It is striking that, in the case of Isaac and Jacob, the event that manifests their faith so clearly that they are mentioned in Hebrews 11 as those whose walk of life was a confession that they were pilgrims and strangers on the earth seeking the city which hath foundations whose Designer and Builder is God occurred late in life.
In both instances they are commended for blessing their seed, Isaac blessing Jacob and Esau, and Jacob blessing the two sons of Joseph. (Their lives otherwise were not exemplary in many instances, especially as far as Jacob is concerned, whose life is treated far more extensively than Isaac’s.) Abel’s outstanding act of faith came when he was a young man. Noah and Abraham were much older men when they displayed their great faith in deeds recorded in Hebrews 11. But Isaac and Jacob performed deeds which, for them, were of unusual faith in the waning days and hours of their earthly existence.
There is a warning here for us, as well as instruction. It is questionable whether we, after reading all that is recorded of Jacob in the book of Genesis, would have picked this particular deed, his blessing of the two sons of Joseph, as the noteworthy deed of faith in Jacob’s life that stands out above the rest. Would we not be inclined to present his blessing of his twelve sons above the blessing he pronounced on Joseph’s two sons? Or would we not list as showing more faith the fact that he insisted on being buried in Canaan? But we ought not try to be judges who overrule the choice of God Himself as to the event in Jacob’s life that we must see to know him to be a man of faith whose deeds we ought to emulate.
We so easily judge by hours spent in walking by faith and by external deeds of men that do not show the true condition of the heart. For that reason we are inclined to consider the one and a half years of John the Baptist’s ministry as of much less importance and value than the long and difficult ministry of Moses among rebellious Israelites, or the many years of prophesying of Elijah, Elisha, or Isaiah, to mention only a few who served for much longer periods of time. And we do this even though we know that Jesus said that John was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. We easily overlook the fact that although the prophets before him all prophesied boldly of Christ’s coming, John is the man who pointed Him out and said, “Behold the Lamb of God Which taketh away the sin of the world,” and that he prepared the way for Christ.
We appreciate and think highly of the one thief who changed from railing on Christ to pray to Him, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.” But we hardly expect a man like that to have a higher place in that kingdom than those who for years faithfully served and were converted, not within hours of their death, but decades before they could serve here below no more.
But God’s standard and way of judging are often so different from ours. Consider that this former thief, malefactor, or evil doer, was the ONLY one at the cross who confessed to believe that Christ had a kingdom that was sure to come! It is not always simply a question of how long the deed takes to perform. The circumstances under which it is committed have much to do with the value of it. I fully expect that thief to have more glory than I could ever expect to have, he being one having far stronger faith and spiritual courage to stand for the truth than I ever had.
And so when this deed of Jacob is singled out while we expected some other deed in his life to show him as a man of strong faith—not a “hero of faith” but a giant of faith—we had better abide by God’s judgment and try to see why God considers this such a clear manifestation of faith.
Before considering this act of faith on Jacob’s part, however, we ought to take time to consider those few words that we are inclined to slide over without asking, “And why did God see fit to have this added?” I refer to the concluding statement in Genesis 47:31, namely, “And Israel bowed himself upon the bed’s head.”
It is even interesting, as well as significant, to note that suddenly he is called Israel, Prince of God. This ought to alert us and cause us to realize that something has happened here that merits the use of this name that God gave him after he wrestled with the angel in prayer and declared that he would not let him go until he was blessed. The name Jacob, meaning Supplanter, is prophetic. The name Israel, meaning Prince of God, is fulfillment of prophecy. And he is called by this name of Israel after he performed a deed of great faith. It is true that Hebrews 11 does not list the request of Jacob for an oath from Joseph to bury him in Canaan as the greatest evidence of his faith, but the change in name does indicate God’s approval of this deed as an act of great faith. So great an act of faith it is, that the name Prince of God fits, and ought to be expressed.
Two things may be pointed out that will help us to appreciate this deed of bowing upon the bed’s head. Jacob, realizing that he had but a short time to live, was deeply concerned about being buried in Canaan. This he sought to make sure by an oath from Joseph’s mouth. He had at that time no intention of blessing Joseph’s sons. He did not call for them to be brought to him for this purpose. Joseph, hearing that his father was sick and failing, brought them to his father for a blessing. This burial in Canaan seemed all important to Jacob. Yet God spared his life, after requiring an oath from Joseph, for a richer act of faith. He did intend to do as recorded in Genesis 49. He did intend to call his sons—not Joseph’s but his own sons—before he died to bless them. But at the moment this matter of being buried concerned him above all else.
The other matter to consider is that in Hebrews 11:21 it is stated that Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons and “worshipped leaning upon the top of his staff.” In Genesis 47:31 we read that, after Joseph swore to bury him in Canaan, Jacob “bowed himself upon the bed’s head.” And it is pointed out that in the Hebrew the word bed and staff have the same consonants, and in the original Hebrew no vowel markings, so that the one word could easily be read as the other, even as the consonants lvng with us could mean living or loving.
Now the significance of this incident does not lie in the word bed or staff. And the whole apparent contradiction disappears if we only understand that these are two different incidents. The significance is in the bowing, which here too we may believe was a worshipping. It was a bowing in worship. Jacob, having heard Joseph swear that he would bury him in Canaan, bows his head in prayer and worships God for what he has just heard from the mouth of his son.
We may say that Jacob bows his head in a prayer of thanksgiving for a clear, unmistakable evidence of faith and spirituality in his son Joseph. This was his most beloved son, the son of his most beloved wife. He meant more to Jacob than any of the other eleven sons. For a time Benjamin occupied that place, because Jacob was led to believe that Joseph was dead. But, as soon as he knew that Joseph was alive, that love surged forth and attached itself to Joseph even more firmly than before his sons deceived him into thinking Joseph was dead.
But this most beloved son is now an Egyptian ruler of no mean standing. He was up to his ears in politics. He was an influential man in Egypt not only but a valuable man in Pharaoh’s service. He had it made as far as his natural life is concerned, being rich, in honour among the people and before the king, and married to an Egyptian priest’s (or prince’s) daughter. He had arrived. He was in the highest strata of that day from a social point of view. All Egypt bowed before him, respected him as a wise and capable ruler who had saved their lives and their country.
Now all these can easily turn a man from his faith in God. One can so easily set his affections on these things, and, as the wealth and prestige grow, the things of God’s kingdom become dim and one does not seek first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness. He becomes worldly-minded, carnal, a pleasure and treasure seeker. He finds less and less time for the things spiritual, and his life becomes crowded with the things of this world. And let us not forget that Joseph was a sinner with a depraved nature, a man that could be tempted by all the glamour and wealth of the king’s court as well as any one of us can. Yes, he stood firm in the temptation of Potiphar’s wife. But how often do we ourselves not find that although we can stand firm in one kind of temptation, we fall so easily in another? Therefore Satan also varies his temptations and tailors them after our besetting sins.
What assurance does Jacob have that all this has not gone to Joseph’s head? In the little contact that he has with this highly exalted son there were no doubt what seemed to be signs of faith. But were they for real? And Jacob knows nothing about Joseph’s faithfulness in Potiphar’s house or in the prison. He knows that Joseph stands in a place where temptations are manifold and powerful. Well can he have questions in his mind as to whether Joseph, the ruler in Egypt, is concerned with the promises in the land of Canaan. Does he intend to become an Egyptian in the full sense of the word and settle his family here in their generations? For here they have all that their hearts could wish for as far as material things and life in that day and age are concerned.
How thankful he now is to hear Joseph swear that he will bury him in the land of promise. How thrilled his soul is to know that Joseph does consider this a serious spiritual matter and not the whim of a senile father. It is God Who kept Joseph in the faith and untainted from all the luxury and worldly honour which turns men’s heads and hearts and souls from God to mammon.
As a true covenant father Jacob finds covenant joy in knowing that his most beloved son has been kept in the day of temptation by the mercy of God, and that God is continuing the line of His covenant in this son that he loves so dearly. He bows in worship. He bows in humble acknowledgment that this is the work of God. And so he prays a prayer of thanksgiving. That is what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews says when he writes that he worshipped. Jacob could not say it in the words that John uses in III John 4, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” But that joy was Jacob’s. And that joy is every covenant parent’s when he witnesses the confession of faith in his child. In the world they rejoice in earthly achievements and in what the world calls success. In the church it is what God does in and for our children to keep them unspotted from the world, and to live so that although they are in the world they manifest themselves as not of the world.