II. The spirit of prophecy comes upon him, and, like dying Jacob, he tells his sons what shall befal them, Gen. 49:1.
1. He pronounces a curse on Canaan the son of Ham (Gen. 9:25), in whom Ham is himself cursed, either because this son of his was now more guilty than the rest, or because the posterity of this son was afterwards to be rooted out of their land, to make room for Israel. And Moses here records it for the animating of Israel in the wars of Canaan; though the Canaanites were a formidable people, yet they were of old an accursed people, and doomed to ruin. The particular curse is, A servant of servants (that is, the meanest and most despicable servant) shall he be, even to his brethren. Those who by birth were his equals shall by conquest be his lords. This certainly points at the victories obtained by Israel over the Canaanites, by which they were all either put to the sword or put under tribute (Josh. 9:23; Jdg. 1:28, 30, 33, 35), which happened not till about 800 years after this. Note, (1.) God often visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, especially when the children inherit the fathers’ wicked dispositions, and imitate the fathers’ wicked practices, and do nothing to cut off the entail of the curse. (2.) Disgrace is justly put upon those that put disgrace upon others, especially that dishonour and grieve their own parents. An undutiful child that mocks at his parents is no more worthy to be called a son, but deserves to be made as a hired servant, nay, as a servant of servants, among his brethren. (3.) Though divine curses operate slowly, yet, first or last, they will take effect. The Canaanites were under a curse of slavery, and yet, for a great while, had the dominion; for a family, a people, a person, may lie under the curse of God, and yet may long prosper in the world, till the measure of their iniquity, like that of the Canaanites, be full. Many are marked for ruin that are not yet ripe for ruin. Therefore, Let not thy heart envy sinners.
2. He entails a blessing upon Shem and Japheth.
(1.) He blesses Shem, or rather blesses God for him, yet so that it entitles him to the greatest honour and happiness imaginable, Gen. 9:26. Observe, [1.] He calls the Lord the god of Shem; and happy, thrice happy, is that people whose God is the LORD, Ps. 144:15. All blessings are included in this. This was the blessing conferred on Abraham and his seed; the God of heaven was not ashamed to be called their God, Heb. 11:16. Shem is sufficiently recompensed for his respect to his father by this, that the Lord himself puts this honour upon him, to be his God, which is a sufficient recompence for all our services and all our sufferings for his name. [2.] He gives to God the glory of that good work which Shem had done, and, instead of blessing and praising him that was the instrument, he blesses and praises God that was the author. Note, The glory of all that is at any time well done, by ourselves or others, must be humbly and thankfully transmitted to God, who works all our good works in us and for us. When we see men’s good works we should glorify, not them, but our Father, Matt. 5:16. Thus David, in effect, blessed Abigail, when he blessed God that sent her (1 Sam. 25:32, 33), for it is an honour and a favour to be employed for God and used by him in doing good. [3.] He foresees and foretels that God’s gracious dealings with Shem and his family would be such as would evidence to all the world that he was the God of Shem, on which behalf thanksgivings would by many be rendered to him: Blessed be the Lord God of Shem. [4.] It is intimated that the church should be built up and continued in the posterity of Shem; for of him came the Jews, who were, for a great while, the only professing people God had in the world. [5.] Some think reference is here had to Christ, who was the Lord God that, in his human nature, should descend from the loins of Shem; for of him, as concerning the flesh, Christ came. [6.] Canaan is particularly enslaved to him: He shall be his servant. Note, Those that have the Lord for their God shall have as much of the honour and power of this world as he sees good for them.
(2.) He blesses Japheth, and, in him, the isles of the Gentiles, which were peopled by his seed: God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem, Gen. 9:27. Now, [1.] Some make this to belong wholly to Japheth, and to denote either, First, His outward prosperity, that his seed should be so numerous and so victorious that they should be masters of the tents of Shem, which was fulfilled when the people of the Jews, the most eminent of Shem’s race, were tributaries to the Grecians first and afterwards to the Romans, both of Japheth’s seed. Note, Outward prosperity is no infallible mark of the true church: the tents of Shem are not always the tents of the conqueror. Or, Secondly, It denotes the conversion of the Gentiles, and the bringing of them into the church; and then we should read it, God shall persuade Japheth (for so the word signifies), and then, being so persuaded, he shall dwell in the tents of Shem, that is, Jews and Gentiles shall be united together in the gospel fold. After many of the Gentiles shall have been proselyted to the Jewish religion, both shall be one in Christ (Eph. 2:14, 15), and the Christian church, mostly made up of the Gentiles, shall succeed the Jews in the privileges of church-membership; the latter having first cast themselves out by their unbelief, the Gentiles shall dwell in their tents, Rom. 11:11-24 Note, It is God only that can bring those again into the church who have separated themselves from it. It is the power of God that makes the gospel of Christ effectual to salvation, Rom. 1:16. And again, Souls are brought into the church, not by force, but by persuasion, Ps. 110:3. They are drawn by the cords of a man, and persuaded by reason to be religious. [2.] Others divide this between Japheth and Shem, Shem having not been directly blessed, Gen. 9:26. First, Japheth has the blessing of the earth beneath: God shall enlarge Japheth, enlarge his seed, enlarge his border. Japheth’s prosperity peopled all Europe, a great part of Asia, and perhaps America. Note, God is to be acknowledged in all our enlargements. It is he that enlarges the coast and enlarges the heart. And again, many dwell in large tents that do not dwell in God’s tents, as Japheth did. Secondly, Shem has the blessing of heaven above: He shall (that is, God shall) dwell in the tents of Shem, that is “From his loins Christ shall come, and in his seed the church shall be continued.” The birth-right was now to be divided between Shem and Japheth, Ham being utterly discarded. In the principality which they equally share Canaan shall be servant to both. The double portion is given to Japheth, whom God shall enlarge; but the priesthood is given to Shem, for God shall dwell in the tents of Shem: and certainly we are more happy if we have God dwelling in our tents than if we had there all the silver and gold in the world. It is better to dwell in tents with God than in palaces without him. In Salem, where is God’s tabernacle, there is more satisfaction than in all the isles of the Gentiles. Thirdly, They both have dominion over Canaan: Canaan shall be servant to them; so some read it. When Japheth joins with Shem, Canaan falls before them both. When strangers become friends, enemies become servants.