The tribe of Judah constituted one of the leading tribes of Israel, and has a fascinating and much misunderstood history. For a good part of the Biblical story, the people of Judah strived for the birthright and headship among the tribes of Israel. We often find Judah in the forefront of major events, including the journey in the wilderness:
“And it came to pass on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, that the cloud was taken up from off the tabernacle of the testimony. And the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai…according to the commandment of the LORD by the hand of Moses. In the first place went the standard of the camp of the children of Judah…” (Num. 10:12-14)
You might find this a curious situation, since the Israelites traveled northward from Egypt through the wilderness in a quadrant formation, with Judah placed on the east. (Num. 2:3) Would not the tribe of Dan, facing north, lead the northern march? Instead, the tribe of Judah believed that they had the right to lead, even though only fourth in seniority among the twelve sons of Jacob. This situation was discussed at length in Steven M. Collins’ excellent book, “The Origins And Empire Of Ancient Israel,” available from CBIA. In short, Reuben, Simeon and Levi were disqualified from leadership among the tribes of Israel. Judah was in charge at that time.
This was God’s plan and purpose, as we see later in the Book of Judges, as the Israelites fought for control of the Promised Land of Canaan: “Now after the death of Joshua it came to pass, that the children of Israel asked the LORD, saying, Who shall go up for us against the Canaanites first, to fight against them? And the LORD said, Judah shall go up: behold, I have delivered the land into his hand.” (Judg. 1:1-2)
Yet within Israel, all was not peace and unity. Internecine strife long continued between the tribes of Israel and came to a climax with an inter-tribal war that nearly decimated the tribe of Benjamin. In this unfortunate strife, Judah again took the lead: “And the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, saying, What wickedness is this that is done among you? Now therefore deliver us the men, the children of Belial, which are in Gibeah, that we may put them to death, and put away evil from Israel. But the children of Benjamin would not hearken to the voice of their brethren the children of Israel: But the children of Benjamin gathered themselves together out of the cities unto Gibeah, to go out to battle against the children of Israel…And the children of Israel arose, and went up to the house of God, and asked counsel of God, and said, Which of us shall go up first to the battle against the children of Benjamin? And the LORD said, Judah shall go up first.” (Judg. 20:12-18)
This verse predicted the ascendancy of the tribe of Judah… Although it did not state exactly when this ascendancy would begin or for how many years in total, it told when it would cease—at the coming of “Shiloh.”
The tribal leadership of Judah was itself foretold in Jacob’s important and little-understood deathbed prophecy: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” (Gen. 49:10) This verse predicted the ascendancy of the tribe of Judah. Yet it did much more. Although it did not state exactly when this ascendancy would begin or for how many years in total, it told when it would cease—at the coming of “Shiloh.” When that coming took place, the obedience of the peoples would be to “Shiloh.” Judah’s tribal leadership would transfer to Shiloh!
Who or what is Shiloh? The word is derived from the Hebrew, “Shilho,” meaning “offspring.” Most theologians agree that the offspring in the prophecy was the coming Messiah. Dr. Heinz Kruz translated the prophecy this way: “The scepter shall not pass from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of his offspring, to whom the peoples shall pay homage.” (VT35, 1985, p.154)
This wonderful prophecy of the coming Messiah parallels another by the Prophet Micah: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” (Micah 5:2)
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
That the Messiah would take over the rulership of the tribes of Israel is stated by the Prophet Isaiah: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” (Isa. 9:6-7)
This theme is carried over to the New Testament as recorded by Luke: “And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” (Luke 1:30-33)
This kingdom and transfer of right from Judah to the Messiah has already effectively taken place, long before the final establishment of Christ’s earthly reign in the Millennial era. John’s Gospel relates: “Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.” (John 1:49)
Christ is indeed a King descended by right from King David, the most faithful and righteous king of Judah. Sixteen times in the New Testament, our Savior is called “the son of David,” beginning with the very first verse: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matt. 1:1) Even the unbelieving Jewish scribes recognized this! “And Jesus answered and said, while he taught in the temple, How say the scribes that Christ is the Son of David?” (Mark 12:35)
The faithfulness of David was a prophetic type of the coming Messiah’s beneficent eternal rule. The Psalmist wrote, “I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant, Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations. Selah.” (Psa. 89:3-4)
Judah’s rulership came to an abrupt and bloody end with the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The Roman conquest of Palestine was devastating, with over a million Jews slaughtered between 70-73 A.D., according to Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. One historian wrote, “…the Barbarity of the Romans proceeded to that extent that Herod asked Sosius, ‘if the Romans intended to leave him King of a desert?’”
Most Christians today do not understand that such a large number of Judah, perhaps most of Judah in Palestine, were killed or exiled during the Roman conquest during the first century, A.D.
Although mainstream churches look to the Jewish people as the sole representatives of Judah and Israel, after the Roman conquest it is a fact that exiled non-Palestinian Judah likely outnumbered Judah dwelling in the Mid-east.
The Lord Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, was the true king of Judah, and inheritor of David’s throne. The faithfulness of David was a prophetic type of redeemed Judah. Where in the world is the Judah today that has the faith of David and is obedient to Christ? The late scholar, W.H. Bennett, in “The Story Of Celto-Saxon Israel,” gave compelling evidence for the migration of a significant number of the tribe of Judah to Europe and Britain in early times.
They can be identified by their faithfulness to God. As the Psalmist wrote, “Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound: they shall walk, O LORD, in the light of thy countenance.” (Psa. 89:15)