Poor Jacob! You have to love him even though he’s such a disagreeable fellow! A cheat from birth, Jacob has lived up to his name and now finds himself away from home, fearing the wrath of his twin-brother, Esau. Not that life with his uncle Laban had been a picnic. “Out of the frying-pan into the fire” the saying goes, and Jacob found his uncle to be as wily a character as himself. What had probably been a temporary arrangement turned into twenty years during which Jacob fell head-over-heels for a woman called Rachel, but was “tricked” by his uncle on the day of the wedding; when the veil was removed, he discovered that he had married her sister Leah instead! But these were different times, and seven years later he married Rachel, too. It was always going to be problematic, of course — jealousy and rancor led to some unhappy times at home, made worse by Jacob’s “relationships” with the handmaids of both Rachel and Leah.
We saw last month how, in the midst of Jacob’s plight, he saw a vision of a ladder reaching up to heaven on top of which God stood speaking words of comfort and reassurance (28:10–22). It revealed another side to Jacob, one in which he shows a desire to follow God’s leading, no matter how much he stumbled along the way.
Six years after marrying Rachel (that makes twenty years of service to Laban), God says to Jacob that it is time for him to go home and face the music. It was not going to be easy. It is doubtful if Jacob had any communication with Esau in these twenty years, and he suspects that his brother may still harbor anger in his heart. So Jacob prayed (32:9–12). It is a desperate prayer, the kind of prayer a man makes when he has nothing else he can do! He was in need of God’s protection now more than ever, and without it, he was probably going to be killed. He splits the flocks and herds sending a large portion ahead as a gift for his brother. Then he sends his wives and children (eleven sons) ahead of him so that he is left alone.
It was a calculated move on Jacob’s part to be left alone on the other side of the Jordan river. And then it happened. A man came and wrestled with him. It was hand-to-hand combat, as real as anything he had experienced in his life. But afterwards he would say of it, that God had been the one who wrestled with him. He named the place Peniel, which means “face of God.” He had seen God “face to face.”
To someone who has never been keen on wrestling, the idea of God engaging in hand-to-hand combat with Jacob sounds rather puzzling. But what else could have humbled this proud man so graphically, than to pin him down for most of the night until he would say, “I submit!” God appeared as a burning bush to Moses, a soldier to Joshua, and an enthroned king to Isaiah. Each vision (theophany) seemed suited to the individual recipient. Holding Jacob down this way must have taught him who was stronger, and this self-willed mother’s boy learned the hard way “who’s boss!” To ensure that he not forget the incident, or relate a tale that made him out to be the victor, God put his hip-joint out of sorts, making him limp till the day he died. As he leaned on his staff in future days, it would provide him with a memory of that day he wrestled with God — and came out the worse for wear.
God humbled Jacob. And spared his life. It was an act of discipleship in which God brought his servant to realize that he must walk — take every step — in submission to and dependence upon the Lord. Jacob learned that in order to grow up, he must first of all be brought down. Pride must be abased in order that grace may shine.
In Jacob’s helplessness, Jacob had cried out for God’s blessing, refusing to “let go” until God had blessed him (32:26). He will be “wrestled out” rather than miss the blessing, whatever the cost of it may be for him. He is prepared to have his own inner self (his sin!) exposed rather than miss out on the blessing. “He has broken my strength,” the psalmist cried, and it could well have been written of Jacob, too (Ps. 102:23).
This is a turning point in Jacob’s life. Despite the many features that make Jacob dislikeable, in this incident we see his heart — one made malleable by the grace of God. There remain, of course, some things to be done in Jacob’s life. He is not, for example, completely honest with Esau the next day (33:14–17). But for now at least, we see his longing to know God, and to know Him deeply. By the time this incident was over, there seemed to be little of that prideful self-assertiveness left in Jacob. Limping across to join his family and face whatever lay before him, the wisdom of God had begun to do its work. Whatever needed to be done to finish the work of perfecting Jacob’s heart, he was never quite the same again after this.
Has the wisdom of God begun to do its work in you?