Providence Over Dreams And Forgetfulness

Genesis 40 Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker committed an offense against their lord the king of Egypt. 2 And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 3 and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined. 4 The captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them, and he attended them. They continued for some time in custody.

5 And one night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation. 6 When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled. 7 So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in custody in his master’s house, “Why are your faces downcast today?” 8 They said to him, “We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.”

9 So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph and said to him, “In my dream there was a vine before me, 10 and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” 12 Then Joseph said to him, “This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days. 13 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as formerly, when you were his cupbearer. 14 Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. 15 For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit.”

16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, 17 and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.” 18 And Joseph answered and said, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. 19 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you.”

20 On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a feast for all his servants and lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. 21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. 22 But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.


God’s providence is “his purposeful sovereignty by which he will be completely successful in the achievement of his ultimate goal for the universe. God’s providence carries his plans into action, guides all things toward his ultimate goal, and leads to the final consummation” (Piper, Providence). This is a slightly different definition than I gave you all back in January when we considered the providence of God in the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. And yet the heart of it remains the same: God’s providence is God’s guidance of the universe for His glory and His peoples’ good.

Sometimes God’s providence is explicitly stated (as in Genesis 50:20) and other times, as is the case in this chapter, it is more subtle. Regardless of its degree of visibility, however, God’s providential reign runs through every page of the Bible. Having worked our way through the first two chapters of Genesis, the fact that the world and everything in it belong to God ought to be clear. Having made our way through the next 40 chapters of Genesis, the fact that God’s mighty hand is over every aspect of creation to fulfill His purposes and promises, ought to be just as clear. In other words, even though we’re just partially through the first book of the Bible, we’ve already been given enough to see and love the doctrine of the providence of God. It is the way God has chosen to work in His world and the source of our hope that all of His promises are sure.

With that, I am happy to help you see the providence of God in Joseph’s place in the prison, the dreams of his cellmates, Joseph’s interpretation, and even in the cupbearer’s forgetfulness. I’m happy because every one of these examples of God’s providence provide yet another reason to trust wholly in God.

And here’s the point: God’s providential reign is over both big and small events, people, places, and things. It is over every fraction of a second, the most mundane tasks, the briefest interactions, every single penny, the youngest people, the farthest nation, and the tiniest joy and struggle. Through His providence, God is bringing everything together for the greatest glory and good. And because of that, we can trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ for our salvation and everlasting life. Would you pray with me that God would help us see these things, increasingly conform us to them, and then, in joy, share them with the world?


To be clear, the word “providence” never occurs in Genesis 40. In fact, it never occurs in the Bible. If it is a truly biblical concept, then, it is one like the Trinity or evangelism (concepts taught in the Bible without using the actual words). Providence is the word we give to the reality that is taught and displayed everywhere in Scripture.

It is perhaps mostly clearly stated in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Providence is simply another way of saying that God works all things together for good.

And with that understanding, it is easy to hear the same idea in Genesis 50:20, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

So what’s explicit in Romans 8 and Genesis 50, is more subtly (but unmistakably I believe) in Genesis 40; in our passage for this morning. In particular, I mean to highlight eight acts of divine providence from this passage; once again, in order to help you see that God is perfectly trustworthy, in order that you would trust in Him!

With that, consider with me the first expression of God’s providence (His working all things in this situation for the greatest good) found in the very first verses.

Providentially, Joseph was in charge of the prison when the cupbearer and baker arrived (1-3).

Providentially, Joseph had been in charge of the king’s prison for “some time” before the king’s cupbearer and baker arrived (1-3). It was no coincidence that the king’s servants were sent to prison, to that particular prison, or that Joseph was there and in the favor of the prison guard. As the rest of the chapter and book make clear, this was God’s doing.

Let’s back up for just a minute in order to ask, to what end is God exercising His providence? In other words, what good and glory is God after in sending two men to Jacob’s prison? As we read just a bit ago from Genesis 50, this was part of God’s plan to put Joseph in charge of Egypt in order to save millions from starvation. And that was to allow Abraham’s children to prosper in numbers and possessions. And that was to allow them to be humbled in their eventual enslavement in order that God might miraculously deliver them as a display of His unlimited and unrivaled power. And that was to help the Israelites trust in God as the One who would rescuing a people who had rejected Him as God, sinned against Him in countless ways, and stood condemned to death before Him. And that was to continue the line of Abraham’s to One who would rise up to set His people free—first spiritually, and then physically—reconciling them to God by offering His life as a ransom for their sin. And that was to fulfill God’s ultimate plan to get every ounce of glory for Himself and good for His people. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

The main point here is that the events of the beginning of Genesis 40 were not coincidental or by-chance. They were brought about by God as a means of fulfilling His great purposes. And indeed, even though God’s methods are often curious and hidden, their outcome is certain. In the end, then, whenever we read a story in the Bible or watch events unfold in our own lives, we can rest assured that they are under the sovereign hand of God to accomplish His great plan of maximum glory and good.

Having considered the theology of these first few verses, let me say a brief word about their practicality. Keep in mind that, although Joseph had the favor of the guard and things weren’t as bad as they could have been, it was still no desirable situation. We know that Joseph didn’t want to be there (we see that later when he asks the cupbearer to help him get out). What’s more, the fact that he’d been there for “some time,” but without any biblical indication that God had revealed Himself to Joseph during that time, means that this would have been a significant test for Joseph’s faith. This was a hard situation to be in. Joseph had trusted God to this point. He’d remained faithful through some remarkable trials already, but would he continue? How long would his trust in the good providence of God last in the face of such hardship? It’s one thing to understand the concept of God’s providence, it’s another thing to trust it when things aren’t great, and it’s another thing altogether to hold fast to it when suffering is severely unjust, prolonged, and without end in sight.

Providentially, the prison guard put the cupbearer and baker in Joseph’s charge as well (4).

Not only did God ensure that Joseph was in the same prison as the king’s servants, not only did He ensure that Joseph was in the favor of the prison’s keeper, but v.4 tells us that by God’s providential reign, Joseph was specifically given charge over the cupbearer and baker. This was in important aspect of God’s plan.

The main point for us here is that God’s providence is over even the most unexpected aspects of life. Who among us remembers that the person we bump into at Menards, or the guy sitting next to you at the MSU game, or the gal carrying in your ribs at Smokeys are all a part of the plan of God for the greatest glory and good? Joseph didn’t know when he met the cupbearer and baker what God would do through them; even as we don’t know which “random” encounter might be used by God in awesome ways. The application isn’t for us to stare everyone down, but to rejoice in the fact that everyone and everything we encounter is a genuine expression of the love of God. That’s life-changing.

Providentially, God gave a dream to both men (5-8a).

We noted before that not every dream has a specific meaning we’re meant to seek out. In fact, God used dreams to communicate His will to His people primarily before the completion of the Bible. Further, wherever God did mean His people to act on a dream given by Him, He made sure that the divine origin, as well as the meaning and implications, of the dream were clear—either by providing an interpretation or interpreter. Hebrews 1:1 speaks to this in fairly clear terms.

With that, God gave the dreams to the cupbearer and to the baker. The text says, “each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation.”

For reasons we’re not given, even before we’re told the content of the dreams, the text tells us the men were greatly troubled by their dreams. Did they not normally dream? Were these dreams more vivid than usual? Did God somehow reveal that these dreams were different? Again, we just don’t know. All we know is that they were troubled to the point that Joseph noticed.

There’s a familiar lesson here in the fact that God has given us everything we need to know, not everything we might want to know.

There’s another lesson here in the fact that God moves in mysterious ways. We have no promise that we will ever come to know all of why God does what He does; either in this life or the next. Much of the providence of God is and will always be hidden from us. Our job is to know His Word well, for in it God reveals all that he requires of us. The rest, we may wonder about, even as we entrust it to God.

And there’s a third lesson here in the fact that Joseph noticed the heaviness in the men’s’ countenances. Even though he had staggering troubles of his own, he was not so self-focused as to miss the pain of others. This is a good one for me to hear. I need reminders like this: to be present enough in life to notice when the people God puts in my path are heavy laden, selfless enough to care, and on-mission enough to offer a Lighter Burden.

Joseph knew that God’s providence extended to dreams (8b-11).

When the men explained the source of their troubled and downcast countenance (their dreams), Joseph didn’t even flinch to acknowledge God as the God of dreams. Therefore, without hesitation, Joseph rhetorically asked, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (8b).

I wish I knew how Joseph knew that God might interpret these men’s’ dreams through him. We’re not told of Joseph having the gift of interpretation. We’re not even sure Joseph fully understood his own dreams. Perhaps he didn’t know. Maybe he only said what he said in the knowledge that if there were an interpretation to be had it would come from God. And it was clearly all that needed to be said since the cupbearer immediately told Joseph his dream (9-11).

Providentially, Joseph listened to and interpreted the men’s dreams (9-19).

Interestingly, there’s no indication that Joseph prayed about the cupbearer’s dream. There’s not even an indication that God communicated anything to Joseph. The text reads as if Joseph simply knew what the dream meant as soon as he heard it. He functions like a kind of Google Translate from dream to Egyptian.

The cupbearer told Joseph the dream and Joseph matter-of-factly declared, “This is its interpretation…”. The short version is that the dream meant the cupbearer would be returned to Pharaoh’s favor and his position in just three days. It was good news indeed.

Encouraged, the baker told his dream to Joseph hoping for a similarly favorable interpretation. Again without hesitation, “Joseph answered and said…” the dream meant the man would die in three days at the hand of Pharaoh. For a second time we’re not told how Joseph knew this, but the text makes clear that by God’s hand, Joseph simply declared the dream’s meaning.

We’re don’t why the cupbearer received a favorable dream and the baker a most unfavorable one—just as we don’t know why some among us suffer greatly while others experience greater comfort. But we are sure that the outcomes of both dreamers, as well as everything we encounter, are from the hand of the LORD.

Joseph asked for a favor and entrusted it to the providence of God (14-15).

Before this particular scene closes, Joseph asked for a favor in the name of returned kindness and justice. Joseph had no doubt about his interpretation, to the point that he asked the cupbearer (and not the baker) to plead his case before Pharaoh when he was reinstated to his position. In simple and clear terms Joseph stated his innocence and asked for the cupbearer to seek nothing more than justice for him.

This explanation of innocence and request for help, combined with his pleading with his brothers while in the pit (), help us to see that it is OK and even good to highlight injustices and even to seek relief from them. But it also highlights the need to do so without placing our hope in a particular outcome, but in the universal goodness of the providence of God! As we noted earlier, whether we are delivered from injustice or left in it for longer, God’s providence ensures that it will be for our greatest good.

Providentially, every bit of Joseph’s interpretations came true (20-22).

Three days later, just as Joseph had predicted, the cupbearer was restored and the baker was killed. The exactness of Joseph’s interpretations was evidence their divine origin. Imagine how encouraging this must have been to Joseph. Having been given a right interpretation must have strengthened his hope that God was still with him and for him. And having been given a right interpretation of these dreams must have given him hope in his interpretation of his own dreams (about leading his family), which probably also gave him hope that the cupbearer would remember Joseph.

Providentially, the cupbearer forgot about Joseph’s request (23).

Finally, then, in spite of the remarkableness of Joseph’s interpretations, the restored cupbearer forgot to make good on the favor Joseph had asked for.

23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.

Consider once again Joseph’s plight. Wrongly enslaved. Wrongly imprisoned. His faith tested by being left in prison for “some time” without God’s intervention. Hope springing from such a clear act of God to give him interpretation of dreams. Hope springing from the idea that the cupbearer might plead his case before Pharaoh. All to come crashing down as it became increasingly clear that he had been forgotten.

Clearly, God had more prison-ministry for Joseph. We ought to consider that as well. Whenever we ask God for something in faith and we do not immediately receive it, we know for certain that God has something better for us in the continuation of our current circumstances. To pray for the will of God in faith, but to not be immediately delivered from sickness or difficulty, is to know that God has some glory yet to get and some good yet to give in our suffering. Oh, there’s so much help and hope in this, Grace. Oh that we’d increasingly become a church that believes this in every trial!

Therefore, let’s be very wary about thinking we can read God’s providence. If Joseph had really attached his hope to his deliverance by a particular means (the cupbearer’s advocacy), his hope would have been dashed. But Joseph’s charge wasn’t to trust in his thoughts on how the providence of God might work, but in the unwavering goodness of God’s providence in whatever form it might take.

While having been forgotten by the cupbearer might have felt like a crushing blow, in reality, as we’ll soon see, this was actually the turning point in Joseph’s struggle. God was testing and refining him. While Joseph didn’t know it yet, God was working in such a way that everything was about to start climbing back up for him. With this, let us rest easy and rejoice greatly in answered and unanswered prayers.


If it wasn’t already, I hope it is now easy for you to see God’s providence on display in this passage. I hope it’s easy for you to see the goodness of God’s providence for His people—always aimed at the greatest good and glory. And I hope these things combined make it easy for you to trust in the promises of God that are offered to all who hope in Jesus.