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Jacob The Wrestler

"And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day." (Genesis 32:24)

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.

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7 responses

  1. Thank you, Loren, for discussing yet another section of scripture that I lacked full understanding of. ! You are so good at this! :) I love that Jacob won by not letting go, not by wrestling with God. Praying that we hold onto Him today! Also, He used this to speak to me about a decision that needs to be made. Do I try to fix things myself, cover my bases, or rely on my Lord and His plans for us. So thankful for you . . .deb

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  2. Thanks, Deb, I really appreciate your feedback!

    I pray that God will show you the right choice in your decision.

    Your friend in Christ,

    Loren

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  3. The Secret of Stones

    I wish I could have been there to see Jacob’s face. He must have been dismayed and disappointed at his surroundings. Here he was, one of the favored sons of Isaac, the blessed son of his grandfather Abraham, and yet he was in the middle of nowhere all alone. He was on the run from his older brother Esau who was out to kill him for stealing his birthright. He’d left Beer-sheba with probably nothing more than the clothes on his back and a nod of approval from his beloved mother Rebekah. His only present glimmer of hope and excitement came when he considered the possibility of finding a wife when he arrived at his uncle Laban’s house in Haran. But now, he was simply on the journey—between the comforts of home and an uncertain yet hopeful future.
    I wish I could have been there to see him when “he came to a certain place and lay down because the sun had set”(Gen 28:10). I can only imagine him looking around in dismay at his accommodations. The hot, eastern sun was leaving its last footprints on the sky, and the road for his travel was becoming blurry. Maybe he’d made preparations for the journey. Whether or not he’d packed blankets and sleeping attire is unclear. But, apparently he wasn’t totally prepared, because he looked around and “took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head” (Gen. 28:11). He wasn’t used to these kind of sleeping conditions. As his mother’s favorite, he may have enjoyed not merely a comfortable living environment but a snug and cozy sleeping place. His pillow would have probably been made of goat’s hair and other soft fabrics that would have allowed for a comfy, resting place.
    But now, he peered around him at the stones that lay tossed to and fro in the hills of Ephraim, and he must have been dismayed. For, these stones were a picture of his current status in life: hard, difficult, bland, and so far removed from his past reality. He must have missed his father and longed for his mother. He’d just been given a blessing that included more wealth than he could imagine, and yet, now he was on the run with no prosperity or affluence to enjoy. He probably was frustrated, overwhelmed and lonely.
    He must have just sighed and resigned himself to the circumstances when he selected a stone as a headrest that night. Yet, I am intrigued. If I’d been Jacob, then I might have picked a stone too … but not to make my pillow. I might have hurled it in anger or kicked it in frustration, but not Jacob. He was a peculiar man, who in the midst of less than desirable circumstances was able to discover the secret of stones. Instead of seeing them as annoyances, stumbling blocks or discouraging reminders of his present circumstances, he gathered one into his arms and maximized its potential. He used this hard unyielding rock to bolster his body up instead of allowing it to weigh his emotions down.
    He didn’t like where he was. He didn’t particularly care for what he had to work with. No, he wasn’t too tickled with this leg of the journey, and yet, he discovered that there is a secret.

    The secret of these stones.

    For it was while his head lay on this stone that he saw a ladder extended from the earth to the heavens. He got a glimpse of angels descending and ascending upon it, and saw his Lord afresh, as if for the first time.
    That night on this hard and uncomfortable stone, this place of his rest, he heard the Lord’s voice reminding him of His covenants, His presence and His infinite power.
    This was indeed the place of his Lords visitation:

    Thank God, he’d not missed the secret of maximizing these stones.
    (Author unknown)

    Rakau:

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  4. Awesome, thanks for sharing this!

    I, myself, have not been to this place of Beth-El, but I have read accounts by those who have. It seems that the rocky surface of this hilltop upon which Jacob slept resembles the surface of another planet more than the surrounding wilderness. These megaliths must certainly have appeared to be a metaphor themselves for the rough, lonely, and desolate condition that Jacob currently found himself in, as your article says. There is no little symbolism, in fact, that these stones played in the entire incident of Jacob’s Dream. In the waning sunlight, as twilight approached, the shape of those rocks must have begun to take on more and more of an appearance of giant staircases stretching heavenward. As Jacob drifted off to sleep, he found that the image of these “staircases” remained in his mind, but it was now the angels of God climbing up and down them, not himself. It is no wonder that, upon awakening, he felt inspired to seize the very rock upon which he had been lying and erected it as an altar to the Lord.

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  5. […] Israel, walked now as a broken man. Since that fateful night beside the Brook Jabbok, where he wrestled with the Lord until daybreak, he had learned to trust in God’s strength rather than his own. Without a […]

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  6. Hi Loren,

    What really comes through in God’s word is that all these great biblical people are no different than we are today and yet we see how God deals with them and uses them. Abraham had the same issues as Jacob — he did not trust. God promised him certain things and yet Abraham took matters into his own hands because he lacked trust.

    I will say that I had never considered or saw that Jacob clung to Him during the wrestling.

    It’s very encouraging to see, when pondering my own inadequacies, to see these people used by God mightily and yet they had the same issues as we do today.

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  7. What lessons we can learn from these people! As James tells us: even the great prophet Elijah was subject to “like passions” as we are (James 5:17), yet look how God used him. Much of the Bible is not about what extraordinary people did for God, but what God has done through ordinary people.

    What really sets all of these individuals apart is their trust in God — they became extraordinary because they developed an extraordinary faith. Jacob clung to God even when his plight seemed hopeless; I know that in many times of testing, I have often let go. Praise God that He is faithful even when we are not :)

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