After 20 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. When Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is the camp of God!’ So he named 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:
“Don’t be afraid… Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2Ki 6:16).
Likewise, David wrote of the angel of the LORD, who “encamps [‘hanah’ — the same root as ‘Mahanaim’] around those who fear him, and delivers them” (Psa 34:7).
And Jesus, facing his sternest trial, could testify to the unseen presence of twelve legions of angels (Matt 26:53), hovering over and protecting him 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 override the seeming reality of one’s experience, it is difficult to say. We read that Jacob, immediately after seeing the angels, still felt the need to take steps that he hoped would ensure 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, Jacob plotted and struggled, or 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.
“When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, ‘We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.’ In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups [‘Mahanaim’ again] and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, ‘If Esau comes and attacks one group [or camp] the group [or camp] that is left may 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 concern 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 unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant… [yet] Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother” (vv 9-11).
His prayer was a retrospect of his life: “I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups” (v 10). 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 such matters, should he have even thought of them, 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 supposed security, expose us to the dangers of the world in an immediate, life-threatening sense. Then, if we are honest, we may 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.
“That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions” (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 recrossed the Jabbok, and remained on the south side alone, to face the enemy, as he saw it.
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, you are 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 wrestling with the unrecognizable “enemy” (v 24). In the heat and fear of the night he sweated and grappled, 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 who 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 acted as if to depart:
“I will not let you go unless you bless me” (v 26).
No longer Jacob the wrestler, nor Jacob the clever schemer, he was now Jacob the humble supplicant, begging the most meager crumb from the master’s table: “Please, bless me.”
“The man asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob,’ he answered. Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled or wrestled with God and with men and have overcome’ “ (vv 27,28).
Jacob (meaning the “supplanter“, literally, the “one who takes by the heel“) is transformed into Israel (“the prince with God“). His “overcoming” of God is achieved through humility and prayer, in inverse proportion to a trust in his own strength. In his natural weakness he prevailed and became spiritually strong; the full realization of his own emptiness and hopelessness bound him absolutely to the only true source of strength (2Co 12:7-10). Only then could he find the blessing!
Do we struggle 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 wrestle 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, for David recognized that God had sent the “enemy“, and who was he to ask why? (2Sa 16:10). Likewise, the reply of Jesus to Pilate: “You have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). Our 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 that “if God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:28,31). 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 may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing [Gen 32:26] from the LORD and vindication from God his Savior. Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face [‘Peniel’: Gen 32:30,31], O God of Jacob” (Psa 24:3-6).
The experiences of Jacob the struggler 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.
Also in Hosea 12:3-6:
“In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel”:
Jacob’s birth epitomized his early life, a continual struggle for material advantage.
“As a man he strugged with God”:
Wherein was his strength? Certainly not in the arm of flesh!:
“He struggled with the angel and overcame him: he wept, and begged for his favor” –
Here was Jacob’s only source of strength: a recognition of his personal weakness.
“He found him at Bethel”:
a reference to Jacob’s earlier vision of angels (Gen 28).
“And there he spake with us” (KJV).
So the inspired prophet Hosea 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 attained anything like absolute perfection — 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 “struggled” or “wrestled“), not just the “God of Israel” (the “Prince with God“).
“So Jacob called the place Peniel [the face of God], saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’ The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip” (Gen 32:30,31).
The “thorn in his flesh“, like Paul’s, was not removed (2Co 12:7). It remained with Jacob as proof and reminder of his encounter with God. And so we all “limp” through life, our failures and weaknesses (whatever form they take) witnessing eloquently to us of our need, our desperate need, to trust in God alone. We survey our lives, and we remember 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” (Gen 33:10). From now on, wherever he went, Jacob would always see God’s “face“.
Our Father, help us to see Your “face” in all our experiences. Cause the light of Your truth to shine into our hearts, so that — abandoning our own wills and our own strength — we come at last to trust in You alone. In Christ we pray. Amen.