DIG: What was so special about Judah? Why was he favored over his brothers?
REFLECT: If you are a Christ follower, Judah’s blessing is your blessing because you are royalty and a child of King Jesus. What is your evidence for that?
Here the focus turns away from the past to the future.769 Jacob had little good to say about his first three sons, but his fourth son Judah was the first to receive a true blessing. He prophesied with wordplay when he said: Judah, your brothers will praise you, because Judah means praise. Literally, it means praise you will your brothers praise. Then he said: Your hand will be on the neck of your enemies, meaning superiority and triumph in war (Second Samuel 22:41; Psalm 18:40).
Judah had fully redeemed his character, and his future was one of glory and blessing to the world.770 It is obvious from the rest of the Bible that Judah did in fact become the leading tribe. Judah was to be praised indeed. The descendants of Judah would be first in importance, their brothers would acknowledge his superiority, they would have victory over their enemies, royal authority and kingly administration by the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Therefore, there is an aspect of the near historical future and an aspect of the far eschatological future in each part of Jacob’s prophecy to Judah.
In the near historical future, Jacob prophesied about Judah and said: Your father’s sons will continue to bow down to you. Although the rights of the firstborn belonged to Joseph, Judah was first in importance over his brothers because the Messiah would come through him (First Chronicles 5:1-2). This is why his brothers would continue to bow down to him. In the far eschatological future, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Judah’s descendant, Jesus Christ, is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11).
In the near historical future, Jacob employed a simile to describe Judah. He said: You are like a lion’s cub, O Judah, you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness – who cares to wake him? His son, or descendent, was like a strong and powerful lion. As a result of this verse, the lion of Judah became a favorite image in Jewish art and a symbol of the Messiah. John reminds us of this when he writes of the far eschatological future: The Lion of the tribe of Judah has triumphed (Revelation 5:5).
In the near historical future, Jacob prophesied that: The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet until He comes to whom it belongs. The scepter was the symbol of royalty, and emphasized Judah’s right to rule. In its earliest form the scepter was a long staff, which the king held in his hand when speaking publicly, and when he sat upon his throne he rested the base between his feet.771 In the far eschatological future, this passage points to the Second Coming when Christ the Messiah comes to set up His Kingdom for a thousand years. At that time, He will have the right to rule, and the obedience of the Gentile nations will be His.
The rabbis clearly viewed this verse as Messianic. They said that the transmission of dominion shall not cease from the House of Judah, nor the scribe from his children’s children forever, until the Messiah comes to whom the Kingdom belongs, and to whom nations shall obey. But to this day they teach that the Messiah is not divine.
Historically, this prophecy has already been fulfilled. Once the tribe of Judah, under King David, attained leadership over the nation, the scepter (or the symbol of the king) never departed from Judah until after Christ was born.772 About that time the Romans, who had the right to rule, took away the right of capital punishment from the Jews. This changed the death penalty from stoning to the Roman method of the cross for the Jews (John 18:31-32). When this happened, the high priest went throughout the city of Jerusalem wearing sackcloth and ashes saying, “Woe to us for the scepter has been taken from Judah and he to whom it belongs has not come.” They thought the word of the Lord had been broken because they did not know that up in a Nazareth carpenter’s shop, Jesus Christ, the One to whom the scepter belonged, had come and Genesis 49:10 had been fulfilled.
The promise of a personal Messiah began in the Garden of Eden. And the Lord said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will crush your head, and you will strike His heel (Genesis 3:15). Through all the ages, men have looked for the coming Savior, and this was certainly true of Jacob. He surely would be expected to express that hope in his prophecy. This promise to Judah must indeed be Jacob’s specific reference to that hope. Centuries later, Isaiah seemed to have these prophecies in mind when he first spoke of the coming child of the virgin (Isaiah 7:20), and then went on to say that His name would be the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6-7). The obedience of the Gentile nations, which Jacob prophesied, corresponds clearly to God’s messianic promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that through their coming Seed all the peoples on earth will be blessed (12:3b).773
In the near historical future, not only would Judah’s tribe be strong and courageous, but his land would also be productive and fruitful. He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch. Normally this would not be a good thing to do because his donkey or his colt would merely tear out the vine or branch. The point is that when Judah entered the Promise Land, these vines and branches would be so strong that he will be able to tether his donkey or colt to them. There would be much abundance. The rabbis teach that the Messiah will be recognized as riding on his donkey (Zechariah 9:9; Luke 19:28-40). In the far eschatological future when the Messiah returns, Israel will be a paradise (Isaiah 35:1-2). The tribe of Judah will have one portion of Land, and it will border the territory of Reuben from east to west (Ezekiel 48:7).
In the near historical future, Jacob said that when Judah’s descendants returned to Canaan, their land would be very productive. Their eyes will be bright from wine, and their teeth will be white from drinking much milk. These are the picturesque ways of describing the suitability of Judah’s territory for vineyards, which is true to this very day. However, in the far eschatological future, the Messiah will come in judgment. He will wash his garments in wine, and His robes in the blood of grapes. This is also depicted in Isaiah 63:1-8 where he saw the Messiah returning at Bozrah (which means grape-gathering) with his garments stained crimson.
And when Christ returns, we will return with Him. The armies of heaven were following Him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. During His thousand-year reign, He will rule the nations with an iron scepter (Psalm 2:8-9). He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty (Revelation 19:14-15). At that time Jesus is the King who will hold the iron scepter. He will swiftly judge all sin and instantly put down any rebellion. Using the same imagery of ruling with an iron scepter, Jesus promised that believers would rule under Him in the Messianic Kingdom: To him who overcomes and does My will to the end, I will give authority over the Gentile nations. He shall rule them with an iron scepter and he will dash them to pieces like pottery, just as I have received authority from My Father (Revelation 2:26-27). Therefore, because we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation belonging to God (First Peter 2:9), we will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years (Revelation 20:6). Believers now serve as priests by worshiping God and leading others to the knowledge of Him, and we will also serve in that same way during the Millennial Kingdom.774 We are blessed to be royalty; we will rule under Christ with an iron scepter because we are children of the king.
Up to this point Jacob had prophesied in the natural order of his children through Leah. But now that progression takes a different turn.