And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days . . . .
And this is it that their father spake unto them, and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.
Jacob was dying, and he called his sons unto him that he might impart unto them his final blessing. It is important that we should understand this final act of Jacob aright.
The blessing which Jacob gave unto his sons was not just a matter of personal opinion. A father upon his death bed may easily be inclined to express a wish or a personal prediction concerning the future state of his children. But we should not evaluate this act of Jacob as being nothing more than that. He predicted the future of his children, and he did so with an authority that was sure. It is true that some of the blessings were based on the individual actions of his children, and some were even based on the meaning of their names. In this Jacob revealed a sharp spiritual discernment as to which of each son’s characteristics would continue to live on in their children. However, these predictions were not based on mere personal opinion; it was revealed to him through faith by God. Thus we find blessings which were both positive and negative in their content. Some were promises of great good; others were warnings against weaknesses and sins.
Generally speaking, the blessings that Jacob spoke that day were materialistic. They were concerned with the position which each tribe would have in the nation of Israel and particularly in the promised land of Canaan. But this does not mean that they were devoid of spiritual import. It is to be remembered that the land of Canaan was in the old dispensation typical of the kingdom of heaven. For those of Israel who were of spiritual discernment, the place which they filled in the land of promise was a visible representation of the spiritual place which they filled in the Church of God. Merely to be included in that nation and that land, was for the spiritually minded a blessing of greatest value. It was an assurance for them that they had a place in the spiritual union of God’s chosen people and in the Messiah, the promised seed of Abraham, in whom all the nations would be blessed.
In the consciousness of this all Jacob spoke.
“Reuben, thou art my firstborn, 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 defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.” Reuben was the firstfruits of Jacob’s strength, ordained by God to be the firstborn of the children of Israel. But there belonged to him one besetting weakness and sin: he was unstable, rash and impulsive. This sin had manifested itself in the past when he had defiled his father’s bed with the terrible sin of incest. It, moreover, was carried on by his children into the future so that we find of his tribe Dathan and Abiram, leaders in the revolt against Moses and Aaron. For this reason he could not serve as a leader and savior to Israel as ordinarily his birth right would imply. Reuben would not obtain preeminence. It was a warning to him and his children of the seriousness of this sin.
“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.” Simeon and Levi were born second and third among Jacob’s sons; but they too must be passed by as the leaders of Israel because of their sin. They had shown strong inclination toward unrighteous wrath and anger, particularly in the rape of Shechem. Because of this, their position in Israel was to be very indistinct. Both tribes became scattered through the nation. Nonetheless, Levi eventually did receive the privilege of the priesthood. Was it perhaps because Levi particularly took to heart this admonition of his father?
“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 the 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.” Having passed by three of the sons with admonitions, Jacob now comes to the one upon whom he may lay the greatest blessings, and his words wax particularly eloquent. In Canaan he would possess the marks of blessing. Vines would so abound in his land that they would be used as hitching posts for the animals. His clothes would be washed as it were with juice because of the abundance of grapes he would tread. His eyes would be dark and his teeth white from the abundance of wine and of milk. But, even more, to him would be strength. As a young lion, he would be strong to conquer; and as an old lion, he would be immovable. Judah would be the ruler of the nation. The scepter would be in his hand, resting between his feet. Jacob saw, as it were, the strength and glory that would be seen in the kingdom of David. In fact, he saw even more than that the coming of Jesus Christ, the Shiloh under whom the people would receive eternal rest. In this Jacob’s blessing came to its greatest height. This was the heart of the whole blessing. Before Shiloh all the tribes would bow down. As Judah’s name implied, he would be “praised.”
“Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon.” Zebulun was to dwell at the northern border of Israel close to the shore of the sea. Jacob gives a play on the name Zebulun, which means “dwelling.” The thought is that Zebulun would be the commercial gateway of the nation. This would give to Zebulun a great opportunity to serve as a witness to the nations of the distinctiveness of Israel. But with it there was also a danger, the danger that Zebulun would let itself fall under the influence of the wicked.
“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 bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute.” Issachar would taste of the blessedness of Canaan and its pleasantness. It was to be a tribe given to healthy labor and the satisfaction of receiving its fruits. But Jacob discerned in Issachar’s name, meaning “hire” or “wages,” a hint of predominant weakness which he would pass on to his children. Issachar desired rest. It was not the spiritual rest of God which they sought. They were hesitant and lethargic when it came to striving with the enemies of Israel. They found it easier to submit and pay tribute.
“Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the way, adder in the path, that biteth the horse’s heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.” Dan’s name meant “to judge.” Building upon this, Jacob proclaimed that Dan would judge his people. Thus it was that Samson came from Dan as a judge of Israel. There also was revealed a certain concern for justice in the removal of Dan to Laish. However, Dan was tempted as a tribe to be subtle and crafty in its ways. This weakness was clearly demonstrated in their taking of the young Levite from the home of Micah. It brought them deeply into sin.
Suddenly Jacob’s thought pattern was interrupted, and he exclaimed, “I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord.” Struck by the strength and weaknesses of his sons, he could not restrain himself from this cry. In the waiting for the salvation of God would be Israel’s strength. The neglect of this principle would be its weakness. It was a cry of admonition which his sons could well take to heart. Only after he had expressed it could he continue.
“Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last.” It was Gad more than any other tribe that in latter years was overrun by invading tribes of enemies. They tasted bitterly the hatred of the enemy. But under its affliction Gad became strong and brave in the cause of the Lord. They overcame in the fear of the Lord.
“Out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties.” Unto Asher was given one of the most fruitful portions of Canaan. As Jacob foresaw, the portion of Asher brought forth some of the richest delicacies of Canaan.
“Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words.” The truth of this prophecy manifested itself most clearly in the time of Deborah. The men of Naphtali were swift in battle. They constituted with Zebulun the army of Barak. As Deborah and Barak afterward sang, “Zebulun and Naphtali were a people that jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field . . . They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.” The very song itself is our best example of Naphtali’s “goodly words.”
“Joseph is a fruitful bough even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall: the archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at, and hated him: but his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob; From thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel; even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb: the blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren.” Once again Jacob returned with enthusiasm to his favorite son Joseph. Now before the brothers he related the essence of the blessing which previously he had laid upon the sons of Joseph privately. In accord with the deep desire of Rachel, Joseph would be a fruitful bough blessed by the hand of the Lord. With the double portion of the blessing he would manifest miraculous growth of the nation which is blessed of the Lord.
“Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.” Benjamin was to be warlike as a hunting wolf. Fighting the battles of the Lord, his sons would divide the spoils of the enemy. The Scriptures abound with accounts of the warriors of Benjamin, slingers and archers, men like Ehud, Saul, and Jonathan. Actively they took part in the battles of Israel.
“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel: and this is it that their father spake unto them, and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.” As in a vision, Jacob saw the great nation which was being formed in Egypt spread out through the coasts of Canaan. In its blessings and riches and strength, as well as in its weaknesses, it would be the nation blessed of the Lord, each tribe fitting in its place to make the whole. But even in that it was but a picture, a figure and a type, of the greater nation yet to come, the holy nation which is the body of Jesus Christ ruled eternally by the lion of Judah’s tribe.