Genesis 49:13 “Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend towards Sidon.”

*Having blessed the first four of his sons Jacob proceeds to bless the next six sons one by one, the Holy Spirit inspiring him to say the right words, but we hardly know a thing about this fraternal sextet, and even their names seem strange to us – with one exception – Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher and Naphtali. You remember an identical phenomenon concerning the twelve apostles. There are six or even seven of whom we know certain things (one is infamous). I’m thinking of Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, Matthew, Thomas and Judas Iscariot. But concerning the men called Philip, Bartholomew, Thaddaeus, another man called James and another named Simon (the Zealot) then the church knows next to nothing about them. Yet all are carefully listed a few times in the Gospels. They were all companions of our Lord from his baptism to his resurrection. They were all called and gifted to be apostles and witnesses of Jesus being raised from the dead.


Jacob’s blessing on each of the six obscure sons is quite significant. He didn’t brush over them as unimportant. He spoke sincere and unique words of blessing and prophecy about the future life of each one. I believe Jacob’s attitude is much needed in this generation of church-goers some of whom magnify Christians who have the X factor, hyper Christians, big personality Christians with an inflated sense of their significance. The word of God is different. We’ve considered the first four of Jacob’s sons, and there’s no attempt in the Bible to hide the fact that they’d been a pretty sordid lot, their lives characterized by serious falls, defects and monstrous imperfections. There could be only one hope for such men, and that was the grace of God; their sin had abounded. God’s mercy to Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah had been much more abundant than their sins. The first four that we looked at had all been pathetic losers, but now there is quite a different problem with the next six; they are all pretty anonymous men. They seem a bunch of nobodies.

Yet if all Jacob’s boys had been described simply as handsome perfect giants, lacking any physical or character flaws whatsoever, then we’d tend to think that the book of Genesis was a pious legend, like the stories of the Knights of the Round Table, and then we’d ignore it as a fairy tale. Or maybe we would do this, we’d ascribe their brilliance to genetics, that Abraham and then his son, and his grandson, had passed on their I.Q. and all-round good personalities to these twelve great-grandsons. Their described perfection, we would conclude, was all due to good breeding, and so once again we’d ignore this chapter as containing nothing to help us because we think we’ve experienced genetic discrimination; “we’re depraved because we’ve been deprived.” But Genesis is neither the legend of goody-goodies, nor the real story of sickeningly perfect men. These first four sons of Jacob grew up to do unspeakably evil things; we know far more about them than we want to know. But the next six are shadowy figures, very ordinary men whom we’d like to know far more about, and yet every one of these boys without exception, the baddies and the nobodies, plus Joseph and Benjamin – can you believe this? – that they all became men on whom the blessing of God rested. God never gave up on these losers, and these nothings. He changed them and they all accomplished amazing things, obtaining promises, working works of righteousness and subduing kingdoms. God joins miserable misfits and fantastic failures and nobodies together, and then amazing things happen. They feed on bread from heaven every day, and walled cities collapse, and water flows from a rock, and enemies are routed and a new kingdom is won. All the names of these losers and nothings get inscribed on the gates of heaven, and God alone must get the glory for all of that. Without God they didn’t have a chance. They had nothing to offer, and they didn’t know what to do next. Sometimes I think the hardest job God has is getting his children to admit how desperately they need him. What is the message of Genesis 49? One is that God will not tolerate human pride, and that he frequently chooses and uses people who have nothing to brag about and much to be ashamed of. God chooses losers because that’s all he’s got to work with. God chooses invisible people because that way he alone gets the credit for anything good they accomplish.

Consider how the apostle Paul had to teach this lesson to the church in Corinth. He said to them, “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (I Corinthians 1:26). Paul reminds them of what they’d been when God saved them. Not many of them came from the educated or upper classes of society. Not many had what the world calls ‘good breeding.’ The Corinthian congregation, by and large, was totally anonymous. Neither of the letters to the Corinthians ends with a list of names of the congregation with Paul’s warm personal greetings – as does his letter to the Romans.

So the Holy Spirit pays attention to those not who are not well-known, and aren’t we mighty glad of that? Our names, of course, can never appear in the Bible, but God has another book. Pray God, men and women, that you and I might receive at least a tiny, modest mention when that great book will be opened. If our names might only appear once in that book, all shall be well for our souls. Oh, to have our names mentioned in that roll call list on the last day—that list of all those who have loved Christ!
We do know that Corinth was not a church of the ‘blueblood.’ Paul is holding up a mirror and he’s saying, “Take a good look. What do you see?” If they had 20/20 vision, and scrutinized the meeting place then they didn’t see many impressive people. They saw very, very ordinary men and women, slaves, illiterates, paupers, street children, little elderly folk from undistinguished backgrounds. The glue that united them with one another was that all their lives had been utterly transformed by Jesus Christ. The glue was grace.

There’s a message here if I’m getting it right. God doesn’t ignore losers. When God calls people to his family, his choice is very different from the world’s. He frequently goes for the weak over the strong, the forgotten over the famous, the nobodies over the somebodies. I remember what it was like when two boys chose two teams from our street to play soccer. Those of us not so talented huddled together as the group became smaller and smaller each one hoping that it wouldn’t be him who’d be chosen last, or that they’d choose a girl before they chose us.

Isn’t Paul reversing all the natural values of Corinth culture when he tells them that when God chooses his team, he starts with the people whom the world chooses last? He actually prefers to select the weak instead of the strong. It’s not that God is politically correct and intends to take equal numbers from every social class in Greece, and it’s definitely not true that God populates the church from the upper classes while sprinkling in a few from the lower classes. The opposite is closer to the truth. God populates his church with the rejects of the world and then adds a teaspoonful of wealthy and powerful people. God deliberately chooses the forgotten of the world, and he prefers the company of the poor. He loves to save the uneducated, the foolish, the addicted, the broken, the downcast and the imprisoned. In short, he specializes in saving those whom the world counts as nothing.

Why does he do this? “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (I Corinthians 1:27-29). In these verses Paul makes his teaching even clearer. God chooses “weak things” and “lowly things” and “despised things” and even “things that are not.” These “things” are actually people—weak people, lowly people, despised people, and people who are invisible to the world. In short, God makes a choice, and the choice he makes is to choose the people the world would never choose. The words of Isaiah 55:8 come to mind, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.” Here’s a simple way of remembering this truth, that God is different. He operates differently from us. He is different in what he thinks, and he is different in what he does. He doesn’t do what we expect him to do because his thinking is entirely different from ours. He nullifies the mighty by using the weak instead. He nullifies the proud by using the humble. He nullifies the wise by using the simple. He nullifies the professional by using the blue-collar worker. He nullifies the Ph.D. by using the person who dropped out of school at 16. God’s “nullification” demonstrates how fundamentally different he is from us. So you read the names of the 12 apostles and you raise your eyebrows and mutter about four or five of these men, “Who he?” and no one in the world knows definitely who those apostles were or what they did with their lives. There are just unreliable pious myths that were written hundreds of years after the apostles had died. Again, you look at these six sons of Jacob and you wonder what kind of men they could have been; no one knows.

This truth – elementary as it may seem – is actually quite vital to a healthy Christian worldview, that our God stands alone. He does not bind himself to do what we think he ought to do. He is holy and he is sovereign and he is absolutely free to do whatever he pleases. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” he says. He can humble the proud any time he chooses. He knows how to bring down a multi millionaire soccer player who plays for Manchester United or for Chelsea or the most famous golfer in the world. He can bring low a politician or a newspaper magnate in a moment.  No one has the power to stand against him.

How different God is from us. When the world throws a party, the beautiful people are always invited. You know the names: Ben Affleck, Britney Spears, Tom Cruise, Mariah Carey, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and the rest of the current crop of Hollywood superstars. They rent a nightclub and they hire a security team to keep the ordinary people out. Only the “in crowd” makes it past the rope line. Helicopters circle overhead and the paparazzi strain to a get a picture they can sell to Hello magazine. It’s all about who shows up and who is wearing what kind of dress on the red carpet, what their hairstyle is, and gossip columnists are trying to match this man with that woman. That’s how the world throws a party. But God does it differently. Jesus told a story in Luke 14 about a certain man who invited many guests to a huge banquet. All the invited guests made a series of excuses—they were too busy, they had other plans, they had business to attend to, and a hundred other ‘legitimate’ excuses. So the master ordered his servants to go out into the highways and byways and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. When that had been done, there were still some empty seats so he told his servants to go out into the country roads and find anyone who had been overlooked and invite them to come to the party because the master declared that every seat must be taken. If those who had been invited first refused to come, then the master would go after the anonymous poor people who’d never otherwise have come to such a fine affair. That’s how God does it. He goes after the people the world overlooks because the ‘beautiful people’ have no interest in coming to him for salvation.

God doesn’t write on the doors of heaven the names of people who figure in Hello, but he does inscribe these names, Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher and Naphtali. He does this because 99% of the people of heaven are little people. They are not superstars. God destroys all human boasting before they enter heaven; everyone in glory has poured contempt on all his pride. No one brags, “Weren’t we smart to choose heaven?” All acknowledge they are there through Christ alone, though trusting in his merits and work for them.

We need to hear this word because modern worship is entertainment-oriented and celebrity-driven. We are far too prone to swoon over the latest “celebrity conversion” and rush the latest “hot convert” to the rostrum so that we can all applaud and congratulate ourselves on catching such a big fish for God. I’m not immune to that. If I spotted someone famous in the congregation I’d be tickled pink, but I’m thrilled when anyone visits the church. “A new face! Praise God!” It’s one of the most encouraging things to think back on at the close of a Sunday. Nothing wrong with being glad to see a celebrity, but I’ve been waiting for an elder to say in our prayer room before the service, “Geoff, guess what? We’ve got two Big Issue sellers visiting the church today. Isn’t that wonderful?” Or “Geoff, there’s a man here with AIDS and he wants to know Jesus.” Or “Geoff, here’s a single mother with six children. This is her first time at A.P.” Or “Geoff, this man just got out of prison and he made a
beeline across Wales to worship with us today.” The sin is not that we make much of the celebrities – we are not going to be doing that very often – it’s that we make so much less of Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher and Naphtali when any men like them pay us a visit. But the Holy Spirit gives almost ten verses to tell us of these retiring and anonymous brothers.

Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus our Lord. He chose and named all twelve of his servants. Let this mind be in you that was also in Jacob. He named and blessed all twelve of his sons, not just the beautiful duo, Joseph and Benjamin, or even the much changed Judah. We need to think like God thinks. How does he think?
We look at the outward; God looks at the inward.

We value popularity; God values character.
We look at intelligence; God looks at the heart.
We honour those with money; God honours those who are poor in spirit.
We consider what we own; God considers what we give away.
We boast about whom we know; God notices whom we serve.
We list our accomplishments; God looks for a contrite heart.
We value education; God values wisdom.
We are impressed by numerical success; God esteems faithfulness.
We love size; God notices quality.
We live for fame; God searches for humility.
Our view is shallow; God’s view is deep.
Our view is temporary; God’s view is eternal.

We have to judge and value men and women as God does. We have to. That is the mark of Christian maturity. How does anyone ever get to Jerusalem above? How does anyone attain the glories of heaven? By God sending his Son to the humiliation of Golgotha to die on a hated Roman cross to accomplish the pardon of their sins. By God choosing the weak over the strong to become part of his heavenly family. We wouldn’t have done it that way, but that brings us back to the fundamental point that God is different. He doesn’t play by our rules. And so we are to boast in the Lord, make much of him, and praise his name, the God of grace. We are created to magnify his name. We are born again to glorify and enjoy him for ever. This is God’s will for us. Few of us will be like Jacob’s great son Joseph. Most of us will be as anonymous as Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher and Naphtali.  If any of us glories, then make sure you are glorying in the Lord. Let’s blunder on as Christians and church members. Let’s make mistakes and then think again and acknowledge we were wrong and keep going. That’s the key, to keep going, blundering on.


“Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend towards Sidon” (v.13). What do we learn from this?

i] Zebulun received an address. He got a postal code, a zip code, somewhere to live, a place he could call his own. His brothers were able to say, “Zebulun lives in such a place,” and they knew where he was. He wasn’t homeless; he wasn’t a traveler; he wasn’t a vagrant. He had a place to put his roots down and grow plants and get to know his neighbours, and watch the pattern of the seasons, the local climate, and know the early rains and the latter rains. And so already Zebulun is exalted above the Messiah while he was on earth, and that is precisely what the Lord Jesus was referring to when he said, “Even the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no address, no place to lay his head,” and as a result he was the most despised and rejected of men. When I have visited a prison and talked to men there their concern is about where they are going to live when they get out. Where will they be accepted? Where will they make a new pattern of normal life with neighbours and friends? I know a Christian man who works in a large city in the Midlands with homeless men, and many of them are ex-army soldiers who have found it impossible to settle down in a place with an address when they finished their years of conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan, and so now they sleep in some places of shelter behind shops and stores and in the day they walk the streets, and our friend as an ex-soldier himself bears testimony to them and seeks to help them in the name of the Lord Jesus. Here is Zebulun and he could say to others, “I live by the sea not far from Sidon. That’s my home. It’s been assigned to me. That’s the place I’ve received for my inheritance.”

ii] Zebulun had a disappointing place. It was very small; it was hardly worth using the grand name ‘inheritance’ to describe the little spot where he lived. It certainly wasn’t a mansion; it was rather plain and unsophisticated. It was way up north, at the very top of the country, like Wick or even John O Groats, bordering on the sea on one side and dangerous Sidon of the Gentiles on the other. It was a long way from the centre of things at Jerusalem. There the king lived, and the leaders walked the corridors of power, where the action was, where the Temple was, and Zebulun was far away. It would be a great expedition if he went even once a year from near Sidon way down south to Jerusalem. What an adventure!

iii] Zebulun took it as an accepted place. Jacob spoke through God the Holy Spirit and he made a prophecy to his son. God had assigned this situation in the north where Zebulun was to spend his days. The boy was standing before his dying father. He had just heard the great blessing coming upon Judah, five verses in length, and then it was his turn, and he hears in a single verse that there was a little place in the north for him. There was to be nothing glorious in his future. None of his posterity was going to stand out. No sons were going to become famous, just a little spot by the sea in the north. That was it.

And so we wonder what are God’s plans for our lives. We know that whatever they are that is what’s going to be. God is going to work it out according to his own sovereignty. For Jonah it was Nineveh, and though Jonah headed in the opposite direction to Tarshish God brought him to Nineveh by storm and fish. So too God will have his way with us which will be a blessing for us, even as the seaside near Sidon was a blessing to Zebulon and he accepted it. Like John Newton’s illustration of the angels gathering before God to receive their instructions for the day, and the first angel is told to rule over the mightiest empire on earth, and the second angel is told to clean the toilets in a huge slum, and each one went immediately to do God’s will. That is their meat and drink to hear what God wants from them and then to do it. So it was with Zebulun. He said to himself, “This is the place that God has assigned for me,” and off he went to the north into obscurity. Only a couple of times in the history of Israel is his name mentioned. He is spoken of in the book of Judges, that he came and laboured and fought valiantly in the name of his God. His prospects weren’t improve living up there; it was no Malibu or Monte Carlo. There was nothing in it in worldly terms for him, so unglamorous, so unfamous, but he accepted it. Someone centuries later was going to say, “Can any good come out of Nazareth, there, in the regions of Naphtali and Zebulun in the north?” The place had become proverbial as a back of beyond place with nothing of prominence, all so dreadfully ordinary, but Zebulun packed his things and off he went to let his light shine there. Let me remind you of someone else to chose to move to Zebulun years later. We read of him in Matthew’s gospel, chapter four and verses 13 through 16. We are told about the Lord Jesus, the Messiah, “Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali – to fulfil what was said through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’”


Zebulun’s mother, Leah, had had great difficulty. Everybody was her enemy. The whole world was against her, even God. She never gained the love of her husband and she could not understand the way God was dealing with her, and for a while she thought her escape and deliverance would be her children. She would live for them and through them, and they might draw Jacob to love her, but when her fourth son Judah was born she began to change. She called him ‘Praise’ “For I will praise the Lord.” There was a new God-centredness in her life, and when Zebulun was born she said, “Now this is a good dowry, and I ought to be happy for my God has given me six sons. What an honour from the Lord” – the name ‘Zebulun’ probably means ‘honour.’

So though Zebulun was placed in an obscure position it was an honourable and useful position. He was there at the safe haven for ships, and Moses will speak in his farewell address in Deuteronomy 33 about Zebulun and his sons living there: “They will feast on the abundance of the seas; on the treasures hidden in the sand” (Deut 33:19). He reminds the people not to forget Zebulun there in the far north, right by the seashore, with their boats on the shore, and that Zebulun was able – and these are the words that Moses uses – Zebulun was able to ‘suck the wealth’ out of the seas and out of the sand. So that even though the place was remote and a bit of a joke, Zebulun discovered that the sea didn’t need to be ploughed or harrowed or weeded, and the birds or wild animals didn’t have to be driven away to get a harvest. The only thing that you have to do to get food from the sea is reap, and that is the place where God told Zebulun to live.

Besides that, says Moses, there is also the treasures hidden in the sand; Zebulun is there to take up materials right off the seashore. There is great wealth in sand. I remember staying with a business executive John Temple in South Africa, and he had flown off one morning to inspect a movable factory that traveled on the lonely beaches of the Republic on caterpillar tracks. One vast machine it scooped up the sand and dunes and processed it. “Do you see those shiny black grains of sand on a beach reflecting the sunlight? They are often made of titanium,” John said, and the machine separates them by a centrifugal processor and then deposits all the rest behind it where the dunes and plants are relayed. Titanium is in huge demand for mobile phones and ipods etc. There is the treasure hidden in the sand and that is the place Zebulun was given. There he was with his back firmly against pagan Sidon, and his face toward believing Jerusalem. There he had a window upon the whole world. There, through the instrumentality of Zebulun, the synagogues would spread. There they were proclaiming the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Bible, the God of Moses, and Zebulun wass instrumental in bringing that God to the remote north.

So that even though Zebulun has been directed to go and live in that kind of inaccessible place there is grace by the sea, food, wealth and usefulness. Now it may be asked in the centuries to come by a man called Nathaniel, when he hears of this new prophet Jesus of Nazareth, “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” then the answer will have to be, “A lot more than ever came out of Jerusalem. A lot more!” Zebulun is the man who has accepted the plan of God, who has accepted that inheritance, who has accepted the way along which he was led by God. It initially looked barren, a bleak remote place in the north on the shore, bereft of everything that was glorious, bereft of all wealth. Yet it was in that place he discovered he was in a position to minister to the whole world, to every trader and fisherman and builder who came there. They heard from him of the God he served, Jehovah the Lord.

What a challenge; on his right was Sidon full of temples and idols, but his face was toward Jerusalem. That was Zebulun’s inheritance, that was his lot among the sons of Jacob, the place where he was going to live, and out of Nazareth came One greater than anyone that Jerusalem has ever produced, one that Zebulun never dreamed of. None of us knows what lies ahead. Who could have been aware in the 17th century in Wales what was going to happen in some tiny place, a gathering of cottages, a church and maybe one shop, places like Llangeitho, and Trefecca, and a farm called Pantycelyn, and Newcastle Emlyn, and Gorseinon, Clynog and Talsarn We acknowledge that the ways of God are mysterious, they are hidden from us. There is no way whereby we are ever able to judge the times that are going to come, or the time in which we are living. And those are the things that are brought home to us in the destiny of Zebulun. He is the one that speaks of the common man, the one who is to be faithful; and that’s all! “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” You’d be surprised! Come and see, come and see; and they came and saw, and Nathaniel stands amazed that one such can come forth out of Nazareth.

For here, men and women, even though it was a despised place it was the place assigned to Zebulun, a place on which many would turn their backs, nevertheless it was the place that God had for him, and so that was the place where he was also going to be able to live. And that is the place in which he was also going to have those opportunities such as none other of the other tribes of Israel had, even finally becoming a place of residence for the Messiah, who was going to come and live within the borders of this Zebulun.

Jacob made this prophecy to Zebulun and he was not speaking out of the wishes of his own heart, but he was speaking by revelation of God. He was speaking by inspiration; “Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend towards Sidon” (v.13), and Moses says, “Rejoice, Zebulun, rejoice, because of the place that has been assigned you.” “Well, nobody else wanted it,” Zebulun might have thought on wet cold days when stormy winds blew in from the Mediterranean and no one could go fishing or trading, “ . . . but nevertheless, that place had been assigned to me, and I will accept it.” Moses told him to rejoice because it had possibilities, it had tremendous potential, and Zebulun is to see to it that its full potential was realized.


This prophecy to anonymous Zebulun is important, that he is going to live at such and such a time and place, and that even though God’s Son doesn’t have a place to lay his head, Zebulun will. And Zebulun’s place will always be clearly determined, and I am saying that regardless however deep in the backwoods, and however ordinary the life lived there may be, God does have his plans for Zebulun and for all his little people. They are not the same plana that God has for the mighty, the great, the wise and the noble, nevertheless they are just as much God’s plan and often far more potent, for the world is not going to be converted by means of kings or princes or ambassadors or ministers, but it is going to be won through the faithfulness of the common man, fishermen, and tax officials who are called by the Lord. So Zebulun went near Sidon and was faithful in that place where God put him.

Of course we may grumble that there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan that God has for our lives, they don’t have much glory, and if we think we know what God’s plan is we may begin to murmur against it, because of the many difficulties and obstacles. We don’t want personal crises in the plan of the all-wise God for us. Yet holy Job found that God’s comprehensive plan for his life took his breath away. God’s plan goes from A to Z, and it is 24/7. There is nothing in your life or mine that his plan does not cover. It embraces even such things as Zebulun living by the sea, with his back to Sidon, at a haven for ships, and Zebulun did not murmur against any of this. He said, ‘Thy will be done.’

He will accept the lot, literally, the inheritance that had fallen to him. To accept the plan of God, and accept it in its entirety, and to accept it believingly is the fruit of grace in his life. For Zebulun is to realize that God is also able by means of men and women as anonymous as Zebulun, to overthrow the thoughts and the intentions of princes. One day Messiah would make his dwelling place within his borders; here in the years to come would be a man with the same name as his mighty brother, Joseph, whose calling was to take care of Messiah. We know little about him except that he was a righteous man who did what a messenger of God told him to do. In Zebulun was found this carpenter who was faithful in instructing his son. No doubt that father hoped as every father hopes that his sons might rise to higher heights than he had achieved. Then let such fathers also be faithful in little things and do God’s will even if they live in a remote place and no one has heard of them.

We hope they come to church, and we hope they are welcomed, and maybe we will need a rebuke from James, saying, “Now if there come among you a man with a gold ring, and a man of prominence, you say to him ‘have the best seat’ while ignoring the poor man – ‘Stand over there!’ No, no my friends. That’s wrong.” And today, if one of the greats of the earth confesses Jesus Christ, someone in the royal family, some media person, then for that I will give thanks, but no more than for one whose only claim to fame is that he has an address. It can only be through grace.

Zebulun might have said at the beginning, “nothing will come of it; I am always going to be poor, I am never going to amount to anything way up there in the north, near Sidon.” And look what happened. What usefulness for God comes from little people who go when he says “Go!” and who stay when he says, “Stay!”

9th October 2011 GEOFF THOMAS

* This sermon is heavily dependent in using the fine material of Rev. Paul Thangiah on the Twelve tribes of Israel from the website