by James Russell Miller
There are twenty years between Jacob's vision of the ladder - and this night at Jabbok. Jacob journeyed from Bethel, about five hundred miles. At the well near his uncle's home he met Rachel, and a beautiful love story began there. He served Laban seven years to get Rachel for his wife, and then was deceived, getting Leah instead. He was receiving in his own experience, what he had been practicing on others. Then he served another seven years for Rachel. After this he remained six years more, gathering wealth. At last he left Laban - to return to his own home. It was on the way that the incident of the Jabbok ford occurred.
He had fled from Beersheba to escape the wrath of Esau. As he now neared the old home, he began to fear Esau's anger - and sent messengers to his brother, expressing the hope that he might find grace in his sight. The messengers returned with the news that Esau was coming with four hundred men to meet him. Jacob was in great distress and cried to God for help. No wonder Jacob was afraid to meet Esau. He had treated him basely. It was twenty years ago - but the memory had not faded out of Jacob's mind. We forget base and dishonorable things done to us, if we are forgiving and generous - but it is far harder to forget such things, when we did them. Jacob was a better man than he was twenty years before, and this made him more ashamed to meet his brother. Besides, Esau still hated Jacob and might violently contest his return.
Jacob took his fear and anxiety to God. Trouble often drives men to prayer. In time of danger, there is no other refuge like the secret of God's presence. It is well if we have a habit of running into this refuge at every approach of danger or sense of need.
There are several points in this prayer which we may profitably study as elements in all true prayer. As faulty a man as Jacob was, we may learn from him important lessons in praying. For one thing, we should plead God's covenant when we pray. Jacob addressed God as the God of his fathers. God had made solemn covenant with the patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac, and had therefore put himself, as it were, under obligation to Jacob, who belonged in the line of the covenant. If we are believers in Christ, we may plead God's covenant with His Son, in which covenant we are heirs. God's covenant is a wonderful expression of His love and grace. Voluntarily He binds Himself to do what He promises; He puts Himself under an oath or a solemn and sealed pledge to give us the things that belong to our redemption. We may then remind God of His promise given in the covenant.
Another thing in Jacob's prayer, was his plea that he was in the way of God's commandment, and therefore might expect blessing. "O Lord, who said unto me. Return unto your country, and to your kindred, and I will do you good." We cannot plead God's protection, if we know that we are not doing God's will - for example, Jonah, running away from his duty. But Jacob was conscious that he was in the way of obedience. He had not taken his homeward journey at his own suggestion - but at the bidding of God Himself. Besides, he had received a definite promise of protection and blessing on the journey. The Lord had said, "Return, and I will do you good." This made Jacob very bold and confident in his prayer.
We should always be sure that we have God's bidding for everything we set out to do, for every journey we undertake; then we shall have the right to expect and claim God's blessing and help on the road. When the Lord sends us anywhere, however dangerous the way may be - He intends to take care of us and to see us safely through. We need then only to make sure that God sends us. The path of duty - is always the path of safety .
Jacob also shows penitence and humility in his prayer, and gratitude, as he thought of all that God had done for him. So Jacob remembered God's great goodness to him. He thought of his own sinfulness, and then of all that God had done for him, and the remembrance made him ashamed of his own life. He did not ask then for his own sake - but for the sake of God's mercy. Humility is important in all true prayer. We are not worthy to receive anything from God. We deserve only His wrath and punishment. If we claim what is really due to us - we would get no blessing or goodness. Our plea, therefore, is to be, not our worthiness - but our unworthiness.
That is what we mean when we offer our prayers for the sake of Christ. Our only claim is the Divine mercy. We are saved by grace - that is, unmerited favor. We receive all blessings in the same way. It is because Christ died for us - that we have a right to expect mercy and blessing. We ought not to forget this; it will keep us ever humble, and humility is always beautiful in God's sight. Pride He hates; humility He loves. He dwells with the humble - but in the proud heart He never makes His home.
Jacob then prays definitely for protection from Esau. "Deliver me, I pray You, from the hand of my brother." There is something very striking in the artless simplicity of Jacob's pleading. He is in danger from the long-nursed wrath of an angry brother. He tells God about it, just as a confiding child would tell a loving mother of some danger.
It would seem that one ought never to need to seek protection against a brother. Only love should be in a brother's heart. But here there was hate in the heart of a twin brother. It was bitter, long-rankling hate, and it was very needful that God should be asked to shield Jacob against the approaching danger.
We may learn here a lesson on simplicity and directness in prayer. We are apt to pray in formal, stilted phrases; but we ought to talk to God just as we would talk to a human father or mother. All Bible prayers are direct and straight, requests for the thing that is wanted. In our secret prayers, we may lay aside all forms of words, and, getting near to God, may tell Him in briefest sentences what troubles us, what our danger is, or our fear, what we need or desire.
It is night. Jacob has sent a present of flocks and herds to Esau, arranging them in three divisions, hoping to appease his brother. He then sent his family and his flocks over the brook, he himself lingering behind. Then "a man wrestled with him." Jacob had been a wrestler all his life, seeking to get on by his shrewdness and cunning. Now he is met at his own strong point. The prophet Hosea tells us that it was an angel that wrestled with him. Christian commentators generally agree that it was a manifestation of God in human form - a theophany. This was a crisis in Jacob's life. There was yet in him much that was wrong. He was willful and crafty. He wished to prevail with God that night - but he could do so - only by being first defeated. Hence God appeared to him as an antagonist, wrestling with him.
Jacob was left alone for his hour of pleading. Another suggestion here is that in all the deepest and most intense experiences of life we must be alone. There is companionship, in living, at only a few points.
We must meet our sore temptations alone. We may get strength from human friendship, and may be cheered by sympathy, or nerved by heroic counsels - but the struggle itself, we must endure alone.
It is so in sorrow. Others may come and sit down beside us, and breathe tender comforts into our ears, or draw our head down upon their bosom; they may hold the lamps of Divine truth to shine upon our darkness and thus may lighten it a little; but through the sorrow - we have to pass alone.
So we must die alone. Our nearest and best beloved may sit about our bedside. With holy affection they may try to sustain us. The one we love best may hold our hand; another may wipe the cold beads from our brow; another may sing to us some sweet hymn, or speak for us to God in prayer; but in the act of dying the nearest and dearest must be left behind, and we must pass out alone into death's strange mystery. Human companionship in that hour is utterly impossible.
This stranger who wrestled with Jacob was no less a personage than the Son of God Himself. He came in human form, with His glory veiled; for if He had come to that sinful, unworthy man in the splendor of Divine majesty, Jacob would have fled away, or would have fallen as dead at His feet! He came in the plain, lowly form of a man, and then during the struggle of that night, revealed Himself to Jacob as a manifestation of God, with power to bless.
One lesson for us here is, that while we can have no human companionship in life's deepest experiences, there is no loneliness in which God Himself cannot come to be with us. In the loneliness of temptation, or of sorrow, He comes with strong help. In the deep mystery of dying, when every human friend has been left behind, we shall find this Friend of friends close beside us. He walks to us on the wild billows of our sea of trial or trouble, when human friends can only stand on the shore and look in powerlessness upon us in our peril.
We should notice, also, that while God came to Jacob in human form. He revealed Himself to him before the night was gone - as the Lord Himself, for Jacob said of Him, "I have seen God face to face." Had He been only a man He could not have helped Jacob. All this was a fore-gleam of the Incarnation. God came down to earth as a man, that He might get near to us in our need and sorrow; then when we trust Him and lean on Him - we find the everlasting arms underneath us.
Why did the Lord come to Jacob as a wrestler ? The answer is that this was the way He could best bless Jacob. There were things in him that must be got out of him - before he could receive the spiritual blessing. The old Jacob must be defeated and crushed before the new name Israel could be given. And the Lord has not ceased wrestling with men.
People often ask why it is that God seems to be contending with them? Perhaps He is. There may be something in them of which they must be cured - before they can be richly blessed, and God comes to them as a wrestler, to contend with them, until the evil that is in them has been destroyed.
Of course this Divine Stranger could have crushed Jacob instantly - but that is not the way God deals with men. He struggles and wrestles with them, that they may yield to Him - but He does not crush them by His great strength. Why did He touch Jacob's thigh? The thigh is the pillar of the wrestler's strength. Jacob had been depending on his own strength all his life. Then God by a touch takes away his strength, that he can wrestle no more. When God contends with men and they will not yield to Him - He often touches the point on which they depend instead of upon Himself, and withers it, that they may rely on Him alone and seek and find their joy and strength in Him. Sometimes it is money, or position, or human friends, or worldly circumstances, or some sinful thing; God contends with them - but they do not learn the lesson; then He touches the thing that is boasted of, and depended upon, and it is gone.
Jacob got the victory by clinging. He refused to let his antagonist go. It was his unconquerable perseverance that at last won the victory. When Jacob could not longer wrestle, he wound his sinewy arms round his antagonist and clung to Him. It is sometimes said that he prevailed with God by wrestling - but really he did not prevail until he ceased wrestling and simply clung to the Stranger. That is the lesson God was teaching him - that not by wrestling but by clinging was the blessing to be obtained. We are not to contend with God and seek to have our own way; we are rather to yield our wills and seek blessing by loving submission .
Then came the great final blessing - in the new name given to Jacob. "He said, Your name shall be called no more Jacob - but Israel." His name was not changed - until his nature had been changed. The old Jacob never could have been called Israel. The change in nature came in the struggle, when the old, proud, self-reliant man was subdued - and he became content to cling to God and hang upon Him. The new name stood, therefore, for faith and trust in God, for crushed pride, for lowly humility, for the strength that comes only from God.
The new man limped as he walked away; probably all through life thereafter, he bore the marks of the struggle that night, and his lameness was a constant memorial of the rich spiritual blessing that had come into his soul through his defeat. He was never the same man afterward. He left the 'Jacob' forever behind with his old wiliness, craftiness, deceit; and was 'Israel' thereafter, a prince with God. Every Christian carries in his later years marks of similar struggles, out of which he came with new blessings. Sorrows leave their marks; so do temptations and great trials.
We do not like Jacob - many of us. At least we do not like his nature, his disposition. Yet probably we are nearer of kin to Jacob than we would care to confess. At least there are ugly things in us - things that spoil the beauty of our character. We all have to come to our Jabbok, to get face to face with ourselves, and face to face with God - where the battle may be fought to a finish, the old nature, the old SELF, beaten, lamed, crippled - and the new nature, the new self, victorious. It will be well if in this wrestling - our name shall be changed, if it shall be no more Jacob - but Israel - a prince of God!
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