Words of Prophetic Blessing
Dying with a sound mind obligates us to encourage the next generation to faithfulness. Even if we are in pain or struggling with various fears – and who among us is as fearless facing death as our Savior’s victory over the grave gives us cause to be! – we should want those after us to walk closely with God and maintain the faith once for all given to the saints (Ps. 145:4). Dying and death must not enfold us in self-pity but open the very well springs of our soul so that we pour out all our faith and love upon those around us. Jacob called his sons together to give them a prophetic benediction. His words were a father’s blessing, and he also spoke as Israel, the heir of God’s covenant and leading member of his church on earth. His words, being prophetic, shaped the future of his sons. This does not mean that his words were like chains from which his sons could not escape, but they were covenantal. Life is covenantal. How we live in the present shapes our future. Some of what Jacob said was based upon his sons’ past actions. He blessed his righteous sons and cursed his ungodly sons. They might have personally repented at some level, but their actions were so evil that future generations suffered for the sins of their fathers.
From this we are confronted with a basic truth of biblical religion. Personal character and decisions exert significant influence upon our future. Most today believe that life is atomistic and that sin, if such exists, only affects the individual and only the moment, but this is far from the case. Others say that since God’s grace abounds in Christ, God no longer works covenantally or across generations, but everything in Scripture and in our own experience cries against such childish thinking. Daily we see in families and nations the consequences of the decisions of previous generations, for which we either suffer or rejoice. Since this is the case, we ought to shun sin as a plague from the pit of hell. Sins such as unbridled lust and violent anger cast long and dark shadows upon the future. At the same time, God’s visitation of our sins upon future generations assumes that we “hate him” (Ex. 20:5). To those that love God and hate their sins and strenuously endeavor to fight against them and overcome them by his strength, he promises mercy to their children. It is in this way that we take seriously the impact of the present upon the future. God rewards godliness and punishes sins, not only for the individual man or believer but also in his children’s lives, generations, and entire peoples, so that no life fails to exert some impact upon those living after. At the same time, his grace leads us to pursue holiness in his fear (2 Cor. 7:1) so that we can expect his mercy to blot out our sins if we are loathing and forsaking them, so that our children are blessed far beyond anything we deserve or can expect.
Dying Well and Treating the Dying Well
It is likely impossible to alter the way most die today – in death homes set apart to this purpose, often drugged. Any social alteration will be the aggregate of individuals choosing to die differently – with good faith in Jesus Christ, hope in God, and giving a final gift to those around them. And what is that gift? To hear words of blessing and encouragement that inspire faithfulness and even rebuke sins, as we see here. This is to die well – when we determine to fight against sin and fear to our last breath, commit our souls into God’s loving hand, and call upon the next generation to serve the Lord. For this to happen, the living must learn to treat the dying better – not pushing them off into homes unless absolutely necessary; treating them with dignity; encouraging them to trust God until their last breath; praying that they will give us some blessing before they die. Sad it is to contemplate the generally selfish way we live today so that giving such a blessing is not on our minds. Yet, if we are to serve God to the end, we must think of those coming after us, what they need to hear from us, and the way we can call upon them to serve God faithfully. Pray, believer, that the Lord will help you to live as one who must soon stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and then to die with words of faith and hope upon your lips.
Three Disappointing Sons (vv. 3-7)
3 Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: 4 Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou went up to thy father's bed; then defiled thou it: he went up to my couch. 5 Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations. 6 O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honor, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self will they digged down a wall. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.
Reuben’s Place Lost through Lust (vv. 3-4)
Reuben committed foul incest forty years earlier, but the stain was never erased. His sin was aggravated because he was the firstborn and therefore obligated to give a better account of himself to honor his father and to set an example of godliness for his brothers. Those with higher position and responsibility in the family, church, and nation are expected to honor those in authority over them and set an example for those under them. When this does not happen, the entire fabric of society breaks down, as we see in our day. Reuben was the beginning of his father’s strength and dignity and power – but he was effervescent, bubbling or boiling as water. He would not contain his passions and defiled his father’s bed, pulling it down. Because of this, he lost his place.
He may have repented and obtained his father’s forgiveness, but the consequences of his actions were permanent. Most today think that this would be unfair – are we not washed in the blood of Christ and forgiven and made new men? Yes, our Savior does this wonderful work in his children (1 Cor. 6:11). We are not to think from this, however, that there are no consequences for our actions. The Lord forgives and chastens. And since we have greater light than Reuben enjoyed, we must be more careful to restrain our passions, for seventh commandment sins exert a particularly horrible influence upon generations to come, even upon whole societies through discontent, divorce, and disease. We are told to flee lusts and vile passions, for they plague our souls and provoke God’s displeasure with us (1 Cor. 10:7). It is God’s will that we possess our bodies in purity (1 Thess. 4:3), and the power of his gospel is felt powerfully at this very point, that where the flesh rages the most intensely, Jesus is able to subdue the body and its cravings by his power (Phil. 3:21). Nothing will lose a man honor, place, and opportunity, as well as peace and joy of conscience, as unrestrained lusts.
Simeon and Levi Dispersed Because of Angry Violence (vv. 5-7)
Jacob’s next two sons fared no better. How dreadful it must have been to hear one’s sins exposed from the bed of a dying father! Everyone knew about these particular instances, but do we not often think that time will erase the memory of our sins? For Jacob to mention them must have been like a summons from God’s very judgment seat, calling these men to turn from their sins and crimes against his majesty. Let us be very thankful when men rebuke our sins and even bring our secret sins to light, for God thereby calls us to deal with them on this side of eternity, by judging ourselves (1 Cor. 11:31) and turning to the Lord Jesus Christ with sincere confession of our filth and resolve to repent by the power of the Holy Ghost. But Simeon and Levi – brothers not simply by blood but in one mind and will – were angry and cruel men. They murdered Shechem and the men of his city. Jacob does not curse them, but their anger, but at the same time, he distanced himself from their councils and cruelty. It sounds so noble and gracious for men to say, “Love the sinner but hate the sin,” but sometimes the sins are so terrible that the sinner can be loved only at a safe distance.
Simeon and Levi may have thought themselves to be justified for taking vengeance upon Hamor, Shechem, and the Shechemites for raping Dinah, but they were in fact vigilantes. No amount of family loyalty or offense at mistreatment done to our families gives us the right to take justice into our own hands. Even if we are justly defending ourselves, we must not give way to vengeful brutality, for this reveals a warped soul and one bucking against God’s government of our lives. “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Prov. 16:32). Because of their anger, Jacob pronounced their dispersion throughout Israel, which in fact happened. It is better to keep angry and violent men apart. At the census after the thinning out of the wilderness death march, Simeon’s numbers had shrunk from 59,300 to 22,000 (Num. 1:23 w/ 26:14). Eventually, they were absorbed completely into the remaining tribes. The Lord turned Levi’s curse into a blessing, as his dispersion eventually was as the priestly tribe. If Simeon shows the consequences of unrepentant sin down through generations, Levi shows that through subsequent faithfulness to God, as when the Levites stood with Moses against Israel and idolatry, blessing can be recovered. But anger blights our homes and our children. With an angry man no one should go or draw near. Do not learn his ways. If you had an angry father, do not think of God in this way. If you are an angry, violent person – physically, emotionally, or verbally – immediately remember Simeon and Levi, confess this great wickedness, and ask the Lord to form his meek and gentle heart in you.
Judah Saves the Family…and the World (vv. 8-12)
8 Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father's children shall bow down before thee. 9 Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? 10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. 11 Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass's colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes: 12 His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.
The Lion of the Tribe of Judah (vv. 8-9)
The salvation of Jacob’s family and of the world at this moment lay in the promise of a dying man. Pause and take in the weakness of the gospel. The whole world and all the reason of man are against such a scheme. It is utterly laughable that this family, this dying old man, and this one man Judah hold in their hands the salvation of the world. The splendor of Joseph’s reign and of Egypt was more promising, but Jacob with dim and darkening eyes looked away from all this and sought Judah. As his grandfather did, he looked ahead and saw Christ’s day – distant but clear (John 8:56). Judah will be the praise of his brothers and the terror of his enemies – certainly the days of David and Solomon are included in this vista but cannot be exhausted in them, for their years and glory faded into obscurity. Judah will be like a lion – three Hebrew words for lion are used – the young, the strong, and the lioness – perhaps the three phases of Judah’s future. When Judah seems old and tired, who will rouse him up? There will be echoes of this in Isaiah’s “tender shoot” – different metaphor but the same idea – when it looks as if the strength of the tribe is exhausted, he will yet arise and bring salvation to the world (Isa. 53:2). The Lion has come in Jesus Christ (Rev. 5:5), and like a lion, he now marches against his enemies, tears them, and then lifts up his head from the brook, looking for his next enemy to conquer and soul to save (Ps. 110:7).
Shiloh: The King of Peace and Righteousness (vv. 10-12)
Through rolling years and jarring changes, the scepter shall not depart from Judah until Shiloh comes. This does not mean that God will always bestow visible glory upon the line of Judah, for through sin and judgment, it sunk into such obscurity that men doubted it would ever rise again. God’s promise does not require the sight or recognition of men in order to be operative. So it was in Judah. What we have here is really the seed of the woman promise now made extremely specific on one man and his line. They will enjoy times of external prosperity and dominion, but the true goal of God’s working out this promise is Shiloh. This otherwise unused name for the Messiah signifies peace. It is strange to human judgment to think of scepter and lawgivers leading to peace. Most think in terms of militarism and statism. But the goal of Shiloh’s reign is “peace on earth.” A later name of his will be “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). God will bring peace on earth through righteousness – conformity to his will. Modern leaders forget this again and again. There is no peace for the wicked (Isa. 48:22) because peace is harmony with the divine will, obedience to God’s revealed will in Scripture.
Judah will enjoy unfolding material prosperity – the choicest wines came from Hebron and Engedi in Judah. He will enjoy the cream of the land that flows with milk and honey (vv. 11-12). Judah was a prosperous tribe, numerous, and positioned near the center of the camp. The capital of the nation would later be at Jerusalem, the city of David, in the tribe of Judah. And yet, if we are to think of these promises as referring chiefly to material blessings and Jewish prosperity in Canaan, we obviously miss the main point, as the Jews and various millenarian groups continue to do to this day. These blessings reach their climax in the person and work of Jesus Christ, David’s son and Lord, the lion of the tribe of Judah. He alone has brought in everlasting righteousness and therefore unassailable peace through his obedience unto death and sinless sacrifice on Calvary. He is the seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16), the seed of the woman, and the heir of all things. And he came from Judah. And Jacob here speaks of him almost two millennia before he came. He alone will save Jacob’s family and all the families of the nations so that God’s promise to Abraham will be realized and the earth filled with the knowledge of his glory.
Blessings upon the Remaining Sons (vv. 13-27)
13 Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon. 14 Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens: 15 And he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute. 16 Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. 17 Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward. 18 I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD. 19 Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last. 20 Out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties. 21 Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words. 22 Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall: 23 The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him: 24 But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob; (from thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel:) 25 Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb: 26 The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren. 27 Benjamin shall raven as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.
Jacob then turned to Leah’s remaining two sons, with their birth order strangely reversed. Zebulun means exalted. Jacob began almost to portion out the land of promise, for faith can see much farther than any earthly eyes (Deut. 33:18-19)! Zebulun will receive his land on the coast and enjoy merchant prosperity. Issachar (“recompense”) will be like a bony ass – strong and able to bear heavy burdens. He will also be indolent and willing to bear tribute, provided he enjoys prosperity. The blessing element receded somewhat as Jacob prophetically revealed the destiny of his sons. Dan (“judge”) will be as his name – a judge among his people, with something of a vexing spirit, as a serpent bites at the horse’s heel. Does this refer to Samson, who sprang from Dan, and delivered God’s people not so much by the power of the sword but by causing continuous trouble for the Philistines?
The closer to death Jacob drew, the clearer the future was to him. He saw the troubles and changes facing his sons and their descendants, and he cried out, “I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord” (v. 18). He may have asked for strength to finish these prophesies before expiring. Something more, I think, is expressed – that there was no possible way that his sons could survive and see the Savior brought into the world unless the Lord upheld them. He, Jacob, waited for the Lord’s salvation – would his sons wait for it? Would Egypt gobble them up? Almost, but not quite. Would future troubles and even seasons of prosperity make them forgetful of the ultimate promise? Yes, but the Lord would preserve a godly seed, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Malachi, and later, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Anna, and Simeon, who like their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, waited for the Lord’s salvation. We must also wait for our blessed Savior. Although he has come and sealed the everlasting covenant with his blood, his kingdom does not come according to fallen human expectations but must ever be like its pure fountain – cross bearing, self-denying, humble, world defying and world hated, enduring by seeing him who is invisible but who has now come in the God-man, Jesus Christ. We wait for more glories than Jacob could see, but wait upon the Lord we must, watching unto prayer, keeping our lamps lit and filled with oil through fellowship with the Holy Spirit and obedience to his word.
For Gad (“troop”), he would be pressed or “trooped,” a play on his name, but he shall overcome at the last. This in fact happened in the days of Saul, when the Moabites and Ammonites were finally subdued by the Gadites (1 Chron. 5:18). Asher (“happiness”) shall enjoy fatness and royal dainties, as well as supply them to the other tribes. Naphtali signified “wrestling,” and he will be quick in carrying out his business and able to speak good words. Joseph received a longer blessing, which is hardly surprising, for he had suffered gross injustice from his brothers, but proved the most faithful, and then brought the greatest good to his family in terms of their temporal preservation. He will be fruitful, as he proved to be through his two sons and throughout a long and undoubtedly blessed life in Egypt. The Pharaoh’s in Joseph’s lifetime did not forget him but revered and kept his deliverance in constant memory. He was sorely provoked and shot at by archers – sad when a man’s enemies are they of his own household (Matt. 10:36) – but God upheld him and made him strong.
We must never, never forget, not until the end of the world when our Lord Jesus returns, that Joseph’s life primarily teaches us the power of God to uphold us in the worst possible circumstances so that we are not only able to endure them but also to overcome them and be used of God in them. Jacob then pronounced the richest conceivable blessing upon Joseph: the God of thy father help thee, bless thee with heaven above, of the deep, blessings of the breast and womb. Mesmerizing – the blessing of your father, Jacob, has prevailed – the total blessing of God will rest upon Joseph’s head, and we may say, upon him who is so completely the fulfillment of Joseph’s delivering work if not his direct descendent, Jesus Christ. Unto the everlasting hills, higher, enduring, solid, he shall be blessed. Jacob was breathing his last breaths as he spoke – love and hope and grace poured from his lips. Once hated and separated from his brothers, Joseph will be the source of blessing for his family. They will bow to him. God’s word must have the final say!
Benjamin only remained, Rachel’s only other son. Jacob would have spoken more tenderly and more fully had he been guided by fatherly affection rather than the spirit of prophecy. Benjamin will be warrior, a tearing wolf – like Ehud and Saul, who descended from this tribe, and Esther and Mordecai through whom the Jews were delivered from their enemies in the days of the captivity, and also Paul, through whom the gospel went boldly into the Gentile world. Through the apostle to the Gentiles, the Lion of the tribe of Judah continues to divide the spoil with the great and to spoil his enemies (Isa. 53:12). What a vista of grace and covenant and glory Jacob saw in those last earthly seconds – a Moses before Moses, standing upon Pisgah looking not simply at the land of promise but at the whole history of God’s people for two millennia, until Shiloh came, and then beyond to our own day. O Lord, we have waited for your salvation, and none who have waited upon you have ever been disappointed. Teach us to wait upon you again and to trust that your word will always be fulfilled.
Jacob Gathered to His People (vv. 28-33)
28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel: and this is it that their father spake unto them, and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them. 29 And he charged them, and said unto them, I am to be gathered unto my people: bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 30 In the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron the Hittite for a possession of a burying place. 31 There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah. 32 The purchase of the field and of the cave that is therein was from the children of Heth. 33 And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people.
Jacob was not an egalitarian in pronouncing benedictions upon his sons. He spoke as God directed him, and each was blessed according to his blessing, as God determined. Some were given a greater future, some less. Some were deservedly chastened. God is sovereign in his grace and gifts, and we must ever bow before him. Jacob with his dying breath then gave specific directions for his burial – not in Egypt but in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah, where my fathers are buried. Jacob did not desire to be buried with Rachel but with Leah – her son Judah was the heir of promise, the one through whom the Messiah would come, and Jacob now saw this clearly. His earthly heart may have been with Rachel, but his eternal salvation rested with Leah and her son, Judah, and through him Jesus Christ. He made sure there would be no dispute – had his sons in seventeen years forgotten this? His burial directions were a command. Canaan, not Egypt, was their home. His sons must not forget this. With dignity and effort, Jacob then gathered his feet into the bed, then yielded up the ghost, and passed into his glory. To be gathered with his people means that he joined the spirits of just men made perfect, who even then believed upon the coming Savior for life and salvation.
Few and evil may have been the days of Jacob’s life, but splendid and abundant were the glories of his passing. None of the patriarchs suffered as he did, and none of them were blessed with faith’s gaze as he was. He practically looked down the corridors of time until Jesus came, saw the rising and falling of many, and prayed only for the Lord’s salvation to come! Were those few minutes upon that bed in Egypt not worth all the trials? God repaid his servant abundantly – not because he owed Jacob anything but because he loved Jacob so much! And see how this man died – with God’s word upon his lips, commanding his sons to keep covenant with God, which covenant was symbolized by his being buried in Canaan. If we would die the death of the righteous, we must live the life of the righteous – waiting upon the Lord, enduring hardship patiently as good soldiers of the cross, and allowing no earthly glory such as Jacob spent his final years in Egypt to obscure the greater splendor of God’s promises in his Son. With Jacob’s death, it was the end of an era. Not until Moses would there be such clear communication from heaven, but Jacob’s words were sufficient to sustain God’s people until the next revelation of Shiloh’s coming kingdom manifested itself.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. What does it mean to say that life is covenant?
2. How do Jacob’s final words to his sons demonstrate this?
3. Do you live covenantally? How is such living hopeful? Motivating? Serious and joyful?
4. How do we die well? How do we encourage dying well?
5. What do Jacob’s words to Reuben teach about purity and honor?
6. How was it just for sins committed forty years earlier to influence the futures of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi?
7. How is this different from the way men think?
8. How is it just like God that the salvation of the whole world was revealed through the words of a dying man?
9. How does it challenge our faith that Jacob looked away from the splendors of Egypt and saw Christ’s day through Judah?
10. What is the connection between peace and righteousness in our Savior’s mediatorial reign?
11. What does verse 18 reveal about the realism of this scene? About Jacob’s faith and hope? Why was he led to make such a confession?
12. What does “each according to his blessing” teach us about God’s sovereignty in gifts and blessings? About contentment? Any connection with our Lord’s parable of the talents?
13. How does Jacob’s blessing upon Joseph encourage us to be faithful to God no matter what happens to us?
14. Why did Jacob give such specific burial commands?
15. How did the Lord reveal his great love for Jacob in allowing him this final vision of the future?