Faith for the Future
A sermon on Genesis 47:28-49:28 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 11/21/04
Suppose that you go in for a routine physical exam tomorrow, and your doctor gives you surprising news: You have a terminal illness. You have just days – perhaps a week or two – to live. And there is nothing medical science can do about it. You are not in terrible pain, but you will die by mid-December.
Knowing that, come this Thursday, Thanksgiving Day: Could you be thankful?
Life is brief. It can be brief even from a human perspective, as in that example. Indeed, any one of us might die at any moment. As James says,
You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. James 4:14
But from God’s perspective your life is a mist even if you live to be 100. For what is 100 years to God?2 Peter 3:8 says that for God, a day is like a 1000 years and 1000 years like a day. Surely that is poetic language – but bear with me. If we were to take that language literally, 100 years would be like two and a half hours – about equal to the lifespan of the morning mist.
Thus, from God’s perspective, we all have a short, brief life. As Psalm 39:5 says:
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!
But if your life were short even from a human perspective, if you had only a couple of weeks to live: Could you be thankful this Thursday? Could you be full of thankfulness for the past? Could you have faith in your own future in Christ, and be thankful for that? Could you have faith in God’s future care and protection of those who depend on you, and thus be thankful for that?
If you could – you would be a real blessing to the people around you. A dying person who is thankful for all God has done, who looks forward to seeing Jesus face to face, who trusts God to watch out for those he will leave behind, is a joy to be around. Such a dying person is a wonderful testimony to the grace of God. It is a privilege to spend time with such a person.
This describes Jacob at the end of his life. A man of faith. A man of thanks. A man of trust.
It has not always been this way, as you recall. Jacob has struggled in his life. Remember, Jacob thought he had to live up to the prophecy his mother received about him before he was born, that “the older would serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). He tried to use his wits and Esau’s character flaws to finagle the family birthright and his father’s blessing from his brother. He initially seems to succeed – but then Esau threatens to kill him. He flees for his life hundreds of miles away, losing everything he leaves behind.
But God graciously appears to him at Bethel while he is fleeing, promising to be with Him wherever he goes, and promising to bring him back to Canaan. Jacob is glad God has appeared to him, but that first encounter with God does not change him. Indeed, in his first years of exile he acts the same as before; he continues to try to gain his way by his wits.
But then God has Jacob meet his match. The deceiver Jacob is deceived by father-in-law, Laban. First, Laban substitutes one sister for another the night of Jacob’s wedding. Then, he changes his wages both to keep Jacob with him and to steal from him. Yet God watches over Jacob and prospers him despite Laban’s cheating.
When Jacob finally leaves Laban’s household after twenty years, by God’s grace he is a wealthy man. And Jacob, by God’s grace, finally recognizes God’s hand in directing his paths and watching out for him.
But he faces a great danger upon his return to the land of Canaan: The prospect of Esau’s revenge. He sends messengers ahead to try to placate Esau, but they come back with a frightening report: Esau is coming to meet Jacob – accompanied by 400 armed men.
Jacob uses all his wits to try to ensure that at least some of his family survives. Then he spends the night by himself. There God meets him, and changes him forever. After a night of wrestling, God humbles him by dislocating his hip. The once powerful Jacob, now weak, no longer can even make a show of wrestling with God. Finally, he sees that clinging to God is all that matters. Esau is coming; his family and possessions are in danger. But Jacob clings to God. He won’t let Him go, knowing that God is his greatest joy. Jacob becomes a believer.
Yet that does not end his problems. God delivers him from Esau, but Jacob delays returning to his father, presumably not wanting to confess his earlier deceits. Instead he dwells near the Canaanite town of Shechem. The immoral lifestyle of the Canaanites infects his family. A leading man in the city rapes Jacob’s daughter Dinah, prompting his sons Simeon and Levi to deceive the men of the town, and then slaughter them all in revenge.
Perhaps sobered at long last by this gross sin committed by his sons, Jacob then at long last obeys God and returns to Bethel and to his father. And just then, just when Jacob becomes obedient, tragedy strikes: His beloved wife Rachel, the father of Joseph, dies during the birth of Benjamin. And his oldest son Reuben has sexual relations with one of his wives.
Subsequently, Jacob, mourning for his wife and sorrowing over the breakdown in his family, clings less to God and more to this favorite son, Joseph. This obvious favoritism toward Joseph makes his brothers angry. They sell him into slavery, and then deceive Jacob so that he thinks Joseph is dead. Jacob then in turn becomes bitter and angry.
But now, in his old age, God has astounded Jacob. Twenty-two years after Joseph disappeared, Jacob hears that he is alive. Jacob is overwhelmed by God’s sovereign goodness in watching over Joseph and exalting him to ruler of Egypt. This has a profound impact on him. As we saw last week, he strongly desires to see Joseph. But even more, he wants to walk in obedience to the God who has proven Himself faithful. Now, he even fears to go to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph, since God told him to go to Canaan, and has not yet told him to leave.
But God graciously appears to Jacob in a night vision, and tells him He will be with him in Egypt. God says, “You don’t have to choose between Joseph and me – I am giving Joseph back to you.” So Jacob goes.
Several years pass before today’s text. Jacob now knows he is dying. And in his last days, he looks forward to what God will do through these sons of his and their descendants.
Jacob is now an old man with a deep faith in God. He is God’s chosen instrument for bringing about His plan. As the story of his life shows, he is flawed. He is sinful. But Jacob is forgiven – and now is rock-steady in his faith.
During the next 400 years in Egypt there will be no visions of God; there will be no prophets. God prepares the way for this absence of revelation by these great words of Jacob at the end of his life. Genesis begins with God speaking the world into being. Here, near the end, Jacob speaks God’s words that will lead these few dozen people to become a great nation.
Jacob is dying, but he has those three characteristics we mentioned above:
Let’s look at these last words of Jacob, and learn from them.
There are three scenes in today’s text:
We’ll consider these scenes under the headings:
The first scene is brief: just the last three verses of chapter 47. Jacob asks Joseph to swear to return his body to Canaan. But where does he want to be buried? He had buried his favorite wife Rachel along the road near Bethlehem. But that is not where he asks to be buried. Instead, he makes Joseph swear to bury him with Abraham, Isaac, and his other wife, Leah, in the cave Abraham bought when Sarah died - the first piece of land the family owned in Canaan.
What is this about?
As we noted, Jacob was willing to give up this wonderful opportunity of seeing his beloved son in order to remain in the land God had promised to him and descendants. God met him at Beersheba and freed him to go to Egypt. But God also said explicitly:
I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again. Genesis 46:4
This is a journey to Egypt – not a permanent migration. So Jacob ensures that his descendants know this. Jacob led them to Egypt – but Jacob insists on being buried in Canaan, not Egypt. Jacob shows by this request that Egypt is NOT their home. All his descendants will know that the very family patriarch who led them to Egypt was buried in Canaan. The memory of his tomb will be a constant reminder for the next 400 years: Egypt is not their home. God has promised them the land of Canaan, and God will lead them out of Egypt into Canaan.
So as Jacob looks back at his life and sees his wandering from God, as he looks back and sees his many sins, he makes Joseph swear to take his body back to Canaan not for his benefit, but to help his descendants to trust and follow God.
What are you doing now to encourage those who come after you to trust God? How are you laying the groundwork for their future faithfulness? What are you doing, so that after your brief time on earth is over, your friends and descendants will follow God more closely because of you?
Chapter 48 relates how Jacob adopts and then blesses Joseph’s oldest two sons, Manassah and Ephraim. We read this account during the service. Much of it seems strange to our ears. What is going on?
In this society, the firstborn son receives a double portion of the inheritance. That is, if a man has three sons, he divides his property into four parts. His oldest son receives two parts, and each of the other sons receives one part.
Reuben, the oldest, has lost the right of the firstborn because of his gross sin. In this chapter, Jacob ensures that the double portion of the inheritance goes not to Simeon, the next oldest son, but to Joseph, the oldest son of Rachel. By adopting Manassah and Ephraim as his own sons, each receives the same share of the inheritance as Simeon, Levi, and the others. Thus Joseph’s descendants receive a double portion.
When Jacob speaks of Rachel’s unexpected, early death (48:7), he implies that Manassah and Ephraim are to him representative of the other children he might have had through Rachel had she lived longer.
There are many interesting themes in this chapter, but I only want to draw out one of them. Consider verses 15 and 16:
And he blessed Joseph and said, "The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, 16 the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth." Genesis 48:15-16
Jacob refers to the “God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day.” This is the first reference to God as shepherd in the Bible. Eight hundred years later Jacob’s descendant David will write:
The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want. Psalm 23:1
But Jacob gives the central idea of that beautiful Psalm right here.
And then, another 1000 years later, Jacob’s descendant Jesus will proclaim, “I am the good shepherd.”
Jacob is able to look back at the life we narrated and see how God’s rod and staff have comforted him. He is able to see how even though he walked through the valley of the shadow of death, he need fear no evil, for God was with him. God has corrected him, disciplined him, and protected him. Most of all God brought him back to Himself.
Furthermore, God was a shepherd to Joseph, even when Jacob thought he was dead. Jacob’s profound thankfulness to God for this shepherding comes out in verse 11:
And Israel said to Joseph, "I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also."
Jacob knows he is about to die. His life has been hard. His life has been often disobedient. He deserves nothing from God. But looking back, he can see God’s great grace toward him. This gives him confidence for the future. So Jacob is saying: “God is my shepherd. He has guided and corrected me. He will guide and correct Ephraim and Manassah.”
Note particularly verse 21:
Then Israel said to Joseph, "Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers.
As Jacob recalls in verse 4, God has promised him that his descendants will possess the land of Canaan forever. They won’t possess it again for 400 years, but Jacob is confident in God as the shepherd of His people. He will guide his flock to the exact place He desires, at exactly the right time. He trusts God with the future:
So the author of Hebrews chooses to commemorate this moment above all others in Jacob’s life:
By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. Hebrews 11:21
Jacob exhibits faith in God’s future grace, faith in God’s future shepherding. This is what it means to trust God.
So Jacob is wonderful example of a dying person with a right view of God:
Do you have such trust and confidence?
Do you know God as shepherd?
Do you see that even the most painful and challenging parts of your life are God’s tools, used by Him to accomplish His good purposes?
In the final scene, 49:1-28, Jacob has all 12 sons gather around him. Verse 1 gives the purpose of the gathering: “That I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.” This meeting is part of Jacob’s attempt to leave a legacy, to have his family follow God over the next several centuries.
But Jacob is doing more than that here. He is not telling them what he wants for them. He is not even saying, “This is the right way to live.” Many godly people have told their children such things on their deathbeds. And such words can be precious. But Jacob here speaks not his own words, but God’s words for his descendants. God uses Jacob as His mouthpiece to speak of the future, not just to give good advice.
In these verses, Jacob peaks often of events that are centuries in the future. We won’t go through them all, but will highlight several key points.
First of all, look at verses 22-26, the blessing of Joseph and his descendants:
Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall. 23 The archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and harassed him severely, 24 yet his bow remained unmoved; his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob. By the name of the Shepherd of Israel’s sons 25 by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. 26 The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents, up to the bounties of the everlasting hills. May they be on the head of Joseph, and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers. Genesis 49:22-26 (ESV except verse 24, which is from Waltke)
Joseph is the son who has suffered the most. But God also has exalted him the most. Jacob prophesies that this blessing will continue – that God, the Shepherd, will continue to help and bless Joseph’s descendants. The tribes of Ephraim and Manassah will grow large. Indeed, a thousand years later when the Kingdom of Israel splits into northern and southern kingdoms, the northern kingdom is sometimes referred to as “Ephraim.”
Now consider verse 16. Picture the setting: Jacob’s twelve sons are standing around his bed. The six sons of Leah are together, the two sons of Rachel are together, and the four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah are together. These last four may wonder: Will they be treated like sons of wives, or sons of concubines? Are they equal to the others or not?
Dan is the first of these four to whom Jacob speaks:
Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Genesis 49:16
Jacob makes it clear right at the beginning, saying, “Yes! You are my son, Dan. Your inheritance, the inheritiance of all four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, will be the same as the inheritance of the others.”
Let’s now return to the sons of Leah. The first three receive not blessings but anti-blessings:
Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the firstfruits of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. 4 Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father's bed; then you defiled it- he went up to my couch! 5 "Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6 Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel. Genesis 49:3-7
Here Jacob refers to the incidents we related briefly above. Like Cain, Ishmael, and Esau, the firstborn Reuben will not receive the rights of the firstborn. Undoubtedly he is repentant, or he wouldn’t be standing here. But his sin still has consequences. He loses his privileges.
Next, Jacob denounces the violent anger of Simeon and Levi. The consequences of their actions come 400 years later. Their descendants have no portion of the land of Canaan specifically allotted to them. Simeon’s inheritance is within the allotment of Judah, while the Levites, the priests and attendants at the tabernacle, are scattered around.
But note that for Levi, this is an honor! What changed? What happened to transform an anti-blessing into a blessing?
In the intervening years, God channels this fierce anger for use against those who have disobeyed God, against those who deserve punishment. God then honors this tribe, by naming it as the soul source of priests. Jacob’s prophecy holds, but what looks in Jacob’s day to be a punishment turns out to be an exaltation.
Finally, look at Judah. Imagine Judah’s thoughts as Jacob pauses after speaking of Simeon and Levi. Jacob has just removed Reuben from preeminence. He has rebuked Simeon and Levi for their anger and cruelty. All three repented – but all three suffer the consequences.
What about Judah? His sins look even worse! He had sexual relations with his daughter-in-law. He was the one responsible for selling Joseph into Egypt. Will his father give him an anti-blessing also? That’s what he deserves. As Judah fears, Jacob speaks, and says:
Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons shall bow down before you. 9 Judah is a lion's cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? 10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 11 Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. 12 His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk. Genesis 49:8-12
This is no anti-blessing! Indeed, in many ways this blessing is greater than that of any of the others, even Joseph.
There are many pictures here: The power of the lion; the promise of defeat of enemies; the promise of prosperity; the picture of his brothers bowing down to him. Remember that Joseph had dreamed that his brothers would bow to him – and they did, in Egypt. Judah himself had bowed down to Joseph. But Jacob says that will change. The others will bow down before him. Joseph gets the inheritance rights of the firstborn through the adoption of Manassah and Ephraim, but Judah receives the right to rule. This is seen most clearly in verse 10:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah . . . to him shall be the obedience of all peoples.
Israel’s godly kings will all be descendants of Judah, not Joseph. And the greatest of all the descendants of Judah will be King Jesus. Indeed, Genesis 49:10 is ultimately fulfilled through Him. This is recorded in Revelation 11:15 - words we sing in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus:
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.
Like Jacob, God has graciously worked in Judah’s life, using even his sins for his own good. God now graciously promises that the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, the one who will crush the head of the serpent, will come from the offspring of Judah. And he will reign forever and ever. Christ the king.
Are you ready to face death?
Few of us are right now. But I pray that God will give you the grace to be ready for death when that time comes – perhaps in the next few weeks, perhaps 100 years from now.
Whether your time on earth is long or short, know that your life is a mist, a vapor.
We’ve seen how to face that brevity of life through Jacob’s example:
Like Jacob, let us leave a legacy of faith in God for others to follow. Trust your family to Him. And live out that trust in the way you act when you know you will die. Believe in God as shepherd. Be able to say with David:
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Psalm 23:6
Or, as Isaac Watts paraphrases this verse:
The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days.
O, may thy house be my abode and all my works be praise.
There would I find a settled rest while others go and come -
No more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home.
Place your security in Christ the King. He will destroy all enemies – including death. He is coming back. He will reign forever and ever. He rules. His hand will be on the neck of his enemies. He redeems his repentant children, like Jacob and Judah. He will rejoice over you for all eternity– if you are in Him.
Jesus is your King. Jesus is your shepherd.
No matter your age, no matter how close death seems, know that life is short. Life is a mist, a vapor. So number your days.
For the Lion of Judah rules! All history is moving towards the summing up of all things in Jesus Christ.
So trust Him! Believe Him! Seek His face!
And then you and those after you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 11/21/04. Commentaries by Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001), and James Montgomery Boice (Genesis: An Expositional Commentary: Volume 3, Genesis 37-50, Baker, 1985, 1998) were helpful in the preparation of this sermon. The translation I use of Genesis 49:24 is found on page 613 of Waltke.
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