In this message Stephen takes us to one of the most intriguing events in all of Scripture and world history: God's wrestling match with Jacob! Why did they wrestle? What was the result? Find out now.
“WRESTLING WITH GOD”
I apologize for the sound of my voice. It is upsetting to me because we are going to look at a passage of scripture this morning that is so full of life and I feel half dead. I must confess that when I began this series on the life of Jacob, I figured that at best we would have two sermons out of this character’s life. This is the fourth and I know that we have one more to go. He has been a colorful man who has led a very interesting life. And I think the reason that he has really appealed to me is that he has epitomized the struggle that we have in our daily walk with the Lord. I also think that Jacob personifies what our culture is trying to produce in us. That is, a man who goes after what he wants, who doesn’t care what methods he may use, what really matters is that he makes it. People are merely stepping stones in his way as he scratches and crawls and climbs his way to the top of the heap. I’m afraid that this attitude has invaded Christianity as well. In fact, you and I struggle and resist anyone who gets in our way to get what we want in life. The trouble is, oftentimes the person standing in the middle of our path is God. And so we take Him on too.
I want to bring you this morning, ringside, and show you a wrestling match unlike anything ever recorded in human history. A man engaging God in hand-to-hand combat. But I want you to mark this passage well as we enter it because it will provide for you and me a living illustration of what you and I do time after time after time as we wrestle with God and struggle with him to have our way. So take note and I trust we will see ourselves in the struggle of Jacob.
May I turn your attention to Genesis, chapter 32, this morning. Genesis, chapter 32, and let’s begin with the first verse and we’ll cover the 32 verses in this powerful passage of scripture. Verse 1, “Now as Jacob went on his way, the angels of God met him. And Jacob said when he saw them, ‘This is God’s - host or God’s - camp.’” That comes from the Hebrew word that could be translated, “This is God’s legion.” It could have been thousands or perhaps even millions of angels. “So he named the place Mahanaim.” You’ll get the picture now, if you’ve been following us through this series, Jacob is now returning home. He’s left Laban. He’s been struggling and scrapping and fighting for 20 years. And now he has his wives and his children and his herds of cattle. He is a wealthy man but every foot closer, every time he puts one foot in front of the other, headed back to his homeland, one word is racing through his mind - Esau. Esau.
You remember how he tricked Esau out of his blessing and birthright. And how he had to flee in the night to escape assassination. And he’s been away and for 20 years Esau has probably been just some fleeting cloud out in the horizon of his mind. But now, every step closer home, it begins to pound in his heart. Shakespeare once wrote a powerful truth and that is that, “conscience makes cowards of us all.” And I think that perhaps he was filled with terror as he drew closer. And God came in a reassuring and wonderful way by giving him a vision or a view of the thousands of angels who are, in effect, on the side of the Godly. Even though he had acted ungodly, he was God’s patriarch. He was the next in line. And isn’t it fascinating to consider, ladies and gentlemen, that when Jacob started on this journey 20 years earlier, he had been met by the angels. And we refer to that story as, “Jacob’s Ladder.”
And now he’s going back and once again God comes to him and, I think, reassures him and encourages him in a powerful way, in saying that, “You are not alone.” But Jacob doesn’t really listen or see. You’ll note verse 3, Jacob’s plight. “Then Jacob sent messengers - perhaps encouraged enough so that he sends a messenger - “to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He also commanded them saying, ‘Thus you shall say to my Lord Esau: ‘Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now; and I have oxen and donkeys and flocks and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight.’’’” In other words, he is sending a messenger to Esau saying, “I’m coming home. I’m coming back. Hopefully, we can pow-wow out there, somewhere, and reach an agreement.” He hasn’t suggested he’s giving anything away yet. He just wants to play his odds and see what the chances are of Esau allowing him to live. So he sends this messenger.
The messenger returns with shocking news. Look at verse 6, “And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, ‘We came to your brother Esau, and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.’” (laughter) In other words, “He heard you’re coming, even before you were going to tell him you were coming, and he’s armed 400 soldiers. He’s got a crack commando team coming to meet you.” So, you know what he does? Well, look at the next verse, “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed;” (laughter) - that’s Biblical terminology for being scared out of your mind. You know what he does, “he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies;”. He makes two groups, perhaps he sets one in front of the other. Why, verse 8, “for he said, ‘If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the company which is left will escape’” - and I’m assuming he’s in that company. (laughter) Could you imagine being part of Jacob’s tribe and getting a slip of paper that says, “Your in the front group.” (laughter) Thanks a lot Jacob. Back to cold-hearted, uncaring Jacob. Let the first group get slaughtered, that will at least give me a chance to flee. He’s back to conniving and manipulating.
But, let’s face it, he’s heard the news of Esau, undoubtedly that Esau is the “king” of Edom. He is now a powerful chief who rules over, perhaps, thousands of people. He is the commanding officer of this territory that Jacob’s got to get through. What a dilemma. He cannot run, Laban is behind him. As we studied last Sunday, there has been a covenant of distrust so that they can’t go back across the border. Esau is in front of him. Now what? He’s filled with fear. He’s like the little boy that had a part in the school play that read, “It is I! Be not afraid.” And he practiced it, “It is I! Be not afraid.” Then he got up on stage and he saw all those people and all he could fumble out with, “It’s me and I’m scared to death.” That’s Jacob. He is literally frightened to death.
What would you advise Jacob to do if you were there? If your advice is, “Pray, Jacob,” then you’ve done well. I want you to notice his prayer in verse 9. This is what happens, “And Jacob said,” - I love the first two words - “O God” - and I can just hear the emotion. Like you when you’re backed up against the wall, the first thing that comes out of your mouth is, “Oh Lord!” What does he say, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who didst say to me, ‘Return to your country’” - “remember, Lord, you told me to do this” - “’and to your relatives, and I will prosper you.’ ‘I am unworthy of all the loving-kindness and of all the faithfulness which Thou hast shown to Thy servant; for with my staff only I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies.’”
Let me stop here and give you four elements in this prayer that you might want to jot down. They are good elements but they are lacking. The first is that he addresses God with respect in verse 9. The second, he admits his own unworthiness. And then the third, in verse 11, he petitions God, “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me, the mothers with the children.” Notice how he puts himself first, and then the moms and then the kids. The other element is that he reminds God of his covenant promise. Verse 12, “For Thou didst say, ‘I will surely prosper you, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” In other words Lord, “You promised that I would father a multitude, now it doesn’t make sense for me to lose my life here in the land of Edom.”
But let me make one practical point, if I can. Although I said there were several good elements, I notice something missing. It is the element of relationship. Do you notice that Jacob goes to God and he says, “O God of my father Abraham and my father Isaac. Why not say, “And MY God too?” What happened to that? I think it’s because this is the prayer of a man who had not developed a personal relationship with his God and, for 20 years, had neglected Him. In fact, men and women, this is the first recorded prayer of Jacob. And so because he has neglected God, now that he goes to God, he’s embarrassed, he’s awkward. Like you and I when we’ve neglected God in the good times and then something happens. What do we do? We go to the Lord and apologize for approaching the throne of grace because we know we’ve ignored Him up until this point. The way to approach boldly the throne of grace is to live a consistent Christian life. So that when good times or bad times come, you can walk right into the throne room. And you don’t have to barter with God, “Lord, remember your promises, remember me.” We’ll learn later that Jacob had idols in his tribe that he will have to take care of.
I don’t think Jacob got much out of this prayer meeting because as soon as he says, “Amen”, look at what he does in verse 13. “So he spent the night there”. Then here’s his plan. It’s a classic. “He selected from what he had with him a present for his brother Esau:”. Now he’s going to bribe him. Verse 14, “two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milking camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. And he delivered them into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, ‘Pass on before me, and put a space between droves.’” In other words, what he’s going to do, he’s going to soften Esau up. Esau is going to come along on his, perhaps, to kill Jacob and he’s going to be confronted with 200 female goats. “What’s this?” And the servant will say, “This is from your servant, Jacob. It’s a present. Please accept.” He’ll accept and he’ll come along a little further and he’ll run into 20 male goats. And he’ll say, “What’s this?” And that servant will say, “ This is a gift from your servant, Jacob.” And on and on and on. And hopefully, by the time Esau gets to Jacob, he’s just so thrilled, he’s so thankful, he’s so filled with appreciation, that he says, “Jacob, I’m ashamed of myself. Guys, put your spears down. We’re not going to hurt him.” That was his plan. “And he commanded the one in front, saying, ‘When my brother’” - verse 17 - “’meets you and asks you, saying, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and to whom do these animals in front of you belong?’ then you shall say, ‘These belong to your servant Jacob; it is a present sent to my lord Esau.’” - that’s shameful - “And behold, he also is behind us.’”
Well, this is the place where Jacob is. He divides all of his goods. And then you’ll note verse 22, “Now he arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. And he took them and sent them across the stream. And he sent across whatever he had.” Verse 24, “Then Jacob was left alone”. I think, ladies and gentlemen, that it is very significant that the text emphasizes what is assumed - that Jacob is alone. He has completely bottomed out. He has reached, finally, a hurdle that he can’t seem to clear. And he’s got a silly little scheme that he knows won’t work. Esau has been festering for 20 years to take his life. And there he is, on the ford Jabbok or at the stream called Jabbok, all alone. And yet, ladies and gentlemen, that’s when God came to meet him. And that is also when God comes to meet you and I. When we’ve bottomed out. We might even have a silly little scheme up our sleeve. And yet we know there are hurdles we cannot cross. That’s when God instigates His plan.
And He comes to Jacob in the form of a wrestler. Would you note the last part of verse 24. Well, let’s start with the beginning, “Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Now Hosea, chapter 12 will let us in on the fact that this wrestler is actually - THE ANGEL. The definite article indicates that this is, in fact, the pre-incarnate Christ. This is a christophany. This is an appearance of Jesus who is always “the angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament. So this is no mere man, although Jacob may perceive him to be man. This is pre-incarnate Christ who comes to wrestle with Jacob. The match lasted all night and I think that’s a picture of his stubbornness. Let me read you what Arthur Pink writes, he says, “God was wrestling with Jacob to gain some object from him. It was to reduce Jacob to a sense of nothingness. To cause him to see what a poor, helpless, and worthless creature he was. And it was to teach us, through him, the all-important lesson that in recognized weakness, lies our strength.” This is a confusing text. We don’t know how they grappled or how it come about. We’re not sure of all of the details. But all that we know is that they grappled and wrestled throughout the night and God was, in effect, bringing Jacob to a sense of utter helplessness.
And a stubborn man, as he was, somewhere along the line recognized, perhaps it was after he was touched, note verse 25, “when he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he” - that is Christ - “touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him.” And then you’ll notice that something happens. He begins to plead with God for a blessing. This time it’s not a covenant blessing. This time it’s a personal blessing. Note verse 26, “Then he” - that is, Christ - “said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” In other words, the wrestling has ceased and now it’s clinging. Kind of like my son does, he grabs me by the leg and he just begins to cling. And you try to shake him off and it’s hard to do. Here’s Jacob clinging around the leg of this man who is now recognized by him as something other than mere man. And Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Not the covenant, he has that blessing. That is, until you impart to me something of your character, your strength. What a pitiful picture. Jacob, who is unable to wrestle because his hip is dislocated, hanging on, pleading, crying, begging for, what I believe is, a personal relationship with the God he has neglected. I think that there by the river Jabbok, he realized how insignificant his life really was. He had spent 20 years scrapping and scheming and fighting, for WHAT? Some rams, some cows, some goats, BIG DEAL. Now, he’s more than willing to give it all up just to live.
I wish that God would give us all that kind of experience. A time when we come to the end of ourselves and recognize how insignificant life’s pursuits are, unless we pursue God. I remember, as a teenager, cutting grass one summer, saving up the money, and talking my parents into letting me buy a plane ticket to Minnesota, where we would always go in the summertime for vacation. It was a 24 hour drive and this time I’d make it in just a few hours and the family would drive and I’d enjoy a flight. I’d never flown before. And I’ll never forget, as my father took me to the airport, he probably wondered if it went over my head, but it impacted me, he said, “Stephen, when you get up in that plane and you start going up, make sure you look down and notice how small everything is.” I’ll never forget that because as the plane ascended I looked out the window and I noticed that the largest things looked so insignificant. The best that earth could provide, you get up that high, and it looks like the head of a match. I think that’s what Jacob realized then by the brook Jabbok.
In these next few verses, ladies and gentlemen, I want to give you, what I believe are, three principles for spiritual strength and I don’t want you to miss them. They’re not profound, they’re just often ignored. First, Jacob recognized the presence of God in his life. Would you note what happens in verse 27, “So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’” And this is more than just asking for his name. As you know, the meanings of names were very significant. He was, in effect, asking, “What kind of man are you that I should bless you?” And Jacob says, “My name is Jacob, deceiver, supplanter, schemer.” And then notice what happens, “And he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel’”. “Your name will no longer mean, ‘You prevail, you scheme, you manipulate, you rule your own life.’ Your name now will be Israel, ‘GOD rules, GOD prevails, GOD is in control.’” “’For you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him and said, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And he blessed him there.” Now note what Jacob recognizes, “So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, ‘I have seen God face to face” - that is, he recognized that he had been the presence of God. It’s interesting, ladies and gentlemen, that the very first encounter that Jacob had with God, he named it “Bethel”, that is, “the house of God”. The second, in the beginning of this chapter, when he saw the host, he named it “Mahanaim”, that is, “God’s camp” or perhaps literally “two camps”. That is, this is God’s house, this is God’s host. But now, this is God’s face. This is MY GOD. It sounds so simple, men and women, and yet, I believe, it marks a profound separation between the weak believer and the strong believer. The weak believer with so little trust, so little faith, and the strong believer with great faith and great and developing and growing trust. What is that line? That individual recognizes that God is alive and present. Whether it is triumph or tragedy, whatever happens, GOD is there. God is involved in my life. And Jacob recognized that.
And then, because of that recognition, the second principle can be applied. That is, he admits the grace of God. Just the last part of the verse, verse 30 says, “Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, ‘I have seen God face to face,” - note this - “yet my life has been preserved.’” It isn’t, “I’ve seen God and boy was He impressed with me.” “I’ve seen God and He patted me on the back and said, ‘Jacob, you’ve had your shortcomings but you’re all right by me.” Anyone who meets with God will come away with an awareness of His glory and His grace and, I think, humility will be a result of such a meeting. Let me read you what Ironside once said. H. A. Ironside who turned in later years to be a tremendous expositor, who lived in Chicago. Ironside once felt that he was not as humble as he thought he ought to be so, this is when he was younger, so he asked an older friend what he could do about it. This friend replied, “Make a sandwich board and on that board, write the plan of salvation.” You know what’s that like? You know, you’ve got this board, you’ve got the writing on the front and you’ve got the thing slung over your back and you’ve got writing on there. And you’ve seen the cartoons or characters of guys saying, “Repent!” and then the back says, “The end is near.” Well, he said, “Ironside, you go out and you do that. You write the whole plan of salvation on that sandwich board. And then, I want you to walk through the shopping and the business district of downtown Chicago all day.” And Ironside followed his friend’s advice and upon completion of this humiliating experience, he returned to his apartment. And he took off the sandwich board and as he did he caught himself thinking, “There’s not another person in Chicago that’d be willing to do that.” (laughter) You see, ladies and gentlemen, you cannot drum it up by some experience. It comes from meeting with God. It comes from recognizing His presence and His part in your life. You come away with a sense of your weakness and His strength. There isn’t anything you can do to get humble. It’s a result of the company you keep. Corrie ten Boom was once asked if it was difficult because of the way God was using her for her to remain humble. Her reply was this, “When Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem on, what we now call, Palm Sunday on the back of a mule. And everyone was waving palm branches in the air shouting, ‘Hosanna!,’ and throwing garments on the road, and singing praises. Do you think that for one moment it entered the head of that mule that this praise was for him?” Oh, what God could do for us if we just didn’t care who got the credit.
After recognizing His presence and admitting His grace in his life, he then accepts the plan of God for his life. Would you notice the next verse, verse 31, “Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh.” As a matter of fact, men and women, he will limp the rest of his life. That limp will be a constant reminder that God had invaded his life. That limp will be a living illustration of the fact that God met him there. And you never hear Jacob complaining about that limp. I wonder, my friend, if this morning you wrestle with God? Is there some turmoil in your soul? Is it sin? Is it rebellion? Are you slipping, are you scheming? The wonderful thing about this is that when you and I curl up beside the brook Jabbok, trembling as we might be, faced with hurdles that we cannot clear without answers, it is there that God can touch our lives.
I think of Jacob, the schemer, being given a new name - Israel. And I would imagine that in your life if we were to apply this today, if you are without Jesus Christ, the accuser can dredge up all the sewage related to your past life and say, “There’s no way, your old name is too spotted for God to give you a new one.” And yet Jacob was given a new one. The interesting thing is that, ladies and gentlemen, all of us who’ve accepted Jesus Christ don’t know yet what that new name is. We refer to it as Christian but that was what the world gave us at Antioch when the world began to first call them, “Christians.” Revelation, chapter 2, verse 17 brings up an interesting cultural thing where a man who is about to be married would go and buy a precious jewel. And on the back, he would have a jeweler inscribe a pet name, a precious name for his bride. And no one else knew what that name was except her. And God says through John, chapter 2, verse 17, God will give us, the overcomers, - “a white stone, and a new name written on that stone which no one knows but we who receive it.” Think of it, we’ve been given a new name too.
He’s given a new insight that God is involved in his life and he’s given a new walk. As the sun rises and casts shimmering light on the waters of the Jabbok, Jacob limps forward to meet Esau. But this time, his head is held high and his heart is filled with the assurance that God is involved in my life. He is a sovereign God.