18
Aug
2012

A Biblical Theology of the Tribe of Judah

Among the multitude of Messianic prophecies that stand out in the book of Genesis, Gen. 3:15, 12:1-3 and Gen. 49:8-12 are among the most significant. After our first parents fell, the Lord promised to send a Redeemer into the world. This Redeemer would be the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham and the Lion of the tribe of Judah. As redemptive history was carried along through human lineage, the seed promise was strategically placed in the tribe of Judah for the faith of God’s people. The promise that the Redeemer would come from the tribe of Judah is paramount to understanding so much of what we read in the books of Moses, the prophets, the Gospel narratives, the epistle to the Hebrews and the Apocalypse. We find a preeminently eschatological dimension to this promise that helps us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah.”

Genesis 49:8-10 and Eschatology

What is significant about the Genesis 49:8-12 prophecy (sometimes called the ‘Shiloh prophecy’) is that it reveals the office that the Messiah would hold according to the tribe in which He would appear. The scepter would not depart from Judah until ‘Shiloh’ came. Built into the prophecy was the history of the Kings of Israel. There was, however, an expressly eschatological element to the promise. Geerhardus Vos observed the significance of the eschatological language, “the last days,”–that stood at the head of Jacob’s departing words to his sons–when he wrote:

The “blessing of Jacob,” Genesis 49, contains an approach to this point of view in what it predicts concerning Judah, vs. 10. The “Shiloh,” that is “the One to whom Judah’s scepter and ruler’s staff belong” appears here as the ultimate embodiment and virtually as the eternalizer of Judah’s preeminence among the tribes. In other words, the One later called the Messiah is a Consummator in more than purely a chronological sense.1

John Fesko has helpfully traced out the use of the phrase “the last days” throughout the OT and draws the conclusion about it’s eschatological meaning in redemptive history. He writes:

Jacob’s prophecy about the coming Messiah and his description of the days surrounding his advent occur “in the last days” (Gen. 49:1c; LXX). The “last days” formula is not an uncommon one but appears throughout the Scriptures. The phrase, and others similar to it, occur some twenty seven times in the NT and only sometimes refer to the time immediately prior to the end of history. In fact in many places the phrase “last days” is used to describe the end times as beginning already in the first century. In the OT the “last days” are associated with a future time when

1. There will be a tribulation for Israel consisting in

a. Great oppression (Ezek. 38:14–17),

b. Persecution, false teaching, deception, and apostasy (Dan. 10:14–21; 11:27; 12:1–10).

2. After the tribulation

a. Israel will seek the Lord (Hos. 3:4–5);

b. They will be delivered (Ezek. 38:14–16; Dan. 11:40–12:2).

3. This deliverance and judgment will occur because the Messiah will finally conquer the nations (Gen. 49:1, 8–12; Num. 24:14–19; Isa. 2:2–4; Mic. 4:1–3; Dan. 2:28–45; 10:14–12:10).

4. God will establish a kingdom on the earth and rule over it (Isa. 2:2–4; Mic. 4:1–3; Dan. 2:28–45) together with a Davidic king (Hos. 3:4–5).

It is important, then, that we note that the “last days” is a phrase that is used to denote the eschatological age.

At the same time, we see that the eschaton is inextricably linked with Christology, as is plainly evident in Genesis 49:10–12. Parenthetically, we may also note that the patriarchs were looking, not generally for Yahweh, but for the Messiah to deliver them and usher in the eschatological age (Gen. 18:18; 22:18; cf. Gal. 3:8, 16; John 8:56). We also see that the last days contain both favorable and unfavorable events, blessing and curses, joy and tribulation. These contrasting states hint at the already–not yet aspect of the eschatological age…2

Jesus ushered in the eschaton in His first coming. He came to accomplish everything necessary to secure the consummation of the Kingdom of God. Every prophecy was, in some sense, already fulfilled in the days of the Messiah. This is significant in our understanding of the ‘Shiloh Prophecy.’ The King and the Kingdom have already come, though we anticipate a day when they will come in glorious consummation.

 The Typological Role of Judah in Redemptive History

While Genesis 49:8-10 has received a great deal of attention throughout church history, there is another prophetic utterance about the tribe of Judah that has gone largely unnoticed. When Moses came to give his final blessing to Israel he does precisely the same thing as Jacob had done so long before him, namely, he gave a series of covenantal blessings to the tribes. When he spoke to Judah, we discover a rich prophetical pronouncement (Deut. 33:7). Moses said of this tribe, ““Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah, And bring him to his people; Let his hands be sufficient for him, And may You be a help against his enemies.” There is in this pronouncement a prospective Messianic prediction. Yahweh would hear the voice of the Redeemer when He interceded for His people. Yahweh would bring Christ to His people. Yahweh would make Jesus’ hands sufficient for Him in the work of redemption. He would be for Him a help against His enemies by raising Him from the dead. Much of what Moses said in this prophetic utterance was speaking of the Priestly work of Christ. This is interesting, because the ‘Shiloh Prophecy’ (Gen. 49:8-10) says nothing about the priesthood. This is the point of the writer of Hebrews. The book of Hebrews is preeminently interested in showing us the greatness of the priesthood of Jesus, who, the writer says, was “evidently descended from the tribe of Judah; of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood” (Heb. 7:14). For a biblical theological treatment of the shift from Levi to Judah see my post “The Last of the Levites.”

As the biblical narrative unfolds we uncover several very important details about the tribe of Judah in God’s plan of redemption. When Israel developed into a nation and entered into combat with the rebellious nations in the promised land, the Lord gave His people specific instructions concerning battle formation. Each tribe was to take its place in going forward into battle. It ought to strike us as a thing of great significance that when the instructions concerning the placement of each tribe are given in Numbers 2 it is Judah and not Rueben who stands at the head of the battle. We would expect it to be the tribes in the order in which the 12 sons of Jacob were born, from the oldest to the youngest. It would make perfect sense for the tribe of Rueben to be at the head of the battle; but it makes perfect theological sense for it to be Judah. In Numbers 2:3 we discover that God gave instruction concerning Judah first, and gave the tribe a special placement for the battle: “On the east side, toward the rising of the sun, those of the standard of the forces with Judah shall camp according to their armies; and Nahshon the son of Amminadab shall be the leader of the children of Judah.”

There is a biblical-theological correlation between the reference to the “east” and the fact that Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden-Temple, “east of Eden.” One of the principle restorative allusions in the OT has to do with the “east” side of the Tabernacle and “East Gate” of the Temple. In Ezekiel’s prophecy of the New Temple (Ez. 40-48)  the “east Gate” is the prominent focus of the the eschatological dwelling place of God. It is the gate that is shut so that no one but the Prince can enter in (Ez. 46:1-8). The Prince (i.e. a clear reference to the Messiah, see Dan. 9:25) enters with the burnt offering (Ez. 46:12). Once the sacrifice was offered we find that “there was water, flowing from under the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the front of the temple faced east; the water was flowing from under the right side of the temple, south of the altar” (Ez. 47:1). The water is a symbolic representation of the Holy Spirit, as our Lord intimates throughout the fourth Gospel (John 4:10; 7:37-39; 19:34). Judah being at the “east” throughout the OT typifies the Redeemer and His work opening the way into the presence of God (Heb. 6:19-20) for us. Jesus does this very thing for us by going through the flaming sword of God’s justice (Zech. 13:7) which was itself represented by the cherubim standing with flaming swords at the east entrance to the Garden-Temple (Gen. 3:24). None of these details are arbitrary. Each of them takes their place in redemptive history to aid us in filling in the picture of what God was promising to do. The Son of God entered into the battle against Satan, sin and death–bearing the wrath of the flaming sword of God’s judgment–in order to open the way back to the presence of God for us.

When we come to the book of Judges we find quickly discover that Judah will lead the way into battle. In the very first verse of the book we read, “Now after the death of Joshua it came to pass that the children of Israel asked the Lord saying, “Who shall be first to go up for us against the Canaanites to fight against them?” And the Lord said, “Judah shall go up. Indeed I have delivered the land into his hand.” We learn that the battle was fought and won against the Canaanites because “the Lord was with Judah” (v. 19). In short, Judah was always associated with leading the battle against the enemies of God. After all, Jesus is the “captain of our salvation.” This typical role that the tribe played was preparing us for our representative warrior-savior. He is the one who goes forth to battle for us. As the hymn-writer put it:

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came.

Christ is not only the “Captain of our salvation,” He is also the Head of His church. The Old Covenant church was sometimes denominated by the titles “The armies of Israel” and “The armies of the living God” (1 Samuel 17:8, 10, 26). The church is ever engaged in warfare against the armies of spiritual “principalities and powers” (Eph. 6). We see the headship of Christ symbolically denoted by the placement of the tribe of Judah in the book of Revelation. When John numbers the 144,000 (a clear reference to the complete number of the redeemed from the Old and New Testaments. 12 representative tribes and 12 representative apostles. 12 x 12 is 144. 12 x 12,000 is 144,000) he lists them symbolically according to tribes. It is not the original 12 tribes of Israel since Dan is missing and one of the half tribes of Israel was included.  It may be that Dan is missing because Dan is the tribe from which the judges came. There is no judgment for the people of God (John 5:24) because the judgment has been poured out by the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” on the “Lamb that was slain” (Rev. 5:5). Judah is placed at the head of the church because the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” is the King and Head of the Church. He is the one who has gone into battle for His people and who leads them in victorious triumph over the forces of evil.

Of course the ‘Shiloh’ prophecy speaks more properly to the kingdom being established in Judah. This is significant because both of our Lord’s genealogies (Matthew’s presumably belonging to Joseph and Luke’s to Mary) come through King David. David was the King that God had chosen to shepherd His people. There was no King in Israel’s history that more typified the King of Kings that was true of David. Matthew’s genealogy more properly traces Jesus’ right to the Kingdom by showing the lineage from Judah through all the Kings of Israel. Even when Israel was in captivity in Babylon the two figures who should have been Kings, Zerubbabel and Shealtiel, stood in as “governors of Judah” (Ezra 3, 5; Neh. 12; Haggai 1). They were carrying on the hope of the restored kingdom. When Jesus finally appears, He steps into the office that is His by Divine right. Though He was only legally the son of Joseph, nevertheless, this alone makes Him the rightful heir of the throne of David. The promises that God made to David concerning a son who would sit on his throne forever are cast behind the biblical narrative like a canvas on which all the subsequent kings find their significance. The Kingdom of God did come with great power and wisdom, though it comes in a very different form than were the expectation and desire of so many in Israel (John 6:15). Arguably, the Kingdom of God is the central theme of redemptive history. While the new creation is the goal, the Kingdom is the way in which this goal is accomplished. Jesus established the kingdom and secured the new creation when He hung on the cross. There, above him, was the declaration of declaration, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” The scepter did not depart from Judah until it was placed in the hand of the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” Jesus took the scepter up when he carried His cross to Golgotha. As He made war against all of His and our enemies, He exercised He great kingly authority and power. This is really what the members of the Westminster Assembly were getting at when they answered the question, “How does Christ execute the office of a King?” They write, “Christ executes the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.” This is Shiloh. This is the work of “the Lion of the tribe of Judah.”

1. Geerhardus Vos, Pauline Eschatology (1930; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), p. 2; see also Vos’ chapter on the Shiloh prophecy in Eschatology of the Old Testament, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001], 99

2. John Fesko  Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine  pp. 97-98

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