Jacob the wrestler
After twenty years of servitude in Syria, Jacob prepared his
family and fled from his father-in-law, Laban, back to the land of
"And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw
them, he said, This is God's host: and he called the name of that place
'Mahanaim' " (Gen 32:1,2).
"Mahanaim" signifies "camps" or "armies" and in this case
alludes to the two "camps": that of Jacob's family, and that of God. Elisha's
revelation to his servant, at a later date, stresses the same lesson: Though the
opposing forces appeared overpowering, yet if the young man's eyes were truly
opened they would behold on his side the armies of heaven:
"Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them" (2Ki
6:16). Likewise, David wrote of the angel of the Lord,
who "encampeth ('hanah' -- the same root as 'Mahanaim') round about them that
fear Him, and delivereth them" (Psa 34:7).
And Jesus, facing his sternest trial, could testify to the
unseen presence of twelve legions of angels (Mat 26:53), hovering over and
protecting himself and his flock.
For Jacob, this vision of angels, coming as it did at a time
of danger and fear, should have sustained and comforted him. And it did -- up to
a point. But how far such a vision can intrude upon and override the "reality"
of one's experience, it is difficult to say. We read that, immediately after
seeing the company of angels, Jacob nevertheless took steps to "insure" his
success. He sent messengers ahead to appeal to his estranged brother Esau, whom
he feared (Gen 32:3-5).
True to his lifelong tendencies of character, Jacob plotted
and "wrestled" with circumstances, all to his "best advantage" as he saw it. He
demonstrated an interesting combination of trust in God and trust in his
own wits -- interesting particularly in this: that Jacob is so much like the
rest of us. This story is an invitation to us, to see ourselves in
"And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and
also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him. Then Jacob was
greatly afraid and distressed: and he divided the people that was with him, and
the flocks, and herds, and the camels, into two bands; and said, If Esau come to
the one company, and smite it, then the other company which is left shall
escape" (vv 6-8).Jacob had just seen the company of angels. Why
did he fear?
If we can answer that question, then we can answer the more
relevant question -- Why do WE fear?... why? when Scriptures are filled
with messages of surpassing comfort and mercy... messages that speak to
us... "Fear not, little flock"!!
Although he was afraid for his safety and that of his family,
Jacob never really doubted the presence and the interest of God. And so he
prayed to the God of his fathers, reminding Him of His promises, reminding Him
of His past mercies: "Oh God... I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies,
and of all the truth, which Thou has shewed unto Thy servant... (yet) Deliver
me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother" (vv 9-12).
His prayer was a retrospect of his life: "With my staff I
passed over Jordan, and now I am become two bands." In remembering past evidence
of God's guidance and comfort in his life, he strengthened his confidence in a
present continuance of such guidance. Despite his fear of Esau, Jacob showed
faith in God (v 11) and in His Word (v 12). Distress made his prayer fervent, as
nothing else could. No insipid, practiced, routine prayer was this; it was real
But still, Jacob continued to make material provisions for his
safety: he arranged bribes, and sent emissaries ahead with them (vv 13-21), all
so careful and calculated -- as he always had been. Was this necessary? Should
he have bothered with... should he have even thought of such matters if
he truly trusted in God?
There are no easy answers to such questions. In the warm
security of our homes, nestled in easy chairs, with food aplenty, and the
"world" at bay somewhere outside, the answer comes easily:
No, of course not. There was no need. But turn us out of our
homes, strip from us our "security", expose us to the dangers of the world in an
immediate, life-threatening sense, and -- if we are honest -- we will admit that
our perspectives would be drastically altered. So it was with Jacob. Let us, who
"stand" so casually when all is calm, take heed lest we "fall" when the storms
beat upon us.
"And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants,
and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. And he took them, and sent
them over the brook, and sent over that he had" (vv 22,23). Here is perhaps the best explanation for these
The whole company was first of all on the south side of the
Jabbok, "exposed" to Esau and his men. Jacob returned all his family to the
north side and relative safety, and then re-crossed the Jabbok, and remained on
the south side alone, to face the "enemy."
There he stayed, alone and watching through a dark night of
fear, inner turmoil, self-doubts, and even (perhaps?) doubts about God. Time
after time the question would rise in his mind. What will the morning bring? Can
any of us, with even the slightest inclination toward a true self-examination,
fail to be moved by a contemplation of that night? Can any of us, made as we are
of flesh and blood, look upon such a scene and fail to recognize
ourselves? "Behold, thou art the man!"
Then, suddenly, out of that night, a figure approached,
shrouded in darkness. His heart leaped -- was it Esau? What should he do? At
once he was on his feet, advancing and grappling with the unrecognizable "enemy"
(v 24). In the heat and fear of the night he sweated and wrestled, as though his
life depended on his own strength. But through his desperation came the
awakening realization that he would never prevail.
Then, at a touch the "enemy" disabled him totally: his leg was
lame to the point of uselessness (v 25). Now there was nothing left to do but
cling in abject helplessness to the mysterious figure that had bested him in the
struggle. What power was this against which he had been wrestling? It could not
be Esau! Could it be... God Himself? Still more desperately now, Jacob clung to
the being who made as if to depart:
"I will not let thee go, except thou bless me" (v 26). No
longer Jacob the wrestler, nor even Jacob the clever schemer, he was now Jacob
the humble supplicant, begging the most meager crumb from the master's table:
"Please, bless me."
"And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy
name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power
with God and with men, and hast prevailed." (vv 27,28).The "supplanter" (literally, the "one who takes
by the heel") is transformed into "the prince with God". His "power with God" is
achieved through humility and prayer, in inverse proportion to a trust in his
own strength. In his "weakness" he prevailed and became "strong"- the full
realization of his own emptiness and hopelessness bound him absolutely to the
only true source of strength (2Co 12:7-10). And only then could he find the
Brethren, do we wrestle with God? How do we confront our
"enemies"? Do we go through life dividing our time between praying and plotting?
Do we ask for help and then scheme in unworthy ways to obtain our goals, giving
the lie to all our worthier thoughts? Do we twist and turn and worry under every
constraint to our own wills, never pausing to remind ourselves that God is in
control of everything, and that what we "suffer" as well as what we
"enjoy" contribute alike to His purpose?
It is so easy to forget the lesson of Shimei's cursing of
David, that God had sent the "enemy" -- so who are we to ask "why"? (2Sa
16:10). Likewise, the reply of Jesus to Pilate: "Thou shouldst have no power at
all against me, except it were given thee from above" (John 19:11). For us the
problem is the same as Jacob's: how to remember in our troubled hours what we
take for granted in our quieter moments; that "All things work together for good
to them that love God" and, "If God be for us, who can be against us?" Assuredly
we shall all come to times when our theoretical belief in such an idea will be
put to the test of reality.
This momentous event in Jacob's life is the theme for inspired
commentary in other Scripture passages:
"Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in His Holy
place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his
soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing (Gen
32:26!) from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. This is
the generation of them that seek Him, that seek Thy face ('Peniel' -- Gen
32:30,31!!), O ('God of' -- as in mg) Jacob" (Psalm 24:3-6).The experiences of Jacob the wrestler had deeply
touched the heart of the psalmist David. So he learned, as must we, to see the
"face of God" (Peniel!) in every experience, and especially in every
And in Hosea 12:3-6:
"He took his brother by the heel in the womb" –
Jacob's birth epitomized his early life, a continual struggle
for material advantage.
"By his strength he had power with God" –
Wherein was his strength? Certainly not in the arm of
"He had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication"
Here was Jacob's only source of strength -- a recognition of
his personal weakness.
"He found him in Beth-el" –
a reference to Jacob's earlier vision of angels (Gen
"And there he spake with us."
And so the inspired prophet invites us, as we have been
doing, to see ourselves in Jacob, and Jacob in ourselves. The experiences of
this flesh-and-blood man have direct relevance to us. Do we fear and doubt? Do
we vacillate between faith in God and scheming on our own account? So did he!
But in his weakness he was drawn finally and completely to God. Let us have the
humility and grace, and wisdom, to follow his path.
There is comfort in this thought, that Jacob never became
perfect -- that he never could bring himself to trust God absolutely, and yet
God loved him. And so it may be with us. God has condescended to be known as
the "God of Jacob" (the one who "wrestled"), not just the "God of Israel" (the
"Prince with God")!!
"And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to
face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon
him, and he halted upon his thigh" (Gen 32:30,31).The "thorn in his flesh", like Paul's, was not
removed. It remained with Jacob as proof and reminder of his encounter with God.
And so we all "limp" through life, our failures and weaknesses witnessing
eloquently to us of our need -- our desperate need -- to trust in God
alone. We survey our lives, remembering the times when we, personally, failed
... yet, in those failures found God.
As Jacob limped toward his meeting with Esau, the sun rose
upon him! The doubts, the shadows, and the fears were gone with the night.
He had seen "God" face to face, and through his weakness found a blessing. Now,
when at last he saw Esau, he would still be seeing "God" (33:10). From now on,
he would always God's "face", wherever he went.
Help us to see Thy "face" in all our experiences.
Cause the light of Thy truth to shine into our hearts,
so that -- abandoning our own wills
and our own strength --
we come at last to trust in Thee alone.
In Christ we pray.