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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 1–4
Verses 1–4

Here is, I. The preface to the prophecy, in which, 1. The congregation is called together (Gen. 49:2): Gather yourselves together; let them all be sent for from their several employments, to see their father die, and to hear his dying words. It was a comfort to Jacob, now that he was dying, to see all his children about him, and none missing, though he had sometimes thought himself bereaved. It was of use to them to attend him in his last moments, that they might learn of him how to die, as well as how to live: what he said to each he said in the hearing of all the rest; for we may profit by the reproofs, counsels, and comforts, that are principally intended for others. His calling upon them once and again to gather together intimated both a precept to them to unite in love, (to keep together, not to mingle with the Egyptians, not to forsake the assembling of themselves together,) and a prediction that they should not be separated from each other, as Abraham’s sons and Isaac’s were, but should be incorporated, and all make one people. 2. A general idea is given of the intended discourse (Gen. 49:1): That I may tell you that which shall befal you (not your persons, but your posterity) in the latter days; this prediction would be of use to those that came after them, for the confirming of their faith and the guiding of their way, on their return to Canaan, and their settlement there. We cannot tell our children what shall befal them or their families in this world; but we can tell them, from the word of God, what will befal them in the last day of all, according as they conduct themselves in this world. 3. Attention is demanded (Gen. 49:2): “Hearken to Israel your father; let Israel, that has prevailed with God, prevail with you.” Note, Children must diligently hearken to what their godly parents say, particularly when they are dying. Hear, you children, the instruction of a father, which carries with it both authority and affection, Prov. 4:1.

II. The prophecy concerning Reuben. He begins with him (Gen. 49:3, 4), for he was the firstborn; but by committing uncleanness with his father’s wife, to the great reproach of the family to which he ought to have been an ornament, he forfeited the prerogatives of the birthright; and his dying father here solemnly degrades him, though he does not disown nor disinherit him: he shall have all the privileges of a son, but not of a firstborn. We have reason to think Reuben had repented of his sin, and it was pardoned; yet it was a necessary piece of justice, in detestation of the villany, and for warning to others, to put this mark of disgrace upon him. Now according to the method of degrading, 1. Jacob here puts upon him the ornaments of the birthright (Gen. 49:3), that he and all his brethren might see what he had forfeited, and, in that, might see the evil of the sin: as the firstborn, he was his father’s joy, almost his pride, being the beginning of his strength. How welcome he was to his parents his name bespeaks, Reuben, See a son. To him belonged the excellency of dignity above his brethren, and some power over them. Christ Jesus is the firstborn among many brethren, and to him, of right, belong the most excellent power and dignity: his church also, through him, is a church of firstborn. 2. He then strips him of these ornaments (Gen. 49:4), lifts him up, that he may cast him down, by that one word, “Thou shalt not excel; a being thou shalt have as a tribe, but not an excellency.” No judge, prophet, nor prince, is found of that tribe, nor any person of renown except Dathan and Abiram, who were noted for their impious rebellion against Moses. That tribe, as not aiming to excel, meanly chose a settlement on the other side Jordan. Reuben himself seems to have lost all that influence upon his brethren to which his birthright entitled him; for when he spoke unto them they would not hear, Gen. 42:22. Those that have not understanding and spirit to support the honours and privileges of their birth will soon lose them, and retain only the name of them. The character fastened upon Reuben, for which he is laid under this mark of infamy, is that he was unstable as water. (1.) His virtue was unstable; he had not the government of himself and his own appetites: sometimes he would be very regular and orderly, but at other times he deviated into the wildest courses. Note, Instability is the ruin of men’s excellency. Men do not thrive because they do not fix. (2.) His honour consequently was unstable; it departed from him, vanished into smoke, and became as water spilt upon the ground. Note, Those that throw away their virtue must not expect to save their reputation. Jacob charges him particularly with the sin for which he was thus disgraced: Thou wentest up to thy father’s bed. It was forty years ago that he had been guilty of this sin, yet now it is remembered against him. Note, As time will not of itself wear off the guilt of any sin from the conscience, so there are some sins whose stains it will not wipe off from the good name, especially seventh-commandment sins. Reuben’s sin left an indelible mark of infamy upon his family, a dishonour that was a wound not to be healed without a scar, Prov. 6:32, 33. Let us never do evil, and then we need not fear being told of it.