How a Good Man Dies
November 22, 1992
“Fear not that your life shall come to an end, but rather that it shall never have a beginning.”
John Henry Newman
Suppose you had three minutes to live and your loved ones were gathered around you waiting to hear your last words. What would you say?
Perhaps you are in the hospital dying of some dread disease. You know the end is near. As you search your mind for the right things to say, a thousand thoughts flood your mind. What can you say in your dying moments that will sum up your life? How do you compress 60 or 70 or 80 years of living into just a few sentences?
But what if you don’t have three minutes? What if you’re involved in a terrible accident while traveling on the interstate? What if you have only 30 seconds? What would you say to your loved ones?
It’s one of those questions that’s always theoretical … until the moment comes and you really have only 30 seconds to live. Before that, it’s a question you kick around with some friends late at night over a cup of coffee.
If you had 30 seconds to live, how would you summarize the things that are most important to you?
Not Many Deathbed Scenes
Since the Bible is a book of life, it should not surprise us that only a few deathbed scenes are recorded. Most often we are simply told that so-and-so lived so many years and then he died. We generally don’t know when or where or how death took place, so in most cases we don’t know about any last words that may have been spoken. We don’t know if they gave a 30-second (or 3-minute) summation before their death.
In the New Testament we have even less information. We are not told how most of the chief characters—including the great apostle Paul—died. That’s understandable since the gospel is a message about life. The writers weren’t interested in telling how people died. We know how Jesus died, and Judas, and Stephen, and one or two others, but that’s about it. The New Testament says very little about death and a great deal about life.
In light of that it is fascinating to note how much space is given in the book of Genesis to the death of Jacob. Abraham’s death is described in seven verses (25:5-11), Isaac’s in three verses (35:27-29) and Joseph’s in five verses (50:22-26). By contrast Jacob’s death covers about 73 verses. The story begins at the end of chapter 47, covers all of chapters 48 and 49 and the first half of chapter 50.
Jacob’s death is recorded in four scenes: First, he meets with Joseph and makes him promise to bury him in the Promised Land (47:28-31). Second, Jacob blesses the two sons of Joseph—Ephraim and Manasseh (48). Third, he blesses his children (49:1-28). Fourth, he again asks to be buried in the Promised Land and then he dies (49:29-33).
It is a beautiful and moving story and one cannot help thinking, “That’s the way I would like to die someday—having lived many years, still in my right mind, full of faith in God, with my family gathered around me.” Although circumstances may conspire to make that impossible, this is how I want to die. But we can have the same faith when we die that Jacob had.
There is such a thing as dying faith. I suppose all of us are planning to live a long time, but in Chicago these days you can never be sure. The stray bullet, the out-of-control driver, the renegade gang member, who knows? Any of us could be struck down at any moment.
Suppose you knew you were going to die in the next 24 hours? What would you do? Where would you go? And what would you say to the people you love?
A few months ago I thought about this, and I decided that if I had only 30 seconds to live, I would gather my boys around me and tell them four things:
1. Take care of your mother
2. Love each other
3. Marry a Christian girl
4. Serve Jesus Christ forever
That’s it. Thirty seconds and I’m gone. Those four things summarize everything I would want my boys to know. After that, I would be ready to go.
Scene # 1: Jacob and Joseph 47:28-31
Jacob is an old man now, 147 years old, and the long years have taken their toll on his body. He barely stands now, tottering uncertainly, leaning for support on the top of his staff. He knows full well that he has an appointment with death. The Bible says, “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
Death is inevitable. It is the appointment you must keep. George Lawson wrote these words:
Today we are twenty-four hours nearer to our latter end than yesterday, and three hundred and sixty-five days nearer to it than we were a year ago. At all times we are inexcusable who are warned by the decay of their strength that death is approaching, if they banish it from their thoughts, when they ought to be hastening their preparations to meet it with firmness. (Lectures on the History of Joseph, cited in Boice, Genesis, III, p. 242)
Jacob was not afraid to die. He saw the moment coming and made preparations for his own burial. He had only one request to make of his son, Joseph—”Don’t bury me in Egypt, but bury me with my fathers.” What does that mean? Is this simply a sentimental request to be buried alongside his father and grandfather?
“Dad, Where Do You Want to be Buried?”
I can understand it. Although I am only 40, I find myself thinking about my own death from time to time. It’s natural as you grow older to think about where you will be buried. Most of us would like to be buried near our loved ones, if possible. Last summer, on the first day of our vacation, we made our way south from Chicago, heading down to Mississippi and on to Florida. First day on the road, having a great time, singing, laughing, telling jokes, we stopped for lunch in southern Illinois, got back in the car, more jokes, more laughter, then out of the blue, our resident theologian Mark (who is 10 years old), suddenly asked me, “Dad, when you die, where do you want to be buried?”
Talk about a conversation stopper. How do you answer a question like that? After a few moment’s thought, I replied, “In the ground.” But Mark was serious, so we discussed the question for a few minutes. It was important to him to know the answer.
Jacob says, “Don’t leave me in Egypt. Bury me in the Promised Land with my father and my grandfather.” This is a wonderful statement of Jacob’s faith in God. Two generations earlier God had promised to give the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants. In faith Abraham believed God and settled there. In faith Isaac believed God and lived there. Now Jacob is dying in a foreign land. But he believes that someday soon—though he will not live to see it—his people, his family, his descendants would return to possess the Promised Land. Hebrews 11:9 makes the point that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all lived in tents in Canaan, “as strangers in a foreign land.” That is, God had promised them the land but they never took full possession themselves. That would not come for hundreds of years until Joshua led the nation of Israel in a victorious campaign of conquest.
The Promises of God Live On
Jacob lived and died without ever hearing about Moses and Joshua. He knew nothing of their mighty deeds. But in his old age, God gave him faith to believe that although he was dying in Egypt, his future belonged in the Promised Land. James Montgomery Boice explains it this way:
When Jacob required Joseph to bury his body in the Promised Land, it was like saying that he continued to stand on God’s promises. He wanted his body to lie in the land where God would again one day bring the Jewish people and where the Messiah would eventually be born and perform the work of redemption. (Genesis, III, p. 242)
Jacob is saying, “I may be dying but I believe that one day God will keep his promises. I want to be there when it happens so don’t leave me down here in Egypt. Bury me in the Promised Land.” It was a way of saying, “My burial place will be a testimony that God’s promises are still true.”
That’s a great thought, isn’t it? Someone has said, “Nothing of God dies when a man of God dies.” We die, but the promises of God live on. They bury us, but they don’t bury God’s promises with us. Your death cannot nullify God’s faithfulness.
Scene # 2: Jacob and His Grandchildren 48
The moment of his death is now upon him. With all his strength he rallies one last time and sits up on his deathbed. There he sees Joseph and his two sons—Manasseh and Ephraim. What follows is a touching scene as Jacob says to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too.”
I cannot read this passage without thinking about what it means to me personally. I have only a few memories of my grandfathers. Vague memories fill my mind of seeing my father’s father—Papa Pritchard—on his farm in Mississippi. I remember that he chewed tobacco and had unruly hair and wore work clothes. Then I remember seeing him when I was very young at a hospital in Memphis. Then he died. My mother’s father—Grandpa Poduska—lived up into his 80s. Twice we traveled from Alabama to Marshalltown, Iowa, to see him and Grandma Poduska. He was short and heavy-set and in our grainy old home movies there are pictures of us sitting on his lap, laughing and playing and pulling on his pant leg.
In 1974 my father died just a few weeks after we were married. The hardest moment for me came as we drove back from Birmingham to Dallas. When we crossed the Alabama state line I began to cry and couldn’t stop. For years I had carried a secret deep in my heart—so deep I had never shared it with anyone. My dream was to someday have a son and name him after my father, whose name was Tyrus Raymond Pritchard. Tears rolled down my face as I realized my Daddy would never see his grandchildren. Five years later our first child was born. We named him Joshua Tyrus Pritchard after the grandfather he never knew. To this day there is deep pain in my heart because my father never knew his grandchildren and my boys never knew their grandfather.
The Younger Over the Older—Again!
So I understand what it means when Jacob says, “I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too.” But there’s more than just seeing the grandchildren. Jacob now blesses the two boys. According to the custom of the time, the primary blessing should have gone to the older son—Manasseh. But that’s not how it works out. When Joseph brings the two boys forward, he puts Manasseh in front of Jacob’s right hand and Ephraim in front of his left hand. But Jacob crossed his arms, placing his right hand on Ephraim and his left hand on Manasseh. Thus the younger son got the primary blessing and the older son got the lesser blessing.
On one level this is the sovereignty of God at work. He had chosen Ephraim over Manasseh and although Joseph protested, he could not change the plan of God. On another level, Jacob the younger son is following a pattern of his life. He the younger had been chosen over Esau the older. Later on he preferred the younger Rachel to the older Leah. Now he blesses the younger over the older.
Some of us who are younger sons and daughters can draw great encouragement from this story. Many times the firstborn children are favored and children that come later are overlooked. But the Bible is full of hope for younger children. Isaac was a younger child. So was Jacob. So was Joseph. So was Moses. So was Gideon. So was David.
In blessing the younger over the older, Jacob teaches us that God is no respecter of persons. He exalts those who honor him regardless of their background or their birth order. Very often it is through the “overlooked” people of the world that God does his greatest work.
Scene # 3: Jacob and His Children 49:1-28
Then Jacob asks his sons to gather round him for one final farewell. Beginning with Reuben the firstborn he pronounces a blessing or prophecy upon each son individually. The words are crucial because they describe not only what will happen to each son but to the tribes that will eventually come forth from each son. Verse 28 explains it this way: “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him.” That last phrase grabs our attention. After all these years Jacob knows his sons inside and out, knows their weaknesses, their habits, their tendencies, and their ambitions. With all that in mind, and speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he pronounces a blessing on each son. Some are striking:
Reuben who sinned will lose his place of leadership
Simeon and Levi will be dispersed throughout Israel
Judah will bring forth the Messiah
Zebulun will dwell along the seashore
Asher will produce crops for kings.
And on it goes, each son receiving a blessing or prophecy perfectly suited to him. Hundreds of years later the tribes would emerge, still bearing the personality traits of their founders.
At first glance Genesis 49 may seem far removed from our situation today. After all, it contains nothing but the blessings Jacob gave his sons on his deathbed. We may think it has no interest for us, except perhaps as a historical curiosity or an example of an ancient custom. But this week I read a wonderful book called The Blessing by Gary Smalley and John Trent. The thesis of the book is that parents have a holy obligation to pass on a blessing to their children. They point out that children who don’t receive a blessing from their parents go through life trying to find that sense of approval and self-worth in other places. Some turn to alcohol and drugs, others to a workaholic lifestyle, still others go through a series of failed relationships, but always they are looking for the affirmation they never received at home.
If you are a parent, learning about the family blessing can help you provide your child or children with a protective tool. The best defense against a child’s longing for imaginary acceptance is to provide him with genuine acceptance. By providing a child with genuine acceptance and affirmation at home, you can greatly reduce the likelihood that he or she will seek acceptance in the arms of a cult member or with someone in an immoral relationship. Genuine acceptance radiates from the concept of the blessing. (The Blessing, p. 18)
The book itself is highly readable and I am glad to recommend it to you. Where do you think they get their biblical basis for the family blessing? They get it from the life of Jacob—from the blessing he received from Isaac and the blessings he gave to his sons.
According to Smalley and Trent, blessing another person involves five key elements:
—A spoken message
—Attaching “high value” to the one being blessed
—Picturing a special future for the one being blessed
—An active commitment to fulfill the blessing
As you study Genesis 48-49, it is clear that Jacob is doing all these things for his sons and grandsons. He is thus fulfilling his ultimate responsibility—he is blessing his family in the name of the Lord. What a positive example Jacob is for all of us today. Let us go and do likewise for our loved ones.
Scene # 4: The Death of Jacob 49:29-50:14
The story now rapidly comes to a close. When he had finished blessing his sons, he once again requested to be buried in the Promised Land. Clearly, this was no small issue to him. In one sense it doesn’t matter where he is buried because Jacob belongs to God regardless of where his body is laid to rest. But for him the issue is bigger than that. He wants his burial place to be a testimony to the fact that he never stopped believing in God.
This is the second time Jacob has asked to be buried in the Promised Land. When Joseph swore to do that, Genesis 47:31 adds this phrase: “And Israel worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.” That is, Jacob praised God as he was dying. Interestingly, that is what Jacob is praised for in the book of Hebrews. When the writer considers all Jacob’s deeds over his long line, he singles out this one event and says of him, “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.” (Hebrews 11:21)
It’s always good to praise God, but it is especially meaningful to stand at the end of a long life and say, “God has been good to me.” That is a great testimony. It is one of the chief benefits of old age.
This week we received Fred Stettler’s latest missionary prayer letter. Many of you know that this church sent him out as a missionary in 1926. For 66 years he has been ministering in Europe and Calvary has been supporting him all that time. Recently he passed his 90th birthday, but he is still serving the Lord.
Fred knows the end is near. Listen to his words. See if it doesn’t sound like old Jacob:
Being now 90 years and 5 months old my health has not been too well. My mind is no more as it used to be. Weakness in a physical way makes me cancel invitations and next Sunday might be one of the last services I shall hold in public. But during 60-70 years I was blessed a hundredfold by his enablement. Thus I have much to praise the Lord. I have now one great obligation to devote much time in prayer and thank the Lord for all the years of His enabling.
When I read that, I say to myself, “Fred Stettler is a great man, and he serves a great God.”
The rest of the story is quite simple. Jacob dies with his sons gathered around him. The Bible says he was “gathered to his people,” a reference not simply to death but to reunion with his loved ones in life after death. With Pharoah’s permission, Joseph and his brothers led a large funeral procession from Egypt to Canaan where they buried Jacob in the cave of Machpelah alongside his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. Thus the story of Jacob comes to an end.
I. Jacob’s Life in Perspective
Let me sum up—without any explanatory comment—some of the chief observations from Jacob’s long life:
A. His life is a story of continual struggle and difficulty.
B. His two names reflect the inner struggle of his heart:
Israel—the man who wrestled with God
C. Jacob came from a dysfunctional family, created another, and left one behind.
D. But Jacob was a man of faith who had an unquenchable desire for the blessing of God.
E. Most of his mistakes were made because of excessive self-confidence. In the end, his greatest weakness became his greatest strength when he yielded his ambition to the will of God.
F. He died in faith, a follower of God, and is a worthy addition to the great list of heroes of faith in Hebrews 11.
II. Jacob’s Message to Us
In the same vein—and again without any extra comment—here are some of the chief lessons we can learn from our journeys with Jacob.
A. Sin in one form or another will dog our steps as long as we live. We should not be surprised that we struggle with some sins until the day we die.
B. God will do whatever it takes to break our confidence in the flesh in order that he might replace it with confidence in God alone.
C. Though we may not believe it at the time, the trials of life are not meant to destroy us, but to teach us lessons we couldn’t learn any other way.
D. When God judges a man’s life, he looks at his faith, not at his faults.
Despite all his flaws, Jacob was fundamentally a man of faith. His story should encourage us because there’s a little bit of Jacob in all of us! If God can use Jacob, he can use anyone.
Be encouraged. Jacob’s story is in the Bible for folks like you and me. A few months ago I spoke for a worker’s conference at Camp Nathanael in Emmalena, Kentucky. During that week I gave an abbreviated ver-sion of this series on the life of Jacob. When it was over, a man who had never met me before put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’ve enjoyed these messages because I felt like you were speaking from personal experience about Jacob’s life.” How right he was. Jacob is a man I can fully understand. He’s not as great as his grandfather Abraham or as accomplished as his son Joseph. He made many mistakes along the way—sometimes repeating the same mistakes over and over again. But at the core of his being, Jacob was God’s man. He desperately wanted to please God and find his blessing—even if he had to bend the rules to do it.
The Real Hero
We come now to the end of this series of studies in the life of Jacob. In my very first study I pointed out that Jacob is not the hero of this story. The hero of this story is God. He is the one who never gives up on Jacob, who never sways from his original purpose to bless him despite all his failures. Jacob didn’t make it easy, but God never gave up. He looked on Jacob the way he looks at most of us—as a lifetime project. At any given point along the way, God could have said, “Forget it. This man is hopeless.” But he never said that, and in the end Jacob emerges with triumphant faith in God.
In later generations, the biblical writers used a very particular phrase when they wanted to describe the fact that God always keeps his promises. They called him the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Think of that. He’s never called the God of Joseph—though Joseph had greater achievements. He’s never called the God of Daniel—though Daniel had greater courage. He’s never called the God of Moses—though Moses was a greater leader.
One writer called this “the crowning proof of divine mercy”—that God would associate his name with such a man as Jacob. But why should that surprise us? God is pleased to associate himself with anyone who has faith in him.
—You don’t have to be perfect.
—You don’t have to be strong.
—You don’t have to walk the straight and narrow.
You can be yourself and God will gladly associate with you … as long as you have faith in him.
Who is the God of Jacob?
—He is a God of abounding grace.
—He is a God of unerring wisdom.
He is the God who is always there for us
—in spite of our sin
—in the face of our failure
—in the midst of our fears.
Here is my final word. The God of Jacob is our God too. The same God who led Jacob is the God who leads us today. Do you know that God? He has revealed himself to you in the person of Jesus Christ.
Are You Ready to Die?
Let me close by asking a simple question: Are you ready to die?
John Henry Newman said, “Fear not that your life should come to an end, but rather that it shall never have a beginning.” Christian, are you ready to die? Believer in Jesus, are you ready to die?
Have you lived this week so that if today were the day, you wouldn’t have to look back with remorse and regret?
But what if you don’t know Jesus? You aren’t ready to die even if you think you are. No one is ready to die until they know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Sometimes people says, “Life begins at 40.” How wrong they are. Life begins at Calvary. Life begins the moment you put your trust in Jesus Christ. Life begins at the cross when you bow the knee and say, “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for dying for me.” Until you come to Christ your life has no beginning. You have existence but you don’t have life.
Life begins the moment you say “Yes” to the Lord Jesus. I urge you to come to him so that no matter how long you live—one more day, one more week, one more month, one more year, or 50 more years—you will be ready to die when the moment finally comes.