And as they sat down to eat a meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were carrying spices, balm, and myrrh on their way down to Egypt.
I. GOD'S PURPOSES CARRIED OUT BY MEN IRRESPECTIVE OF THEIR OWN PLANS. The word to Abraham (Genesis 15:13) does not seem to have been thought of by Jacob. After long wandering he seemed to be settled in Canaan. But God was bringing to pass his word. Jacob's injudicious fondness for Joseph, the anger and murderous design of his brethren (cf. John 11:50; Acts 3:17), Reuben's timid effort for his deliverance (cf. Acts 5:88), Judah's worldly wise counsel (cf. Luke 13:31), Joseph's imprisonment by Potiphar, the conspiracy in Pharaoh's household, were so many steps by which the sojourn in Egypt was brought about. So in the founding of the Christian Church. The writing on the cross (John 19:20) pointed to three separate lines of history, two of them pagan, which combined to bring about the sacrifice of Christ and the spread of the gospel. So in the case of individuals. God's promises are sure (2 Corinthians 1:20). There may seem to be many hindrances, from ourselves (Psalm 65:3) or from circumstances; but no cause for doubt (Luke 12:32; Luke 22:35). Unlikely or remote causes are often God's instruments. The envy of the Jews opened for St. Paul, through his imprisonment, a door to the Gentiles which otherwise he would not have had (Acts 21:28; Philippians 1:13).
II. IT IS NO EXCUSE FOR WRONGDOING THAT IT HAS WORKED GOOD (Cf. Romans 9:19). The cruel act of his brethren brought about the realizing of Joseph's dreams, his greatness in Egypt, the support of the whole family during the famine, and the fulfillment of God's word; but not the less was it wrong (Genesis 42:21; cf. Matthew 26:24). Moral guilt depends not upon the result, but on the motive. God has given the knowledge of redemption to move our will, and the example of Christ and the moral law to guide our lives. The fulfillment of his purposes belongs to himself. He needs not our help to bring it to pass. It is not his will that we should forsake his immutable rules of right and Wrong, even for the sake of bringing on the fulfillment of prophecy. Much evil has sprung from neglect of this - e.g. the maxim, Faith need not be kept with heretics. God's will and promise, Psalm 37:3-5.
III. To EACH ONE THERE IS A HISTORY WITHIN A HISTORY. Our actions lead to their appropriate results (Galatians 6:8) at the same time that they tend to carry out God's purposes, whether we will or not. Each one is a factor in the great plan which in the course of ages God is working out (John 5:17). Men such as they are, wise or ignorant, guided by the Spirit or resisting him, loving or selfish, pressing upwards or following worldly impulses, all are so directed by a power they cannot comprehend that they bring about what he wills (Psalm 2:2-4). But along with this there is a history which concerns ourselves, which we write for ourselves, the issues of which depend immediately upon ourselves. To each a measure of time, knowledge, opportunity has been given, on the use of which the line of our course depends. Nothing can turn aside the course of God's providence; but upon our faithfulness or unfaithfulness depends our place and joy in it. Hence encouragement to work for Christ, however small our powers (1 Samuel 14:6). The little is accepted as well as the great; and as "workers together with him" (2 Corinthians 6:1) our work cannot be in vain. - M.
How true it is that we know not what a day may bring forth! Joseph goes out on his father's errand and never more returns to his father's house — does not see his father again, in fact, for twenty-two years. Of course the crime of his brothers was of the cause of this long separation between him and his venerable parent. But how often similar things occur even among ourselves! Some years ago a little boy was stolen from his home in Philadelphia, and though every means that affection could suggest or professional skill could devise have been used for his discovery, the mystery has never been cleared up, so that to this hour his parents are in most horrible suspense. In our own city, too, scarcely a week elapses without the announcement that some one has disappeared from home and business, and very frequently nothing more is heard of him. But, apart from such occurrences, which may be traced to the cunning and malignity of wicked men, and which are a disgrace to our much boasted civilization, how often it happens, in the simple providence of God, and without blame to any one, that those who part in the morning with the hope of meeting again in a very short while never see each other more on earth! The street accident causes death; or the sudden outbreak of fire in the building in which their office hours are spent cuts off all possibility of escape, and they are burned to ashes; or a panic in a crowded place of amusement which they visited has caused a great loss of life, and they are numbered among the victims; or a railroad collision has smashed the train in which they were passengers, and they are reported among the dead; or, without any such catastrophe, they have simply yielded to a sudden paroxysm of illness and passed within the veil. Who knows not how frequently such things are occurring in the midst of us, so that, as we have lately had occasion again and again to say, the proverb is verified that it is "the unexpected that happens." What then? Are we to have our hearts for ever darkened with the shadow of the possibility of such things coming to us? No; for that would be to make our lives continually miserable; but the lesson is that we should be ever ready to respond to the call of God, and should take short views of things by living, as nearly as possible, a day at a time. We need not borrow trouble on the strength of the uncertainty to which I have referred, for "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof"; but we ought to be taught by it to finish every day's work in its own day, since its lesson is, "Boast not thyself of tomorrow, for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth."
A company of Ishmaelites. 1.
Providence can make eyes to see, and such objects to be presented, which may occasion diversion of evil plots against the saints.
2. God orders travellers, and trades, and journies, to serve His own ends to His servants.
3. Accidental events to men are settled providences unto the servants of God.
4. Trade from land to land, about proper fruits of the respective countries, hath been, of old, ordered by Providence, for common advantage God allows and commends it (Genesis 49:13).
5. The same place may be aimed at by God and men, but upon several accounts (ver. 25).
6. Providence toucheth hearts as well as eyes of sinners to defeat cruel designs against His.
7. One spoiler may be wrought upon by God to cause others to desist from cruelty.
8. Thoughts of the unprofitableness of sin is a forcing means to avoid it.
9. Murder and concealment of blood bring no advantage to sinners (ver. 26.)
10. Hypocrites may judge there is no profit in one sin, but some in another.
11. Hypocrites may dissuade men from one sin, but incite them to others, Come, &c.
12. Malice of formalists to sincere Christians sticks not to sell them to bitter enemies of the Church.
13. God makes natural relation and motions to flesh sometimes to keep persons from cruelty.
14. God causeth the counsel of one conspirator to defeat the rest, and makes them concur to His ends (ver. 27).
15. Providence offers opportunity to sinners for doing their will, that His may be done.
16. Murderers are made deliverers by God at His pleasure and in His measure.
17. The most innocent souls may be sold for slaves when aimed by God to be lords.
18. A small price do wicked men put upon the best of God's servants, nay on His Son.
19. Gracious souls, surprised by the wicked in their honest ways, may be carried whither they would not.
20. Ishmaelites may carry innocents to Egypt for their ends, but God orders them thither for His own. So God maketh use of sinners. They bring him to make gain of him, God sends him to save and gain others.
From very early times, a lively caravan trade was entertained between Syria and the East Jordanic provinces on the one hand, and Egypt on the other; it brought the esteemed products of Arabia and the wares and merchandises of eastern Asia into the land of the Pharaohs; and in the course of time, the importation was conducted with all possible regularity, and on lines prudently chosen and marked out. We find, thai so early as the sixteenth dynasty, stations were formed, temples erected, and wells dug and protected, in the Arabian Desert, for the benefit of those who had occasion to pass through it in their commercial travels. Egypt had, at that period, already attained a great measure of the civilization of which it was capable; it enjoyed a strong government and well-organized public institutions; and the political and social relations were regulated on a firm basis. This sense of security favoured the development of comfort and luxury; the higher castes especially appreciated all that delights and embellishes life; their wants increased in an incredible degree; and they encouraged every undertaking which promised to gratify them. Among the articles in peculiar demand were all varieties of spicery and perfumes, required not only for the feasts and pleasures of the living, but for the embalming of the dead; the mummies generally emitted so delicious a fragrance that they were for generations kept in the houses of the relatives, arranged along the walls, and then only entombed; which practice, however, received, no doubt, its first impulse from the devoted love bestowed in Egypt on departed parents and relatives. The amount of spicery consumed for all these purposes was necessarily immense; and the caravan introduced in our narrative was exclusively laden with those costly commodities. The men who conducted it were Midianites (vers. 28, 36), a tribe partly nomadic, but partly actively engaged in commerce. But as the Ishmaelites commanded by far the greatest part of the caravan trade, all those who carried on the same pursuits were designated by their name.
There are times when circumstances seem to favour bad men. Some of us are accustomed to teach that circumstances are the voice of Divine Providence. There is a sense — a profound sense — in which that is perfectly true. God speaks by combinations of events, by the complications of history, by unexpected occurrences. Most undoubtedly so. We have marked this. In many cases we have seen their moral meaning, and have been attracted to them as to the cloudy pillar in the day time and the fire by night. At the same time, there is another side to that doctrine. Here in the text we find circumstances evidently combining in favour of the bad men who had agreed to part with their brother. They sat down to eat bread — perfectly tranquil, social amongst themselves, a rough hospitality prevailing. Just as they sat down to enjoy themselves with their bread they lifted up their eyes, and at that very moment a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels. What could be more providential? They came in the very nick of time. The brethren hadn't to go up and down hawking their brother, knocking at door after door to ask if anybody could take him off their hands; but at the very moment when the discussion was pending and anxiety was at white heat, these circumstances so combined and converged as to point out the way of Providence and the path of right. Then we ought to look at circumstances with a critical eye. We ought first to look at moral principles and then at circumstances. If the morality is right, the eventuality may be taken as an element worthy of consideration in the debate and strife of the hour. But if the principles at the very base are wrong, we are not to see circumstances as Divine providences, but rather as casual ways to the realization of a nefarious intent. Let us be still more particular about this. I do not deny that these Ishmaelites came providentially at that identical moment. I believe that the Ishmaelites were sent by Almighty God at that very crisis, and that they were intended by Him to offer the solution of the difficult problem. But it is one thing for us to debase circumstances to our own use and convenience, and another to view them from God's altitude and to accept them in God's spirit.
()The very brightest and luckiest idea of all. He touched human nature to the very quick when he said, "What profit is it?" And instantly they seemed to convict themselves of a kind of thickheadedness, and said one to another, "Ah, to be sure, why no profit at all. Here is an opportunity of selling him, and that will turn to the account of us all. Sell is as short a word as slay. Sell! that will get clear of him. Let us sell. Sell! we shall have no blood upon our hands. Then we shall, perhaps, have a couple of shekels a-piece, and tossing them up in the air an inch or so, and catching them again, and hearing their pleasant chink. This is the plan, to be sure. This is the way out of the difficulty. We are sorry we ever thought of shedding blood; we shake ourselves from all such imputations. Let us sell the lad, and there will be an end of the difficulty." Selling does not always take a man out of difficulty. Bargain-making is not always satisfactory. There is a gain that is loss; there is a loss that is gain. There is a separation that takes the hated object from the eyes, yet that object is an element in society and in life — working, penetrating, developing — and it will come back again upon us some day greater than power, with intensified poignancy; and the man that was driven away from us a beggar and a slave may one day rise up in our path, terrible as an avenger, irresistible as a judgment of God. Well, his brethren were content. Men even say that they enjoy a great peace, and, therefore, that if circumstances are tolerably favourable, they say that on the whole they feel in a good state of mind. Therefore, they conclude that they have not been doing anything very wrong. Let us understand that vice may have a soporific effect upon the conscience and judgment; that we may work ourselves into such a state of mind as to place ourselves under circumstances that are fictitious, unsound in their moral bearing, however enjoyable may be their immediate influence upon the mind. I am struck by this circumstance, in reading the account which is before me, namely, how possible it is to fall from a rough kind of vice, such as, "Let us slay our brother," into a milder form of iniquity, such as, "Let us sell our brother," and to think that we have now actually come into a state of virtue. That is to say, selling as contrasted with slaying seems so moderate and amiable a thing, as actually to amount to a kind of virtue. Am I understood upon this point? We are not to compare one act with another and say, Comparatively speaking this act is good. Virtue is not a quantity to be compared. Virtue is a non-declinable quality. I know how easy it is, when some very startling proposition has been before the mind, to accept a modified form of the proposition, which in itself is morally corrupt; and yet to imagine, by the very descent from the other point, that we have come into a region of virtue. When men say, "Let us slay our brother," there is a little shuddering in society. We don't want to slay our brother. "Well, then," says an acute man, "let us sell him." And, instantly, amiable Christian people say, "Ay, ay, this is a very different thing; yes, let us sell him." Observe, the morality is not changed, only the point in the scale has been lowered. When God comes to judge lie will not say, Is this virtue and water? is this diluted vice? but, Is this right? is this wrong? The standard of judgment will be the holiness of God!
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