We’ve been studying Jacob’s life for a few weeks now. And, of course, it all started when he was still in his mother’s womb, side by side with his twin brother, Esau. And the two of them were struggling with one another. Smashing each other. And do you remember? Rebekah was concerned, as any mother would be. And she enquired of the Lord why this was happening. And the Lord announced that her two sons would become two nations; and the older one — and that was Esau — would serve the younger one — and that’s Jacob. Contrary to what everyone in those days would expect, the younger son would be greater than the older son. Well, the Lord was revealing a little, just a little, of what the plans he had for Jacob.
And then the boys were born and they grew up. And the two boys did indeed struggle against one another. First of all, there was the time when Jacob purchased his brother’s birthright for a measly amount. For next to nothing, Esau transferred the all the rights and privileges of being the firstborn son to his younger brother. And afterwards Esau was so cross about it, because it seemed to him that Jacob has stolen it from him. And then, worse still! Jacob deceived his father and received his father’s blessing which Isaac wanted to give to Esau. And Esau was so angry when he found out, that he wanted to murder his brother. These two brothers struggled and smashed against one another. And so, Jacob had to leave.
But as he left, the Lord appeared to him in a dream and the Lord revealed to him something more about what he was planning for Jacob. Jacob was going to inherit all of the promises God had made to Abraham and Isaac. The promise of a people: so many descendants. The promise of a place: the Promised Land to live in. And the promise that the Saviour of the world would come into the world through Jacob’s family line. Even though he had done nothing to deserve it, even though he had done nothing to deserve what the Lord was promising him, nevertheless the Lord had chosen Jacob, not Esau, and had selected him for this great privilege and for this great blessing.
And the Lord also promised Jacob that he would be with Jacob and would never leave him and that, though he was now leaving the Promised Land, one day the Lord would bring him back to it. And that’s the Lord’s promise to his believing people today. We don’t deserve it, of course, because we’re sinners who sin against the Lord every day in thought and word and deed. We’re sinners who deserve to be condemned and punished by God. But he does not treat us as our sins deserve, and instead of repaying us for our sins, he promises to bring us, one day, into the Promised Land of Eternal Life, and into the new heaven and the new earth where all of God’s believing people will live for ever and ever. And there will be perfect peace and rest, everlasting joy, pleasures forevermore. And we’ll worship the Lord for ever and ever for his kindness towards us and towards all those he sent his Son to save.
And then there was chapter 29. Do you remember? The Lord led Jacob to the right place at the right time in order to meet his future wife. But then there was Laban, his uncle. And if once Jacob was a master deceiver and schemer, he hadn’t seen anything yet until he met his uncle who deceived him into marrying not one wife, but two. And he deceived him into working for him for not seven years, but for fourteen years. But it seems the Lord was humbling Jacob, and working in his life by the things he suffered in order to make him holy. And we’ll see this evening something of the effect of the Lord’s work in Jacob’s life.
And then, last week, we read about the trouble between Rachel and Leah, and Rachel’s sorrow because, at first, she couldn’t have children; and Leah’s sorrow because she wasn’t loved. And though last week’s passage for full of trouble and sorrow and sin too, in the end Jacob had 11 sons and one daughter. God was keeping his promise to give him many descendants.
Well now, Jacob’s story is a story about the Lord’s electing grace. Though Jacob didn’t deserve it, the Lord chose him and gave him all these precious promises about a people and a place and a Saviour. And he worked in his life to ensure that all that he promised Jacob would happen. And Jacob’s story is a story about God’s transforming grace, because we’ll see how Jacob, the deceiver and the schemer, was changed as God worked in his life.
And, of course, for many of us, that’s our story as well. We didn’t deserve it, but God chose us before the world was made, and before we had done anything at all, whether good or bad. But he chose us in Christ Jesus and promised to save us from the condemnation we deserve. And then, after he came to us by his Spirit and enabled us to repent and to believe the good news, he has continued to work in our lives to change us so that instead of being conformed to the world around us, we are being transformed, more and more, into the likeness of our Saviour. It’s God’s electing grace. It’s God’s transforming grace. It’s all about God’s kindness to sinners like us.
And so, we come to today’s passage. And what I want to do is to go through the passage first of all, explaining some things which might seem obscure. And then I’ll make two main points after that.
Verses 25 to 43
So, we read in verse 25 of chapter 30 that after Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban:
Send me on my way so that I can go back to my homeland.
He’d served Laban for 14 years, and now he wants to take his wife and children and return to the place where he grew up, which is, of course, the Promised Land, the land God promised to give to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and to all their descendants. And if you and I had been there, and if we have overheard this conversation, perhaps we might have noticed an edge to Jacob’s voice, and some tension between them, because in his speech to Laban, Jacob uses the word ‘serve’ and he uses the words ‘how much work I’ve done for you’. You see, it seems that Jacob feels that Laban has treated him like a hired hand, or a slave even, instead of a member of his family. And Laban has made Jacob slave away for 14 long years. Well, he’s now done his time. He’s served Laban, slaved for Laban, for 14 years. It’s now time to leave.
But Laban doesn’t want him to leave. He’s learned — by divination, he says — that the Lord has blessed Laban on account of Jacob. You know, the Lord has been with Jacob as he promised, and the Lord has prospered Jacob’s work and made Jacob successful in all he has done. And Laban has benefitted from that, because Jacob has been working for Laban. And it seems from what Jacob says later in verse 30 that before Jacob arrived, Laban’s farm was quite modest. He didn’t have much. But since Jacob’s arrival, Laban’s farm has grown and he has prospered. And he’s prospered, Jacob says in verse 30, because the Lord had blessed Laban wherever Jacob had been. Was Jacob tending the sheep? Then the sheep prospered. Was Jacob tending the goats. Then the goats prospered. Whichever part of the business he worked at, it did well, because of the Lord’s blessing. And Laban knew it and he didn’t want to lose such a valuable asset. And so, in order to persuade him to stay, Laban asks Jacob in verse 28 and in verse 31 to name his price:
Whatever it takes to keep you here, I’ll pay it.
And look at Jacob’s reply. He asks Laban to give him all the odd sheep and goats. Do you see that in verse 32? He said:
Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-coloured lamb, and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages.
And, of course, Laban agreed. Of course he agreed, because goats in that part of the world are normally black or dark brown; and sheep are white. And so, Jacob was asking for the odd sheep, the unusual ones. There weren’t normally many speckled or spotted goats in a herd and there weren’t normally many speckled or spotted or dark-coloured sheep in a flock. So Laban is thinking:
Great! I won’t have to give him many of my sheep and goats.
And so, he agreed.
Now, in verse 35 it tells us that on that same day, he — that’s Laban — removed all the odd-coloured sheep and goats and put them under the care of his sons. Now, there’s a bit of disagreement among the commentators as to what’s going on here. Some think that Laban is up to his old tricks and having agreed to let Jacob have all the odd-coloured sheep and goats, he’s now hiding them from Jacob. He’s letting Jacob start out with nothing. Others think that he’s only setting them aside for Jacob. Jacob asked for all the odd-coloured sheep and goats, and Laban is setting them aside for him. Jacob wanted to do it himself, but to ensure there’s no funny business, Laban says: No, I’ll do it. And look at verse 36: he then put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob. You know, it’s as if he’s saying to Jacob:
You want the odd-coloured sheep and goats. Well, you can have them. And make sure you stay well clear of my flocks.
Now, in verses 37 to 43 we see what Jacob did next. And it’s really very strange. And I’ll bet if you asked Roland if he ever tried this with his sheep, or if he ever knew a farmer who tried this, he’d only laugh. Jacob took some tree branches and cut stripes into them. And he ensured that, when the sheep and goats mated, they could see the striped branches in front of them. And, according to verse 39, they then bore young that were also streaked or speckled or spotted.
And in the following verses we read how Jacob used this technique with strong animals so that the odd-coloured sheep and goats which were born were strong ones. More and more odd-coloured sheep and goats were born; and those odd-coloured sheep and goats were strong, so that in this way, we read in verse 43, Jacob grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks as well as maidservants and menservants and camels and donkeys too. Presumably with the profits from his sheep and goats, he was able to get himself servants and other livestock.
Well, how did it work? This business about putting out the striped branches so that striped sheep and goats were born. How did it work? And how did Jacob know it would work? Some of the commentators wonder whether it was an old wives tale that Jacob knew which Laban did not know. Other commentators go into the science behind it and talk about the medicinal properties of some types of wood and how they might effect the ability of animals to mate. Or was it just a hunch that Jacob had that what the sheep saw when they mated would influence their offspring? You know, the way people today might play music to their child before its born in the hope that their child will become musical. Is that what he has doing?
Well, here’s the thing. If you jump forward to verse 10 of the next chapter, you’ll see there that Jacob explains to his wives that one day, in the breeding season, he had a dream. And in that dream, the angel of the Lord spoke to him. And the dream was about flocks which were streaked and speckled and spotted. In other words, the Lord gave Jacob this idea and it was the Lord who made his flocks prosper. It really had nothing to do with striped branches. It was the Lord.
Verses 1 to 16
So, let’s move on now to verses 1 to 16. Jacob was doing well. But Laban’s sons were not happy. Look at verse 1. He heard that they were saying:
Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.
So, they were muttering about him and it seems they think that Jacob has been devious and unfair. And look at verse 2. Jacob has noticed that Laban’s attitude towards him has changed. You know, once he wanted Jacob to stay; now he’s not so sure. So, perhaps Jacob was already thinking that it’s time to leave. But whether he was thinking that or not, the Lord spoke to Jacob and said to him in verse 3 that yes, it’s time to leave.
And so, in verse 4 we read how Jacob summoned his wives to meet him in the field. Presumably he didn’t want anyone to overhear what he was planning. And he explains to them what’s been going on and how your father has turned against me, but the God of my father has been with me and has prospered me. Jacob’s wealth has gone up, whereas Laban’s wealth has gone down. And it’s the Lord who has done it.
He then went on to explain about his dream. And finally, in verse 13, he relates to his wife how the Lord has commanded him to leave Paddan Aram and to return to his native land.
And from Rachel and Leah’s response in verses 14 to 16, we see that they too have had enough of their father and they’re ready to leave too.
Well now, what can we learn from this passage? Well, the first thing is God’s transforming grace, which I’ve already referred to. When Jacob was still at home with his parents and brother, he took advantage of his brother and took his brother’s birthright. Worse than that, he deceived his father and took the blessing which his father intended to give to Esau. He was a deceiver and a schemer. His name, Jacob, means ‘he grasps the heel’ and that’s what he used to do: he grasped his brother’s birthright and he grasped his brother’s blessing. He grasped at things which were not rightfully his and he tricked people and deceived them and dealt unfairly with them in order to get it. He took advantage of his brother’s hunger and he took advantage of his father’s blindness. He was a thoroughly unpleasant person. But what about now? Well, after having suffering at the hands of the master deceiver — Laban — and having been tricked into marrying Leah and having been tricked into working for 14 years for Rachel, the Lord had humbled Jacob. And it seems the Lord had worked in his life to change him, because look again at what he said to Laban at the end of chapter 30. He refers to his honesty in verse 33. Once he was a deceiver, and now he’s able to refer to his own honesty. And later, in chapter 31, when he’s talking to his wives about Laban, you can see that he’s sick and tired of Laban’s cheating ways. That’s the way Jacob once was, but it seems he’s no longer like that.
So, there appears to be a change in character. And there’s certainly a change in his devotion to the Lord. Look at verse 30 of chapter 30: he ascribes his success to the Lord. He gives the glory to God. And really that’s one of things a believer must learn to do. Out in the world, among unbelievers, it’s all about me and my success and what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished. Look at me! Aren’t I something? That’s what people out in the world are like. And you expect it. But it’s a terrible thing to find that same attitude in a believer, because believers should know that every good thing we have has come to us from the Lord; and every good thing we do, we’ve been able to do because of the Lord. Christians ought to be like John the Baptiser who pointed people away from himself to the Lord Jesus. He must increase, whereas I must decrease. And that’s what Jacob was doing in verse 30 when he gave all the glory and praise to the Lord.
And then, in chapter 31, when we see how well Jacob has done, and how his flocks have become large and strong, we learn that the reason he proposed this scheme to Laban about the odd-coloured sheep and goats is because he was listening to the Lord who spoke to him in this dream. And that too is evidence of God’s transforming grace in his life, because the Lord had been working in his life to teach him to accept God’s word. God transformed him so that he became someone who listened to God’s word.
Now, God’s ordinary way of speaking to us today is not by dreams. God’s ordinary way, his normal way, of speaking to us today in by his word, the Bible. Jacob didn’t have a Bible, because it wasn’t yet written. And so, God spoke to him in a dream. But we have the Bible and the Lord speaks to us through his word and he reveals his will to us in the Bible. And every believer ought to be careful to listen to the Lord just as Jacob listened to the Lord.
And I’m sure that Jacob must have thought this was a very odd scheme to propose. All this business about striped pieces of wood affected the colour of the sheep and goats that were born. It seems very odd. And everyone knew that normally, normally, there aren’t many odd-coloured sheep and goats. So, how would he ever do well with only the odd-coloured sheep and goats? The whole scheme must have seemed odd to him.
And God’s word often seems strange to us. And it seems strange to people out in the world. Imagine sitting in a room and listening to a preacher. What good can that do? Imagine washing babies with water. What good can that do? Imagine taking little bits of bread and a little drink from a cup. What good can that do? Imagine giving away your money to the church. What good can that do? Imagine following all those commands and instructions which seem so restrictive. What good can that do? And I could go on. All the things we do as believers. And they might seem odd to many. It might not make any sense to most people. ‘Surely there’s a better way?’ people protest. But as believers we’re to listen to the word of the Lord and we’re to obey him, even when it seems strange to us.
And we also see evidence of God’s transforming grace in Jacob’s faith. Why does he want to return to his native land? Well, of course, he realised that Laban and his sons are turning against him and that had something to do with it.
And, by the way, and this is an aside really: we should notice how Laban and his sons turned against Jacob. That’s often the way it is. When believers remain faithful to the Lord, and are careful to walk in his ways and to do his will, we can expect those who don’t believe to misunderstand us and to turn on us and to make all kinds of accusations against us. Do you remember what the apostle Peter said in his first letter?
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
‘Though they accuse you of doing wrong….’ That’s what Laban’s sons were doing. They accused Jacob of doing something wrong. And we can expect it too when we are careful to walk in the ways of the Lord.
But that’s not the only reason Jacob wanted to go back to his native land. He remembered God’s promise to him in chapter 28 when the Lord appeared to him in another dream and promised to give him and his descendants the Promised Land of Canaan. Well, now that his children were born, it seemed to him that it was time to return and to receive the land God promised to give him.
And so, we see this evidence of God’s transforming grace in Jacob’s life. He’s no longer the deceiver and the schemer, but he’s become an honest man. He’s become a man who gives all the glory to God and who ascribes his success to the Lord. He’s become a man who listens to God’s word even when it seems strange. And he’s become a man who trusts in the Lord and believes his promises. And the Lord works in the lives of every believer to transform us as well. He changes us through the reading and preaching of his word, when we’re reminded of his commands and his will for how we’re to live. And he changes us through the circumstance of life, because he uses the hardships and trials of this troubled life to shape us and mould us and to sanctify us. Like the carpenter going over a rough piece of wood, over and over again, to make it smooth, so the Lord works in our lives, again and again and again, to make us like Christ. And so, we ought to yield our lives to him and to pray for him to work in us to transform us more and more into his likeness.
But then second and final thing I want to say this evening is simply to point out one of the differences between the Old and New Testaments so that none of us are under any illusions.
Now, I should say first that there’s a lot of continuity between the Testaments. For instance, the theologians says there’s only one covenant of grace in the Bible, whereby God promises to deliver his people from our sin and misery by his Son. So, it’s not that there was one way of salvation in the Old Testament, and a totally different way of salvation in the New Testament. Salvation has always been by grace and through faith in Jesus Christ. So, there’s that continuity.
However, there are differences between the Testaments. And one of them is this: In the Old Testament, there’s a focus on external things and physical things and earthly things. But the New Testament focusses more on internal things and spiritual things and heavenly things. So, here in this passage, God blesses Jacob with what? With physical wealth and prosperity. His sheep and goats increase. He has lots of servants. He has donkeys and camels too. God makes him rich. And his wealth is evidence of God’s blessing on his life.
But with the move from the Old Testament to the New Testament, the focus moves from the physical to the spiritual. When God blesses his people today, he does so by pouring out on us one spiritual blessing after another. So, he gives us justification, and adoption and sanctification and assurance of God’s love and peace of conscience and growth in grace and perseverance. He gave those things to his people in the Old Testament, but the focus in the Old Testament was often on the material blessings he bestowed on his people.
The New Testament is quite different, because in the New Testament, his people often suffered poverty and hardships and persecution and trouble. But still their hearts rejoiced within them because of them many spiritual blessings the Lord gave to them.
So, don’t read a passage like this and expect God to prosper you as he prospered Jacob. And don’t yearn to become rich. Instead pray for the Lord to pour out his spiritual blessings on you so that you are filled up with his graces. And when people will see your good deeds — the result of God’s grace in your life — they will glorify God for what he has done in your life.
And whereas Jacob longed to return to the land of Canaan, so we’re to long to enter into the Promised Land of Eternal Life. Again, the focus in the Old Testament was on Israel and on Jerusalem and on the temple. But our focus now is not on earthly things like that — despite what lots of people say and despite all the speculation about the modern state of Israel. Our focus is not on earthly things, but it’s on the new heavens and the new earth where God’s people will live for ever and ever when Christ returns. We’re not interested in an earthly country, but our focus is on heaven, where Jesus Christ our Saviour is, and from where he will come again.