We have at last reached the closing scene in Jacob's life. Here and there we have beheld the light of heaven shining on and through our patriarch, but only too often the clouds of earth have obscured it. The struggle between the flesh and the spirit in him was fierce and protracted, but as the end drew near the triumphs of grace, and the faith which overcomes the world, were more and more manifest.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene presented to us in Genesis 49. Long years before, God had promised to give the land of Palestine to Abraham and his descendants. This promise had been confirmed to Isaac, and renewed to Jacob. But, up to this time, there had been no visible signs that the promise was about to be made good. Abraham and Isaac had been but "strangers and pilgrims" in Canaan, owing none of it save a burying-ground for their dead, and this they had purchased. Jacob, too, had "dwelt in tabernacles (tents) with Abraham and Isaac" (Heb. 11:9). And now Jacob is dying- dying not in the promised land, but many miles away from it. In a strange country, in Egypt, our patriarch prepares to leave this earthly scene; but despite the feebleness of nature, the vigor of his faith was strikingly manifested.
Jacob summoned to his bedside each of his twelve sons, and proceeded to utter one of the. most striking predictions to be found in all the Old Testament. Like most prophecies, this one of our dying patriarch has, at least, a double fulfillment. In its ultimate accomplishment it looks forward to the fortunes of the Twelve Tribes in "the last days" (Gen. 49:1); that is, it contemplates their several conditions and positions as they will be in the End-time, namely, during the Seventieth Week of Daniel and on into the millennium (cf. Jer. 23:19, 29; Isa. 2:2 for the "last days" of Israel). Concerning the final fulfillment of Jacob's prophecy we cannot now write; instead, we shall note how strikingly the past history of the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons has corresponded with their father's dying utterance:
"Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father. Reuben, thou art my first-born, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel, because thou wentest up to thy father's bed, then defilest thou it; he went up to my couch" (Gen. 49:2-4). Three things are here said of Reuben: First, as the first-born son of Jacob, the place of "excellency," the position of dignity, was his natural birthright. Second, this position of preeminency had been forfeited through his sin in defiling his father's bed, and Jacob here foretells that the tribe which is to descend from Reuben "Shalt not excel." Third, Jacob also predicted that this tribe should be "unstable as water," which is a figurative expression taken from the passing away of water which had dried up like a summer stream. We shall now refer to several passages in the Old Testament which treat of Reuben, showing how the fortunes of this tribe verified the words of the dying patriarch.
Let us turn first to 1 Chronicles 5:1, 2: "Now the sons of Reuben, the first-born of Israel (for he was the firstborn); but, for as much as he defiled his father's bed his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph, the son of Israel; and the genealogy is not to be reckoned after the birthright. For Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him (viz., of Judah, instead of Reuben as it ought to-have been) came the Chief Ruler (i.e., Christ); but the birthright was Joseph's." In this striking passage the "birthright" refers, of course, to the position of excellency, and this, as Jacob declared it should be, was taken away from Reuben and given to the sons of Joseph (they receiving the double or "first-born's" portion); and Judah, not Reuben, becoming the royal tribe from which Messiah sprang, and thus "prevailing" above his brethren. Verily, then, Reuben did not "excel."
Second, as we trace the fortunes of this tribe through the Old Testament it will be found that in nothing did they "excel." From this tribe came no judge, no king, and no prophet. This tribe (together with Gad) settled down on the wilderness side of the Jordan, saying, "Bring us not over Jordan" (Num. 32:5). From this same scripture it appears that the tribe of Reuben was, even then, but a cattle loving one- "now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle; and when they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, that, behold, the place was a place for cattle . . . came and spoke unto Moses and Eleazar the priest saying . . . the country which the Lord smote before the congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle. Wherefore, said they, if we have found grace in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession, and bring us not over Jordan" (Num. 32:1-5). With this agrees Judges 5:15, 16: "For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart. Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks. For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart." When the land was divided among the tribes in the days of Joshua, the portion allotted to Reuben served, again, to fulfill the prophecy of Jacob- it was the southernmost and smallest on the east of Jordan.
Third, this tribe was to be "unstable as water," it was to dry up like a stream in summer; it was, in other words, to enjoy no numerical superiority. In harmony with this was the prophecy of Moses concerning Reuben- "Let Reuben live, and not die; and (or "but") let his men be few." Note, that at the first numbering of the tribes, Reuben had 46,500 men able to go forth to war (Num. 1:21), but when next they were numbered they showed a slight decrease- 43,730. (Num. 26:7). This is the more noteworthy because most of the other tribes registered an increase. Remark, too, that Reuben was among those who stood on Matthew Ebal to "curse," not among those who stood on Matthew Gerizim to "bless" (See Deut. 27:12, 13). In 1 Chronicles 26:31, 32, we read: "In the fortieth year of the reign of David they were sought for, and there were found among them mighty men of valor at Jazer of Gilead. And his brethren, men of valor, were two thousand and seven hundred chief fathers, whom king David made rulers over the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh, for every matter pertaining to God, and affairs of the king." It is also deeply significant to discover that when Jehovah commenced to inflict His judgments upon Israel we are told, "In those days the Lord began to cut Israel short; and Hazael smote them in all the coasts of Israel; from Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the Gadites, and the Reubenites, and the Manassites, from Arser, which is by the River Arnon, even Gilead and Bashan" (2 Kings 10:32, 33). Thus it will be found throughout; at no point did Reuben "excel"- his dignity and glory completely dried up! "Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations. 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. 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" (Gen. 49:5-7). What a proof are these verses of the Divine Inspiration of the scriptures! Had Moses been left to himself he surely would have left out this portion of Jacob's prophecy, seeing that he was himself a descendant of the tribe of Levi!
Simeon and Levi are here linked together and are termed "instruments of cruelty." The historic reference is, no doubt, to Genesis 34:25, where we read: "And it came to pass on the third day, when they were sore, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brethren, took each man his sword, and came upon the city boldly, and slew all the males." It would seem from the fact that Simeon's name is here mentioned first that he was the leader in that wickedness. It is not unlikely that Simeon was also the one who took the lead in the conspiracy to get rid of Joseph, for Simeon was the one whom Joseph "bound" (Gen. 42:24) ere he sent his brethern back to Jacob. It is highly interesting to notice how that the later references to this tribe correspond in character with what we know of their ancestor. For example: When Judah went up to secure his portion in Canaan, he called upon Simeon to help him (Judg. 1:3), as if summoning to his aid the men who possessed the old fierceness of their progenitor. "And Judah said unto Simeon his brother, Come up with me into my lot, that we may fight against the Canaanites; and I likewise will go with thee into thy lot- so Simeon went with him." And so again, we read in 1 Chronicles 4:42, 43: "And some of them, even of the sons of Simeon, five hundred men, went to Mount Seir, having for their captains Pelatiah, and Neariah, and Rephaiah, and Uzziel, the sons of Ishi. And they smote the rest of the Amalekites that were escaped, and dwelt there unto this day."
Concerning Levi it is interesting to note that when Moses came down from the mount and saw Israel worshipping the calf, that when he said, "Who is on the Lord's side?" we read, "All the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him, and he said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor. And the Children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men" (Ex. 32:27, 28). Beautiful is it, also, to learn how similar devotion to the Lord and boldness in acting for Him cancelled Jacob's "curse" and secured Jehovah's blessing. In Numbers 25:6-13 we are told: "And, behold, one of the Children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the Children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And when Phineas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand; and went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the Children of Israel. And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand. And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, Phineas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the Children of Israel, while he was zealous for My sake among them, that I consumed not the Children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say, behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace; and he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the Children of Israel." Thus the "curse" on Levi was revoked. Levi was first joined to Simeon in cruelty, but after, he was joined to the Lord in grace!
That which is most prominent, however, in Jacob's prophecy concerning the tribes of Simeon and Levi is that they were to be "divided" and "scattered" in Israel. (See Gen. 49:7). And most literally and remarkably was this fulfilled. When the land was divided in the days of Joshua, we learn that Simeon received not a separate territory in Canaan, but obtained his portion within the allotment of Judah (see Josh. 19:1-8): thus the Simeonites were necessarily "scattered," being dispersed among the cities of Judah. So it was with the Levites also; their portion was the forty-eight cities which were scattered throughout the inheritance of the other tribes. (See Num. 35:8; Josh. 14:4; Josh. 21). Thus, while each of the other tribes had a separate portion which enabled them to be congregated together, the descendants of Simeon and Levi were "divided" and "scattered." Exactly as Jacob had, centuries before, declared they should be!
"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. 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? The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a law-giver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be. 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: His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk" (Gen. 49:8-12).
This part of Jacob's prophecy concerning Judah finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. With it should be coupled <1 Chronicles 5:2: "Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him is the Chief Ruler," a "Prince"; the Hebrew word here is "Nagid" and is the same term which is translated "Messiah the Prince" in Daniel 9:24. It was from this tribe our Lord came. Returning now to the words of Jacob.
First, we are told of Judah: "Through art he whom thy brethren shall praise." The word here for "praise" is always used of praise or worship which is offered to God! Christ is the One who shall yet receive the praise and worship of His "brethren" according to the flesh, namely, Israel. Second, of Judah, Jacob said. "Thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father's children shall bow down before thee" (Gen. 49:8). So, again, Christ is the One who shall yet have dominion over Israel and subdue their enemies. This dominion of the tribe of Judah commenced in the days of David, who was the first king from that tribe; and it was during his reign that Judah's hand was "in the neck of" their "enemies." Third, the destinies of the tribe of Judah is here contemplated under the figure of a "lion," which at once reminds us of Revelation 5:5, where the Lord Jesus is expressly denominated "The Lion of the Tribe of Judah."
In dealing with the destinies of the tribe of Judah under the figure of a "lion," it is to be observed that this tribe's history is contemplated under three distinct stages, according to the growth or age of the lion. First, we have "a lion's whelp," then "a lion," lastly "an old lion"- the gradual growth in power of this tribe being here set forth. We would suggest that this looks at the tribe of Judah first from the days of Joshua up to the time of Saul; then we have the full grown lion in the days of the fierce warrior David; lastly, from Solomon's reign and onwards we have the "old lion."
"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" (Gen. 49:10). This calls for a separate word. The Hebrew term for "scepter" here is translated "tribe" in verses 16 and 28 of this same chapter- according to its usage in scripture it signifies the tribal-rod or staff of office which belonged to any tribe and was the ensign of authority. This part of Jacob's prophecy, then, intimated that the tribal-rod should not depart from Judah until a certain eminent Personage had come; in other words, that Judah should retain both its tribal distinctness and separate authority until Shiloh, the Messiah, had appeared. And most remarkably was this prophecy fulfilled. The separate Kingdom of Israel (the Ten Tribes) was destroyed at an early date, but Judah was still in the land when Messiah came.
It is further to be noted that Jacob declared of Judah that there should not depart from this tribe "a lawgiver until Shiloh." It is a striking fact that after Shiloh had come the legal authority vested in this tribe disappeared, as is evident from John 18:31: "Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye Him, and judge Him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him: It is not lawful for us to put any man to death." What a remarkable confession this was! It was an admission that they were no longer their own governors, but instead, under the dominion of a foreign power. He that has the power to condemn an offender to death is the governor or "lawgiver" of a country. It is "not lawful for us" said Caiaphas and his associates-you, the Roman governor, alone, can pass sentence of death on Jesus of Nazareth. By their own admission Genesis 49:10 had received its fulfillment. No longer had they a "lawgiver" of their own stock! By their "words" they were "condemned" (Matthew 12:37). The "scepter" had departed, the "lawgiver" had disappeared, therefore- Shiloh must have come.
"Unto Him shall the gathering of the people be" looks forward to Christ's second coming, as also do the words that follow: "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. His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk" (Gen. 49:11, 12). The reference here seems to be a double one: first to the tribe of Judah, second to Christ Himself. Judah's portion in the land was the vine-growing district in the South. (See 2 Chron. 26:9, 10). Note, too, in Song of Solomon 1:14 that we read of "the vineyards of Engedi" and in Joshua 25:62 we learn that "Engedi" was one of the cities of Judah; note further Joshua 15:55 that Carmel was also included in Judah's portion. The application of Genesis 49:11, 12, to our Lord may be seen by comparing Isaiah 63:1-3: "Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? This that is glorious in His apparel, traveling in the greatness of His strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save. Wherefore art Thou red in Thine apparel, and Thy garments like Him that treadeth in the winefat?- compare above Ôhe washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes'- I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with Me: for I will tread them in Mine anger, and trample them in My fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments."
"Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for a haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon" (Gen. 49:13). In blessing his children Jacob here passes from his fourth to his tenth son. Why should he do this? Everything in scripture is perfect. Not only is its every word Divinely inspired, but the very arrangement of its words also evidences the handiwork of the Holy Spirit. God is a God of order, and every diligent student discovers this everywhere in His word. When blessing his fourth son we found that the words of our dying patriarch manifestly looked forward to Christ Himself, who, according to the flesh, sprang from this tribe of Judah. Hence, because of the close connection of our Lord with the land of Zebulun during the days of His earthly sojourn, these two tribes are here placed in juxtaposition. Having spoken of the tribe of which our Lord was born, we have next mentioned the tribe in whose territory He lived for thirty years. This is, we believe, the main reason why the tenth son of Jacob is placed immediately after the fourth.
The part played by the tribe of Zebulun in the history of the nation of Israel was not a conspicuous one, but though referred to but rarely as a tribe, each time they do come before us it is in a highly honorable connection. First, we read of them in Judges 5, where Deborah celebrates in song Israel's victory over Jabin and Sisera, and recounts the parts taken by the different tribes. Of Zebulun and Naphtali she says, "Zebulun and Naphtali were a people that jeopardized their lives unto the death in the high places of the field" (v. 18). Again, in 1 Chronicles 12, where we have enumerated those who "Came to David to Hebron, to turn the kingdom of Saul to him" (verse 33), concerning Zebulun we read, "Of Zebulun, such as went forth to battle, expert in war, with all instruments of war, fifty thousand, which could keep rank, they were not of double heart." And again, in this same chapter, "Moreover they that were nigh them, even unto Issachar and Zebulun and Naphtali, brought bread on asses, and on camels, and on mules, and on oxen, and meat, meal, cakes of raisins, and wine, and oil, and oxen, and sheep abundantly: for there was joy in Israel" (1 Chron. 12:40).
Jacob's prophecy concerning the tribe, which was to spring from his tenth son, referred, mainly, to the position they were to occupy in the land of Canaan, and also to the character of the people themselves. Moses' prophecy concerning the twelve tribes, recorded in Deuteronomy 33, is very similar to that of Jacob's with respect to Zebulun: "And of Zebulun he said, Rejoice, Zebulun, in thy going out (i.e., to sea); and, Issachar, in thy tents. They shall call the people unto the mountain (i.e. Zion); there they shall offer sacrifices of righteousness: for they shall suck of the abundance of the seas, and of treasures hid in the sand" (vv. 18, 19).
The character of Zebulun as here outlined by Jacob is very different from that of Judah, who is pictured as dwelling, more or less, apart from the other tribes- as a lion "gone up from the prey;" very different, too, from Issachar, here referred to as an ass crouching down in lazy sloth. (see vv. 14, 15). Zebulun was to be a commercial and seafaring tribe. When Jacob said of Zebulun, "his border shall be unto Zidion," which was in Phoenica, he implied that it would take part in Phoenican commerce.
The portion which fell to the tribe of Zebulun (Josh. 19:10, 11), together with that of the tribe of Naphtali which joined theirs, became known as "Galilee of the Gentiles.'' (See Matthew 4:15). These Galileans were to be an energetic, enterprising people, who were to mingle freely with the nations. The prophecy of Moses concerning Zebulun, to which we have already referred, clearly establishes this fact (see Deut. 33:18, 19), and, plainly looked forward to New Testament times, when the men of Galilee took such a prominent part as the first heralds of the Cross. Note that Moses said, "Rejoice Zebulun, in thy going out." Is it not remarkable that no less than eleven out of the twelve apostles of Christ were men of Galilee- Judas alone being an exception! How beautiful are the next prophetic words of Moses in this connection: "They shall call the people unto the mountain: there they shall offer sacrifices of righteousness!" (Deut. 33:19).
One other word concerning Jacob's prophecy about Zebulun. Of this tribe he said, "He shall be for a haven of ships." Galilee was to provide a refuge, a harbor, a place where the storm-tossed ships might anchor at rest. And here it was that Joseph and Mary, with the Christ Child, found a "haven" after their return from Egypt! Here it was the Lord Jesus dwelt until the beginning of His public ministry. And note, too, John 12:1, "After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for He would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill Him." Galilee was still a "haven" to Him!
"Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens: And he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and he bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute" (Gen. 49:14, 15). Upon these verses the writer has but little light. It is difficult to determine the precise force and significance of the several statements that Jacob made here concerning his fifth son; nor is it easy to trace the fulfillment of them in the record of the tribe which sprang from him. One thing is clear, however: to compare a man (or a tribe) to an "ass" is, today, a figure of reproach, but it was not so in Jacob's time. In Israel, the ass was not looked upon with contempt; instead, it was an honorable animal. Not only was it a useful beast of burden, but people of rank rode on them. (See Judges 10:4; 12:14). Until the days of Solomon Israel had no horses, being forbidden by Jehovah to rear them (see Deut. 17:16); but asses were as common and as useful among them as horses are now among us. The "ass" was a reminder to Israel that they were a peculiar (separated) people, whose trust was to be in the Lord and not in horses and chariots, which were the confidence of the other nations of antiquity.
"Issachar is termed by Jacob a "strong ass," and the fulfillment of this portion of Jacob's prophecy is clearly discovered in the subsequent history of this tribe. In Numbers 26, where we have recorded the second numbering of those among the tribes which were able to go forth to war, we find that only Judah and Dan out of the twelve tribes were numerically stronger than Issachar, and Dan had but one hundred fighting men more than Issachar. Again, in the days of the Kings, the tribe of Issachar had become stronger still, for while in Numbers 26:25, we read that the number of their men able to go forth to war were 64,300, in 1 Chronicles 7:5 we are told, "And the brethren among all the families of Issachar were valiant men of might, reckoned in all by the genealogies 87,000!"
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