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‘THE HANDS OF THE MIGHTY GOD OF JACOB’
Gen_49:23 - Gen_49:24 .
These picturesque words are part of what purports to be one of the oldest pieces of poetry in the Bible-the dying Jacob’s prophetic blessing on his sons. Of these sons there are two over whom his heart seems especially to pour itself-Judah the ancestor of the royal tribe, and Joseph. The future fortunes of their descendants are painted in most glowing colours. And of these two, the blessing on the ‘son who was dead and is alive again, who was lost and is found’ is the fuller of tender desire and glad prediction. The words of our text are probably to be taken as prophecy, not as history-as referring to the future conflicts and victories of the tribe, not to the past trials and triumphs of its father. But be that as it may, they contain, in most vivid metaphor, the earliest utterance of a very familiar truth. They are the first hint of that thought which is caught up and expanded in many a later saying of psalmist, and prophet, and apostle. We hear their echoes in the great song ascribed to David ‘in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul’: ‘He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms’; and the idea receives its fullest carrying out and noblest setting forth, in the trumpet-call of the apostle, who had seen more formidable weapons and a more terrible military discipline in Rome’s legions than Jacob knew, and who pressed them into his stimulating call: ‘Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might.’ ‘Put on the whole armour of God.’ Strength for conflict by contact with the strength of God is the common thought of all these passages-a very familiar thought, which may perhaps be freshened for us by the singular intensity with which this metaphor of our text presents it. Look at the picture.-Here stands the solitary man, ringed all round by enemies full of bitter hate. Their arrows are on the string, their bows drawn to the ear. The shafts fly thick, and when they have whizzed past him, and he can be seen again, he stands unharmed, grasping his unbroken bow. The assault has shivered no weapon, has given no wound. He has been able to stand in the evil day-and look! a pair of great, gentle, strong hands are laid upon his hands and arms, and strength passes into his feebleness from the touch of ‘the hands of the mighty God of Jacob.’ So the enemy have two, not one, to reckon with. By the side of the hunted man stands a mighty figure, and it is His strength, not the mortal’s impotence, that has to be overcome. Some dream of such divine help in the struggle of battle has floated through the minds, and been enshrined in the legends, of many people, as when the panoplied Athene has been descried leading the Grecian armies, or, through the dust of conflict, the gleaming armour and white horses of the Twin Brethren were seen far in advance of the armies of Rome. But the dream is for us a reality. It is true that we go not to warfare at our own charges, nor by our own strength. If we love Him and try to make a brave stand against our own evil, and to strike a manful blow for God in this world, we shall not have to bear the brunt alone. Remember he who fights for God never fights without God.
There is a strange story in a later book of Scripture, which almost reads as if it had been modelled on some reminiscence of these words of the dying Jacob-and is, at any rate, a remarkable illustration of them. The kingdom of Israel, of which the descendants of Joseph were the most conspicuous part, was in the very crisis and agony of one of its Syrian wars. Its principal human helper was ‘fallen sick of the sickness whereof he died.’ And to his death-bed came, in a passion of perplexity and despair, the irresolute weakling who was then king, bewailing the impending withdrawal of the nation’s best defence. The dying Elisha, with curt authority, pays no heed to the tears of Joash, but bids him take bow and arrows. ‘And he said to the king of Israel, Put thine hand upon the bow,’ and he put his hand upon it; and ‘ Elisha put his hands upon the king’s hands .’ Then, when the thin, wasted, transparent fingers of the old man were thus laid, guiding and infusing strength, by a strange paradox, into the brown, muscular hands of the young king, he tells him to open the casement that looked eastward towards the lands of the enemy, and, as the blinding sunshine and the warm air streamed into the sick-chamber, he bids him draw the bow. He was obeyed, and, as the arrow whizzed Jordanwards, the dying prophet followed its flight with words brief and rapid like it, ‘the arrow of the Lord’s deliverance.’ Here we have all the elements of our text singularly repeated-the dying seer, the king the representative of Joseph in the royal dignity to which his descendants have come, the arrows and the bow, the strength for conflict by the touch of hands that had the strength of God in them. The lesson of that paradox that the dying gave strength to the living, the feeble to the strong, was the old one which is ever new, that mere human power is weakness when it is strongest, and that power drawn from God is omnipotent when it seems weakest. And the further lesson is the lesson of our text, that our hands are then strengthened, when His hands are laid upon them, of whom it is written: ‘Thou hast a mighty arm: strong is Thy hand, and high is Thy right hand.
As a father in old days might have taken his little boy out to the butts, and put a bow into his hand, and given him his first lesson in archery, directing his unsteady aim by his own firmer finger, and lending the strength of his wrist to his child’s feebler pull, so God does with us. The sure, strong hand is laid on ours, and is ‘profitable to direct.’ A wisdom not our own is ever at our side, and ready for our service. We but dimly perceive the conditions of the conflict, and the mark at which we should aim is ever apt to be obscured to our perceptions. But in all cases where conscience is perplexed, or where the judgment is at fault, we may, if we will, have Him for our teacher. And when we know not where to strike the foes that seem invulnerable, like the warrior who was dipped in the magic stream, or clothed in mail impenetrable as rhinoceros’ hide, He will make us wise to know the one spot where a wound is fatal. We shall not need to fight as he that beats the air; to strike at random; or to draw our bow at a venture, if we will let Him guide us.
Or if ever the work be seen clearly enough, but our poor hands cannot take aim for very trembling, or shoot for fear of striking something very dear to us, He will steady our nerves and make our aim sure and true. We have often, in our fight with ourselves, and in our struggle to get God’s will done in the world, to face as cruel a perplexity as the father who had to split the apple on his son’s head. The evil against which we have to contend is often so closely connected with things very precious to us, that it is hard to smite the one when there is such danger of grazing the other. Many a time our tastes, our likings, our prejudices, our hopes, our loves, make our sight dim, and our pulses too tumultuous to allow of a good, long, steady gaze and a certain aim. It is hard to keep the arrow’s point firm when the heart throbs and the hand shakes. But in all such difficult times He is ready to help us. ‘Behold, we know not what to do, but our eyes are upon Thee,’ is a prayer never offered in vain.
The word that is here rendered ‘made strong,’ might be translated ‘made pliable,’ or ‘flexible’ conveying the notion of deftness and dexterity rather than that of simple strength. It is practised strength that He will give, the educated hand and arm, masters of the manipulation of the weapon. The stiffness and clumsiness of our handling, the obstinate rigidity as well as the throbbing feebleness of our arms, the dimness of our sight, may all be overcome. At His touch the raw recruit is as the disciplined veteran; the prophet who cannot speak because he is a child, gifted with a mouth and wisdom which all the adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor to resist. Do not be disheartened by your inexperience, or by your ignorance; but as the prophet said to the young king, Take the bow and shoot. God’s strong hand will hold yours, and the arrow will fly true.
That strong hand is laid on ours, and lends its weight to our feeble pull. The bow is often too heavy for us to bend, but we do not need to strain our strength in the vain attempt to do it alone. Tasks seem too much for us. The pressure of our daily work overwhelms us. The burden of our daily anxieties and sorrows is too much. Some huge obstacle starts up in our path. Some great sacrifice for truth, honour, duty, which we feel we cannot make, is demanded of us. Some daring defiance of some evil, which has caught us in its toils, or which it is unfashionable to fight against, seems laid upon us. We cannot rise to the height of the occasion, or bring ourselves to the wrench that is required. Or the wearing recurrence of monotonous duties seems to take ail freshness out of our lives, and all spring out of ourselves; and we are ready to give over struggling any more, and let ourselves drift. Can we not feel that large hand laid on ours; and does not power, more and other than our own, creep into our numb and relaxed fingers? Yes, if we will let Him. His strength is made perfect in our weakness; and every man and woman who will make life a noble struggle against evil, vanity, or sin, may be very sure that God will direct and strengthen their hands to war, and their fingers to fight.
But the remarkable metaphor of the text not only gives the fact of divine strength being bestowed, but also the manner of the gift. What a boldness of reverent familiarity there is in that symbol of the hands of God laid on the hands of the man! How strongly it puts the contact between us and Him as the condition of our reception of power from Him! A true touch, as of hand to hand, conveys the grace. It is as when the prophet laid himself down with his warm lip on the dead boy’s cold mouth, and his heart beating against the still heart of the corpse, till the life passed into the clay, and the lad lived. So, if we may say it, our Quickener bends Himself over all our deadness, and by His own warmth reanimates us.
Perhaps this same thought is one of the lessons which we are meant to learn from the frequency with which our Lord wrought His miracles of healing by the touch of His hand. ‘Come and lay Thy hand on him, and he shall live.’ ‘And He put forth His hand and touched him, and said, I will, be thou clean.’ ‘Many said, He is dead; but Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.’ The touch of His hand is healing and life. The touch of our hands is faith. In the mystery of His incarnation, in the flow of His sympathy, in the forth-putting of His power, He lays hold not on angels, but He lays hold on the seed of Abraham. By our lowly trust, by the forth-putting of our desires, we stretch ‘lame hands of faith,’ and, blessed be God! we do not ‘grope,’ but we grasp His strong hand and are held up.
The contact of our spirits with His Spirit is a contact far more real than the touch of earthly hands that grasp each other closest. There is ever some film of atmosphere between the palms. But ‘he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit,’ and he that clasps Christ’s outstretched hand of help with his outstretched hand of weakness, holds Him with a closeness to which all unions of earth are gaping gulfs of separation. You remember how Mary cast herself at Christ’s feet on the resurrection morning, and would have flung her arms round them in the passion of her joy. The calm word which checked her has a wonderful promise in it. ‘Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father’; plainly leading to the inference, ‘When I am ascended, then you may touch Me.’ And that touch will be more reverent, more close, more blessed, than any clasping of His feet, even with such loving hands, and is possible for us all for evermore.
Nothing but such contact will give us strength for conflict and for conquest. And the plain lesson therefore is-see to it, that the contact is not broken by you. Put away the metaphor, and the simple English of the advice is just this:-First, live in the desire and the confidence of His help in all your need, of His strength as all your power. As a part of that confidence-its reverse and under side, so to speak-cherish the profound sense of your own weakness.
‘In our own strength we nothing can;
Full soon were we down-ridden’-
as Luther has taught us to sing. Let there be a constant renewal, in the midst of your duties and trials, of that conscious dependence and feeling of insufficiency. Stretch out the empty hands to Him in that desire and hope, which, spoken or silent, is prayer. Keep the communications open, by which His strength flows into your souls. Let them not be choked with self-confidence, with vanities, with the rubbish of your own nature, or of the world. Do not twitch away your hands from under the strong hands that are laid so gently upon them. But let Him cover, direct, cherish, and strengthen your poor fingers till they are strong and nimble for all your work and warfare. If you go into the fight trusting to your own wit and wisdom, to the vigour of your own arm, or the courage of your own heart, that very foolhardy confidence is itself defeat, for it is sin as well as folly, and nothing can come of it but utter collapse and disaster. But if you will only go to your daily fight with yourself and the world, with your hand grasping God’s hand, you will be able to ‘withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.’ The enemies may compass you about like bees, but in the name of the Lord you can destroy them. Their arrows may fly thick enough to darken the sun, but, as the proud old boast has it, ‘then we can fight in the shade’; and when their harmless points have buried themselves in the ground, you will stand unhurt, your unshivered bow ready for the next assault, and your hands made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob. ‘In all these things we are more than conquerors, through Him that loved us.’
‘ THE HANDS OF THE MIGHTY GOD OF JACOB’
THE SHEPHERD, THE STONE OF ISRAEL
A slight alteration in the rendering will probably bring out the meaning of these words more correctly. The last two clauses should perhaps not be read as a separate sentence. Striking out the supplement ‘is,’ and letting the previous sentence run on to the end of the verse, we get a series of names of God, in apposition with each other, as the sources of the strength promised to the arms of the hands of the warlike sons of Joseph. From the hands of the mighty God of Jacob-from thence, from the Shepherd, the stone of Israel-the power will come for conflict and for conquest. This exuberant heaping together of names of God is the mark of the flash of rapturous confidence which lit up the dying man’s thoughts when they turned to God. When he begins to think of Him he cannot stay his tongue. So many aspects of His character, so many remembrances of His deeds, come crowding into his mind; so familiar and so dear are they, that he must linger over the words, and strive by this triple repetition to express the manifold preciousness of Him whom no name, nor crowd of names, can rightly praise. So earthly love ever does with its earthly objects, inventing and reiterating epithets which are caresses. Such repetitions are not tautologies, for each utters some new aspect of the one subject, and comes from a new gush of heart’s love towards it. And something of the same rapture and unwearied recurrence to the Name that is above every name should mark the communion of devout souls with their heavenly Love. What a wonderful burst of such praise flowed out from David’s thankful heart, in his day of deliverance, like some strong current, with its sevenfold wave, each crested with the Name-’The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.’
Those three names which we find here are striking and beautiful in themselves; in their juxtaposition; in their use on Jacob’s lips. They seem to have been all coined by him, for, if we accept this song as a true prophecy uttered by him, we have here the earliest instance of their occurrence. They all have a history, and appear again expanded and deepened in the subsequent revelation. Let us look at them as they stand.
1. The Mighty God of Jacob .-The meaning of such a name is clear enough. It is He who has shown Himself mighty and mine by His deeds for me all through my life. The dying man’s thoughts are busy with all that past from the day when he went forth from the tent of Isaac, and took of the stones of the field for his pillow when the sun went down. A perplexed history it had been, with many a bitter sorrow, and many a yet bitterer sin. Passionate grief and despairing murmurs he had felt and flung out, while it slowly unfolded itself. When the Pharaoh had asked, ‘How old art thou?’ he had answered in words which owe their sombreness partly to obsequious assumption of insignificance in such a presence, but have a strong tinge of genuine sadness in them too: ‘Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been.’ But lying dying there, with it all well behind him, he has become wiser; and now it all looks to him as one long showing forth of the might of his God, who had been with him all his life long, and had redeemed him from all evil. He has got far enough away to see the lie of the land, as he could not do while he was toiling along the road. The barren rocks and white snow glow with purple as the setting sun touches them. The struggles with Laban; the fear of Esau; the weary work of toilsome years; the sad day when Rachel died, and left to him the ‘son of her sorrow’; the heart sickness of the long years of Joseph’s loss-all have faded away, or been changed into thankful wonder at God’s guidance. The one thought which the dying man carries out of life with him is: God has shown Himself mighty, and He has shown Himself mine.
For each of us, our own experience should be a revelation of God. The things about Him which we read in the Bible are never living and real to us till we have verified them in the facts of our own history. Many a word lies on the page, or in our memories, fully believed and utterly shadowy, until in some soul’s conflict we have had to grasp it, and found it true. Only so much of our creed as we have proved in life is really ours. If we will only open our eyes and reflect upon our history as it passes before us, we shall find every corner of it filled with the manifestations to our hearts and to our minds of a present God. But our folly, our stupidity, our impatience, our absorption with the mere outsides of things, our self-will, blind us to the Angel with the drawn sword who resists us, as well as to the Angel with the lily who would lead us. So we waste our days; are deaf to His voice speaking through all the clatter of tongues, and blind to His bright presence shining through all the dimness of earth; and, for far too many of us, we never can see God in the present, but only discern Him when He has passed by, like Moses from his cleft. Like this same Jacob, we have to say: ‘Surely God was in this place, and I knew it not.’ Hence we miss the educational worth of our lives, are tortured with needless cares, are beaten by the poorest adversaries, and grope amidst what seems to us a chaos of pathless perplexities, when we might be marching on assured and strong, with God for our guide, and the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob for our defence.
Notice, too, how distinctly the thought comes out in this name-that the very vital centre of a man’s religion is his conviction that God is his. Jacob will not be content with thinking of God as the God of his fathers; he will not even be content with associating himself with them in the common possession; but he must feel the full force of the intensely personal bond that knits him to God, and God to him. Of course such a feeling does not ignore the blessed fellowship and family who also are held in this bond. The God of Jacob is to the patriarch also the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. But that comes second, and this comes first. Each man for himself must put forth the hand of his own faith, and grasp that great hand for his own guide. ‘ My Lord and my God’ is the true form of the confession. ‘He loved me and gave Himself for me ,’ is the shape in which the Gospel of Christ melts the soul. God is mine because His love individualises me, and I have a distinct place in His heart, His purposes, and His deeds. God is mine, because by my own individual act-the most personal which I can perform-I cast myself on Him, by my faith appropriate the common salvation, and open my being to the inflow of His power. God is mine, and I am His, in that wonderful mutual possession, with perpetual interchange of giving and receiving not only gifts but selves, which makes the very life of love, whether it be love on earth or love in heaven.
Remember, too, the profound use which our Lord made of this name, wherein Jacob claims to possess God. Because Moses at the bush called God, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, they cannot have ceased to be. The personal relations, which subsist between God and the soul that clasps Him for its own, demand an immortal life for their adequate expression, and make it impossible that Death’s skeleton fingers should have power to untie such a bond. Anything is conceivable, rather than that the soul which can say ‘God is mine’ should perish. And that continued existence demands, too, a state of being which shall correspond to itself, in which its powers shall all be exercised, its desires fulfilled, its possibilities made facts. Therefore there must be the resurrection. ‘God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He hath prepared for them a city.’
The dying patriarch left to his descendants the legacy of this great name, and often, in later times, it was used to quicken faith by the remembrance of the great deeds of God in the past. One instance may serve as a sample of the whole. ‘The Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.’ The first of these two names lays the foundation of our confidence in the thought of the boundless power of Him whom all the forces of the universe, personal and impersonal, angels and stars, in their marshalled order, obey and serve. The second bids later generations claim as theirs all that the old history reveals as having belonged to the ‘world’s grey fathers.’ They had no special prerogative of nearness or of possession. The arm that guided them is unwearied, and all the past is true still, and will for evermore be true for all who love God. So the venerable name is full of promise and of hope for us: ‘The God of Jacob is our refuge.’
2. The Shepherd .-How that name sums up the lessons that Jacob had learned from the work of himself and of his sons! ‘Thy servants are shepherds’ they said to Pharaoh; ‘both we, and also our sons.’ For fourteen long, weary years he had toiled at that task. ‘In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes,’ and his own sleepless vigilance and patient endurance seem to him to be but shadows of the loving care, the watchful protection, the strong defence, which ‘the God, who has been my Shepherd all my life long,’ had extended to him and his. Long before the shepherd king, who had been taken from the sheepcotes to rule over Israel, sang his immortal psalm, the same occupation had suggested the same thought to the shepherd patriarch. Happy they whose daily work may picture for them some aspect of God’s care-or rather, happy they whose eyes are open to see the dim likeness of God’s care which every man’s earthly relations, and some part of his work, most certainly present.
There can be no need to draw out at length the thoughts which that sweet and familiar emblem has conveyed to so many generations. Loving care, wise guidance, fitting food, are promised by it; and docile submission, close following at the Shepherd’s heels, patience, innocence, meekness, trust, are required. But I may put emphasis for a moment on the connection between the thought of ‘the mighty God of Jacob’ and that of ‘the Shepherd.’ The occupation, as we see it, does not call for a strong arm, or much courage, except now and then to wade through snowdrifts, and dig out the buried and half-dead creatures. But the shepherds whom Jacob knew, had to be hardy, bold fighters. There were marauders lurking ready to sweep away a weakly guarded flock. There were wild beasts in the gorges of the hills. There was danger in the sun by day on these burning plains, and in the night the wolves prowled round the flock. We remember how David’s earliest exploits were against the lion and the bear, and how he felt that even his duel with the Philistine bully was not more formidable than these had been. If we will read into our English notions of a shepherd this element of danger and of daring, we shall feel that these two clauses are not to be taken as giving the contrasted ideas of strength and gentleness, but the connected ones of strength, and therefore protection and security. We have the same connection in later echoes of this name. ‘Behold, the Lord God shall come with strong hand; He shall feed His flock like a shepherd.’ And our Lord’s use of the figure brings into all but exclusive prominence the good shepherd’s conflict with the ravening wolves-a conflict in which he must not hesitate even ‘to lay down his life for the sheep.’ As long as the flock are here, amidst dangers and foes, and wild weather, the arm that guides must be an arm that can guard; and none less mighty than the Mighty One of Jacob can be the Shepherd of men. But a higher fulfilment yet awaits this venerable emblem, when in other pastures, where no lion nor any ravening beast shall come, the ‘Lamb, which is in the midst of the throne,’ and is Shepherd as well as Lamb, ‘shall feed them, and lead them by living fountains of waters.’
3. The Stone of Israel .-Here, again, we have a name, that after-ages have caught up and cherished, used for the first time. I suppose the Stone of Israel means much the same thing as the Rock. If so, that symbol, too, which is full of such large meanings, was coined by Jacob. It is, perhaps, not fanciful to suppose that it owes its origin to the scenery of Palestine. The wild cliffs of the eastern region where Peniel lay, or the savage fastnesses in the southern wilderness, a day’s march from Hebron, where he lived so long, came back to his memory amid the flat, clay land of Egypt; and their towering height, their immovable firmness, their cool shade, their safe shelter, spoke to him of the unalterable might and impregnable defence which he had found in God. So there is in this name the same devout, reflective laying-hold upon experience which we have observed in the preceding.
There is also the same individualising grasp of God as his very own; for ‘Israel’ here is, of course, to be taken not as the name of the nation but as his own name, and the intention of the phrase is evidently to express what God had been to him personally.
The general idea of this symbol is perhaps firmness, solidity. And that general idea may be followed out in various details. God is a rock for a foundation. Build your lives, your thoughts, your efforts, your hopes there. The house founded on the rock will stand though wind and rain from above smite it, and floods from beneath beat on it like battering rams. God is a rock for a fortress. Flee to Him to hide, and your defence shall be the ‘munitions of rocks,’ which shall laugh to scorn all assault, and never be stormed by any foe. God is a rock for shade and refreshment. Come close to Him from out of the scorching heat, and you will find coolness and verdure and moisture in the clefts, when all outside that grateful shadow is parched and dry.
The word of the dying Jacob was caught up by the great law-giver in his dying song. ‘Ascribe ye greatness to our God. He is the Rock.’ It reappears in the last words of the shepherd king, whose grand prophetic picture of the true King is heralded by ‘The Book of Israel spake to me.’ It is heard once more from the lips of the greatest of the prophets in his glowing prophecy of the song of the final days: ‘Trust ye in the Lord for ever; for in the Lord Jehovah is the Rock of Ages,’ as well as in his solemn prophecy of the Stone which God would lay in Zion. We hear it again from the lips that cannot lie: ‘Did ye never read in the Scriptures, The Stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the headstone of the corner?’ And for the last time the venerable metaphor which has cheered so many ages appears in the words of that Apostle who was ‘surnamed Cephas, which is by interpretation a stone’: ‘To whom coming as unto a living Stone, yea also as living stones are built up.’ As on some rocky site in Palestine, where a hundred generations in succession have made their fortresses, one may see stones with the bevel that tells of early Jewish masonry, and above them Roman work, and higher still masonry of crusading times, and above it the building of to-day; so we, each age in our turn, build on this great rock foundation, dwell safe there for our little lives, and are laid to peaceful rest in a sepulchre in the rock. On Christ we may build. In Him we may dwell and rest secure. We may die in Jesus, and be gathered to our own people, who, having died, live in Him. And though so many generations have reared their dwellings on that great rock, there is ample room for us too to build. We have not to content ourselves with an uncertain foundation among the shifting rubbish of perished dwellings, but can get down to the firm virgin rock for ourselves. None that ever builded there have been confounded. We clasp hands with all who have gone before us. At one end of the long chain this dim figure of the dying Jacob, amid the strange vanished life of Egypt, stretches out his withered hands to God the Stone of Israel; at the other end, we lift up ours to Jesus, and cry:-
‘Rock of Ages! cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.’
The faith is one. One will be the answer and the reward. May it be yours and mine!
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Genesis 49". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26