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Pharaoh's Dream

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Apr 9, 2000

Genesis 41:1-37

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Genesis 41:1-37

Pharaoh's Dream

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis, chapter 41. We have been walking through the progress of God's providence in the life of Joseph. And ever since the end of chapter 37 we have seen Joseph in an almost unchecked free-fall down into the pit into the miry clay where standing there is none, the Psalmist said. Joseph continues to fall from a difficult family situation where he was the favorite of his father, having lost his mother at a very young age, estranged from his brothers. His brothers plotted against him to kill him. They eventually settled on selling him into slavery. They did that efficiently and effectively. He winds up in Egypt. He seems to have a small turn in fortune as he goes into the household of a chief official of Pharaoh and performs well and is honored by his master. And then his master's wife has eyes for him and designs on him. And even while he, very scrupulously protects his own honor, he finds himself falsely accused of making unwanted sexual advances on his master's wife and winds up in a royal dungeon, a royal prison in Egypt, forgotten seemingly, with no hope of parole. The only check it seems on the bad fortune that he is experiencing is at least somehow God appointed that he would not be on death row awaiting execution. Somehow he languishes in this prison without apparently being prepared for the death squad.

In the meantime he is serving two Egyptian officials who themselves have been thrown into the royal dungeon because of their own crimes. They report to him dreams that they have had, and since there are no Egyptian magicians available to them in the dungeon to interpret their dreams to them in the style of the Egyptians. The Egyptian magicians, the court magicians perform two functions. They did do magical spells and incantations that were designed to help both the living, and the dead on the other side of death, thwart the Gods of death and such. But they also performed the function of interpreting dreams.

And we made an interesting observation that in the history of Israel only two Israelites are said to have interpreted dreams. Both of them served rulers in foreign courts. Joseph was one. Daniel was the other. And so God in His grace and in His mercy and His concern for Joseph and for His own glory, gives Joseph the power to interpret these dreams. And he hopes that when the cupbearer of the Pharaoh of Egypt goes back to the court that he’ll remember him to Pharaoh. But we're told in the very first words of the verses we're going to read tonight, he forgot him. And two years more passed, and surely if you look back at the final stanza of the hymn we have just sung, 670, surely Joseph is questioning this truth. God never yet forsook at need the soul that trusted him indeed. And right in that moment having been forgotten as it were by all mankind for two years. Joseph was going to learn the truth that we sang in verse 4. “All are alike before the highest. It is easy to our God, we know, to raise thee up though low thou liest and to make the rich man poor and low.” And so the hand of God's providence is going to be seen. For in the passage we read tonight for the first time we're going to see the prospering providence of God begin to break forth on the life of Joseph. And in a strategic way which brings glory to God which humbles the nations before Him, and which begins to show to Joseph why some of the things that have been happening to him have been happening to him in the course of the plan of God. So let's hear God's holy word beginning in Genesis 41, verse 1: This is God's word:

Genesis 41:1-37

Our Father, as we contemplate Your providence tonight, we pray that You would speak truth for us and that by the Spirit You would make us willing hearers, discerning and wise to trust in You in the goodness of Your providence and to walk as we ought. We ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen.

Notice the motion of the change of God's providence in the five successive sections of this passage. In the first eight verses we see Pharaoh stumped. No mention of Joseph, but we're already suspicious of how he might play a role in this particular instance, having just seen him play a role in the chapter immediately prior. Then in verses 9 through 14 Joseph for the first time is remembered. Having been forgotten for two years by the cupbearer and for the time before at least a year by his master, languishing in prison for some three years now, suddenly Joseph is remembered. And the plan of God begins to turn in his particular instance. Then in verses 15 through 24 you have Joseph, the prisoner, the convict, the criminal standing before the ruler of Egypt, the lord of Egypt, who is pouring his heart out to him because he is perplexed. Then in the following verses, verses 25 through 28 you have Joseph serving a prophetic role, explaining to the lord of Egypt exactly what God is going to do. And then finally in verses 29 through 37 we see Joseph's wisdom and discernment apparent but from convict and criminal imprisoned in the royal dungeon, suddenly he has taken to himself the position as advisor to the Pharaoh of Egypt. And he does it with utterly no self-consciousness. He speaks to Pharaoh as if he had been advising him since the first day of his rule. And so we see God's plan in Joseph's life take a tremendous shift in Genesis 41. Let's walk through this passage together and let's look at the first eight verses to begin with.

I. The God of Joseph knows and reveals the future.

Here, Moses is really painting for you what Moses thinks is an amusing picture. The picture of the ruler of Egypt absolutely stumped as to the meaning of two dreams, and as to the future. Now why is that amusing to Moses? Because at least the pharaohs of Moses’ day were considered to be gods, and they were worshiped by their people. And Moses is amused for at least two reasons. Moses is amused by the concept of a god who doesn't know the future. And he is amused by the concept of a god who needs a magician to tell him what that future is. And he is amused by the fact that the magicians themselves aren't able to interpret the dream. And so Moses is putting before you a picture of the god of Egypt, Pharaoh, stumped. He hasn't a clue what is going to happen in his own land, the land over which he reigns. And so he's showing us a picture of the weakness of the gods of this age and of this world, and he's preparing us to contrast Pharaoh with Himself, the God of Joseph, who knows and reveals the future.

The key verse you see is in verse 8. "Now in the morning, his spirit was troubled." By the way, do you hear the story of Daniel and Darius echoed in this particular story? His spirit was troubled and so he sent and called for the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men and Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh. And so just as there was no one in the dungeon who could explain the dream to the cupbearer and the chief baker, so there was no one in all the court of the magicians who was able to explain these dreams to Pharaoh. And so the god of Egypt is shown to be impotent in even understanding the providence of God. What is God doing? He's hinting to you already that one of his purposes in the life of Joseph is to bring glory to His own name, and He's going to do it through His servant, Joseph. But He's going to do it by humbling the crowd, even as He exalts the humble.

II. God's providential plan for Joseph makes sense.

And then if you look at verses 9 through 14 we see the story of the chief cupbearer. In the midst of this crisis everyone is running to and fro in the court. Nobody has an answer for Pharaoh and the chief cupbearer raises his hand, and he says, let me bring up something to Pharaoh that I would rather not bring up in your court right now. You may not remember, but a couple of years ago I was in prison. And I was in prison because a number of your servants had displeased you, and we were all thrown into prison; and I was thrown into this particular royal dungeon because, of course, of my exalted position. And while I was in that royal dungeon, I, myself, had a dream, along with the chief baker, and there was this Hebrew young man there, and he was able to interpret the dream, even though there were no magicians from your court there to whom we could go. Perhaps since your magicians can't interpret this perhaps that man is still in the dungeon which is controlled by the captain of your bodyguard. Perhaps we could we could bring him out and maybe he can help us here. Because it was amazing. He was able to interpret each of our dreams and everything that he said came true. In fact, you freed me, but you lifted the head off of the chief baker. And he told us that three days before then. And so Pharaoh wastes no time.

And again, the key verse here is verse 12. There was a Hebrew youth with us there. A servant of the captain of the bodyguard, and we related these dreams to him and he interpreted our dreams to us. And finally Joseph is remembered, and in this section God's providential plan for Joseph is beginning to make sense. We wondered why God might not have brought relief to Joseph after his favorable interpretation of the dream of the cupbearer. Perhaps we were hoping or expecting the cupbearer would go back to the court of the Pharaoh and argue on behalf of Joseph and get him out of the prison. But now we're beginning to see that God had appointed Joseph for such a time as this. And so God's providential plan is beginning to unfold.

III. The God of Joseph is the revealer of the future.

And then in verses 15 through 24 Joseph is brought before Pharaoh. Let me just mention in passing, there are a number of things in this passage that bear the marks of a writer who understands Egyptian culture. For instance, look at verse 2. “From the Nile there came up seven cows, sleek and fat and they grazed in the marsh grass.” Egyptian cows like to graze almost submerged in the Nile in order to protect themselves from the flies and the insects and the heat. And so they have to come up out of the Nile to graze in the marsh grass. And so this is just one example of many cultural phenomena that the author of this passage understands. It fits somebody who knows a little bit about Egypt, maybe somebody who had spent forty years or so there. And there's another thing in this passage right here. Look at verse 14. The pharaoh sent and called for Joseph and they hurriedly brought him out of the dungeon and when he had shaved himself — now if you’re writing a narrative about the providence of God, would you remember to insert that the guy shaved before he went to see Pharaoh? Probably not, because the reason is you don't know that whereas the Semites in Canaan tended to wear beards, Egyptians did not. They liked clean-shaven men, sometimes even having the men shave their heads. And so Moses, knowing this practice of the Egyptians, pauses to say and by the way he shaved before he went in to see Pharaoh. So as to show proper court decorum and edit it. At any rate, after this happens, we see in verse 15 through 24 Pharaoh relating his dream to Joseph. And here in this section we see God display the God of Joseph as the revealer of the future.

And there are several key verses here. Look at verse 15 and then look at the end to verse 24 and then compare them to verse 16. First of all verse 15: “Pharaoh says to Joseph, ‘I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. And I have it heard it said about you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’ And then look all the way at the end. Verse 24: ‘Then I told the magicians there was no one who could explain it to me, so here you have the god of Egypt standing before a condemned Hebrew slave, a convict, a criminal, saying, ‘I'm totally nonplused by this dream and none of my magicians can help me. Can you help me?’ And here's the answer that comes out of the mouth of this criminal. Joseph, answers Pharaoh, verse 16, and says, ‘It is not me. God will give a favorable answer.’ God, Pharaoh, is the revealer of the future. Not your magicians, not me, not the books of dreams. God is the revealer of the future. Joseph is, for the second time in two chapters, about to put on the mantle of a prophet, and he is going to reveal the future, not because he has some innate power to know the interpretations of dreams, but because God Himself reveals it to him, that he might reveal it to the Pharaoh, that he might show that He is the God who holds and knows the future. And so we see God laying the groundwork for His own exaltation, even in the midst of the land of Egypt.

IV. The God of Joseph is not only the revealer of the future, He ordains it.

And then we go on to look in verses 25 through 28. Pharaoh has recorded and shared with Joseph the two disturbing dreams which he has had, and now Joseph responds in verses 25 through 28. Joseph interprets and explains the dreams to Pharaoh. But 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, but He knows what is going to happen because He has ordained what is going to happen. And so we see the god of Egypt getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and smaller. And 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, because He has ordained the future.

And look especially at verses 25 and 28 where Joseph stresses this. First of all, after hearing the dreams Joseph immediately says, “The dreams are one.” They refer to the same thing. The dreams are repeated for a specific reason, but they refer to the same set of events. And then he immediately says at the end of verse 25, “God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do.” So even Egypt is in the hand of the God of Joseph. Unless Pharaoh missed the point, preacher Joseph is going to say it at least one more time. Look down at verse 28. “Pharaoh's dreams are one in the same.” God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do. And it is as I have spoken to Pharaoh, God has shown to Pharaoh what He is about to do. And so Joseph prepares Pharaoh to understand that it is God's providence that rules the world.

Now isn't it interesting that Joseph has had every bad turn of providence that he could have possibly experienced in the last several years. And now he has the opportunity to teach Pharaoh, king of Egypt, about the providence of God. Now he's going to give him a lesson in the truth that God doesn't just know the future or reveal, He controls the future. And He does it without turning from the right to the left. It's absolutely straightforward as he reveals God as the ordainer of the future.

V. God and His prophet come to the rescue of Egypt's god.

And then finally in verses 29 to the end of our section in verse 37 we see God and His prophet through discernment and wisdom coming to the rescue of Egypt's god. Pharaoh, the god, humbled before the vision is now being given advice by the imprisoned Hebrew slave. And we see here not just Joseph's wisdom and discernment, we also see here God's sovereignty.

And the key verses here are in verses 32 and 33. Now as for repeating the dream to Pharaoh twice, it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about. Now let Pharaoh look for a man discerning and wise and set him over the land of Egypt. God is sovereign, Joseph explains, and this is what God is going to do. There are going to be seven years of plenty, and there are going to be seven years of famine. And, therefore, we need to get to work.

And I want you to pause and think about that for a moment. Do you see again the conjunction of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility? This is what God is going to do. This is what you need to do in response. And that is a pattern which holds throughout the Old Testament. God's revelation doesn't lead us to say, Okay, if You’re going to do that, then I will go sit back and watch while you do it. God's revelation, everywhere in Scripture, always requires a response. If God reveals that He is bringing judgment, what is our response to be? Repentance. If He is bringing us a revelation of warning like this one, what is our response to be? Responsible activity in accordance with what He has revealed. And so Joseph gives a plan for the king of Egypt to follow, because everybody's business is nobody's business. And so the king of Egypt, if he's going to get anything done about this situation, better appoint people who are actually going to carry out a plan for the years of plenty in order that they will be ready for the years of leanness. And I think that Joseph is totally unselfconscious when he says, now look, you need to find a man of wisdom and discernment.

Think again, you remember how we said that one of the amazing things about Joseph was 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 is angling for a job. I don't think it has even crossed his mind. I think he's totally oblivious to the fact because right now he has immediately sprung into his instinctive Hebrew response to this sovereign revelation of God, and he's saying, God has shown us what He is going to do. Now we've got to get busy. And here's what you need to do. This, this, this, this. And immediately we are seeing these innate talents that God has granted to Joseph displayed. And it doesn't occur to him to he's the man. But in the next movement, in the next section that we study, we’ll see him appointed just for that purpose.

But meanwhile, the major message we learn here is that God's revelation always requires a response. And let me just give you one example of that. Turn with me to Jeremiah 18. In Jeremiah 18 the prophet explains somewhat of the relationship between God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. This is, by the way, the passage from which Paul draws one of his significant ideas in the great passage in Romans 9 through 11. Begin in verse 1. “The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord saying, ‘Arise and go down to the potter's house, and there I shall announce My words to you.’ Then I went down to the potter's house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make. Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?’ declares the Lord. ‘Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so you are in My hand, O house of Israel.’” Now that is a statement of absolute sovereignty. Israel, you are like the clay in the potter's hand to me. I can do as I please. I am absolutely sovereign. Does that leave then Israel in the position of doing nothing in response to that revelation. Absolutely not. Look what Jeremiah says in the following verses. Verses 7 through 10. “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it, if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it, if it does evil in My sight by not obeying my voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it.” And so Jeremiah sets down this particular principle of responding to the revelations of God through His prophets. When He promises blessing, if we take the occasion of that promise of blessing to turn our backs upon Him, to disobey Him, to disregard Him and to not be thankful for the things that He has promised, then He promises us that He will come in judgment.

On the other hand, if He comes to us and He gives us a word of judgment when our response to that word of judgment is repentance, He says here is the principle on which I operate. You repent, I forgive. So the response to God's sovereign revelation is always for us to take the appropriate activity. If He has promised us blessing, then our response must be gratitude. If He has given us warning and judgment, then our response must be repentance. God is sovereign. Man is responsible. Both are equally true. They’re not half true and half true, they’re both fully true. And so Jeremiah simply lays out for us in Jeremiah 18 a principle that we see all the way back here in Genesis 41. When God reveals Himself, Joseph instinctively kicks in to responsible activity based upon God's sovereign revelation.

And so we see Joseph begin to move out of the stage of humiliation that took him down and down and down. And then begin to move up now the hill of exultation. Isn't it interesting that it begins with prophecy. And it begins with him at his lowest point speaking to the greatest leader in Egypt. And the first is last. And the last is first. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, there are so many in this place tonight who can testify to Your surprising providence. How in the moments of their greatest despair You came to their rescue, and You lifted up Your countenance upon them, and You lifted their heads up, and You placed their feet on solid places. We pray, O Lord, that we would learn the lesson of trust in Your providence. We pray, O God, that we would learn the lesson that you are the revealer of the future, that you know the future because you've ordained the future. We pray, O God, that while Your providence doesn't make sense in our experience, we would remember the lesson of Joseph that Your providence always makes sense, whether we understand it or not. We ask these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.