The most powerful man in the world is in crisis. That is the situation we are faced with in the Genesis 41 this morning. Forbes magazine publishes a list every year of the most powerful people in the world. The people on that list are who you’d probably expect—leaders of nations and leaders of the world’s largest corporations. But there is no one alive today who experiences power on the scale of the man we’ll be talking about today.
Pharaoh was the title of the king of Egypt, but he was much more than a king. To his people, he was both a ruler and a god. One ancient Egyptian writing called him: The Good God, beloved of gods, The Son of Re, who acts with his arms. He had absolute authority in Egypt—which was, at the time, the most powerful nation in history.
We’ve already seen him execute that authority in our study of Genesis 37-50. Last week he we saw he had the power to imprison, execute, and/or restore his servants at will.
So what happens when the god-man Pharaoh has a crisis that he can’t solve? Let’s read Genesis 41 together and find out.
41 At the end of two years Pharaoh had a dream: He was standing beside the Nile, 2 when seven healthy-looking, well-fed cows came up from the Nile and began to graze among the reeds. 3 After them, seven other cows, sickly and thin, came up from the Nile and stood beside those cows along the bank of the Nile. 4 The sickly, thin cows ate the healthy, well-fed cows. Then Pharaoh woke up. 5 He fell asleep and dreamed a second time: Seven heads of grain, plump and good, came up on one stalk. 6 After them, seven heads of grain, thin and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up. 7 The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven plump, full ones. Then Pharaoh woke up, and it was only a dream.
Two years have passed since the cupbearer was released from prison. This is the man whose dream Joseph rightly interpreted in the last chapter. He had promised to remember Joseph when Pharaoh restored him to his position of authority, but he failed to do so.
His first dream is of seven healthy looking cows, who come up from the nile, turn to Pharaoh and say “Eat more chicken.” No? Ok. So seven sickly cows devour seven healthy cows. The second dream is similar, dealing with heads of grain. But we need to note these were no ordinary dreams. They were so vivid that when verse 7 tells us ‘it was only a dream’ we’re led to believe they were so lifelike and graphic Pharaoh thought they were real.
These agricultural images would have been deeply unsettling for Pharaoh because not only was agriculture the lifeblood of his empire, but his people believed him to have power over nature itself.
These dreams are both very bad omens for Pharaoh and a telltale sign for us as readers of this text. It’s the third time we’ve seen a couplet of dreams. This time, Pharaoh’s dreams have implications not just for one family, or one nation, but ultimately all the nations of the earth. Let’s continue reading to see how that’s true.
8 When morning came, he was troubled, so he summoned all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but no one could interpret them for him.
9 Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “Today I remember my faults. 10 Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and he put me and the chief baker in the custody of the captain of the guards. 11 He and I had dreams on the same night; each dream had its own meaning. 12 Now a young Hebrew, a slave of the captain of the guards, was with us there. We told him our dreams, he interpreted our dreams for us, and each had its own interpretation. 13 It turned out just the way he interpreted them to us: I was restored to my position, and the other man was hanged.”
Moses doesn’t say—Pharaoh had these dreams, fell back asleep, and then was curious what they meant in the morning. No, Pharaoh was deeply troubled here. He was anxious. The picture is of a sleepless, disturbed night followed by a frantic assembly in the morning of all the magicians and dream interpreters of Egypt. Over 400 years later, another group of Egypt’s leading sorcerers would square off with Moses in Exodus 7. Here, like their counterparts a few generations down the road, they were unsuccessful in providing Pharaoh what he needed.
It’s when all their efforts have failed that the cupbearer pipes up. And it is in this short recollection that Joseph’s life is forever changed. Joseph had one simple request for this man in the last chapter—remember me. In verse 9 he says “Today I remember my faults.” Finally, now that it benefits him the cupbearer remembers Joseph. And we learn in verse 14:
14 Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and they quickly brought him from the dungeon. He shaved, changed his clothes, and went to Pharaoh.
15 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said about you that you can hear a dream and interpret it.”
16 “I am not able to,” Joseph answered Pharaoh. “It is God who will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
“Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph.” With those five words Joseph’s life would never be the same and God’s sovereign plan for Joseph’s life begins to really take shape. It had been 13 years since Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. God’s providence had taken Joseph on a 13-year roller coaster ride of a few emotional highs and some extreme and prolonged lows. He has endured physical, emotional, and probably even spiritual distress over this period but as soon as Pharaoh says ‘bring me this Hebrew slave’ his life is changed.
Joseph is taken into Pharaoh’s presence and Pharaoh asks if he can interpret his dream. This is where the main point of today’s text really comes to the forefront. 15 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said about you that you can hear a dream and interpret it.”
16 “I am not able to,” Joseph answered Pharaoh. “It is God who will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
Remember, Pharaoh is supposed to be the god-man. He’s supposed to know all. The Egyptians worshiped him. Yet, Joseph is clear. ‘It’s not me.’ It’s not me who interprets dreams. I’m not able to. It is the true God, the God of Jacob, the Israelites’ God who does that.
But Pharaoh is unfazed. He wants an answer so badly that he apparently ignores the fact that Joseph is subverting Egypt’s entire hierarchy of gods here. The most important thing we learn from this chapter is that God is sovereign over not just Joseph’s life, but over the circumstances of nations. God is in control in Egypt—even though they’re a pagan nation and a powerful one at that—God very much reigns over this land. Let’s read on:
17 So Pharaoh said to Joseph: “In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile, 18 when seven well-fed, healthy-looking cows came up from the Nile and grazed among the reeds. 19 After them, seven other cows—weak, very sickly, and thin—came up. I’ve never seen such sickly ones as these in all the land of Egypt. 20 Then the thin, sickly cows ate the first seven well-fed cows. 21 When they had devoured them, you could not tell that they had devoured them; their appearance was as bad as it had been before. Then I woke up. 22 In my dream I also saw seven heads of grain, full and good, coming up on one stalk. 23 After them, seven heads of grain—withered, thin, and scorched by the east wind—sprouted up. 24 The thin heads of grain swallowed the seven good ones. I told this to the magicians, but no one can tell me what it means.”
25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams mean the same thing. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26 The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good heads are seven years. The dreams mean the same thing. 27 The seven thin, sickly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven worthless, scorched heads of grain are seven years of famine.
28 “It is just as I told Pharaoh: God has shown Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29 Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt. 30 After them, seven years of famine will take place, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. The famine will devastate the land. 31 The abundance in the land will not be remembered because of the famine that follows it, for the famine will be very severe. 32 Since the dream was given twice to Pharaoh, it means that the matter has been determined by God, and he will carry it out soon.
33 “So now, let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh do this: Let him appoint overseers over the land and take a fifth of the harvest of the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. 35 Let them gather all the excess food during these good years that are coming. Under Pharaoh’s authority, store the grain in the cities, so they may preserve it as food. 36 The food will be a reserve for the land during the seven years of famine that will take place in the land of Egypt. Then the country will not be wiped out by the famine.”
Egypt’s entire religious system had failed to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, but Joseph is extremely specific about what God has revealed here and not only that but God also gives Joseph a solution. He tells Pharaoh there would be seven good years followed by a severe famine. To save Egypt, God gives Joseph a plan: save 20% of your food over seven years, spread it out over store cities so it will be accessible and you’ll have enough food to survive the famine.
It took extreme courage for Joseph do to what he did here. This was the most powerful man in the world. He didn’t have run his ideas by congress or any kind of court system, remember in the last chapter he had the baker executed on the spot. Joseph was giving him bad news, and he could have had Joseph killed in just the same way. But Joseph spoke God’s word to Pharaoh and he responded well. Let’s read on:
37 The proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants, 38 and he said to them, “Can we find anyone like this, a man who has God’s spirit in him?” 39 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one as discerning and wise as you are. 40 You will be over my house, and all my people will obey your commands. Only I, as king, will be greater than you.” 41 Pharaoh also said to Joseph, “See, I am placing you over all the land of Egypt.” 42 Pharaoh removed his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, clothed him with fine linen garments, and placed a gold chain around his neck. 43 He had Joseph ride in his second chariot, and servants called out before him, “Make way!” So he placed him over all the land of Egypt. 44 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh and no one will be able to raise his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt without your permission.” 45 Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah and gave him a wife, Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest at On. And Joseph went throughout the land of Egypt.
God exalts Joseph from from an imprisoned former slave to essentially the prime minister of the most powerful country in the world. Just like he was found faithful and promoted in the house of Potiphar, and then in prison, Joseph was exalted over the entire nation of Egypt. He became the second in command, with all the authority of Pharaoh himself. His initial task is to prepare the nation for the coming famine, and he does it well. Look at verse 46:
46 Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Joseph left Pharaoh’s presence and traveled throughout the land of Egypt.
47 During the seven years of abundance the land produced outstanding harvests. 48 Joseph gathered all the excess food in the land of Egypt during the seven years and put it in the cities. He put the food in every city from the fields around it. 49 So Joseph stored up grain in such abundance—like the sand of the sea—that he stopped measuring it because it was beyond measure.
50 Two sons were born to Joseph before the years of famine arrived. Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest at On, bore them to him. 51 Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh and said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and my whole family.” 52 And the second son he named Ephraim and said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
53 Then the seven years of abundance in the land of Egypt came to an end, 54 and the seven years of famine began, just as Joseph had said. There was famine in every land, but in the whole land of Egypt there was food. 55 When the whole land of Egypt was stricken with famine, the people cried out to Pharaoh for food. Pharaoh told all Egypt, “Go to Joseph and do whatever he tells you.” 56 Now the famine had spread across the whole region, so Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. 57 Every land came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, for the famine was severe in every land.
At thirty years old Joseph is paraded throughout Egypt as the new prime minister, the one who is going to lead the nation through a coming famine. He follows the plan laid out earlier and the nation is blessed greatly. Joseph, himself, is blessed greatly and we can see that—even in the midst of a still god-less people—Joseph hasn’t abandoned his faith in the one-true God. He was faithful in prison and he’s faithful in the palace. We see that in the names of his children. Manasseh, meaning God allowed him to forget the pain of his past, and Ephraim, God has made me fruitful. God has blessed Joseph in some incredible ways.
It took us a little while, but we’ve seen the story. Now let’s look at what it means. There are three things I think it is important for us to see here in the time we have remaining. First,
God Reigns Over Nations
Kent Hughes said it well: “(W)e are here confronted with the premise upon which all biblical history rests: Kings do not make history. Rather, God uses them to effect history.”
That is true all throughout the Bible. Look at what God says to Cyrus through the prophet Isaiah:
I call you by your name,
for the sake of my servant Jacob
and Israel my chosen one.
I give a name to you,
though you do not know me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other;
there is no God but me.
I will strengthen you,
though you do not know me,
6 so that all may know from the rising of the sun to its setting
that there is no one but me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I form light and create darkness,
I make success and create disaster;
I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Is. 45:4-7)
Cyrus did not believe in God. But God clearly says I’m going to use you for my purpose. There is no God but me. God reigned over nations when Joseph lived, he reigned over nations when Isaiah lived hundreds of years later, and he reigns over nations today.
We live in times that are uncertain to us, but there is nothing that has happened in the United States of America that has ever caught God by surprise. He is working through ruling authorities today, just as much as He was working when he appointed a former slave and prisoner and immigrant from another nation, to be the prime minister of Egypt to guide them through a famine.
We may not understand how God is working. We many not understand why God is working the way He is. But God reigns over the United States today and over the rest of the nations of the earth.
What does that mean for us? It should mean comfort. In a time where anxiety is perhaps higher than ever in regard to the national political climate we can find rest. In a time where the volume of the political climate has surely never been louder, we can rest at knowing that whether you like the current guy, the last guy, or the next guy or gal or whatever, God reigns over our country. When we don’t understand, it’s actually good. Why? Because it forces us to more fully rely on God’s sovereignty. John MacArthur wrote: There may be times when the authority figures over us seem inept or unjust or even openly wicked. Yet we must recognize their authority comes from God, and He has placed us under it for His purposes. There can be few situations more unjust than slavery, yet Joseph submitted— and God blessed his faithfulness.
God has a purpose for every ruler that is appointed. Kings don’t make history. God uses them to write His story. Next,
God Reigns Over False Beliefs
Egypt had an intricate system of gods and goddesses and each of them are proven to be impotent in this chapter. The assembly of Pharaoh’s magicians and wise men in verse 8 represented the sum of all the religious leadership in that pagan nation had to offer. And they could come up with nothing.
God provides one man. One man who says in verse 16 that “it’s not me, but my God who will give the answer.” There is only one source we can look to for the truth. We’ve been here for a while, I need to make sure you’re still with me. We call this the congregational participation portion of the morning message. I’m going to sing for you. Well, not sing really, but I’ll start a song lyric and you finish it for me. Ok? Jesus loves me, this I know . . . for the Bible tells me so.
We teach this to kids, but it seems as though the Church loses this truth more and more all the time. We have to turn to Scripture for our truth. The Egyptians couldn’t find the answers they were looking for in their pantheon of gods. Neither could the Greeks in Athens when Paul preached to them in Acts. And it can’t be found in your horoscope or in popular psychology or in even within yourself. We have to be rooted in the reality of Scripture because that’s the only reality that ultimately matters.
The reality of our lives according to Scripture is that God is holy and we are not. Because God is holy, He punishes evil. Our sin—our selfishness, our greed, our jealousy, etc.—has separated us from God and earned His wrath. But in his great love and mercy God became a man in Jesus Christ, lived perfectly, died on the cross and took the punishment that was deserved by all the people who will ever turn form their sins and trust in Him, rose again from the dead, and now calls us to repent of our sins. If we repent of our sins and place our trust in Jesus Christ we will be saved. That’s reality according to Scripture and that’s the only path to salvation. And if we are not living in light of that gospel everyday then we risk finding our comfort in something that is false.
I don’t believe anyone in here bows down to Ra, the Egyptian sun god every morning. But we do run the very real risk of substituting false ideology for the true gospel if we aren’t careful.
One of the ways this happens is when we don’t devote ourselves to Scripture well enough to know when we see false teaching. There are many teachers and authors who fall under the banner of Christianity who minimize the value of Scripture and if we don’t learn it for ourselves then we are at risk of veering off course.
One of the most well-known and often-quoted pastors in the country recently released a book in which he calls the Old Testament outdated and obsolete. He’s wrong and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Biblical Theology. But if we hadn’t examined the Old Testament and seen how God has written the gospel on every page of this story, we’d be tempted to believe.
If we don’t deepen our understanding of Scripture then we are extremely prone to damaging false beliefs. One that I have encountered a few time since I’ve been here is the line that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” That’s pretty. That may even be helpful under some circumstances. It’s just not biblical. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10 that we won’t be tempted beyond our ability and that God will provide a way of escape. That’s temptation, not general trials and circumstances. See what he wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:8 he writes this: We don’t want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of our affliction that took place in Asia. We were completely overwhelmed—beyond our strength—so that we even despaired of life itself.
Paul was afflicted beyond his strength. If we believe God won’t give us more than we can handle, then when He does so, what are we left thinking? Is something wrong with us? No. God will absolutely give us more than we can handle. Why? Paul tells us in the very next verse of 2 Corinthians 1:
9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.
We need to know that Christianity is not about our performance or our own ability to endure. Whatever ability to endure we have comes from God.
One of the other false beliefs we run the risk of falling into over the course of our Christian walk is that our salvation is somehow sustained by something that is in us. We acknowledge that salvation comes from God, but on this side of the moment of salvation we can begin to practically live in such a way that would lead us to believe that we’ve now got this all figured out.
Sure, I needed Jesus to get saved but now that I believe the gospel then my standing in God’s sight is based on how well I’m doing. Self-reliance is the antithesis of the gospel. Calling on Jesus for salvation is the ultimate admission that “I can’t”. And there never comes a point in the Christian life where “I can” becomes the new truth. But that beliefs is pervasive within Christianity today.
One of the best-selling books by any Christian publisher this year has this statement as its thesis: “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.”
That’s the opposite of the gospel! And Christians are buying it by the thousands. God shows us in Genesis 41 that His truth and His truth alone reigns over all the false wisdom of the Egyptian gods. His truth is the only truth. Finally, we need to see that:
God Always Keeps His Promises
We’ve used Romans 8:28 several times in this series. We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
We’re reminded of that verse as we see the end of chapter 41. After Joseph had executed his plan to prepare Egypt for the famine we see that Every land came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, for the famine was severe in every land.
We get to see here that the promise of Genesis 12:3 is already coming to fruition. God told Joseph’s great grandfather, Abraham,
all the peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. (12:3b)
This is the first time that tangibly starts to become true. But Joseph isn’t the ultimate fulfillment of this promise. As vital as food is during a famine, God’s promise meets an even greater need. The ultimate fulfillment of Genesis 12:3 came in the person of Jesus Christ. And it’s a promise that is still being fulfilled today. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 commands us to make disciples of all nations. The gospel for all the nations of the earth. That’s what God was promising Abraham in Genesis 12.
When we see God’s faithfulness moving on a nation-sized scale, it should bring us great assurance. The machinations of Egypt were no problem for God and neither are your present circumstances. We see God’s promises coming to fruition in Joseph’s life. He’ll do the same in ours. What has He promised? Two things quickly as we close:
The first promise is found in Philippians 1:6: I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
God saved you and He will keep you saved until the coming of Jesus Christ. He began the good work in you and He’s the one who will carry it on.
The second promise is found in Jude 24-25
Now to him who is able to protect you from stumbling and to make you stand in the presence of his glory, without blemish and with great joy, 25 to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority before all time, now and forever.
He will protect you from falling away. And He will make you stand in the presence of His glory without blemish and with great joy. Those are two things we could never do on our own.
We are about to sing a song, and one that I’ve grown to love. I love it because it’s simply a prayer.
When I fear my faith will fail,
Christ will hold me fast;
When the tempter would prevail,
He will hold me fast.
I could never keep my hold
Through life’s fearful path;
For my love is often cold;
He must hold me fast.
He will hold me fast,
He will hold me fast;
For my Savior loves me so,
He will hold me fast.
Those He saves are His delight,
Christ will hold me fast;
Precious in his holy sight,
He will hold me fast.
He’ll not let my soul be lost;
His promises shall last;
Bought by Him at such a cost,
He will hold me fast.
For my life He bled and died,
Christ will hold me fast;
Justice has been satisfied;
He will hold me fast.
Raised with Him to endless life,
He will hold me fast
‘Till our faith is turned to sight,
When He comes at last!
God is sovereign over nations. He’s also sovereign over your life and mine. Would you pray with me?