Genesis 49:28-33 “Then he gave them these instructions: ‘I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite, along with the field. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites.’ When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people” [and on to verse 14 of chapter 50]
I have a happy message, I believe, on the death and burial of Jacob. It’s not that I believe that the chief purpose of preaching is to make congregations happy, or that my vocation in preparing sermons is that I feel happy as I study and construct a sermon. Be that as it may, I have been made joyful in preparing this message this week. Part of that joy was to having completed the twelve prophecies of Jacob to his sons. That was a challenging series to think about and prepare, but by the grace of God I got through it. I believe people can be made happy today as they hear a word about death and burial, but, of course, sometimes it’s also good for us to leave the house of God convicted – if that is the purpose of the Word before us. The rich young ruler went away from Jesus sad and that was Jesus’ intention in speaking to him. He loved his possessions more than he loved Jesus. How sad! Peter made 3,000 men in Jerusalem perplexed and cut to the heart. There’s not much preaching like that these days. But let me remind you that the Bible does say, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting” (Eccles. 7:2). Isn’t it often the case that sermons preached at funerals have greater power and fruitfulness than sermons preached at weddings?
God has taken great pains to describe in the passage before us the last words, the death and the funeral of the patriarch Jacob. This passage is lengthier than the accounts of the deaths of both his grandfather and his father, Abraham and Isaac, put together. There are in fact three separate passages of Scripture that give special attention to Jacob’s death, and we notice that everything recorded about his death is commendable. That cannot be said about his birth, or about his life as a young man. He’d been a deceiver and a liar, but how he conducted himself in the last years of his life was very noble. The full effects of the fall of man had not yet shown itself in the world during the time of the patriarchs. The variety and pernicious power of diseases in all their apparent cunning and energy had not yet developed and attacked mankind as they’ve done so in these last centuries. So in the Bible the fearful mental diseases of old age which we see all around us don’t appear to be prevalent in the Old Testament. Men die in great old age, and they’re alert and articulate to the end. The Bible says that their eyes are clear.
It is a great blessing if we will be spared Alzheimer’s and dementia, but it is a greater blessing if we would end our days walking close to God, and living by faith. Let us all pray, especially those of us who are old age pensioners, that we would finish life well. It is tragic to see men finishing life in shame and disgrace. We may have failed many times in our lives as Jacob did, but we keep limping on, and trusting in God. Never give up! Don’t quit. We’ve lost much from our falls and failures. We lost our tattered reputations for a time, and lost our friends and families, but as long as you are breathing you’ve not lost everything. God still has a grip on you. You haven’t lost God. You wouldn’t be reading these words if God had given up on you. Many Christians have lost much, we know of some of them from the description of their lives in the Bible. We know of others because they’ve been our friends, and then they fell, but by repentance and faith they’ve come back and have lived well these years. A month ago I was with a man who many years ago had a notorious fall and he had to leave the pastorate, but now he is finishing well, and Christians have forgotten about what happened and have long forgiven, if they do hold a hazy memory of it. I think to myself about this brother, “Was that a bad dream of mine? Did that really happen?” It has no bearing on my love for him today. I am saying to you that Jacob had been a twister and utterly stupid. He ended up with virtually four wives – think of it – and some of his children were monstrous, but he ended well “Go on! Finish well! It is the only way to finish. Make that your aim today. I will forget the things that are past. The rest of us have forgotten it. I will aim to end well.”
Jacob had had much time to think about his death and where he wanted to be buried. I was with a Christian postman last week-end, a bachelor, and he was recently visiting some of his brothers who live in Australia. He told the prayer meeting before he went, “Now if I should die don’t you let them bury me there. I don’t want my dust to lie in Australia. I want to be buried here, and be resurrected here and see familiar sights as I rise to meet the Lord.” We want to see Constitution Hill and Pen Dinas as we ascend to meet the Lord! Postman Pat had thought about it and spoke about it half in jest, but half seriously, and we should too. There is a corner of an Aberystwyth field where I will lie until the great day of resurrection. Jacob was not afraid of death and he prepared mentally for it. If you have no faith in what Jesus says that he has gone to prepare a place for us and will come again and take us to himself, then be very afraid. If you think that what lies before you is being snuffed out, totally non-existence, then how fearful a prospect that is, and that is your future – nothingness. Be afraid! Jacob was not afraid. He could talk a number of times to Joseph and to all his boys and one of the things he said to them was, “Boys, this is what I want you to do for me when I die . . .”
- WHAT JACOB TOLD JOSEPH ABOUT HIS BURIAL.
Let us turn back to the first occasion when Jacob spoke about his death. It was Joseph alone that he addressed, and this is what we read; “When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, ‘If I have found favour in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.’ ‘I will do as you say,’ he said. ‘Swear to me,’ he said. Then Joseph swore to him, and Israel worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (Gen. 47:29-31). You notice that he made an appointment to see his busy son, the Prime Minister of Egypt. He sent for him t
o discuss a certain matter with him. You will notice how humble and courteous he is in addressing his son. Joseph would first speak, “Dad, how are you? What can I do for you? Why have you sent for me? It’s lovely to see you. You are looking well.” Joseph must have spoken saying something like that. But after the pleasantries Jacob was very serious, “If I have found favour in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness” (Gen. 47:29). What was this all about? Why this urgency and seriousness in his father? Jacob appeals to the favour he has found in this great man’s eyes, and his need for more of Joseph’s kindness and faithfulness to be shown to an elderly Dad. The conversation is about death, but it is not at all jokey like people today, afraid to talk about dying without attempting to be funny at the same time; Jacob is very serious. He wants Joseph to make sure that he will be buried in Canaan and there are three reasons that he gives for this.
i] He was showing his respect and love for his father and grandfather. “Bury me where they are buried.” Jacob was born when his grandfather Abraham was 160 years old and so he knew him for his first fifteen years. That decade and a half had given him many opportunities to sit and talk to his grandfather, to hear of all God’s dealing with Abraham from the time he called him from Ur of the Chaldees and his life of paganism to becoming a believer and going to the promised land. My regrets are that I never spoke to my grandfathers about their early life and beginnings and relatives and the churches they had attended and so on. Children interrogate your grandparents before them become senile. So Jacob wanted to be buried in Canaan, where his father and grandfather were also buried. I remember Mrs. Elizabeth Catherwood back in 1981 expressing her surprise when people asked her where her father, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was going to be buried, as if there was any question at all about that matter. “Why, he is going to be buried in Wales, of course.” He was buried in Newcastle Emlyn, where his wife’s grandfather preached for over 40 years in a blessed awakened community. The funeral service was held there in his wife’s grandfather’s church and Dr. Lloyd-Jones was buried less than half a mile away and some of us stood by the grave and saw his coffin lowered into it, and not a month has gone by since that time when I have not had thoughts of him and wish he were still alive to help us. There were convictions deep in the Doctor’s heart similar to Jacob’s. “Bury me where they are buried,” Jacob said, referring to his family. There was his sense of solidarity with them – a solidarity he did not have with the Pharaoh of Egypt and his family. Then there was this . . .
iii] He was confessing his faith. Jacob was affirming by this request to be buried in Canaan that he also totally believed what God had said to Abraham when he promised that this land was to be Abraham’s inheritance and his children after him until in the fulness of time the Messiah came to be born – in this land and then all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Jesus the Messiah. There was to be just one holy land in the world during the Abrahamic covenant, one tiny dot on a round global map of this earth. You could put your finger over it and cover it, and that spot was Israel, but now the whole world has the gospel, churches everywhere, kingdom work and kingdom expansion everywhere. You hold that globe in your arms and you try to cover every part of it that is the kingdom of God and you can’t do so. He kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ and he is reigning and spreading his kingdom. But at this time Jacob had to say, “Bury me there in the land set apart, the holy land.” That is what Israel told Joseph, and Joseph was to echo his father’s words when it was his turn to come to die. “Take my bones with you out of this land of Egypt, even if the king and the royal family want to bury me under a great pyramid in a thief-proof room full of treasure. It must not be! My bones are not to decay under the Egyptian sky but my dust must lie in Canaan, that happy land. That is my inheritance from God and Pharaoh has nothing to give me that can compare to that.”
iii] He was showing his concern for peace of mind about this. There is nothing I have heard so often in pastoring older church members than their concerns about their death and burial. There is an old gentleman in the church now who is fearful as to how he can be buried if I have retired from the pastorate. “Who will bury me?” he cries to his wife. You see here that Joseph assures his father than he will do as he says, but the old man is still not at peace. “Swear to me!” he says to Joseph. Joseph took a most solemn oath, putting his hand under his father’s thigh, and swearing to carry his father’s body out of Egypt to the tombs of his father and grandfather and to bury him alongside their bodies. Then Jacob gained a measure of peace, but his fears of being ignored after his death were so great that soon he tells the other eleven brothers, “You will make sure, won’t you, that I’m buried in Canaan.” Canaan, we know, is a picture of the heaven that lies before us, and nothing can assist our death-beds to be more comfortable places to lie in than the certainty that when we sleep for the last time we are going to open our eyes in glory land.
How did Jacob respond when he was assured that his body would be buried in Canaan? He “worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (Gen. 47:31). The Authorized Version translates it, “on the head of the bed,” and the reason for that translation is that there are no vowels in Hebrew and the three consonants are the same in the word for ‘bed’ as the word for ‘staff.’ But assurance that the better translation is ‘staff’ is found in two places, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament they use the word ‘staff,’ and, more important, in the letter to the Hebrews, where we are told that Jacob, “worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (Hebs. 11:21).
Imagine that this little detail from this chapter, these ten words, are noted and picked up by the writer to the Hebrews as significant. God the Holy Spirit underlined their importance. What can it be? We’d say something like this,
i] that that worshipping response of Jacob was gratitude. Jacob was grateful that such a crucial concern to him as where he was to be buried – with his fathers in Canaan – had been handled by the providence of God and confirmed through the solemn oath of Joseph that he would see to that matter as his father’s final command. So Jacob is worshiping, responding in gratitude to God for this fact. When Paul was in prison in Rome there was no way that he could be taken back to Judea and he be buried there. It was just impossible. But for Paul it was also unnecessary. The gospel was no longer focused on that land, nor ever will be again. That his body might be thrown into an unmarked grave in Italy with other criminals didn’t matter to Paul at all. That is the benefit of t
he new covenant. John Calvin and Arthur Pink were buried in unmarked graves in nations far from the place of their births. There is no longer any holy land where we have to be buried. That has all gone; that was an old covenant requirement. So the prayer is noted in the letter to the Hebrews as an indication of the believing and God-centred nature of Jacob’s thinking. He heard the word that Joseph spoke and he worshipped God. But we would also say
ii] that worshipping posture of Jacob was one of reverence and godly fear. Jacob getting off the bed, standing erect, and yet feebly and having to lean on his staff, showed that to the end of his days he would worship God respectfully, as he always had, standing to pray before God while he was fit enough to do so, not lying back, as if he were taking his ease on his bed. He could not prostrate himself – he would not be able to get up. He could not bow down or kneel down for the same reason; he could still stand and he did. And notice also that he did not pray thus privately, but with his son Joseph alongside him as a witness, seeing how essential it was to his father that he be buried in Canaan. He had told Joseph. Joseph had promised. Joseph had sworn. And Jacob thanked God, standing and leaning on his staff that this had been dealt with..
- WHAT JACOB TOLD ALL HIS SONS ABOUT HIS BURIAL.
Let us read it again; “Then he gave them these instructions: ‘I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite, along with the field. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites.’” (Gen 49:28-32). You understand why he has to repeat his instructions to the other sons. There are tensions at funeral services. Some relatives like things done this way and that this particular minister should take the service, and these hymns should be sung and the loved one be buried in this grave or be cremated. This is not a time for division and tension. You only have a short time to make decisions and you have to respect the wishes of the one being buried.
So Jacob makes it plain to them all what he has told Joseph. He wanted their cooperation with Joseph not conflict. You see how Jacob was a man of hope when death came near. He didn’t say that he was going into outer darkness, that he was going to be annihilated, that he didn’t know what would happen to him now. He knew! “I am about to be gathered to my people,” and those people were the Lord’s people. Like David he could say about his dead child, “He shall not come to me, but I shall go to him.” These people were the people Jacob loved, whose characters he admired, whose every detail of their lives he knew like the back of his hand, and so here, at the end of his days, he rehearses once again to all of them, so that they might not forget it, these very familiar details – I can imagine the boys looking at one another, their eyes rolling with the repetition of these very familiar details of family history. They could finish every sentence for Jacob. “Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite, along with the field. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites” (Gen. 49:28-32). But Jacob could not be plainer. No one asked, “Shouldn’t he be buried where he saw the staircase going up to heaven near the Jabbok brook?” Nobody said, “Shouldn’t he be buried on the road to Bethlehem in the grave of his dear wife Rachel?” No. This is not the time to talk like that. The matter has been decided by Jacob. He spelled it out clearly. With his fathers he had to be buried. There was no mistaking what cemetery plot Jacob had in mind. Joseph knew it; all the 11 brothers and the two sons of Joseph knew it also. Let’s learn from this. Let these things be made clear in our wills. Let’s make sure that we have made a will. I should have asked a woman in the congregation who died in the last year and did not leave a will if she had made one. I took it for granted that she had. She died before I asked her, and now there are difficulties for her children. That is a task I should perform, and you expect me to ask it, and I am not asking so that the person would remember me in the will, but that matters are made clear for the next of kin.
- THE ACTUAL DEATH OF JACOB.
I remember talking with Mrs. Konekamp who lived at a certain time in her life in Sutherland in Bonar Bridge near the retired Professor John Murray. He often preached in the Free Church in that area in the last year or two before his death, with his wife Valery and his children Logan and Ann Margaret in the congregation. And on this occasion she told me, “I heard Prof. Murray preaching last Sunday on the death of Jacob, and how Jacob at the end was so composed, and he “he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people” (v.33). What a simple and magnificent dying was this! How I would love to die just like that if I could choose, in my right mind, with my loved ones calling to see me as they could, and the word read, and prayers, and then one day I would draw up my feet, make myself comfy and quietly stop breathing and be gathered to my people, to all those in Christ who have gone on before me, to join them, lost in wonder, love and praise, and see my Saviour, the Lord Jesus, to gaze on his face.
It might not be like that. Perhaps it is not often like that these days as we are given pain-killers and tranquilizers, and we die slowly over weeks and even it seems over years. Jacob was able to draw up his feet and then he breathed out his last. Now this phrase ‘drawing up his feet,’ only occurs here in all the Bible. The boys are all watching him. This was his final movement and it struck them all, the way he arranged his legs to be comfortable, and then he stopped breathing. I don’t think it is a lost idiom; I don’t think it is a euphemism for death. It is like the breaking of bread by Jesus in the inn on the road to Emmaus and immediately in the gesture Cleopas and his companion knew it was Jesus. Had the boys seen their father Jacob go off to sleep in that way, drawing up his feet, many times before? Didn’t they go off to sleep in the same way? Don’t we. Death for the believer in the Bible is always sleep.
Will any of you defend the translation of the Authorized Version here, “He gave up the ghost”? There is no mention of ‘ghost’ in the Hebrew. The N.I.V. is far more accurate; Jacob expired. Jacob breathed his last breath. When the first man was made God breathed into his nostrils
the breath of life and man became a living creature. Then, because of our sin and fallenness, there will come a time for every one of us when we will reverse that action and the breath that is in us will depart. We will breathe our last breath.
Jacob was gathered to his people; there is life after death. Jacob was gathered to his people; we will know our loved ones after death. Jacob was gathered to his people; death is not annihilation. Jacob was gathered to his people; there is no reincarnation. Jacob went to Abraham’s bosom. Christians sleep in Jesus. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. There is no reason for us to doubt that Jehovah gave to the patriarchs some anticipation about what lay before them in death. The Egyptians certainly believed that there was life after death and their funeral arrangements reflected that journey to the netherworld. We are told by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews that though Abraham sojourned for decades in Canaan he was looking forward to a better country than Canaan. He was looking forward to “the city which has foundations whose builder and makers is God” (Hebs.11:16). We are told that Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob “all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar” (Hebs. 11:13).
- THE DEEP GRIEF OF JOSEPH.
We are told, “Joseph threw himself upon his father and wept over him and kissed him” (Gen.50:1). You see the violence of Joseph in his grief, throwing himself on to his father’s body, weeping copiously over him and kissing him. It is a beautiful and noble picture of Joseph’s affection for his father. Though he is a multi-millionaire and one of the most famous men in the world his tenderness and love for his father have not been affected. There are those who might wonder if these patriarchs had such hope in heaven why did Joseph grieve over a temporary parting? He grieved because it was a real parting. He wept that he would not see his father ever again in this world, and hear his voice and know his face lighting up with delight at seeing him. He wept with guilt that he had not loved his father and served him as he should. Should we not weep? Are we Stoics? Do we idolize those who demean people who shed tears? I despise that attitude. Didn’t the Lord Jesus weep at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and at the grief of his sisters? Doesn’t this speak to us of his real human love for them? Doesn’t Paul tell us to weep but not weep as those who have no hope? A sweet young pastor once brought his wife here for the week-end. She was very ill, and after she died he wrote a Banner of Truth booklet called Christians Weep Too. Many people have found it helpful. Now there are some people who weep easily, and there are others who find it impossible to weep, and I don’t pass judgment on those who cannot weep. I have been recently at a funeral of a mother who had a son and a daughter. Both children loved their mother equally, just as she loved them both, but while the son has wept copiously, any memory or word triggering his tears, the daughter never wept in public. They were different people and Christians are not as identical as Campbell’s tomato soup tins.
J.C. Ryle once spoke to children about weeping, and then he brought it out as a little booklet that he entitled, No More Crying! He said, “There is a place where there is a great deal of crying. What is this place? It is the world where you and I live. It is a world full of beautiful and pleasant things. The sun shining by day and the stars by night; the blue hills looking up to heaven, and the rolling sea ebbing and flowing; the broad quiet lakes, and the rushing restless rivers; the flowers blooming in the spring, and the fields full of corn in autumn; the birds singing in the woods, and the lambs playing in the meadows —all, all are beautiful things. I could look at them for hours and say, ‘What a beautiful world it is!’ But still it is a world where there is a great deal of crying. It is a world where there are many tears.
“There was crying in Bible times. There is crying now all over the world. Little babies cry when they want something or feel pain. Boys and girls cry when they are hurt, afraid or corrected by their parents. Grown -up people cry sometimes when they are in trouble, or when they see those die whom they love. Wherever there is sorrow and pain, there is crying.
“You have seen people come to church all dressed in black. That is called being in mourning. Some family member or friend is dead, and therefore they dress in black. Well remember when you see people in mourning, somebody has been crying. You have seen graves in churchyards, and have heard that when people die, they are buried there. Some of them are very little graves, not longer than you are. Well remember that when those graves were made, and little coffins were let down into them, there was crying.
“Children, did you ever think why there is all this crying? How it first began? Did you ever hear how weeping and tears came into the world? God did not make crying—that is certain. All that God made was ‘very good’. Listen to me and I will tell how crying began.
“Crying came into the world because of sin—it is the cause of all weeping, and tears, and sorrow, and pain upon the earth. All the crying began when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and became sinners. It was sin which brought pain and sickness and death into the world. Sin brought into the world selfishness, unkindness, arguing, stealing and fighting. If there had been no sin, there would have been no weeping; no sin, no crying.”
Then J.C.Ryle tells the children that there is a place where there is nothing but crying, all the time, terrible crying, wailing, and that place is hell. There is no happiness there. They never go to bed and wake up happy. They never stop crying in hell. Then he says this.
“There is a place where there is no crying at all. What is this place? It is heaven—the place where all who hope in Jesus Christ go when they are dead. There all is joy and happiness. There are no tears. Sorrow and pain and sickness and death are not there. Nothing is there that will cause you any grief. Schools will be closed; there will be no more hard work. Heaven is an eternal rest for the people of God. There will be no more sickness in heaven. People who live there will not say ‘I am sick.’ They will always be well. There will only be strength and health for evermore. There will be no sin in heaven. There will be no bad tempers, no unkind words, no hateful actions. The devil will not be allowed to come in and spoil the happiness. There will be nothing but holiness and love for evermore.
“Best of all, there can be no crying in heaven because the Lord Jesus Christ is there. Everyone who goes to heaven will see his face and be with him forever. He will take you in his arms and wipe away all tears from your eyes. With him ther
e will be fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. Dear children, do you want to go to heaven? We cannot always live in this world. A day will come when we must die like the old people who have died already.”
Then Ryle tells them how they might go to heaven, that they must put their trust in who the Lord Jesus is and what the Lord Jesus did. They must turn from their unbelief and ask the Saviour to give them a new heart and help them to follow him every day.
He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven
Saved by his precious blood. (Cecil Alexander)
- THE RESPECTFUL BURIAL OF JACOB.
You will see that the next paragraph in chapter 50 and on to verse 14 describes for us the funeral service and burial of Jacob. It was an elaborate and costly funeral as becoming one of the greatest men in the world. There was great respect shown to Jacob’s body. They did not say, “It’s merely the shell; it is dead; it is worthless; find some practical use for it.” No. It was still Jacob as respects his body and it was prescious in the eyes of the God who loved him, and so there was an embalming of his body, and the Egyptians were experts in this.
The Egyptians too honoured Jacob as the father of their beloved chief minister. They mourned for him for 70 days. A Roman historian noted that the Egyptians mourned for their kings for 72 days. So dead Jacob was given great honour by a foreign nation. Then Joseph took his body with a large retinue of men, servants of Pharaoh, all the elders of the land of Egypt, and all the house of Joseph, chariots and horsemen. The Canaanites who saw this funeral procession were very impressed and called the field where the final funeral occurred, ‘the mourning of the Egyptians.’ But the Egyptians mourned officially as men without gospel hope, but Joseph and his brothers knew that they would meet in a better place one day, but then all of them eternal brothers.
15th January 2012 GEOFF THOMAS