God's man in God's place with God's blessing - Genesis 41
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~~God’s Man in God’s place with God’s blessing 24.2.19
They said he was the greatest theologian America had ever produced. By all accounts he was a creative genius, not only an expert in the Bible, but philosophy and the natural sciences as well. His writings run into volumes and as a preacher he was simply unsurpassed. His church in Hertford, Connecticut, saw four of the mightiest revivals ever to sweep through that great continent with hundreds coming to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Who am I referring to? The great 18th century pastor- Jonathan Edwards. The church of which he was minister previously had his grandfather as its Minister, and so you might have thought that with that kind of pedigree and with such an outstanding track record of God’s goodness through Edward’s ministry, towards the end of his life everything would have finished on a note of unmistakable triumph. Well, you would be wrong. After 22 years of faithful Gospel ministry, his congregation finally decided to kick him out for no other reason than he insisted that those who took Holy Communion should at least be professing Christians. And so with his wife, and seven children, they were forced out with nowhere to go. Eventually he managed to get a position teaching a handful of Native Americans the Christian faith in a remote mission station. And just when the corner of misfortune seemed to have been turned having been offered the post of Principal of Princeton College, he died at the age of 54 from a smallpox vaccination that went horribly wrong.
When you come across a story like that don’t we want to ask: ‘What are we to make of God’s timing?’ Sometimes it appears confused as well as confusing. If were we to write a story it would be with things moving at a pace, onward and upward, not with all these twists and turns and apparent dead ends- literally in some cases. But of course we have to make sure our starting point is right. We don’t begin with circumstances and try to work out what God might be doing from those which can be so unclear and ambiguous, rather, we start with God and his character and what he has told us he is doing, namely, bringing a wayward world back to himself. This he promised to do back in Genesis 3:15 after the Fall through the seed of the woman he would raise up the serpent crusher, and he promised it again to Abram in Genesis 12, a seed who would be a blessing to all the nations. And so God has determined to work out his purposes in his own way, in his own time and that applies to our lives too. And this reassuring truth is wonderfully illustrated for us in the passage we are looking at this morning in Genesis 41.
Joseph is now thirty years old having arrived in Egypt as a seventeen year old teenager slave. So we are talking of a period of 13 years having elapsed which is a very long time for anyone, but especially for a youth- his 20’s have vanished. That is when there appears to be a chink of light at the end of the tunnel with the release of the cupbearer from prison who, hopefully will put in a good word for Joseph with Pharaoh. But a further two years pass because he has been forgotten. God’s timing from Joseph’s point of view must have seemed to be so slow. Can you imagine it, Joseph hanging on, day in day out, month in month out, year in year out with little to show for it? But then when we get to chapter 41 the pace changes dramatically, suddenly it is all hurry, hurry, hurry. This is shown in a number of ways. In verse 14 you have verb piled upon verb- Joseph was sent for, he was quickly brought from his dungeon, he was shaved, he was given a set of clothes, he was brought before Pharaoh- it’s a flurry of activity. Then we have the key verse 32, when Joseph says, ‘The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.’ Then the film speeds up as Joseph is changed beyond all recognition; in v41, he is commissioned by Pharaoh, given a signet ring, robes, a gold chain of office, a chariot. Then later, a wife and two children appear. It’s almost as if God is making up for lost time. But as we shall see there is no such thing as ‘lost time’ for God because every precious second is used by him to make sure that everything is in place for the divine drama to unfold. And if he does that with Joseph, one of the covenant people, do you think he will not do it with you and me?
So what can we learn from this episode about God’s timing?
First, God’s timing is merciful
The occasion for this massive turnaround in Joseph’s fortunes and the great leap forward is the disturbing dreams of Pharaoh. Let’s face it they are the stuff of a Stephen King horror movie depicting cannibalistic cows and consuming corn. The shear naked terror which struck into the heart of Pharaoh of what he saw comes out especially in his amplified version of the dream which he relates to Joseph in v17ff, “In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, fat and sleek, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows came up—scrawny and very ugly and lean. I had never seen such ugly cows in all the land of Egypt. The lean, ugly cows ate up the seven fat cows that came up first. But even after they ate them, no one could tell that they had done so; they looked just as ugly as before. Then I woke up.”’ When it says they were ‘ugly and very thin’ it is literally ‘evil in appearance and thin of flesh’. And so Pharaoh has to endure the darkest of nightmares as evil looking cows tear at the flesh of other cows, dismembering them and gorging them with blood everywhere. It is a wild and savage vision. And even when the cows have finished, they are as evil and as malnourished as they were before they began their cannibalistic orgy. Then, no less bizarrely, Pharaoh dreams of corn doing the same thing. I think it would be safe to say that God has got Pharaoh’s attention wouldn’t you?
Now why was that? Why didn’t Pharaoh put his sleeplessness down to something he ate that night?
One reason is that the Egyptians believed that dreams were messages from the gods, especially to Pharaoh who was himself considered a god. Secondly, linked to this was the timing of the dreams, they occurred on Pharaoh’s birthday- two full years on from the cupbearer’s release (cf 40:20), which would have been regarded as a portent- a sign. Thirdly, the first dream especially is symbol laden. The seven evil cattle emerge out of the Nile. Cows were not typical farm animals in ancient Egypt but they did symbolise Egypt and were related to the myth of Egypt’s origins of a god Isis who emerged out of primordial water- like the Nile. Furthermore, Isis was depicted as a cow who was the mother of the god Horus, and Pharaoh was considered to be Horus incarnate. So it appears that Egypt itself is going to be subject to destruction. And seven was a sacred number symbolising fate- this was going to happen! You see, this is a message which couldn’t be ignored. And so Pharaoh called on Egypt’s equivalent to the staff of Hogwarts for an interpretation and they failed miserably-v8.
Pharaoh is beside himself with worry and that is when the cupbearer steps in to tell Pharaoh of Joseph’s remarkable power in the dream interpreting department. And so he is sent for.
Would you note the timing of this. Here is one of the reasons why Joseph spent a further two years in prison- God was waiting for this moment to bring everything together. Let me put it this way: do you think that upon his release 2 years earlier had the cupbearer dared to bother Pharaoh with the plight of Joseph- that some Hebrew slave on a charge of attempted rape was unjustly in jail that he would have given a fig? Hardly! But now he can’t wait to meet Joseph because Joseph has something he wants. Also, did you notice the development of Joseph’s character during those 13 years? This is someone far more mature, wiser, and courageous than when he first arrived in Egypt. Look at how he replies to Pharaoh’s demand that he interprets the dream v 16, ‘I cannot do it’. You can imagine on hearing those words the cupbearer turning pale-after all he had recommended him!
But then we get the expression of a humble man whose faith has been forged in the furnace of suffering who will not manipulate circumstances for his own advantage, but submit to circumstances for God’s glory, ‘I cannot do it, but I know a God who can and who will.’ There is your mercy.
As well as giving the interpretation about the approaching famine as well as the years of plenty which are to precede it, Joseph is bold enough and caring enough to give advice as to what to do about it- vv 33-36. And when Joseph said, ‘Look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt’, don’t think that Joseph was subtly lining himself up for the job as if to say, ‘Look for this kind of person- and by the way you don’t need to look any further- isn’t it obvious- it’s me!’ Such an idea that Pharaoh should appoint a jail bird and a foreigner at that, given the antipathy Egyptians had for foreigners, would have been totally unthinkable, it would never have entered Joseph’s mind. But it was not unthinkable to God who had this in mind from the very beginning and so it happens- v39ff, and wonder of wonders Joseph is now second only to Pharaoh himself in what was then the most powerful Kingdom in the world. Friends, that is what the King of kings can do - out of mercy. Doesn’t it strike you what a kind God he is- even to pagan, idolatrous, god-usurping people like Pharaoh? Sure, as we shall see, God has other purposes for saving people from famine, but it does encompass even those who oppose him. What did Jesus say of his heavenly Father, ‘He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’ That is what he is like- merciful and gracious and we his people are meant to be like that too.
Secondly, God’s timing is unchangeable- look especially at verse 32, ‘The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.’ Joseph is saying that the doubling of the dream is an indication that God is really going to do it. It is equivalent to when Jesus prefixes his statements with ‘Amen, amen’. The thing is, everything that has happened in the narrative up to this point has either been said twice or doubled up in some way. Joseph has had two dreams; his brothers had two different plans; Joseph has experienced two waves of temptation; he has experienced two humiliations- thrown into the pit and thrown into jail, and two exaltations-promoted by Potiphar and promoted by Pharaoh. There are two’s everywhere. As one writer puts it, it is as if ‘God’s feet are marching throughout the whole of this story’- tramp, tramp, tramp, so that we are not to miss the message that God’s purpose is fixed and we had better get used to the fact.
Why is this so important? Think of it like this: Why is there so much unrest and concern about the future of Britain and the future of Europe? Because of uncertainty which in turn is the result of a sense of lack of control. In our own personal lives, why do we sometimes find it difficult to sleep with imaginary future events being churned over in our minds as we toss and turn? It is the fear of the future and having a lack of control over it. The Bible tells us, however, that there is one who never for a millisecond loses control, whose hands are always on the helm of history steering it to its intended purpose- the manifestation of his kingdom and that someone is God. I love the way the 19th century preacher C.H. Spurgeon unpacks the implications of this biblical truth, ‘There is no attribute more comforting to His children than that of God’s sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe trials, they believe that Sovereignty has ordained their afflictions, that Sovereignty overrules them, and that Sovereignty will sanctify them. There is nothing for which the children ought more earnestly to contend than the doctrine of their Master over all creation — the Kingship of God over all the works of His own hands — the Throne of God and His right to sit upon that throne . . . It is God upon the throne that we love to preach. It is God upon the throne whom we trust.’ Could I ask: do you? Are you trusting? Because he really is reigning.
This leads on to our third heading, God’s timing is purposeful, there is always a point to any delay or hurrying things along from our perspective.
We have already seen what some of those purposes are - the shaping of Joseph’s character, making Pharaoh receptive to God’s message, the saving of people’s lives and so on. But we have to remember that God’s purposes are much bigger than even these things. He has a grand plan and Joseph is a key player in that plan.
Remember what I said at the beginning about God’s grand plan to produce a seed who will become the Saviour of the world? God has designed that it will be through Abraham, more specifically Jacob/Israel and more specifically still from the tribe of Judah. Famine is part of being in a fallen world, a sign that all is not well between ourselves and our Maker. And so God superintends events, as well as people’s motives, to get Joseph to be the right man ( a more mature Joseph), in the right place (Pharaoh’s palace), at the right time- (just before the famine) so that God’s people would be preserved and the ‘seed’ kept so that eventually Jesus the Saviour world would come around 1800 years later. God is involved at every level of detail to execute his divine plan- he has to be.
And having that understanding of God’s hand in all things, great and small, good and bad, with good purposes in mind does change your perspective on things as it did with Joseph. Look at verse 50, ‘Before the years of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
We have to admit that times of blessing can lift our sights a little higher. Here it was in having children but it could be in having spiritual children- folk we are privileged to see converted. In the light of God’s greater plan of which the two children- the seed- were tokens of what was to come, Joseph could look back and reassess his past circumstances- painful though some of them were.
The name given to his first son, Manasseh, means ‘forget’. He hasn’t forgotten his father, or his brothers or his homeland per se, what he has chosen to forget is the hardship. Yes, it has happened, yes, it was dreadful, but he wasn’t going to be held back by the past with his heart polluted with bitterness. The past can’t be reversed, but it can be reviewed, seen within the larger framework of God’s Fatherly goodness. And so instead of dwelling on the past, the gift of a baby is sign of hope for the future.
The second child is called, ‘Ephraim’ a name which means ‘fruitful’. Even in this pagan land- ‘the land of affliction’, God produces fruit in Joseph’s life. Yes, the ‘fruit of his loins’, to use the quaint old fashioned phrase, but this is but a picture of the greater fruit of salvation which many- including his brothers- were going to experience.
And you know, we all need a Manasseh and an Ephraim in our lives to prevent us from lapsing into despair and wallowing in self-pity. We are all wounded in various ways by things that have happened to us- but some of those wounds were probably necessary to ween us away from pride and a sin we had decided to overlook. Christians especially should beware of going down the road of victimhood which is popular at the moment. What does Paul say, ‘Forgetting what lies behind, I press on towards the goal which is mine in Christ Jesus’? As someone has said, ‘Bumps are what you climb on’- we need a Manasseh.
We also need an Ephraim- bearing fruit in affliction- that is our choice. We can trust that God’s hand is in this somehow and ask: ‘Lord what will you teach me from this?’ And that is a prayer which will never go unanswered. The most gracious, Spirit filled, Christ-like Christians I have ever had the privilege of knowing have all embraced their ‘Ephraim’ and that includes some of you here this morning.
So let me end where I began with Jonathan Edwards.
I mentioned that he died at the age of 54 when it looked like he was about to embark upon the crowning point of his career, leaving a wife and seven children. How did his grieving, heartbroken widow, Sarah respond? Not in some kind of stoic, British ‘stiff upper lip’ way, but as a believer in God’s sovereign, Fatherly care and this is what she said, ‘What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had my husband for so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart.’
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