A DISTANT SUNSET
"By faith JACOB, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshiped, leaning upon the top of his staff."--Hebrews 11:21
JACOB is the only name in our roll of ancient worthies whose departure was not strictly "a sunset on the Hebrew mountains." His sun set behind the pyramids of old Egypt, far from the land of his birth and his pilgrimage. But we cannot dissociate "Israel" from the hills and valleys which bear his name. In truth, no death-bed was in reality more in the heart of Canaan than his. The Hebrew mountains alone rose before his dying eye. We forget, as we listen to his lengthened farewell counsels, that so many miles separate him from the land of his early life and wanderings; and are only reminded that he is at a distance from his home, by the preparations made for his funeral by the house of Pharaoh, and by the vast funeral procession, as it winds along the highway from Egypt to Canaan.
No closing chapter in the annals of the patriarchs is so full of circumstantial detail. It was a quiet eventide after a stormy and troubled day. Moreover, it must be a scene peculiarly replete with animating and elevating lessons, when the great Apostle, out of the crowded incidents of Jacob's history, selects from the article of "death" the greatest and grandest illustration of his faith. Let us stand by his bed-side, and receive instruction alike for the hour of life and the season of death.
1st, Let us note his "blessing both the sons of Joseph." Joseph, on hearing that his father was laid on his death-bed, and that his last moments were approaching, hastened to conclude a life of filial devotedness by being present at the solemn scene. He took along with him his two boys, Manasseh and Ephraim, that they might profit by the old man's dying words, and receive his blessing. On their entering the apartment, the half-blind patriarch raised himself on his bed, and a supernatural strength seemed to be imparted to him.
"What grandeur and vivacity of genius must Jacob retain even in that hour when strength and power fail, to be able to convey his ideas in such august terms, and in a flow of such happy poetic imagery as he does in the 49th chapter of Genesis! Who that reads this chapter would imagine that elevated strains like these--strains that would have done honor to the Muse of Homer, warbled from the lips of a dying man; of a man, also, laboring under the utmost decays of age, and over whose head no fewer than one hundred and forty-seven years had passed?"--TOPLADY.
We have heard of "second sight" at death; and, indeed, in the case of God's people, as we have already noted in a previous page, who can gainsay that there seems often and again to be a strange brightening and quickening of the inner sense as the outer man perishes, as if light from "the excellent glory" were let in through the torn and broken walls of the cottage of clay? Who, that have been privileged to stand often by Christian death-beds, have not occasionally observed a vast and marvelous expansion of the spiritual vision; as if, though the breath still lingered, and the faltering tongue still spoke, in reality, the mortal fetters had snapped, and the spirit had already begun its upward soaring? We have known of more than one ecstatic departure where there were either visions of the Savior or of angels--the death-couch lighted up with a mystic glory--the imagery of Revelation actually realized--the golden paved streets--the sapphire throne--the harpers harping with their harps, and voices saying, "Come up here!"
The sea of life over--the voyager seems to observe the lights, and listen to the praises of the angel-crowd lining the celestial shore. The fragrance of the spicy groves seems wafted to the enraptured senses before gardens of immortality are themselves in sight. The gate of Heaven seems ajar, and its music reaches the soul, as it waits under the portal ready to enter in! There was more than this in the case of Jacob. The spirit of prophecy had evidently descended. Glorious visions of the future rose up before him, until his eye rested on the very Angel that blessed him at Jabbok--the Redeemer of the world--the coming "Shiloh" of a future day! Filled with that glowing perspective of spiritual blessings, he calls the sons of Joseph to his side. He formally adopts them as his own. "They are MINE," says he; "as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be MINE." And again he says, "Let my NAME be named on them, and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac" (Gen. 48:16); "and Joseph brought them near to him, and he kissed them, and embraced them," (Gen. 48:10).
But let us pause and ask--Who is the giver, and who are the recipients of these blessings? As it has been well observed, if we had not already known how the patriarch and the youths stood relatively to one another, we would have concluded, from the way in which Jacob bestows his dying benediction, that he was some aged Sheik or shepherd-king taking two of the sons of his herdsmen and adopting them--serving them heirs to his wealth and fortune. Who would ever dream that the picture is really the reverse; that it is a poor old man--himself a pensioner, and dependent on foreign bounty--bringing in the sons of a prince, and telling them with a dignified demeanor and bearing, that they are to be adopted as the heirs and children of a wandering shepherd; that they are to renounce the certain honors of Egypt, the land of fertility and wealth, of wisdom and renown, and to barter all, for the possessions of two tribes in a hilly country--itself far distant, and much of it yet to be conquered?
What is the explanation of this remarkable transaction? As in the case of Abraham, Faith--a lofty faith, solves it all. When Joseph and his two sons entered the dying-chamber, and when Israel strengthened himself and sat upon his bed, what were the old man's opening words? "God Almighty appeared to me at Luz (or Bethel) in the land of Canaan, and blessed me, and said unto me, Behold, I will make you fruitful, and multiply you, and I will make of you a multitude of people; and will give this land to your seed after you for an everlasting possession!" (Gen. 48:3, 4) And again, "He blessed Joseph, and said, God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God who fed me all my life long unto this day, the Angel who redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads!" (Gen. 48:15, 16) He transfers to these his two grandchildren the blessing which he himself received on that ever-memorable night at Bethel when he awoke from his ladder-dream--a blessing which, among other things, included the noblest of all--that "in him and his seed all the families of the earth were to be blessed."
Had temporal blessings been what the patriarch sought to confer on these children--had it been a mere splendid provision for their earthly good--how different would have been his dying words, how different his parting advice to Joseph--"Never leave Egypt!" he would rather have said--"Good fortune has raised you to the pinnacle of earthly prosperity. I am justly proud of your elevation. Bring up your sons as princes of the land. To ingratiate them with the people, let them serve the gods of Egypt. Blot out from their memories all trace of the poverty-stricken country of their fathers. Do all you can to found a mighty dynasty; and, now that I am about to die, rear a magnificent mausoleum over my ashes--leave those of my fathers to rest alone in distant Machpelah."
How different was his conduct! "Bring," he says to princely Joseph--"Bring near your two sons that I may bless them with my blessing and name upon them my name. Riches I have none to offer. But the blessing I crave for them, and which I seek to bestow, is mightier than Egyptian treasure, and more enduring than your pyramids." He said, turning to Joseph, "May the God of your ancestors help you; may the Almighty bless you with the blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the earth beneath, and blessings of the breasts and womb. May the blessings of your ancestors be greater than the blessings of the eternal mountains, reaching to the utmost bounds of the everlasting hills. These blessings will fall on the head of Joseph, who is a prince among his brothers." Genesis 49:25-26
Seventeen years in that strange land--seventeen years, also, of great prosperity in fertile Goshen, undoubtedly the least clouded period of Jacob's life--had neither obliterated the memories of Canaan, nor lessened his estimate of the superiority of spiritual blessings to the pomp and glitter of earthly renown. One smile from the God of Abraham was to him better than all the riches and honors of Egypt. His son being the Prime Minister of Pharaoh was nothing to the honor of being the child and the friend of God! And to give the best evidence of his sincerity, the dying patriarch, with a singular frequency, charges Joseph on no account to permit his remains to be buried in Egypt, but to carry them up to the land of Canaan. When he first feels himself dying, he sends for his son, and takes an oath of him on the "If you are pleased with me, swear most solemnly that you will honor this, my last request--Do not bury me in Egypt." (Gen. 47:29). And then, after finishing his family blessings, before the curtain finally falls, he renews and reiterates the request (Gen. 49:29), getting at the same time the children pledged to fulfill and ratify their father's oath.
Joseph, also, with a faith and magnanimity as noble as his dying parent's, joyfully acquiesces at once in receiving the blessing for his sons, and in swearing faithfully that he would obey his father's wishes regarding his funeral rites. Amid all the grandeur of earthly empire, he too had learned the superiority of spiritual to temporal good, and knew in what true greatness consisted. "His bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong, by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob," (Gen. 49:24). And this was what he coveted for his children. Many might call him fool and madman for casting away from him these golden prizes. He cared not. He loved their souls more than their earthly magnificence. He would rather have God's blessing and poor Canaan, than rich Egypt without it.
What a lesson for us! Are we equally willing to barter temporal for spiritual good? Are we equally willing to cast aside the costly prize for our families, when we see that the acceptance of it would endanger their spiritual interests? In forming connections in life--friendship connections, marriage connections, business connections, trade connections--can we read this touching story of sons, father, and grandfather, and say with a good conscience, "We have done likewise?" that we have had respect--not to the gilded bauble, the high position, the dazzling honor, the brilliant earthly prospects--but that we have "had respect to the spiritual recompense of the reward?"
Are our fondest and most earnest prayers that our children be the children of the living God?--that though they have little of this world's goods, they may be heirs of the incorruptible inheritance? And when we come to die, what a lesson from the death-bed of Jacob, to have the one absorbing thought for ourselves and those near and dear to us, that we meet in the true Canaan! His thoughts were wandering on the sunny pastoral hills and valleys of the covenant-land. Would this be our farewell prayer and longing--"I die! but I am only a pilgrim here--Canaan is my home." I desire "a better country, that is, a heavenly one," (Heb. 11:16).
But there are two other incidents mentioned in connection with the blessing of the sons of Joseph to which we must advert.
The first is, the giving the precedence in the blessing, not to Manasseh, but to his younger brother Ephraim.
We read in the narrative, that Joseph took them both to the bedside of the sightless patriarch, "Then he positioned the boys so Ephraim was at Jacob's left hand and Manasseh was at his right hand. But Jacob crossed his arms as he reached out to lay his hands on the boys' heads. So his right hand was on the head of Ephraim, the younger boy, and his left hand was on the head of Manasseh, the older." (Gen. 48:13, 14). Joseph remonstrated. He imagined it was the mistake of his father's blindness, and was rectifying it by transferring the hands so as to retain the right of primogeniture to Manasseh. But his father refused, saying, "I know it, my son, I know it," adding that, though Manasseh should be great, the younger son should be greater far, and his seed become "a multitude of nations."
What was this but the foreshadow of a great truth--the Gentile displacing and superseding the Jew. And surely it was only a further exemplification of Faith (implicit obedience to God's will and word) that Jacob persisted in his determination to bestow the chief blessing on the younger. His mind had just been wandering on the land of covenant promise, and the spiritual blessings God had in store for his seed. Would it be easy for him, on natural grounds, to make the affirmation, or rather in his dying scene to give the significant sign that there was a time coming when these exclusive privileges of his children were to cease; when his heirs and descendants (the Jews--the Theocratic people) were themselves to be rejected--their land and glory wrested from them--the entail of spiritual privileges broken and given to others?
Add to this, must it not have cost him an effort thus to negate and thwart the wishes of so dutiful a son as Joseph, who was earnest that Manasseh should retain the right of the firstborn? But he was divinely instructed otherwise; and he acted on the future apostolic maxim, "I must obey God rather than men." We read, "He guided his hands wittingly," (Gen. 48:14). He acted according to "the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God."--The natural olive tree was to be cast out, and the wild olive tree engrafted in. The fall of his own descendants was "to be the riches of the world;" and this, (as God's will,) he boldly declares by the most expressive of symbolic actions.
Oh, little did Egypt (where his dying-chamber was) know all that was signified for her in that closing transaction--the transference of the old man's hands from the head of Manasseh to that of Ephraim! It was a promise that is yet to be fully realized in the case of this "basest of kingdoms," when, as part of the Gentile world, she shall listen to the glad tidings, and Egypt shall be "a blessing in the midst of the land--whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people--and Israel my inheritance," (Isa. 19:24, 25).
One other topic still remains in connection with the blessing of Joseph's children. It is the naming of God under a twofold character. "God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God who fed me all my life long unto this day, the Angel who redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads," (Gen. 48:15, 16). "God"--"the God that FED me"--"the Angel"--"the God-angel that REDEEMED me."
He leaves the world exulting in Jehovah--first, as a God of PROVIDENCE. "The God who fed me all my life long unto this day." He seems to delight to dwell on God's watchful care of him during the dark and troubled and chequered morning of his life. He loved to trace His hand amid all the vicissitudes of his eventful pilgrimage. May it not be to this fond memory of God, as a God of PROVIDENCE, that the apostle makes special reference, when he speaks of the dying man as "leaning on the top of his staff?" What was that staff? It had been his constant companion--the pilgrim prop which he had carried with him and treasured, ever since the dark and gloomy night he fled as a fugitive from his father's house! He makes special mention of his "staff" on returning from his long sojourn in Mesopotamia. "With my staff I passed over this Jordan, and now I have become two bands," (Gen. 32). He clung to his staff as the memento and memorial of many loving-kindnesses of Jehovah. He had flung it at his side on the night of the dream. It would be the first thing he grasped when he awoke in the morning, and said, "How dreadful is this place!" It was the same staff he had used, when he went forth a halting cripple from Peniel, when "the sinew shrank in the hollow of his thigh." Doubtless it was the same staff he had leant on, when he was bowed with grief at his successive trials--when "Joseph was not, and Simeon was not," and they threatened to "take Benjamin also;" and it had formed the prop of his tottering steps when he had come up to Egypt to see Joseph before he died. It was the souvenir alike of prosperity and diversity.
If that shepherd's crook had been able to speak, it could have told many a tale of Providential kindness and faithfulness. And now, when, for the last time, he calls to mind "the God who fed him all his life long," we see the aged patriarch strengthening himself on his bed, yet still "leaning on the top of his staff." It would be in patriarchal days what an underlined Bible or diary would be to a dying man in modern times--a glance at it would aid memory in recalling unnumbered instances of love and kindness.
But the Apostle says more. Not only does he mention the "leaning on the staff," but he mentions also that "he worshiped."
Whom did he worship? Whom could he worship, but the Being of whom he speaks? And who is this? Let his own words tells us--"God--the ANGEL--who redeemed me." Oh, beautiful close to the life of Jacob! He leans on the staff of Providence, but he worships and adores the grace of a Redeeming Savior! Christ is the last vision that floats before his dimming eye. He sees the cross of Calvary. He speaks of "Redemption." He exults in One who had paid a costly price--who had "redeemed" him from all iniquity. He had wrestled once with that Angel at Jabbok, and now he beholds, in distant futurity, that Angel wrestling for him! What, then, is this, but Christ preached at Jacob's death-bed--Christ the last word on his lips? Like his father Abraham, "he sees the day of Christ afar off, and is glad"--the music of that name, in his case also, refreshing his soul in death.
Come, let us stand by that pillow and learn the secret of a triumphant departure. See the old man, first so mindful of others, gathering his children and his children's children to his bed-side, and breathing on them a fond benediction. But he now turns to himself. He has settled accounts with those near and dear to him. He has taken a touching (I had almost said a sublime) farewell; and now he begins to think of his own soul, and the great unknown on which he was about to enter.
How does he enter the dark valley? He seems to have caught up the words and the melody of a great descendant--"Your rod and your staff they comfort me; yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil--for you are with me," (Psalm 23.) Fetch me--he seems to say--that pilgrim-crook. These hands can grasp it, though these eyes can see it no more. I shall love once again to lean upon it, and get absorbed in the remembrance of a faithful, covenant-keeping God!
He does more. There is a brighter hope and nobler vision that fills his dying eye--a nobler prop on which his aged frame and spirit repose. The old wrestler of Jabbok is again by his side, unfolding to him the great Redemption. So overpowered does he seem with the vision, that in the midst of the blessing of his sons he is obliged to pause. He interrupts the prophetic strain as he clasps his aged hands in ecstasy, and exclaims, "I have waited for your salvation, O God," (Gen. 49:18). "I have waited;" "and now," he seems to say, "I have found it!" The chariots of salvation and the horses of fire are ready to bear him to "the Angel's" presence--the true Peniel--where he will see God "face to face." Like the patriarch of a future age, he had taken Christ in the arms of his faith, and he breathed away his spirit in a rapture of gospel triumph--"Now, Lord, let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation!" (Luke 2:29)