The Prophecy of Israel
It seemed appropriate as we come to the passage in Genesis 49, where we hear God's account of the death of His servant, Jacob that we sing for all the saints and we anticipate that day of resurrection, ourselves. If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Genesis 49. Tonight we come to the last words of Jacob, and they are a lasting testimony to the theme of God's providence and to the faith of the Patriarchs in the promises that God had given. All along we have said that two over-arching purposes in God's providence are apparent in the story of Joseph. First the Joseph story tells us how Israel wound up in Egypt and secondly, it explains how God brought to fruition the promises of Genesis 12:1 and 2. How He made a family into a nation. And that theme has become even more apparent as we have studied from Genesis 46 on. That God was doing to set Israel apart in Egypt, in a place where they could grow up to be His peculiar people, protected from the temptations to join in, to mix in, the temptations to syncretism with the Canaanite tribes in the land of Canaan to prepare them to be a distinctive people, a pure people, religiously, and ethnically as they prepare to go back into the Promised Land. It is a place where they learn, of course, to trust in God alone and they learn that He is their help and their aid, their Savior, their Redeemer.
Now, two weeks ago, when we were looking at Genesis 47, we noted that even at this high point in Jacob's career, where he is wealthy and safe, in the midst of a world wracked by famine, he is well fed and provided for in Egypt. He comes to this earthly high point, and yet, Jacob, we noted in Genesis 47, is not deterred because of the ease of Egypt in terms of his focus on the promise. The ease of Egypt does not cause him to loosen his grasp of his mission. Always, he has before his eyes the promise that God had given to Abraham, and passed on to his father, Isaac, and to him. And that is even more apparent in Genesis 48, as we studied that passage last week. It is the one scene in Jacob's life that is selected by the author of Hebrews and pictured as he stands, as he worships on his staff, in his old age as he bows at the head of his bed and worships God and calls upon Joseph to take him out of the land and blesses Joseph's sons in reverse. Even as he had reversed the order of Isaac's blessings. So we come to the Genesis 49, and this prophecy and charge of Jacob. Let's hear God's holy word.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the covenant promises and as we contemplate Your providential plan to bring them to pass, we pray that we would trust in You with all of our hearts, and lean not on our own understanding, and in all our ways acknowledge You and wait for You to make our paths straight. These things we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the last of the great sayings of destiny in the book of Genesis. We are almost there. We are almost to the final chapter. In Genesis 50, verse 25, we do have the short and final words of Joseph. But this is the last of those great sayings of destinies. The blessings, the curses, the judgments, the promises, the prophecies which punctuate the book of Genesis from the very beginning, when words are spoken about sons which foretell the days to come. God's promise is certain. But in His grace, He often shows His people a glimpse of the future to fuel our hope. And this is what He is doing at least in part in this prophecy. Jacob is setting forth before his sons the future especially in the resettlement of the land of Canaan. When now Israel will one day come. It will be four hundred years hence, but one day they will come into the land and they will possess it. And he is speaking of their settlement. He even speaks of the regions of the land that they will possess. And it is a reflection of his confidence in God's promises, but it is also a reflection of God's comprehensive providence over all of Israel.
Over and over in the story of Joseph, from Genesis 37, on, we have seen specifically and explicitly God's providence in his life. That providence in Joseph's life had specific ramifications for his broader family. Now, however, in the prophecy of Jacob, Jacob himself, broadens our view of what God is doing providentially among the sons and He shows what He is going to eventually do. So we see the comprehensive providence of God for the whole family of Jacob.
This passage, we’ll look at in two parts. In verses 1-28, we see the prophecy or the blessing of Jacob. Now blessing is used here in the broader sense of the term. And obviously not all of these are the nicest sort of blessings that you would want to pronounce on someone. But in that sense, they are like the blessings which were pronounced years before. For instance, the blessing which was pronounced on Esau as well as on Jacob. And so, we see this as the sort of standard kind of blessing format that is set forth in the book of Genesis. Let's look at verses 1-28, where we see the prophecy of Judah, and we will necessarily have to skip through this very quickly and then we’ll look at verses 29-33 and the charge that Jacob gives to his sons.
In verses 1-28, we have a series of pronouncements in which Jacob blesses his sons. Sometimes that literally means pouring out his favor, acknowledging God's hand of favor on his sons. In other cases, he characterizes his sons, and speaks of God's providential future for them in light of that character. In all cases, he foretells the future and four things need to be noted about these specific passages before us. First of all, these prophecies are retrospective and prospective. They look back and they look forward. They look back often to things which these men have done in their lives. Characteristics that they have, deeds that they have done, whether good or evil. And then they look forward into the future, as to how those characteristics are going to come to pass. The future brings to fruition some of the tendencies that are described in these young men, and in other cases it brings to fruition or fulfillment, some of the consequences for their past behavior. That is the first thing to note.
Second thing, is to note that this is specifically a prophecy. It is not simply looking at the characteristics of the men and projecting that onto the future as an educated guess. “Well, son, you have acted like this all of your life, I guess that when you get older, I guess you are going to act like that too.” This is specifically a prophecy. In fact, much of it, most of it comes to pass not in the lifetime of these young men, but over four hundred years later when their tribes enter into the land of Canaan.
Thirdly, notice specifically that the greatest blessings are heaped upon Judah and upon Joseph. That is particularly significant in light of Judah and his previous behavior, specifically with regard to Tamar. Because Reuben and Simeon and Levi, are specifically chastised for wickedness that they had committed. And yet, in God's grace, blessing is pronounced upon Judah, in spite of his previous sin. And so we see the grace of God manifested in this great prophecy as well. And we see the blessing and the headship heaped upon Joseph and thus especially on his younger son, Ephraim.
Finally, there is one passage, verse 10, that looks far into the future. Far beyond simply the land of Canaan. It looks to the time when Judah's reign will not end, but will be increased in the reign of Shiloh. Who Jewish commentators from the earliest time, and Christians from the earliest times have recognized as the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is Shiloh.
I. God's sovereign providence over the tribes.
Now, having said that as background, let's look through Jacob's blessing. Again, as we say, blessing here is used in the broader sense of term. So often employed in Genesis. And it comes basically in ten parts. He speaks in ten parts of these twelve sons. First of all, in verses 3 and 4, he speaks of Reuben, and he begins with a pronouncement about his dignity and his preeminence. You see all this hopefulness about son, Reuben, and yet this great potential is disappointed. And you see it specifically in the revulsion that Jacob displays at the sin of Reuben. In Genesis 35, verse 22, we are told that Reuben went up and slept with his father's concubine, Bilhah. Now it is interesting, in Genesis 35, Moses makes no comment upon the morality of that. And there would be many modern liberal scholars who would say, you see therefore, we are moralizing, when we say that Moses was displeased with this particular behavior. But in fact, specifically in this passage, we see the displeasure at that sin on the part of Jacob. And it is seen actually in a very strong way if you look at verse 4. In verse 4, he is speaking to Reuben, uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father's bed and then you defiled it. And then at the end of verse 4, it is almost as if he turns away from Reuben and he looks to his sons, and he says, he went up to my couch. He is castigating him in front of his brothers, so great is his revulsion at this sin that Reuben has committed. Of course, the tribe of Reuben did indeed, fail in leadership, thus fulfilling specifically Jacob's prophecy about Reuben being uncontrolled as water and not having preeminence. No great leaders of Israel came out of Reuben. Liberal scholars often say that these stories which are told about the brothers are actually reflections of long lost tribal incidents which have been projected onto a personality to either to make them more mythically acceptable or translatable or transferable, or whatever. However, this story makes no sense whatever if it is an allusion to a tribal incident. This is a story which is directly related to a historic even of an individual that is brought under the scrutiny of his father. And so we see this great potential of Reuben, his dignity and preeminence disappointed and brought to naught through his own sin.
And then in verses 5-7, we see Simeon and Levi. And again, we see God and Moses pronounce their view on the massacre which Simeon and Levi engineered in chapter 34. And again, in chapter 34, Moses makes no comment about the rightness or the wrongness of the that massacre that was perpetrated by Simeon and Levi. And again, liberals will say, there again, we would be moralizing if we went back and said that this was wrong in the eyes of the writer of Genesis, or the writers of Genesis as they would like to say. But once again, as Jacob brings his judgment, he makes it clear that this is displeasing in the sight of God. Genesis and the whole of the Old Testament knows the difference between a God-ordained warfare where the ban is placed on people and God's judgment is visited upon them, and a massacre which is based upon a sinful human desire for vengeance. God makes that distinction. Abraham in Genesis 14 was commanded to go after those who were the persecutors of Lot. But Simeon and Levi perpetrated a massacre for vengeance. The Judge of the Earth sees and He cares and we see His judgment upon their actions here. And so, in response to this, Jacob says, my soul, my glory, is not going to dwell with you. Holiness is necessary for fellowship with a holy one. That is true of God as well. Holiness is necessary to divine fellowship.
It is interesting too, isn't it, that both of these tribes were indeed scattered as the prophecy says. The tribe of Simeon all but disappeared. The tribe of Levi, however, was scattered purposely through Israel and became the ministering priests of that land. And you see even there, in God's prophecy the different destinies based upon the heart response to the people. One is scattered and goes into oblivion. Another becomes the priest servants of Israel, ministering God's word and serving in His sanctuary for the rest of the history of the land.
And then in verses 8-12, you see the blessing on Judah. This is the greatest of the prophecies in length, and in range. It stretches far into the future, it speaks throughout of the dominion that Judah would have, not only over the other tribes, but over their enemies. And it speaks of the reign of the Messiah. The language of the end of that prophecy speaks of the exalted days of the fruition of all of God's plans. Look at the incredible language that is used in verse 11. “He ties his foal to a vine.” How many of you would tie a donkey to a vine to keep it there? This is obviously a hulking vine. The idea is just like when the spies go into the land of Canaan, and they see grapes the size of grapefruits. This is a very big vine. How wealthy, how prosperous are they? They don't wash their clothes in water, they wash their clothes in wine. They take the best vintage and they are washing their clothes in wine. This is the richness and the prosperity of the days of the Messiah. He washes His robes in the blood of grapes. His eyes are dull from wine, his teeth from milk. This is the prosperity of the land being spoken of in the days of the reign of the Messiah. Ezekiel, in Ezekiel 21 verses 26 and 27, picks up on the verse 10 here actually and expounds on it. That is something you may want to follow up sometime.
Let's rush on to Zebulun and Issachar. In verses 13-15, the blessing to Zebulun and Issachar is given. Zebulun is set in a place where she is near enough to the coast that she will be enriched by the sea trade. On the other hand, Issachar is given an agricultural heritage and serves in that particular capacity.
In verses 16 and 17, Dan is mentioned. Again, we see just like with Reuben, a gulf between the potential of Dan and his achievement. The treachery of Judges chapter 18 comes to mind as Dan is involved in the stealing of Micah's idols and thus in that particular plague and sin. It is interesting, too, that when you get to Revelation chapter 7, verses 5-8 that Dan is not mentioned in the tribes of Israel as they are recounted by John in the book of Revelation. This seems to indicate the judgment on Dan for its sins. And even the prayer of verse 18 seems to be an aside. It seems to be in the midst of this blessing or this particular pronouncement about Dan. It is almost as if Jacob pulls aside and he sees where his son is going and he lifts up this prayer to God: “For Thy salvation, I wait, O Lord.” He knows his son's heart, he knows his son's wayward heart. He knows where he will land it. And he is praying for God to be merciful in His covenant promises.
And then, in verse 19, the particular pronouncement upon Gad is given. He was to settle in the Transjordan where he would be the victim of border raids. But we are told that he would overcome even in that adversity and he would raid those who raid him, and would succeed. In verse 20, Asher is spoken of. He is going to be put in a rich and valuable part of the land, in contrast to the Transjordan placement of Gad, and this brings out the diversity of situations that the tribes had when they were put in the land of Canaan. Some were in the highlands, some were in the Transjordan. Some had fertile land, some were near the coast lands, some were along trade routes. They all had different advantages in situations, and that in fact lead to problems later on in the history of the tribes in Canaan.
Naphtali is mentioned in verse 21 as a highland tribe, in the mountains. Naphtali won a name under Deborah and Barak as they served as judges. We don't really know about the references to the beautiful words spoken by this particular tribe, unless they refers to Judges 5, and the song of Deborah, we really don't know any incident in the history of the clan of the tribe which fulfills that particular prophecy.
And then in verses 22-26, the blessings on Joseph are given. And there are several wonderful things to note here. Note how the blessing moves from the present to the past and then right back to the providential decrees of God. He speaks of Joseph being a fruitful bow. He is in the summer of his prosperity, but then immediately Jacob thinks of what Joseph's brothers had done to him, and what the Egyptians had done to him in his early career. He remembered the trial and tribulation that Joseph went through and yet he prevailed. But no sooner could he speak of Joseph prevailing, than he has to trace the source of Joseph's success right back to God. God who is the shepherd, God who is the stone, God who is the almighty, God who is the God of His fathers. That is the source of Joseph's ability to prevail. And so Jacob rehearses the names of God and he pronounces specific blessings on Joseph and his sons and he acknowledges that God's blessings on him, that is on Jacob, has surpassed the blessing that he had given to his father.
Now that is striking my friends, because if you will remember, if you will turn back to Genesis 47, verse 9, you remember when Pharaoh asked about it, in Egypt, Jacob's response was, “My days are few, fewer than my father's, and they have been full of trouble and sorrow.” But now on the edge of eternity, on the wake of the realization of the promises in his experience, he can characterize the blessings that he has received from God as greater than the blessings that Abraham and Isaac have experienced. And then finally he asks for those same blessings to be heaped upon Joseph.
And then, and this is a surprising one, if you look at verse 27, he speaks of Benjamin. When you turn to Deuteronomy chapter 33, verse 12, as Moses is blessing the tribes, Moses has a very tender blessing for Benjamin, who had been one of the favorites of Jacob. And isn't it interesting that his father has a rather piercing and a fierce word of future to pronounce upon his son, Benjamin. Benjamin was a favorite of his. And yet, he speaks about Benjamin's violence, perhaps hinting at the actions of the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 19-21. And yet, nevertheless, as a violent tribe, many great men came out of Benjamin. Ehud, the judge was from Benjamin. Saul, the first king of Israel, was from Benjamin. Jonathan, the son of the first king of Israel, was from Benjamin. Paul, the one known as Saul of Tarsus was of the tribe of Benjamin. And so, God raised many great men out of this clan of Benjamin. Moses has already made it clear that one knows the future only because God has revealed it. He makes that clear in Genesis 41, verse 16, when Pharaoh asks Joseph to interpret his dream and Joseph says I don't have that power, but God can tell you the future. So Moses has already made it clear, if the future can be known, it is only because God reveals it.
But Moses has also made it clear that the only reason that you can know the future is because God has decreed the future. God is the one who has ordained the future and therefore, the future can be known only because He is determined it. He makes that clear in Genesis 45. If you look at Genesis 45, verses 5 and 7 again, he emphasizes, as Joseph speaks to his brothers, that God had sent him ahead to preserve life. In other words, it is not simply that Joseph got into a random fix which God then turned and used for His own purposes. But that God had actually planned the course of Joseph's life so that he would preserve life, particularly the lives of his brothers.
Now that is very significant. Because saying it that way is a little bit different. Sarah Kennedy loves Joseph. I think she wants to grow up to marry him. We have to read the Joseph story all the time. And she has a video tape on Joseph in that children's Bible study or the children's Bible story series. And at the end of the Joseph video, and I don't have these words memorized, although I have heard it 58,312 times, but I don't have them memorized yet. She probably does, it says something to this effect, as it winds up the story of Joseph. It says something like this, 'God can use even your troubles and trials and turn them into blessings.'
Now that may be true, but that is not all that Moses is saying. In fact, if you say that that is all that Moses is saying, it is wrong. Moses is saying something more than that. Moses is saying that God ordains and that in His ordination, He rules and overrules the evil of men and He turns that evil to His own purposes as part of His decree. Because His providence is kind and purposeful; purposeful for blessings for His people. And the whole prophecy that is told in this chapter, and we have only had a chance to rush through it to see some of the things that it says, this whole prophecy serves to confirm the certainty of God's covenant promises because of His providence.
You know there are some people today that say that God doesn't know the future. And there are some people who say God doesn't decree the future or that He only decrees certain things about the future. But this passage makes it clear that God's providence is explicitly and necessarily comprehensive and not merely reactive to the situations in which His people find themselves. He is the One who is guiding and creating the situations in which His people find themselves and He is doing for their good and for His own glory. That is an enormous truth. And it is one that Moses has been trying to pound in our skulls ever since Genesis 37. At least we could argue all the way back to Genesis 1, but especially from Genesis 37 to the end of this passage.
II. Jacob trusted in the covenant promises even at the gates of death and pointed his sons to them – he fights the good fight and finishes the course.
Now, very quickly, let's look at the charge of Jacob in verses 29-33. Jacob trusted in the covenant promises, even at the gates of death. And he pointed his sons to those promises. He fights the good fight and he finishes the course. In this the final charge of his life, Jacob demonstrates his belief in the covenant promises and he requires his sons to participate in an activity, the burial, at Mt. Pelah. He requires his sons to participate in that activity because that will remind them of the land and of the promises.
It is also interesting, isn't it, even as he is recounting to them and asking them to bury him at this site, and he is calling off the people that are buried there: Abraham, and Sarah, Isaac, and Rebekah, and then he goes on to say, and there I buried Leah. And did you notice the awkwardness of the phrasing. Look at the chapter, Genesis 49, verse 31, “There they buried Abraham and his wife Sarah, there they buried Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and there I buried Leah–the field and the cave that is in it, purchased from the sons of Heth.” It doesn't flow does it? What has happened to Jacob again, he has drifted off. Rachel is not there. She was buried on the way, never got there. And suddenly Jacob is back off again, thinking about that woman. And we again see the real Jacob. You couldn't make this up. You could never make this up about something that was four hundred years. You wouldn't have known the heart of this man. This sort of device of literary conceit wasn't even invented until about a hundred years ago. Nobody did this kind of stuff. You didn't make up little things that didn't happen in order to make the story more convincing. It just wasn't done. And yet we have here, in Moses' account, something that reflects the specific. Can you imagine this being passed on to children to children, to children, to children? You know, as they described Jacob in his final words. And then listen to this, when he started telling us who was buried there, he choked up, because Rachel wasn't there, and then he collected himself, and he went on to describe the place.
Here again, we see Moses giving us data that confirm our confidence in the absolute truthfulness and historicity of God's word. And even as the sons of Jacob continued to live in Israel, the fact that this little graveyard in this little field in Canaan is there. It is beckoning them back to the Promised Land in the time of God.
The covenant promises frame our lives at both ends and they provide the substance of our trust and obedience. God calls us to trust those promises, not to trust anything that comes along, but to trust the promises. He calls us to obey His word, not to obey anything that comes along, but to obey His word. And so the covenant promises not only frame the beginning and the ending of our lives, but they provide for us the substance, they guide us into what it means to trust and obey the Lord all the way. And Jacob gives us a wonderful example of trusting those promises to the very end. Jacob is absolutely confident that God is going to be faithful and bring His people out of the land of Egypt and into that land of promise.
It reminds me of Justin Martyr and the confidence of the early Christians, and the hope of resurrection in heaven even in the face of death. You remember the Romans were very curious about this belief in resurrection that the Christians had. And right before he was ready to put him to death, the Roman proconsul said to Justin Martyr, “Sir, do you suppose that you will rise again?” And Justin Martyr, the former philosopher said to him, “Sir, I do not suppose it, I know it.” It is with precisely that kind of confidence that Jacob expects his sons to enter into the land. He is confident in the promises of God. Let me just quote with this wonderful excerpt from Candlish's commentary on Genesis. “Jacob's character may not be great, perhaps as men count greatness, not exalted, not noble, not fit for high achievements, but weak, rather if you will, and inclined to the arts of weakness. Not always amiable, anymore than admirable. Apt to suffer by contrast with some of the finer natural qualities with such a man as his brother Esau occasionally exhibits, yet surely on the whole it is a character worth study and not without attractions. At any rate, it is all before us, the worst and the best. We see what materials grace and faith had to work with. And we see what, in the actual result, grace and faith made of those materials. We see grace making a weak man strong, for surely to the last, he was strong in faith. It made the worm, Jacob into the prince, Israel. Let us follow his faith, considering the end of his conversation, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever. His varied and checkered troubled experience, is it not full of instruction and comfort to the spiritually exercised soul? It is almost, next to David's the most so of any left on the record of the Old Testament. There is scarcely a mood of mind into which sin or sorrow can cast the believer that may not find a type of parallel or example in Jacob. Weakness in himself, as well as weakness caused by his suffering wrong by the hand of others and these other familiar friends, as well as foes, foes of his own household Jacob certainly exhibits. Much of his history is written for our warning. In much of it, he is a beacon rather than a pattern. But much also is written for our encouragement and our guidance in running the race set before us. Faint, yet pursuing, amid many cares and fears, many faults and infirmities, we may learn not a little from Jacob, while we seek to walk with strangers and pilgrims on the earth waiting for the salvation of the Lord.” Amen. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your servant, Jacob, we are all too like him in our weaknesses, and not enough like him in his faith. Grant us faith in the covenant promises. And to learn from his life, and to give you all the praise and the glory in Jesus' name. Amen.