16. And he called a famine upon the land: he brake the whole staff of bread. 17. He sent a man before them; Joseph was sold for a slave. 18. They afflicted his feet in the stocks: the iron entered into his soul. 19. Until the time that his word came: the word of Jehovah tried him.
16. And he called a famine upon the land. Here the inspired writer recounts a most illustrious proof of divine providence towards the chosen people, at the time when the covenant might seem to be void and disannulled. The inheritance of the land of Canaan (as has been stated above) was added, as an earnest or pledge for confirmation. The descent of Jacob into Egypt, which deprived his house of the sight of the land, could not make the covenant to perish. In this the constancy of God shone forth the brighter; yea, by this trial he manifested more plainly how provident a father he was in preserving the seed of Abraham. But it is better to consider each particular in the verse. In the first place, it is taught, that the famine which drove Jacob into Egypt did not happen by chance. Although only one particular famine is here treated of, it is to be held as a general principle, that there is no other cause of any scarcity of sustenance except this, that God, in withdrawing his hand, takes away the means of support. The curse of God is expressed more emphatically, when it is said, that the famine was called; as if it were ready at his command, as a minister of his wrath. By this we are instructed, that famine, pestilence, and other scourges of God, do not visit men by chance, but are directed by his hand whither it pleases him, and are obedient to his will. 1 The manner in which the famine was called is next stated, namely, when he brake the staff of bread. The metaphor of staff is very appropriate; for God has put into bread the power and property of strengthening man, by a secret virtue which fits it to sustain us. So long as it pleases him to nourish us by such means, a staff as it were lies hidden within it. This staff is broken in two ways; either, first, when he takes away the supply of grain necessary for our nourishment, the sense in which it seems to be used in Ezekiel
"Moreover, he said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem, and they shall eat bread by weight, and with care; and they shall drink water by measure, and with astonishment;" Ezekiel 4:16
or, secondly, when he breathes in anger upon the bread itself, so that those who would satisfy themselves by devouring it, instead of having their hunger thereby removed, remain famished still. And certainly to the barrenness of the earth this second is commonly added, namely, that he takes away the sustaining power which is in bread; for, as it is declared in Deuteronomy 8:3, bread does not give life of itself, but borrows its secret virtue from the mouth of God.
17. He sent a man before them. This whole passage graphically teaches us, that whatever befell that people was by the hand and counsel of God. The simple recital would have been to say, that the famine came upon the land, after Joseph had been sold by his brethren, and carried into Egypt. But the prophet speaks emphatically, declaring that Joseph by the divine counsel had been sent before into Egypt, to support his father's house, that afterwards the famine was called, and that then, by God's providence, a remedy was presented beyond all hope. This, indeed, is generally true in human affairs; but there is here commemorated a special care which God took in governing and nourishing his Church. Moreover, the prophet mentions that as second in place which was first in the order of time. Accordingly, in regard to the word send, the pluperfect tense would better express the sense, he had sent; implying that before God afflicted the land of Canaan with famine, he had prepared a remedy for his servant Jacob, and for his household, in having sent Joseph before as a steward to provide them with food. Here two contraries as it were are stated, to render the divine superintendence in the whole the more conspicuous. How was Joseph sent of God? It was in this way:- When he was doomed to death, it happened that his brethren preferred selling him to leaving him in his grave. This selling, if considered merely by itself, like a cloud interposed, obscured and concealed the divine providence. When counsel was taken to put Joseph to death, who would have expected that he was to be the sustainer of his father's house? Afterwards a kind of death was devised for him less cruel; but then he was cast into a well or pit, and in that situation how could he succor others? The last hope was, that at length being sold, he came forth from the pit. But again, he was well nigh rotting all his life long in prison.
Who could think that processes so intricate and circuitous were controlled by divine providence? The prophet therefore meets this difficulty by saying, that in respect of men, he was indeed sold; but that he had nevertheless been previously sent by the divine purpose. The passage is worthy of notice, admirably vindicating, as it does, the providence of God against the perverse stupidity of our corrupt nature. Resting on the second causes which meet the eye, or ascribing to the direction of man whatever is done in this world, or thinking that all things happen by chance, very few trace them to the appointment of God. And yet the selling of Joseph is not here interposed as a veil to hide divine providence; but is rather set forth as a signal instance of it to teach us that whatever men may undertake, the issues are in the hand of God; or rather, that by a secret influence, he bends the hearts of men in whatever direction he pleases, that by their instrumentality, whether they will or no, he may bring to pass what he has determined should be done. Agreeably to this Joseph said to his brethren, "Now, therefore, be not grieved nor angry with yourselves that ye sold me hither; for God did send me before you to preserve life," (Genesis 45:5) Farther, God so governs human affairs by his secret controlling influence, and overrules men's wicked devices to a right end, as that his judgments are notwithstanding uncontaminated by the depravity of men. The brethren of Joseph wickedly conspire his death; they also wrongfully sell him: the fault is in themselves. Contemplate now how God directs and controls all. By the hand of these brethren he provides for the good both of themselves and of their father Jacob, yea for that of the whole Church. This holy purpose contracts no defilement or spot from the malice of those who aimed at an entirely opposite end; even as Joseph testified afterwards,
"But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass as it is this day, to save much people alive," (Genesis 1:20)
18. They afflicted his feet in the fetters. It is not without cause that the Psalmist prosecutes the winding course of Jacob's early history, which might so confuse the minds of men as to prevent them from directing their attention to the counsel of God. What seemed less likely than to believe that God, by so directly opposite and circuitous a path, meant to accomplish what he had purposed? But his providence, by surmounting so many obstacles, is brought out more conspicuously, than if he had despatched the whole matter by a short and easy road. Had Joseph, as soon as he arrived in Egypt, been presented to the king, and made its governor, the way to what followed would have been easy. But when he was carried away to prison, and lay there separated from the society of men, living as one half-dead; and when his becoming known to the king was a long time subsequent to this, and beyond all expectation, such a sudden change renders the miracle much more evident. This circuitous course then, which the prophet recounts, serves not a little to illustrate the subject in hand. Joseph was many times dead before he was sold. Hence it follows, that God as often showed his care of his Church by delivering him who might be termed her father. When after, having been brought into Egypt, Joseph was conveyed from hand to hand till he descended into another grave, is it not the more clearly manifest from this that God, while he seems to be asleep in heaven, is all the while keeping the strictest watch over his servants, and that he is carrying forward his purpose more effectually by these various windings, than if he had gone straight forward, yea, than if he had run with rapid pace? For this reason the prophet affirms that his feet were afflicted in the fetters; a fact which, although not stated in the narrative of Moses, he speaks of as well known. And no doubt, many things were delivered by tradition to the Jews of which no mention is made in the Scriptures.2 It is also probable enough, that, instead of being put at first under mild restraint, as was afterwards the case, he was rigorously confined. Whether we read, his soul entered into the iron, or the iron entered into his soul,3 the meaning, which, in either case, is exactly the same, amounts to this, that the holy man was so galled with fetters, that it seemed as if his life had been given over to the sword. Whence it follows, that the safety of his life was as hopeless as the restoration of life to a dead body.
19. Until the time that his word came. Here the prophet teaches, that although, according to the judgment of the flesh, God seems to be too tardy in his steps, yet he holds supreme rule over all things, that he may at length accomplish in due time what he has determined. As to the term word, it is here doubtless to be taken, not for doctrine or instruction, but for a heavenly decree. The relative his admits of being understood as well of God himself as of Joseph; but its application to the latter appears to me to be preferable, implying that Joseph remained in prison until the issue of his affliction was manifested, which was hidden in the divine purpose. It is always to be kept in mind, that the prophet calls back the minds of men from that impious imagination, which would represent fortune as exercising a blind and capricious control over human affairs. Since nothing could be more involved in uncertainty than the welfare of the Church, whilst Joseph was accounted as a condemned person, the prophet here elevates our minds, and bids us look at the hidden word, that is, the decree, the proper opportunity and time for the manifestation of which had not yet arrived. After the same manner I explain what follows, the word of God tried him. To expound it of Joseph's prophesying, 4 as many do, seems too refined. Until the happy issue appeared, which God kept long hidden and in suspense, Joseph's patience was severely tried. What worldly men, who acknowledge not God to be the Governor of human affairs, call fate, the prophet distinguishes by a more appropriate name, terming it word, and the word of each man. Nor do I see any impropriety in using the French word destinée. When the Stoics dispute, or rather babble, about destiny, they not only involve themselves and the thing also of which they treat in intricate mazes, but, at the same time, involve in perplexity an indubitable truth; for in imagining a concatenation of causes, they divest God of the government of the world. It is an impious invention so to link together causes, interwoven with each other, as that God himself should be tied to them. Our faith then ought to mount up to his secret counsel, by which, uncontrolled, he directs all things to their end. This passage also teaches us that God will continue the afflictions of the godly only until they are thereby thoroughly proved.