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Practical Lessons from the Story of Joseph: Chapter 3 - An Interpreter for God

By J.R. Miller

      Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it." "I cannot do it," Joseph replied to Pharaoh, "but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires." Genesis 41:15-16

      Joseph was an interpreter for God. There are two instances recorded in which he made known the meaning of dreams. The first was in the prison in Egypt. Two officials from the king's palace were among his fellow prisoners. Joseph had risen to influence in the prison. "The Lord was with Joseph, and showed him mercy, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison," is the way the Bible puts it. "And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph's hand all the prisoners that were in the prison." So when these distinguished prisoners from the palace came into the dungeon, they fell under Joseph's care.

      One morning when Joseph was going his rounds he found these men sad. He had a sympathetic heart, and he asked them, "Why do you look so sadly today?" They told him that they had each dreamed a dream the night before, and there was no one to act as interpreter for them. Promptly he said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams." The men in turn told him their dreams, and Joseph told them the interpretation. He was God's interpreter to them, showing them what God's Word for them was.

      The other case was that of Pharaoh. He had two dreams in one night. In the morning his spirit was troubled, and he wished to know what his dreams meant. He called for Egypt's wise men, who were supposed to understand dreams--but none of them could interpret the king's dreams. Then it flashed upon the memory of the chief butler, that two years before, a Hebrew slave, in Potiphar's prison, had interpreted his dream, and that it came about as the young man said it would. Soon Joseph stood before Pharaoh, listening to a recital of the dreams that so troubled the king.

      "Pharaoh said to Joseph--I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it." Joseph's answer reveals his humility. It shows also his courage, for in the presence of the heathen king he honors his God. "I cannot do it," Joseph replied to Pharaoh, "but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires." Then he told the king the interpretation of the dreams. We know how important was the message of God that Joseph read in Pharaoh's dreams. Think what woe and sorrow and devastation were averted, not for Egypt only--but also for other lands, by the interpreting of those dreams. Think what it would have cost the world, if no interpreter had been found. He read the divine meaning that lay folded up in the king's dreams, and the king was enabled by gathering the surplus of the harvests in the years of plenty to feed his people and the starving people of other lands, in the years of famine which followed.

      Thus, Joseph was an interpreter for God. He explained to others the meaning of what God was saying to them. Some writers speak of Joseph as a type of Christ. There certainly are many striking points in which the life of Joseph seems to shadow forth that of Jesus. Like our Lord, he was his father's beloved son. He was sent by his father to visit his brothers on an errand of love; so Jesus was sent. He was seized by his brothers and sold by them for silver; so was the Son of God. Through his bondage and humiliation, Joseph became the deliverer, the savior, in an earthly sense, of his brothers and of the world; Jesus, dragged to death, made redemption for His people. Joseph as an interpreter for God, was also typical of Christ, the great Interpreter. In the largest sense, Jesus is the interpreter who alone has made plain to the world--the nature and the will of God, and who alone can unfold to us the meaning of the divine revealings for our personal life.

      It is only in Christ that we can know God. "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." As Jesus walked among men and was asked to reveal the Father, he said "He who has seen Me--has seen the Father." The mysteries of the divine nature, were interpreted in Christ. He was the love of God made visible on the earth. Joseph interpreted men's dreams, in which God's words were wrapped up. Jesus heard men's questions, and gave answers to them. He made plain and clear to them, the meaning of the divine teachings. All mysteries vanish, as we sit at Christ's feet. He is the great interpreter for God.

      But there is a sense in which we are all called to be interpreters. When Joseph came to the cell of the prisoners from Pharaoh's palace, he saw a deep gloom on their faces. When he asked why they looked so sad, he learned that the cause was their uninterpreted dreams. They were sure that the dreams had a meaning which concerned their future, and they were burdened and anxious to know what the meaning was. So it is with people all about us. There is sadness in their faces. There are lines that tell of perplexed thought, of earnest questionings which get no answers, of deep cravings to know which cannot be satisfied. If we were to ask every sad person we meet, the reason for his sadness--we would find that it is the old story of these prisoners unanswered questions, uninterpreted mysteries, unexplained trials, unsolved perplexities.

      We all need interpreters. The dreams of these two prisoners, really were words of God referring to their future, lamps of divine revealing which threw gleams of light upon their destiny. One was a foretelling of life, the other of the swift coming of death. But the men could not understand the words in which the revealing was made. So, in Pharaoh's case, the dreams were not mere meaningless dreams--but were words of God to the king. They were words, too, of the utmost importance, for they concerned the coming days and were meant to guide the king in his caring for his people. God meant that Pharaoh should know the meaning of the dreams in order that he might act according to the wisdom which this new revealing of the future required. It would have been a great calamity, if he had not learned what God had spoken into his ear in these visions of the night. But without an interpreter he never could have known.

      So we all stand in this world, in the midst of mysterious writings which we cannot read, having our dreams and visions whose meanings we cannot ourselves interpret. Yet these writings and these visions are really God's words to us, divine teachings, which we ought to understand, whose meanings it is intended we should find out. They have their lessons for us. They hold messages of comfort for our sorrows, of guidance for our dark paths, of instruction for our ignorance, of salvation for our perishing life. We cannot live as we should live--unless we learn the meaning of these divine words. We need interpreters.

      Take the little child. It comes into the world knowing nothing. On all sides are wonderful things in the phenomena of nature, in its own life, in the lives of others, in books, in art, in science, in providence; but every door is locked. The child does not understand anything. It cannot read the simplest written sentence. It does not know the meaning of the commonest occurrence. Yet it is here to learn all it can of the mysteries which lie about it. All these things contain words of God, which it is intended that the child shall hear and understand, words which concern its own happiness and well-being in the future. But the child needs an interpreter. As soon as it is born, it begins to learn. When it is only a few weeks old, we see the questions in its eyes. With the first prattlings of speech, it begins to ask what this means, and what that is. When it is taught to read, its wonder grows. Books are full of great secrets. As it becomes older, life's mysteries rise before it. "How do I see? How do I hear? How does my heart keep beating, beating, beating, without pause, day and night? What is that strange voice within my heart, which keeps forever saying 'I must, or I must not?'"

      Nature, too, has its endless mysteries for the child. We all know how children ask questions. Some of us at times grow almost impatient of their endless interrogations. But the truth is, these mysteries all about them, these strange phenomena, these things they do not know and cannot make out for themselves, are words of God which it is meant they should understand. The children are not impertinent in their incessant asking, What? and Why? and How? They have a right to know what these strange things mean. They would be poor stupid things--if they did not care to find out. Their lives would be incomplete, half-blessed, or failures, if they never learned them. And it is our duty, to act as interpreters to them.

      The mother is the child's first interpreter for God. She hears its first questions, and seeks to answer them. She tells it the meaning of a thousand things. Then the child's school teachers come next, with their interpretations. The church, too, has its function of interpretation for childhood, for the most important of all revealings of truth are those which concern God and his will for man, what he is, what are his feelings toward us, what he wants us to be and to do.

      But not childhood alone needs an interpreter; ail through our life, even to the end, we come continually to questions which perplex us, and we have dreams and visions which trouble us. Life is full of enigmas. We bend over the Bible and find texts we cannot understand. The Ethiopian treasurer, sitting in his chariot, and reading the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah, reading with deep interest--but not knowing what the words meant, is a picture of many of us. "Do you understand what you are reading?" asked the interpreter, who stood beside the chariot. "How can I, except someone guides me?" answered the puzzled reader. Then the evangelist sat beside him and showed him a blessed revelation of the Messiah, in the words which he had not been able to understand.

      Who has not bent over what seemed obscure Bible texts, unable to find out their sense, until some interpreter came and made the meaning plain? But it is not for the words of God written in the Bible alone, that we need interpreters. There are mysteries in providence; they come into every life at some time. There are dark days in which no light breaks through the clouds. There are nights in which no star shines. We sit with sad heart and with gloom in our face. All things seem to be against us. We cry out with pain and fear. Yet in these very providences, there are words of God hidden--good words, words of love, words of mercy.

      A minister was talking with his child, about some trouble the child had, and taking a book from his table he pointed to a verse. The child could not make out the words, could not even name a letter. It was in a language he did not know. Then the father told him what the words were, putting them into English. As he did this, the child's face began to brighten. It was a Greek New Testament in which he was reading, and the words were words of love from the lips of Christ. The child needed but to have the interpreter to show him beauty and blessing, where all had been mystery before to his eyes. So it is that God's dark providences appear to his children. Yet thoughts of divine love lie in them, and we need only to have them interpreted to us.

      These are only hints of the great mysteries that lie about all of us in this world--all the way from the cradle to the grave. God gives his messages in many forms: in nature, in the lives of others, in his providences, in history, in his Word, in books and friendships, in circumstances. But how often does the writing baffle us! We need interpreters to read off for us the mysterious handwriting.

      All of us in our turn, are to be interpreters to others. Joseph found the two prisoners sad--and his heart was touched with sympathy. He became eager to comfort them. That showed a noble spirit in him. He had a warm, gentle heart. No one can ever be greatly useful in this world--who does not enter into the world's experiences. Christ was moved with compassion when he saw human pain, sorrow and sin. At once his love went out to the sufferer, and he desired to help and save. Wherever we go--we see sad faces, telling of unrest, or broken peace, of unsatisfied longings, of unanswered questions, of deep heart-hungerings. Sometimes it is fear which writes its lines on the pale cheeks. Sometimes it is perplexity over tangled circumstances, which darkens the features. Sometimes it is baffled longing; sometimes it is unquenchable desire to know the future; sometimes it is eagerness to learn more of God.

      We are sent to be interpreters, each in our own way, and in the things that we know. When we think of it, we see that all the rich knowledge of the world, has come through God's interpreters. Along all the ages seers have been climbing to the mountain-tops, where the first light breaks, catching the divine meanings in God's writings, and then interpreting them to others. There have been prophets in every age, gifted to look into the scrolls of truth and read off the words and their meaning. The scientific knowledge we have today, has come through many interpreters who have learned to read God's word in nature. For nature is one of God's Bibles. Long ago David wrote, "The heavens tell of the glory of God. The skies display his marvelous craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or a word; their voice is silent in the skies; yet their message has gone out to all the earth, and their words to all the world." Psalm 19:1-4

      All nature's works, are pages written full of noble thoughts from God. But not all of us can read the writing. Thousands walk through this world with lovely plants and flowers and a million forms of vegetable life all about them, with the grandeur of mountains, hills, rivers, seas and landscapes on all sides, and with the brilliant splendor of the skies and the starry heavens overarching them--and yet never see anything in all this to stir their heart to admiration or their mind to rapture or praise. But there have been interpreters, men with eyes which saw, and with ears which heard--and they have told us something of the wonderful things that God has written in nature.

      Or take the literature of the world. It is the harvest of many centuries of thought. In every age there have been a few men who have looked into truth with deeper, clearer vision than their fellows, and have heard the whispers of God's voice; then coming forth from their valleys of silence, they have told the world what they have heard. They have been God's interpreters.

      Take the treasures of spiritual truth which we possess today. How have they come to us? We know how the Bible was written. God took Moses up into the mount, and talked with him, as a man talks with his friend, speaking to him great truths about his own being and character, and giving him statutes and laws for the guidance of men; then Moses became an interpreter to the world of the things God had shown him.

      David was an interpreter for God. God drew him close to his heart and breathed heavenly songs into his soul; then David went forth, struck his harp and sang--and the music is breathing yet through all the world.

      John was an interpreter for God. He lay in Christ's bosom and heard the beatings of that great heart of love, and learned the secrets of friendship with his Lord; then he passed out among men--and told the world what he had heard and felt and seen; and the air of the world has been warmer ever since, and more of love has been beating in human hearts.

      Paul was an interpreter for God. Christ took him away from men and revealed himself to him, opened to him the mystery of redemption as to no other man, and Paul wrote the many divine letters we have of his, which have been marvelous in their influence throughout all these Christian centuries.

      But not alone have these inspired men been God's interpreters; many others since have taken up the Word of God and have read new secrets, blessed truths, precious comforts, which had lain undiscovered before, and have spoken out to men what they found. Evermore new insight is breaking forth from the Bible.

      God gives to every human life that he sends into this world--some message to speak out to others. Indeed he never gives anyone anything to keep for himself alone. Every beam of light he flashes into any soul, from a text of Scripture, from a note of song, from a flower, from a star in the heavens, from a book, from the heart of a friend--is an interpretation which is to be given out again. The words he speaks to you in the darkness--he wants you to utter forth in the light. Into the heart of every creature therefore, he puts something which he wants that creature to speak out to the world.

      God gives the star a message of light--and we look up into the heavens at night and it tells us its secret. Who knows what a blessing the star may be to a weary traveler who finds his way by its beam, or to the sick man lying by his window and in his sleeplessness looking up at the glimmering point of light in the calm, deep heavens?

      God gives to a flower a message of beauty and sweetness, and for its brief life it tells out its message to all who can read it. And who can sum up all the good that even a flower may do, as it blooms in the garden, or as it is carried into a sick room?

      But especially does God give to every human life, a message to interpret. To one it is a new revealing of science. A great astronomer spoke of himself as thinking over again God's thoughts, as he discovered the paths of the stars and traced out the laws of the heavens. To the poet God gives thoughts of beauty which he is to interpret to the world, and the world is richer, brighter and better for hearing his message.

      Thus to everyone of us, even the lowliest, God whispers some secret of truth which he wants us to interpret in word or act to others. We cannot all make books or write poems or hymns, which shall bless men; but if we live near the heart of Christ, there is not one of us into whose ear he will not whisper some fragment of truth, some revealing of grace and love; or to whom he will not give some experience of comfort in sorrow, some glimpse of light in darkness, some glimmering of heaven's glory, in the midst of this world's care.

      God forms a close personal friendship with each of his children--and whispers to each one some special secret of love which no other has ever learned before. That now is your message, God's own peculiar word to you--and you are his prophet to forthtell it again to the world. Let each one speak out what God has given him to tell. If it is only a word, it will yet bless the earth.

      Suppose that Joseph, knowing by divine teaching, the meaning of Pharaoh's dreams, had remained silent; think what his silence would have cost the world. Or suppose that John, having leaned upon the Lord's breast and having learned the inner secrets of his love--had gone back o his fishing after the ascension, and had refused to be an interpreter for Christ, what would the world have lost!

      If only one of the million flowers that bloom in summer days in the fields and gardens, refused to bloom, hiding its little gift of beauty--the world would be less lovely. If but one of the myriad stars in the heavens should refuse to shine, keeping its little beam locked in its own breast, the nights would be a little darker. Every human life that fails to hear its message and learn its lesson from God, or fails to interpret its secret, keeping it locked in the silence of the heart--in some measure impoverishes the earth. But every life, even the lowliest, which learns its word from God and then interprets it to others--adds something at least to the world's blessing and good.

      It is the interpretation of life--which makes for most in blessing the world. Our creeds may be good--but unless we interpret their articles into sweet, beautiful living, in this world of sorrow and sin--our orthodoxy will count for little. One writes of a day in the dead of winter, when even men and women wrapped in furs could scarcely endure the biting cold. Yet in the midst of it all, wearing only tatters which flapped in the wind, passed a child, shivering and crouching, as in mumbled words that seemed frozen on his tongue; he called out the name of his newspaper. One face by its genial light arrested his calling. "May I have a paper?" he asked. The kind eye glistened as the stranger took the newspaper and glanced at the stiffened fingers, dropping into the boy's hand the value of his fifty papers. "Ah, poor little friend!" he faltered, "Don't you shiver and ache with cold?" The boy, with a gulp of gladness, sobbed out, as he raised his eye to the warmth of the face above him, "I did, sir--until you passed by!"

      That was a bit of true interpretation. We should try to get men and women to know of the love of Christ, and we never can do it in sermons and bible-lessons alone; we must do it in deeds, in living, in humble service; in love which interprets itself in kindly helpfulness; and in truth which is wrought into honesty, integrity, uprightness and holiness.

      Joseph was an interpreter for God; we must be God's interpreters. How? We must live near to God, so as to hear what God has to say to us. We must study God's truth, that his words may become plain to us. If Joseph had yielded to temptation; if he had let his heart grow bitter under injury and wrong; if he had lost his faith in God in the darkness--he could not have been God's interpreter when he was called to tell others the meaning of the divine teachings. So must we keep our heart gentle and warm, our hands clean, our faith strong, and our character right--if we would be God's interpreters to others.

      Let us set ourselves anew, to the task and the duty of being the interpreter for God. Let us learn well the meaning of God's Word--that we may interpret that. Let us seek for the key to God's strange providences, that when we are beside those who are perplexed and in darkness, we may speak to them the interpreting word of divine peace. Let us get into our heart so much of the word, the spirit, and the love of Christ--that we may show in our daily life--the beauty of Christ. Whittier truthfully tells us that,

      The dear Lord's best interpreters
      Are humble human souls;
      The gospel of a life--
      Is more than books or scrolls.
      From scheme and creed the light goes out,
      The blessed fact survives:
      The blessed Master none can doubt,
      Revealed in holy lives.

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See Also:
   Chapter 1 - Joseph and His Dreams
   Chapter 2 - From Prison to Palace
   Chapter 3 - An Interpreter for God
   Chapter 4 - Joseph and His Brothers
   Chapter 5 - Joseph and His Father
   Chapter 6 - Joseph in Old Age and Death


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