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The Reading of the Will

April 1, 2018 Speaker: David Gough Series: The Life of Joseph: Lessons in Sovereignty

Topic: Sovereignty of God Passage: Genesis 49:1–27


Genesis 49:1-33

1 Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.

2 “Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob, listen to Israel your father.

3 “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the firstfruits of my strength, 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 willingness 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.  13 “Zeubulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon.

14 “Issachar is a strong donkey, crouching between the sheepfolds,

15 He saw that a resting place was good, and that the land was pleasant, so he bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant at forced labor.

16 “Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. 

17 Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backward.

18 I wait for your salvation, O LORD.

19 “Raiders shall raid Gad, but he shall raid at their heels.

20 “Asher’s food shall be rich, and he shall yield royal delicacies.

21 “Naphtali is a doe let loose that bears beautiful fawns.

22 “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 (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),

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.

27 “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey and at evening dividing the spoil.”

28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him.  29 Then he commanded them and said to them, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite,  30 in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place.  31 There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah--  32 the field and the cave that is in it were bought from the Hittites.”  33 When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people.


Settling the estate of a deceased family member is rarely an easy or pleasant matter.  In spite of the best intentions that loved ones may have, rarely is it true that they had all of their affairs “in order” at the time of their death.  Perhaps you have been involved with the process of going through a parent or grandparent’s will and trying to “sort things out” among siblings and others who are left behind.  It can be a challenging and even frustrating experience.

Those with foresight have planned ahead and written their wills, making plans for the disposition of their more valuable items.  Often there is a public reading of one’s last will and testament.  Family members are called together to hear what manner of inheritance they have been bequeathed and/or what responsibilities they have been charged to fulfill.  If you have ever been a part of such a scene, then you will have some idea of what is taking place in Genesis 49.  

The hand of God had been upon this particular family since the time of Abraham, and would continue to be for many generations to come.  In time, it would be through this family line that God’s people would inherit and possess the land of Canaan and become a blessing to every people group on the face of the earth.  That promise had first come to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, by God’s sovereign choice.  It had then been passed along to Jacob’s father, Isaac, and then had come to him.  Now as the death of this aging patriarch neared, to whom and through whom would this promise be perpetuated to succeeding generations?

In the previous chapter, we saw Jacob meeting earlier with Joseph, the son he had given up for dead two decades earlier.  At that time, he blessed Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh.  Now as this chapter opens, Jacob’s remaining days are even fewer.  He has called his twelve sons to his bedside and is about to impart to them his final words.  

Before we look into this passage, let me make a few preliminary observations so that we may better understand what is going on here.  

  • In the first place, this chapter is generally titled, “Jacob blessing his sons,” but we do not find the word “blessings” until we get all the way down to verse 28.  What we find here are not so much “blessings” being bestowed or even wishes being hoped for, but rather predictions or prophecies being made with regard to his sons.  It was Socrates who said, “I am about to die, and this is the hour in which men are gifted with prophetic power.”  Some of us who have stood by the bedside of a dying loved one have found that to be true.
  • Secondly, Jacob was able to speak of his sons’ future because he had raised them, observed them for many years, and he knew their strengths and weaknesses.  No doubt, he hoped that his dying words to them would serve to equip them in terms of their destinies.  I can’t help but think of Proverbs 22:6 here.  The New Living Translation renders that verse, “Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it.”  In other words, Jacob sought to give his sons “targets” to aim as they lived out their days.
  • Third, Jacob’s words would be shown to be intended for not only his sons’ sons, but for the generations that would follow them.  As these men chose to live, son their descendants would follow.
  • Fourth, the order in which the sons are addressed by Jacob deviates from their birth order.  But there is a logical progression in how the sons are addressed: the first six are the sons of Leah, the next four the sons of the handmaids, and the last two the sons of Rachel.  Why this was so remains the subject of speculation, but Jacob seems to have followed this sequence for a reason.
  • Fifth and finally, you will notice in the manner in which the “blessings” are printed in your Bible that Jacob’s charges to his sons are stated poetically...in verse, rather than in narrative form.  Many of the descriptors we find are figurative in meaning and, therefore, present us with some difficulties in attempting to interpret them.  The brothers would have no doubt understood their meaning better than you and I do.  Having said that, there is probably a mnemonic reason for their appearing in poetic form, and that is, they could be rehearsed and recalled more readily in days to come.  

Why would Jacob go to such lengths to carefully craft his final words to his sons in the manner in which they are found here in Genesis 48?  I submit to you that it is because these twelve sons would in time become the ones upon whose names the nation would be built.  They would be “the twelve tribes of Israel.”  It was, therefore, imperative that they understand God’s providential plan through them for the generations to follow.  

You see, the example set by each individual has an effect upon the destiny of those who follow after.  Though you and I may give little thought to that as we live our daily lives, that principle is always true.  And it applies both positively and negatively.  In Exodus 20 and verses 5 and 6 we read, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

It matters greatly how and for whom we choose to live our lives.  In fact, those who come after us are in large measure dependent upon it,.

With this background in mind, we turn to Jacob’s dying words to the sons who have gathered near to him as he lay dying.  The Exodus out of Egypt is still four hundred years in the future.  They and the next several generations would continue to sojourn in that land, but their experience would over time be downgraded from privileged pilgrims to enslaved servants.  What would sustain this ever-increasing company of people during those difficult and desperate years?  In large measure, their hopes would hang upon the words spoken here.

Given its structure, this is not an easy chapter to work through, so we’re going to approach it a bit differently than we might typically do.  It would take several sermons to adequately deal with Jacob’s words to all twelve of his twelve sons.  Instead we will have time to focus of just two of those in particular.

Jacob’s final words to his sons (Genesis 49:1-27)

...actually begin with the introduction found in verses 1 and 2.  He summons them to the bed where he lay and instructs them, saying, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come. Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob, listen to your father Israel.”  Here again, just as we have in recent episodes, we find the interplay between the patriarch’s two names.  We might say that “Jacob” represented his name “before” encountering and trusting God’s sovereign plan, and “Israel” was the name given to him “after” meeting the Lord and surrendering to Him. 

If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you too have a “before and after” story.  You were not born a Christian and you did become one of your own volition.  It was “grace that taught your heart to fear, and grace your fears relieved.”  It was God who drew You to Himself.  Can you still recall “how precious did that grace appear, the hour you first believed?”  If so, then you may be able to sense what Jacob is reflecting upon here.

One of the first things that strikes us as we look at this extended session is that not all of the sons were “blessed” equally.  Without even reading the content of Jacob’s words to them, we notice that most received short—often one-verse—statements regarding their destinies, whereas only two of them—Judah and Joseph—were given substantial content by their father.  If you have been with us over these past several weeks and have been following the story from Genesis 37 and become acquainted with the character of each of the brothers,  then you can probably understand why this would have been the case.

While there was rebuke found in many of the statements, it is also fair to say that Jacob generally spoke positively about most of his sons.  But none measure up to the favor shown to Judah and Joseph.  

Look with me again at verses 8 through 12, where we read Jacob’s words to his son, Judah.  To us these words appear largely enigmatic and very curious:

 “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.

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?

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.

Binding his foal to the vine and the donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes.

His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.”

Judah was the fourth son born to Jacob and Leah.  His early life had not been virtuous.  He had been complicit in selling Joseph into slavery (cf. Genesis 37:26-27).  Later on he had committed fornication with his daughter-in-law, Tamar (cf. Genesis 38:1-26).  But following that episode he appears to have repented, so that we find him stepping forward to serve as the leader and spokesman of the group (cf. Genesis 43:5-10), and especially as the advocate for his youngest brother Benjamin (cf. Genesis 44:18-34).  

I call your attention to verse 9 in particular.  The repeated mention of the “lion” calls to mind the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ was, humanly speaking, a descendant of Judah and is even referred to in Revelation 5:5 as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah.”  The symbol of the “lion” denotes royalty and sovereign rule, and is frequently seen within the coat of arms of a king.  Jesus is the sovereign one, descended from Judah according to the flesh, and is demonstrated throughout the New Testament to be “the Son of God” (cf. Mark 1:1, et al) and “Son of Man” (cf. Matthew 8:20, et al).

Verse 10 finds its ultimate fulfillment in this same Jesus, who in time would come... first “to seek and to save the lost” (cf. Luke 19:10) and “to give his life as a ransom for many” (cf. Mark 10:45), and then to return as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).  A “scepter” is “an ornamental staff held in the hand of a ruling monarch as a symbol of sovereign authority.”   In Matthew 28:18, Jesus declared that, “All authority in heaven and on earth” had been granted to Him.

The phrase “until tribute comes to him” in verse 10 has been the subject of much discussion.  The New American Standard Bible reads “Until Shiloh comes,” which is in keeping with the original Hebrew.  Some commentators devote page-after-page to discussing the various meaning of the phrase.  Most agree, however, that it has reference to the coming Messiah...again, the Lord Jesus.  It is to Him that there “shall be the obedience of the peoples.”  Notice the plurality of that last word: “peoples.”  We find a similar construction in Psalm 2, verse 8, where the Lord promises to give “the nations” to His “Son” as an inheritance.  

The Book of Revelation (5:9 and 7:9) assures us that one day people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” will stand before this One who will be universally declared as King.  O, what a day that will be!  My sincere prayer is that you and I will see one another there.  Whatever else is implied in verses 11 and 12, it will be a day of plenty.  Derek Kidner writes, “Every line of these (two) verses speaks of exuberant, intoxicating abundance; it is the golden age of the Coming One...it is deliberately the language of excess.”  

Until now in Genesis there has been a narrowing down of God’s providential plan and purpose.  Out of all humanity, following the flood, God chose Shem—Noah’s son—to be the father of the Semitic peoples.  He then called one man, Abraham; and then one nation, Israel.  Out of Israel (God’s new name for Jacob), that promise is narrowed down to one tribe, Judah, and eventually to one individual within that tribe, Jesus Christ.  

Before we look at Jacob’s “blessing” to Joseph, let’s take a moment to consider verse 18.  Here we find inserted a parenthetical thought...a prayer of Jacob in which he says, “I wait for your salvation, O LORD.”  Jacob understood that the ultimate fulfillment of God’s sovereign plan did not rest with him...or even with these sons who he was blessing.  Nevertheless, he saw himself as a link in the chain that would in time bring about the reconciliation of sinful man to a holy God through the arrival of his greater Descendant.  

Some believe this verse to have been misplaced, and other think it to have been a “marginal gloss” inserted into the text by an overzealous scribe and not, therefore, a part of the original text.  I disagree.  Instead, I see this dying man pausing to “catch his breath,” if you please, and uttering a brief prayer of Messianic hope...much on the order of the aging John’s exclamatory prayer at the end of the Book of Revelation (22:20): “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Jacob’s final words to his son, Joseph, are recorded in verses 22 through 26.  Let’s read those again to this favored son:

 “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall.

The archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and harassed him severely,

yet his bow remained unmoved; his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),

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.

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.”

As with their father’s words to the other brothers, those addressed to Joseph are filled with symbolic word pictures.  As we have traced the hand of God throughout the life of Joseph in recent weeks, some of these become more obvious than others.  I ask you to first look with me at verses 24 and 25, and particularly the five titles by which the Lord is identified here.  

Taken together, the names for God found in verse 24—“the Mighty One of Jacob...the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel”—speak of His strength, His tenderness and care, and to His firmness and stability, respectively.  The Lord had been all these things and more to Jacob, and he now invokes those same blessings for his beloved son, Joseph.  Those last two terms in particular are used in reference to Christ in the New Testament, where He is called “the good shepherd” in John 10:11 and “the cornerstone” in Ephesians 2:20.

The names for Deity continue in verse 25 with “the God of your father” and “the Almighty.”  The God in whom Jacob had come to trust was the One who had brought Joseph through all the trials and pitfalls and into the privileged position he now enjoyed.  Joseph must not lose sight of “God...Almighty”—“El Shaddai”—for in the hands of that One alone did the hopes of God’s people exist.

If it was not apparent already, verse 26 makes clear that Joseph had been “set apart from his brothers.”  The Hebrew word (“nazir”) is used elsewhere in Scripture of those who take a Nazirite vow unto the Lord (cf. Numbers 6:1-21).  What that meant was to be “separated from” certain things—including strong drink—and consecrated for God’s service.  Remaining undefiled and ceremonially pure was the objective.  Some had assumed the Nazirite vow from birth (including Samson, cf. Judges 13:2-5, and John the Baptist, cf. Luke 1:15), while others (Paul, cf. Acts 18:18) had submitted to similar vow for a short season.  It rendered one “holy” or “separated unto the Lord” for a special purpose.

This verse is not saying that Joseph was or would be a Nazirite.  Rather, his “separation unto God” would be of a different sort.  In 1 Chronicles 5, verses 1 and 2, we are told that because Reuben—Jacob’s first-born—had earlier committed adultery with his father’s concubine, the birthright would be stripped from him and given to his younger brother, Joseph.  Due to his brothers’ betrayal and deception of him, Joseph had been physically “separated” from them for twenty years.  Now that “separation” would take an even more significant form.  He would be “set apart,” and it would be He—not Reuben—who would be given preeminence over them.

With the conclusion of his “blessing” his sons,

Jacob’s funeral arrangements (Genesis 49:28-33)

...are recorded in verses 28 through 33.  This chapter closes with a summary of the preceding...an assurance that his sons would bury him in Canaan—the land of promise—(as he had earlier made Joseph swear, but this time with more specific instructions), and a moving account of his death.  Verse 33 reads, “When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people.”

In contrast to the fearful prospect of death, which by its very nature tends to grip man, the description found here of Jacob’s passing is anything but.  There is actually a note of peace and confidence heard in these closing words.  Rather than “being dragged kicking and screaming” into “the great unknown,” Jacob quietly “drew his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his fathers.”  The language suggests that of one being led peacefully toward a more fulfilling destination.  

Old Testament saints believed in an afterlife, but the specifics of what that meant awaited the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He alone has been to the grave and returned to tell us what awaits on “the other side.”  He alone is able to bring about God’s sovereign plan for His people.  This He did by His resurrection from the dead...the act that put death to death.  It was and forever will be history’s most significant event.  And today He offers that same “resurrection life” to all who will call upon His name.  For the believer, there is no longer fear in death.  Because Jesus lives, all those who turn from their sin and entrust themselves to Him, as a result of His death and resurrection, will also live.  


Death is unnatural.  None of us look forward to it...whether it be our own death or the passing of a loved one.  But there is something sublime in the death of a believer.  Indeed, Psalm 116:15 tells us that “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”  

Although I had been brought up in a Christian home, I had relied in the faith of my mother and father to get me to heaven...which is to say, I had no personal relationship with God and, frankly, I never thought a great deal about having one.

In April 1970, my Mom suffered a serious stroke that claimed her life within a matter of days.  While she lingered, I prayed—I mean, I really prayed—for perhaps the first legitimate time in my life.  I wanted God to spare her...but I also realized that one day I would experience a similar fate.  The Bible says that “it is appointed to man to die” cf. Hebrews 9:27).  And as I read the Scriptures—for really the first time in my life—I came across the verse I just cited, Psalm 116:15: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”  My Mom was a “saint” in the biblical meaning of the term because she knew Jesus Christ as her Savior.  I was assured that she was now at rest with Him.

Over the next several months following her death, God made Himself and His saving presence known to me.  In July of that year, three months after my Mom’s passing, I surrendered my life to Christ.  One day I will see her again.  

Three and a half years later, my Dad went into the hospital for the repair of an aneurysm.  He never returned home, dying from complications as a result of the surgery.  He too knew Jesus...so one day I will also see him again.  From the time of my Mom’s passing, he had become my spiritual mentor and closest friend.  And just as her death had been what God used to bring me into a saving relationship with Jesus, so now my Dad’s passing enabled me to sense the Lord’s call to prepare for ministry.

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”  

That can be said of Jacob as he “finished commanding his sons, (drawing) his feet into the bed... (breathing) his last, and (being gathered) to his people.”  God honored him in the hour of his death by sustaining him in his final moments and giving him a thrilling testimony to the sufficiency of God throughout his life and a promise that His grace would be perpetuated throughout generations to come unto the arrival of the Messiah...the Savior, Jesus Christ.  We finds this same level of confidence in an even more magnificent way as our Lord Jesus hung dying on Calvary’s cross.  Having completed the work that He had been sent to do, He called out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).  “It is finished” (John 19:30).  Three days later, He would be raised from the grave, never to taste death again.

You see, the emphasis of both Jacob’s and Jesus’ final words is not on dying, but on “rejoining.”  Death is not the end for the people of God.  Those who are “in Christ” can be confident and rejoice that He is overseeing and guiding even the most remote events and experiences of life.  Every detail, up to and including the ordering our individual genetic codes, serves to bring about His glory and their good.  

The settling of Jesus’ estate was necessitated by His death on the cross, and His will was probated by the court of heaven when He rose from the grave.  Its beneficiaries included all those who have been loved by Him from “before the foundation of the world” (cf. Ephesians 1:4).  And its provision ensures eternal life and heavenly inheritance to all who will call upon His name.  

On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).  At that moment they could not comprehend what He meant.  But the events over the next seventy-two hours brought clarity to His statement.  As the Bible declares, it was “not possible” for death to hold Him (cf. Acts 2:24)!  And neither can it hold those who belong to Him by faith.  

Do you know Him as Your Savior and Lord?  Have you committed your life to living for Him and making Him known?  Have you followed Him by being baptized as a believer?  If so, then we invite you to comer to His Table this morning and remember afresh the death He died for you and His resurrection from the grave that gave assurance that because He lives, by Your faith in Him, you too shall live.  

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