Joseph in Prison
March 3, 2013 / No. 3661
Dear fellow saints in the church of Jesus Christ,
Have you ever felt as though you were a victim?
I do not mean that you had a “poor me” complex and you were looking for sympathy from others, but that you were genuinely a victim. You were abused or misused in some way, maybe by a boss, a spouse, a parent, or a bully on the playground. Somebody whom you should have been able to respect and trust has mistreated you. Or maybe you were treated unfairly for doing something that was right. Because of your love for God, there was an activity or conversation that you refused to be a part of, and as a result you were mistreated, demoted, mocked, maybe even persecuted. How did you respond? How should we respond?
Joseph is one who was a genuine victim. Mistreated and hated by his brothers, sold by them and carried away to be a teenage slave in a foreign land, and there lied about and imprisoned because he refused Potiphar’s wife, Joseph is a victim. How does he respond?
In Genesis 40, as we continue in our study of the life of Joseph, we see an amazing response to such treatment. In prison, Joseph does not complain, he does not have a “poor-me” complex, but, continuing to live before the face of God, Joseph is faithful in the tasks God gives to him, he has a compassionate eye for the troubles of others, and he is amazingly patient with the Lord. Joseph is not embittered by his mistreatment, nor does he allow this to become an obstacle to his fellowship with God, but instead he waits for God to vindicate his cause.
At the end of chapter 39, after Joseph is unjustly imprisoned, the keeper of the prison notices Joseph’s godliness and trustworthiness and entrusts him with the care of all the prisoners. In prison, Joseph is not forgotten of God, but the Lord is with him.
Genesis 40 verses 1-3 tells us that after Joseph had been in prison for some time (and it could have been years), the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt were thrown into prison with Joseph because they had offended their lord, the king of Egypt. Who were these men, and why were they in prison?
The butler and baker were two very important positions in the court of an ancient king. Not only did these men prepare and serve to the king his food, the butler his drinks, and the baker his meals, but these men were usually also close confidants of the king, men who were with the king day in and day out, men whom he would consult and who would advise him. Their position required that they be trustworthy men. They were not mere slaves, but they held a high profile position in the court.
Now, something had happened that made Pharaoh suspicious of and angry with these two men. Maybe it was as simple as Pharaoh having an upset stomach from some food he ate, or maybe there was an actual assassination plot against the king in which one of these men participated. It does seem from what follows in the chapter that the baker was indeed guilty. Initially he keeps his dream to himself, and then, as it turns out, he is executed.
In verses 3 and 4 we learn that the captain of the guard charged Joseph with their care and that Joseph served them, the idea being that these men were locked up tight in their cells, but Joseph had freedom to move around and to get for them the things they needed for their daily life in the prison. Interestingly, the captain of the guard is Potiphar, and this tells us that Potiphar again trusted Joseph. Maybe he found out the truth of his wife’s lie, or maybe he simply went on trusting Joseph, seeing that the Lord was with him.
In one night, both the butler and the baker have a dream. Dreams, in ancient Egyptian culture, were considered very important, and there were people whose lives were devoted to the interpretation of dreams. What is significant about the dreams of the butler and baker is their similarity to each other, that they came as a pair, and that they were so memorable. These were not like ordinary dreams, which are soon forgotten, but they were vivid, and when the butler and baker told them to each other, it was obvious to them that these dreams were a revelation from God. In the story of Joseph, this is the main way that God reveals Himself—in pairs of dreams, first to Joseph, then here to butler and baker, and then next to Pharaoh.
The importance of these two dreams is not so much their content and what they predict. What happens to the butler and baker is not all that important in this history. What is important, though, is that God sends these dreams as the connection between Joseph and the palace of Pharaoh, which will lead in the end to Joseph meeting his brothers. That makes these dreams important. God is working in this history, making connections that will bring Joseph to the position of ruler in Egypt, when he will again meet his brothers, and his entire family will move to Egypt.
Do you see here God’s sovereign and loving hand of providence? In two dreams, experienced by two unbelieving Egyptians, in a prison, far from Canaan, God is working.
And this is the secret to Joseph’s response to his unjust imprisonment. Joseph does not know where these dreams are leading, but he must see God’s hand here, and that is an encouragement to him to wait on God.
What we see here is a portrait of Joseph, a study of his character. There are six things in Joseph’s behavior that show something of his character.
The first is that Joseph rejoices in his trials. In James 1:2, we are exhorted to “count it all joy” when we fall into divers temptations. James is saying that when different trials come our way, we should learn to see them as God-sent, for our good, and so be thankful and even glad that we receive them.
That is what we see in Joseph. In Genesis 40:6, the morning after the two dreams, we read that Joseph came in to the butler and baker, and looked at them, and noticed that they were sad. It does not say that Joseph was sad, but that he noticed that his inmates were sad. If anyone ought to have a sad face here, it was Joseph. The butler and baker were in prison on a whim of Pharaoh, and surely they would not be here for long, but Joseph does not know if he will ever see the light of day again. And yet, he does not say, “You think you have it bad, listen to my situation.” Rather because he has learned to count it all joy, he is able to see their sorrow and have compassion on them.
That is the second thing here, that Joseph in his trials has compassion for others and is willing to help them. Far from pouting and crying “poor me,” Joseph looks at his fellow inmates and says, Why are you sad? And then, when they say, We both had dreams and there is no one to interpret them, Joseph shows his willingness to help. If Joseph would have said, “Ah, dreams? I do not want anything to do with them. Last time dreams got me into big trouble,” we would understand that. But, instead, he offers to help them to understand their dreams.
Here we have an important biblical and Christian response to our own trials, namely this, that we look from our trials out to others, and sympathize and help others in need. Paul, in II Corinthians 1:3-4, explaining why he has trials, says this, “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” He recognizes that one of God’s purposes in his trials is that he may be able to sympathize with and comfort and help others in their difficult experiences.
The third thing we see in Joseph here is that he takes every opportunity to speak of his faith in God. When the butler and baker say, “there is no one to interpret our dreams,” Joseph’s reply is not, “Well, I can do it,” but this, “Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray you.” Even though he recognizes that God has given him the gift of interpreting dreams, Joseph attributes this to God. Do not interpretations belong to God? In the Egyptian culture, that was a dangerous statement. So many claimed that they had this ability. Even the butler and baker are thinking of men, of people who can interpret dreams, when they say, “there is no one to interpret our dreams.” But Joseph says, “Don’t look to man, look to God.” If your dreams are from God then only he can tell you what they mean.
Now, we live in a day of self-proclaimed and celebrity teachers and preachers, men and women who claim special powers and who are looking for fame and recognition. You listen to them, and the message is about themselves, about their accomplishments and education, and very little is said about God. We have here a test of a true prophet of God. Who gets the recognition, man or God? Last week I read this, and I think it is very true and valuable: The pastor’s great reward for his preaching is not in hearing, “What a great sermon!” but “What a great God!”
Joseph uses his situation and gifts as an opportunity to witness concerning his God.
Then fourth, we see from this passage how real, how authentic, how down to earth Joseph is. We see this in Joseph’s response to the dream of the butler. After telling the butler that his dream of three branches, and himself squeezing juice from a grape into a cup means that in three days he will be restored to his place as chief butler in Pharaoh’s palace, Joseph says this to the butler, Genesis 40:14-15, “But think on me when it shall be well with thee, and shew kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house: For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews: and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.” I think that is one of my favorite parts in the whole story of Joseph.
When we read in the story of Joseph of his godliness and patience we are inclined to think, it is just too unreal, Joseph is just too good, and I cannot identify with him, nor would I ever be able to go through what he did. He must have been above feelings, some kind of super Christian. But this tells us that he felt the pain and injustice of his experiences; he still remembered the injustice of being sold as a slave. He still felt the pain of being innocently incarcerated. He did not like the dungeon where he was, and he wanted to be free again. He felt the pain of separation from his family. Joseph was a real man. But feeling pain and suffering, and complaining about it, are two different things. Joseph feels it, but he does not complain against God. He does not let bitterness overtake his soul. He does not stew over the injustices others have committed against him. He does not respond to hatred with hatred.
In the New Testament, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, bless them that persecute you, do good to them that despitefully use you.” Paul says, in Romans 12:21: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good,” and Ephesians 4:31-32: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”
This is what we see in Joseph. He does not allow himself to be overcome or consumed by the evils committed against him. Instead, he responds with kindness and is ready to forgive.
The only way to do that is to know that God in Christ has forgiven you, and that God is sovereignly controlling and working through everything in your life. Faith, faith in the God of the Bible, faith in Christ—this is the victory that overcomes the world. And as believers we need to pray for wisdom to respond like Joseph, not only to trials, but to being victimized. We need to pray for a rich experience of forgiveness, that we might understand the greatness of God’s forgiving love towards us, so that we may be gracious towards and live peaceably with all men. Knowing Christ, and believing on Him, we become like Him. Joseph felt the pain, but he did not complain.
Then fifth, we see Joseph’s honesty and love in explaining the second dream. The baker holds back his dream until he hears that the butler’s dream has a favorable interpretation. As I indicated earlier, that was probably because he was guilty. But now, hearing the good outcome that awaits the butler, he tells his dream: three baskets of bread on his head, and the birds coming and eating from the baskets. What does it mean? Here, you see Joseph’s integrity and love. He knows that it means the baker will be executed, and rather than softening it, or holding back the interpretation, he says to the baker, “within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree; and the birds shall eat thy flesh from off thee.”
Sometimes, to bring God’s word honestly to another can be risky. Certainly it was here, but because he lives before God, Joseph has the courage to do it. Pray that God will give such men to preach the gospel in our generation. Men who will tell the truth, even when it hurts, because this is true love.
Think about that, this was the kindest thing Joseph could do for the baker. Hiding the truth from him would have done him no good. But now, with Joseph as his spiritual counselor, this man has three days to prepare for death. We do not know what happened in those three days or whether this man was converted, but we can be sure that in those three days Joseph continued to speak to him of his God, of heaven and hell, and even of the way of salvation. Who knows how God could use that? The truth that Joseph spoke hurt, but it was the best thing the baker could hear at this point in his life.
Sixth, we see here Joseph’s patience with the Lord. Three days later, it happens just as Joseph had said. Pharaoh has a great feast to celebrate his birthday, and the butler is restored to his position and the baker is executed. There we have a proof of Joseph being a true prophet of God. His word is authenticated by the outcome. Now, you would think, it was time for Joseph to be vindicated. Now there was a ray of hope. Surely the butler would remember Joseph’s kindness. But he does not. We have to read the last verse of chapter 40 with the first verse of chapter 41, to catch the full impact of this. “Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him. And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed.”
Two full years. That is a long time to be sitting in a dungeon, when you thought you had found the way out. If the butler had told Pharaoh the whole story, if he had told about Joseph, and the interpreting of the dreams, and that they came true just as Joseph had said, surely Pharaoh would be interested in meeting and using this man with the gift of interpreting dreams. Joseph must have waited and waited for a message from the palace, but nothing came. A day turned into a week, and a week into a month, and months into a year, and then two years. Maybe to you, two years does not sound very long. But it is a terribly long time when one is going through a severe trial and he does not see a light at the end of the tunnel.
One of the things that Joseph experienced in prison was loneliness. He had said to the butler that he was “stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews.” In those words Joseph expresses what he is missing. What he misses is the people of God, and the place that God has chosen. He is missing fellowship with God’s people. He is missing worship with the church of God. His experience is like that of David, in Psalm 42, when in exile he remembers how he used to go with God’s people to worship, but now cannot. And David’s soul is cast down and his spirit disquieted. He is depressed and racked with anxiety. David’s answer is, “Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise him.” That is what Joseph does too, in prison. He patiently waits on God, hoping in Him.
Sometimes the way of trial can be long and lonely. It can result in depression and anxiety. But in it, God’s children can be sure that His love will never fail, that His purposes though hidden are good, and that there is a day of hope and deliverance. “I shall yet praise him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.”
Let us pray.
Father, thanks again for Thy Word, so rich and so encouraging. Thanks, Lord, for Thy promises that never fail, and for the confidence we can have in Thee, even when life is as dark as a dungeon. Give us a spirit that does not become bitter, but rather help us to look out to others, and to Thee. To hope in God. We ask it for Jesus’ sake, Amen.