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The Last Days of Jacob
We have seen Jacob a runaway, a stranger, a hireling, and a prince having power with God. His deceptions, his dreams, his prayers, his visions, are now closing; and the sunset is not without gorgeousness and solemnity. Every sunset should make us pray or sing; it should not pass without leaving some sacred impression upon the mind. The dying sun should be a teacher of some lesson, and mystery, and grace of providence. We shall now see Jacob as we have never seen him before. Who can tell but in the splendours of the sunset we shall see some points and qualities which have been heretofore concealed? Some men do seem to live most in their dying; we see more of them in the last mysterious hour than we have seen in a lifetime; more goodness, more feeling after God, more poignant and vehement desire for things heavenly and eternal. How is this to be accounted for? Base hypocrisy is not the explanation. We may be too ready to find in hypocrisy the explanation of death-bed experiences. Is there not a more excellent way, a finer, deeper, truer answer to the enigma of that sacred and most tragical moment? Who can tell what sights are beaming on the soul, what new courage is being breathed into the heart, timid through many a weary year? Who can tell what the dying see? We have yet to die! Even Christ was revealed by the Cross. We had not known Christ without the crucifixion. The agony came into his prayer when the trouble came into his soul.
The history is a simple one, yet with wondrous perspective. Seventeen years did Israel dwell in the land of Egypt, in the country of Goshen, and when he was a hundred and forty and seven years old, the time drew nigh that Israel must die. Who can fight the army of the Years? Those silent soldiers never lose a war. They fire no base cannon, they use no vulgar steel, they strike with invisible but irresistible hands. Noisy force loses something by its very noise. The silent years bury the tumultuous throng. We have all to be taken down. The strongest tower amongst us, heaven-reaching in its altitude, must be taken down a stone at a time, or shaken with one rude shock to the level ground: man must die. Israel had then but one favour to ask. So it comes to us all. We who have spent a lifetime in petitioning for assistance have at the last but one request to make. "Take me," said one of England's brightest wits in his dying moments, "to the window that I may feel the morning air." "Light, more light," said another man greater still, expressing some wondrous necessity best left as a mystery. "Bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt," said dying Jacob to his son Joseph, "but bury me in the burying-place of my fathers." What other heaven had the Old Testament man? The graveyard was a kind of comfort to him. He must be buried in a given place marked off and sacredly guarded. He had not lived up into that universal humanity which says All places are consecrated, and every point is equally near heaven with every other point, if so be God dig the grave and watch it. By-and-by we shall hear another speech in the tone of Divine revelation; by-and-by we shall get rid of these localities, and limitations, and prisons, for the Lion of the tribe of Judah will open up some wider space of thought, and contemplation, and service. With Joseph's oath dying Jacob was satisfied.
Now we come upon family scenes. Joseph will have his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim blessed, and for so sweet an office Israel strengthened himself and sat upon the bed. What hints of life's mystery are there! The courteous old gentleman strengthened himself when he heard that princely Joseph was coming with his sons. How we can whip ourselves up to one other effort! How we can just blow the smouldering embers into a little flash and flame one last sparkle! the effort of desperation. Now the old man will tell his life-story over We wonder how he will begin, and where. It is a delicate matter to be autobiographical. Jacob is about to look backwards, and to relate the story of his own earthly career. Where will he begin? There are some graves we dare not rip open. What will he tell Joseph about his own early life? To the last he is a kind of inspired schemer; to the last he knows where to draw boundary lines, how to make introductions and exceptions. He will tell about the old blind Isaac? No. He will say how he ran away from Esau whom he had supplanted? No. What will he say then by way of beginning? He will begin at the second birth. That is where we, too, are called to begin. Do not celebrate the old natural fleshly birthday that was in reality death-day. Jacob will begin where he himself truly began to be, "God Almighty appeared unto me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and blessed me." What a subtle narrator! What a gift in history! Not a word about the old homestead and old doings; but beginning with regeneration, when he threw off the old man and started up though with some rudeness of outline needing infinite discipline into a brighter, larger self. This is a mystery in Providence as revealing itself in the consciousness of the redeemed and sanctified soul. We should be in perpetual despair if we went back to our very earliest doings, and bound ourselves within the prison of our merely fleshly and earthly memories. Each of us has had a Luz in his way. Surely every soul calling itself in any degree right with God, or right in its desires at least towards God, has had a vision-place and a vision-hour, a place so sacred that other places were forgotten in its memory: an hour so bright that all earlier hours absorbed their paler rays in its ineffable effulgence. Now are we the sons of God. We began our true life when God began his life within the soul. So this well-skilled autobiographer will say nothing about other times. God himself has promised never to mention them to us. He says, Come, now, and we will gather up the sins as into one great stone, and plunge it into the infinite depths, and the billows shall keep it concealed for ever. We must not drag back the memory to days of murder, dissipation, blasphemy, and all wickedness. We begin our life where God began the life of the soul. Now, being free at the beginning, Jacob is eloquent. After getting over some sentences how the soul can flow away in easy copious speech! He told how Rachel died in the land of Canaan when yet there was but a little way to come unto Ephrath, and how he buried her in the way and set a pillar upon her grave which he meant to stand evermore, thinking that all ages must weep over the woman whose soul departed as she travailed in birth with Benoni. Heedless ages! The pillars of the dead have no sanctity in their cold eyes, yet it does us good to think that many will cry about the spots which mark our own heartbreak. Surely every man must cry where we cried; surely our tears have consecrated some places; surely no fool can laugh where our soul nearly died.
Now a scene occurs which must have had the effect of a moral resurrection upon dying Jacob. Joseph set his sons in the order of their ages. He was so far a technicalist and a pedant that he would keep up the well-known law of succession by primogeniture. But Jacob guided his hands wittingly and crossed them so as to violate that sacred law. Joseph was displeased and said "Not so, my father, but otherwise"; and Jacob said "I know it, my son, I know it; but this is right," Who can tell what passions surged through his own soul at that moment? What is this duplication of one's life? What is this sudden enbodiment of shadows standing up and confronting us in a silence more terrible than accusatory speech, our other-selves, strange shadow-memories, actions which we could explain but may not: benedictions which express a philosophy which we dare not reveal in terms? A wonderful life is the human life yea, a life within a life, a sanctuary having impenetrable places in it. Others may see some deeds or shadows of deeds upon the window as they pass by, but only the man himself knows what is written in the innermost places of the silent soul.
Israel is now in a mood of benediction. We need but to begin some things in order to proceed quite rapidly and lavishly. So Jacob will now bless his own sons. We must read the benedictions as a whole. Months might be spent in the detailed analysis and criticism of the blessings, but even that detailed examination would leave us in almost total ignorance of the real scope and value of those benedictions as revelations of the quality of the mind and heart of the man who pronounced them. What a mind was Jacob's, as shown in the various blessings pronounced upon his children! How discriminating those now closing eyes! How they glitter with criticism! How keen penetrating, even to the finest lines of distinction! Surely what we see in those eyes is a gleam of the very soul. This is no joint salutation or valediction; this is no greeting and farewell mixed up in one confused utterance. This is criticism. This is the beginning of a career of mental development which is the pride of human education and culture. How affectionate too! In nearly every line there is some accent of affection peculiar to itself. And how prophetic! The ages are all revealed to the calm vision and sacred gaze of this man who is more in heaven than upon earth. But this prophecy is no phantasy. We have accustomed ourselves now to a definition of prophecy which enables us in some degree to understand this way of allotment and benediction. Prophecy is based on character. We have already defined prophecy as moral prescience. Retaining the definition, we see in this instance one of its finest and clearest illustrations. This is no fancy painting. It is the power of the soul in its last efforts to see what crops will come out of this seed and of that; it is a man standing upon fields charged with seed, the quality of which he well knows, forecasting the harvest. Moral prophecy is vindicated by moral law. There was no property to divide. There was something better than property to give. What a will is this! It has about it all the force of a man being his own distributer not only writing a will like a testator, which is of no force until after the testator's death, but already enriching his sons with an inheritance better than measurable lands. What have you to leave to your children? to your friends? You could leave an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled and that fadeth not away, bright memories of love, recollections of sacred sympathy, prayers that lifted the life into new hope, forgiveness that abolished the distinction between earth and heaven, and made pardoned souls feel as if they had seen their Father in heaven; great will: eternal substance.
How Jacob's conscience burned up in that sacred hour! He remembered the evil of his sons. He reminded Reuben of what he had done; he recalled the deed of shame, never to be spoken aloud by human tongue, wrought by Simeon and Levi in the land of Hamor the Hivite; and because their anger was fierce and their wrath was cruel, he divided them in Jacob and scattered them in Israel. "The evil that men do lives after them." Simeon and Levi had forgotten what they did in their sister's case. Jacob had not. In such a malediction there are great meanings, even so far as Jacob is concerned. Jacob knew the cost of sin. Jacob knew that no man can of himself shake off his sin and become a free man in the universe. The sin follows him with swift fate, opens its mouth like a wolf and shows its cruel teeth. No man can forgive sin. Who but God can wrestle with it? We fly from it, try to forget it; but up it leaps again, a foe that pursues unto the death, unless some Mighty One shall come to deal with it when there is no eye to pity and no arm to help. But presently Jacob will come to a name that will change his tone. How some faces brighten us! How the incoming of some men makes us young again! Jacob we have never seen until he comes to pronounce his blessing upon Joseph.
"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 him, 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" ( Gen 49:22-26 ).
We read this as a speech of words: it came from the original speaker like a sacrifice of blood. What a marvellous poem! How judgment blazes in it in certain directions! "The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him. They have hamstrung this noblest of the offspring of Israel. Did the "old man eloquent" look round upon the brethren as he said this: "and blessings shall be upon the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren"? What sharp darts fell upon the consciences of the listeners! There are benedictions that are judgments. We encourage some men at the expense of the destruction of others. Words have atmosphere, perspective, relations that do not instantly appear upon the surface of the speech. The singing of a hymn may be a judgment to some who hear it; a kind word may awaken burning memories in many consciences. We cannot tell what we say. We cannot follow the whole vibration which follows the utterance of our speech.
Now let Israel die. Bury the old man where he would like to be buried. Wherever such a man is buried, now that God has wrought the evil out of him, sweet flowers must grow; Eden must begin.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 49". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20