15 And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him. 16 And they sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying, 17 So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him. 18 And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants. 19 And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? 20 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. 21 Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them.
We have here the settling of a good correspondence between Joseph and his brethren, now that their father was dead. Joseph was at court, in the royal city; his brethren were in Goshen, remote in the country; yet the keeping up of a good understanding, and a good affection, between them, would be both his honour and their interest. Note, When Providence has removed the parents by death, the best methods ought to be taken, not only for the preventing of quarrels among the children (which often happen about the dividing of the estate), but for the preserving of acquaintance and love, that unity may continue even when that centre of unity is taken away.
I. Joseph’s brethren humbly make their court to him for his favour.
1. They began to be jealous of Joseph, not that he had given them any cause to be so, but the consciousness of guilt, and of their own inability in such a case to forgive and forget, made them suspicious of the sincerity and constancy of Joseph’s favour (v. 15): Joseph will peradventure hate us. While their father lived, they thought themselves safe under his shadow; but now that he was dead they feared the worst from Joseph. Note, A guilty conscience exposes men to continual frights, even where no fear is, and makes them suspicious of every body, as Cain, ch. iv. 14. Those that would be fearless must keep themselves guiltless. If our heart reproach us not, then have we confidence both towards God and man.
2. They humbled themselves before him, confessed their fault, and begged his pardon. They did it by proxy (v. 17); they did it in person, v. 18. Now that the sun and moon had set, the eleven stars did homage to Joseph, for the further accomplishment of his dream. They speak of their former offence with fresh regret: Forgive the trespass. They throw themselves at Joseph’s feet, and refer themselves to his mercy: We are thy servants. Thus we must bewail the sins we committed long ago, even those which we hope through grace are forgiven; and, when we pray to God for pardon, we must promise to be his servants.
3. They pleaded their relation to Jacob and to Jacob’s God. (1.) To Jacob, urging that he directed them to make this submission, rather because he questioned whether they would do their duty in humbling themselves than because he questioned whether Joseph would do his duty in forgiving them; nor could he reasonably expect Joseph’s kindness to them unless they thus qualified themselves for it (v. 16): Thy father did command. Thus, in humbling ourselves to Christ by faith and repentance, we may plead that it is the command of his Father, and our Father, that we do so.
(2.) To Jacob’s God. They plead (v. 17), We are the servants of the God of thy father; not only children of the same Jacob, but worshippers of the same Jehovah. Note, Though we must be ready to forgive all that are any way injurious to us, yet we must especially take heed of bearing malice towards any that are the servants of the God of our father: such we should always treat with a peculiar tenderness; for we and they have the same Master.
II. Joseph, with a great deal of compassion, confirms his reconciliation and affection to them; his compassion appears, v. 17. He wept when they spoke to him. These were tears of sorrow for their suspicion of him, and tears of tenderness upon their submission. In his reply,
1. He directs them to look up to God in their repentance (v. 19): Am I in the place of God? He, in his great humility, thought they showed him too much respect, as if all their happiness were bound up in his favour, and said to them, in effect, as Peter to Cornelius, “Stand up, I myself also am a man. Make your peace with God, and then you will find it an easy matter to make your peace with me.” Note, When we ask forgiveness of those whom we have offended we must take heed of putting them in the place of God, by dreading their wrath and soliciting their favour more than God’s. “Am I in the place of God, to whom alone vengeance belongs? No, I will leave you to his mercy.” Those that avenge themselves step into the place of God, Rom. xii. 19.
2. He extenuates their fault, from the consideration of the great good which God wonderfully brought out of it, which, though it should not make them the less sorry for their sin, yet might make him the more willing to forgive it (v. 20): You thought evil (to disappoint the dreams), but God meant it unto good, in order to the fulfilling of the dreams, and the making of Joseph a greater blessing to his family than otherwise he could have been. Note, When God makes use of men’s agency for the performance of his counsels, it is common for him to mean one thing and them another, even the quite contrary, but God’s counsel shall stand. See Isa. x. 7. Again, God often brings good out of evil, and promotes the designs of his providence even by the sins of men; not that he is the author of sin, far be it from us to think so; but his infinite wisdom so overrules events, and directs the chain of them, that, in the issue, that ends in his praise which in its own nature had a direct tendency to his dishonour; as the putting of Christ to death, Acts ii. 23. This does not make sin the less sinful, nor sinners the less punishable, but it redounds greatly to the glory of God’s wisdom.
3. He assures them of the continuance of his kindness to them: Fear not; I will nourish you, v. 21. See what an excellent spirit Joseph was of, and learn of him to render good for evil. He did not tell them they were upon their good behaviour, and he would be kind to them if he saw they conducted themselves well; no, he would not thus hold them in suspense, nor seem jealous of them, though they had been suspicious of him: He comforted them, and, to banish all their fears, he spoke kindly to them. Note, Broken spirits must be bound up and encouraged. Those we love and forgive we must not only do well for but speak kindly to.
– Matthew Henry Commentary