Genesis 41:1-7 “When two full years had passed, Pharaoh had a dream: He was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows, ugly and gaunt, came up out of the Nile and stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows. Then Pharaoh woke up. He fell asleep again and had a second dream: Seven ears of corn, healthy and good, were growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other ears of corn sprouted–thin and scorched by the east wind. The thin ears of corn swallowed up the seven healthy, full ears. Then Pharaoh woke up; it had been a dream” [and on to the final verse, 57, of the chapter]
How often did Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer dream? Every night? I suppose so. How frequently did he have a vivid dream? Once a month? Let’s say it was once every two months. If so then in two years he had had twelve vivid dreams, but not once had the dream made him think of a man languishing in prison who had once given him hope when he was released from incarceration with his life, not on any one of those twelve occasions had he spared a thought for the helpful young Hebrew. The cupbearer seems to have been a self-centred and unkind man, and yet he was the very man God appointed to be the means through whom deliverance from prison and exaltation would come to Joseph. Let’s not despair when the affairs of our lives seem to hang on the thoughts and actions of selfish men. God can use the most crooked branch to strike a straight blow.
1. JOSEPH WAS NOT RELEASED BEFORE THE APPOINTED TIME.
A day came when something happened that jogged the cupbearer’s memory and convicted him of what he was to acknowledge as his “shortcomings” (v.9). Pharaoh had the most vivid dreams he’d ever had in his entire life. There were in fact two of these unforgettable dreams, and what is more they seem to have occurred right on Pharaoh’s birthday. Dr. John Currid tells us that this phrase opening the chapter, “When two full years had passed” means literally ‘after two years of days.’ It refers to an exact period of time, and so the day of Pharaoh’s dreams was actually on his birthday two years after the cupbearer had been released from prison. There was their vividness, but more than that, one of the dreams took place at the side of ‘the mother of Egypt,’ the mighty river Nile, personified in a god that the Egyptians called Hapi, the god of fruitfulness and fecundity, and more than that, that this occurred on his birthday – this all conspired to trouble Pharaoh, and no one likes a disturbed king. “In the morning his mind was troubled, so he sent for all the magicians and wise men of Egypt. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but no-one could interpret them for him” (v.8). “Come now, tell me, all of you, what does this mean, seven cows, fat and sleek coming out of Hapi, and then seven terrifying cows, very ugly and gaunt and ravenous also come out of the Nile and they rip to pieces and swallow the seven fat kine – what does it mean? And seven heavy ears of corn standing swaying in the breeze ready for harvest but then seven withered scorched ears blasted by the east wind and they devour the full heads of grain – tell me what does it mean? Tell me now! Interpret to me my dreams! End this silence!” The royal palace was in a state of high alarm. Pharaoh was threatening, intimidating, winding himself up into a rage, complaining that he employed all these magicians and wise men and they were a dead loss. He was thinking of hanging the lot of them so that the birds of the air could feed on them. They could tell him what the symbolism meant of cows, of the Nile, of the number seven, of something eating something else, of corn, etcetera, etcetera, plenty of words to the rage of Pharaoh. They asked for a few hours’ break in which an investigative commission, and a quango and a think tank would all examine further these two dreams. Then they returned and brought him a report, and they quoted all the traditions and writings of the sages, they deciphered hieroglyphics, they referred to historical precedents, but they were all stumped. They couldn’t interpret his dreams. All the wisdom of Egypt, the greatest power of the world, could not interpret the message that God had given the king. The world by wisdom doesn’t know God. Everyone was very afraid and at their wit’s end; they had never seen the Pharaoh so angry before.
Then it was that the cupbearer remembered Joseph who had interpreted his dream so accurately, and also the dream of the baker when they had been in prison together two years earlier. He went to Pharaoh and told him of his experience saying, “Today I am reminded of my shortcomings. Pharaoh was once angry with his servants, and he imprisoned me and the chief baker in the house of the captain of the guard. Each of us had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own. Now a young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. We told him our dreams, and he interpreted them for us, giving each man the interpretation of his dream. And things turned out exactly as he interpreted them to us: I was restored to my position, and the other man was hanged” (vv. 9-13). When he told Pharaoh this Joseph was immediately sent for. He trimmed his hair, shaved and put on clean clothes and finally stood before Pharaoh. Egyptians liked clean shaven men; sometimes the men even shaved their heads, whereas the Semites all had beards. So it was a matter of utter indifference to Joseph, but knowing the traditions of the Egyptians he shaved so that there would be no unnecessary offence or barrier between him and Pharaoh
Let me turn this first in this direction. Joseph had to stay in prison for two more years, two long years. Providence rarely works out like a machine that dispenses snacks where you drop in your pound and push the numbers and out come a bar of chocolate or a can of coke. Joseph had hit all the right buttons in prison and asked the butler to remember him to Pharaoh but nothing had come of it for two years. The cupbearer had forgotten all about it, but now we see that man’s sinful forgetting had been under the providence of God. It was essential that Joseph not only be released but be brought into the presence of Pharaoh to make an impression under God on the king.
Now there isn’t a Christian here who hasn’t had to endure God’s delays, who will not have to endure God’s delays many times more in his life. You are in an unpleasant situation, there is loneliness, there is an uncongenial job, there is unemployment for a whole year after graduation, there is a debt that takes a long time to clear, there are closed doors that won’t open, there is a long time of childlessness, there is a delay in getting treatment and you are cast on God. All Joseph could see was prison walls, but God could see Pharaoh’s palace and right into the king’s unconscious mind, that whole mysterious world over which the ki
ng had no control. At any time God could have sent those two dreams to Pharaoh but he waited two years, and he did not give Joseph any reason for the delay. God saw fit not to disclose this to him. Joseph had to walk by faith. I was asking Edward Donnelly’s wife Lorna about how Ted was after his serious illness that almost took him from this world. “We are simply having to trust in the Lord,” she said. “Our ministry throughout our pastorate has been telling people to trust in God in sickness and in disappointment, and now it is our turn to do what we have told others.” Our unseen Father works all things after the counsel of his own will. You unbelievers may hate him, and have nothing but contempt for a God who has permitted pain to come into your life. You say you cannot believe in God, and so I’m afraid that I have no comfort for you at all, and as you believe that things just happen by chance, and that it was all a matter of bad luck, then you have no comfort to claim for yourself. You are without hope as a rebel against the Lord. You are like the Israelites who “grumbled in their tents” (Deut. 1:27). What unhappy homes they lived in!
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense but trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face. (Wm. Cowper).
You can judge the Lord only if you possess all the facts, but we don’t possess the smallest part of the facts. For example, we hardly know our own hearts; we don’t know our real needs, what is best for us, and we know nothing about the future, but our Father knows all of that. So we are to wait patiently on him, our loving Saviour who has never wronged us or ours in anything he has done or failed to do. Joseph waited two more years before he was exalted to the heights for the rest of his long life.
2. JOSEPH FROM THE FIRST CONFESSED HIS GOD TO PHARAOH.
The first meeting between Joseph and Pharaoh is recorded here in Scripture and it has such a beauty about it. As I read it I thought, “This is the Word of God.” You know how the opening chapter of the Westminster Confession describes Scripture with a number of little phrases; “the heavenliness of the matter . . . the majesty of the style . . . the many other incomparable excellencies, and its entire perfection . . .” That is all wonderfully true, and that is what modernism destroyed in Wales, something of such heavenly beauty and the modernist couldn’t see it. Then the Confession goes on to say that all these features are abundant evidence that the Bible is the Word of God. Sometimes you read Scripture and it moves you and it warms your heart so much so that spontaneously you pick it up and hug it. That doesn’t always happen; maybe it happens rarely, and it is still the Word of God when you read coldly, to be edified and to familiarize yourself with its contents and requirements and what it says of God. But as I read these simple words in verses fifteen and sixteen, I loved them and said to myself, “This is the Word of God.” Hear the Word of God: “Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I had a dream, and no-one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’ ‘I cannot do it,’ Joseph replied to Pharaoh, ‘but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires’” (vv. 15&16). This was the first conversation these two men had and for the next thirty or forty years they talked together almost every day in growing trust and affection as they ruled the greatest nation in the world. There is that hilarious conversation that Pharaoh has with Joseph’s father Jacob ten years later. Joseph introduces the king to his ancient wizened father, and Pharaoh looks at him and he says to Jacob, “How old are you?” (Gen. 47:8). Jacob tells him that he is 130 years old.
Here the first word that Joseph spoke to Pharaoh was “No.” In the Hebrew our first phrase is one word; it is a negative. “No. I have no ability in myself to interpret dreams. Get that straight. I am not like the wise men and magicians and diviners of Egypt.” There was nothing servile or obsequious about Joseph, and the first and greatest thing he wanted Pharaoh to know was that he was a servant of God, in fact the sixth word he spoke to the king (in our translation) was the word ‘God.’ Joseph had lost all his fear of man after experiencing everything that his brothers, and the slave traders, and Potiphar’s wife, and the jailer had done to him in the past dozen years. Joseph, from the beginning was taking the initiative even with the king and establishing the foundation of his relationship and friendship with Pharaoh. He was nailing his colours up from the beginning; he showed Pharaoh whose he was and whom he served and that there could never be misunderstanding or compromise over this: “I am a servant of God.”
One reason why this was important can easily be overlooked. It is to do with the original hearers of this book of Genesis, when Moses read it to them. The children of Israel had spent 400 years in Egypt in slavery under a new dynasty of kings, a line of pharaohs who didn’t know Joseph who had made the Israelites their slaves. These kings had absolute authority in the land and they were worshipped as gods by the Egyptians, and many of the Israelites were afraid of them. So here Moses is putting the record straight. Here is this ‘god’ Pharaoh and he is totally baffled about the future. The one true and living God has given him a revelation and he doesn’t understand it, and the top intellects of Egypt can’t comprehend it, but Joseph straight from prison, a condemned Hebrew slave, knows God and his revelation; he knows more than the mighty god of Egypt. Pharaoh was impotent in understanding the revelation and the providence of God. Moses was telling the children of Israel that the purpose of Joseph’s life was to do what Pharaoh could not do, but what all we disciples of God can do, glorify and enjoy God.
Our God is in charge of our future. He knows exactly what is going to happen in the next fourteen years of our lives; maybe we are to have seven years of plenty and then seven years of famine. God has decreed it all. He has appointed the day of our deaths, and we even know what happens after death, because God has told us. Men without God don’t know; they cannot know. Men say, “Nobody has come back to tell us.” We tell them that they are wrong, that a number who died were brought back to life again, and that our Lord Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life the conqueror of the grave, that on the third day he rose, and he has spoken to us of a heaven to gain and a hell to avoid after death. The only reason I stand here in the pulpit and teach the word and you sit and hear that word is that we all believe that our God lives and is not silent, that he has spoken to us, and his words are captured for us here in the inspired Bible, and that he raises up preachers whose calling is to explain and apply the Scriptures to the church week by week, in fact this is the climax of our worship, after we have sung and prayed to the Lord, then God chooses to speak to us through the book. “Behave in this way – copy Joseph when you are establishing a relationship with someone. Nail your colours up.” That is the voice of God.< /font>
3. JOSEPH EXPLAINED TO PHARAOH WITH AUTHORITY HIS DREAMS.
In verses 25 to 28 Joseph interprets and explains the two dreams to Pharaoh, and as he does so, he makes it clear that God is not only the revealer of dreams, he is the one who, in fact, ordains the future. His God not only knows what is going to happen, he knows what is going to happen because he has ordained what’s going to happen. So we see the god of Egypt is getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and smaller, while the God of Joseph is more and more and more revealed in his sovereignty and exaltation. He not only knows the future, he not only has the power to reveal it to his servant, but he holds the future in his hands and then works all things after the counsel of his own will, because he’s ordained the future.
Notice especially at verses 25 and 28 where Joseph stresses this fact. First of all, after hearing the account of the two dreams Joseph immediately says, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same.” They refer to the same thing. The dreams are repeated for a specific reason, to underline their utter veracity and so their importance; they are referring to the same events. Then notice that Joseph immediately says at the end of verse 25, “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” So even the mighty nation of Egypt is under the control of the God of Joseph, not Pharaoh, and Joseph is telling the king this. Unless Pharaoh missed the point, preacher Joseph is going to say it at least one more time. Look down the verses in this section to verse 28 and there Joseph tells Pharaoh plainly, “God has shown Pharaoh what he is about to do.” So this man who that morning was in a cell in an Egyptian prison was that afternoon preparing Pharaoh for a sea change in his agricultural policy, but more than that, in the awareness that it is the providence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph that rules the world. Joseph even explains the reason why God sent this same message twice, by the cows and by the heads of grain: “The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon” (v.32). In other words this seven year famine is not going to happen in a hundred years’ time, or even when you are an old man it’s knocking on the door now. I can hear it. The seven good years are even now underway, and so you have to make preparation immediately.
Now isn’t it salutary that this man speaking, Joseph, has had every bad turn of providence that he could have possibly experienced in the past dozen years, and yet now he is given the opportunity to teach Pharaoh, king of Egypt, about divine providence, and he is fully equipped for the task. The Lord Jesus told his disciples and he tells us that we are not to be fearful when we face a hostile group of men, when we are put on trial and our life is at stake. It will be given to us what we are to say. The Holy Spirit will help. We will not be left to stammer depending only on our wits. Joseph is giving Pharaoh a theological lesson in the sovereignty of God, that he doesn’t just know the future or reveal the future, but that God controls the future, and he does it without turning from the right to the left. It’s absolutely straightforward as Joseph reveals the divine nature to the king, that of God, and through God and to God are all things, that he never steps down from the throne of the universe for a moment so that in some things the devil has taken over. No. The devil, Luther said, is God’s devil. Well said! For seven years God had ordained material blessings for the Eastern Mediterranean basin, and then for the following years he had ordained seven years of testing, and none can stay God’s hand in this event or any event and cry to him, “What do you think you are doing?”
You see the comfort of this for the next fourteen years of your lives. There must in this fallen world be a mixture of testing and blessing, of comfort and trial. We live our lives under the curse as part of a fallen and rebellious humanity and so there will be heartache in this fallen world, but God is in control and he has promised to work all things together for our good. Joni Eareckson Tada, the paraplegic Christian, said that without a doubt what has helped her most in accepting and dealing with suffering was her view of Almighty God, learning who he is and knowing that he is in control.
So when we enter our seven years of trial we won’t arrive at a proper understanding of God by reasoning from those years to the nature of God. On the contrary we understand the seven years of trial by beginning with our view of God, by reasoning from the nature of the sovereign loving God to such times and such events. This is the God that can bring mighty Japan to her knees in a day by earthquake and tsunami and nuclear contamination. Surely God is in the facts of history as certainly as he is in the march of the seasons. So be encouraged, men and women, what power the Lord has to defend you, all wisdom to direct you, all mercy to pardon you, all grace to enrich you, all righteousness to clothe you, all goodness to supply all your needs, and all happiness to crown you! Little wonder that Joseph, knowing this, was so bold as he spoke to the king!
4. JOSEPH DECLARED TO PHARAOH WHAT THE KING HAD TO DO.
Here is John Wayne coming to the rescue of the beleaguered wagon train! God and his prophet Joseph have come to rescue the helpless god of Egypt (vv. 29 to 37). Pharaoh, the god-king has been humbled by the striking dreams that neither he nor any one of the wise men of Egypt can interpret, and now he is being furthered humbled by the advice he is being given by a Hebrew slave who has spent perhaps as much as ten years in his own prison.
“It will soon be on you,” Joseph says. Does Pharaoh realise the implications of this? Joseph will tell him. It certainly means this at least, that Pharaoh look for a man who is discerning and wise to set over the land of Egypt. There are going to be seven years of plenty, but they will be followed by seven lean and fearful years with famine everywhere. Seven whole years of famine covering the earth! Now if you were a fatalist and said, “It’s the will of Allah” or “Whatever will be will be” then you’d simply sit back and accept it. But if you believe in God’s sovereign predestination then you do the will of your sovereign, and so Pharaoh needed to prepare for the future.
Then, in an amazing speech, Joseph tells Pharaoh what he has to do next! He gives a plan for the king of Egypt to follow, because everybody’s business is nobody’s business. It is an amazingly detailed economic-agricultural measure. He says, “Now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the gra
in under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food. This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine” (vv. 33-36). I think that Joseph was totally lacking in self-consciousness when he told Pharaoh, “Look, you need to find a man of wisdom and discernment.” You remember that one of the amazing things about Joseph was that he was the same man in prison that he was in the court of Pharaoh, and you find it here again. I don’t think Joseph was angling for a job. I don’t think it had even crossed his mind. I think he was totally oblivious to the option. At this moment he had sprung into his instinctive Old Testament Christian response to the sovereign revelation of God. “God has shown us what he is going to do, and so we’ve got to get cracking, and here’s what needs to be done . . . This, this, this, this.” What innate talents had God granted to Joseph that are displayed here, and it doesn’t occur to him that actually he’s the man to organize this international mission of mercy.
Suddenly the future is decided for Pharaoh. What started as a terrible night and a dark and fearful day has been transformed. Without a moment’s hesitation the mystery of the dream has been unraveled by Joseph. Pharaoh, as soon as he hears the interpretation, sees everything lucidly; his burden is completely lifted. This man is a messenger of God and the message he brings is very simple. Pharaoh felt liberated at that very moment, and he responded with astonishing openness and generosity. He turned to his cabinet and wise men and courtiers and said to them “‘Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?’ Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has made all this known to you, there is no-one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.’ So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.’ Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and men shouted before him, ‘Make way!’ Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt. Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I am Pharaoh, but without your word no-one will lift hand or foot in all Egypt’” (vv. 39-44).
For Joseph, everything from that moment had changed. Was there ever a man who in one day was transformed as radically as Joseph was that day? Breakfasting of slops in a prison in Egypt, enjoying supper from an army of slaves satisfying his every whim. ‘Behold,’ writes Bishop Hall, ‘one hour has changed his fetters into a chain of gold, his rags into pure linen, his stocks into a chariot, his jail into a palace, Potiphar’s captive into Potiphar’s Lord, the noise of his chains into “Bow the knee!”’ All in ‘one hour’ — suddenly! Suddenly at the Red Sea, the waters opened up and Israel went over. Suddenly at Carmel the fire fell from heaven on the sacrifice, and Israel was again converted. Suddenly the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, the power of the Most High overshadowed her, and she was with child. Suddenly Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus was confronted by the risen Lord Jesus. Suddenly on the day of Pentecost there was a sound of a rushing mighty wind and the Spirit of God filled all of them.
Often, no doubt, God takes his time. Things seem to be allowed to slide, and if there is growth, it is slow. We must patient with God’s delays. “With the Lord,” wrote Peter, “a thousand years are like one day.” We have to wait with patience for the next move. But then when certain chosen days arrive “one day is like a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8) and what takes place in that short day can be the work of a millennium! In the great revival of Kirk O’Shotts thousands were converted. For two thousand years nothing seemed to be happen in China or in Korea and then in half a century millions have professed faith in Christ. Jesus warned us that these great days or sudden hours may come upon us at any time – especially in the day we might be least expecting it. So we’re always to be ready and expectant. We’re called to be faithful when what we’ve got under our care is insignificant, because to those who’re faithful in ‘little’ then ‘much’ is entrusted (Matt. 25:23). We have to remember that the great climax towards which everything is moving will come ‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye’ (1 Cor. 15:52).
So Joseph is highly exalted in Egypt, and given a name above every name, but all this power and rank does not go to his head. He keeps his testimony to his God throughout his years of glory as he kept them as a slave and a prisoner. We see this in two significant places. First in the name the Pharaoh gives him. He is given the name Zaphenath-paneah (v. 45). The name means ‘God has spoken and he lives.’ What a testimony to Joseph’s God – ‘He speaks and he lives.’ God had spoken through him in the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams and now Joseph lives. What a role and status he has in Egypt – God is speaking through him to the whole land of Egypt from the highest officials to the beggar in the gutter.
The second testimony to his faithfulness to the Lord in seen in the names he gives his children. He is given a wife from the highest family in the land, the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On. No other wife is mentioned for him. He had a monogamous marriage in all the temptations of power, but when the Lord gave him two sons he called the first Manasseh. The name sounds like the verb ‘forget’ in Joseph’s Hebrew speech and he seems to be saying that in his vindication God has made him forget his troubles and his father’s household when he had been in the land of Canaan. He is not sending an Egyptian raiding party there to bring back the heads of his eleven brothers in sacks. He has put out of his mind all the hatred and cruelty that they’d shown him. We are to forget what is past.
His second son he named Ephraim, and that word is related to the word ‘fruitful’ that Joseph used in his Hebrew speech. The ending of the word is in the dual form and so it means ‘doubly fruitful.’ God had made him doubly fruitful. And that again reflect the elation Joseph now experienced in the land where he’d suffered cruel trials in Potiphar’s house and in his years in prison, but now he is fruitful in helping the people of the land and in serving the king. The names were a testimony to Joseph’s clear stand for the things of God.
When you met Joseph and when you meet today men and women like Joseph you are keenly aware that here are people in this sinful world who are keenly aware of God’s providence in their lives. They live in the presence of God. They have set the Lord at their right hand and they are not moved. They are not bought by the power and riches of the world. They are not
intimidated by the frown of Pharaoh because nearer to them than kings is the Lord. He is at their right hand. Joseph gave God glory in the hardest place in the world, not the place of temptation by a beautiful desirable woman, not in the years living in a prison, but when living in the palace, able to get anything he asked for. He wasn’t bought or compromised or defeated because one thing he chose, and that was to live in the house of the Lord all his days.