October 21, 2017

Eradicating the Evil of Envy

Jim Oesterwind

Genesis 37 begins the story of the fourth significant person in the second half of the book. His name is Joseph, the eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons. He along with Benjamin are the two sons of Rachel, Jacob’s favored wife.

By my rough estimation Jacob takes up roughly 20% of the content in Genesis and Isaac a mere 4%. Abraham and Joseph have far more significance. Each cover roughly 28% of the material.

We can divide Joseph’s life into four movements:

  1. Pit to Potiphar: The first movement takes us from Canaan to Egypt … from family to strangers (Genesis 37-38).
  2. Potiphar to Prison: The second movement takes Joseph from a trusted administrative servant of a powerful man named Potiphar, through temptation, and unjust imprisonment (Genesis 39-41.36).
  3. Prison to Prince: The third movement takes Joseph from the depths of prison to the second most powerful position in Egypt (Genesis 41.37-57).
  4. Prince to Protector: The fourth and final movement of Joseph’s life leads to the conclusion of Genesis. It is here that Joseph reconciles with his brothers, learns that God’s plans are past man’s ability to understand. If we persevere and follow Him, He blesses us.

The life of Joseph can be expressed in three verses within Genesis:

  • “The LORD was with Joseph, and he was a successful man” (Genesis 39.2).
  • “The LORD was with [Joseph]; and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper” (Genesis 39.23).
  • “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50.20).

Joseph life teaches us how to persevere through great trial and temptation. The suffering Joseph confronts in his life reminds us of the suffering Job faced centuries before him and the suffering Jesus would face many centuries after him. The perseverance of Joseph simply indicates that he is clinging to the LORD even at great personal cost. Even if Joseph had not persevered, God would still be faithful.

The providence of God is also a major theme in Joseph’s life. Providence literally means to see beforehand. Only God can see how all the threads of life come together in order to weave a tapestry that is not only beautiful, but necessary in order to reach His desired end for us. Joseph’s life teaches us that God has a good purpose for each of us.

Isaac was a stranger in the land in much the same way that Abraham was. He led the life of a nomad. Jacob settled in the same area where Isaac had lived and died. Esau had moved his family to what would become Edom.

While Genesis 37.2 tells us that we are about to read the history of Jacob, the protagonist is Joseph all the way to the end of the book. Joseph will be the instrument through which God delivers Jacob’s family safely from a famine in Canaan to the incubator of Egypt. Against all odds, the family of Jacob will prosper in Egypt and become a great nation. And it all begins with a boy named Joseph “being seventeen years old.”

Genesis 15.13 promised, “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years.” That strange land was Egypt. And we get to Egypt through Joseph, being seventeen.

The sons of Bilhah were Dan and Naphtali (Genesis 35.25). The sons of Zilpah were Gad and Asher (Genesis 35.26). Joseph was with these four older brothers of handmaids, but he was the son of Joseph’s favored wife, Rachel (see Genesis 37.1-2). It seems clear that it would have been difficult for these four older men to find out that their 17-year-old brother brought a bad report concerning them to Jacob, their father.

It is fruitless to speculate about what that report was or what motivated Joseph. We simply don’t know. But Genesis 37.3-4 give us a clearer picture of Jacob’s partiality toward Joseph: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age. Also he made him a tunic of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.”

What caused the hatred of Joseph’s brothers? Was it not envy because of the favor of their father and the favor of God?

The Favor of Jacob (Genesis 37.3-4)

The love of Israel for Joseph led to an outward expression of favoritism in the form of a many-colored coat. That coat would remind Joseph of his father’s favoritism, but it would also fuel hatred in his brothers for such favoritism. “When [Joseph’s] brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.” But something else would fuel the hatred of Joseph’s brothers.

The Favor of God (Genesis 37.5-11)

5 Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. 6 So he said to them, “Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.”

8 And his brothers said to him, “Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.

9 Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.”

10 So he told it to his father and his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?” 11 And his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

That God is the source of these dreams is doubtless. This becomes abundantly clear when we read the rest of Genesis. The dream of sheaves bowing before his sheaf meant that the brothers would be subject to their brother. They understood this and hated him the more. The dream of the sun, moon, and 11 stars communicated that the whole family would bow before him. It stirred envy in the brothers, but Jacob kept the matter in his mind. Jacob was accustomed to dreams and the way God had communicated to him personally in the past. He was not so dismissive of Joseph.

But the brothers envy Joseph. Envy is a terrible thing in the human heart. It is only overcome by the grace of God. Envy is jealousy mixed with bitterness over the fact that someone has position, people, privilege, or possessions that we don’t have but desperately want. There are four characteristics of an envious person:

  1. Envious people are unreasonable.
  2. Envious people are destructive.
  3. Envious people are ungodly.
  4. Envious people are devilish.

Envious People Are Unreasonable

God has allowed someone else to have advantages I do not have. If God has permitted this, why do I grow envious? Why don’t I want a person to have something I desire? Is there anything reasonable about that attitude? Am I more deserving than he or she is? Should I believe in a viewpoint regarding the providence and sovereignty of God that limits Him by the way I live? Jesus taught about envy in the words of the landowner who paid those who worked all day the same as those who worked for only one hour:

“Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil (envious) because I am good” (Matthew 20.15)?

We often envy that which would ensnare us in a pit of misery. We should actually fear what we covet. If we are given much, much will be required of us. All believers will give an account before the judgement seat of Christ. Jesus will determine whether what we have done was good or useless.

Envy isn’t reasonable because we are not using the time, talent, and treasure we already have for God. How shall we expect more of what we do not use? Pastors shouldn’t envy those who have more influence or larger churches. Actually, we should pray for these larger churches and hold these men in esteem. Envy is totally unreasonable, as is all sin.

Envious People Are Destructive

This is illustrated in the rest of this chapter (Genesis 37.12-36). Envy put Joseph in the pit and thus begins the first major movement in his life. His brothers gave in to envy. They allowed it to destroy them and defile their relationships. Instead of joy and peace, they faced years of sorrow, guilt, and regret. Their envy fueled their hatred of their own brother.

We often feel pain and sorrow when we think of the very relationships that should fill us with joy and gladness. I think that is why holidays like Christmas are so difficult for people. We think of the wake of destruction that is the consequence of past envy.

“A sound heart is life to the body, but envy is rottenness to the bones” (Proverbs 14.30). Envy eats away at you like cancer. “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (James 3.16). Cain murdered Abel because he was envious about the fact that God accepted his brother and rejected him. Saul envied David because he was praised as the greater warrior by the people of Israel. Joseph’s brothers envied him because of the favor of God and the favor of their father. The only thing they wanted is to satisfy their evil desire to destroy their brother.

Envious People Are Ungodly

Jesus did not look out for His own interests. He looked at the best among us and desired nothing from us. He was not thrilled or titillated by our misery; instead, He came to liberate us from it.

It is so unlike Christ to grieve over the happiness of others. It is so like Christ to grieve over the misery of others. The envious person looks for ways to harm others; God provides the only way, truth, and life to redeem them.

Jesus Christ died for our sins and paid our debt: eternal death and torment in the Lake of Fire. He took all of that away and then He gave to us His righteousness, an eternal quality of life maintained by the Spirit of Christ working in and through us. He also gave us heavenly citizenship. Godly people look for ways to benefit others; ungodly people look to destroy, hate, and rebel. Envy is ungodly.

Envious People Are Devilish

Think of Satan’s whole problem as articulated by Isaiah:

13 For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation On the farthest sides of the north; 14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’ (Isaiah 14:13–14)

Satan was the covering cherub, an angel of great and good light. But he sinned because he wanted what only his Creator could have. This is the spirit of covetousness and envy, which is idolatry.

So Satan is compelled to destroy others. He especially seeks to destroy us and any semblance of unity that we have because of envy. He in our adversary. He attacked Job before Joseph and Jesus afterward. He will attack all those who seek to live godly in Christ Jesus.

Envious religious leaders coveted Jesus position and popularity among the people. He asked these hateful men, “Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do” (John 8.43-44).

  • Why is it that we so often recognize envy in our lives well after the fact? James would tell us that we lust and do not have … murder and covet and cannot obtain. (James 4.2) We are in desperate need of grace to see things as they are not as we want them to be. We think we are righteously indignant when we are often filled with the evil of envy.
  • How can we recognize envy in our lives? We can know that envy looks for an opening when others around us are advancing and flourishing, and when they are happy. Be alert during times when God does good things for others. Rejoice as they rejoice. If we cannot do that, it is more than likely that envy is holding us back. Envy also comes out when we compete or develop a rivalry. The coat of many colors elevated Joseph above the rest. But rather than taking this as God’s will, the brothers seek to gain master over the situation instead of mastery over their own souls. Jesus would tell us, “Watch and pray lest you enter into temptation. The Spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26.41).
  • How can we gain mastery over envy in our personal lives? Know how corrupt and evil our old nature truly is. All of us deserve God’s wrath and anger. It is because of His mercy that we will not be consumed in the Lake of Fire. So, don’t allow yourself to grieve when it seems that the smile of God is upon another more than it is upon you. You have way more than you deserve. See how mercifully God has treated you. Second, love God with all your heart, mind, and soul. Once you do this, He will give you a limitless supply of contentment and love for others. You cannot envy the people you love. Paul wrote, “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy” (1 Corinthians 13.4).

“He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4.8). When our hearts are so full of envy that we cannot love, no one sees the love of God in us. You will not be able to see it in yourself. God’s good purpose in our lives is eradicate the evil of envy!


Jim Oesterwind is the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Antioch, CA. He blogs at Sun and Shield.


Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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