In the opening scene of Genesis 32, Jacob is gripped with fear. To his credit, he is on the journey, on the way to the Promised Land in obedience to the Word of God (31:3). Yet, as he faces the prospect of seeing his brother Esau again, fear grips Jacob’s heart as he hears that his brother is approaching with four hundred men. However, Jacob brings this fear before God in prayer in 32:9-12. In his prayer, Jacob realizes something that is significant and that will eventually put him where God can do something with him. He cannot rely on his own skills to assure the safety of his family.
This realization, however, does not prevent him from doing all he can to secure an advantage for himself. The course he pursues shows all the strategic planning we have come to expect from Jacob. In verses 13-21 he selects the gifts he sends to Esau. Still, Jacob feels vulnerable to Esau’s attack. This is precisely where God wants him – feeling in need with no recourse left but to rely on God. Now the real struggle begins.
The Lord is ready for Jacob to return to Canaan, but there is baggage that he cannot take. He cannot go in as he is. This has been the jeopardy that has accompanied Jacob since our first introduction to him. God is finally overcoming this obstacle. As his adversary, God will work transformation in Jacob’s life.
The forerunner to modern chemistry was the medieval practice known as alchemy, in which scholars attempted to discover a process that would turn base metals into gold. In this passage, “God is involved in what we might call ‘human alchemy,’ as he shows his ability to take base characteristics and turn them to gold.”
The character flaw to be resolved goes deeper than the inclination toward deception and manipulation. They are but symptoms of the more pervasive problem of self-sufficiency. We have all met people who do not need anybody or anything. They go through life with the attitude that they can handle anything that comes along. This characteristic is counterproductive to the development of faith.
On the banks of the River Jabbok, God finally finds Jacob in a situation in which his sense of self-sufficiency is crumbling. Jacob is unable to provide for the security of his family. It is one thing to put yourself in harm’s way with the hope that you can find your way out. Jacob has successfully navigated through the maze of rocky relationships with Esau, Laban, and his wives. But in those it was only his own health and welfare hanging in the balance. Now he has his whole family to think about, and he recognizes his inability to vouchsafe their security. This is what finally brings him to his knees. In his classic book Knowing God, J. I. Packer describes the result:
“That night, as Jacob stood alone by the river Jabbok, God met him. There were hours of desperate, agonized conflict, spiritual and, as it seemed to Jacob, physical also. Jacob had hold of God, he wanted a blessing, an assurance of divine favor and protection in this crisis, but he could not get what he sought. Instead, he grew ever more conscious of his own state – utterly helpless and, without God, utterly hopeless. He felt the full bitterness of his unscrupulous, cynical ways, now coming home to roost. He had hitherto been self-reliant, believing himself to be more than a match for anything that might come, but now he felt his complete inability to handle things, and knew with blinding blazing certainty that never again dare he trust himself to look after himself and to carve out his destiny. Never again dare he try to live by his wits.
“… The nature of Jacob’s ‘prevailing’ with God was simply that he held on to God while God weakened him, and wrought in him the spirit of submission and self-distrust, that he had desired God’s blessing so much that he clung to God through all this painful humbling, till he came low enough for God to raise him up by speaking peace to him and assuring him that he need not fear about Esau anymore” (p85).
What does it mean to wrestle an angel? Has God wrestled with you in prayer? In what areas of your life do you need to submit to the Lord? What will it take for the Lord to bring you to the place of submission? I hope you will join us this coming Lord’s Day as we look at Genesis 32:22-32 when Jacob is wrestled by the angel of the Lord.