“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” Genesis 49:10 (NASB)
This is a strange sounding prophecy, so we must first determine what the terms mean.
“The Scepter” is held by one who rules, as in Esther 4:11, Psalm 2:9, Psalm 45:6, Psalm 110:2, Isaiah 14:5. Clearly the most forceful characteristic of the right to rule is the right to impose capital punishment. Looking at it another way, if you don’t have the power to impose the death penalty, then you can’t really be a ruler, at least not in Biblical times.
The tribe of Judah was the ruling tribe of Israel, so in a general sense it would refer to the right of the Jews to rule themselves.
In a number of translations, “Until Shiloh comes” is translated as “Until he comes to whom it belongs” and is the literal meaning of the Hebrew. It seems clear that this could only refer to the Messiah or the Christ.
So, the following paraphrase would seem to capture the essence of this passage:
The right to impose capital punishment shall not depart from the Jews until the Messiah comes.
So, when did the right to impose capital punishment cease from Israel? Clearly they had lost it at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus because they had to convince the Roman government to do it. The Jews ruled their own people even during the Babylonian and Medo-Persian captivities, and until A.D. 6-7. According to Josephus, at that time a new Roman Procurator named Caponius removed from the Sanhedrin the power to adjudicate captial cases.
The Jews understood the prophecy, and so mourned in sackcloth and ashes, and proclaimed: Woe to us, for the scepter has departed from Judah and the Messiah has not come. So, the prophecy was fulfilled literally and exactly.
But they should have known that the Messiah, Jesus, had been born and was a lad living in Nazareth at that time. “… Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? …” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. …” Matthew 2:1-3. So, they could not have possibly not known or forgotten, and therefore they must not have believed the Magi, even though they themselves declared that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, …; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” Matthew 2:6
For a more detailed discussion, see “Until Shiloh Comes“.
Who but God could have prophesied this centuries earlier?