We continue our study of the life of Joseph today in Genesis chapter 41, where Joseph rises from prison to palace, from prisoner to prime minister, from the pit to the pinnacle.
Have you ever been promoted? What was the reason for the promotion? To whom did you give credit? So much of life in our society, and especially in the workplace, is geared around the idea of “getting ahead,” of being a somebody, and of making a contribution. But should it be? Are we perhaps putting ourselves forward too much, and not stopping to give God the credit for our advancements? Are we looking for self-advancement, rather than for God’s glory?
As we begin studying this chapter, it is important for us to have the proper perspective, the proper focus. This is not the story of Joseph being exalted, but rather a story in which God is exalted.
Too many commentators, when they come to this chapter, tell us to look at what God did in Joseph’s life, and then say, and God can do something similar for you. They say, it may be that you are in a situation similar to that in which Joseph found himself, forgotten in prison, but he was in waiting there, being prepared by God, for the day of his exaltation. And the lesson is supposed to be that if you just wait and be faithful like Joseph, your time, your day in the sun, will come.
Now, those are very nice ideas, and it may well be that a day of greater service and prominence awaits you, but if that is what you make of this story—well, it is very man centered. And what if a day of exaltation never comes, for you? This story is not first about Joseph, and it is not about you and me. Rather, it is a story about the working of the providence of the sovereign God, and the lesson we learn from Joseph is that God should always receive the glory, whether we are humiliated or exalted. Joseph did not need this exaltation to the palace in order to see God’s blessing in his life, and to respond with praise to God. No, in prison, the Lord was with Joseph, and there, seemingly forgotten, Joseph still lived before the face of God. And because he did that, when he was promoted to the highest position in Egypt, it never went to his head, he never abused his power, he never used his gifts and position in a self-serving way, but he always gave God the glory.
Let us contrast that to Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel, chapter 4, verse 30. As he wanders through his hanging gardens, he boasts, “Is not this the great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?” The kingdom was taken from him, and he lived like an animal, until he gave God the glory.
Let me ask, again, the question with which I began. Have you ever been promoted? What was the reason? Was it because you deserved it, or you achieved it? And to whom did you give the credit for it? Did you give God the glory?
In Genesis 41, God is very much on the foreground. He is present and working in this story. It is God who sends Pharaoh his dreams that result in Joseph being called from prison. God gives Joseph to understand and interpret the dreams and then give wise advice to Pharaoh. God is the one who will send the famines. And it is God who raises Joseph from prison to prime minister in Egypt. And throughout, this is what, or I should say whom, Joseph acknowledges. He gives God the glory.
In the first 8 verses we learn that Pharaoh has two dreams that trouble his spirit. He is disturbed by them. We have pointed out, before, that in the story of Joseph God is not present by miracles or in other marvelous and spectacular ways. Instead, He is quietly working in the background. A dream is a very ordinary experience. We all have dreams; the people who study this say that we all dream, every night. So dreams are quite ordinary. These were not the first dreams Pharaoh had. But these are memorable dreams, and they come in a pair. This is the third time in Joseph’s life that a pair of dreams is given. First to Joseph, then to the butler and baker, and now to Pharaoh. In verse 32, Joseph says that God gave these two similar dreams to Pharaoh as proof that the dreams were from God. And Pharaoh must have had a sense of that, for he was troubled by his dreams. Here Pharaoh, who in ancient Egypt was considered a god, is forced in his conscience to acknowledge that he is merely a creature, that there is a God in heaven, over all, to whom he must answer. The sovereign God intrudes on Pharaoh’s peace. He disturbs Pharaoh’s conscience. Pharaoh is troubled. The great king of Egypt shakes like a leaf. He is like a scared child who cannot sleep.
That is the way God works on the conscience of men still today. Do not think that the ungodly world, in its murder of the unborn, in its permissiveness of homosexuality, in its greed and immorality, is not troubled in conscience. No, God leaves them enough of a testimony of His greatness in the creation, and through the witness of believers, to leave them without excuse. Romans 1 tells us that the conscience of man is accusing or excusing his sin. Pharaoh is troubled.
And so he assembles the wise men of Egypt. These were learned people in a civilized culture. Not druids and wizards, but professors and doctors. And they cannot tell him what his dreams mean. It may be that they did not want to, because the news was bad, or, more likely, God blinded their minds so that they could not understand the dreams, even though to us the meaning may be so plain.
Now amid all the pandemonium of the morning, Pharaoh sharing his dreams, and wise men coming and going, Pharaoh must drink, and so the butler comes, and hearing of Pharaoh’s mysterious dreams, his memory is jolted. Coming to the king he says, in verses 9-13, “I do remember my faults this day; Pharaoh was wroth with his servants, and put both me and the chief butler in prison. And, there, we both dreamed a dream in one night, and a fellow prisoner, a young Hebrew slave, told us the meaning of our dreams. They were fulfilled just as he had interpreted them. We did not know what our dreams meant, and he told us, and he was right on in his interpretation.”
Let us pause here and note God’s timing. Two years had passed, and now, finally, Joseph is mentioned to Pharaoh. But, had it been earlier, would Pharaoh even have paid attention to the mention of a mistreated Hebrew slave? But now, God works, to connect the experiences of the butler and Pharaoh, and Joseph is now the answer to Pharaoh’s predicament.
That morning in prison was, I am sure, just like any other for Joseph. It was a monotonous existence, day after day, the same, forgotten in prison. But suddenly there is a flurry of activity. Pharaoh sends for Joseph, and in minutes he is taken from the dungeon, groomed, dressed, hurried past guards and down pristine hallways into the Oval Office of Egypt to stand before the Pharaoh and help him in a way that no one else in Egypt can. This is Joseph’s hour to shine, to put himself forward, to ask a favor of the king, to explain the injustices committed against him. This is his get out of jail free card.
But that is not the way Joseph sees it. I am sure there was excitement for Joseph in all these events, but in the excitement he does not forget his Lord, who has been with him now for 14 years of slavery and imprisonment. And instead of seeing this as his moment for freedom or advancement, Joseph views it as another opportunity to give God the glory.
Pharaoh says to Joseph, “I have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it; and I have heard say of thee, that thou canst understand a dream to interpret it.” Joseph’s reply is bold and humble. He says, “It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace.” What in the English here is five words, “It is not in me” is one forceful word in the Hebrew: NOT I. When you are gifted, that is humility. To point to God, not to yourself. Joseph was gripped and governed by the principle of I Corinthians 4:7: “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” Oh that we would remember that for ourselves and give God the glory.
Notice too how bold Joseph is. Standing before Pharaoh, who claimed he was god, Joseph repeatedly refers to Jehovah as God. God shall give Pharaoh an answer (v. 16). God hath showed Pharaoh what He is about to do (v. 25). What God is about to do He sheweth unto Pharaoh (v. 28). The thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass (v. 32). How much does God enter into our conversation, especially when we are talking to unbelievers? Joseph is bold to proclaim that God sent the dreams to Pharaoh, and God was declaring through them His sovereignty over Pharaoh.
Joseph is bold before Pharaoh, but at the same time he is not deliberately offensive. Instead, he is deeply respectful, very carefully referring to Pharaoh in the third person, recognizing his position as ruler and leader. And then consider how flippantly we refer to rulers and leaders today. Joseph does not make fun of Pharaoh’s fears, he does not sit down and draw a comic of Pharaoh and his confused wise men, but respectfully he stands before Pharaoh.
And he listens. Joseph does not talk about himself, nor is he simply quiet, but he is interested in and sympathetic towards Pharaoh. From verses 17-24, he listens to Pharaoh. Joseph is going to give counsel, but being a good counselor starts with being a good listener.
Pharaoh shares his dreams with Joseph. Two dreams. In one, he stood on the riverbank and there were seven fat-fleshed, well-favored, that is, plump and attractive, cows that came up out of the river and grazed in a meadow. In the other, there were seven ears of corn that came up on one stalk, full and good. After the seven fat cows came seven mangy, ill favored, skinny, ugly cows. And after the seven good ears, seven that were withered and thin and diseased. Now this is obviously an agricultural scene. Cows and grain. Any farmer knows the difference between good looking cattle and corn, and thin cows and a poor crop. Pharaoh could tell the difference. He tells Joseph that the cows were thinner and uglier than any he had ever seen in Egypt. Cows were important to Egypt—in contrast to sheep, they were considered a sacred animal. And grain crops were a large part of their economy. Later, Egypt became the breadbasket of the Roman empire, and grain ships went from Egypt all over the Mediterranean. The cattle and grain represent the agricultural life-blood of Egypt.
And, Pharaoh tells Joseph, the skinny cows and the withered ears, ate up the fat cows and the good ears, and they remained skinny cows and withered ears. You know that what happens in dreams is often outside of the realm of reality, but, obviously, to Pharaoh, this meant something and it troubled him. More troubling was the fact that none of his magicians could tell him what they meant.
Joseph gives Pharaoh the meaning. In five simple points, he tells Pharaoh:
1) The dreams are one in their meaning.
2) The two sets of seven fat cows and good ears refer to seven prosperous years in Egypt.
3) The two sets of thin cows and withered ears refer to seven years of famine that will follow the seven years of prosperity, a famine so severe that the years of prosperity will be forgotten and unimaginable.
4) The fact that there were two dreams is a confirmation from God that this will certainly take place.
5) God is going to do this very soon.
What is surprising here is not the meaning of the dreams. The meaning is quite obvious and parallels exactly the dreams. What is surprising, however, is the forthrightness of Joseph in attributing these dreams and their outcome to God, and then giving Pharaoh unsolicited advice that he receives quite well. Joseph is saying to Pharaoh, God has decreed and planned that this is what will happen in Egypt, and, Pharaoh, you need to recognize it and take action. This information from God should not be ignored.
And Joseph comes up with a plan. You might call it a bold four-point business plan.
1) Pharaoh should appoint a wise leader over the land to head up a famine preparedness and relief agency.
2) Pharaoh should appoint officers all through the land to collect during the seven years of prosperity.
3) Joseph proposes a 20% tax on all the people during the years of prosperity, not a dollar and cents tax, but 20% of all the food they produce must be taken and stored.
4) Joseph proposes building large store houses in each of the cities, to store up the grain and food, in preparation for the years of famine.
This was a very bold plan. Was Joseph suggesting that Pharaoh appoint him as leader? Probably not, that would be rather presumptuous. But suggesting a 20% tax increase was very bold. Those kinds of tax increases do not make for popular leaders, but Joseph has the foresight and courage to suggest it. And he calls for action. In every aspect of his plan, based on his knowledge of what God was about to do, he calls Egypt to action. Knowing God’s purpose, and that God has a purpose, does not produce passive resignation. Rather, Joseph sees that we must actively use the means and opportunities God provides. God’s plan for the future summons us to action in the present.
Central to Joseph’s bold plan was sound leadership, finding a man who could wisely administer the collection and then distribution of the food. And the Joseph who said, NOT I, was the man Pharaoh selected. God is at work here. For 100 years unbelievers taunted Noah and told him that there is no sign of a flood, it will never rain. Pharaoh’s response could have been the same, but it was not. With no sign of a famine, with bumper crops for seven years straight, who would have thought that there would be a famine. But Joseph believed it, and Pharaoh and his servants agreed, and so Joseph was selected to be this leader. With Potiphar and the prison guard, Pharaoh recognized that the Spirit of God was with Joseph in his interpretation and suggestion. Who would dare to stand against God? “Forasmuch as God hath showed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art. Thou shalt be over my house, and according to thy word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than thou.”
That morning Joseph had sat in the dark dungeon. Now he was ruler in Egypt, and the future of Egypt was entrusted to him.
In conclusion, let us recap three features in Joseph’s character here, all of which show that he has a big view of God, as the sovereign over all things.
First, notice his humility with regard to himself. In all the years that Joseph spends in Egypt’s Oval Office, it never got to him. He knew who he was and he knew who God was. He knew that there was no power in him, but of God, and he knew that the future lay in God’s hands, not his own. It is not in me, was his motto.
Second, notice his boldness in witness. God, God, God, all the way through, and that to Pharaoh, who claimed that he himself was god. What an unlikely man to lead alongside Pharaoh! And Joseph does not hide his faith, or wane in his commitment to the Lord in his prosperity. As the story continues, Joseph’s faith remains strong. It is very rare to have a ruler so godly. What blessed years those must have been for the Egyptians.
Then third, we see here Joseph’s confidence in God. His trust—that God is working by His providence in this history. In this chapter he confesses that with regard to fruitful and barren years. God, he says to Pharaoh, will send the prosperity and will send the famine. God will do this. The same God who brought him into slavery, the same God who exalted him in Potiphar’s house, the same God who brought him to prison, the same God who exalted him now to be ruler in Egypt, the same God who sent pairs of dreams to me, to the butler and baker, and to Pharaoh—that God will send prosperity and then famine. Joseph trusts the God of sovereign providence, and, even though he cannot yet see God’s purposes, he is confident that everything that God is doing in his life will turn to his advantage and salvation, and will be used by God, ultimately, for the salvation of His people and the glory of His own name. Joseph on the throne will mean food in Egypt, which will mean Jacob and his family will survive, which is the preservation of the promised line of the Messiah in whom is our salvation. God works, in famine, to save His people.
Do you believe that? Do you trust in the sovereign power of God? Do you know that God is working in your circumstances now, good or bad, for your salvation as one of His children? Do you respond, in a prison, or in a palace, by giving this God all glory?
Let us pray.
Father, Thou art worthy. We thank and praise Thee for Thy sovereign decree of providence, and Thy constant care and love in every aspect of our lives. Lord, give us contentment and patience in adversity, and give us humble and thankful hearts in prosperity. We ask it for Jesus’ sake, Amen.