It seems that it took all this time for them to honestly acknowledge what a wicked thing they had done, not only to their brother, but to their father. Jacob was in anguish for all those years because of their deceit. Matthew Henry said, “The office of conscience is to bring to mind things long since said and done. When the guilt of this sin of Joseph’s brethren was fresh, they made light of it, and sat down to eat bread; but now, long afterward, their consciences accused them of it. See the good of afflictions; they often prove the happy means of awakening conscience, and bringing sin to our remembrance.” There is a way to awaken the conscience without having to wait for life’s afflictions to humble sinners. Afflict them with God’s Law. Remind them of their sins by doing what Jesus did, and going through the Ten Commandments. Charles Spurgeon said, “They must be slain by the Law before they can be made alive by the gospel.”
Genesis 42:21 Then they said to one another, “We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.”
22 And Reuben answered them, saying, “Did I not speak to you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the boy’; and you would not listen? Therefore behold, his blood is now required of us.” 23But they did not know that Joseph understood them, for he spoke to them through an interpreter.24And he turned himself away from them and wept. Then he returned to them again, and talked with them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes.