The pattern of our lives is not always pleasant. Jacob is a vivid example of that fact. This utterly unworthy man of God is exposed to a trial that is almost intolerable. He has to face who he really is and his record of deceit, craftiness, and trickery. His past ambition and sly and slippery ways loom before him as the victim of his cruel scheming gradually approaches. Esau his duped and despised brother who could prove to be Jacob’s nemesis in a final encounter between the two brothers – the injured and injurer – steadily draws ominously near with 400 men. Jacob is overwhelmed by dread and filled with fear. He rehearses the promise that returns him to home ground but he is still quaking. He apprehends truth yet, being human and in the midst of a crisis, he still trembles. He is the cheat who faces payback.
In waiting for Esau Jacob takes what preparatory measures he can, he prays and pleads with God but the tension almost breaks him. He knows he is in line with God’s revealed will but his emotions take control. His situation is grim. He alternates between panic and hope. Who can tell what the meeting between himself and his wronged brother will bring? “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.’ ” Jacob has to hold his breath and wonder. His gifts were a gamble.
Our future is often threatening. We cannot dare to think about it, but the worry won’t recede. It keeps intruding upon our mind, it jangles our nerves and robs us of rest. Jacob is in for an anxious night. It is terrifying to face a nagging conscience and its indelible memories. It is shattering to confront who and what we really are when there is no distraction. We are worn out by the internal conflict and anxious about the conflicts without. If we are perturbed about an enemy or a hostile situation with our foes we can feel their hot breath and imagine their hate-filled stare. Sin and accusations have to be dealt with and it all contributes to a state of war that terrifies us. Jacob is deeply disturbed and uncomfortably alone. He endeavours to hold on to the promise of God and has had his seasons of certainty, but when he most needs confidence he is not sure and he cannot help himself to stand firm.
Human nature is constitutionally weak (as God intended). When we are vulnerable the assurances we receive are not always effective of pacifying. Besides, Jacob recognizes that he was a man who couldn’t be trusted. His accustomed behaviour made absolute trust difficult. Our natures make us hesitant in areas where we are most at fault for we know the possibilities that may occur. We are saddled with suspicions caused by our own basic tendencies and Jacob was haunted by his habitual unreliability. He was an unprincipled man who lived by his own wits and ability to outwit others. Human unreliability sets us at odds with God and not only our fellows whom we let down. We are fickle and that is our barrier to the exercise of faith.
Life is perpetual conflict in some form or other. We battle in our souls. We differ with others. We contend with adverse circumstances. It is all so gruelling and it depletes our energy and diminishes our hope. Jacob faced more than he could handle. But his greatest ordeal was about to engulf him. It was his Jabbok experience that most sorely tested him, and it swiftly leapt upon him. He did not expect a near and unknown assailant to attack him in the night, who struck at a moment when Jacob craved for peace and was storing what meagre strength he had for the morrow and its climactic event.
Our greatest ordeal comes when we are forced to grapple with God – to confront the realities of our own undiscovered personal self and its past and also address the lurking fears concerning the future. Yet for all the seriousness of the struggle God confronts us in sweet condescension, as if a man, fully cognizant of our humanity and sympathetic with our predicament. Jacob was attacked by the Lord as a man (how prophetic!) Though all powerful and sovereign God allows our persistence to come to terms with him to prevail (cf “Come, let us reason together” Isaiah 1:18). His grace is prepared to make concessions and modify his majesty before us so that we might approach him, although actually his majesty is magnified in mercy. Wrestling with God in prayer for our very lives is ordained to be a blessing. The struggle and sweat of the soul is God’s means of wresting us from our delusions about sin and self and enabling us to see that perseverance with himself is the way to deliverance.
But there is always a reminder of our inward woundedness and frailty. “When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man” (V25). That act brought combat to a conclusion. The break came at daybreak. It was the beginning of a new era for Jacob, signalled by his new name – Israel. Jacob clung to his mysterious assailant for as long as he could; no longer to fight but to obtain a blessing he sensed that his opponent was more than human. He grasped the fact that he was wrestling with the divine. The awful ordeal was meant to bring him to the point of urgent request. “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (v26).
Jacob encountered God, the author of the promise he had received, and which would save him. Only in an intense struggle with God himself would Jacob be brought to a solid faith in God’s word. But once again Jacob is brought to self-identification, an act of concise candid confession: “The man asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob’ he answered”. It was the name of the sinner that grace had claimed – the name God held dear in his heart from all eternity – the name indicative of the vile, grasping, greedy, ambitious nature that God had resolved to change, and because of that change the Lord himself would re-name Jacob just as he renewed him and call him Israel – the man who persevered in the struggle for safety and found it in the God who understood the plight of man.
But fighting with God at close quarters, and the closing of conflict through faith, do not bring us to cheap familiarity with God or presumptuousness as to his favour. Our relationship is intimate but there is always a clear distinction between God and man. In Christ he came to us on a human level. But the lord is always lofty and not accessible to our curiosity. He sovereignly reveals himself and delights to do so in mercy. But we must not get above ourselves and pry where he draws the boundary to our understanding. We are to trust and adore and be grateful for his blessing so freely bestowed. To keep us humble he leaves us with an awareness of our weakness. The Sun of righteousness may graciously shine upon us and treat us with his favour but he will leave us with a reminder that though truly blessed we are still lamed by our sinful nature. We shall limp from the hip or sense the thorn in our side. Our pride needs the restraint of some kind of spiritual handicap that will always bring us to our knees for forgiveness and mercy. The gospel assures that we are healed by wounds – the wounds of the Redeemer and the wounds to the old Adam within.