Genesis 32:1 – 32
What good is this?
There was once an elderly Jewish lady, who had 3 sons who were all very successful in business. And so when their mother turned 90, each one decided to buy her an extravagant present.
The first son spends a million dollars on a high performance car, and has it delivered to his mum.
The second son spends 2 million dollars, on a huge house, and tells his mum it’s for her.
And the third son, well he spends 3 million dollars on a parrot, that could recite the entire Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament.
On her birthday, mum receives all these gifts.
And she writes to the first son. “Thank you for the car, although it’s really too fast and loud for me.”
And she writes to the second son. “It was kind of you to buy me the house, but it’s too big just for me.”
And she writes to her third son. “My darling boy, you know me. That chicken was delicious!”
And I think the point of that story is to offer us some encouragement when we come to passages like this, when we think, “What is the point of this?
Is there value in this?
How do we recognise it?
How do we get the most out of it?”
A panicky Jacob,
A huge gift from one brother to another,
And a strange wrestling match.
How do we get the benefit from what we’ve been given?
Well, I’m confident that we can, that we wouldn’t be better off just eating it!
And so what I want us to do is look particularly at Jacob’s prayer, and then of course, the very strange wrestling match at the end, to make some sense of that.
How can Jacob pray confidently? (v 9 – 12)
I’ve read a lot of books on prayer over the years. Like many of you, I’ve wanted to get better at praying,
I’ve wanted to become more effective in prayer,
So I’ve read lots of books,
And I’ve especially read lots of books that are about using the Bible to shape our prayers.
So there’s books about the Lord’s Prayer. And in my men’s group, Prepared to Serve, this past Wednesday night, we looked at Christian prayer through the prism of the Lord’s prayer.
But sometimes we go to the prayers of Paul,
Or to David’s prayers in the Psalms, to shape our prayers.
But never have I come across a book on prayer, that takes us to this prayer in Genesis 32, for an example that a Christian person might use to shape their own prayers.
So maybe it’s time to update my library, because both God and the author of Genesis thought it worthwhile to include for us, this prayer that Jacob prays when he is, verse 7, in great fear and distress.
So what can we learn from it?
Well, look at how it begins. Verse 9, 9 Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,
He doesn’t waste any words, does he?
Straight away we see the foundation for his prayer, that is, his reason for praying, his confidence in prayer.
Why does Jacob think that he, the deceiver, who tricked his father, fled for his life from his brother,
Married 2 women, and loved one of his wives more than the other,
Jacob who resorted to superstition to secure for himself what God had already told him was going to the outcome,
This guy, who we’ve said all along is the equivalent of the guy from Nigeria who’s emailing everybody in the world trying to scam them out of their life savings,
He reckons he can pray, and ask God for stuff when he needs it!
What a nerve!
Aren’t there times, when we think, “Well, I really can’t pray and ask God for that,
Or I don’t deserve God’s help in this,
God wouldn’t be interested in this part of my life,
Or, the thing I’m asking about in prayer is mostly a mess that I’ve made for myself, I can’t really pray and ask for God to help me in the midst of that.
Jacob’s whole life is pretty much a mess that he’s made for himself, and yet he has no hesitation in bowling up to God, metaphorically, and asking him to intervene.
Where does someone like this, get the confidence to ask God for anything?!
But his prayer shows us 4 separate reasons for his confidence in asking.
He prays out of a relationship with God,
He knows God’s Word,
He’s trusting in God’s promise.
And he knows he’s unworthy of anything from God’s hand.
We pray out of a relationship God has established
When was the last time you began a prayer, with your father’s name and your grandfather’s name!
It’s probably not something that we tend to do.
But Jacob is not just rattling off the family tree,
And he certainly not saying that God was Abraham and Isaac’s God, but not Jacob’s, he’s not saying “you were their God, but not mine.”
Jacob is acknowledging the covenant relationship he has with God. A relationship that is only possible because God had made himself known to Abraham and Isaac.
This is the first prayer of Jacob recorded in the Bible. And so it’s not a bad way to start, is it?
To begin in prayer, with the point where your relationship with God begins.
See, Jacob doesn’t approach God, like someone he’s never met.
“Hi God, my name’s Jacob, I wonder if you can help me out?” A bit like that Judy Blume novel that maybe you had to read in high school, “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?”
Or the playwright Noel Coward saying, “God? We’ve never been properly introduced.”
No, Jacob prays, on the basis of the relationship that he knows he has, A relationship he has, because of God’s faithfulness to Abraham and Isaac.
Is that how you pray?
Do you pray, knowing that you have access to God because of his kindness towards you in establishing a relationship?
Not because of his faithfulness to your extended family particularly, but because he’s drawn you into relationship with himself through Jesus.
It’s no wonder that Jesus tells his disciples, This, then, is how you should pray: “ ‘Our Father, in heaven.
We pray out of relationship.
A relationship that God calls us into,
And God makes possible.
Is that how you pray?
Is that how you’d like to pray?
Maybe you’re not a Christian. Maybe you are doing the “Are you there, God?” thing? Well, Jesus says you can pray to God as the outworking of a relationship.
Just like Jacob does, coming to God, knowing this is the God who has first come to him.
We pray depending on God’s Word
We also see in Jacob’s prayer, his reliance on God’s Word.
“O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives
Even the way that the author begins this section reminds us of what God has already spoken. Verse 1, Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him.
The fact that he meets angels on his way back to Canaan, reminds us of chapter 28, when he saw the angels of God, when he was leaving Canaan.
And there God spoke to him, 28 verse 13, I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.
Jacob’s echoing the words that God has used himself.
Sometimes people ask me, “Why do we use the Scriptures in our prayers? Why do we use God’s words back to him?”
Is it because God’s forgotten, and so he needs us to remind him what he said?
Like my children say to me, “You said we could have a chocolate after dinner, ”
Yes, I had forgotten, but they didn’t, so they now get what they were hanging out for.
But it’s not like that at all when we pray.
But praying with God’s words reminds us what’s important, what God thinks is important.
What’s going on for Jacob here? He’s terrified. Verse 7, In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, e 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.”
Even though God’s sent these angels to appear to Jacob, probably to reassure him, on hearing that Esau is coming with 400 men, Jacob’s thinking, “was coming home such a good idea?”
You know, they talk about buyer’s regret? You buy that thing because it looked really neat in the shop, but when you get the credit card statement, you immediately regret it!
Well, Jacob’s just looked at his credit card statement! “Why on earth did I think it was a good idea to come back to Canaan and meet my brother who wanted to kill me the last time we spoke?”
Well he thought it was a good idea, because God had said ‘Go back to your country and your relatives.
If we allow God’s Word to shape our prayers, we can be absolutely confident when we pray.
Jacob’s doing exactly what God has told him to do, and so he has every reason to be confident that God will act in answer to his prayer.
Wouldn’t it be great, to have this kind of confidence when we pray? Well, Jacob does, because he’s praying according to God’s Word.
We pray clinging to the promises of God
And related to that is Jacob’s third reason for confidence, and that is, he’s trusting in the promises of God.
He says to God, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’
God had promised him.
Sure, he panicked when Esau comes out to meet him, and he seemed to forget for a while exactly what God had said.
He divided up his family and his flocks into those 2 groups.
If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape., or “perhaps the other group can escape” as the New Living Translation puts it.
Some aircraft don’t carry life jackets, and if you’re in one of them, they say in the demonstration, “if we ditch in the water, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.”
May be used!
They never sounded very confident!
Like you might get out into the water and discover that your seat cushion isn’t one of the ones that may be used as a floatation device!
Jacob seems to think there’s a reasonable chance that he’ll lose at least half his family and his property, perhaps even the whole lot.
But then it’s like he remembers God’s promise.
And so he prays, in the light of the promise that God had made to him.
Now, as we keep reminding ourselves, this promise I will make you prosper, is not a promise that God makes to us!
God promised Jacob prosperity, so that he could become a great family,
Who would become a great nation,
Which would be a means of blessing all the world.
And ultimately through Jacob’s family, and the nation that came from him, Jesus was be born.
What today is often called the Prosperity Gospel, that God wants you to be wealthy, is a false teaching that destroys people’s faith, and makes people bitter towards God, when he doesn’t deliver what they thought he promised.
But let me ask you, what promise of God do you cling to when you pray?
Is it God’s promise of Jesus as an advocate for you, standing before the Father?
Is it God’s promise that his Holy Spirit will make known to us the truth about Jesus? 1 John 2?
Is it the promise that God will give you wisdom to resist temptation whenever you ask? James chapter 1
Is it God’s promise that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective? James 5
Is it God’s promise that you will one day be freed from the pain and suffering of a world out of step with its creator, Revelation 21?
Maybe God’s promise that the peace of God will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus? Philippians 4.
There are many many more!
And if you’re not already allowing the promises of God to shape your prayers, I would encourage you to do so!
Here’s the prayers to pray if you want an answer, because God’s already told you that he wants this for you.
See, going back a step, this is where praying according to God’s Word comes in, because in the Bible we learn what God wants for us.
Jacob knows, verse 12, you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’ ”
Therefore he has confidence, “save me now,
Protect my family,
Don’t let us be wiped out.”
If Esau kills them all, then verse 12 can never happen,
But God promised that verse 12 would happen, so Jacob prays according to God’s promise, absolutely confident that God will hear and answer.
And then in verse 10, we see that Jacob understands a truth about prayer that something I think we struggle with.
Because Jacob knows, that answers to prayer don’t come to those who deserve them. 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 camps
Don’t you think sometimes we imagine that that is how it works?
Who here has ever prayed for something, but then doubted that God will answer, because we don’t think we deserve it?
We start thinking that prayer is about us.
Which is why it’s easy to expect an answer when I pray, “Dear God, please bless the missionaries”, because I don’t think that I have to be particularly deserving for God to answer that prayer,
But to ask God to provide me with a job,
Or some breakthrough in my workplace that I’m hanging out for,
To pray for a change in my children, that I’m desperate to see,
To pray for the diagnosis that I’m hoping for, and not the one that terrifies me,
With those sorts of prayers, do we not very easily slip into thinking God’s more likely to answer if I deserve it?
And that’s where bargaining comes in. “God I’ll do this,
I’ll make myself more deserving,
So that you can do that other thing for me.”
Well, Jacob knows that’s not how it works!
He prays boldly and confidently, Save me,
Why can this dirty rotten scoundrel ask the God of heaven and earth 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me?
If that happened, he would only be getting what he deserves, right?
If prayer depended on the “deservingness”, if that’s a word, of the person doing the praying, then Jacob would have no reason to expect anything from God at all.
But God shows kindness and faithfulness, to people who don’t deserve it, which is actually, what we’ve all experienced and become convinced of if we’re a Christian, we just, tend to forget it when we pray.
If prayer depended on the “deservingness”, of the person doing the praying, then friends, we would have no reason to expect anything at all from God. And prayer would be a waste of time.
We don’t deserve anything from God.
If we are ever tempted to think that we deserve something from God more than someone else does,
That we deserve to have our prayers answered,
Just remember that you were so tangled up in the web of sin and rebellion against God, dead in sin the New Testament says, that he was working back here, in order to free you from it.
Jacob knows he’s unworthy, he knows there’s nothing in himself that can give him any reason for confidence in prayer, but he calls on the God who has drawn him into relationship,
He has confidence because he prays according to God’s Word,
He trusts in God’s promises,
And he knows God will answer whether or not he deserves it.
What a great basis for prayer!
What if, every time we came to pray, individually, in our Bible Study Groups, as a church, we were convinced of those things and prayed like that?
How might God work?
How might God pour out on us, the blessings that he’s been working on since right back here in Genesis 32, the blessings that come to all the world, through Jesus, the descendant of Jacob.
Jacob wrestles with God (v 22 – 32)
Come with me to the very generous gift, that Jacob gives to Esau, in verse 13, because it prepares us well for this wrestling match.
The words here are sacrificial language that we find elsewhere in the Bible;, the idea of selecting a gift, and presenting it, turning away.
So verse 20, For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts, perhaps he will receive me.
And so it prepares us for the realisation that the dramatic encounter that’s about to unfold is not actually between Jacob and Esau, but between Jacob and God.
It’s God who’s got Jacob cornered between the rock and a hard place.
And we find that out, don’t we?
Actually we only find that out at the end. Verse 30, So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Until then we don’t know who this mystery man is.
We perhaps think it might be Esau,
Or some mystery assassin that Esau has sent.
Perhaps even one of those angels we met in the opening verse.
So Jacob was left alone verse 24, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak
No identification given.
There are some hints, as this bout stretches towards dawn,
There are human limitations, he could not overpower him, but this is no ordinary human, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched
If you’ve ever watched that crazy wrestling on TV, if they want to give their opponent a limp, they smash a chair over their head, or leap onto them off the ropes or something like that! It’s all real, I’m assured!’’
But here with a touch, Jacob’s hip is wrenched or dislocated. The fact that he could not overpower Jacob, seems to be some kind of self-restraint, because he’s actually way more powerful than Jacob is.
But notice Jacob holds on! He’s got a dislocated hip, but he’s still not going to let go!
If it was me and I got a sprained ankle, I’d probably want to sit out the rest of it,
But Jacob perseveres.
He clings so tight that the man asks Jacob to let go because it’s daybreak. The ancient Jewish scholars said that this man was an angel who was due to sing in the heavenly choir that morning and he didn’t want to be late!
It’s why I made sure I was on time for band practice this morning!
But it’s probably more about him not wanting Jacob to see his face.
And so by the time we get to verse 26, perhaps Jacob has some clue who he’s up against, because he says I will not let you go unless you bless me.
The prophet Hosea refers to this incident and calls the man an angel, but he’s not just any angel, because we know it’s God! God sometimes turns up in the Bible, as the angel of the Lord. And probably this is the Son of God, in the form of a man, prior to his incarnation.
Jacob wrestles with God and is changed (v 28)
And so Jacob holds on, and on, and on, clinging to God, and then finally God says “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” As the footnote tells us. Israel probably means “he struggles with God.”
Today parents give names to their kids, mainly because they like the sound of them, or maybe because they don’t like their children!
I think that explains some of the celebrity baby names of the last few years;
Moxie CrimeFighter, CrimeFighter with the less traditional single word spelling,
Jermajesty, yes, pronounced like, her Majesty,
And, Sno FilmOn Dot Com Cozart.
We’re not picking names because the meanings are significant!
But here, in Genesis, we are.
There’s a play on the name Jacob through the first half of this section, and we know that the name means deceiver.
But the name of this river, the Jabbok, sounds, in Hebrew, like Jacob, as does the word wrestled.
It’s like the author’s trying to say, “Who are we talking about?
Jacob, Jacob, Jacob, Jacob, Jacob.
Remember what he’s like? Jacob. The deceiver”
But then all of that changes. God gives Jacob a new name, to signify the change that has taken place.
And this I think helps us understand what is going on here.
We’re not supposed to think of Jacob as Jacob anymore. Now, of course that doesn’t mean that he instantly became perfect, that he never did anything wrong.
But this wrestling match, brought to a head, all of the struggling against God,
The butting up against God’s purposes,
The trying to take shortcuts around God’s plans, that had been the markers of Jacob’s life up until this point.
If you’ve been with us these past few weeks, think about all the times when Gods’ plans and God’s action didn’t quite align,
When what God wanted for Jacob, and what Jacob wanted for Jacob, were at odds,
When God’s timeline was outpaced by Jacob’s timeline.
In his selfishness,
In his thrusting himself forward,
In his grabbing, and demanding, and treating other people badly,
In his deceitful way of life, it wasn’t so much that he was fighting against other people, but he was fighting against God.
And let me read you a sentence from one of the commentators. The crippling and the naming show that God’s ends were still the same: He would have all of Jacob’s will to win, to attain and obtain, yet purged of self-sufficiency and redirected to the proper object of man’s love, God himself.
Jacob is broken by this encounter, but he’s enriched by it.
What’s been the thread that ties together everything in Jacob’s life? He wants God’s blessing.
He received his father’s blessing, once deceitfully, and once willingly, and certainly the author has wanted us to understand that Jacob has been blessed by God at various points along the way.
But it’s not until now,
It’s not until this point, that explicitly, God blesses Jacob, there in verse 30.
But God doesn’t give Jacob the blessing, until he’s given him this injury, a limp, maybe a permanent reminder, of what it is to struggle against God.
And this now means Jacob has to depend all the more on God and not on himself, and his own cunning.
If he was worried about meeting Esau before, now he’s meeting Esau with an injury!
Jacob has a daily reminder of his weakness against God,
He’s never going to come out on top in a match up against God,
If Jacob’s goal, and God’s goal, ever don’t line up, Jacob’s just got to shift in his chair, and remember what it is to wrestle with God,
To be reminded who walks away from a head-to-head face-off with the God of the universe.
There’s a great passage in C S Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Mr & Mrs Beaver are telling the children about Aslan, the king, the Christ-figure in the story.
Lucy asks, “Is, is he a man?’
‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not.
I tell you he is the King of the wood, and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea., Aslan is a lion.’
‘Oh,’ said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe?,
‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver;, Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe.
But he’s good, ”
Course he isn’t safe, but he’s good,
God wants to show Jacob that he’s got to be willing to give everything, every last breath and ounce of strength, if he wants to be God’s man,
He has to cling to God,
To hold on for dear life.
See Jacob’s prayer in the first half of the chapter, is pretty good! And of course prayer is one the key ways in which we cling to God.
But God doesn’t just bless Jacob as soon as he says “amen” does, he? God demands this wrestle from Jacob.
And so as I was trying to work out, are we better off just eating the parrot, thinking it’s chicken?! You know, so what! We’ve learnt something about God, and about Jacob, but what use is it to us?
I think the answer is that sometimes we might need to wrestle with God, and so this episode prepares us for that experience. Not in this exact way like Jacob did. We’ve seen enough of his life to know that he’s unique in salvation history,
But there may be times, when we wrestle with God in the sense that he makes us struggle and persevere,
To the point where we think we can’t go on,
And maybe even beyond, before he gives us what we ask for, or what we need.
Maybe what we need, will only come, after a long and painful wrestle,
After we cling to God, with everything we have.
Jacob went from being afraid of Esau, to relying on God’s promise and provision, and he only got that way, through wrestling with God, and clinging to him,
But it’s not because God is somehow withholding things from us, and we need to convince him through our clinging, or anything like that. We’ve already seen that answers to prayer don’t come because we deserve them.
But God may meet you, in your moment of deepest fear, anxiety, uncertainty, but he might not meet you in the way you expect.
In fact God might look, for a time, like your adversary. He might give you what you think is unnecessary or unwanted,
But he may use that wrestling, the hurt in your life, to give you what he knows you need,
To get you to the place you need to be, for what’s coming next,
Because he longs to give you, what’s good for you.
And although our Bibles have a paragraph heading that says “Jacob wrestles with God”, actually it’s God who wrestles with Jacob, isn’t it?
I mean, I know, according to Newton, equal and opposite, blah blah blah, but it’s God who waits for Jacob, and seeks him out, and wrestles with him.
God meets Jacob, and wrestles with him, so that Jacob can overcome, so that Jacob can become, who God wants him to be.
That is, God works in his sovereignty to ensure that we cling to him.
Who would you say won this wrestling match?
You’ll remember from the news that the Manny Pacquio, Jeffo Horn fight had to be re-scored after the event because of a dispute over who won. Well, who won this fight?
Jacob seems to think God won it. He says in verse 30 my life was spared, that’s not really victory talk, is it,
And yet what does the man say? you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome, verse 28.
According to God Jacob won!
And that’s one of the tricky things about this episode;,
Was it a victory?
Or a defeat?
And often, that’s exactly the way it is with our clinging to God.
What looks like loss for you,
What comes out of the dark, and seems to ambush you,
What you think is the very last thing you need, and you certainly don’t think it comes from God,
That could very well be exactly the what God wants to give you, so you can serve his purposes in weakness and humility, and dependence upon him.
That’s Jacob, isn’t it? God’s man, and through his weakness, God achieves his purposes,
We see it right throughout the Bible;, God achieving his purposes, through the weakness and humility of his servants.
And we see it most clearly in the person and work of Jesus.
Humble, humiliated, achieving God’s purposes.
Was the cross of Christ a victory? Or was it a defeat?
Well, we know it was a victory, though it looked like a defeat.
God achieves his purposes, through the weakness and humility of his person.
We shouldn’t expect it to be any different for us!
But let’s remember we have the assurance, that God works in his sovereignty, to ensure that we cling to him.
Martyn Lloyd Jones was a famous Welsh preacher in London last century. He was once asked, “What does someone look like, if they’ve truly met God?”
He replied “They walk with a limp.”
Friends, don’t shy away, from wrestling with God, from struggling,
And learning to trust,
And learning how to submit,
To become the person that God wants you to be,
That he can use,
In whatever’s around the corner,
For his purposes,
And for his glory.