“By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff” (Hebrews 11:21).
“I know, my son, I know.” In the midst of a rather puzzling moment in the life of Jacob, we find some of the most tender and endearing words the patriarch ever uttered to his son Joseph. Life has not been easy for these two progenitors of the covenant. Jacob, in his own life, has seen many ups and downs. Before he was even born, he struggled with his brother, Esau (Gen. 25:22). From the moment of his birth, he was the heel-holding son of Issac and Rebekah, much to the chagrin of his older brother. Nevertheless, Jacob was the son who was sovereignly chosen and blessed by God. After what might appear to be one of the most traumatic birth narratives in Scripture (Gen. 25), Jacob supplants his older brother Esau, setting the stage for a lifelong sibling rivalry. Jacob will not only supplant his older brother, but on more than one occasion will deceive him, as well as his father Isaac, in order to secure the blessing of God. What is striking about the life of Jacob is that though Jacob’s ways often appear to be more crafty and manipulative than faithful, God is still gracious to bless him and to mold him into a man of faith.
Jacob’s relationship with Joseph has also been a heavily burdened one. Who could forget the fatherly travail that was forced on Jacob when his own sons conspired to kill Joseph for being favored both by God and by Jacob? How Jacob’s heart must have broken when his sons brought him the report that Joseph had been torn to pieces by wild animals and nothing more than his bloodied cloak remained. Yet, the truth was that the brothers, who nearly killed Joseph, pitifully decided to sell him to traders headed to Egypt and to lie to Jacob about the death of his son and their brother.
But here lies Jacob on his deathbed, with none other than Joseph beside him. The fact that Joseph is alive in Egypt is no less miraculous than the fact that Jacob is. Both men are tokens of God’s grace. Joseph was clearly preserved by the grace of God not only for himself but that he might also be a blessing to the family of God—the family of Jacob. God preserved Joseph’s life when his brothers sought to kill him. God preserved Joseph’s life when Potiphar had him cast into prison, where he pined away in withering isolation for years. God preserved Joseph’s life because it was part of His sovereign plan to bring about blessing for the people of God and to preserve life. In short, what so many men “meant for evil” God sovereignly turned to good in ways that only He in His infinite wisdom and might could accomplish.
As Jacob lies on his deathbed in Egypt, he is comforted by Joseph, the son he thought was dead, as well as the grandkids he never imagined he would get to see. It truly is a blessed departure, one he enjoys only because God has kept His promises to Jacob and to Joseph, just as He had to Abraham and to Isaac. God is not only good and gracious; He is sovereign, powerful, and mysterious. His ways are above our ways and His will is beyond our comprehension. Who but a loving heavenly father could create such a context for Jacob to close his eyes in this world as he prepares to open them in the next. Here, as these two patriarchal pilgrims prepare to bid their final farewells, once more God will display His electing purposes to bless as He sees fit to bless.
Jacob’s final act is a puzzling one. As Joseph brings his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to Jacob so that he might bless them before dies, Jacob does something that is surprising to Joseph as well as to us. The boys are brought to Jacob so that Manasseh’s head would be under Jacob’s right hand, and Ephraim was brought to Jacob’s left hand. Had Jacob done what was expected, he would have placed his right hand on the head of Manasseh and his left hand on Ephraim, thus bestowing on Manasseh the blessing that normally rests on the head of the firstborn. But Jacob did the opposite; he raised his feeble hands and crossed them, placing the right hand on the head of Ephraim and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, thus reversing the natural order of things.
Regrettably, this is sometimes dismissed as Jacob’s simply being dim-minded, tired, or clumsy. Yet there is far more to the story than that. Jacob may be failing, but the purposes of God are not. Jacob is simply an instrument in the hands of God, and it was God’s sovereign design that the principle of election might be perpetuated in the covenant family. Just as with Jacob and Esau, so also with Manasseh and Ephraim—the older shall serve the younger and the younger shall be exalted over the older. Again, God’s ways are beyond us, as they were for Joseph. God chooses whom He will bless, and His ultimate purpose for doing so rests in His own glorious will. Just as Joseph submitted in his heart to God’s plan’s being accomplished through Jacob, so also must we learn to do the same. The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and there is no safer place to be than restfully submitting to His plans—strange at times as it may seem to us.
Is this not also the case with the gospel? The surprising twists and turns we see in the lives of the patriarchs are nothing compared to the surprise of the gospel. That God should become man is truly the greatest surprise in history. That He should become the servant of poor sinners such as we are is the sweetest surprise we have ever imagined. But who could have seen it coming? Who could have ever imagined? Perhaps one of the reasons why God takes the pilgrim patriarchs down these trails filled with strange twists and turns is to prepare our hearts to understand that the way of salvation will not be what we expect. It will come according to God’s perfectly timed plan, and yes, it will be full of surprises. When Jesus comes into the world to bless us, it is truly a magnificent surprise. He came not according to the plan and expectations of men but according to the plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23).
The ways of God are often not what we expect. Jacob learned that lesson on more than one occasion, as did Joseph. This is a life lesson we all continue to learn: we are God’s pilgrim people, and the paths that God leads us down are often filled with twists and turns. But most importantly, they always lead us closer to God. God’s providence is beautiful, but it is not always easy. We may not always understand His plans, but we can still trust Him. He knows the end from the beginning. He is our loving Father in heaven who says even to us, “I know, My son, I know.”
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 5, 2018, and is part of a series on faith. Previous Post. Next Post.