As If in a Dream

Please read Psalm 126 in your preferred version of the Bible.  I prefer the NIV (1984) and used it to prepare these remarks.

Joy comes with God’s renewal of His people.


       I hear concerns raised about how the Church in America is losing its influence on popular culture.  There are lots of reasons offered but I think it’s our impaired sense of humor that is a reason I don’t hear being discussed much.  We excel at “mourning with those who mourn,” but are morose about “laughing with those who laugh.”

          Realize two things: One, among all the beliefs on the face of the Earth, the Christian faith gives the greatest reasons for joy.  Two, the Bible is a book that is full of life and a great deal of what it has to say is couched in humor.

I could go on and on with examples and explanations, but it’s such a chore and time is limited, so let me offer just one example.  The humor of the Bible is situated in a time and culture that is very distant from our own.  Humor is something that is very dependent on the moment.  Have you ever related something funny that happened to you and got a deadpan reaction?  What do we say in response but, “I guess you had to be there?”

William Shakespeare wrote a number of comedies.  But to modern audiences, it’s hard to get the joke, especially when reading it.  Sir Richard Eyre, former head of the National Theatre and one of Britain’s most celebrated Shakespearean directors, said topical comedy dates “very quickly”, leaving the meaning lost to history.

More recently, here are some 19th century American jokes, tell me what you think:
“If conceit were consumption, he’d be dead a long time ago!”
“They say that too many minors have enlisted in the army, however I think that some of the minors are doing better than some of the Majors.”

“What’s the difference between a drunkard and a condemned man? One takes a drop to live and the other takes a drop to die.”

Not exactly side splitting stuff, right?  So we need Bible scholars to tell us why Bible humor was humorous, how Jesus’ reference to a plank in your eye was probably LOL to His peeps.  After all, we don’t have a “laugh track” to tell us which are the funny parts.

But let there be no mistake that the Bible has a lot to say on the subject of JOY and its perfectly obvious.  Let’s start with today’s text.

  1. Praise God for a dream fulfilled. (126:1-3)

The text offers four very descriptive signs of joy.

Joy Sign #1: WE WERE LIKE MEN WHO DREAMED.  We think of “dreams” as visions we receive while sleeping and as visions we realize while awake.

Normally, dreams are simply ways our subconscious ways our minds try to work out waking problems while we sleep.  God created dreams as a psychological “safety valve.”  Biblically, God has used dreams to reveal His will.  There is no indication in the Bible that God has ceased to do this.

On the other hand, we express our aspirations in order to give inspiration to others.  We need to be cautious here to not mix up our will with God’s.  Self-deception comes so easily we must submit these aspirations to the scrutiny of the church for affirmation.  Especially when we envision ways to do God’s will, the fulfillment of our DREAMS brings a special and abiding kind of JOY.  What we have here is a JOY so intense it feels dream-like, “too good to be true.”

Joy Sign #2: OUR MOUTHS WERE FILLED WITH LAUGHTER.  This phrase describes people who were giddy with joy, a happiness that demanded expression, one that could not be denied.  Laughter is not a sign of immaturity nor is it unspiritual if it flows out of godly joy.  The morality depends on what inspires a person to laugh: what’s in their heart at that moment.

Joy Sign #3: OUR TONGUES WITH SONGS OF JOY.  Like laughter, singing is a way we spontaneously express our JOY.  Wouldn’t it be great if life were more like a musical comedy?  We could express our JOY with singing and dancing, backed by a full orchestra!

Joy Sign #4: WE ARE FILLED WITH JOY.  They were FILLED, even to the point of overflowing, with JOY!  Anyone who doesn’t desire this level of JOY in their life is missing a vital part of a living, maturing faith.   To me there is a parallel between being FILLED WITH JOY and being Filled with the Spirit.

As verse two testifies even the pagan NATIONS noticed what God had done.  They offer the testimony of a “hostile witness” which carries extra weight because they have nothing to gain by misstatement or exaggeration.

We also need to understand the times.  People of this age were superstitious and tied their gods to their national identity.  For example, when your nation won a war, it was thought to be proof that your god was more powerful than your enemy’s.  In this instance, when the Babylonians conquered the people of Judah, the NATIONS concluded that the Babylonian gods were more powerful than the Jew’s God, Yahweh.

This means God allowed His name to be slandered among the nations in order to discipline His people.  On the other hand, later, when the people of Judah were allowed to come home, that was seen as their God’s triumph over the gods of Babylon.

Here’s what the NATIONS concluded: “THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR THEM.” (2)

Here’s the people of God agreeing with the pagan NATIONS; THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR US. (2)

Here’s the result: WE ARE FILLED WITH JOY. (2)

This joy was not from the pampered and comfortable, but from those who were CAPTIVES in Babylon.  There is a spontaneous kind of JOY that comes like a clap of thunder.  It is often undeserved or at least unexpected, and it departs as suddenly as it disappears.  There is also the kind of JOY that abides with you.  It comes as a sense of satisfaction after a good work well done.  It settles on your heart and warms it.  It stays with you, to some degree, and recurs when you recall the circumstances.  The first kind is exciting, the second kind, encouraging.

Those persons who, after 70 years of captivity, endured and then returned to their homeland experienced the first kind of joy when the news was announced and the second kind when the returned home and rebuilt Jerusalem.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who remained faithful in spite of what it cost them.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who stood against the seemingly impossible odds, travelling hundreds of miles on foot to a set of ruins.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who persevered against the elements and their enemies to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.

This is how life works for all of us, folks.  The worldly culture around us offers flashes of happiness in return to submitting to the captivity of their “groupthink” and the slavery to sinful appetites that is called “consumerism.” Not content to only offer distractions, the world also actively opposes faith; it belittles and battles genuine devotion to God.

We will know divine JOY when we ignore the distractions and remain faithful when we face persecutions.  This is a depth of JOY as described in this passage that the world will NEVER be able to give.

  1. A prayer for dreamers. (126:4-6)

When dreams come true, there is still work to be done.  When the initial joy of hearing that they COULD return to Jerusalem, then the realization of what that would take set in.  That’s why the passage makes the sudden jump from JOY to pleading with God.

RESTORE OUR FORTUNES, O LORD, sounds to me like a plea, a heartbroken prayer spoken when the ruins of Jerusalem were finally in sight.  Imagine how those returning from exile must have felt when they saw all the work and struggle that lay before them.  As people of faith, they cried out to God to help them do what, to worldly eyes, must’ve looked impossible.  Don’t let the word FORTUNES throw you; this is not a plea for prosperity as much as it is a desperate prayer for survival!

Historically, we know the returning exiles had to overcome a great deal of adversity to rebuild their land: lack of shelter, opposition from neighboring nations; the insecurity of the lack of suitable defenses; raiders; locusts; bad harvests; an extended drought; mountainous problems inflicted by both man and nature.  They had no idea what they’d got themselves into when they arrived, but they knew enough to prompt this crying out to God.

LIKE THE STREAMS OF THE NEGEV refers to a common experience of the people.   In that climate, streams and rivers can dry up completely.  One might not even recognize a riverbed when walking on it.  However, when the rainy season arrived, flash floods were common and the streams would be restored, full of water.

This would have been a common experience in the NEGEV, a desert area in the southeast part of modern-day Israel.  The people felt like a desert-dry stream bed, so they prayed that God would RESTORE them and fill them with life, just as He did with the dry streams in the desert.

In spite of the intimidating task before them, the returnees had hope.  They trusted in God, and from that trust came this promise expressed twice in vs. 5+6.



The TEARS and WEEPING are the physical signs of great sorrow.  They are the trails of trials that track down our face when we have to face opposition and obstacles.

If we think of them as “seeds” we can be assured these sorrows are designed to ensure a fruitful future.  We’d prefer a gentler, kinder, experience, but that’s not the way the world works.

In ancient cultures, sowing a seed was a symbol of burial and came to be associated with grief over a death.  Both Jesus (John 12:24) and Paul (1CT 15:36) used this imagery to teach about life overcoming death.  Trust that the seed will grow; that with the harvest, there will be SONGS OF JOY.

I read a provocative statement in an article entitled “Three Absolute Truths that Determine the Harvest,” by Dr. George Bannister.  He wrote, “It has been said that the problem with Southern Baptists is that we are ‘A harvest oriented denomination in a unseeded generation.’”

His point was that there can be no harvest without sowing.  It is not enough for churches to keep their doors open and expect people to seek us out and step through them.

Ken Ham made a similar point in his new book Gospel Reset: Salvation Made Relevant.  We are living in a culture that is ignorant of the basic truths of Scripture.  The culture has dismissed the Bible as irrelevant and disregarded sin as a relative to the situation.  The Church in America is stuck in a mode where we’re answering questions no one is asking, using language they don’t understand, referencing things that have largely disappeared from our culture, except as objects of ridicule.

We want the joy of salvation.  There is no joy in this life that is sweeter than helping someone find Jesus as their Savior.  If we are to know this joy, we must plant those seeds.  There is an unmistakable connection between joyful reaping and passionate seed-sowing.

God announced this principle in Galatians 6:7, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: a man reaps whatever he sows.”  We can resist this cultural trend in media and politics, but the forces allied against us have the advantage in those areas.  Our advantage is the power of God and the truth.  These advantages are most influential in personal relationships.  Rather than assault the culture directly, it makes more sense for us to put the majority of our effort into establishing relationships and making friends with those outside our faith.



The Daily Study Bible Series, George A.F. Knight

Bible Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown

The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Lawrence E. Toombs

Zondervan Bible Commentary, F.F. Bruce

Hostile Witnesses?

(Please read Matthew 2:1-12 in your favorite Bible.  I have used the NIV for these remarks.)

You may have heard the phrase “hostile witness” in a TV courtroom drama.  The practice of designating someone a “hostile witness” is quite rare in actual courtrooms; or so I’ve read.

Witnesses for the opposing side are always treated as “hostile” in the sense that they’re going to testify against you.  And normally, witnesses for your own side are “friendly” in the sense that their testimony will help you make your case.

Without complicating the matter, asking the judge to declare one of your own witnesses as “hostile” allows the attorney to ask more leading questions of the witness.  Instead of questions that must be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” the lawyer can ask questions where the answer is more complex and the answer is implied or included in the way the question is worded.

<Researched at on 12/8/16.>

The thing about hostile witnesses on which I want to focus is that they’re generally believed to be more objective about an issue because their bias would be contrary to the case at hand.  Take the Magi, or wise men, as an example.  They were not Jews.  They were not Christians, because that term had not been coined yet; the Founder of our Faith was still learning to talk and perhaps be potty trained!

These were not people who would lie or exaggerate to make a case for Jesus as the Son of God, let alone as the King of the Jews.  Their actions were directed by their pagan beliefs and superstitions, not by faith or any philosophy supportive of the Jews and their God.

As we will see, an exciting part of this account is that these non-Jewish men recognized Jesus as the rightful King of the Jews nearly three decades before any Jewish folk came to that discovery.  Their recognition of the Christ-child is something God accomplished – in part – outside His usual means of revelation.  He used people who were not His people to confirm that He had indeed kept His promises.

Here we are at the “Three Kings,” or the “Wise Men,” as they have been called over the ages.  Here is the part of the Christmas story that has the most effect on the cultural celebration of Christmas.  The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas flows from the gifts of the magi to baby Jesus.  Just think of economic impact if they had composed poetry in His honor instead?  How would the American retail sector survive without the annual influx of cash in December?

Forgive me that skepticism.  What matters here is that the Magi witnessed to the true identity of the Baby in Bethlehem.

  1. The magi provided a pagan witness to Jesus’ identity.

Who they were: astrologers and court magicians who gave advice to kings.  Their beliefs bear a resemblance to the beliefs of a number of modern Americans: henotheism.

Wikipedia defines “henotheism” as the belief in and worship of a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities. Ancient peoples were extremely territorial and they believed that the gods were too; the popular superstition was that all gods existed and competed for worshipers and space on earth through the nations that they patronized.

This is the religious flipside of the modern politically correct view of “tolerance” set in a religious context.  While people of those cultures were competitive about their beliefs, they weren’t at all concerned about disproving the existence of anyone else’s gods.  These men were not Jews and they did not start out as believers in Jesus in any sense that would be familiar to us.

In this context, men like the MAGI were schooled in the beliefs and practices of many religions and sought to learn from them all.  They wanted to use their knowledge to divine the future and thereby establish their usefulness to the governing powers of their time.

As superstitious people do even in our own time, the MAGI believe that there was a cause and effect relationship between the movement of the stars and the actions of people.  Astrology was one of the tools they used to try to divine the future.

What they did is more important to our study: they came from Persia looking for a king.  They were seeking a KING OF THE JEWS, a political figure. We might conjecture they were seeking knowledge or political influence; we aren’t told whether their motives were selfish or not.  It seems more likely to me that they spotted this star, reported it to their king or nobleman and that person sent them on a quest to find the king and open relations with them.  In this case, their motive is primarily duty.  This would have been an extension of their job.

There are three clues the text gives us to measure the status of the MAGI and the effect of their visit.

– Verse three shows they were taken so seriously that the question they asked DISTURBED King Herod and the entire city of Jerusalem.

– In verse four we read the king called together ALL THE CHIEF PRIESTS AND TEACHERS OF THE LAW to research the answer to the Magi’s question.  The key word here is ALL.  The Magi were given VIP treatment!

– In verse eight, Herod attempted to use them to flush out the child-king.  Once exposed, he undoubtedly planned to have the child killed, which is how Herod dealt with all threats to his throne.  This implies Herod’s respect for the Magi in the sense that he was to some degree certain they would succeed in their mission.  If they found the newborn king, you can be Herod wanted to be first in line right behind them!

  1. The magi set an example for us to follow.

They are an example of seeking. The MAGI undertook such a long and difficult journey, so we can safely say they were highly motivated.  Further, they were motivated enough to leave their homeland with only a general destination in mind; they knew they had to go to Judea.  As Jerusalem was the capital of Judea, they likely went their first.  As they were court officials they knew how to behave around a king and may have carried papers that officially introduced them.  It’s logical to assume they went to Herod first.

Once Herod directed them toward Bethlehem, verse nine tells us the STAR took over and somehow directed them to the exact place in the village where Jesus and His family resided.  In spite of the way the scene is depicted on Christmas cards and in crèches, the MAGI did not appear on the same night as the shepherds (see Luke 2:1-20).  Based on the next passage (2:16), we think the MAGI arrived two years after Jesus’ birth.  This does not mean their search took them two years.

The point is this: they completed their quest.  They were OVERJOYED at seeing the STAR and having it guide them on the last leg of their journey to the new Jewish king.  (In fact, the original language is redundant, bordering on gushing; “thy rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly.”)

They did what they were commanded to do back in Persia: find and open relations with the new king.  They BOWED DOWN AND WORSHIPED HIM.  Normally, this phrase refers to the respect given royalty but it does not rule out the devotion offered to divinity.  The MAGI gave expensive gifts to the baby Jesus; gifts befitting a king.

In this, the MAGI accomplished their mission.  But I believe they must have immediately sensed there was more to this child than had been revealed to them by the STAR and Herod’s religious researchers.  As we will learn next week, the three gifts served a practical purpose.  Joseph was commanded to take Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt.  The GOLD, FRANKINCENSE, and MYRRH could be sold/traded/spent there to provide the small family with the resources they needed to survive.  This was Providence at work.

Have you ever wondered why they followed through in this way?  Why weren’t they surprised to find a “king” in a peasant’s house?  Why didn’t they assume they’d made a mistake and turn for home?  My guess it was the STAR.  It was the STAR that had started them on this journey and it was the STAR that lead them to the end.

I wonder how highly motivated we are?  The availability of information and the abundance of churches can make finding Jesus pretty easy.  Or is that the case?  Have we complicated matters with our endless options and minute variations?  Are we compromised by worldliness?  Has our culture put blinders on us so we see only what is directly ahead and have only a partial conception of the bigger world and our even-bigger God?

They are an example of obedience to God.  In verse twelve, the MAGI received a message from God in much the same way Joseph had back in 1:20; IN A DREAM.  There is no mention of an ANGEL appearing in their dream and it is a warning, not a command.

Think about two things here: One, how seriously these superstitious men would have taken a dream.  Interpreting dreams was part of their daily work, so the dream was, like the STAR, a very effective way for God to get their attention.  Two, we see God’s grace in sparing them from Herod’s violence.  Don’t doubt for a moment that a violent, sinister man like Herod would hesitate to use torture to extract the information about the child’s exact whereabouts from them if they returned to Jerusalem.  We’ll talk more about Herod next Sunday, but he was paranoid and very near the end of his life at this time.  He would have had no hesitation to hurt and kill the MAGI in order to get at the new-born KING OF THE JEWS.

Also in verse twelve, we see the MAGI taking seriously the warning they were given as they RETURNED TO THEIR COUNTRY BY ANOTHER ROUTE.   Remember, back in v. 8 King Herod had specifically commanded them to come back to Jerusalem and report their findings to him.  To not do so was to risk his wrath, and thereby risk their lives.  This is no small decision.

Ruthless and powerful, King Herod was a very real threat; but they chose to give more heed to a dream they all had shared.  Not everybody would be wise enough to heed God more than the king.  Do you suppose that’s why we call them “the wise men?”

Years later, when the baby Jesus had become a man He said in MTW 10:28, “DO NOT BE AFRAID OF THOSE WHO KILL THE BODY BUT CANNOT KILL THE SOUL.  RATHER, BE AFRAID OF THE ONE WHO CAN DESTROY BOTH BODY AND SOUL IN HELL.”  I would say that the MAGI are an example of someone who possessed this wisdom.

            In his sermon entitled, “The Wise Men Worship The King” Pastor David Anderson made the following observations about the MAGI and their unique place in the NT story of Jesus.

  • These Magi are not identified with perfect precision.
  • Educated speculation says that they were likely the priestly caste of the Medes and Persians.
  • Daniel refers to the “magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams”
  • These Magi are called “wise men” because they were people of learning. Think of these folks as a mixture of being the elite, the intellectuals, and the religious priests of their culture.
    • They were like science-math-literature-priests.
    • They were astronomers/astrologers.
    • Star-gazing book worms.
    • And they were Gentiles.
    • There is no indication they were kings.
  • And there is no indication that there were only three of them. There were three gifts, but this doesn’t prove a thing.
  • Sorry to ruin the Christmas song, “We Three Kings from Orient Are.”

So what do we take away from the account of the Magi’s visit to the Christ-child?  What can we learn from these events and how can we put it to work in our lives?

We can follow the example of zeal and dedication in following God that the Magi showed in seeking the newborn king of the Jews.  They set out on a long and difficult journey to a foreign land with very little to guide them.

We, on the other hand, have all the information we need and don’t need to move an inch to find Jesus.  What’s required from us is faith.

The Magi recognized Jesus as King and responded appropriately: they worshiped Him and  immediately obeyed His command.

(If you’d like the video version of this message, look up EBCSF on YouTube.)

Joseph: From Prisoner to Potentate

(Please read Genesis 41 from your favorite version of the Bible.  My citations (in capital letters) are from the NIV.)


Message: God lifts up the humble.


There was a hunter on a hunting expedition in the Amazon.  As the sun rose, he noticed a family of large birds. The mother bird tended to the baby birds while the father flew from place to place retrieving food for his hungry family.      While watching this scene, the hunter caught sight of a poisonous snake slowly making its way towards the mother bird and the babies, anticipating an easy meal. About the same time, the father bird dropped food at the nest and spotted t snake. The father bird quickly flew away. The hunter was disappointed, thinking that the father bird abandoned his family to a certain death.      He kept an eye on the father bird and saw it break off a leafy twig from the bush and rush back to the nest, where the serpent has come dangerously close. The father bird placed the leaves over the front edge of the nest closest to the snake and then he retreats to a nearby branch to watch.

The serpent drew to within striking range. It coiled itself and launched itself toward the baby birds. However, when the snake touched the leaves it instantly recoiled in pain and fell out of the tree.

The hunter asked the native villagers about this strange turn of events.  He said, “I don’t understand why the snake pulled back.” The villagers explained that the leaf the father bird chose was from the only bush in the jungle that was poisonous to the snake. The father bird knew how to protect his nest.

  1. Pharaoh had disturbing dreams (vs. 1-8).

TWO FULL YEARS pass between chapters 40+41. Virtually everything is in twos: both the prisoners’ and Pharaoh’s dreams are repeated twice, Pharaoh had two dreams to make one point, and Joseph had two sons.  Chapters 42-44 are two very similar plot Joseph unfolds to trick his brothers.  All of this is for emphasis and to show God’s hand in the events as they unfold.

Once again we observe that God’s timing is better than ours.  Had the cupbearer mentioned Joseph two years earlier, Pharaoh would’ve had no need of him.

Even before he learned the meaning of the dreams, Pharaoh was disturbed. In verses 4+5 we observe that Pharaoh awoke and fell asleep again. How well does that work for you?  Might that indicate “troubled sleep” as far as you are concerned?

Verse 8 says pointedly, PHAROAH’S MIND WAS TROUBLED.  That explains why, when he told Joseph about the dreams that he editorialized a bit: “I HAVE NEVER SEEN SUCH UGLY COWS IN EGYPT (v. 19).” Given the way these dreams turned from good to bad, his emotional reaction is understandable.  He had a nightmare double feature!

All this explains his immediate reaction: HE SENT FOR ALL THE MAGICIANS AND WISE MEN OF EGYPT (v. 8).  No help there,  as Pharaoh said, “NONE COULD EXPLAIN IT TO ME” (v. 24).

The first dream took place at the Nile.  It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Nile in Egyptian culture.  They saw that river as the origin of their national life, their most important resource.  If the Nile was corrupted, then that would weigh heavily on Pharaoh’s mind. As it was customary to fatten cattle on the grasses & plants that grew on the banks, the connection of cattle and the river was not itself out of the ordinary.

Regarding the grain, imagine a single seed producing up to 14 stalks and on each stalk a head producing 30 grains.  That’s 420 spikelets per stalk! In Egypt, an eastern wind has blown over the Saharan desert, becoming a hot blast of air that withers plants.

Strictly on his CUPBEARER’s say-so, PHARAOH SENT FOR JOSEPH (v. 14).  The cupbearer’s lack of gratitude to Joseph still stands.  He is only now mentioning Joseph because he is desperate to be useful and to appease Pharaoh.  This shows Pharaoh’s trust in his cupbearer and/or his desperation for an answer.

  1. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and solved his problem (9-36).

Joseph once again attributed to God his ability to interpret dreams (v. 16).  This is a sign of humility and faith – directing people’s attention back to God. By faith Joseph made a confident promise: “GOD WILL GIVE PHARAOH THE ANSWER HE DESIRES.”

Joseph also repeatedly identified God as the giver of these dreams – not the Egyptian pantheon of gods, but the one true God.

While interpreting the dreams, he also set forth a solution to the famine fore-shadowed in Pharaoh’s dreams.  This is the most significant part of the whole exchange.

  1. God lifted Joseph up (vs. 37-57).

Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph and so convinced of God’s hand on him that he elevates him from prisoner to potentate in an instant!  He noted Joseph’s qualifications in verse 39: “GOD MADE ALL OF THIS KNOWN TO YOU” and “THERE IS NO ONE SO DISCERNING & WISE.”

He elevated Joseph’s authority, from Assistant Warden to Assistant Pharaoh!  Note the specifics:

– He put Joseph “IN CHARGE OF MY PALACE.”

– He proclaimed that “ALL PEOPLE [will] SUBMIT TO YOUR ORDERS.”

– In rank, Joseph was second only to Pharaoh.

– Pharaoh said Joseph would be “IN CHARGE OF/T WHOLE OF EGYPT.”

– He gave Joseph several signs of office, including Pharaoh’s own SIGNET RING, ROBES OF FINE LINEN to replace his prisoner’s garments, and A GOLD CHAIN AROUND HIS NECK.

– Joseph had the honor of riding “shotgun” in Pharaoh’s chariot.

– Pharaoh gave Joseph an unpronounceable and hyphenated name; both very cool!  The name meant “revealer of secrets,” or “savior of the land,” or, in an ironic twist, “a wise man who flees from adultery.”

– He gave Joseph an Egyptian princess as his wife.  It is possible that her father worshiped the one true God and so Pharaoh did not require Joseph to marry a pagan woman and thereby compromise his beliefs.

Verse 46 says that Joseph was 30 years old when he came into Pharaoh’s service.  He was seventeen when he was first brought into Egypt, spending thirteen years in service to Potiphar, and three in prison.

Most importantly, God elevated Joseph, making him successful and blessed.  Joseph was blessed with two sons whose descendants would each become half-tribes of the nation of Israel.

But the most important sign of god’s blessing is how Joseph’s plans succeeded.  God blessed Egypt with super-abundant crops for seven years.  The word ABUNDANCE in v. 47 literally means “handful.”  Imagine this: just the one-fifth of these crops provided more grain than could be reliably counted (v. 49)!  God used Joseph’s administration to save Egypt and surrounding countries during the seven years of famine.

Remember, regardless of the people involved, the hero of every biblical story is God.  God’s hand is the one orchestrating these events, it is His timing that brings dreamer and interpreter together at just the right time.  God’s action in human history is called “providence” and this is one of those occasions when providence takes place on a big scale, affecting the outcome of nations.


Joseph: Prisoner (Part Two)

(Please read Genesis 40.)

     Dreams have always fascinated us and since they can have such a profound emotional impact, we have long sought to understand them.  The “Dream Bible” website is one example of our attempts to utilize our dreams.

“Welcome to The Dream Bible.  A free online A to Z dream dictionary dedicated to helping people understand the meaning of their dreams. Unlike other dream interpretation websites or books we extensively research dream symbols by interviewing people about the events occurring in their lives at the time of their dreams.  Inspired by the work of Gillian Holloway Ph.D, we are using a database of over 350,000 dream reports to create the world’s most practical dream dictionary based on the waking life experiences of regular people.      “We hope that our work will help you to gain insight into the hidden meanings of your dreams.  Please feel free to browse the site, post your dreams on the forum, or contact us with any of your requests.”

They list 4,851 “symbols” (specific dream interpretations) on their website.  As a example of what you can expect to find at the website, I’ve included the entry for “umbrella” below.  Have you ever dreamed about umbrellas?  If so, this one is for you!

“To dream of an umbrella represents emotional protection from disappointments or uncertainty you are experiencing. Casual feelings about disappoints effects others having no impact on you. Preparedness for troubling or sad moments. The ability to shield yourself from depression, pessimism, or being inundated by a negative situation. A reflection of how optimistic or prepared you feel when problems or delays arise. An umbrella may be a sign that you are trying to keep a positive attitude during an unpleasant situation.      “To dream of an umbrella that won’t open represents a lack of preparation for disappointment. Preparations not working as expected or not enough preparations. Having a hard time keeping optimistic or positive when problems arise.      “To dream of an umbrella that leaks represents an optimistic or enthusiastic attitude despite a persistent problem. Feeling that you level of preparedness was barely enough.

“Example: A man dreamed of seeing someone carrying an umbrella. In waking life he had been working very hard on his business to make it comply with potential future regulations when suddenly the regulations became mandatory. His felt that his responsible foresight made him very prepared for the difficulty of complying with the regulations while he watched his competition fail hard due to their lack of preparations.”

<Retrieved from on 8/29/15.>

Now that we’ve seen the amateur approach, let’s turn to Genesis 40 and see how a real “pro” interprets dreams.

Message: God does not always immediately reward our faithfulness.

  1. Joseph got two new “cellies.”

Let’s note two things to set up this portion of the story of Joseph:

– SOME TIME LATER (v. 1) – though the length of time is not specified, this phrase implies that Joseph’s imprisonment was not brief.

– THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD ASSIGNED THEM TO JOSEPH (4).  Ironically, this is Potiphar, the guy who put him there.  Maybe based on the warden’s recommendation (39:20b-23), Potiphar’s attitude toward Joseph changed; maybe his anger at being reportedly cuckolded cooled.  However we describe it, this is a vote of confidence for Joseph from a “hostile witness.”

One of Joseph’s new cellmates had been the CHIEF CUPBEARER.  He did more than carry the king’s goblet around.  He tasted all the king’s food and drink first to make sure it was not poisoned.  He was also in charge of Pharaoh’s vineyards.  The word for CUPBEARER is also translated as “butler” and shows that this position had a considerable range of responsibilities in providing care for the king.

In this very personal kind of service, the cupbearer often became a person of great influence.  For example, hundreds of years later, Nehemiah, the Jewish cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, enjoyed the favor of the king and had enough personal wealth to return to Jerusalem and oversee the restoration of the City of David.

Joseph’s other new cellmate was the CHIEF BAKER. The word BAKER is used in the Bible to refer to all kinds of cookery (see 1 Samuel 8:13; Hosea 7:4), so it’s possible this man had charge over all the eats in Pharaoh’s house.  This would be like a “head chef,” or “chief chef” in this case. Ancient Egyptian documents confirm that there were 38 kinds of cakes and 57 kinds of bread baked in Egypt, so this man had a lot of responsibility. Though the Bible does not confirm this, tradition says that the prophet Hosea was a BAKER as well.

They had both OFFENDED (v. 1) Pharaoh, and that’s the reason for their imprisonment.  The word OFFENDED has a lot stronger emotion in the original language – “enraged” would be a better translation.  But he couldn’t deal with them too harshly: their politically-connected families might make trouble.  We’re not told what the offense was, but we’ve all had that experience that when problems arise, it’s the middle-level managers who take the fall.  SOME TIME (v. 4) passed as they were prisoners under Joseph’s management.  Having this relationship with Joseph explains why they took news of their dreams to him.

  1. Joseph renewed his ministry as dream interpreter.

Whereas before, he had interpreted his own dreams, now Joseph interpreted the dreams of others.  Notice that these men do not seek Joseph out to interpret the dreams for them: he asked them why they were so down-hearted (vs. 6-8).  Joseph is careful to note that interpreting dreams is something that comes from God, not himself: “DO NOT ALL INTERPRETATIONS BELONG TO GOD?”  This is a considerably more humble attitude than he showed as a young man back in c. 37.

The divine origin of Joseph’s interpretations is born out in the fact that the meaning is not immediately obvious.  For example, the chief cupbearer’s dream is explained in vs. 12-13.  “THE THREE BRANCHES ARE THREE DAYS.” See how that’s not obvious?  I could have been three of anything.  The dream predicted the CUPBEARER would be restored to Pharaoh’s good graces.  He would be recalled from prison and restored to his place of service.

The chief baker hoped for similarly good news (vs. 18-19).  His expectation may’ve been based on the similarity of the numbers: “THE THREE BASKETS ARE THREE DAYS.”  The difference was that Pharaoh drank the cupbearer’s wine but he did NOT eat the baker’s bread.  Pharaoh’s anger burned more hotly against the baker and he was executed by cutting off his head and leaving his body hanging to be eaten by vultures.  You can imagine how the BAKER might be disappointed with this interpretation.

  1. Having your dreams come true isn’t always a good thing.

The occasion (v. 20) for Pharaoh’s reconsideration of these men and the significance of the three days in their dreams was Pharaoh’s birthday party three days after Joseph’s interpretations.  Pharaoh LIFTED UP [both their] HEADS during the feast, but with entirely different results.  No reason is given for the split decision: the will of Pharaoh needs no explanation or justification.

The chief cupbearer got the best part of this deal (v. 21).  HE RESTORED THE CHIEF CUPBEARER TO HIS POSITION, SO THAT HE ONCE AGAIN PUT THE CUP IN PHARAOH’S HAND.

The chief baker got the worst of the deal (v. 22), being put to death.  I wonder if this meant Pharaoh got no birthday cake!

Here is a further injustice Joseph suffered: his situation did not change. In vs. 14-15, Joseph made an extended plea with the CUPBEARER to REMEMBER him when he had regained Pharaoh’s trust and his ear.  The CUPBEARER would be in a good place to alleviate Joseph’s unjust imprisonment.  This did not take place immediately.  Ch. 40 ends with this note: THE CHIEF CUPBEARER, HOWEVER, DID NOT REMEMBER JOSEPH; HE FORGOT HIM.  (SPOILER ALERT: He will make up for this shortcoming in 41:9-13.)  No doubt this was human nature; we get excited about good fortune and forget how we came by it.

One reason this is important is to prove that Joseph did not misuse his divine gift of the interpretation of dreams for personal gain.  It was of no immediate benefit.  In fact, as we’ll see next week, Joseph would remain in prison for TWO MORE YEARS before the CUPBEARER would use his position to help Joseph!!

Another reason for this lapse is to teach us – along with Joseph – that good works do not always receive an immediate reward.  This is one of those situations where faith is required.  We exercise faith to remain steady in doing the good work to which God has called us and trust Him to reward as He wills, in His timing.  As Paul wrote in Galatians 6:9, LET US NOT BECOME WEARY IN DOING GOOD, FOR AT THE PROPER TIME WE WILL REAP A HARVEST IF WE DO NOT GIVE UP.

Why are we studying Joseph’s life in such detail? We do so because he was a man of particularly noble character.  Apart from some youthful boasting the fault for which can be laid partially on his father, Joseph is the patriarch with the most godly character.  He is also the one who rises to the greatest height of worldly achievement.  Joseph is the one man in Genesis of whom it is written, that God’s Spirit indwelled.

Pharaoh (41:38) said, “CAN WE FIND ANYONE LIKE THIS MAN, ON IN WHOM IS THE SPIRIT OF GOD?”  He answered his own question in the next verse; “SINCE GOD HAS MADE ALL THIS KNOWN TO YOU, THERE IS NO ONE SO DISCERNING AND WISE AS YOU.”  This is a secular witness agreeing with what was said twice in the previous chapter (39), that the LORD was with Joseph.

Hundreds of years later, God would raised up Daniel, a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams very much like Joseph.  God used both these men to prepare His people for the two most important points in their history.  He used Joseph to prepare them to become a nation in the first place.  He used Daniel to prepare them to become a nation again, after God’s people had been carried away in captivity.  In both cases, God’s people emerged from slavery to forge a new national identity.

God may not use you or I in such historical fashion, but the example of Joseph is one worth studying and following just the same.  We should desire to be filled with the Spirit and gifted for service as Joseph was.

Joseph: Sibling Rivalry (Part One)

(Please read Genesis 37:1-11.  My remarks are based on a study of the NIV.)

Message: Family relationships need MORE grace, not less.

The book of Genesis is a record of sibling rivalries, with the winner always being the younger brother!

– The sons of Adam, Cain and Abel.

– The sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac.

– The sons of Isaac, Esau and Jacob.

– The sons of Jacob, the eleven vs. Joseph. To the best of my knowledge, the only one of the four rivalries to be retold in a major Broadway production is Joseph.  In fact, I had a bit part – Levi, one of the eleven brothers – in a community theater production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

According to our modern-day oracle Wikipedia, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a musical or operetta with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. This was the first Lloyd Webber and Rice musical to be performed publicly.

The show has little spoken dialogue; it is completely sung-through. Its family-friendly storyline, universal themes and catchy music have resulted in numerous productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; according to the Really Useful Group, by 2008 more than 20,000 schools and amateur theatre groups had successfully put on productions.

(Retrieved from on 7/31/15.)

1. The setting (37:1-2).

     Verse one is actually the conclusion of chapter 36; the end of the spotlight being on Jacob’s story. Like his ancestors, he lived in Canaan, but as a sojourner, not as a permanent resident.  He did not own any of the land on which he lived and worked (see Hebrews 11:3).  The story of Joseph is the beginning of the transition from Canaan to Egypt.  It’s titled, THE ACCOUNT OF JACOB.  Actually, it’s more about Joseph.

What do we know about Joseph?

– Though he’s referred to as A YOUNG MAN in this passage, Joseph wasn’t a kid: 17 years old was five years past the age of manhood.  He was NOT the “baby of the family,” Benjamin was born after him. So why did the writer refer to him in this way? This reference may imply immaturity.  His actions in chapter 37 are typical of an immature guy.

– His father had 2 wives and had fathered some of his 13+ children by means of his wives’ handmaids.

– He kept the family trade: a shepherd.

 2. The causes of sibling rivalry (37:1-11).

     The first involved Joseph: Being a tattletale (v. 2).  We’re not given the details of this incident, but we don’t need them to get the point is that Joseph’s reporting it to Jacob gave Joseph’s brothers reason to dislike him.

Tale-bearing is condemned in Scripture as a sin of the tongue, a variation on the sin of gossip.  For one example among many, I offer Proverbs 20:19: A GOSSIP BETRAYS A CONFIDENCE; SO AVOID A MAN WHO TALKS TOO MUCH.  The person who is guilty of being a tattle-tale is motivated by a desire to get someone else in trouble.  Being a tattle-tale has a divisive effect on relationships.


The second involved Jacob: Showing favoritism (vs. 3-4).  The text says that Jacob (aka Israel) LOVED JOSEPH MORE THAN ANY OF HIS OTHER SONS.

There were two reasons for Jacob’s favoritism.  In v. 2 it is written; BECAUSE HE HAD BEEN BORN TO HIM IN HIS OLD AGE.  Actually, Jacob was more middle-aged when Joseph was born and Benjamin was the last child Jacob had with Rachel.  So what does this mean?

– In 44:20 the same phrase used of Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother.

– Perhaps it refers to Jacob’s temperament; Joseph was born at time when Jacob was of a more “grandfatherly” bent.

While there is no excuse for favoritism, the other reason Jacob felt it was because Joseph’s mother was Rachel, the love of Jacob’s life.  In 29:30; Jacob LOVED RACHEL MORE THAN LEAH.  Joseph must have reminded Jacob of his beloved wife in some special way.

One of the ways Jacob demonstrated his favoritism of Joseph was in buying him an expensive gift: a RICHLY ORNAMENTED ROBE.  The Hebrew means “a coat of extended length;” it reached to the hands and feet.

– The idea that it was multicolored is found only in the earliest versions of the Bible.

– The only other place i/t Bible this term is used is in 2 Samuel 13:18-19 in reference to the KIND OF GARMENT THE VIRGIN DAUGHTERS OF THE KING WORE.  This is not the garment of a working man, but someone of privilege and authority.  The brothers may have seen this as their father’s way of setting Joseph above them, that he was promoting Joseph!

– The point is that the garment was extravagant and left the others feeling unloved in comparison.  This preferential treatment made Joseph’s brothers jealous. The coat became the focus of their anger with Joseph, one of the most important props in the entire story of the Bible.

The third was on Joseph: boasting about his dreams (vs. 5-11). We need to remember that people in this time took dreams very seriously and had no trouble believing them to be communications from God

This made Joseph’s dreams feel threatening.

There were two dreams, variations on a theme, both of them ending with Joseph’s brothers bowing down to him.  That Joseph had 2 dreams may be significant.  In chapter 41, after Joseph had been in prison for TWO years, the king of Egypt had TWO dreams that lead Joseph’s release and rise in power.  In Genesis 41:32 Joseph explained the reason for God supplying two dreams; “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.”

Verse five makes the point that Joseph’s boasting was part of the reason his brothers hated him: JOSEPH HAD A DREAM, AND WHEN HE TOLD IT TO HIS BROTHERS, THEY HATED HIM ALL THE MORE.  The brothers were angry that Joseph had two such dreams and that he rubbed their faces in it.  Perhaps their actions were motivated, in part, to make sure that Joseph’s dreams did NOT come true.

As we know, the dreams did come true; the brothers bowed down to Joseph on four different occasions; GNS 42:6; 43:26; 44:14; 50:18. In v. 9 of that chapter, Joseph then remembered the two dreams that started all this.

When Joseph boasted to his brothers about the first dream, their angry reaction was predictable and understandable; “DO YOU INTEND TO REIGN OVER US?  WILL YOU ACTUALLY RULE US?” (37:5-8).  Verse eleven reports that the brothers were also JEALOUS of Joseph.

After the second dream of this type, Joseph boasted to his father (37:9-11).  He probably expected a more approving reaction than what he got; “WHAT IS THIS DREAM YOU HAD? WILL YOUR MOTHER AND I AND YOUR BROTHERS ACTUALLY COME AND BOW DOWN TO THE GROUND BEFORE YOU?” Jacob retored.  It sounds as if Jacob had also taken this personally.  As it turned out, Rachel was dead and the text never tells us that Jacob bowed to Joseph, so the SUN AND MOON part did not apply to Jacob and Rachel.  We are left to wonder who was indicated by these symbols.

Jacob, having been the schemer all his life, was more thoughtful than his sons: he KEPT THE MATTER IN MIND.  That being the case, it seems strange how he never questioned the brother’s story of how Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

K.A. Kitchen, writing in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, summarized the story of Joseph in this way:

“The story of Joseph is the story of a spoiled child and dreamer, sold into Egyptian slavery by jealous brothers, subjected to ups and downs, culminating in his becoming real ruler of that ancient land, and divinely placed there, to save his people and countless others in dire need from famine.”  (ISBE, Vol. 2, p. 1126.)