The Death-Bed of Jacob
Hebrews 11:21
By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning on the top of his staff.

In this chapter St. Paul sets himself to the collecting, from the history of patriarchs and others, examples of the power of faith. Inspired as be was, we may not doubt that the instances which he selects are at least as strong as any which the histories present. Yet they do not always seem so. In many cases, had the selection been left with ourselves, we should not have fixed on the same example as St. Paul; so that we have cases in which what men would account best is not so accounted by Him who readeth the heart. In regard, for instance, to our text: the life of the patriarch Jacob was a singularly eventful one; many and great were the occasions which it furnished for the exercise of faith. Would this, we ask, have been the fact on which an uninspired writer would have fastened when choosing out of the history of Jacob what might best illustrate the faith which the patriarch had in God? Hardly, I think; more especially as Jacob blessed his own sons as well as those of Joseph; so that, even if we fix on the dying scene as most demonstrative of faith, we should probably not have taken the benediction on Ephraim and Manasseh in preference to that on some one of the twelve tribes. Indeed, when you remember that in blessing his son Judah Jacob delivered the illustrious prediction, "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah until Shiloh come," and thus displayed faith in the promised Messiah, it may not be easy to understand how his faith could be more conspicuous in blessing Joseph's sons, seeing that he seems to have predicted their temporal increase and greatness. This, however, it is which we must now endeavour to do. We may not, indeed, be able to prove to you that the selected instance is the strongest which the history furnishes, but we may at all events ascertain that it thoroughly establishes the power of the principle which it is quoted to illustrate. Now there is one very marked point on which we may fasten, to draw from it an illustration of the patriarch's faith; and this is, the adoption of Joseph's children for his own — an adoption, you observe, on which the dying man dwells with all possible earnestness; for, not content with having already said, "Thy two sons are mine," he makes it part of his final benediction, as though the " redeeming Angel" could do nothing more glorious for the lads: "Let my name be named on them, and the name of my father's Abraham and Isaac." And what shall we say of this eagerness of Jacob to engraft into his own family Manasseh and Ephraim? He seems to make it his object, and to represent it as a privilege, that he should take the lads out of the family of Joseph, though that family was then among the noblest in Egypt, and transplant them into his own, though it had no outward distinction but what it derived from its connection with the other. It seems to me, as I stand by the bedside of Jacob, as though two wholly different processions must have passed before his mind — the one a procession of human power and pomp, the other of poverty and shame, though with the favour of God and employment in His service. In the first procession, the procession of splendour and even sovereignty, the sons of Joseph seem born to take part. They had only to remain incorporated among the Egyptians, and theirs, in all human probability, would be the wealth and the majesty which passed with so stately a step before the dying man's vision. In the second procession, the procession of tribulation and hardship, the leading figures are those of Jacob's own children; the failing father discerns Judah and Simeon and Dan amongst the victims of oppression and the wrestlers for liberty. And it is for Jacob to determine whether he shall frame his parting blessing so as to leave Manasseh and Ephraim in the first procession, or so as to transfer them to the second. And was there no temptation to prefer the present to the future — the dignities of earth to the less palpable advantages of being numbered with a people set apart by God? There was but one principle which could have nerved the patriarch for doing as he did; nay, but one which could have justified him therein. Had he not been thoroughly confident in the Word of the Lord; had he not possessed an un-doubting assurance that no amount of temporal advantages could compensate the want of spiritual blessing — that poverty and contempt endured in the service of God were incalculably preferable to opulence and glory enjoyed in the service of sin — he could hardly have been bold enough, and we could hardly have applauded him, in the desire that his own name and the name of his father Isaac might be named upon the lads. But whilst we admit this we equally admit the greatness of the exhibited faith when the expiring patriarch decided for the procession made up of the suffering people of God, and not for that which was composed of the great ones of the earth. You have but to contemplate Jacob as executing a deed by which Manasseh and Ephraim were transferred from a position of almost regal eminence to one of dependence and poverty, and you must all acknowledge that it was by faith — aye, and by faith so conspicuous and illustrious, as that it deserved to be singled out when an apostle was searching through past ages for examples — that it was "by faith" that "Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph." We should further observe the peculiarity of the language which he employs with regard to his Preserver, and his decided preference of the younger brother to the elder, notwithstanding the remonstrance of Joseph. There was illustrious faith in both. He speaks of the "Angel which had delivered him from all evil"; and desires that this Angel might bless his grandsons. And whom did Jacob mean by this "Angel"? Certainly no finite, no created being. He speaks of this Angel as God; as having " redeemed him from all evil." There is music, there is gospel in this word "redeemed." It were hard to persuade me that it had no reference to the finished work of Christ. Redemption from all evil — this redemption attributed to an Angel or Messenger, whose appearance had been that of a man, but in whom the patriarch recognised God — what is this but the New Testament on the page of the Old? But whilst thankful for our own superior advantages, we ought greatly to admire that faith which could apprehend something of the mystery of redemption when there were but yet few and feeble notices of God's wondrous design; which could trace the movements of a Divine Being in the rare appearance of the Angel of the covenant; which could detect in strange and solemn actions parables of the world's deliverance from the consequence of the Fall. And thus was Jacob's faith displayed in his parting benediction. Though, as we have said, it was not only in the words that he uttered that Jacob showed faith. There was faith in the disposition of the hands, in the guiding them wittingly, so that the left was on the elder's head, the right on the younger. Not, we believe, without a typical design was it so often ordered of God that the younger son should be preferred to the elder. Such a preference was almost characteristic of the earlier dispensations. It occurred so frequently that we can hardly doubt that God .designed to fix attention upon it as illustrating in some way His purposes towards the world. And if the preference of the younger to the elder were a type under the earlier dispensations of that great revolution which should follow the introduction of the gospel, does it not add vastly to the exhibition of faith in the patriarch Jacob, that when speaking of the redeeming Angel he should have "guided his hands wittingly," and have refused, though entreated, to follow the order of nature, and bless Manasseh and Ephraim according to the birthright? Coupling the words with the action — the mention of a Divine Being, which redeemed him from all evil, with the resolute preference of the younger to the elder — I could almost say that we have the gospel preached, and the effect of the preaching accurately predicted. And I take it as a proof of the faith of Jacob that he persisted in setting Ephraim before Manasseh. His own father, Isaac, had acted differently; for though aware that Jacob, the younger, was to be preferred before Esau, the elder, he still sought to gratify parental partiality, and would have given, had not his purpose been defeated, the blessing to the firstborn; but Jacob betrayed no wavering on this occasion, though it could not have been other than painful to him to thwart the wishes of Joseph, and thus to make his last act on earth one of disappointment to the son whom he so tenderly loved. It was faith which upheld the dying man, and caused his parting word and deed to be so significant. Stand by the dying patriarch. What speaks he of? "The Angel which redeemed me from all evil." Nay, whom is he addressing if not the Lord Jesus Christ, though it required indeed a strong vision to "see Christ's day," then so remote? How guides he his hands, though Joseph would change the direction? He is transferring the birthright, preferring the younger to the elder, and thus predicting not merely what must pain Joseph, as showing Ephraim greater than Manasseh, but what must pain himself, as showing the Jews, his own descendants, giving place to the Gentiles. Ah! see and hear all this, and you will see, I think, that St. Paul, commemorating what was most illustrious in the faith of early days, should have given as one example — "By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph." But the apostle adds one more passage, which we have not taken into the account: whilst endeavouring to make you aware of the faith displayed by Jacob, he speaks of the patriarch as "worshipping, leaning upon the top of his staff." The fact, first of all, of Jacob's worshipping may be taken as proving his faith. For what has the dying man to do with worshipping unless he be a believer in another state of being; unless he believe that death is not annihilation, but that he is about to appear before God in judgment? In the act. of dissolution a man can have nothing to ask of God if he suppose himself about to perish with the brute. Whilst living he would have to worship God, though he were not or might not know himself immortal; but when dying he must at least think it possible that the soul will survive the body, else there is no place whatsoever, no subject for prayer. But it is commemorated of Jacob, not only that he worshipped, but that he worshipped "leaning upon the top of his staff." This leaning upon the staff is given as an additional evidence of Jacob's faith. But what made it such? Indeed, this is not easy to answer; but we may conjecture where we can make no pretention to certainty. Jacob had known much of poverty and trouble; as an exile from his home, he had wandered in strange lands, with only his staff for his companion; and he may have always preserved this staff as a memento of eventful pilgrimage. When appealing earnestly to God before his meeting with Esau, he says, "With my staff I passed over this Jordan, and now I am become two bands." He contrasts, you see, his former with his present condition. He had then nothing but his staff, whereas now his numerous family and flocks make up "two bands." The staff is appealed to as the emblem of his poverty. May it not, then, have been always such to Jacob? May it not have been kept in the days of his prosperity as a memento of the days of his adversity?

(H. Melvill, B. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.

WEB: By faith, Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff.

Jacob's Deathbed
Top of Page
Top of Page