April 28, 1996
When Pharaoh asked Joseph to interpret his dreams, an important question was on his mind: What should we do when uncertainty and trouble loom large before us? God warned Joseph of a coming famine and thus gave him the opportunity to help Egypt prepare for the tumultuous days ahead. As Alistair Begg demonstrates, we should follow Joseph’s lead, seeking God’s wisdom—not our own—as we work and serve in the strength that He provides.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Can I invite you to take your Bible and turn with me again to Genesis 41? A word of prayer, and then to the Scriptures:
O Lord our God, it is your voice we want to hear; it is your Book we turn to read. You have made us and you know us, so we wait upon you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Here, as the story develops in chapter 41, we have this quite amazing and dramatic change in the circumstances of Joseph: in just a moment in time, his whole life is turned the right way up. He has been a slave, and now he is entrusted to the position of the palace. His legs have been jangling with the chains of enslavement, and now he rides to the churn of the chariot. He has been living in rags, and now he is going to be given a wardrobe that was second only to the Pharaoh’s in the whole of Egypt. And Joseph serves as a clear reminder to us of the fact that life is marked by a series of ups and downs. For all of us, that is true, and yet in each of our lives it will not necessarily be so that the highs are as high and the lows are as low as those which we see here in the unfolding of the life of Joseph.
Certainly, in the story so far, we have seen that he has been in some unbelievable spots, and in it all he has shown himself to be someone who recognizes that whether he is despised one day or exalted on the next day, he realizes that he is a man of frailty and that his security is to be found in God himself. We do not find coming from the lips of Joseph any proud assertions about what he is going to be and what he is going to do. Yes, we recall his dreams in which he reported that which he found to be, in the watches of the night, an experience for him; but subsequent to that, there is no sense in which he is marking out his own destiny. And in this respect he would be well prepared to bow underneath the words of James the brother of Jesus, who in writing in his letter, in chapter 4, says to his readers, “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” In other words, we will live our lives in the awareness of the fact that God is sovereign, that he it is who orders our steps and marks them out before us. And Joseph is a wonderful illustration of this perspective. We noted it before; it is reiterated for us again this morning, and indeed it runs through the whole story.
In order to try and come to terms with this large amount of material here in 41, I would like to gather your thoughts and mine around three headings: first of all, that we would pay attention to the interpretation God provided, and then that we would look at the plan Joseph suggested, and then that we would look at the role Pharaoh created.
So, to the first of these: the interpretation God provided. It is a matter of some interest to me, that in reading the commentaries, I found again and again the interpretation of the dream referred to as “Joseph’s interpretation,” when in point of fact, Joseph himself—in verse 15 and 16—was at pains to make clear that he couldn’t give an interpretation. He had said to the pharaoh when he called for him, “I cannot do it … but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.”
And now, we ought not to overlook this because it is very, very important. We have again noted—and we reaffirm this truth—that Joseph’s life can be explained from a number of angles, but one of the clearest and most foundational elements in him is the fact that you cannot look at Joseph without realizing that he was a man who lived a God-centered life. His life was not me-oriented, it was God-oriented. And long before the psalmist writes the First Psalm, Joseph is almost like the archetypal character described in the First Psalm: the man “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night, who will be like a tree planted by rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in season; and whatsoever he does will prosper. Unlike the chaff,” he says, “which the wind blows away.” And Joseph stands in the midst of humanity as an illustration of this great God-centered life.
We saw it in his resistance to temptation in chapter 39: “How … could I do such an evil thing” he says, “and sin against God?” We see it later on, in chapter 41, as he exercises his responsibility towards his children; indeed, in the naming of his children, he names them supremely in the awareness of who God is and what God has done. And indeed, in his reaction to the pain of injustice, as it comes to him at the hands of his brothers and others, he is able to say in 45:5 that although his brothers were concerned that he had been on the receiving end of all their vitriolic hatred, nevertheless, says Joseph, “It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” In other words, we couldn’t rub shoulders with Joseph—spend any time in his company—without being brought into an awareness of God and all of the unfolding of his dealings.
And I suggest to you this morning, that in that respect, these are very necessary studies. This is a very necessary man with whom to spend time, so as to correct ourselves, living as we do at the end of three decades in which God has been shrunk and man has been exalted, where God has been shown, irrelevantly and irreverently, to be somehow or another the servant of man, rather than that, as the Bible makes clear, man is always the servant of God. And Joseph helps to correct that.
And so, it is no surprise that in the matter of Pharaoh’s dream, we find “God” the first word so frequently on his lips—in verse 16 as I just noted for you, and then again in verse 25: “Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, ‘The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.’” Verse 32: God has firmly decided—or it “has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.”
Now, what we discover is that Joseph possesses a core conviction about the fact of God’s providence. In other words, he recognizes that God determines, at his own will, for his glory, and for the good of his people, what is going to happen. And Joseph affirms, not only in 41, but all the way through, that God is the speaker of his Word, and God is the doer of his works. And Joseph finds himself as a young man, doing the things that young men do, living his life as it is mapped out for him, living in the awareness of the fact that God is in control.
Now, again, this is a very necessary emphasis, because despite the fact that so much is said about the founding of this great nation on the biblical and theological principles, many of the founders of this nation were actually deists. In other words, they believed that there was a creator who was God, but they believed that God spun the universe off, took his hands off it, and then the people were left, somehow or another, to make the best of it. That is not biblical. The Bible says that not only is God the creator, but God is the provider, he is the sustainer, he is the redeemer, and he is the end of all things, so that men and women are not left to blind fate; they are not left to chance; they are not left to going to spooky ladies in spooky little front shops; they are not left phoning up 1-900 numbers to find out what in the world might happen to them. Why? Because of the doctrine of providence. Because God is working all things according to the purpose of his will.
Now, Joseph is not unique in emphasizing this. The Bible is full of it, and the prophets make much of it—nowhere more so than in the book of Isaiah, and perhaps classically so in Isaiah chapter 45. And if you turn there with me for a moment, let me point it out to you. As Isaiah gives God the glory that is due to his name, he attributes to God not simply his ability to reveal the future, but also the fact that God governs all the events by his own authority. There are obviously secondary causes, but God is the primary controller of all the events of life. So, for example, the secondary cause of the retaining of the people in Egypt was as a result of the rebellious heart of Pharaoh. The primary cause was that God determined that that should be so, and he chose to use Pharaoh’s rebellious heart in order to achieve that end.
The hatred of men against Jesus was a realistic hatred. Their scorn and their scoffing was real. The rebellion of Judas Iscariot was exactly what he did—he was not a pawn—and yet in the mystery of it all, he was fulfilling the unfolding providential rule of God. And that’s what you find in Isaiah chapter 45. If you look at verse 5, for example, it lays it down: first of all, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God.” Stop there for just a moment and make a mental note of how different this is from the world in which we are presently living. If you watch the Discovery Channel with any frequency at all and are introduced to the tales of birds and reptiles and icebergs and all these wonderful programs, you will find yourself, if you are a believer, constantly having to editorialize over the voice of the narrator, because the narration points to a worldview which denies Isaiah 45:5—denies flat out that there is a God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, who is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, rather suggesting that how we got here, we’re not really sure, what we’re supposed to do, we are just trying to scramble for an answer, and where we’re heading, frankly, we really haven’t got a clue.
In direct contrast to that, the Bible says, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; [and] apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
It’s an interesting thing: if you go in bookstores, you will find in the religious section books which have been written—and there’s one in my mind, and I can’t pull it up; I just saw it—but books that have been written that have Scripture in them, and they’re written for the very purpose of showing, from the perspective of the author, that this Scripture could never be true and isn’t real and shouldn’t be applied and shouldn’t be obeyed, and it is just bogus. Okay? Now, when you go, for example, to the Koran or to some of the New Age writings, you don’t find this interaction with it. Why is it that the Bible would be singled out, that the truth of God’s Word would be singled out for an attack against its authenticity? Because men and women have written into their very being, by nature, a moral compass, an awareness of God, a sense of eternity, and they have at least the sneaking suspicion that Isaiah 45:5 is true: “I am the Lord, and there is no other. There is no God apart from me.” And so it is a great refusal on the parts of men and women to disregard the God who has made them.
And it is a great wonder in the life of Joseph as he recognizes God’s sovereign overruling power. Look at verse 9: “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a pot[sherd] among the pot[sherds] on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘He has no hands’? Woe to him who says to his father, ‘What have you begotten?’ or to his mother, ‘What have you brought to birth?’” Now, what is being said here? Simply this: the potter cannot, and the parent must not, be questioned; because within their own spheres, they possess total sovereignty—total sovereignty! Only within the paths of righteousness. Not in any disabuse, not in any Victorian oppressive nonsense—set all that aside. But simply within the framework of enunciating the truths of God’s Word and the framing of family life, you as a parent are in the place of God to your children. And that is why they may not question you. And that is why your family is not a democracy. And that is why it is not one man, one vote, to see what we want to do. And don’t let the fact of the pendulum having swung so far out prevent us from a biblical perspective. The question is here: “Woe to him who says to his father, ‘What have you begotten?’ Or to his mother …” And the same, you see, is true of the Lord who is the creator and who is the sustainer of history—that’s verse 12 and 13: “It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts.” “I’m in charge!”—that’s what God is saying! It’s so contrary to our worldview. It’s so diametrically opposed to what we live with, day in and day out. And the challenge is going to be—simply and always—are we going to allow the Word of God to adjudicate on our puny minds, or are we going to bring our puny minds and subject the Word of God to them?
You see in the sixties, Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri said that the watershed issue in the sixties was the matter of the inerrancy of Scripture. Is this book true or is it not true? And particularly, he said, the issue of the historicity of the Genesis passages, Adam and Eve, and all the matters in Genesis 1–11. “And,” said Schaeffer, “if you deny the authenticity of Genesis 1–11, then you will eventually begin to deny the other pieces of the Bible. And as you begin to deny the other pieces of the Bible, then you will begin to deny the Bible itself. And then you’ll be left with no Bible at all. And you’ll be left with no basis for any decision making whatsoever.” And thirty years later, he’s proved absolutely true: there is mass confusion, even in the evangelical church in the Western world, over the issue of whether this book is true, whether you’re supposed to obey it. That’s why wives don’t know what it is to be a wife. That’s why husbands don’t want to be a husband. That’s why kids don’t want to be kids and why parents don’t want to be parents. That’s why no one will submit to the policeman, and no one will acknowledge that God sets the presidents in place, even when we don’t like them. There has never been a president of the United States that God did not want as the president of the United States. And there never will be! Now, that doesn’t mean we do nothing and sit back and say, “Give us the next one”—because he has ordained that that we should do—but we recognize that in the doing of it all, we do not look to Capitol Hill; we look to heaven. For he is in control—in control of Joseph, and in control of all the circumstances of this old weary world. Oh, it helps me to go to bed at night and wake up in the morning knowing that I don’t have to immediately go on the internet and start checking with all the centers of the universe to find out if the world is still here, you know, and if we’re all fine. I can fall asleep in the back of the car as long as my dad is driving, and I’ll trust him to take me where we’re going, and I’ll wake up when he wakes me up, and it’s all fine from there.
And that is the perspective of Joseph. He slept in the dungeon, and now he’ll sleep in the palace, because he believed in the providence of God—that God provides. Let us be done with “pot-luck” dinners once and for all. Not the dinners—I like those dinners—we just have to change, just change the name; we can change them to “pot-providence,” but it doesn’t have the same kind of ring to it. But I don’t know about you; I’m not coming to those affairs relying on luck. I believe that I will get something to eat and that it will be a result of God’s provision, not the luck of the draw.
And this is worked into the fabric of Joseph’s life. That’s why he’s such a striking character, isn’t he? That’s why you want to meet him, don’t you? Goodness, gracious, I hardly—every week goes by, I go, “I wish I could meet this guy.” I’d give my right arm for half an hour with this chap. One day we’ll meet him. It’s going to be good.
You know that old song?
You have heard of little Moses in the bull-rush
You have heard of fearless David and his sling
You have heard the story told of dreaming Joseph
and of Jonah and the whale [I] often sing
There are many, many others in the Bible
I should like to meet them all, I do declare
[And] by and by the Lord will surely let us meet them at that meeting in the air.
[’Cause] there’s going to be a meeting in the air
That’s the chorus.
In the sweet, sweet by and by.
So we are going to meet Joseph. I’m jazzed, I’m telling you I’m going to spend half of eternity just working my way through the Old Testament, aren’t you? I mean forget the Apostle Paul—there will be too many people talking to him in any case. I’m going to start back here in Genesis. A big crowd of women all around the Apostle Paul, you know. You’ll find out we were right.
So God is preserving Joseph; God is operating in Joseph’s life; God is directing all things to their appropriate end. The reason we have trouble with this is twofold: one, because we are rebellious by nature; and two, because we see things “through a glass, darkly.” When you’re playing golf and you put a ball in the water, and you look around for somebody with one of those big ball retrievers, they bring it out of their bag—it’s absolutely straight—they elongate it, you put it in the water, and you look at it through the water, and you could swear that it was crooked. Because of the refraction, it makes it such that that which is perfectly straight going in looks as though it’s bent once it’s in, but when you pull it out it’s perfectly straight. So what do we know? That it’s the way we’re looking at it that causes us the problem. And the fact is that in all of our lives, through all of our earthly journey, we will always look at things just a little off. Even at our best, we see things “through a glass, darkly”; we see things dimly. And that which one day appears crooked will tomorrow be straight when we see it like Jesus sees it.
And the wonderful thing about Joseph is that while he was obviously not perfect, somehow or another he was not languishing in the jail, saying to himself, “You know, I don’t see why I should still be in here. I don’t know why I’m not out of here. I don’t know why this hasn’t happened to me,” and so on. “Why didn’t I get out when I told that jolly cupbearer, you know, ‘Please, get me out of here, would you?’ And he gave me the impression he was going to, and then I got stuck here for another two years.” You don’t get this coming from Joseph. Maybe it was in his heart, but we don’t have it in Holy Scripture. Because the fact of the matter was that if Joseph had got out when he thought it was a good idea to get out, he would never have become the prime minister of Egypt. If he’d got out when he wanted out, he would just have been out. But God knew he had to come out on this particular morning. God had him there so that on this morning, the morning after Pharaoh’s dark disturbing doubts and dreams, he would be able to bring him out at just the right moment so that all that would yet unfold would be according to his divine, providential rule.
You don’t live your life with the ifs and buts and shouldst and couldst and maybe the second best of God’s will. I meet people all the time that tyrannize themselves with that stuff: “Oh, if I hadn’t done this then, then that wouldn’t have happened over there, and this,” and so on. Listen: God is able, in his providence, to sweep even our chaos and our rebellions into the unfolding of his plan. Peter really denied him because he flat out was scared and chose to, but from eternity’s perspective Peter will understand that it was in God’s providential plan that Peter would deny him. Now, you try and work that out on a rainy Tuesday. See, the stick is a wee bit crooked all of a sudden, again.
So, he tells them: there’ll be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine; the famine will be so bad that the good years will be forgotten. His interpretation is wonderful; it’s marked by absolute clarity. It is in response to genuine necessity, as verse 24 makes clear: Pharaoh had said once, and says it again, “I told this to the magicians, but none could explain it to me.” And it was the same time, a matter of some urgency: “The reason the dream”—verse 32—“was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.” How wonderful of God, who, when he said it once has said it enough times, is prepared to say it a second time. Isn’t that what parents say? “Do I have to say this a second time?” God said to Jonah, “Now, I want you to go to Nineveh.” And Jonah says, “I’m going to Tarshish.” And in all of his rebellion and chaos and winds and waves and storms and bellies of whales and everything, “and the Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Say now, let’s get back to the original plan here.’” That’s the wonderful God that we have here.
“Pharaoh, I gave you two dreams so that it was kind of like stereo effect—so you got it in your right ear and you got it in your left ear. You got one for each eye, and you woke up in the morning, and you said, ‘Whooo!’ I knew you would. And I knew your magicians would be a bunch of dead ducks, and I knew that the cupbearer would finally wake up and remember Joseph. And I knew, of course, that Joseph would be quite willing to come out of the dungeon. And I knew that Joseph would clean himself up and give himself a shave and present himself ready for whatever you wanted—nice and smart—and so he did. And the reason I did, Pharaoh, was because it is a matter of great urgency.”
I have to prevent myself from applying this immediately at this point, because it is such a wonderful picture of the dilemma that faces man in prospect of a spiritual famine that is before us. What do we need? We need a man like Joseph who will speak with absolute clarity in response to genuine necessity, because it is an issue of great urgency. There’s a sermon there that I’m not going to preach—but it’s there! We can just acknowledge it as we go past, you know.
Let us move on, for our time is passing. Let’s go to the second point, ’cause we could stay longer there, but we mustn’t.
Let’s look then at the plan which Joseph suggested—the interpretation God provided, the plan Joseph suggested. Verse 33: “And now let Pharaoh look for a wise and a discerning man.” It is a matter of some wonder—to me at least, perhaps to you—whether Pharaoh would have benefited from the interpretation without this little follow on, on Joseph’s part. Do you think that if he had just simply had the dream explained to him, that there were going to be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, that he would have acted in the way that then ensued? It’s difficult to know; it’s hard to say. I sense that the application, as it were, of the prophetic word on the part of Joseph was absolutely crucial to what was to happen. And so his plan is really straightforward. Someone has said, “The world will always make way for a man or a woman who knows where they’re going.” And Joseph knew where he was going. “Let me tell you,” he said, “first of all, find a person—find a person. Look for a discerning and a wise man.”
Now, why would it be important for the person to be discerning and wise? Because the circumstances were so grave. This wasn’t a job for any Tom, Dick, and Harry; this had to be the right kind of person for the right kind of circumstance. They weren’t looking just for a personality, you know. There was going to have to be care given to the setting up of the plan, the collection, and then the distribution. Those kind of situations are open to graft and to bribery and to elitism and to all kinds of corruption, so “Let’s make sure,” says Joseph, “that in looking for the person, he is wise and he is discerning.”
What a word that is—in passing, incidentally—to the spirit of our age. We don’t throw up heroes as much as we throw up personalities. Our magazines are full of personalities. Who are these people? What did they ever do? What makes them personalities? What makes them famous? They didn’t win a Nobel Peace Prize. They didn’t discover penicillin. They didn’t write a great book. They didn’t give their lives in the cause of society. They’re just famous. Because this is the era of personality. It is not the era of character. And what is needed is character, for character is the foundation of a good personality. “Oh, we couldn’t elect him; he’s too dull.”
Joseph says, “You’re looking for a person, make sure that he is wise and discerning. Find the person, and then give him a position”—verse 33, the second half: “Put him in charge of the land of Egypt.” Now, that seems straightforward until you think about it for just a moment: he is speaking to the individual who is in charge of the land of Egypt! Twenty-four hours previously, this guy’s been languishing in a jail—not necessarily very well dressed, unshaven, chained up, a nobody. Now, he is face to face with the ruler of Egypt; he has interpreted, under God’s enabling, the dream; and now he says, “This is what I think you ought to do: I think you ought to look for a person; and secondly, put them in charge of the whole of Egypt.” Now, Pharaoh could so readily have said, “Hey, I’m in charge of the whole of Egypt.” And he was. But he recognized the wisdom in what this man was saying. “And furthermore,” he says, “what I suggest you do is that you appoint commissioners”—verse 34—“over the land, subdivide it, and have them enforce a twenty-percent tax during the good years. And during that time, the grain,” he says, “should be stored and protected until it is required.”
Now, this was really smart: twenty-percent tax, storing up the grain, over a seven-year period, was sufficient—and Joseph could have done the mathematics—was sufficient not simply to absorb the needs of seven years of famine in Egypt, but to bolster the Egyptian balance of payments during that time by being able to sell to surrounding countries. So Joseph is not about to put them in a position where they manage to eke out an existence, he’s about to show them how they can have seven years of plenty followed by seven years of the most ravenous famine, and during that time feed everybody in Egypt and sell stuff to surrounding nations so that they won’t die as well. And he was very clear about his purpose: “So that”—at the end of verse 36—“the country may not be ruined by famine.” So, “Find a man, give him a position, implement this plan, and here’s the purpose.”
In an exercise club ten days ago, behind the water cooler, I found a little card that said, “Making goals for physical fitness,” and it had on it the word, SMART, which they had then used as an acrostic. So I stole it momentarily—I removed it momentarily—took it to my room, ’cause I didn’t have a pen or anything, wrote it down, and I did return it. Although I thought about keeping it, I must say. ’Cause it was a really nice little card. But anyway, I did return it. (That is that “bent versus loving” thing coming out, you see?)
And I thought you might like these. I just made a note of it because I thought it was good, and it is good; it fits Joseph, and it may fit you. You making goals for yourself, your family, your church, your business, whatever else? Make sure they’re SMART goals. S: Specific—specific. Joseph was absolutely specific about what needed to happen—about the person, about the position, and about the breakdown of the tax. M: Measurable. Twenty percent would be measured against the hundred percent. A: Action-oriented. It involved setting people to activity; they began to enter into these events, they didn’t just sit around and talk about it. R: Realistic. Joseph understood that these things were doable. They weren’t pie-in-the-sky things; they weren’t silly ideas. And T: they were all worked out within a time frame, and the time frame was to be these seven years. Joseph stands out to us in Scripture for so many different reasons, but he is a foreshadowing of Nehemiah, who comes later, who also was a man with smart goals.
So we notice actually, then, that Joseph’s goal was smart. Also, we notice that in the plan that he suggests, he is proceeding on the basis of principle. And you’ll notice that the principle is this: that he recognized that Pharaoh, in his position of kingship over Egypt, had a responsibility to use his power for the welfare of the people. In other words, I think we can say safely that Joseph believed in one respect in the welfare state. Now, that may get some of you a little on the edge of your seat, but just think it through with me for a moment or two. What he is saying here is this: if we leave it up to the individuals during a time of prosperity to save, to tax themselves at the rate of twenty percent of their income, there’s not one in a hundred people who’s going to do it. In fact, there may not be one in a thousand. And so, if we leave the issue to a sort of laissez-faire market approach whereby people can do whatever they want to do, then a certain group, by cunning, endeavor, ingenuity, graft, elitism, old money, will make it, and another group as a result of whatever, they’ll be the first ones in the grave. And since the state has a responsibility to care for the welfare of its people—young and old, rich and poor, smart and silly—“We’re going to do this,” he says. “Twenty percent.”
And I want to say in passing to you—and I never make really political statements at all, but I want to tell you this: there is no political system on the face of God’s earth that is uniquely Christian. There is no political system contrived by man that we can say, “Now, here is the biblical system.” For as John Stott said in the seventies, “Under communism, man exploits his fellow man. Whereas under capitalism, the reverse is true.” And some of us, in our well-heeled relative affluence, would do well to spend time in environments where our exhortations to “pick yourself up and get on” ring hollow in the ears of those who would love to.
But there is a wonderful balance here, you will note, in verse 56: “When the famine had spread over the whole country,” for which Joseph, by his wisdom had made provision, “Joseph opened the storehouses.” And notice the verb: “and sold grain to the Egyptians.” Ah, now you see, here is a wonderful combination: You’re not smart enough to do it for yourself; let me do it for you. But just in case you think you’re going to come at the end of year seven and get a hand-out, let me tell you how it’s going to be: you’re going to buy it. The Scriptures are marvelous; they’re wonderful, if we would only read them.
The plan unfolds. “Well,” says somebody, “do the words of Jesus, where he warns against laying up treasure on earth—shouldn’t they somehow or another be set against that?” Absolutely not! Because Jesus, when he warns about laying up treasure on earth, is not prohibiting people from saving during a time of prosperity so that they might be able to live during a time of scarcity. He is warning against the preoccupation with stuff, which refuses to acknowledge that there is eternity for which to prepare. And how wonderful of God to give the seven years of plenty before he gave the seven years of scarcity.
Now, if you find yourself this morning applauding Joseph for the wisdom of his plan and applauding Pharaoh for being prepared to implement it, as we’ll see next time, because we recognize the natural need of these things and of how it was so vitally important to make preparation in this way, then I stand with you. And I stand with you also to face the question, whether we are prepared and preparing for other famines that may yet await us. For if they prepared so straightforwardly for a famine in the realm of physical provision, would we not also make the right kind of preparation for that which may yet await us?
The psalmist says in 90, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom”—that’s the twelfth verse of Psalm 90. As you, young person, make your journey through life, are you preparing? Are you preparing for the future? “No,” you say, “I’ve got all the time in the world to prepare for the future. It’s just because you’re getting old, pastor, that now you’re starting to worry about these things. I’ve noticed it; you’re mentioning it time and again. But no, no. I have got all the time in the world.” No, you don’t; no, you absolutely don’t! On average your life will last 36,792,000 minutes. You’ll sleep away 12,300,000 of those minutes. You will eat your way through vast quantities of food during another 3,000,000. You will work for another 13,000,000. That leaves you with about 8,000,000. Once you take showers and do the necessary routines and deduct the time for that—which is more of course, in the case of girls than it is in the case of fellows—you’re down to about (sorry, that’s a stereotype, but that’s okay), you’re down to 6,500,000 minutes. And if you’re eighteen, you’ve already used a quarter of your allocation. So in terms of unspoken-for time, you’re looking at 5,000,000 minutes. Doesn’t sound like a lot to me. Are you preparing?
Do you, and do your peers, and do your parents, do we realize what a benefit it is to sit under the instruction of the Word of God, irrespective of who teaches it? Do you realize what a wonder it is to have a Sunday School teacher who loves you and cares for you and will open the Bible to you and nurture you through your days? Are you memorizing any of it? Have you memorized anything? Probably not, ’cause you take these silly tests with a 2B pencil, filling in circles the size of a pin dot, that require you to know just about nothing. And once you’ve finished the element in which you are studying, it doesn’t matter if you ever see it again in your life or ever hear from it again in your life, ’cause it’s gone.
Do you realize how quickly the days of famine may come in spiritual terms? You say, “Well you, pastor, I’m waiting, you see, until I get through—I’m going to college. I’m getting the thing—the bachelor’s, the master’s degree—then I’m really going to buckle down to it.” Don’t be so sure. You buckle down now, young person. You get yourself a New Testament, keep it with you every day. Keep it with you in your back pocket, in your purse, front pocket, anywhere you go, keep your New Testament with you. Everywhere I went as a kid, after the age of about sixteen, I went with a tennis ball and a New Testament, not because I played tennis, but because I played soccer. My mother sent me for shopping, I kicked the ball up the street, against the wall, all the way there, and all the way back. Tennis ball. I figured if I could kick a tennis ball well, I’d be able to kick a regular-size soccer ball well. And I kept my New Testament. And I don’t say that to any credit of myself, ’cause I was a scurrilous, rebellious, jerky teenager, just as you would expect. But somehow God in his providence brought me through all of that chaos and all of that anguish and all of that pain and all of that stuff, and I wasn’t smart enough to realize that those things, in those apparently inconsequential days, were the things that would make it possible for me to be forty-three and forty-four years of age. Are you preparing?
There’s a famine in the land. Don’t tell me you can go anywhere and get biblical exposition. People write to us from all over the country: “Could you send us to a church? Could you find a church for us? We don’t know where to go. We don’t know what to do. They’ve got forty-five minutes of singing, ten minutes of sermon. The guy never opens the Bible, tells stories about dogs being trapped on the railway, and we don’t learn the Bible, and we don’t know what in the world is happening to us. Please help us, would you? There is a famine in the land.” And there is, as young man after young man after young man buys the idea that what you do is you find out what the consumers want, then you tell them what they want, and as long as you give them what they want, they’ll come back in droves. I can’t do it. I’ve got to tell you what you need, even though you don’t know what you want. And you come back; that’s fine. You don’t come back, I commit you into God’s care. Right? That’s the deal.
Preparing for the famine. Strength—using our strength now. “Well, when I get retired, I’m going to really kick in for the kingdom.” You might never be retired. Babe Ruth slugged it, swatted it as good as anybody, if I read history correctly. His life ended in a wheelchair. The old man that you meet at the nursing home with a cane, when he’s coming down, going for the tea—if you stop and talk to him he’ll tell you that he used to be a fullback, and he used to run through the defense, and he used to gain yards. And his eyes twinkle, and he’ll tell you that it happened yesterday. He feels like it was yesterday. It was sixty-five years ago.
If you and I are going to applaud the preparation for seven years of physical famine about food, and chicken, and beans, and vegetables, then loved ones, we’ve got to face the challenge in our own lives to be prepared for whatever the days will come and bring. We cannot always believe that it will be as today. We cannot always assume that we will have what we have. Therefore, we must lay up in time the opportunities. You’re going to spend your money once you get it up, once it gets ten percent and multiples and does all those things. Hey, you may be dead, and someone else will be disbursing your estate, and they won’t be smart enough or care enough to give the money in the way that you want it given.
You see, Joseph becomes the focus of attention. When the famine hits, as we’ll see next time, and all the people in verse 55 begin to feel the famine: “the people cried to Pharaoh for food, and Pharaoh told the Egyptians: ‘Go to Joseph and do what he tells you.’” “Go to Joseph and do what he tells you”—does that start your brain going somewhere, you’re just not kinda sure where? You know, like, that’s right. Because he foreshadows the one to whom we go facing the great spiritual famine in our lives: “Go to Jesus and do what he tells you.” That is the answer to the famine. That was the answer to the famine in Egypt, and that is the answer to the famine. Says Jesus, “I am the bread of life. He who eats of me will never hunger.” On the great day of the feast, he cries out to the people, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink and out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” Go then; go then to Jesus, and do what he tells you.
“Oh,” you say, “Well, I’m seriously considering it, and I think I’ll be going there sometime in the future.” I want to tell you that that is exactly what happened in Matthew 25 in the story of the five wise and the five foolish virgins. ’Cause all of them were waiting for the bridegroom, all of them had lamps, all of them trimmed their lamps, but only five of them gathered up enough oil to see them through the time when the bridegroom would come. And “at midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ [And] then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.” And suddenly, in that moment, it dawned on the foolish ones who said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.” “Uh uh,” they replied. “There may not be enough for both of us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourself.” And you can imagine these people, chasing through the streets, shouting to one another, “I think there’s a place open here! Oh, I think there’s maybe somewhere there.” And the screams as it became more and more apparent. And finally, when they managed to muster up what they had—which was nothing that they could supplement, because nowhere could be found—while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived.
I can’t press it on you enough, loved ones, that I am a dying man speaking to dying men and women, and there is no guarantee of another day to get to the source of supply. Do not be as the fools. And it says, “The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.” And “Later the others also came. ‘Sir! sir!’ they said, ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I do not know you.’ Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day nor the hour.”
So, don’t see the story of Joseph as a smart guy who dreamt up a real secure plan for dealing with a real problem in the Egyptian context thousands of years ago. It is historically so and must be interpreted as such, but it points us on to one of whom he is the foreshadowing, who in this moment in time says to us, “You come to me with your famine. You come to me with your emptiness. You come to me, and I will give you rest.” Have you ever done that?
Let us pray together:
Father, look upon us in your mercy, we pray. Pour out the spirit of Joseph upon us, that we may rest in your providence, that we might have a plan of action. Thank you that Joseph points us to the wonder of your plan. “Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan, and the grace that brought it down to man.” Fill, then, our gaze and our lives with the one who secured salvation for Joseph, even Jesus. For his name’s sake, we ask it. Amen.
 James 4:14–15 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 41:16 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 1:2–4 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 39:9 (NIV 1984).
 See Genesis 41:50–52.
 Isaiah 45:5–6 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 45:9–10 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 45:10 (NIV 1984).
 See Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972).
 May Taylor Roberts, “The Meeting in the Air” (1925) (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV).
 Jonah 1:1–2 (paraphrased).
 Jonah 1:3 (paraphrased).
 Jonah 1:4–17 (paraphrased).
 Jonah 3:1–2 (paraphrased).
 Source unavailable.
 Genesis 41:33 (paraphrased).
 See George T. Doran, “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives” Management Review 70 (11): 35–36.
 John R. W. Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (London: Marshall Pickering, 1990), 40 (paraphrased).
 See Matthew 6:19.
 John 6:35 (paraphrased).
 John 7:37–38 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 25:1–10 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 25:10–13 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 11:28 (paraphrased).
 William R. Newell, “At Calvary,” (1895) (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.