So, the story of Jacob is a story about God’s electing grace. Before Jacob was born, while he was still in his mother’s womb, the Lord made clear that he had chosen Jacob, and not his brother, Esau, to inherit the promises that the Lord had already given to Abraham and to Isaac: the promise of a people and the promise of a place. God would give to Jacob, and not to Esau, a people. A great nation would come from him so that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, far too many to count. And God would give to Jacob, and not to Esau, a place. He was going to give Jacob and his descendants the Promised Land of Canaan to be their very own, a land as good as the Garden of Eden, because it was flowing with milk and honey and it was full of good things to enjoy. And through Jacob’s descendants, and not through Esau’s descendants, there would come the great King, Jesus Christ, who would bring a great blessing on the world, in the forgiveness of our sins and in the hope of everlasting life.
And the story of Jacob is a story about God’s transforming grace, because we’ve seen how Jacob has been changed by all the troubles and trials and circumstances of his life. Once he was a deceiver, but we’ve seen how he became an honest man. And he became a man who wanted to glorify the Lord; and who listened to and who obeyed God’s word; and he became a man who trusted in God’s promises. God chose Jacob. And he then worked in his life to change him.
So, Jacob’s story is a story of God’s electing grace and God’s transforming grace. And anyone who is a believer can say that’s my story too. God chose me. I didn’t deserve it, but he chose me. And he called me into his kingdom and made me a member of his people. And since then, he’s been working in me to change me. I don’t deserve any of it. What I really deserve is God’s condemnation and wrath. But he has been so good to me.
The last time we saw how the Lord made clear to Jacob that it was time to leave Paddan Aram where he had been living for 20 years with his uncle Laban (who has become his father-in-law also) and to return to the Promised Land. And so, he got all his stuff and set off, but without letting Laban know. Well, when Laban discovered that he had left, he set off after Jacob with an army. Presumably his intention was to bring Jacob back by force. But the Lord spoke to Laban in the night and warned him not to do anything to harm or hinder Jacob. And so, chapter 31 ended with Laban and Jacob going their separate ways in peace.
Well, out of the frying pan and into the fire! Jacob had gotten away from Laban, but he was now faced with the daunting prospect of meeting his brother, Esau. And, of course, it was a daunting prospect because the last time he saw his brother — which was 20 years before — his brother had wanted to kill him. His brother’s anger was one of the reasons why Jacob left the Promised Land in the first place.
So, was there anything Jacob could do to appease his brother or placate him? What was the best way, the wisest way, of approaching his brother? That’s really what the first half of chapter 32 is about.
The second half tells us about this mysterious wrestling match which takes place in the night between Jacob and the Lord.
And so, the first half of chapter 32 is about Jacob’s preparations to avoid a fight with his brother. And the second half of chapter 32 is about how Jacob ended up fighting the Lord. So, the first part is about avoiding a fight. The second part is about having a fight. And we’ll look at both parts now.
Verses 1 to 5
And so we read in verse 1 that Jacob went on his way. Laban had headed back to Paddan Aram and Jacob resumed his journey to Canaan. Now, 20 years before, when he was leaving Canaan and heading for Paddan Aram, the Lord appeared to him in a dream. Do you remember? He saw the stairway to heaven with the angels of God, ascending and descending on it. And God spoke to him and re-assured him. Well now, on his return from Paddan Aram to Canaan, he doesn’t see a stairway with angels on it, but he does see the angels of the Lord. We read that they met him and when Jacob saw them, he said:
This is the camp of God.
Now, we’re not to think of a holiday campsite, where mum and dad are lying about in the sun, and the children are running about, playing. No, we’re to think of an army camp. The angels he sees are the host of heaven, God’s army. And so, I think the way we’re to understand this vision is that the Lord is once again re-assuring Jacob. It’s as if the Lord is saying to him:
You’re on your way back to Canaan. You’re afraid of what Jacob might do to you and what might happen to you there. But don’t be afraid, because I’ve sent my army to guard you.
Do you remember that story in 2 Kings 6 when the King of Aram was angry with the prophet Elisha? And he sent horses and chariots and a strong army to the place where Elisha was staying in order to capture him. And Elisha’a servant got up in the morning, and looked out of the window, he almost choked on his cornflakes because he got such a shock: they were surrounded by all these horses and chariots and this strong army. ‘What shall we do?’ he asked Elisha. And Elisha replied:
Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.
What was he talking about? Who was with them? Well, Elisha prayed to the Lord to show his servant what he meant, and the Lord opened the servant’s eyes so that he was able to see what he couldn’t see before: that the hills next to them where full of horses and chariots of fire. The Lord had sent an army of angels to protect Elisha.
And here, in Genesis 32, he’s sent an army of angels to meet Jacob on the way back to Canaan. And so, we’re reminded once again of the words of the writer to the Hebrews who tells us that the angels are ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit eternal life. The Lord God, from his throne in heaven, sends his angels, here, there, and everywhere in order to help his people on the earth.
The Lord was saying to Jacob:
You’re about to face Esau. But remember: I’m here. I’m camped at your side.
And so, Jacob called that place ‘Mahanaim’ which means ‘two camps’: there was his own camp; and there was the Lord’s camp; and they were side by side.
Well, in verses 3 to 5 we read how Jacob sent messengers ahead of him. They were to let Esau know that Jacob was coming. And in the message he sends to Esau, Jacob makes clear his respect for Esau and his own humility. Just look how he refers to his brother as ‘my master Esau’; and he refers to himself as ‘your servant Jacob’. You know, although the Lord chose him over his brother, he wasn’t intending to lord it over Esau, but he was coming home, humbly. And he also made it clear that he’s coming in peace. He’s hoping that Esau will look upon him with favour and not with enmity. So, Jacob is sending these messengers to prepare the way and to try to avoid a fight with his brother.
Verses 6 to 8
But, oh dear. When the messengers return, they tell Jacob that Esau is coming behind them. But he’s not coming alone. He’s coming with 400 men. Now, the text doesn’t tell us what these men are for. So, there’s some ambiguity about it. However, Jacob fears the worst. He assumes this is an army and Esau is coming to fight him. And so he moves into the next phase of his plan. He divided his family and all his possessions into two groups. And in verse 8, he tells us what he’s thinking:
If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.
Well now, John Calvin suggests that this reveals Jacob’s faith. God had promised to give him a people and a place; and the Saviour of the world would come from his family. Well, Jacob believed God’s promises. He believed God would do this. Therefore it was necessary to preserve his family from total destruction. If one part of his family is killed by Esau, it’s vital that the other group survives, because only then will the Promised Seed, the Promised Saviour, come into the world. And so, this arrangement demonstrates that he believed in God’s promises and wanted to see them fulfilled.
And the next verses show us his faith as well, because what should God’s people do whenever we face trouble? Well, we should seek the Lord’s help in prayer. And that’s what Jacob does in verses 9 to 12.
Verses 9 to 12
And first of all, in verse 9, Jacob calls on the name of the Lord. And look how he describes the Lord: he’s the God of his father Abraham and he’s the God of his father Isaac. The God he worships is the same God his father and grand-father worshipped. And so, we’re reminded that parents are to pass on the faith to their children so that the God we parents worship is not a stranger to our children. We’re to teach them to worship him too. But then children are reminded to receive the faith of their parents. You know what children are often like:
Because Mum has one, I wouldn’t be seen dead with one.
Because Dad listens to that music, I’m not going to listen to it.
Well, that’s fine if you’re talking about clothes or music or that kind of thing. But when it comes to the faith, children should gladly receive the faith of their parents and rejoice in it, so that they’re able to confess that their God is the God of their father and mother and the God of their grandfathers and grandmothers and that they will not abandon the faith, but will continue in it, so that one generation will receive the faith from the previous generation, and will pass it on to the next generation and to the next and to the next. Jacob confessed his faith in the God of his father and grandfather.
And then, in verse 10, Jacob confesses his unworthiness. And isn’t that how we should begin our prayers? First of all, we call on the Lord. And then, because we know we’re sinners, we should confess our sins and seek his forgiveness. And so, here’s Jacob, confessing that he is unworthy of God’s kindness and faithfulness. And the word translated ‘kindness’ is a great word. It’s refers to God’s covenant love and faithfulness; to the fact that he has bound himself to us; he’s committed himself to us. Though we are unworthy and don’t deserve it, he has promised to be our God and to take us as his people. And his love for us, and his commitment to us is from everlasting to everlasting.
A couple come together in marriage and they say to one another at the wedding:
I promise and covenant to be unto you, a loving, faithful and dutiful husband / a loving, faithful and dutiful wife.
And God has promised and covenanted to be unto us a loving and faithful God. He will not leave us or forsake us, even though we don’t deserve it.
And then in verse 11 we have Jacob’s petition. He cries out to the Lord:
Save me! Save me from my brother!
And so, we cry out to the Lord, asking him to save us. Save us from our sins and save us from whatever troubles and trials we’re facing. We’re to look to him continually for all the help and strength we need.
And then in verse 12, Jacob shows that he’s relying on God’s promises. He says:
You have said. You have said: ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’ Lord, you have said it. I believe you. Now, since you have promised this, save me from my brother.
Well, there’s a lesson on how to pray. Call on the name of the Lord our God who has committed himself to us. Confess our sin and unworthiness. Make your request to the Lord. And trust in the Lord to keep his promises and to do all that he has promised us.
Verses 13 to 21
This is all part of his preparation for meeting his brother and for avoiding a fight with him. He’s sent out messengers to prepare the way. He’s divided his family and possessions into two groups. He’s sought the help of the Lord in prayer. It’s a mixture of the practical and the spiritual, seeking the Lord’s help and trying to do what’s prudent and wise.
And isn’t that the way to live? We’re sick. So, we pray to the Lord for healing. But the wise man and the wise woman will also listen to the doctor, because the way God heals us is very often through the skill and knowledge of the doctor. We pray to the Lord for our daily bread. But the wise man and the wise woman will go out and work hard, because the way God feeds us is very often through our own labour. And here’s Jacob, praying to the Lord to save him, but he’s also doing everything he can to placate his brother, because the way God will save him from his brother is by blessing his efforts to appease Esau.
And so, in verses 13 to 21, he very wisely decides to send his brother a present. And what a gift! All these goats and sheep and camels and cows and donkeys. Count them all up. He’s giving away 550 animals. The man who once was a grasper, is now happy to give away what he owns in order to appease his brother. And he plans to surprise his brother by giving him the gifts in batches. Here’s a present for you. Here’s another present for you. Here’s another present for you. Esau cannot fail to be impressed and moved by his brother’s generosity.
And, of course, he’s trying to make up — isn’t he? — he’s trying to make up to his brother for all that he took from his brother. He took his brother’s birthright. He took his brother’s blessing. But he’s a changed man now; and he’s sorry for what he’s done. And he’s trying to put it right and to make amends for the way he once treated his brother.
Well, we were thinking about wisdom last Sunday morning. And Jacob is being very wise, isn’t he? He’s being wise because he’s doing what the Bible says. In Proverbs 25 we read this:
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat. If he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.
In other words, show kindness to your enemy, because who knows? Who knows? Perhaps he will be ashamed of his bitter hatred towards you and will seek to be reconciled to you. And didn’t the Lord give us the parable of the Shrewd Manager to teach us to use our wealth to make friends for ourselves? So, here’s Jacob using his wealth to turn his brother from an enemy into a friend.
Well, I wonder if there is anyone here this evening and you know someone who has got something against you? There’s someone who is annoyed with you. Angry with you. Just as Esau was angry with Jacob because of what Jacob had done to him, is there someone who is angry with you? Well, Jacob’s example is a wise one to follow. He didn’t try to avoid Esau. He could have done. They could have lived miles apart and never seen each other. But he sought Esau out. And he very wisely prayed to God for help. And he very wisely did what he could to make up for what he had done wrong. He did what he could to appease Esau.
Well, the Lord said in Matthew 5 that if you’ve come before God to worship him, but remember that your Christian brother or sister has something against you, go and be reconciled to him, to her; and then come back to worship the Lord. Does someone have something against you? Is someone angry with you? Well, go and sort it out. That’s what the Lord is saying. Doesn’t matter whose fault it was, or who was to blame. You, you should go and sort it out.
Verses 22 to 32
And so we come to the strange and mysterious wrestling match which took place in the middle of the night. We read in verse 22 that Jacob gathered up his wives, their maidservants, and his children and they crossed the Jabbok river. Then, after they crossed over, he also sent over all his possessions. We don’t know why he decided to do this at night. Presumably it was quite a dangerous thing to do, to cross a river in the night when it was so dark. But perhaps, as some of the commentators suggest, he was too nervous to sleep and wanted to keep moving.
Anyway, Jacob somehow ended up on his own. And while he was on his own, a stranger began to wrestle with him. Now, we’ve already learnt something about Jacob’s great strength. Remember how he rolled that great stone away from the entrance of the well when he first met Rachel? Normally it took several men to move it, but Jacob did it all by himself. So, he’s a strong man. And it seems that he’s too strong for this stranger, because we read in verse 25 that the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob. However, the stranger was able to touch Jacob’s hip so that it was dislocated and Jacob became almost powerless. And though we don’t know the identity of this stranger yet, the fact that he could so easily dislocate Jacob’s hip with only one touch suggests to us that this is no ordinary man.
But even though Jacob has been hurt, he will not give up. He continues to cling to his opponent so that when daybreak comes, and it’s beginning to get light, the stranger asks Jacob to let go of him: he doesn’t want Jacob to see him in the daylight. But Jacob refuses to let him go until the stranger blesses him. So the man asks Jacob for his name. And Jacob tells him. And the man replies that he’s got a new name for Jacob. No longer will he be called Jacob, which means ‘grasper’. Now he will be called ‘Israel’ which means ‘he struggles with God’. And the stranger explains that this is a fitting name for Jacob because Jacob has struggled with God and with men and has overcome. He’s prevailed. Instead of being crushed by all his struggles, he’s overcome them all.
And Jacob asks the stranger for his name. And although the stranger won’t say, he nevertheless does what Jacob has asked and the stranger blessed Jacob.
So, who is this stranger? Who is this stranger who didn’t want to be seen, but who was able to bless Jacob? Well, look at what Jacob says about him in verse 30. Jacob said:
I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.
Who was this stranger who fought with Jacob? It was the Lord. The Lord appeared to Jacob in human form and wrestled with him in the night. And the Lord blessed him.
And look now at verse 31. Moses tells us that the sun came up. And there’s Jacob, walking along, perhaps heading off to catch up with his family. But he’s limping. He’s limping because the Lord dislocated his hip.
It’s a strange and mysterious incident. Why did the Lord appear to him like this in the night? Why did they wrestle? Why did the Lord hurt his hip? What does it all mean? Well, I have a number of commentaries on Genesis and it’s interesting to read what different people have said about this passage. Because you see, there are quite a number of suggestions to explain what’s going on here. And the fact that there’s quite a number of different suggestions only goes to show that we don’t really know.
Some point out that during the first part of the fight Jacob was using his natural strength. And then they point out that when the Lord touched his hip and took away his strength, Jacob started to speak to the Lord and to ask him for the blessing. And so, some commentators say that the first part of the fight represents Jacob’s early life, when he relied on his natural abilities: his strength and his cunning and his sneakiness to get the better of others. And the second part of the fight, when he asked the Lord to bless him, represents Jacob’s later life when he discovered that instead of relying on his own natural abilities, he should rely on the Lord in prayer.
Others say that the whole scene is to teach us that just as Jacob literally wrestled with God, so God’s people today must wrestle with God in prayer. So, it teaches us the need for faith and for persistence in prayer:
Lord, I will not give up until you hear and answer my prayer!
Another writer suggests that the blessing Jacob sought from the Lord was the blessing of forgiveness. He wanted to hold on to the Lord so that he would receive from the Lord the forgiveness of his sins which is the one thing he needed — and we need — most of all.
John Calvin, who is always helpful, suggests that the scene exhibits for us in a visible form the way God wrestles with each one of us every day. Because we’re sinners, who want to go our own way, God has to wrestle with us; he has to fight with us; and he has to use the trials and temptations and the circumstances of life in order to test us and to strengthen us and to purify our faith.
And then Calvin also points out that Jacob was about to enter the Promised Land. And he may have been tempted to think that all his struggles were over and he could now relax. But right before he entered the land, the Lord wrestled with him in order to teach him that his struggles were not over. And so, we need to remember that we must fight every day against every temptation that comes to us from outside of us; and we must fight every day against every sinful desire that lurks in our hearts. Every day we must fight so that we’re not overcome by sin; and none of us must think that now that we believe, now that we’re a Christian, we can relax.
Those are some of the suggestions. And there are more. But here’s the one I prefer: Think of Jacob, now walking with a limp. And years later, someone meets him and asks:
When did you get that limp? What would Jacob answer?
He would say (wouldn’t he?):
My limp? I got that on the day the Lord blessed me.
And wouldn’t that be a great help and encouragement to him in the years to come, to know that the Lord’s wounds and the Lord’s blessing often go together?
Think about what happened in Jacob’s life in the years to come. Remember? His sons came home one day, carrying a coat that was torn and bloodstained. It was the coat he had given to his dear, dear son, Joseph. And Jacob looked at the torn and bloody coat and assumed that his son had been killed by a wild animal. Now, we know that Joseph was alive; and his wicked brothers had sold him into slavery. But Jacob didn’t know that. He thought his son had been killed. And we can imagine the pain he felt: not in his hip, this time, but in his heart. Think of the wound that God had sent into his life when his dear, dear son had been taken from him.
But as he limped away, still holding the torn and bloodstained coat, to go into his room, to weep, perhaps he also remembered that the Lord’s wounds and the Lord’s blessing often go together; and one day, one day — and who knows when or how? — but one day, the Lord would bring something good out of this awful experience.
And, of course, the Lord did. Though his brothers intended to do evil to Joseph, the Lord intended it for good, because Joseph became the Prime Minister of Egypt and was able to feed his father’s family during the famine. And in due course, from out of that family, there came the Promised Seed who was also the Promised Saviour of the world. The Lord did indeed bring something good out of that awful experience of losing his son.
Well, for the remainder of his life, Jacob limped. But the limp was a reminder to him that the Lord’s wounds and the Lord’s blessing often go together for those who cling on to God.
And doesn’t the New Testament teach us the same thing? What did James say?
Consider it pure joy, brothers, when you face trials of many kinds.
Why? Because the Lord is able to bring good out of our trials. The Lord’s wounds and his blessing often go together for those who cling on to God.
And what about Paul? He suffered that thorn in his flesh. But he also discovered that the Lord’s gracious help is sufficient for him. The Lord’s wounds and his blessing often go together for those who cling on to God.
And, of course, think of the Lord Jesus, who was wounded for our transgressions. But afterwards, he was raised from the dead, and he was exalted to heaven, to receive the name that is above every name. The Lord’s wounds and his blessing often go together for those who cling on to God.
And so, we ought to pray:
Lord, you have wounded me. You’ve hurt me. I don’t want it to be for nothing. So, please will you also bless me and bring something good out of this pain.