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Michael Gowen

Jacob – Dying well

Peter tells us that we have been called to blessing, in order to inherit a blessing.

Photo: Silvestri Matteo (Unsplash).

There is a saying tucked away in the book of Ecclesiastes that I have often reflected on: “The day of death is better than the day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every person; the living should take this to heart” (7:1-2).

We could dismiss these words as the rantings of Solomon as a disillusioned old man. But then why would God have preserved them in the Bible?

Maybe a small part of the meaning of these words is this: we have no control over how we are born – that is in the hands of our mother and those attending her at the birth.

We have little control over how we die, unless we commit suicide; but we can prepare ourselves for dying, especially if we know that death is approaching, for example if we have a terminal illness.

And even while we are alive and well, the writer of Ecclesiastes says that it would be beneficial for us to already begin reflecting on the day of death.

It is Henri Nouwen who has brought some of these ideas to the fore in recent years, through his book Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring. Yet the idea of using death as a gift to pass on to others who will remain alive after we have passed on is far from recent.

It goes back a long way in the Bible, all the way to the patriarchs of Israel in the book of Genesis.

Jacob was one of those patriarchs, and he had an amazingly long and full life: 147 years in all. When the writer to the Hebrews (in the New Testament) was reviewing the Jewish heroes of the faith and came to Jacob, he had so much material to choose from to demonstrate Jacob’s life of faith.

What he actually choose was one apparently minor incident in the last few weeks of his life: By faith Jacob, when he was dying blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff (Hebrews 11:21).

What was so special about this incident? It shows that Jacob was still living by faith and worshipping right up to the day he died.

If he had been living in New Testament times he would have totally identified with the apostle Paul’s words as he faced death: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

This incident which the writer to the Hebrews chose arose from Joseph taking his two sons to Jacob to have them blessed by him, knowing that his father was very old and quite ill. You can read about it in Genesis 48.

He certainly got more than he had anticipated. First of all Jacob solemnly accepted Joseph’s two sons, his grandsons as his own sons, so that they would both become founders of two of the 12 tribes of Israel: Ephraim and Manasseh.

Then he blessed the younger of the two boys before the older. He remembered how he had been blessed ahead of his older brother Esau, and having received revelation from the Lord that he should do the same for Joseph’s sons, he responded in a spirit of faith.

After that, he called all his sons together and blessed each one of them individually (Genesis 49), preparing them for their future roles as founders of the tribes of Israel.

What a wonderful way to end a life: blessing one’s children and grandchildren. It seems not to happen so very often today: I know few people who have been given a parent’s blessing while he or she was dying.

Instead, we so often find that a family death breaks open rifts and conflicts that have lain under the surface for years. A friend told me recently about the death of a godly elderly woman, and even before the funeral had taken place some of her children and grandchildren were fighting with each other and trying to take advantage of each other.

My own father fell out with two of his brothers and when each of them died he had not spoken to them for over a decade. That is the opposite of blessing.

Peter tells us that we have been called to blessing, in order to inherit a blessing (1 Peter 3:9). I hope that we will not wait until we are facing imminent death before we start blessing.

We can begin right now, so that we can inherit a blessing. However, that means setting aside negative speaking about people. For James tell us, With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. Brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? (3:9-11).

If you inherit something, then your natural desire is to build it up and pass it on to your children. The Duke of Westminster is reputed to be the richest person in the world under 30. How has he managed this? By inheriting the wealth of the Grosvenor Estates from his father; and he too in due course will wish to pass on an inheritance to his children.

What inheritance will we pass on to the next generation? How are we preparing them to inherit a blessing?

The best way, Peter tells us, is to teach them how to bless; and the best way to teach them this is by our own example of blessing – beginning with us blessing our own family members – for as long as we have life and breath.




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