Joseph and the crucible of delayed promise

Last week I introduced a short series I want to develop here on the theme of crucibles and biblical leaders. First up is Joseph (the OT one). I’ve written before about him and some of the lessons his journey can help teach young, emerging leaders.

The details of Joseph’s story occupy a significant chunk of the latter chapters of Genesis – think of his life as a progression from pasture to pit to Potiphar’s palace to prison to Pharaoh’s palace. There is a repeated pattern of rising in privilege only to be brought to earth with a severe jolt. From father’s favourite and dreamer of dreams, he is eventually sold by his brothers. From his role as overseer in Potiphar’s house, he is falsely accused and convicted, ending up in prison. He is put in charge in prison, but is forgotten by one of the prisoners whom he has encouraged along the way. Finally he reaches a place of privilege and authority in Egypt, which enables him to save not only the Egyptians from famine, but his own family and thereby the line of God’s promise.

Along the way his character is put to the test, both in the episode with Potiphar’s wife – a test which occurs at a time of prosperity, and in his ability to forgive the brothers who have treated him so reprehensibly.

Tucked away in the Psalms (105:18-19) we find this intriguing comment about Joseph:

His feet were hurt with fetters;
his neck was put in a collar of iron;
until what he had said came to pass,
the word of the Lord tested him.

Prison is the setting for a painful crucible experience for Joseph. Here he would have had time to reflect on his harsh treatment at the hands of his brothers, on the malicious accusations of Potiphar’s wife and on the injustice of his treatment by Potiphar.

And there was the problem of a delayed promise.

It is reasonable to take verse 19 as referring to the God-given word that Joseph had pronounced about his own future. His boyhood dreams were no mere flights of fancy: they were God’s promise of destiny.

Specifically, it seems that it was the delayed fulfilment of the promise that tested Joseph. We do not know how often he thought back to his dreams or to what degree their memory seemed to taunt him. As he contemplated his reversals might he have wondered if the promises were really true? Had God really spoken to him? Could he continue to believe God’s promise, that God was still in control, even when so much about his circumstances was so unfavourable?

When Joseph eventually emerges from his prison experience, the wheels of fulfilment start to turn more obviously. Whatever the hidden anguish of Joseph’s dark night of the soul, he emerges free from bitterness, humble, faithful and ready to forgive. He is able to trace the hand of God that has been at work even in painful circumstances.

Clearly the line from promise to fulfilment does not always run straight; nor does the journey always follow the swiftest or most comfortable route. The challenge of unexpected (and painful) circumstances is compounded by the apparent silence of God.

But God has not forgotten. One of the most encouraging words in Psalm 105:19 is ‘until’. Joseph’s season of testing would run its course. The promise would be fulfilled. Joseph would emerge from his crucible.

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