Last week we saw how Jacob adopted and blessed Joseph’s two sons. From that time on, they were regarded as his sons and heirs to all of God’s promises. And we thought about how, just as Joseph brought his sons to his Father for adoption, so the Lord Jesus brings us to God the Father so that we are adopted into God’s family. Though we deserve to be condemned for our sins, we’re pardoned, and adopted, and can call him ‘Father’, and count on him to help us, while we look forward to inherit eternal life in his presence.
Today we come to chapter 49 where Jacob blesses his other sons. And so, we read in verse 1 that Jacob called for his sons and said to them:
Gather round me so that I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.
So, we can picture the scene. Jacob who is now old and ill and about to die, calls for his sons to come to him; and they gather around his bed to listen to his last words to them and to receive his blessing. And afterwards, he rolls over in his bed and breathes his last.
Well, before we look at the passage in greater detail, let me point out a number of interesting features about this chapter. First of all, notice the order of the blessings. It’s all carefully arranged, because in verses 3 to 15 Jacob blesses Leah’s sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun and Issachar. Then in verses 16 to 21 he blesses the sons of the two servant women, Bilhah and Zilpah. Remember that Jacob had two wives: Leah and Rachel. And then, Leah and Rachel, in their competition to give their husband as many sons as possible, sent their maidservants in to sleep with Jacob. And their sons are named here. Dan, whose mother was Bilhah. Gad, whose mother was Zilpah. Asher, whose mother was also Zilpah. And then Naphtali, whose mother was Bilhah. So, there’s a pattern: Bilhah, Zilpah; Zilpah, Bilhah. And finally, in verses 22 to 27 Jacob blesses Rachel’s sons: Joseph and Benjamin. So, the order is: Leah; Bilhah then Zilpah; Zilpah then Bilhah; Rachel.
Notice, secondly, that when Jacob blesses his sons, he’s not thinking of his sons only; he’s thinking of the tribes that will come from them. His twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel. And so, Jacob not only blesses his sons, but he’s blessing their descendants. We know that because of what we read in verse 28 where it says:
All these are the twelve tribes of Israel and this is what their father said to them.
So, he was addressing his sons here in their position as heads of the tribes.
Notice, of course, that the blessing on Judah and on Joseph is longer than the blessing on the other sons and their tribes. The blessing on Judah is from verse 8 to verse 12. Five verses. The blessing on Joseph is from verse 22 to verse 26. Five verses again. The other brothers get only one or two verses. Perhaps the long blessing given to Joseph is understandable, given his importance in the book of Genesis. But the long blessing on Judah is unusual and indicates there’s something important or especially significant about what Jacob said to Judah.
Notice as well that some of the blessings aren’t really blessings at all. They’re really anti-blessings. So, for instance, he doesn’t have a good word for Reuben or for Simeon and Levi. Though they were his eldest sons, and may have expected to be given a place of pre-eminence, they were set aside by their father. But that’s perhaps a good thing for the nation as a whole; because by their actions in the past, Reuben and Simeon and Levi demonstrated that they weren’t really fit to lead their brothers or the nation.
And then notice there’s a prayer in the middle. It’s easily missed, but it’s there in verse 18 where Jacob prays to the Lord and says:
I look for your deliverance, O Lord.
Isn’t that interesting? As he pronounces these blessings on his sons and on the tribes which will come from them, he prays to the Lord for deliverance. He praying for salvation. And he says he’s looking for it. In other words, he’s waiting for it. He’s looking to the Lord to bring about the salvation of his people in the future.
And that future-orientation is seen as well in the opening words of the blessing. Look again at verse 1. Jacob says to his sons:
Gather round so that I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.
And the important words are those four words at the end:
in days to come.
More literally, he said:
Gather round so that I can tell you what will happen to you in the end of the days [or, in the last days].
The same expression occurs in 13 places in the Old Testament. Nine of those places are in prophetic books. And, of course, the same idea occurs in other places in the Old Testament, though the words aren’t used explicitly. But the prophets used this phrase or similar words to speak about a time in the future when God would send his Special Servant to destroy his enemies and to save his people. And the prophets also used this phrase to refer to a time when some of the Gentiles would come voluntarily to worship the Lord. And they used it to speak of a time of peace and prosperity and blessing; they used it to speak of glorious things to come. For instance, in Isaiah 2, we’re told that in the last days the nations — that is, the Gentiles — will stream into the temple because they know that God will teach them his ways and they’ll be able to walk in his paths. And their swords will be beaten into ploughshares and their spears will be turned into pruning hooks. In other words, instead of there being wars, they’ll be peace and fruitfulness and prosperity.
When will those things happen? The prophets said: In the last days; in the days to come. And, of course, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter stood up and announced that the last days have begun. They began with the Lord’s resurrection from the dead and his ascension to heaven when he poured out his Spirit from on high. And the Apostles went into all the world and preached the good news that God’s Special Servant has come to save his people. And what happened? Many Gentiles heard and believed; and became members of God’s people so that from that time on they worshipped him and they walked in his ways. The last days have begun: they began with the resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead; and they will continue until he comes again.
Well now, here’s Jacob and he’s speaking to his sons about the days to come. In other words, he’s speaking to them about the last days. And you see, he’s speaking as a prophet. And he’s announcing what was going to happen not only to his sons; and not only to the Israelites in the days of the Old Testament; but he was also speaking about the coming of the Lord Jesus. And that’s what we’re going to see, when we come to what he said about Judah.
Reuben, Simeon and Levi
But before we get to that, let’s see what he said to his other sons. And we’ll begin with the first three sons: Reuben, Simeon and Levi. And, as I’ve said, Jacob doesn’t have a good word for them; and the blessing on them is really an anti-blessing.
Verse 3: Reuben was his firstborn. And normally the firstborn was given a double-portion of the inheritance and would expect to become the leader of the family. But though Reuben was his firstborn, and so the first sign of Jacob’s strength and fertility; and though he excelled in honour and power, nevertheless he was turbulent as the waters. He was unstable and reckless. And so, Jacob foretold that he would no longer excel. Why? What had he done? Well, Jacob reminds us: he went up onto his father’s bed and defiled it. He’s talking about what happened in chapter 35 where we read that Reuben slept with Bilhah, which was a shameful thing to do. At that time, we read that Jacob heard what his son had done, but he didn’t seem to do anything about it. But now, years later, he announces that Reuben will no longer excel; he will not be the leader of his brothers.
And then Jacob turns to Simeon and Levi. And he refers to their swords as weapons of violence. And he refers to a time when they killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, he says, which is so fierce; and their fury, which is so cruel. What had they done? Well, back in chapter 34 we read how one of the men of the city of Shechem defiled their sister. And that was a terrible thing. But what Simeon and Levi did afterwards was far worse and far more cruel, because they took their swords and attacked the city and killed every single male in the city. And afterwards, they looted the city and carried off the women and children. And now, Jacob announces to them that they will be scattered and dispersed.
Interestingly, we read in Joshua 19 that the land the Simeonites received when the land of Israel was being divided lay within the territory of Judah. In other words, they didn’t receive their own allotment, but were in a sense absorbed into the tribe of Judah. Perhaps that’s how Jacob’s prophecy about them was fulfilled. And the Levites didn’t receive a territory of their own, but they were given various cities throughout the land of Israel to live in. In other words, they were dispersed and scattered throughout the land, just as Jacob had foretold.
We’ll come back to Judah later, but let’s look now at Zebulun. Jacob says he’ll live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; and his border will extend towards Sidon. Now, Zebulun’s territory was land-locked and it wasn’t near the sea or Sidon at all. So, there have been various suggestions to explain what Jacob might have meant by these words. One commentator has suggested that Jacob is referring to this tribe’s influence, which will extend beyond their own land borders to the sea and beyond.
Then there’s Issachar who is described as either a scrawny donkey or a strong donkey. It’s not clear which it should be. And this donkey is pictured as lying down between two saddlebags. Some commentators think Jacob is saying this tribe will be lazy, and will be made to do forced labour. Another thinks the opposite: that Jacob is saying they will be a hard-working people.
Dan is next and we’re told that he will provide justice for his people. In other words, he’ll help to deliver the people from their enemies. He’ll do so by being like a serpent who is able to bite a horse and so unseat its rider. So, Dan will be more dangerous than you might expect. Samson, who managed to kill so many of the Philistines, was from the tribe of Dan.
There are only two lines each for Gad and Asher and Naphtali. Gad — and his name means ‘raider’ — will be raided by raiders, but will raid them in return. Asher’s food will be rich and he will provide delicacies fit for a king. So, his land will be especially fertile. And Naphtali is a doe set free who bears beautiful fawns, or young deer. It’s not entirely clear what Jacob means here, but it seems to be a positive description of peace and safety.
And what about Jacob’s announcement to Joseph? Look at verse 22:
Joseph is a fruitful vine.
Yes, with bitterness the archers attacked him and they shot at him with hostility. And perhaps that’s a reference to the way his brothers once hated him and sold him into slavery. So, his brothers attacked him, but the hand of the Lord was with him to help him and to bless him. And the Lord did bless Joseph abundantly in the end, raising him from the prison to become Prime Minister of Egypt. And here Jacob pronounces on Joseph and his descendants even more and greater blessings.
And then there’s Benjamin who is compared to a ravenous wolf who devours his prey and divides his plunder. And so, we get the idea that the tribe of Benjamin are going to be fierce warriors.
And so, there you have Jacob’s words about eleven of his sons. He foretells bad things for some; and good things for others, including victory over their enemies. And, of course, as we read the history of the people of Israel, we know how God brought the Israelites into the Promised Land and he gave them victory over their enemies so that they were able to take over and possess the Promised Land. And so, it seems that many of the good things Jacob foretold about his sons came true in the Old Testament era.
But then, in the days of the Judges and the Kings, their enemies often defeated them in battle. And eventually, because of their persistent sin and rebellion, God allowed first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians to invade the land and to take the Israelites away from it in the days of the exile. So, they enjoyed some success over their enemies, but not a lasting success.
But what we have in Jacob’s words to Judah is something entirely different. Let’s look at it now.
To Judah, Jacob is announcing a universal and everlasting victory. Look at verse 8 first of all: His brothers will praise him and bow down to him. In other words, the tribe of Judah will be pre-eminent in the nation; and the other tribes will happily bow down to Judah. And also in verse 1: Judah’s hand will be on the neck of his enemies. In other words, he’ll gain control of them and he’ll hold them in subjection.
Then look at verse 9: Judah is a lion’s cub, who returns safely and successfully from attacking his prey. But he’s not only a lion’s cub, he’s a lion who crouches and lies down. Why does he crouch and lie down? Because he’s eaten his full and is lying down to sleep, fully satisfied. And this lion’s cub is not only a lion, but is a lioness too; and no one dares to wake her, because she’s mighty and powerful and fearsome. Well, a lion is a symbol of strength and power and royalty. The lion is the king of the animals. So, Jacob is announcing that the tribe of Judah will be the royal tribe who rules over the other tribes.
And look at verse 10:
The sceptre will not depart from Judah
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs.
A sceptre is a staff which is held by a king and it symbolises power and authority. So, Judah — or the tribe of Judah — is going to keep hold of this royal sceptre. And Jacob adds that the ruler’s staff will remain in Judah’s possession. In other words, he’s saying that the right to rule as king will remain in the tribe of Judah.
And, of course, that’s what happened. King David was from the tribe of Judah; and one of his descendants remained on the throne of the southern kingdom, generation after generation.
But what else does Judah say?
until he comes to whom it belongs.
He seems to be announcing a succession of kings in Judah which will end when one particular king will come. You see, all the previous kings — David, Solomon, Hezekiah and so on — have been filling in until the one to whom the kingship really belongs comes.
And what then? Jacob says:
The sceptre will not depart from Judah
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs
and the obedience of the nations is his.
So, this new figure, this true king, this final king, will not only rule in Israel, but he’ll rule over the other nations as well. He’ll rule over the Jews and he’ll over over the Gentiles. Jacob announced to his other sons some success over their enemies; a limited and small success. But he announces that one from the tribe of Judah will come and his reign will be universal. It will be worldwide. And it will be everlasting, because no other king will come after him. The right to rule truly belongs to him.
And when he comes, it will be a time of wonderful prosperity. Look how Jacob pictures it. He says in verse 11 that he’ll tie his donkey to a vine. When grapes are scarce and expensive, you’ll be careful to keep a donkey away from the vines, otherwise the donkey will eat them. I remember a person I knew in Co. Kildare who used to complain because some goats used to get in to her garden and nibble her flowers. But when there’s an abundance of grapes and vines and fruit, who cares if the donkey is tied up beside the vines? I can spare always a few grapes because I have so many. And the donkey is probably well fed anyway and won’t be interested in these vines. So, Jacob is speaking about a time of great abundance and prosperity.
And he’ll wash his garments in wine, says Jacob. Well, wine in the Old Testament is one of God’s good gifts which gladdens the hearts of men. And Jacob pictures a time when wine is so plentiful, that you’re able to wash your clothes with it. Why use water when you can use wine?
And then Jacob says that he will wash his robes in the blood of grapes. It’s not clear what he means here. Either he means that he’ll use wine to wash his clothes. So, it’s once again a picture of prosperity. Or perhaps he means that his robes will be splattered with blood, because he’s defeated his enemies. You know, a soldier comes home from the battle, and he needs to wash because the blood of his enemies has got on his clothes. Well, if that’s what Jacob means, then it’s a picture of victory. But put these two pictures together — the prosperity and the victory — and it means that the coming of this king means joy and blessing for his people, and terror and destruction for his enemies.
And his eyes will be darker than wine, says Jacob. Another possible translation is that his eyes will sparkle like wine. And his teeth are whiter than milk. These words convey his beauty and health and well-being.
So, what’s Jacob talking about? Or who is Jacob talking about? Well, remember: he’s announcing what will happen in the last days. He’s talking about the future and what God was planning to do. And God revealed to Jacob and enabled him to announce to his sons that one day the Lord Jesus will come. The Lord Jesus is the true and final King who now sits enthroned in heaven, where he rules over all things, and from where he’s building his church on the earth, calling men and women and boys and girls from all the nations to come into his kingdom where there is peace and joy and life. And from his throne in heaven, he pours down upon us one spiritual blessing after another, so that we have everything we need for this life and for the life to come. And he protects us from our enemies; and he helps us everyday. And one day, he’s coming again, and when he comes, all his enemies will be destroyed. And the last enemy to be destroyed will be death; and death will have to give up all of its victims so that all of God’s people will be able to live for ever and ever in that perfect peace and rest which he has prepared for us.
John wrote about him in Revelation 5 and called him the Lion of of the Tribe of Judah, who has triumphed over all his enemies. That’s what Jacob said about him in verse 9.
Paul wrote about him in Romans 1 and how he — Paul — was called to be an apostle to call people from among the nations to what? To the obedience that comes from faith. It’s what Jacob wrote about him in verse 10.
And do you remember what the Lord’s first miracle was? He turned the water into what? Into wine. And so he revealed his glory and the fact that he is the Great King Jacob spoke about who would make wine plentiful.
Jacob was speaking about the Lord Jesus Christ; and though he spoke about him from a distance, and didn’t know as much about the Lord Jesus as we know about him, now that he has come, nevertheless everything he said about him is true.
And so, here’s Jacob; and he’s about to die. But even on his death bed, he’s looking forward. He’s looking forward to the coming of the Saviour and to the promise of everlasting life in the presence of God. And that should be our perspective as well, always looking upwards to heaven where Jesus Christ now rules and reigns over all; and looking forwards as well to when he will come again.
Since he’s our king, then we’ll want to obey him and to seek to do his will while we go on living on the earth as his people.
And since he’s our mighty king, we can look to him to help us and to protect us everyday and to use his mighty power to defend us, because none of his enemies is strong enough to stand up against him.
Since he’s the everlasting king, we can rest in the knowledge that no one and nothing will ever be able to destroy his kingdom and overthrow him.
Since he’s the universal king, we can pray with confidence, asking him to build his church throughout the world and to bring about, in his own good time, the obedience of the nations.
And since he’s the victorious king, we can look forward to that day when he comes again to destroy all his enemies, even death; and on that day, all his people will be freed from death and the grave, and will be raised and glorified in his presence for ever and for ever.