The Meaning of “Shiloh” In Genesis 49:10

Genesis 49:10 is that well-known and beautiful Messianic prophecy, “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.” The Revised Version translates, more correctly, I believe: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the obedience of thepeoples be.” 

Chapter 49 of Genesis contains a series of predictions concerning the future of the sons of Jacob. Israel is now a very old man, who is ready to depart for his eternal home. Before he does, however, he calls his twelve sons to his bedside to leave with them his dying words. Prophecies they are, for he himself says, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days.” And blessings they are, for we read in verse 25, “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.” 

The prophecies to his three oldest sons had already been uttered. They were not good. Reuben was his firstborn, his might, and the beginning of his strength. Nevertheless he would not excel, have the pre-eminence, because of the abominable sin of incest which he had committed. “Thou wentest up to the father’s bed; then defiledst thou it.” The prophecies concerning the next two sons, Simeon and Levi, were no less unfavorable. The birthright privileges could not fall on them either, because of their bloodthirsty conduct and murderous vengeance against the men of Shechem. “Instruments of cruelty are in their habitations. 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.” 

Coming to his fourth son, however, we find a tremendous change in the tone and content of his prophecy. Judah is the first to receive a rich and unmixed blessing, that of indisputable pre-eminence and power. There is no verbal lashing here, no condemnation because of some grievous sin, no curse. At once Jacob tells him that he will be the object of his brothers’ praise. This is greatly emphasized by the personal pronoun that ‘follows immediately after the name. “Judah, THOU art he whom thy brethren shall praise.” This stresses the contrast between him and his three older brothers and implies that the birthright is transferred to him and the covenant blessing will be on him first of all, Notice the interesting play here on the word “praise.” Judah signifies: praise of God. He whose name denotes “praise” will be the object of the praise of his brothers. His enemies he will put to flight, grasp by the neck, and subdue. He is all-victorious. “Thy hand shall be in the neck of thy enemies.” Therefore “thy father’s children shall bow down before thee.” Not merely his mother’s children, those of Leah and her maid, his full brothers. All the children of his father, all the tribes of Israel, will bring him their homage. How very really this was the case under Judah’s mighty seed, the son of Jesse! “Judah is a lion’s whelp”; like an old lion, which, after seizing and devouring its prey, ascends to the mountain forests and there lies in majestic strength and confidence, where no one will dare to disturb him. A beautiful figure. It speaks of battle strength, victory, royalty, dominion. 

And then we come to this tenth verse, which is one of the most familiar passages in the Old Testament, but which also is not without its exegetical difficulties, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be.” 

The scepter, both in Scripture and current thought, is generally the symbol of royalty, regal authority and command. “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the scepter of Thy kingdom is a right scepter,” Ps. 45:6. Judah therefore, would have the rule, the dominion, the chieftainship over all the tribes of Israel, and. presently over all the nations of the world. However, in Judges 5:14the same word appears in a context, wherein it is quite impossible to refer it to royalty, but must be a symbol of a dignity of lower order. In general, therefore, “scepter” here refers to the praise, pre-eminence, victory, superiority spoken of in the preceding verses and which Judah will have over his enemies as well as in the midst of his brethren. More especially, of course, the reference is to the kingship of the Davidic dynasty, that would proceed from the loins of Judah and would culminate in the glorious dominion of the Lord of lords and King of kings. 

“Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.” The reference is to the very same thing. “Scepter” and “ruler’s staff” are identical. The King James Version translates this: “nor the lawgiver from between his feet.” It is obvious, however, from the parallel with “scepter” and the phrase “between his feet” that “ruler’s staff” is by far, the better translation. What we have here is simply another. example of Hebrew parallelism, where the same thing is repeated in different language. In fact, the scepter in its earlier form was a long staff, which the king held in his hand while speaking, and which, when he sat upon his throne, rested between his feet. 

That scepter, says the dying Israel, will not depart from Judah. And it didn’t. Always Judah had the pre-eminence, the superiority, the chieftainship. It was not always equally evident; it had its ups and downs. But it was always there, throughout the Old Dispensation. In the desert it was Judah, who led the children of Israel in their march to the land of Canaan. In the wars against the heathen nations it was Judah, who generally took the lead. The first of the judges, Othniel, was from the tribe of Judah. Often, however, this pre-eminence was not predominant. The majority of the judges were from other tribes. In the kingship of David, however, this superiority really asserted itself. Jesse’s son was from Judah. During the Babylonian captivity the scepter seemed all but gone. Never after that did Israel have its own king. Even so, the ruler’s staff was still in Judah’s hand, however weakly. The house of David still existed. Until Immanuel comes, in whom the scepter will never depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet. 

That is the meaning of the phrase: “Until Shiloh come.” We spoke above of exegetical difficulty. We were referring to this name. 

That Shiloh here has reference to the Christ is generally accepted: There is no doubt that the church has been and is correct, when it sees in this dying word of Jacob a wonderful prophecy of the coming Messiah. True, there were those who supposed it to refer to the city by that name. Shiloh was also the name of a city, belonging to the tribe of Ephraim, which stood in the midst of the land of Canaan and where the tabernacle was pitched from the time of the conquest of the land to the days of Eli and even later. These people read the text: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah . . . till he come to Shiloh.” We may dismiss this interpretation, however, as quite arbitrary and without foundation in Scripture. It is doubtful, to say the least, whether the town of Shiloh existed in Jacob’s time. If it did it had no importance in relation to the lives of the patriarchs. Not once is it referred to in their history. Certainly, there is nothing in Scripture about any coming of Judah to Shiloh, which would in any way affect his dominion and superiority over the other tribes, to say nothing about pre-eminence over all the peoples of the world. Hence, we dismiss this interpretation as arbitrary and ungrounded, and repeat, that the reference here is without doubt to the Lord’s Messiah. It is in Him alone, that the scepter will never depart from Judah. That is the meaning, of course. It cannot be, that the coming of Shiloh will terminate the rule of Judah. The meaning is: when Shiloh comes Judah’s superiority and dominion will really be permanent and universal. That is clear from the last part of the verse: “And unto Him shall the obedience of the peoples be.” Indisputably, therefore, “until Shiloh comes” announces the coming of the Messiah. 

But that still leaves the question: Why is He called “Shiloh”? 

There were in the past and are today those, who proceed from a somewhat different reading of the word, which would lead to the translation: “The scepter will not depart from Judah until he comes whose it is orto whom it belongs.” Of course, even so the reference would be to the Messiah; however, “Shiloh” would become a common phrase rather than a proper name. Good commentators and Hebrew students see this, too, as an arbitrary interpretation. We dismiss it on that ground. 

In common with the whole Christian Church of many ages and even the entire Jewish synagogue, therefore, we regard “Shiloh” as a proper name of the Messiah. It is commonly accepted that it is derived from a word meaning: to be at rest, without care. Thus it came to mean: restgiver. Originally it may not have been a proper name at all, but through usage it became such, like “Preacher” (with reference to the author of Ecclesiastes) and “Branch” (Jer. 23:5) and other names. Thus Christ is the “Shiloh.” He will give the rest and peace that passes all understanding, not from earthy cares and toils, but from sin and its consequences. To Him will the nations belong. In Him Judah will hold the scepter forever and his rule over the tribes of Israel will be widened into the government of all the world. “Unto Him shall the obedience of the people be.” The King James Version has “gathering.” This, too, is true, of course. However, also here we give preference to the Revised Version, because of the concepts “scepter” and “ruler’s staff” which we find in this same verse. In Him we shall have dominion forever and ever. For Judah’s scepter is Israel’s scepter, and Israel is the church, and the church are we. A president may come from one certain state of the union; that does not mean that he is not the president of the entire nation. Thus Shiloh is the King of all the church; THE “rest giver” par excellence. 

This personal meaning of Shiloh is placed beyond all doubt by subsequent Messianic prophecies and all of Scripture. “And the government shall be upon His shoulders, and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father,The Prince of Peace,” Isaiah 9:6. He says, as only He can: “Come unto Me . . . . and I will give you REST.” The scepter shall not depart. Unto Him shall be the gathering of the people. Thus we sing in the beautiful words from Psalm 72

Christ shall have dominion 

Over land and sea, 

Earth’s remotest regions 

Shall His empire be; 

They that wilds inhabit 

Shall their worship bring, 

Kings shall render tribute, 

Nations serve our King. 

Ever and forever 

Shall His name endure, 

Long as suns continue 

It shall stand secure; 

And in Him forever 

All men shall be blest, 

And all nations hail Him 

King of Kings confessed.