The life of Jacob was filled with turning points, but what happened to him at Penuel was undoubtedly the most remarkable. At the crossroads of where Jacob had started before he knew God and the place where God was bringing him stands a single dark and lonely night. It is no exaggeration to say that Jacob’s entire life could be divided by what happened before and after this solitary event.
Having just negotiated a wary treaty with Laban at Galeed (Gen. 31:47-52), he now makes his way forward toward his homeland. As he goes, he encounters a host of angels at Mahanaim. Seeing these angels must have served as a powerful reminder of the promises God had made to him during his dream of the Ladder which ascended to Heaven. Reassured that the presence of God is not far from him, Jacob sends messengers to meet Esau in order that any remaining anger from his brother could be placated before he re-enters the land. The news of the returning messengers is not the most comforting, however, as Jacob is told that Esau is on his way to meet Jacob…accompanied by 400 men!
Immediately, Jacob, true to form, springs into action and begins to formulate a plan that will keep him safe from harm. His first course of action is to divide his company into two smaller bands (Gen. 32:7). If Esau had revenge in mind, at least half of Jacob’s possessions and group would survive. Second, he separates a huge herd of his livestock to be given as gifts to Esau. He then proceeds to divide these herds into smaller caravans to be conveyed to his brother at intervals. Perhaps this would give Esau time for his wrath to cool as he is repeatedly presented with peace-offerings from the hand of Jacob during his approach. But what does all of this tell us about Jacob’s mindset as he was about to encounter his brother for the first time since he had fled from his home?
“And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the LORD which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands. Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children.” (Genesis 32:9-11)
This is a very heart-felt, honest, and beautiful prayer. It is clear that Jacob has learned a great deal of humility at this point and he seems to be trusting God in a way that he has not heretofore done. Yet at the same time he is putting into action a plan of his own. He is like the man who lays his burden at the altar and cries out to God for deliverance — only to pick his burden up again as he walks away. “Deliver me, O God; but if you don’t, I am going to take care of things myself.”
As the evening approaches, Jacob sends his wives, his concubines, and his children on ahead of him; over the River Jabbok (Gen. 32:22). And there he stays: on this side of the river. Alone. God can often reach a person when the din of their day-to-day lives has quieted, when the demands and responsibilities of all of those who continually surround them have gone away, when they are left completely alone with no other distraction. And so it is with Jacob. His plan is set into motion, he has sent his family ahead of him, he is prepared to face his brother on the morrow and whatsoever will become of it. But he has not counted on one thing: Someone is standing between him and his objective.
How often are so many of our own most well-devised plans upset when the Lord intervenes? Jacob has carefully negotiated and calculated his strategies so that he might avoid any conflict with Laban or Esau. But now he stands face-to-face with One with Whom his diplomacy is entirely ineffective. Here is Someone Whom he cannot negotiate with, he cannot appease with presents, nor can he threaten or manipulate. So he resolves himself to wrestle with Him and pits himself against Him in a raw battle of wills. But as the night wears on, Jacob sees that he is making no headway in wrestling this Man. But neither is Jacob’s tenacity being lessened by the stalemate. So the Man reaches out and breaks a joint in Jacob’s leg, weakening the foundation on which Jacob stands. Still Jacob does not yield, but holds fast to the Man, refusing to relinquish his grasp on Him. “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me”, Jacob declares (Gen. 32:26).
“And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:30)
Who was this mysterious “Man” with Who Jacob wrestled? Well, Jacob himself identifies Him as God. Hosea also identifies Him as God (Hosea 12:2-5). As we have looked at before, the “Angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament is very often none other than the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, and I believe that this is the One with Whom Jacob wrestled. He has wrestled with God Himself. What a picture of our own spiritual struggles with the Lord! We set our own plans in motion and set out to fulfill them, and then the Lord stands between us and our objective. But instead of yielding to Him and placing our destiny in His loving hands, we struggle against our own Lord and Master! God could have ended this “struggle” with Jacob any time that He wanted to, but He was trying to teach Jacob that it is not by struggling with God that that His will is accomplished; it is by trusting Him. Finally, Jacob’s leg joint is broken. That upon which he was depending, the foundation on which he was really standing, was broken beneath him.
Until we come to a place where we have learned that we cannot struggle against God and win, until our own flesh is “broken”, we can never really be used by the Lord. God can use any of us mightily, but we must be broken first. Hosea tells us that Jacob had “Power over the angel, and prevailed” (Hos. 12:4), but it wasn’t until his flesh was broken and he no longer had any confidence in his own abilities. All he was doing at the end was clinging to the Lord and holding fast to Him. He didn’t prevail by struggling against the Lord, he only won by not letting go of Him! In the end, it wasn’t Jacob’s plans that saved him; we see in Genesis 33 that Esau never intended him any harm nor was he particularly interested in the gifts that Jacob sent. Jacob also did not overcome by wrestling against God or pitting his own will against the Lord’s. No, his own will was eventually broken. He clung to the Lord and held on to Him. That’s what brought Jacob the blessing of God. It’s what brings us His blessing, too.