold as a slave. Instead of cursing his lot, yielding to sullen despondency, and making his master angry by hopeless misery—he accommodated himself, by the aid of true religion, to his circumstances, and applied all his faculties to serve his master, to secure his confidence, and conciliate his kindness. And he was successful. You see how wise it is, instead of giving up all for lost in unfavorable circumstances, and sinking into absolute despair, to resolve, by God's blessing, to do all we can to improve our condition. Learn, young men, to bear up with patience, fortitude and hope, against adverse circumstances. Never despair. It was an old Greek proverb, "We ascend, downwards." And in Bunyan's inimitable allegory, the "Valley of Humiliation" lay in the direct road to exaltation. If by any cause you are brought into a less favorable situation than you have been accustomed to occupy, go diligently and cheerfully to work, and determine, by God's grace, to make even this bitter experience subservient to your future welfare. It may be necessary to prepare you for something higher and better. Never abandon hope. The mainspring of exertion is broken when hope is gone.
Joseph's conduct in the house of Potiphar was so exemplary for diligence and fidelity, that it drew upon him, first of all, the favor of God—and next, the esteem of man, for he was soon advanced to a high place of trust and honor in the establishment of his master. The reason of Potiphar's conduct in thus promoting his Hebrew slave is given by the historian in the following words—"He saw that the Lord was with him, and the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand." Here is one of the ten thousand instances which corroborate the declaration of the apostle, that "Godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come." True piety is the parent of every virtue which is either useful to man or pleasing to God; and when confirmed and illustrated by a faithful life, is the best recommendation a youth can offer to one whose confidence he wishes to secure.
Few men are so blind to their own interest as not to know the value and to appreciate the services of an able diligent and faithful servant, and rarely does it happen that such a servant, where there is room for it, is not promoted. Depend upon it, there is a buoyancy in talent and virtue which will make them rise to the surface. "Do you see," says Solomon, "a man diligent in business—he shall stand before kings." "I," said Benjamin Franklin, "can attest the truth of that, for I have transacted with five monarchs in my time." It was as a servant that Franklin commenced his wonderful career, and by the fidelity and diligence he displayed in that capacity, he laid the foundations of his future fame. Innumerable instances have occurred of eminent and excellent servants becoming partners and proprietors of the establishments in which they once acted in a very subordinate capacity.
In the chapter entitled "Entrance upon Adult Life," I reminded you that sincere, heartfelt and very decided piety is necessary to prepare for those sudden, violent, and unexpected temptations which often beset the young traveler on life's eventful journey; especially in circumstances of promotion and prosperity. Joseph soon experienced the truth of this. He was, we are informed, a young man of such personal appearance as was likely to attract the attention and excite the passions of an unprincipled and villainous woman.
BEAUTY is the production of God, and, as one of his gifts, is, like every other, to be considered good in itself, and to be received with thankfulness—but how often does it prove a snare to its possessor, and a temptation to others! It had nearly proved more fatal to Joseph than even the envy of his brothers. This last threatened only his body, but his attractiveness endangered his soul. His virtue was vehemently and perseveringly assailed. Everything combined to give all but irresistible force to the assault. Its nature, so adapted to the passions of youth—its source, a person who by her favor could aid his promotion, or by her malignity, which was sure to be roused by disappointment and resentment, could ensure his ruin—its secrecy, which would cover the crime from every spectator, but that One who is the witness of all deeds—its repetition, carried forward from time to time—its violence, as if she would carry her purpose by assault—all rendered it everything but certain that Joseph's integrity must yield.
Who does not tremble for him? Who would not tremble more for himself in such a case? His destiny is suspended upon the manner in which he meets that fierce assault. If he falls, he will in all probability never rise. But if he stands, he will in all probability never fall. If he resists, he is safe forever after. If he consents, one criminal act will lead to another, until he becomes an abandoned profligate. A first wrong step will render all wrong afterwards, and be an entrance on the road to ruin.
Yes, there are cases in most men's moral history, when their whole character and destiny depend upon their decision regarding one single act. Joseph was victorious. Wonderful! How was this triumph of virtue over vice, of youthful innocence over all but irresistible temptation, achieved? First, by a deep sense of honor. He replied to the seductress, "There is none greater in this house than I; neither has he (my master) kept anything from me but you, because you are his wife." Shall I thus abuse his confidence and requite his kindness? Noble youth! All generations since have done you honor! But whence this delicate sense of honor? From infidelity? No, for David Hume taught that adultery was but a little thing if known, and if unknown, nothing. Infidelity! Where is the infidel who would not have laughed at the squeamishness of a conscience which would have hesitated, in such a situation as this? No—it was true religion that made Joseph virtuous in himself and honorable to his master; for he immediately added—How shall I do this great wickedness and sin against God? Yes, that was his safeguard. All guards but one were absent, and that One, though invisible to sense, now stood revealed to the eye of his faith in this the most perilous hour of his existence, and threw over him the shield of omnipotence, which averted the shafts of the tempter, preserved his chastity unsullied, and inspired deep abhorrence of the sin to which he was so perilously exposed. Yes, it was his true religion, his realizing sense of the Divine presence, that in this crisis of his history determined the purpose that saved him from ruin. He acted under the potent and protecting influence of the consideration, O God, you see me—and endured as seeing him who is invisible. How solemn a reflection,
"Within your circling power I stand,
Young men away from home, removed from beneath the vigilant eye of parental superintendence, and exposed to temptations of this or any other kind, look at the power which preserved Joseph, and which can also preserve you. See where your strength, your safety, and your happiness lie. There are temptations so strong, so violent, so fascinating to our corrupt natures, that all other restraints but those of true piety will be swept away before them, like cobwebs or chaff by the force of a tempest. It is beautifully said of the good man, "The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide." Seek this support, guidance, and protection, and you will be safe and happy in dangers as imminent as those which hung over this holy and honorable man.
Voluptuous and profligate youth, votary of licentious pleasures, you who deride the prudish scruples of Joseph, place yourself in imagination on the bed of death—at the judgment seat—on the brink of the fathomless abyss of punishment. Through the flames of the bottomless pit see those people of whose crimes you have been the witness, the accomplice, perhaps the author. Behold the pleasures of a moment succeeded by the sufferings of eternity. Or look up into heaven, where the present mortification of sin is followed by everlasting ages of holiness without effort, and happiness without alloy—and say, which you will then wish you had chosen on earth—the love of sinful pleasure, or the love of the holy God.
There is another lesson of momentous consequence for the young, and indeed for all, to learn from the conduct of Joseph in this assault; and that is, that while some temptations are boldly to be encountered and resolutely overcome, there are others only to be conquered by flight, and to be disarmed by removing to a distance. Joseph fled from the company and solicitations of this shameless woman. He who carries gunpowder about him should not stay and endeavor to protect himself from the fire, but should instantly get as far from it as he can. So should it be in many cases of temptation—to parley is to be in danger—to listen is to be in jeopardy—to linger is to fall. He who enters with his eyes open into temptation, or remains in it voluntarily, is already vanquished!
As Potiphar's wife could not corrupt Joseph's virtue, she determined to blast his reputation and effect his ruin, and brought forward the memorial of her shame as the proof of his guilt. Appearances were unquestionably against him, and show how even the most spotless purity may sometimes be slandered amid circumstances calculated to excite suspicion, and may for a while lie under the imputation of crime. "And here again," says an author, "we have a fresh instance of his greatness of mind. He chooses rather to incur his master's groundless displeasure, and to sink under the weight of a false accusation, than to vindicate his own honor by exposing the shame of a bad woman; and he leaves the clearing up of his character, and the preservation of his life, to that God with whom he had entrusted still higher concerns, those of his immortal soul. And thus the least assuming, the shamefaced, feminine virtues—temperance, and chastity, and innocence, and self-government—are found in company with the most manly, the heroic qualities—courage, constancy, and contempt of death."
This is very finely put, but it is not quite certain that the silence of the historian proves also Joseph's silence in defense of himself; nor is it quite clear that either chivalry or trust in God should have made him willing to bow down to such an accusation. Perhaps, however, he saw that as he could bring no witnesses, and that the matter rested wholly between himself and his temptress, it was useless to reveal the facts, and better to leave his vindication to the Providence of God, who would bring forth his righteousness as the light, and his judgment as the noonday.
Joseph was imprisoned, but he was infinitely happier there, with God's smiling conscience, than was his slanderer amid all the luxuries of her mansion, tormented as she must have been by her own reflections. No place is frightful to a good man, but the 'dungeon of an bad conscience'. Free from that, Joseph is at liberty, though in prison. Nor can any place be pleasant to one tormented with remorse; that will convert a paradise into hell. Here again in this seemingly hard condition, we see Joseph maintaining his self-respect, his confidence in God, his benevolent activity, his accommodating disposition, and his general good conduct. By this course of action, he subdued even his jailor, and conciliated the friendship and affection of one who may be supposed, from his occupation, not to have possessed the gentlest nature. He made friends everywhere, and of everybody—but her whose favors would have been his ruin. This was accomplished by the union of piety, general excellence of character, a cheerful disposition, and accommodating demeanor. The same course will be followed in other cases with the same effect.
While suffering unjustly in prison, the inspiration of God came upon him in the interpretation of the dreams of two of Pharaoh's officers, and this after two weary years of ungrateful and wrongful forgetfulness on the part of one of them, led to his liberation. But in this ingratitude of the chief butler we see the Providence of God, for had he spoken earlier of the poor captive whom he ought to have remembered, the king might have given Joseph his liberty; but probably none of the events which followed would then have taken place, and to have been numbered among the wise men of the land, might have been the greatest honor to which he attained. How conspicuously Providence appears in all these incidents! The envy of Joseph's brethren; the lasciviousness of his mistress; the misconduct and dreams of his fellow-prisoners; and the ingratitude of one of them; all bad in themselves, yet all meeting, strange to think, in one point, the elevation of Joseph to be the second person in all the land of Egypt, inferior to the king alone. Remove one link, and the chain is broken. God is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working!
The dreams of Pharaoh, and their interpretation by Joseph, under inspiration by God, made way, not only for his liberation, but for his advancement to the highest dignity which the monarch could bestow, next to the crown. Instead of the fetters which bound him, he receives Pharaoh's ring of office. Instead of his prison clothes, he was dressed in the fine linen of Egypt, worn only by the great. Instead of the confinement of a prison, he dwells in a palace. Instead of being the servant of a jailor, he is prime minister of a mighty nation, never appearing in public but to be seen in a chariot of state preceded by a herald, calling upon the people to bow the knee. A change so sudden; a transition so great; an elevation so lofty; usually intoxicates the mind, corrupts the heart, and mars the character. It had not this effect upon our true hero. Joseph's dignity, his courage, his humility, his clemency, on this trying occasion, were astonishing, and are all to be traced up to his piety, which dictated and produced them, and caused him to maintain, when the prime minister of a mighty nation, the same fidelity and prudence which he exhibited in the house of Potiphar and in the prison. His holy excellences, as the circle of his influence widened, increased their power, and multiplied their effects, until they pervaded the greater sphere as completely as they had done the less. Potiphar's base and villainous wife, his temptress and calumniator; the ungrateful butler; his own wicked and murderous brethren; were all now at his mercy; he had an arm long enough to reach, and strong enough to crush, them all; but with generosity untinctured by a single particle of malice or resentment, he determined that the sun of his glory should shine forth without a spot.
"Joseph was but thirty years old when he became the prime minister of Pharaoh; seventeen of which had been spent under the wing of a fond, indulgent parent; and the other thirteen, at that period when the heart is most devoted to pleasure, he had spent in all the variety of human wretchedness—but in all the dignity of virtue, all the superiority of wisdom, all the delights, pure and sublime, of true piety; and now, at an age when most men are only beginning to reflect and act as reasonable beings, we see him raised, not by accident nor connivance, nor by petulance—but by undisputed merit—to a situation which one part of mankind look up to with desire, and another with awe."
See him, young men, now as a minister of Pharaoh, serving his royal master during the years of famine and plenty, with a zeal surpassed only by his honesty. What an opportunity did he now possess to amass for himself, by selfishness and embezzlement, incalculable wealth! But his fidelity was as signal and illustrious as his situation. He has been blamed by some for taking advantage of the famine, first to impoverish and then to enslave the Egyptians. I have not time to examine this charge at any length, nor to enter minutely into the circumstances of this part of his conduct—and perhaps we may not be able to come to any satisfactory conclusion upon it, for lack of more information than is contained in the Scriptural account. There are some expositors who are of opinion that there was nothing in this transaction which reflects discredit on Joseph's character. That he had no selfish view is evident; and as regards Pharaoh, it must be borne in mind, the government of Egypt, before the famine, was despotic and arbitrary. If there were in this affair nothing but a display of ministerial adroitness, in selfishly employing his superior skill and diplomacy in planning or carrying out a system of despotism, let it be viewed as a dark spot on the sun of his glory—but it is believed by many that this was not the case. It is said, in his defense, that it is clear that after the expiration of the famine, he restored to the people their lands and their liberties, upon condition of their paying to the king, for the purpose of government, a fifth part of their produce, which was a kind of grain tax in lieu, it would seem, of arbitrary exactions, and was a tax which in that fertile country they could easily pay. That Joseph was not an oppressor is evident from the sentiments of gratitude which the Egyptians expressed, "You have saved our lives;" and from the veneration and love with which his memory has ever been cherished among them. Instead of enslaving the people, he was the first, say his defenders, that in Egypt limited the power of the crown, settling by a formal ordinance, that portion which alone the king could touch.
Before we pass on, let us just pause for a moment to mark the changeful condition of man upon earth. Compare, or rather contrast, the situation of Joseph now as prime minister of Egypt, and second only to Pharaoh himself, with his condition as first the slave and afterwards the prisoner of Potiphar. How soon may the most brilliant scene be enveloped in the darkest clouds, and the calm be succeeded by the storm. On the other hand, how soon may the dark clouds roll off and exhibit the orb of day in more than previous splendor, and the storm give way to a brighter and a sweeter calm. Amid such vicissitudes, let us indulge neither a careless and confident security in prosperity—nor a settled and gloomy despondency in adversity; but seek that true piety and that humble trust in God, which shall preserve us in cheerful and tranquil equanimity of mind, and make us feel independent in one condition and hopeful in the other.
We now turn from Joseph as prime minister of state, to contemplate his conduct as a brother and a son. I do not profess to be able to explain how it came to pass that all this while he made no inquiries after his father and brethren. There is a chasm here which I cannot fill up. That it arose neither from resentment nor alienation, seems evident from his subsequent conduct. Perhaps he thought he could not communicate the details of his history without inflicting a deeper wound upon his father's heart, by an account of the unworthiness of his other sons, than could be healed by the knowledge of his own life and elevation. Or God, whose counsel he sought in all his ways, may have given him an express revelation, directing him at what time and in what manner to make himself known to his family. For the account of Joseph's conduct to his brethren, I refer you to the inimitably touching narrative preserved in the book of Genesis. To many readers, doubtless, there will appear to be a somewhat unseemly sporting with their feelings, a lack of sincerity in the disguise he assumed and the accusations he preferred, and a degree of contempt in the somewhat heathen language which in one or two instances he employed. I will not contend that in all his conduct he was perfectly blameless. There may have been spots in his character, and after comparing it very closely with Scripture, some deficiency may be discovered; and we must disapprove of what is wrong wherever and in whomsoever it is found. Sacred history exhibits its characters just as they were—not in all respects as they should have been. Dark spots are most easily discovered upon the whitest garments, and foul blemishes in the fairest reputations.
There were, however, obvious reasons for the general conduct of Joseph. He knew the former wicked character of his brethren, and had experienced their murderous cruelty towards himself; and as he very likely foresaw that this interview and renewed communion might lead to their coming down and settling in Egypt, he wished to ascertain how far their present character would, from its improvement, warrant his encouraging such a step. What might appear, therefore, to others as unnecessary cruelty, was in his intention the wisdom and severity of love. It was as the test of fire to the metal, to prove of what sort it is. He wanted to know how far they repented of their sin towards himself, and he therefore placed himself in a position to ascertain this, a position in which he could look into their hearts, without unveiling his own. His love yearned over them, and he longed to tell them how fully and freely he forgave them; but with a prudence and strength of mind which proved not only how good, but how wise and great he was, he laid a stern restraint upon his feelings until the proper moment of disclosure arrived, and the end of postponing it had been fully answered. The whole scene is of such exquisite pathos, as is not to be equaled in the creations of fiction.
At length the full evidence of contrition and amendment having been obtained, and the purpose of his disguise having been accomplished, his heart could endure no longer the torture of concealment; the pathetic speech of Judah, the sight of his own beloved brother Benjamin, the frequent mention of his father's name, raised such a torrent of filial and fraternal love in his soul, that he suddenly lets the mask fall, and exclaims, "I am Joseph. Does my father yet live?" Who can describe, who can imagine, their feelings at this discovery? If they had in his early life actually put him to death, and his spirit had now started up before them, their feelings could not have been greatly different.
A little mind might have enjoyed the triumph which he had now gained over those who once hated him. He saw their distress, he beheld them speechless with amazement, petrified with terror, tortured with apprehension—and he instantly dissipated their fears; calmed their perturbation; became their apologist, instead of their accuser; and directed their attention to that Providence which had overruled their conduct, not only to procure his advancement, but also for the preservation of the lives of thousands. A less generous, noble and delicate mind, would have talked much of his forgiving them—but he entreats them to forgive themselves.
Revengeful and implacable man—whom the least offence inflames, who never forgives an injury incomparably less than that committed against Joseph; who, with a serpentine cunning, a bloodhound scent, and a lion-like ferocity, pursues the object of your malice—and at last take a demon-like pleasure in his tortures as he writhes under the inflictions of your revenge—how little, how contemptible, you appear, when compared with this hero of fraternal love! Pause, young men, upon this instance, and say if there is not more true greatness in this act of forgiveness, than in all the bloody heroes of history or romance?
You have seen Joseph as a brother, now contemplate him once more as a son; I say once more, for we have already seen him in his youthful days, the comfort of his father's declining years. The boy has become a man, the man has become illustrious, and the illustrious man has become the prime minister of a powerful foreign court; and does he still remember and love his father, the old shepherd of Canaan? Has filial piety outlived his injuries, his changes, his reverses, his elevation? Or, has Joseph wished and contrived, amid his brilliant fortunes, to forget the aged patriarch? Again, I say, read the beautiful history, and see how this best of sons shall answer, by his own conduct, this question. How abrupt the transition in that gush of feeling! "I am Joseph, does my father yet live?" How beautiful the exhortation, "Tell my father how I am honored here in Egypt. Tell him about everything you have seen, and bring him to me quickly." How exquisite the admonition, "Hurry, return to my father and tell him, 'This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me master over all the land of Egypt. Come down to me right away! You will live in the land of Goshen so you can be near me with all your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all that you have. I will take care of you there, for there are still five years of famine ahead of us. Otherwise you and your household will come to utter poverty.' " Genesis 45:9-11
The joyful news being conveyed to Jacob, he immediately relocated with all his family to Egypt. I attempt not to describe the raptures of that interview, when father and son, clasped in each other's arms, found not only words, but tears and sobs, too weak to express the overwhelming ecstasies of that scene and that moment in which Jacob could find nothing better fitted to give utterance to his emotion than this—"Now let me die, since I have seen the face of my son!" Would you behold the greatest triumph and the richest trophy of filial love, turn to that glorious spectacle, when the prime minister of Egypt, the man next to Pharaoh himself, led the poor old shepherd of Canaan, leaning upon his arm, into the palace, and before the whole circle of courtiers, introduced him to the monarch, exultingly exclaiming, "My Father." "O nature, nature! How honorable your empire, how glorious your triumphs." There may be a more splendid example of filial love than this, but I know not where to find it. While Joseph was indulging in all this luxury of affection for his father, he did not forget his brethren; and though encircled with the splendors of a court, and invested with its richest honors, he was not ashamed to own, as his brothers, those whose occupation was odious in the estimation of the Egyptians, and to regard as his greatest distinction, his descent from the herdsman, who was the friend of God.
Here, young men, is the example of a son, which I commend most earnestly and affectionately to your attention and imitation. Be each of you a good son, not only in youth, but in manhood, and as long as the old man, your father, lives. There can be no moral excellence where filial piety is lacking. You cannot love your Heavenly Father, if you do not love your earthly one. In the sterile ground, where this virtue does not grow—nothing good can grow, but only a few miserable weeds. Let it be to you a matter of tender solicitude and constant vigilance that all your conduct may be such as to give comfort to your father's heart. And especially remember the solemn and incumbent duty of maintaining this affection through every change of circumstances. Some have dropped their affections for their relatives as they themselves rose in life. And having arrived at wealth and worldly honor, have blushed to own the connections whom they left below. I can conceive of cases in which virtue itself may make a son blush to own his father; I mean when the wretched parent has, by his misconduct, not only disgraced himself, but his family—but for a child to be ashamed of a father, simply on account of his poverty, is a disposition of which it is difficult to say which is the greatest—the baseness, the folly, the cruelty—or the wickedness. It is, however, enough to say, it is a compound of all those detestable ingredients.
I hasten to contemplate the closing scenes of Joseph's history. He had welcomed his aged father to Egypt, and by dutiful and loving behavior had so cheered his latter days, and had crowned his hoary head with such glory and honor, as, during the seventeen years that Jacob enjoyed his son's society, must have almost obliterated his recollection of his past deep sorrows. Joseph had settled his brethren in Goshen, and lived beloved and respected by them. Pharaoh and his court continued to him their confidence, and the Egyptians their gratitude and veneration. Jacob at length died, and Joseph gave proof that neither his sensibilities as a man, nor his piety as a believer in God, had been dried up under the tropical sun of his wonderful prosperity. He fell on the lifeless corpse of his father, wept and kissed him. It was Jacob's dying request to be buried not in Egypt, but in the land of Canaan; a request that expressed his faith in the promise of God, which ensured the possession of this country to his descendants. This request was most scrupulously complied with by Joseph, and, to do honor to his father's memory, he followed his remains to Canaan, accompanied in the funeral procession by a retinue suited to his high rank as the prime minister of Pharaoh.
It now remained to be proved, as Joseph's brethren thought, whether his forgiveness had been granted to them out of mere respect to their father, or from the generous impulse of his own feelings. They first sent, therefore, in the most supplicating terms, to implore his pardon, enforcing their request by the sacred name of his father, and his father's God; and then came and prostrated themselves before him, thus fulfilling the dreams of his youth, which had excited their envy and hatred. They knew not, even yet, the depths of his generosity, and formed their opinion of him from their own dispositions. He wept over their submission, cheered them with assurance of his continued kindness, and said to them, "Fear not, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you thought evil against me, but God meant it unto good. Now, therefore, fear not; I will nourish you and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spoke kindly unto them." Noble-minded Joseph! What a brother! What a beautiful example of holy charity!
Joseph lived fifty-four years after this, and year succeeded year with unvarying splendor, but the events of his life, which were to interest and instruct all ages, were over, and his remaining history is comprised in a few sentences. He diffused happiness around him, and saw his father's house and his own descendants greatly multiplied. But as neither station, nor power, nor wealth, nor piety, nor all these combined, can preserve from the stroke of death, Joseph laid down his honors at the feet of the king of terrors, and was gathered to his fathers. "Grief finds a cure, usefulness an end, glory a decay, and pride a destroyer—in the grave." So Joseph found it. The piety which had been the guide of his youth, the guard of his middle life, and the prop of his old age, sustained him to the last, and he died with firm faith in the promise of God, requesting that his bones might be preserved in order that they might be carried to Canaan, whenever the Lord should visit his people, and restore them to the land of promise. This request, similar in nature and design to that of his father, was sacredly fulfilled; for when the Israelites, nearly two centuries afterwards, left Egypt, notwithstanding the hurried circumstances of their flight, they went to his sepulcher, exhumed his bones, carried them with them, as a precious legacy, amid all their wanderings in the wilderness, and at length interred them in that sacred spot where already reposed the dust of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It is scarcely necessary to remark, that the character of Joseph is a deeply interesting one, which combines the sobriety of truth—with the charms of fiction. The variety of incident, the scenes of true pathos, the constant vicissitudes, the vivid contrasts of character, the unexpected turns of fortune, the struggles of exalted piety with temptation, and the signal victories of truth and virtue, the workings of the various passions and the play of the diversified affections of humanity, together with the intermixture of supernatural interposition with the ordinary courses of nature and events, which it contains, all invest this history with a fascination which nothing can surpass. Every one who has ever read it has confessed its power. "The peasant and the philosopher, the child and the adult, the believer and the infidel, the men of all nations and all ages, have admired, delighted in, and been edified by, a story, which, clothed with all the graces of eloquence, conveys the purest and most sublime lessons of piety and morality."
This is a real history—and not a fiction. I do not deny that even examples which are merely the creations of genius, and the offspring of imagination—have some power over the mind; or that truth and holiness, even in fable, may inspire affection and stimulate imitation; but it is with a power far less commanding than that of fact. Whatever effect such exhibitions of virtue and vice may have, it is weakened, both at the time and in recollection, by a secret whisper, "It is all unreal." The perusal of such descriptions, however strongly it may excite the imagination, has little hold upon the conscience, and is rarely followed by any lasting results upon the character. The effect of moral fables and moral facts upon the mind respectively, is not unlike that of a picture which is a work of pure imagination, as compared with a painting of real life.
Now the character of Joseph is a reality. It is a scriptural character, on which the hand of God has been specially employed, both in its production and in its exhibition. God has not only lavished upon it the riches of his power, wisdom, and grace, in forming and finishing it as one of the most beautiful specimens of his divine art and workmanship, but he has also set it in the gorgeous frame of inspiration, and suspended it in his own Scripture gallery of portraits of holy men of old, where he exhibits it for admiration, and for imitation—as fresh, though now nearly four thousand years old, as when it was just finished by the Divine pencil.
It is a character which countless millions have beheld with admiration, and multitudes of them with anxious, studied, and successful imitation. It has been held up before the youth of all nations, and all ages, to whom the Bible has gone. How many have been fortified in their struggles against sin, and made victorious over temptation, by the holy exclamation of this noble youth, "How shall I do this great wickedness and sin against God!" It comes therefore to you recommended and sanctioned by the experience of multitudes.
The basis of this beautiful specimen of sanctified humanity was laid in true religion. All that lofty and noble structure of excellence which this history exhibits, rose upon the foundation of the belief and fear of God. It began in the house of his father Jacob, while he was yet a boy, and it was on this account that the patriarch cherished the partiality which he so unwisely displayed. Joseph "remembered his Creator in the days of his youth." The fervent, consistent, and triumphant piety which he manifested abroad, he gained while under the parental roof. Those seeds of excellence, which grew up and protected and adorned him, when a young man from home, were sowed by the hand of his father at home. What security is there for moral excellence without true religion, and what security for true religion, except it be taken up in youth? It was true religion, I repeat emphatically, that was the substratum of all Joseph's excellence.
The character of Joseph is as symmetrical, as it is well based. There is a beautiful harmony and proportion in it. You do not see one excellence flourishing amid many imperfections like a flower amid many weeds in a wilderness—but a garden of beautiful plants, all exhibiting their colors and mingling their fragrance; nor like a single column rising amid ruin and surrounding desolation—but a majestic temple, with all its parts in all their orderly arrangement and all their exquisite proportions. Here we see the son, the brother, the servant, the master, the ruler—each in its single and separate excellence, and all combined and harmonized in one glorious and lovely character. Here are no eccentricities; no anomalies; no deficiencies; no extravagances—there is no need to excuse great irregularities in some things, by as great excellences in others; no balancing of virtues against vices—but we see admirable consistency, beautiful uniformity—in short, that exquisite completeness which strikes the eye of the observer from whatever point of view it is contemplated.
How inflexible was Joseph in temptation; how cheerful and active in adversity; how modest, humble, dignified and holy in prosperity! In him were united the sagacity of the statesman, the penetrating insight of the prophet, the firmness of the believer, and the purity of the saint. Goodness came first, greatness followed; and the former remaining uncorrupted by the latter was heightened by it like a jewel set in gold.
Young men, what a character is here—how worthy of your study, it sets forth to you the dangers which you may have to encounter from excessive parental indulgence; from injurious treatment; from living away from home in a corrupt state of society; from violent and unexpected temptation; from being entrusted with the interests of others; from coming into possession of great wealth, exalted station, and public honor. What a host of perils! And here you learn in Joseph's piety—meekness, integrity, diligence, economy, dignity, sympathy, forgiveness, filial regard, and dependence upon God—the many excellences you should imitate; and the means by which these perils are to be vanquished. Nor less strikingly do you see in his end the rewards that follow a holy and virtuous life; you see virtue crowned with safety, with peace, with riches, with honor, with usefulness, with heaven!
It is possible that curiosity may lead some of the PARENTS of the youths who may purchase this volume to look through its pages; and should this be the case, let the following remarks arrest their attention.
How momentous a duty is it, on their part, to give sound Christian instruction to their children at the earliest period in which they can receive it, and endeavor, by the most judicious, affectionate, and persevering methods, to form their character by true religion!
Of what great consequence it is, in order to promote the peace of families, to avoid the manifestation of partiality for any one child, by any unwise marks of distinction!
Parents, you know not how early your children will leave you, and this is an additional motive to train them up in the fear of God, that they may leave home fortified by true piety, to encounter the temptations of the world, and to endure the trials of life.
It may be that a child long lost to you may be restored under circumstances of such delight as more than to compensate for his absence, and your suspense concerning him. The pious son, removed from your family at a tender age, and for a long time having no share in your affairs, may prove to be the main pillar of your house, when there is no other person to prevent its fall.
It is possible, and even probable, that the piety of one child may become in following years the means of reformation and conversion to many others in your family, who had neglected pious instructions in their early years, and fallen into the ways of vice and wickedness.
Many a parent whose heart was at one time well-near broken by the circumstances of his family, has lived to see the tide of his domestic sorrow turned, and has ended a cloudy and stormy day, by a calm and beautiful sunset.
Next to God himself, a pious child is a father's best companion, amid the infirmities of old age, and in the chamber of sickness and death.
But it is you, my young friends, and you especially, young men, who should consider this history. Often peruse the history as it is recorded in the book of Genesis. It is of unequaled beauty and pathos. Give yourself time to study it, and seek grace to imitate it, as far as the principles on which it is founded, and the virtues which compose it, shall apply to your own circumstances. And when you have thus studied it for its importance, admired it for its beauty, and copied it for your own advantage—ascend from it to the contemplation of that still more glorious, perfect and magnificent example which is given us in our Lord Jesus Christ, of whose personal history it furnishes, though not perhaps a type, yet a parallelism, which is most singularly striking. Joseph envied by his brethren; sold into Egypt; degraded to the condition of a servant; exalted from the dungeon to the throne; invested with power; drawing his perishing kindred to him; and bestowing upon them a possession in the best of the land; at any rate reminds us of Him, if it does not actually prefigure Him, who was hated by the Jews; sold by one of his apostles; crucified by the Romans; and having thus been made of no reputation; was in the end raised from the cross to a throne above the skies. Behold Him ascending on high; receiving gifts for men; attracting millions to Him for salvation—and conferring upon them an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and which does not fade away! Thus unite the Old and the New Testament histories, and combine in yourselves the character of Joseph—with the mind of Jesus!