After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile…
We begin today with Joseph in prison. He has suffered a great injustice. His career in Potiphar’s house has been ruined.
Two years had passed: “After two whole years…” (Gen. 41:1), two years of being forgotten, passed over. Two years of Joseph’s life in which nothing significant, nothing worth recording happened. There were no great achievements, no remarkable answers to prayer, and no great movement forward in the purpose of God. It was two years of waiting, and that’s not easy, especially when you are in your late 20’s.
This is a reminder to us that there will be times in your life when you just don’t know what God is doing, times when you feel forgotten, times when you do not know your future, and times when, if someone asked you what God was doing in your life, you would have to say, “I really don’t know.”
When we read the story of Joseph, we can see how God was at work because we know the end of the story. But for Joseph in prison there so many unanswered questions, especially during these years:
If I had been in Joseph’s shoes, I would have been asking these questions, and I guess that you might have as well. And for years there was no answer. Then in chapter 41, in one day, everything changed!
Today we come to the turning point of the story, where we begin to see the wider purpose of God in the life of Joseph. I want to offer three cameos of the players in this story:
[Pharaoh’s] spirit was troubled. (Genesis 41:8)
The reason Pharaoh’s spirit was troubled was that one night Pharaoh had a dream. And in the dream, he saw seven fat cows, healthy animals feeding on the long grass beside the river Nile. It was a beautiful sight.
But then in this dream, Pharaoh saw seven scrawny and ugly cows. They were not normal cows. In fact, Pharaoh had never seen cows like these before (41:19). These ugly creatures came out of the Nile. It feels like the kind of scene where you would need the “Jaws” music to accompany these ugly, distorted, threatening beasts coming up out of the water.
The scrawny cows came and stood beside the healthy cows in the dream, and then they ate them! Everything beautiful and healthy was gone. It had all been swallowed up by what was distorted and ugly, so that only what was ugly and distorted remained.
Think about how often that can happen in the Arts, and how easily that can happen in relationships. Then Pharaoh woke up (41:4) and he began to wonder: “What was all that about?!” We read, “And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. So in the morning his spirit was troubled” (Gen. 41:7-8).
Try to put yourself in Pharaoh’s shoes: Think about the weight of responsibility that was on this man’s shoulders. People look to you for leadership. You are a public servant, and the good of thousands of people hangs on the wisdom of your decisions. You are only a man, but you have been thrust into this position. How do you carry that kind of responsibility?
Some of you feel the weight and burden of leadership that has been placed on you. You feel a responsibility for your children and for their future. You have a position in business, education, or in ministry, where the lives of others will be significantly affected by the decisions you make. You have to make the calls and there is a loneliness that often comes with that kind of responsibility.
Now Pharaoh is a leader of an entire nation, and he has these troubling dreams. He feels sure that there is some message in them, but he does not know what it is, and nobody in the palace can tell him.
He calls in the pundits, and for once they were silent: Pharaoh called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. He told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh (41:8).
That was unusual! John Calvin commented, “God must have shut their mouths!” The pundits always have something to say. They have some spin on every story, but here, nobody has anything to offer. This would have gotten Pharaoh really worried!
One thing we should take from this is a reminder to pray for those who carry the weight and burden of public life, those who serve the community as elected officials, the leaders on whose wisdom, the good of many people will depend.
This is a really important area where we need a distinct Christian witness, because we live in a culture that has become cynical about leaders. It is good to remember that God calls us to pray for our leaders who carry the burden on complex decisions (1 Tim. 2:1).
If like Pharaoh they do not know or worship the living God, we should pray for them all the more. Imagine carrying these kinds of burdens without knowing the living God.
Then we should pray that God will raise up wise and godly people to give leadership in all levels of public life. Pray for those in our congregation who serve in this way. Encourage them. Help them. Pray for others to join them.
The cupbearer sees the distress of the king. Nobody can interpret his dream. Then suddenly, after two years, the cupbearer remembers. He is embarrassed that he has not thought about this before. But now he blurts out his story to the troubled king, “I remember my offenses today” (Gen. 41:9).
“Pharaoh, there was a time when I was in the same position as you. It was two years ago, back when I was in the prison because of my offenses… I had a dream, and I had no idea what it meant. But there was a man there who told me, and what he said came true.”
“Well, where is he?”
“He’s in the prison.”
“Get him up here!”
So the troubled king sends for Joseph, and suddenly everything changes in Joseph’s life. He is called from the prison, and brought to the palace. He shaves, changes his clothes, and is ushered in to the presence of the king.
And just like Joseph, we shall be changed too. We shall go from the prison to the palace in the twinkling of an eye! We shall be transformed in the twinkling of an eye, in a moment.
The troubled king tells his dream to Joseph, and Joseph gives the interpretation: The two dreams have one meaning (41:25). The meaning of the thin cows eating the fat cows, (and the thin ears consuming the fat ears) is that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine.
Since this is going to happen, Joseph counsels Pharaoh to appoint someone who will implement a strategy of saving a fifth of the harvest during the years of plenty so that
there will an adequate supply of food during the years of famine.
“Let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt.”
“Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are.” (Genesis 41:39)
The keys words here are ‘discerning’ and ‘wise.’ What does it mean to be discerning and wise? What would it mean for us? Lots of things, but in this story it means two things:
In years of plenty, it is easy to become extravagant and wasteful. Joseph says, “We need to make sure that does not happen.” Don’t waste what you have been given. When God prospers you, it is easy to begin throwing it around.
Joseph discerns that this will mean putting a fifth of the harvest in store for seven years. He sets out a very specific plan as to where these savings are to be stored and how this stewardship is to be exercised. This is remarkable wisdom from a 30-year-old man!
George Lawson asks the question, “How does Joseph’s policy to store up food relate to the words of Jesus, when he says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19).
Lawson says, “[Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth] is not intended to prohibit us from providing in time of plenty for a time of scarcity as far as it can be done without neglecting the necessary duties of charity and piety according to our circumstances.”
Our first duty is to be faithful in our giving to God (piety) and generous in our giving to others (charity). After we have done that, then we should consider what we can do for the future. Saving is never the first thing for the Christian; it comes after piety and charity.
Always remember that there are two ways to dishonor God with your money. One is to spend what you should have given; the other is to save what you should have given. And for the more conservative person, saving holds the more subtle temptation, because if you are a saver, it is easy to feel righteous about what you are doing.
It is very striking that God is not spoken of a single time in the first 15 verses of this chapter.
The palace is wrought with anxiety: A troubled king is facing the relentless pressure of overwhelming responsibility and pundits are pouring over the mysteries of life and the disturbing prospects of the dream.
All these people! All this anxiety! Yet the name of God is not even spoken. Why? Because there isn’t anyone in the whole palace who knows God or who is walking with God. But then Joseph is called, and when he arrives, he speaks on behalf of God:
The name of God hasn’t even been mentioned in the royal court. Nobody knows him there.
Nobody there hears his Word. But then Joseph arrives and God is the subject of the first sentence he speaks.
So Pharaoh says to his servants, “Can we find a man like this in whom is the Spirit of God?” (Gen. 41:38). Now Pharaoh is speaking about God, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are” (Gen 41:39).
I don’t think Pharaoh knew about the indwelling Spirit or that he had a fully-developed doctrine of the Trinity, but he was thinking, “Here is a man who knows God! He knows what God has said, and he knows what God will do! This man knows the mind of God! He must be filled with the Spirit of God, because what he speaks to me is the Word of God!”
Joseph points us to Jesus, who when he comes into the world, says:
And therefore, Jesus says:
Jesus is the wise and wonderful counselor who comes to you in the mysteries of your life, when you are pressed down by the burdens of your responsibilities, and you don’t know where to turn or what to do, and he says, “Come to me.”
“You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command.” (Genesis 41:40)
You have the wisdom of God, so I am handing authority over to you, “See I have set you over all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 40:41).
Pharaoh wants all the people to know that authority has been given to Joseph, so he takes his signet ring, puts it on Joseph’s hand, and clothes him in garments of fine linen (41:42). He puts a golden chain round Joseph’s neck, a big change from the collar of iron (Psalm 105)! He has Joseph ride in a chariot, and has his servants call out before him, “Bow the knee!” (41:43).
You can’t read this as a Christian without thinking about Jesus the wise and faithful one who has been raised from the dead. He was exalted to the highest place that at his name every knee should bow (Phil. 2:9-11).
Jesus comes to us with the message of grace in a world of trouble, and when you see who he is, the wise response is to honor him and appoint him as Lord and Master over your life. To take up the words of Pharaoh, “Place him over your house, over your life. Bow the knee! Order your life at his command.”
Here again Joseph points us very wonderfully to Jesus. Joseph sets up these centers for gathering grain in every city. The location is important: Easy access for all the people
The seven years of plenty came and went, and then the time of famine arrived, “When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph. What he says to you, do” (Gen. 41:55).
The king doesn’t say, “Go to the storehouses.” He says, “Go to Joseph! He is the one who has what you need. He is the one who will open the doors of the storehouses. He is the one who will feed you.” You read that and hear the voice of Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, saying:
Go to Jesus to receive what you need. He has a storehouse of forgiveness, with enough to cover all your sins; a storehouse of strength, sufficient for you to stand and endure; a storehouse of wisdom, for all the perplexing decisions of life.
Christ is the one who opens the storehouses of grace! They are all his and when you come to him, he will make sure that you have all that you need.
We’ve spoken about the troubled leader, and the wise counsellor, but there’s one more character in the story:
There’s one more character in the story, the cupbearer, the man who forgot about Joseph.
But when the king was troubled, suddenly he remembered. I feel sorry for the cupbearer as he bumbles out his apology:
“I remember my offenses today” (41:9). “I’m so sorry, Pharaoh! I’ve been here for the last 2 years, and I haven’t said a single word about the about the man who is able to help you. He spoke the Word of God to me, but the truth is that since I’ve been in this job, I haven’t given him or his word a single thought. I know he can help you because he helped me.”
The forgetful servant was the one who had the great honor or introducing Joseph to the king. Joseph, the wise counsellor, lifted the burden that the troubled leader was carrying and brought the blessing of God, not only to Pharaoh, but also to people from many nations whose lives were saved because of the food they found in Egypt.
To all of us who know Jesus Christ, the Wonderful Counselor, the Son of God, the One in whom we have access to all the supplies of God’s grace, to us, who know him and are blessed by him, is given the great privilege of introducing others to him.
© Colin S. Smith
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