The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: J

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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 promise:

"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 Jacob.


"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 and meaningful!

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 confusing verses:

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 blessing!


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 crisis!

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 flesh!:

"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 28).

"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.


Our Father,
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.

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