Little Johnny was not doing very well in math. His parents had tried everything—tutors, flash cards, "Hooked on Math," special learning centers—in short, everything they could think of. Finally, in a last ditch effort, they took Johnny down and enrolled him in the local Catholic school.
After the first day, little Johnny came home with a very serious look on his face. He didn't kiss his mother hello but went straight to his room and started studying. Books and papers were spread out all over the room, and Johnny was hard at work. His amazed mother called him down to dinner, and the minute he was done he marched back to his room without a word. In no time, he was back hitting the books as hard as before. This went on for some time, day after day, while the mother tried to understand what made all the difference.
Finally, little Johnny brought home his report card. He quietly laid it on the table, went up to his room, and began to hit the books. With great trepidation, his mom looked at it. To her surprise, little Johnny had an "A" in math!
She could no longer hold back her curiosity. "Son, what was it? Was it the nuns?" she asked. Little Johnny looked at her and shook his head.
"Well then," she continued, "was it the books, the discipline, the structure, the uniforms? What was it?"
"Well," Johnny replied, "On the first day of school, when I saw that guy nailed to the plus sign, I knew they weren't fooling around."
We want to look at a person who, like Johnny, needed some motivation to change his life. He, too, needed an experience to get his attention and radically change his behavior. No change seemed to happen in his life until God touched him in a unique way!
A cane probably best represents what that special touch was all about. We usually associate a cane with a disability or permanent injury that necessitates its use. I want to show you someone from Scripture, however, who may have needed a cane because of a dramatic and stretching experience in his life; but it represents a positive symbol for him, a sign of victory and special blessing.
After years of failing in his spiritual life, this man Jacob was finally motivated to get a passing grade. We'll pick up his story in Genesis 32.
Jacob is an outstanding Old Testament character; in fact, one quarter of the book of Genesis is given directly to his story. He was a man who exerted great influence not only during his time but on ours as well. His life is particularly enjoyable and helpful to study, because we can so easily identify with him... especially his negative qualities.
Jacob's name means "deceiver," or "one who grasps by the heel," or "one who trips others up." He was truly a devious and deceitful personality, but I think we will see ourselves repeatedly in his life. (I encourage you to read his story in Genesis.)
I was inspired by the fact that God continued to work with Jacob in spite of his problems and, as a result, he very slowly changed for the better. Even God called Himself, "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." I can understand Abraham being included in the list, for he was a friend of God, a father of the faith, and one who was willing to sacrifice his son. I can also understand Isaac being included, because throughout his life he showed a desire to follow God.
But Jacob? Why the God of Jacob? Perhaps it is because he represents most of us—marked by the journey, he ultimately gets to a point of radically affecting others. In spite of Jacob's deceitfulness, deviousness, and scheming, God loved him and brought him to a point of submission.
We will study only one incident in Jacob's life here, but I think it aptly illustrates God's gracious work in him. Let's begin by looking at what we might call:
Jacob was the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. He had a twin brother named Esau (born first, he was hairy, so that's how he got his name, "hairy"). Jacob was born holding his brother's heel, and his name, again, means "heel-catcher" and "deceiver." (Therefore, hairy and deceiving heel-catcher are the two sons of Isaac and the grandsons of Abraham!)
Jacob and Esau's personalities and gifts were totally different.
Esau was an outdoorsman who loved to be in the fields and herd animals. He was a strong man. Jacob, on the other hand, didn't go out much. He hung around the tents, was very insightful, and became a real schemer.
Jacob and Esau's differences eventually caused a great rift between them, and it all started with Jacob's "hungry man" soup. Esau came in from the fields famished and found Jacob cooking their meal. Jacob offered his half-starved brother, "Give me the birthright and I'll give you some soup."
This birthright was something reserved for the eldest son. It meant double inheritance, and leadership of the family when the father died. Esau's agreed, probably because he was so hungry; so Jacob won the birthright.
Some time later when Isaac thought he was going to die, he called Esau into his house and said, "Go into the field and kill me an animal. Bring me some of the meat that I might eat it." Isaac's wife overheard this, and because Jacob was her favorite (as Esau was Isaac's), she told Jacob about the request. The two of them subsequently worked out a plan to deceive Isaac whereby Jacob, in disguise, went and received the blessing meant for Esau.
When Esau heard this he was angry, and vowed to kill Jacob at the first opportunity. That wasn't good news, given Esau's ability to hunt, so Jacob decided to flee. His mother sent him to her family home in Northwest Mesopotamia. While living there he found a wife, but had to work seven years to marry her.
On the wedding day, however, her father deceived him and gave Jacob his eldest daughter instead, so Jacob had to work another seven years to get the wife he wanted. Yes, he had to work 14 years for his 2 wives! The poetic justice of God is evident, for it was the deceiver who was deceive
Jacob worked another six years for some flocks. Therefore after 20 years, being married to two wives and very rich, Jacob was encouraged by God to go back to the land of his father. Gen. 31:3—Then the LORD said to Jacob, "Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you." Underline, he was promised by God—"...I will be with you." That would seem a significant promise to motivate him to return and have confidence in the safety of the return journey. If he went home, however, he had to face Esau, the brother he had tricked out of his birthright and blessing.
In spite of the risk, Jacob decided to go back to the land of his fathers and to his relatives. After one more confrontation with his father-in-law Laban, he was allowed to go. The trip back is significant, because although God had blessed Jacob in exile, his character was still the same; i.e., the events in this self-imposed exile had not smoothed many of the rough edges.
Genesis 32, however, begins to unveil something new in Jacob's character development, when an experience motivates him to change.
Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 When Jacob saw them, he said, "This is the camp of God!" So he named that place Mahanaim.We see God's response to Jacob's obedience in verse 1. Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. What are we to make of this meeting with the angels? God pulled back the veil and revealed the reality of His presence to Jacob, reminding him not to worry as he goes into the land, because God is with him.
3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 He instructed them: "This is what you are to say to my master Esau: 'Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.'"
6 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."
7 In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8 He thought, "If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape."
9 Then Jacob prayed, "O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, 'Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,' 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12 But you have said, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.'"
13 He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, "Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds."
17 He instructed the one in the lead: "When my brother Esau meets you and asks, 'To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?' 18 then you are to say, 'They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.'" 19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: "You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20 And be sure to say, 'Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.'" For he thought, "I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me." 21 So Jacobï¿½s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.
By the way, God's presence is always with us, too. If we could see spiritually, we would see ministering angels everywhere—even here right now! They surround and accompany us.
Notice Jacob's response to God and the angels (v. 2)—When Jacob saw them, he said, "This is the camp of God!" So he named that place Mahanaim.
- Did this experience finally become the motivation he needed in order to change?
- Did this visit have any impact on his character?
- Was it an encouragement to him?
Unbelief is sometimes deeply entrenched in the human heart. Even with an angelic escort still in mind, Jacob picked up the responsibility for his own safety. Given several opportunities to grow in character, yet still hadn't taken advantage of them. Unchanged by his encounter with angels, he moved forward in his own strength and plans.
Jacob did, however, obviously feel uneasy about Esau. He had treated him badly in the past, and his conscience was still not at ease. Seeming to feel he had no hope for prosperous living in the promised land until he did something about Esau, Jacob followed his usual pattern—vv. 3-4. The rest of this chapter deals with the expensive and unnecessary plans Jacob made to pacify his brother.
From this point we see a vacillation between these two poles—prayer and scheming—but mostly scheming!
Jacob initially did his usual manipulation and scheming, not leaning on God in prayer, but trying to manage Esau instead of leaning on God. He planned to avert Esau's wrath.
When tempted to talk, scheme, or manipulate, rather than pray and have faith, we need to be reminded of 1 Corinthians 4:20.
One author says: "This is not the language of a brother, nor of one conscious of the power of God. The language used here is designed for maximum manipulation." It would have been so helpful for Jacob to understand a New Testament Scripture: 1 Cor. 4:20—For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.
Have you ever done this? Planning is appropriate, but we can cross over the line and enter into manipulation, scheming, and over-organizing. We'll know that has happened when we
- are not filled with faith
- are fearful, and
- are not praying.
Jacob appears in v. 5 to be trying to say, "I know what to do. I have everything I need to gain favor." His approach is almost comically over-organized, as he tries to plan for every eventuality.
It would have been better had Jacob simply asked for forgiveness, rather than trying to cover his need for forgiveness with gifts and manipulative statements. Seeking forgiveness is always the place to start when trying to reconcile yourself to someone. Gifts are okay but are secondary, to be used only as evidence of repentance, not a substitute for it. Scheming, posturing behavior will only fall apart.
At this point Jacob had forgotten all about God's promise to be with him, and became very fearful and distressed—vv. 6-7. When he heard the news of 400 men with Esau, Jacob thought he had great cause to be afraid and distressed. After all, since the last time Jacob had seen Esau, their mother had told him that his brother wanted to kill him.
Principle: Fear is often evidence of forgetfulness—forgetting God's presence (see v. 3).
Principle: Fear and distress are also evidences of our taking responsibility for events and problems that are to be God's alone. (Does that speak to you?)
So Jacob did (vv 7-8) what we often do in this type of circumstance: he took the whole matter into his hands and again tried to work out God's plan for his life by scheming. He didn't understand his relationship to the land was through God, not his brother. Politicians (not to mention you and I) can learn a lot from Jacob, his prayer and this confession. (Repentance and prayer should come first, not after scheming and manipulating.)
- he planned for his options
- he used his wit/craftiness (negotiation, intervention, conciliation)
- he prayed, after all this (vv. 9-12). (Note the order.)
It's unfortunate that prayer came last. He should have prayed before his scheming and planning; it would have eliminated the need for a scheme. It would even have been cheaper for him. You see, when we pray we get insight, and wise plans flow out of that insight, not vice versa.
On the other hand, it's a good time to pray when all else fails. Notice how Jacob prayed—it was a great change. This really is a good prayer, a model prayer for a crisis. Though Jacob hadn't shown stellar spirituality up to this point, he really came through here!
We should mimic several elements of Jacob's prayer:
It was based on God's Word and promises—vv. 9,12. This is how we should pray too!
His confession of being unworthy appealed to the grace of God and acknowledged his resources/blessings as a mark of that grace—v. 10. He was finally beginning to see himself accurately, as a conniver and unworthy. This is always the first step of spiritual recovery—"Blessed are the poor in spirit." We are to begin by telling the whole story, not blaming anyone, anything, or a process for bringing us to the place we are.
He also viewed his resources as an indication of God's blessing (he had one staff when he left his father's house 20 years before, but returning, he could divide his possessions and family into two camps).
He made a definite request for deliverance for himself, leaving no doubt what he desired. v. 11—"Save me, I pray..." His prayer was very specific, and ours should be, too. Note: Fear is most effectively dealt with in specific faith-filled prayers and intercession for others.
He reminded God of His promises to keep his children and their mothers safe; and that He had promised great things for his seed—vv. 11b-12.
Jacob had now "faced his demons;" had he changed? Sadly, no. After he prayed, Jacob did what each of us has done many times; however, he was an expert at it. He returned to scheming (vv. 13-16), sending a gift designed for maximum effectiveness and impact (even trying to make the gift look much bigger than it really was). In effect, He tried to charm or appease any lingering wrath Esau might harbor, once again trying to work out God's plan for his life. In fact, Jacob planned as if his scheme was the way God's will would be worked out.
If his scheme had succeeded, we would have had a very unholy example as to how prayers are answered... that we ask God to help, then connive to bring about an answer. We must know, however, that these plans are not consistent with His character.
Have you ever acted like Jacob—prayed, and then tried to bring about an answer to that prayer? I have, and I need to be reminded of the folly of it. When my eyes are filled with my own management/administration of things, I am not prepared to see God acting for me. I focus on what I can do, how my plan is doing, rather than on the God who has promised to be with me and deliver me.
Prayer and confession in that case may not be a presentation of my need, but a superstitious act, maybe something for the benefit of others. It's asking God to satisfy my plans ("God bless my plans; God bless my management.")
Prayer should never be something I tack onto the end of my plans!
God as Father had to confront Jacob directly on this, because Jacob was convinced this was how to handle his problem, like a child trying to protect himself.
He finished his plan by making sure his family was safe (v. 22). Jacob had done all he could, but still wasn't sure his family was safe, so he got up in the middle of the night and took his family about five miles away from the main camp, across the river. Unsure he can trust God, he cared for his family himself. There was certainly nothing wrong with this action in and of itself. It was right to provide for his family members and their safety. The problem was that this plan was the continuation of his lack of trust in God's promises.
We can, of course, learn from the pages of Jacob's history! We must notice how apt we are to lean on our own management rather than on God. It will never do. We must be brought to the end of the exclusive management of our lives. We must understand that human effort to charm others cannot substitute for the Holy Spirit's power to come alongside us and work through us God's good pleasure.
It is only when we are brought to the end of our plans that God will fully show Himself to us. God will not share His glory with our plans. Like Jacob, we can't be brought to the end of our plans until we come to the end of ourselves—v. 24a. Jacob was afraid, distressed, having done everything he knew to do. He had prayed, put his plans and schemes into effect, secreted his family safely across the river, and he was now alone. God had brought him to a vulnerable state, to where family and material goods were not there to confuse/help him...
- no resources
- no help
- no family
- no shelter
Sometimes God must strip us in order to save us, or to lead us on to maturity.
Here the whole story changes; don't miss it! The narrative seems weird at first, but it isn't at all. What happened was exactly what Jacob needed: God set up a wrestling match with him (v. 24b).
The passage reveals the wrestler's identity later, but notice the match is with "a man." Jacob was 90 years old at this point, but still tough! He was not about to submit, so he wrestled with his opponent until daybreak. This was a real wrestling match, not some metaphor about Jacob's struggle with God in prayer. The word "wrestling" in vv. 24-25 is used only here in the Old Testament. It comes from the Hebrew word "dust," so they were rolling in the dust. This was no phantom, either; Jacob wrestled with a real man.
Does this remind you of the struggle the flesh puts up in our lives? Do you see yourself here? Have you ever been this obstinate with God?
Jacob was facing unbelievable pressure, but he wouldn't break; he wouldn't say "uncle." He refused to submit or give up, but wanted to see how his plans would work out first. The old, carnal, stubborn, self-centered and scheming Jacob was very much alive.
Jacob then had the ultimate hold put on him (v. 25). Hint: It's not good to wrestle with a heavenly wrestler! The Lord always knows the right hold to bring us to the point of weakness, and that is what happened here. The man touched Jacob's thigh, which broke his strength.
The heavenly wrestler wanted to bring Jacob into submission, to show Jacob the end of his strength. And Jacob finally submitted (v. 26). Jacob was changed, no longer wrestling but clinging. Something in his character had changed. He had been touched at his point of strength, made weak, and now was finally defeated.
Hosea 12:4-5 gives us some insight here. Speaking of Jacob it says: "He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor. He found him at Bethel and talked with him there—5] the LORD God Almighty, the LORD is his name of renown!"
He began pleading and crying, "Oh please bless me..." God had turned Jacob's strength into flabby weakness, to teach him that only by such means could he be strong—2 Cor. 12:10.
Jacob had been defeated. This was the sob of a defeated man. He had finally been beaten, and what it took is amazing to me.
The cry of Jacob really wasn't a demand, but a plea. "Please don't go..." This match tore down Jacob's obstinate attitude, and brought him to understand God's ways. Before the heavenly wrestler would bless Jacob, a question had to be asked and answered, and that question and answer would reveal the significant change that had taken place (v. 27).
Don't miss the timing of this: This match was the climax of 20 years of God's patient dealing with Jacob. God will take time to break us, but He will bring His children to submission.
This change in character was now displayed in a name change. Notice the exchange in v. 27:
"What is your name?"
"Jacob..." (In other words, "my name is deceiver.")
It appears the angel wanted Jacob to again admit who he was in the depths of his heart—"Yes, I am a deceiver." It was only when Jacob was able to admit his true nature that he was changed.
The answer came back, in essence, "Now you will no longer be called deceiver" (v. 28). Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
What follows his name change is encouraging to all of us who finally have been brought to the point of admitting our sins and character flaws.
Jacob was obviously thrown by the question ("What's your name?") and the blessing that followed (v. 29c), because now he believed he had been wrestling with God, and yet lived through the experience, which didn't make sense to him!
With the benefit of the New Testament and being "on the other side of the cross," we know who this God/man was. This was obviously what is called a theophany, or a preincarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. Though the Lord didn't answer Jacob's question—"Why do you ask my name?"—it is obvious to Jacob after the blessing who the wrestler is. It is God.
Jesus' question might have been implying several things:
- "It should be obvious to you, Jacob, who you are wrestling with."
- "You don't need to know everything now, so why ask?
- "You wouldn't understand even if I told you."
On the other side of hard times, when we finally submit to God after struggling with His will and plans, is a blessing. This should encourage us to end the struggle sooner rather than later. A prolonged struggle will leave its marks, deficits, and/or logical consequences.
So stop struggling and accept the blessing, before the marks of resistance are permanent.
Jacob's thinking and the apparent answer to his question are revealed in verse 30. "So Jacob called the place Peniel, [Peniel means face of God.] saying, 'It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.'" Now that his name was changed, he named the place in a way that implied he had seen God face-to-face in the wrestling and lived, contrary to his belief and expectation. He wanted everyone to know what had happened, so he named the place in keeping with the event. This isn't a bad practice today:
- Stop and declare how the events of your life reflect the work of God.
- When you come out on the other side of a testing time and God blesses you, give that time in your life a name in keeping with God's provision and character.
Take a look at this once proud, lying, and conniving person. Jacob walked into Caanan a changed man, both physically and spiritually. Physically, he was different from when he left, for he was now limping. Spiritually, his nature had been changed, and his new name was a reminder of what had happened. (Israel means "he struggled with God.")
Let me conclude with a few observations:
God had to isolate Jacob before He could change him. v. 24a—"So Jacob was left alone..." Jacob's life was so filled with distraction and preoccupation, he couldn't hear God. It was only when he came to the end of himself that God chose to change and bless him.
We are just like Jacob. When was the last time you were alone with God and said the following?
"God, I submit to Your plans and Your will. I will not struggle with Your purposes in my life. I will go and do what You want me to do. Whatever You ask me to do, I will obey. God, I'm also here to study your Word and let it speak to my strengthening, wisdom, and knowledge of who You are."
Ask yourself, "Is it possible I have been so busy going my own way that I haven't been in the place, or the frame of mind, that I can hear God and/or that God can bless me?" If we have been so busy doing what pleases us and/or running from God's plans, I think we should count on being isolated—without resources, friends, or help.
Often it's only in isolation that we see or are open to God's plans and ways. If the pace of activity around us is too fast for any contemplation or meditation on God or His Word, we should know that at some point we will spin out and have to deal with being alone with our thoughts, our condition, and/or the results of inattentiveness to God or His will.
God will isolate us to get our attention! God let him struggle and wrestle until he submitted—v. 25. Notice, God did not use His power to defeat Jacob. Isaiah 40 and Genesis tell us that God created the stars, calls them by name, and leads them like a shepherd; yet God does not exercise His power to make us humans follow Him and submit to His purposes.
God will not press us to the mat of submission. Instead, He will let us struggle against His plans, and will not violate our will. He has given us the right to choose, and will not use His power to force us to submit.
But God will make it clear we need to submit, doing for us what He did for Jacob. He will take away our strength, make us weak, and bring pain into our lives. Many people even then will refuse to submit to God; in fact, some will go to their deaths without making peace with Him. Some will live long lives, struggling with submission, with great pain in their bodies and/or families, business, or relationships. How sad and unnecessary!
Initially Jacob resisted, but when his hip was touched and he was made weak, he finally submitted. Only through surrender did he experience victory, finally changed from a man defying God, to one dependent upon Him. In a wonderful picture for us, Jacob began clinging to God (v. 26), praying for a blessing.
The thigh muscle is one of the strongest in the human body, symbolizing Jacob's strength and reliance upon his own ability.
So many times we struggle through our own efforts, using our own devices, trying to figure out our own ways. Eventually we find ourselves wrestling (fighting) with God. We are determined we can do it. How stupid!
Then God lays His hand on us and there is a crippling, a sob of defeat. The moment we cry, "I can't go on anymore, I've had it, I'm through," is often the first cry of victory. There we begin to experience the power of God. Truly, God's strength is perfected in weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).
So at the point I acknowledge my weakness, I begin to experience the help of God.
It was a crippling experience for Jacob, but from that point, he was crowned. When his family saw him limping they might have said, "Jacob, why are you limping?" He probably would have straightened up and said, "Don't call me Jacob, call me Israel. I met God last night, and I'll never walk the same again."
- I'm no longer the supplanter;
- I'm not the man of keen wit and devices;
- I'm now a man ruled by God.
Jacob's victory came of his willingness to admit his own weakness. Had he given up at any previous time, he could have received the new name much earlier! But Jacob, like us, was largely bent on asserting himself and getting his own way.
What's your name?
You, too, can be called, "Spiritual Israel, a person ruled by God."
- Solomon: How the Mighty Have Fallen
- Samson: The Man Who Brought the House Down on Himself
- Timothy: A Minister in the Making
- Daniel: Another Look at the Lions' Den
- Judas: A Person God Could Not Use
- Paul: Becoming a Basket Case
- Nebuchadnezzar: Grass-Eating 101
- Cain, Abel, Eve and God
- The Book of Jonah
- Jacob: Made Weak to Win
- Moses—The Law of God