5. Patience Is A Virtue (Gen. 41:1-36)Related Media
Genesis chapter 40 ends with: “Yet the chief butler did not did not remember Joseph but forgot him” (Gen. 40:23). These are tragic words in a sense. To be forgotten by someone (for whom you have done a big favor and from whom you have asked only a little favor in return, only to be ignored), is very hurtful, especially when you add the whole episode of the false accusation and unjust imprisonment. It was bad enough that Joseph was mistreated, falsely accused, and unfairly imprisoned, but now it is all compounded by being forgotten.
The subject in this study is: “Trusting God when everything looks bleak.” The lesson in this passage is that “we can’t always rely on other people, but we can always rely on God.” While we would all agree with that premise, I think the challenge for us is waiting for God to act – waiting for his time and his ways. Or, to put it another way, the challenge for us is patience! Time can often seem so long under Joseph-type circumstances. Each day for the next 2 years must have seemed like eternity to him – it always does when you’re waiting for something.
Patience involves two things: (1) Trusting God, that he truly knows and cares about your situation; and (2) Waiting on God until he remedies the situation or shows you what course of action to take.
The last sentence of Genesis 40 conveys the pathos of Joseph’s situation – the absolute abandonment by any human advocates or friends; his complete aloneness and helplessness. But then chapter 41 opens with: “Then it came to pass, at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh had a dream” (41:1). Well, what a surprise after 2 full years! I think the storyteller wants us to hear the word “full” – 2 full years – for undoubtedly they were 2 full years for Joseph.
But now, after what must have seemed like an interminably long period of time, God is on the move. After Joseph had correctly interpreted the chief butler’s dream and after the chief butler was reinstated to his former position, surely, Joseph must have concluded that this was the answer to his prayers, that soon he would be vindicated and released. But it didn’t happen. What a surprise and disappointment that must have been.
We have to be so careful in interpreting circumstances, don’t we? We can be so wrong so easily. We can so easily connect the dots that God hasn’t connected. What looks to us like a slam dunk, a no brainer, so often turns out to be not so. And when that happens, we start to either question ourselves or God.
Two years is awfully long in anyone’s counting, especially in prison; especially when you’re there because of injustice and false accusations; and especially when you know you’re innocent and there is one person on the outside, who knows you’re innocent and on whom you are fully dependent to say a word for you to the right person at the right time. Talk about helplessness!
Isn’t it true, that God often works that way. He renders us completely incapable of helping ourselves - nothing we can do about it except wait and pray. From my own experiences with fluctuations in employment, I learned two things. First, waiting for any extended period of time seemed like forever. Second, the solution had nothing to do with me and everything to do with God. Even though one time the opportunity God provided seemed like it would never work, I knew it was from God!
So, first what a surprise after 2 full years. And second, what a surprise that the change of events involved another dream – this time, Pharaoh’s dream. The narrator simply says, “then after 2 full years, Pharaoh had a dream.” And we, as readers, say, “Aha! Here we go! God is on the move! Dreams are coming true again.”
Isn’t it ironic, that Joseph is enabled by God to foretell other people’s future through their dreams, but he doesn’t know his own future! So, what motivated Joseph to keep going when outwardly it looked like all was lost, hopeless, and helpless? It must have been his trust in God. This remarkable man, whose character is being beautifully portrayed in this account, had unfailing trust in God to deliver him, despite the circumstances, despite being “stolen away from the land of the Hebrews” (40:15) – being kidnapped by his brothers and sold as a slave - despite being wrongfully accused of rape, despite being unjustly condemned to prison, despite being “forgotten” by Pharaoh’s butler.
We may well ask: What kept him going? I think Joseph knew the reality of his youthful dreams. He knew they were a revelation from God that one day he would rule and others would bow down to him. And he trusted God that somehow he would bring this about.
Isn’t it true, that we need something to cling to, especially in difficult times? I remember at the beginning of my current ministry, telling someone about how God had clearly led me step by step into it. And that person replied, “Don’t ever forget how God has led you because there will come times when you need to cling onto that memory, that certainty.” That has turned out to be so true. And that applies to any trials and tests we face. We need to always go back to the solid foundation, the experiences with God that have brought us to this point. For Jacob it was Bethel where he met God in a vivid dream: “Surely the Lord is in this place... This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:16-17). For Joshua it was Gilgal (Josh. 4:19-20). For Moses it was probably Sinai. We need to be rooted not only in the word of God but also in the works of God in our lives, so that we can go back there when things get tough. The Israelites were constantly reminded of what God had done – his mighty acts in creation and redemption – that’s what kept them going. And we need to be reminded that the God who delivered them can and does deliver us.
Remember this principle…
I. Just When Things Look Hopeless, God Steps In (41:1-13)
Now comes Joseph’s big break. God continues to work in Joseph’s life through dreams. That’s how this story began – by Joseph sharing with his brothers his dream of greatness. Joseph knew this wasn’t a pipe dream but a revelation from God. No wonder he was absolutely confident that he could interpret the butler’s and baker’s dreams. And now comes Joseph’s big break…
1. Pharaoh’s Two Dreams (41:1-8).
In his first dream, Pharaoh was standing by the river (41:1-4). In this dream, he saw seven well fed, fat cows coming up out of a river followed by seven hungry, thin cows. And the seven thin, hungry cows ate the seven fat, well fed cows. At the end of the dream, he woke up (as you sometimes do after a vivid dream), but promptly went back to sleep again.
In his second dream, Pharaoh sees heads of grain (41:5-8). He sees seven heads of plump, healthy grain on one stalk followed by seven thin, shriveled-up heads of grain. And the seven thin heads ate the seven plump heads. Again, at the end of the dream, Pharaoh woke up and in the morning, “his spirit was troubled” (41:8a). He couldn’t fail to see the repeated patterns in each dream:
a) Two sets of seven in each dream. The first set of seven painted a picture of prosperity while the second set of seven indicated poverty.
b) The second set in each dream devoured the first. Prosperity was eaten up by the poverty. Whatever gains were made by the first set of seven were taken away by the second set.
c) Both dreams were in an agricultural setting. First, came cows, then came grain. First came the herds, then came the crops. First came animals, then came plants.
When he saw the pattern in the two dreams Pharaoh rightly concluded that this spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E. There must be some deeper meaning here; this isn’t coincidence. So, “he sent for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. And Pharaoh told them his dreams but there was no one who could interpret them for Pharaoh” (41:8b).
So, the first step in Joseph’s big break was Pharaoh’s two dreams. The second was ...
2. The Butler’s Memory Returns (41:9-13).
Upon hearing the king’s dreams and the inability of the wise men to interpret them, all of a sudden the chief butler’s memory suddenly returned. “Then the chief butler spoke to Pharaoh, saying: ‘I remember my faults this day. When Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, both me and the chief baker, we each had a dream in one night, he and I. Each of us dreamed according to the interpretation of his own dream. Now there was a young Hebrew man with us there, a servant of the captain of the guard. And we told him, and he interpreted our dreams for us; to each man he interpreted according to his own dream. And it came to pass, just as he interpreted for us, so it happened. He restored me to my office, and he hanged him’” (41:9-13).
The chief butler seems to feel guilty, but about what? Was he feeling guilty for having forgotten Joseph? Or, was he feeling guilty for not having told Pharaoh earlier that Joseph could interpret his dreams and saved Pharaoh all his anxiety? Or, did his memory suddenly return because he saw a way to gain favor with Pharaoh? Whatever the reason, it seems strangely self-serving that he would forget about Joseph for two full years and then, suddenly, he says, “Oh, yes, there was this man in prison...”
In any event, the chief butler tells Pharaoh about his and the chief baker’s dreams in prison and how “a young Hebrew man with us there, a servant of the captain of the guard ... interpreted our dreams for us ... and it came to pass, just as he interpreted for us, so it happened” (41:10-13). And just what Joseph had hoped for two years earlier finally came to pass.
II. When God Steps In, He Acts Beyond Our Expectations (41:14-24).
The next step in Joseph’s big break is that…
1. Pharaoh Calls For Joseph.
Perhaps Joseph thought that he might be released and be reinstated to his position in Potiphar’s house or some similar position. But no, instead he is summoned by the Pharaoh himself, the head of state! On the one hand, this was probably beyond Joseph’s imagination that he would get such a break as this. But, on the other hand, is it? After all, he had dreamed of one day being the ruler and his family bowing down before him.
Well, now Joseph was in the right place at the right time, and he is just the right man that Pharaoh needed - someone who could interpret dreams with complete accuracy. So, Pharaoh sends for Joseph (41:14) and admits to him that no one else could interpret his dreams but that he had heard that, apparently, Joseph could (41:15).
Joseph could have seized this opportunity to take revenge against the chief butler. If he had, the conversation with Pharaoh might have gone something like this:
Pharaoh: “I have had two really curious and troubling dreams and no one among my wise men can interpret it for me, but I hear you can. Is that true, Joseph?”
Joseph: “Oh yes, sir. I can interpret dreams alright. In fact, I interpreted the dream of this good-for-nothing chief butler here, who promptly forgot all about me – even though my interpretation turned out in his favor exactly as I had predicted. What kind of person do you think he is? Is he really the kind of man you want to employ in such a security-sensitive position as chief butler? Is someone with such early onset of dementia the person you want in charge of your personal security? In fact, sir, when I get finished interpreting your dream, perhaps you would do me a favor.”
Pharaoh: “Of course. If you interpret my dream correctly, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.”
Joseph: “Well, perhaps you would execute this scoundrel and do yourself a favor as well as me”
Pharaoh: “Of course. It’s a deal.”
Of course, it doesn’t go like that because Joseph is a spiritual man and doesn’t take revenge against his enemies – he leaves all of that to God.
Or, perhaps Joseph could have used this opportunity to bring credit to himself. If he had, I imagine a conversation like this:
Pharaoh: “I have had two really curious and troubling dreams and no one among my wise men can interpret it for me, but I hear you can. Is that true, Joseph?”
Joseph: “Oh yes, sir. I can interpret dreams alright. In fact, that’s my main line of work - been doing it for years with incredible accuracy. Let me give you a couple of references, sir, if I may. Two years ago, two of your senior officers, the chief baker and chief butler, were thrown in prison by you, sir – for very good reasons I have no doubt. I had charge over them because the prison warden and the captain of your guard recognized my superior character and ability, without even knowing about my ability to interpret dreams I might add. Anyway, while they were under my supervision, they both had very vivid dreams. And they were as scared as kittens – no kidding, sir. I’ve never seen two men so terrified in all my life. And all because of a silly dream! Can you imagine? So, I said to them, ‘What’s up, men? You look like your best friend just died. And they told me they had each had a bad dream. They sounded like two little school boys. Anyway, I said, speak on, men. Tell me your dreams and I will interpret them for you.”
“The meaning of each dream was as obvious as the nose on your face. So, I told them, ‘Look, in three days, the chief baker is going to be executed and this scoundrel here, the chief butler, will be restored to his position in Pharaoh’s household.’ And that’s exactly what happened, as you know sir.”
But of course, that’s not what Joseph said because he is a godly man without any sense of self importance or the need for recognition from anyone other than God. Instead, Joseph replied to Pharaoh: “It is not me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (41:16). No wonder Joseph had been given such responsibility in Potiphar’s household and in the prison! Joseph portrayed the character of God in every way – in his ethics, behavior, attitude, relationships etc. He gave all the credit to God and none for himself and that’s the kind of person God honors. Pharaoh is as impressed with Joseph as Potiphar and the prison warden were, so he relates his dreams to Joseph (41:17-24).
2. Joseph’s Interpretation Of Pharaoh’s Dreams (41:25-32).
Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams is succinct and immediate. “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has shown Pharaoh what He is about to do (41:25). Both sets of dreams convey the same message, that Egypt will experience seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine (41:26-28). In fact, the famine will be so bad that no one will remember the good years of plenty (41:29-31). The reason why the dream was repeated twice is to emphasize to Pharaoh that “this thing is established by God and God will bring it to pass” (41:32). In other words, “Don’t make any mistake about it, Pharaoh, this will be an act of God and He is going to make it happen.”
But Joseph doesn’t stop with just the interpretation. He follows it up with a whole plan for Pharaoh, even though he hadn’t asked for it.
3. Joseph’s Fourteen-Year Plan For Pharaoh (41:33-36).
Joseph now seizes the opportunity to give Pharaoh some advice. What better time than now when he had Pharaoh’s undivided attention. Pharaoh needed a means to deal with what was coming and who better to give him advice than the man who has told him the future. Joseph’s proposal consists of two steps ...
The first step is to establish a leadership structure. Firstly, Pharaoh should appoint a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt (41:33) as the prime minister. Did Joseph know that he would be the man? The text doesn’t say so but I suspect that as soon as Joseph knew the interpretation of the dream, all the lights went on. I think that he intuitively knew that this was his God-given destiny. Undoubtedly, his youthful dreams of greatness that he had dreamed about all these years (wondering how and when it would happen) all of a sudden became a reality. But even if Joseph did know in his heart that he was the man for the job, he didn’t say so directly to Pharaoh. Perhaps by now he had matured and realized that a more subtle approach than he had previously used with his brothers years before would work better. Secondly, Pharaoh should appoint officers over the various parts of the land of Egypt, a management team under the prime minister.
So, the first step of Joseph’s proposal is to appoint a leadership structure…
The second step is an action plan. Under the supervision of the officers, one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty would be stored up in the cities for their future needs (41:34-35). This storage program would ensure that there would be a “reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which shall be in the land of Egypt” (41:36). It was simple and logical and Pharaoh knew it. This was a no-brainer proposal. And who better to be the prime minister than Joseph himself?
So, when things look hopeless, God steps in. And when God steps in, he acts beyond our expectations.
Well, to follow the career of this remarkable man you will need to read our subsequent studies in this series on Joseph, this remarkable O.T. character. In the meantime, what do we learn from this experience of Joseph’s about patience?
1. Waiting Is A Matter Of Trusting God.
It seems that so far in Joseph’s life, his trust in God increased as the waiting stretched from days to weeks to months to years. When he was younger, his confidence seemed to be in self, not God; it was all about him - for example: “My sheaf arose and stood upright and your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf” (37:7). “I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me (37:9).
But after he had been taken down a peg or two by being sold as a slave to Egypt, Joseph’s attitude seemed to change. The wording and the tone of the story changes. It’s not about me anymore, but God. It’s no longer, “Look how handsome I am. Look how great I am. Look at how pretty my coat is.” But now it’s, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). Now it’s, “The Lord was with Joseph ... and Joseph found favor in his sight” (Gen. 39:2-4). Now it’s, “It is not me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer”(Gen. 41:16). His life is now directed by his relationship with, and his honor of, God. God was in charge of his life. God was the one he serves. God is the one he trusts. He certainly has learned not to trust self or others, be it his own family, his boss (Potiphar), or senior government officials. The primary lessons we learn here is that “we can’t always rely on other people but we can always rely on God.”
And don’t we find that in our own lives? As we grow older we understand ourselves more. And as we understand ourselves more, we see our own inabilities and shortcomings. And as we see our own inabilities and shortcomings, our relationship with God and our trust in God deepens, so that we trust him more and ourselves and others less. This doesn’t lessen our own self-confidence but increases it as it changes from fleshly self-confidence to godly self-confidence. When Joseph entered Pharaoh’s presence, he didn’t exhibit the fleshly self-confidence of his youth, but godly self-confidence that with God’s enablement he could interpret Pharaoh’s dream. There was no doubt in his mind about it. That confidence comes from his relationship with and trust in God. That’s where true confidence comes from – our trust in God.
2. In Circumstances Beyond Our Control, We Learn How Strong And Faithful God Is.
God assured the apostle Paul that His (God’s) “strength is made perfect in (our) weakness.” And Paul’s response to that is: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Remember that the circumstances beyond our control, those (often) grievous and varied trials that come into our lives, are designed to test “the genuineness of your faith…though it is tested by fire” with the purpose that it “may be found to praise, honour, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6-7). Paul said, “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (i.e. “I have known hard times, difficult experiences, changing circumstances – sometimes good, sometime bad”), but in and through and because of those experiences, he says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:12-13). In other words, these circumstances and experiences that cause us pain are the very same circumstances and experiences that give us confidence in God.
The bottom line for the apostle Paul was this: “I have been crucified with Christ” – you can’t get much lower than that – but, he says, “it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20). In other words, the lowest place with Christ is the strongest place for faith.
3. As Our Faith Grows, So God Helps Us To Display It.
Note that the opportunities to display our faith are often not comfortable or nice. As Joseph’s faith in God and his godly character matured so his circumstances grew steadily worse. How much worse could it get? His brothers hated him. Then they threatened to kill him. Then they sold him to slave traders. Then he was bought by a strange man in a strange country that spoke a strange language. Then he was given work as a slave. Then things began to look up for a while as he was promoted, but all of a sudden the wheels fell off when he is cast into prison for something he had not done. Then things in prison looked up for a while when he is given some authority and respect. Things looked even brighter when he interpreted the chief butler’s dream correctly and the butler was restored to his former position of influence in high places. Then all hopes were dashed when days stretched into weeks and weeks stretched into months and months stretched into years with no change, no word from God, no word from the butler.
But during this time, Joseph’s godly character matured and his faith in God deepened. And during this time he had numerous opportunities to display his faith. Until the time came, when God said, “Now, you’re ready! Now I can do something with you and through you.”
4. When We Wait On God, He Often Opens Up Opportunities We Could Never Have Dreamed Of.
Joseph eventually went from the pits of prison to the pinnacle of power in one giant step. We could never orchestrate that kind of opportunity. What prisoner would be promoted from a jail cell directly to prime minister, from prison to power? This could only be of God and that surely strengthened Joseph’s faith even more.
Joseph might have said (as Moses did), “I’m not able to do this job. I’ve had no training. I don’t know the culture. I don’t know the language that well. I have no contacts. I’ve never built a management team in my life. When I told my brothers that one day I would be great, they laughed at me and hated me so much they wanted to kill me.” But he didn’t because he had absolute confidence in God, that this was of God.
5. Through Difficult Experiences We Develop In Maturity.
In this 13 years of Joseph’s life that we have studied so far, we have seen Joseph progress from a naive, proud, favorite son (but hated brother) to a wise, discerning, faithful, humble but confident servant of God. What a wonderful perspective Joseph had on life and his own life experiences! He evidently saw false accusations, injustice, hatred, and abandonment as the means by which he could grow as a godly person.
I think our own experiences develop our spiritual maturity as well, as we see God faithfully act on our behalf. In a book by Gene Getz, I read this quote from Corrie ten Boom’s book, “Tramp for the Lord”, where she describes her feelings the day she was miraculously released from a Nazi concentration camp. Some of her experience was similar to Joseph’s. She wrote..
“When you are dying – when you stand at the gate of eternity – you see things from a different perspective than when you think you may live for a long time. I had been standing at that gate for many months, living in Barracks 28 in the shadow of the crematorium. Every time I saw the smoke pouring from the hideous smokestacks I knew it was the last remains of some poor woman who had been with me in Ravensbruck. Often I asked myself, ‘When will it be my time to be killed or die?’ But I was not afraid. Following Betsie’s death, God’s presence was even more real. Even though I was looking into the valley of the shadow of death, I was not afraid. It is here that Jesus comes closest, taking our hand and leading us through.
One week before the order came to kill all the women of my age, I was free. I still do not understand all the details of my release from Ravensbruck. All I know is, it was a miracle of God. I stood in the prison yard – waiting the final order. Beyond the walls with their strands of barbed wire stood the silent trees of the German forest, looking so much like the gray-green sets on the back of one of our theatre stagers in Holland.
Mimi, one of the fellow prisoners, came within whispering distance. ‘Tiny died this morning,’ she said without looking at me. ‘And Marie also.’ Tiny! ‘Oh, Lord, thank you for letting me point her to Jesus who has now ushered her safely into your presence.’ And Marie. I knew her well. She lived in my barracks and had attended my Bible talks. Like Tiny, Marie had also accepted Jesus as her Lord. I looked back at the long rows of barracks. ‘Lord, if it was only for Tiny and Marie – that they might come to know you before they died – then it was all worthwhile.’
A guard spoke harshly, telling Mimi to leave the yard. Then he said to me, ‘Face the gate. Do not turn around.’ The gate swung open and I glimpsed the lake front of the camp. I could smell freedom. ‘Follow me,’ a young girl in an officer’s uniform said to me. I walked slowly through the gate, never looking back. Behind me I heard the hinges squeak as the gate swung shut. I was free, and flooding through my mind were the words of Jesus to the church at Philadelphia: ‘Behold, I have set before you an open door, and no man can shut it ...’ (Rev. 3:8).”
May we wait for God to open doors and then follow where he leads with absolute confidence in God.