• W. Austin Gardner

The Death of Jacob


Genesis 49:29–33

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.

The last chapters of Genesis are filled with deathbed scenes: first the protracted account of the death of Jacob, then the shorter account of the death of Jacob’s beloved son Joseph. They remind us that everyone must die.

What Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote of Jacob is true of everyone: “He who had journied with unwearied foot fully many a mile was now obliged to gather up his feet into the bed to die. His life had been eventful in the highest degree, but that dread event now came upon him which is common to us all. He had deceived his blind father in his youth, but no craftiness of Jacob could deceive the grave. He had fled from Esau, his angry brother, but a swifter and surer foot was now in pursuit, from which there was no escape. He had slept with a stone for his pillow and had seen heaven opened, but he was to find that it was only to be entered by the ordinary gate. He had wrestled with the angel at the brook Jabbok, and he had prevailed; at this time he was to wrestle with an angel against whom there was no prevalence. He had dwelt in Canaan in tents, in the midst of enemies, and the Lord had said, ‘Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm,’ and therefore he had been secure in the midst of a thousand ills; but now he must fall by the hand of the last enemy and feel the great avenger’s sword.”

Everyone must die. Yes, but how we die—that is the matter of real importance. In Jacob’s case we have a man determined to take charge of his death and bear a witness to the end. Earlier in this chapter he had spoken to each of his sons, rebuking sin, promoting godliness, and pronouncing blessings upon those who would descend from them. In these last verses Jacob spells out his own last wishes and is taken home.

When the celebrated English essayist and poet Joseph Addison was dying, he sent for his son-in-law, the Earl of Warwick, that he might see how a Christian could die. Jacob is like that. Jacob is an example of how we ought to die when the time comes.

No Earthly City

The first notable characteristic of Jacob’s death is his focus on the next world. He speaks of it, saying, “I am about to be gathered to my people” (v. 29). In books by unbelieving professors there are attempts to minimize the meaning of this sentence. “To be gathered to one’s people” means only to be buried in the same plot of ground as one’s ancestors, we are told; it is only another way of saying, “I am dying.”

But this is patently untrue. It is evident even from Jacob’s own statements that this is untrue. Jacob first made the statement that he was about to be gathered to his people and then voiced the additional request: “Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite.” That is, whether he would be buried in Egypt or in Canaan, he would be gathered to his people. But in addition to that, he also wanted to be buried where Abraham and Isaac had been buried before him. The same meaning is also clear earlier when Jacob asked Joseph to swear that he would return his body to Canaan. He said, “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” (Gen. 47:29–30). This means that after his spirit had joined the spirits of his fathers in the next world, he wanted his body to be buried where their bodies were buried.

Ishmael was gathered to his people, according to Genesis 25:17, but he was not buried in the cave at Machpelah. The statement means rather that he died in faith and was gathered with the people who died in faith earlier.

So also had Abraham been gathered to his people (Gen. 25:8).

So was Isaac gathered to those who had died in faith before him (Gen. 35:29).

Although this exact phrase is not used in earlier cases, the same undoubtedly was true of the deaths of Adam, Seth, Noah, and other great saints of the earliest days of earth’s history.

It is hard to overemphasize the importance of this faith, for it is not merely a deathbed faith. It is a life-transforming orientation of those who have learned the passing nature of this life and the overriding permanence and importance of the life to come. It is said of Abraham that he lived “like a stranger in a foreign country” and that he looked “to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:9–10). That is true of all God’s people; and if this outlook has not emerged, the individuals involved are not truly converted from sin to faith in God. Christians are otherworldly. So although a believer realizes that this is God’s world and can enjoy all that God has given him in and through it, he nevertheless knows that it is a fallen world and is destined to perish. He does not set his affections on it.

The world does not like this orientation, of course. The mass of unbelieving men and women are utterly ignorant of spiritual things and are therefore 100 percent “this-worldly.” When Christians profess faith in what they cannot see and, worse yet, exhibit a higher and ultimate loyalty to unseen things, the world resents it and heaps scorn on them. Christianity is regarded as useless, a “pie-in-the-sky” philosophy. It is termed an opiate. It is said to make us insensitive to real needs, real life, real problems. It makes us turn our backs on real duties.

Does it? Actually the opposite is the case, as I will show. But this much is true: Christians do believe that this world is not the end of all things. There is a world of the spirit, which is far more important, and it is sadly true that in an attempt to gain this world and its pleasures, many lose their own souls.

We say to our contemporaries: One day you will die and be swept into the bosom of eternity. We ask: How will you die? To what will your soul be gathered? We believe that there are two destinies and that being gathered to God’s people depends on turning to God through faith in Christ while in this life. We urge all who are not believers in Christ to turn to him.

Earthly Concerns

One reason why unbelievers resent a Christian’s commitment to unseen things is that they suppose Christians therefore have no concern for what is visible. But that does not follow. Because I am interested in A does not mean that I cannot also be interested in B. Because I care for God does not mean that I cannot also be concerned for my fellowman. In fact, when we are speaking of spiritual things, it is only a concern for God that motivates a proper concern for men and puts all other concerns in proper perspective.

This is where the next portion of Jacob’s dying testimony comes in. The most striking thing about this section is the length to which Jacob seems to go in describing the cave of Machpelah in which his forefathers were buried: “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” (vv. 29–32). Commentators have suggested that these details are provided because the place was unknown to the sons of Jacob, or that these are merely the garrulous ramblings of an old man.

The real explanation is that Jacob wished to speak precisely and seriously of this place and thus remind his sons of the way and the reasons for which it had come into the possession of his family. Machpelah was the patriarchal toehold in Canaan. The patriarchs had been living as strangers in the land of promise, but they believed nevertheless that God had truly given them this land. Their burial there was proof of their faith in that promise. One commentator says, “Jacob wished to live in a place which the inhabitants of the country knew to be the property of his family, and expected that his seed after him would still retain their hope and desire of living in a country so much valued by their ancestors, the land which God promised to give them, and where he was to dwell among them and bless them.”

This is also the explanation of the Christian’s proper concern for this world’s affairs. Only the concern of the Christian is greater even than the concern of the patriarch Jacob. God had promised the land of Canaan to him and his descendants. He was determined to be buried there in anticipation of the fulfillment of those promises. In the Christian’s case it is not merely a segregated “land of promise,” but the entire world that is his or her concern: because he serves the Lord Jesus Christ, and Christ is Lord of all. Ours is a world religion, and we possess a world concern. There is no part of human life or endeavor that we should not strive to bring into subjection to Jesus.

First Things First

But it is a concern for Christ and his kingdom that makes the difference. I said that just because I am interested in A does not mean that I cannot also be interested in B. That is true. But it obviously makes an enormous difference whether I am interested in A first and B only second, or whether I am interested in B first and A only to the extent that my concerns for B permit.

This distinction is reflected in Jacob’s dying words. Almost the very last thing Jacob said is that it was in the cave of Ephron the Hittite, where Abraham and Isaac were buried, that he “buried Leah” (v. 31). This is important as we remember that Jacob had two wives and two concubines and that, though he was married to Leah first, it was actually Rachel he loved. Rachel had been on his mind earlier. We know this because, when speaking about blessing Joseph’s two sons, he had broken into his train of thought to reminisce about Rachel’s death: “As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath” (Gen. 48:7).

If a modern storyteller were inventing the final scene of Jacob’s life, he would have Jacob ask to be buried by Rachel, on the road to Ephrath, and not in the gloomy cave at Machpelah. This would be touching, romantic. But Jacob does not do this! Why? It is because, although he was greatly attached to Rachel and undoubtedly still loved her, he wanted to be buried in the cave of his fathers as a testimony to the fact that his faith was the same as theirs and that the meaning of life is to be found, not in this life alone, but in eternity.

It is only those who are interested in the things of God first and foremost who make any real difference in the world. This is because they alone have a perspective that is of any transforming value. Unbelievers criticize Christians, as I have said. They call us otherworldly while they concentrate on purely secular concerns. Much of the contemporary church has adopted this attitude and has become quite secular, using the world’s methods while adopting its agenda. This changes nothing. The world remains the same, because what is needed is a change in the perspectives that have made the world what it is. What is needed is an outlook that desires God first and sees faith in him as being of greater importance than one’s fate or finances.

In the first volume of his commentary on Ephesians, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones illustrates from history how this happens: “The greatest benefactors that this world has ever known, the men who have brought the greatest good to this world, have been men who have emphasized most of all the importance of ‘seeing the unseen.’ One has but to read the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews to find proof of this. There we have a list, or a gallery as it were, of the greatest benefactors this world has ever known; that is why they stand out in history. And they are all people, we are told, who fixed their eyes not so much on this world as on the next. That does not mean that they ignored this world. They were not monks or anchorites living in monasteries or deserts; they did not subscribe to the false, ascetic Roman Catholic teaching which has so bedeviled this whole question. The alternative to the popular view which is being advocated today is not monasticism. The ‘heroes of the faith’ of Hebrews, chapter 11, started with the unseen world, and then in the light of that, they applied themselves to the present world.”

He speaks of Calvin, who reformed the social as well as the spiritual life of the city of Geneva. Calvin was more concerned with decent, proper living in this world than were others of his time.

He speaks of the Puritans, who laid the foundations for the greatness of England and that of her American colony, the United States. No one had a more otherworldly view than the Puritans, but this did not stop them from being benefactors of the common people. Indeed, their seeing of the unseen fired their beneficence.

He speaks of the Evangelical Awakening, which saved England from a revolution similar to the French Revolution. From such spiritual revivals the greatest secular improvements come.

Lloyd-Jones concludes, “When men forget the next world and concentrate only on this present life, this world becomes a kind of living hell, with confusion and lawlessness and immorality and vice rampant. It is only men who have a complete view of life who really know how to live in their world. The only man who really respects life in this world is the man who knows that this world is only the antechamber to the next world. It is only the man who knows himself to be a child of God, and who knows that this world is God’s world, who is really concerned about decency in this world.”

How Shall We Live?

I suppose that somewhere, somehow there is a danger of talking too much about heaven—if heaven is used as an escape from the demands of this life. But that danger is not nearly so great as failing to think enough (and in a proper way) about it. For one day each of us must die, as Jacob did, and we must stand in the presence of the holy God of heaven. How shall we stand before him? As those who have lived for this world only and thus for self, and who are startled to confront him? Or as those who lived life in light of that which is to come and who therefore appear to give an accounting of how they served the Lord here?

In Genesis 49:33 Jacob dies: “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.” He had lived 15 years with his grandfather Abraham (who was 160 years old when Jacob was born to Isaac, and who died when he was 175). He had lived with or near his father Isaac for 100 years (Jacob was 120 years old when Isaac died, but he had spent 20 of those years in Haran). Now Jacob has been living with both of them in a far better world for thousands of years, and he will continue to live with them for eternity—and with Christ, which is far better.

George Lawson concludes, “Live by faith, as the patriarchs did, and you also shall be gathered to them when you die. How wretched will we be if we see millions with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, and ourselves cast into utter darkness! But how excellent will our joys be if we are admitted to those blessed regions where our fellowship with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and with an innumerable multitude of saints and angels will make but a small part of our happiness!”

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