2.5 Jacob's Wrestling With God
This study will bring together themes from the others. We have
seen that until this time, Jacob was involved in idolatry, he had
the idea that the promises concerned the obtaining of physical blessing
in this life, and that he could bring about their fulfillment by
his own efforts. He was not totally committed to Yahweh as his God
(28:20). The fact he promises to give a tenth to God in the
future suggests that he did not then consider God to be his
King, for the idea of tithing seems to have been established before
the Law of Moses was given (as were many other elements of that
Law; 14:20). This life of half-commitment and deceit in order to
further his own selfish ends was abruptly changed by the night of
wrestling. And we have seen that we must all go through this same
experience, especially in the last days, whether it takes hours
or years. There can be no doubt that Jacob expressed a deep repentance
that night; Ps. 85:1,2 associates the return of Jacob with his repentance
and forgiveness. We have shown that the blessing promised to Abraham
essentially concerned forgiveness more than physical blessings (Acts
3:25,26), and Jacob came to realize this that night. Mic. 7:20 is
explicit that the promise to Jacob concerned forgiveness. That we
are on the right lines of interpretation here is indicted by Is.
29:12-14, which speaks of how Israel's latter day repentance will
be after the pattern of Jacob's in his time of trouble: " Jacob
shall not now be ashamed (of his sins), neither shall his face now
wax pale (at the thought of their consequences)...they also that
erred in spirit (attitude, as Jacob did) shall come to understanding,
and they that murmured shall learn doctrine" , as Jacob learnt
the real import of the promises. He realized that all his life,
he had been wrestling with God, his Angel, and he now came to beg
his God for the blessing of forgiveness, implying he had repented.
The Hebrew for " wrestle" can mean both to wrestle and
also simply to cling on to. It seems he started wrestling, and ended
up clinging on to the Angel, desperately begging for salvation and
forgiveness. His great physical strength (remember how he moved
the huge stone from the well, 29:2) was redirected into a spiritual
clinging on to the promises of forgiveness and salvation. And this
will be our pattern of growth too.
It seems Jacob was familiar with the idea of wrestling with God
as being related to prayer. Rachel speaks of how " with wrestlings
of God have I wrestled...and I have prevailed" in obtaining
a child (30:8; AV " great" = Heb. 'elohim'). We know from
Hos. 12 that Jacob became aware that he was wrestling with an Angel,
not just a man. His wrestling is therefore to be understood as prayer
and pleading, although doubtless it started as a physical struggle
with an unknown stranger, who he later recognized as an Angel, and
then perceived as God Himself.
It is clear enough that Jacob came to realize that he had not yet
received the true blessing of God, i.e. forgiveness, whereas earlier
he had felt that his blessings of cattle etc. was the fulfillment
of the promised blessing. It is therefore evident that Jacob repented
during that night of wrestling. This is confirmed by the Spirit's
- " Thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob. Thou
hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all
their sin" (Ps. 85:1,2) is one of many examples of where
Jacob's return home is associated with his repentance and forgiveness,
which thereby makes it a type of Israel's final homecoming in
the last days.
- As Jacob's wrestling with God led him to repentance, so Israel
are bidden repent. Amos makes an appeal to this end which is shot
through with reference to Jacob's meeting of God that night: "
Ye have not returned...prepare to meet thy God, O
Israel...he that maketh the morning darkness, and
treadeth upon the high places (idol groves)...the Lord, the God
of Hosts is His Name" (Am. 4:12,13).
- The approach of Esau in angry judgment reflected God's attitude
to Jacob (33:10). Jacob realized that he must " appease"
(Heb. kaphar, normally translated 'to make atonement')
Esau with gifts of animals. This is surely a confession of sin
on his part (32:20). But when he offers them to Esau, Esau kindly
responds that he “has all”. But all the same Jacob wants to make
the sacrifice, to give up the material things...and in all this,
too, we see an accurate reflection of God’s position with Jacob
(and indeed all of us).
Yet what did Jacob repent of? Doubtless he realized that the life
of half-commitment, passively assenting to the doctrine of his parents
and grandparents, whilst doing his own thing, was effectively a
rejection of God. This was the main thrust of his repentance. And
yet the Angel commented that Jacob had struggled with both God and
men, and had prevailed. Which men? Jacob recognized that the Angel
represented Esau (33:10), his brother with whom he had emotionally
struggled all his life. The struggle in the womb had been lived
out all their lives to this point. Perhaps the Angel's face appeared
like that of Esau? Jacob saw the face of the Angel as it were the face of Esau- implying that the Angel he wrestled with was Esau's guardian Angel. He was being more obliquely shown the truth which New Testament passages like 1 Jn. 4:12,20,21 state plainly: that our relationship with our brother is our relationship with God. And Jacob was thus repenting of how badly he'd treated his brother.
But there is reason to think that the Angel also
reminded Jacob of his father Isaac. The way Jacob begs the Angel
to bless him recalls how he so earnestly wanted to obtain his father's
blessing. Jacob's pleading for blessing with the Angel would have
reminded him of Esau's desperate pleading for the blessing from
Isaac. All these things were restimulated in Jacob's mind by the
wrestling. The Angel asks him what his name is (32:27), in exactly
the same way as Isaac had asked him 20 years before. At that time
he had lied. But now he truthfully answers the Angel: " Jacob"
, the deceiver. And then he begs for the blessing of forgiveness.
He had struggled with men, with Isaac and Isaac's influence of Jacob's
spirituality, with his brother Esau, with Laban, and with himself.
And the Angel said that in all these struggles with men, Jacob had
ultimately won in that he had confessed he was a deceiver, he had
accepted the perversity of his nature.
Rejecting The Physical Blessing
Jacob's new appreciation of the blessing of forgiveness is reflected
by the way in which he effectively tells Esau that he is handing
back to him the birthright, the physical blessings. The way he bows
down seven times to Esau (33:3) is rejecting the blessing he had
obtained by deceit from Isaac: " Be master over your brethren,
and let your mother's sons bow down to you" (27:29). His experience
of the blessing of God's grace was sufficient for him, and he rejected
all else. It's a shame that the English translation conceals Jacob's
rejection of the physical blessing in 33:11: " Take (51 times
translated " take away" ), I pray thee, my blessing...because
God hath dealt graciously with me, and I have enough (lit. 'all
things')" .The Hebrew words translated " take (away)"
and " blessing" are exactly the same as in 27:35,36: "
(Jacob) came with subtlety, and hath taken away thy blessing...Is
not he rightly named Jacob? he took away my birthright,
and now he hath taken away my blessing" .
Yet now Jacob is saying: 'I have experienced the true grace of God,
I stand forgiven before Him, I see His face in His representative
Angel (cp. Christ), I therefore have all things, so I don't want
that physical, material, temporal blessing I swindled you out of'.
And Paul, in his spiritual maturity, came to the same conclusion;
he counted all the materialism of this world as dung, that he might
win Christ and be found in him, clothed with his gracious righteousness.
Later, Jacob again resigned the things of this world for the sake
of what was implicit in the promises, when he told his family: “Put
away the strange gods that are among you” (Gen. 35:2). These household
teraphim would have been the property deeds to Laban’s property,
but because of what God had promised him at Bethel all those years
ago, Jacob was willing to resign all that hope of worldly advantage
And yet how seriously will we take all this? Will the wonder of
the grace in which we stand motivate us to reject demanding careers,
reject rigorous education programs, give up second jobs, from the
wonder of our spiritual experience and our desire to concentrate
on these things? There can be no doubt that the wrestling experience
of our lives will result in our rejection of materialism, and wholehearted
devotion to the more spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ
Jesus. Jacob began that night by pleading: " Deliver
me from Esau" (32:11), and he concludes by marvelling that
his life is " preserved (s.w. " deliver" ) from God's
wrath (32:30); his concern with physical problems and human
relationships became dwarfed by his awareness of his need for reconcilliation
with God. In essence, this is Paul's teaching concerning
peace in the NT; if we have peace with God, the wonder
of this will result in us having peace in any situation. This is
easy to write, so easy. And yet it is still true. If we see the
seriousness of sin, and the wonder of being in free fellowship with
the Father and Son, we will have peace. The wholehearted repentance
and clinging on to God of Jacob that night is used in Hosea 12 as
an appeal to all Israel to repent as our father Jacob did, and rise
to his level of maturity
Jacob's Wrestling With God
" In his manhood he had power with God" (Hos. 12:2 RVmg.)
suggests that he reached spiritual maturity that night. To be that
familiar with God that we can reason with Him, struggle with Him
in prayer, seek to change His will over an illness or situation...
this is spiritual maturity. This whole characteristic of striving
with God was memorialized in his new name: Israel, implying 'striver
and prevailer with God and men'. And this must be the characteristic
of Israel after the Spirit too. There is a confusion in the Hebrew
between ‘striver’ and ‘prince’- for the struggle comes before the
crown. Our relationship with Him, our attaining of salvation, is
a struggle, a wrestling,a desperate, desperate clinging on, a pleading
with tears. Yet this is almost the opposite of the spirit of our
community; a comfortable drifting through life, attending the same
round of meetings, largely hearing pleasant platitudes, no tears,
no little real self-sacrifice, little realistic self-denial, little
self-examination and daily struggle to be the more spiritual in
the 'small' things of life, hiding behind the institutionalization
of spirituality which our history has inevitably resulted in, staying
up late, rising up early, labouring with God to build the House,
foregoing the petty luxuries and niceties, give give giving... Yet
Jacob that night really is a type of us all:
- 'Israel' is the most common title God uses for His people;
and it means 'one who struggles with God and prevails'. This,
therefore, will be the characteristic of all His people. Note
the humility of God, the Almighty, in desiring to articulate our
relationship with Him in terms of us struggling with Him and winning.
Hos. 12:4 seems to emphasize this, by saying that Jacob in his
prayer and pleading had power over the Angel. His
strength was in his humility; by his strength he had power over
God, but it was by his weeping and pleading that he did (Hos.
12:4). This, then, was the true strength 'over' God.
- The Haggadah [recited at the Passover] invites every Jew of
all ages to see himself as Jacob’s son: “A Syrian [Laban] almost
caused my father to perish” is to be recited by all males at the
feast. This likewise is how close we should see our connection
- Describing our final gathering to judgment it is prophesied:
“I will assemble her that halteth, and I will gather her that
is driven out” (Mic. 4:6). This is all very much the language
of limping Jacob being gathered home. But in him we must see all
- Strong defines 'Israel' as meaning 'he who will rule as God'.
This would therefore be the basis of Rev. 3:21, which promises
that he who overcomes (also translated " prevail" )
will be a ruler with God, on His throne. It seems that the Lord
has his mind back in Gen. 32, and he saw all who would attain
His Kingdom as going through that same process of prevailing with
God, overcoming, and being made rulers with Him.
- The Angel came to Jacob with the desire to kill him, as Esau
(whom the Angel represented) approached him in the same spirit.
It was by Jacob's desperate clinging on to God, his pleading,
his intense prayer (Hos. 12:4) that he changed God's intention,
after the pattern of Moses in later years. The sentence of death
we received in Adam perhaps doesn't mean as much to us as it should.
Our reversal of it will involve quite some struggle.
- Mt. 18:8 says that it's better to limp into the Kingdom than
be rejected for self-righteousness. Surely there is an invitation
here to see the limping Jacob, walking away from the encounter
with the Angel, as our role model.
- Hezekiah saw Jacob's watershed experience that night of wrestling
as analogous to his own experience during his sickness: "
I reckoned till morning, that as a lion he would break all my
bones (cp. Esau's approach)...I shall go softly (cp. " I
will lead on softly" , 33:14)...for thou hast cast all my
sins behind thy back" (Is. 38). Tragically, Hezekiah didn't
keep Jacob as his hero. He succumbed to the very materialism which
Jacob permanently rejected that night.
Through the whole incident with the wrestling
Angel, Jacob was led to understand something of the meaning of
the Gen. 28 vision of a ladder with Angels (mal'akim)
ascending from him to Heaven and returning to him. He
sends messengers (mal'akim) to Esau (Gen. 32:3)- and
they return to him as it were as a mighty host of an angry army.
Hence he named the place Mahanaim, two camps / hosts- for he perceived
that Esau's host was indeed the host of God in His Angels. And
thus he comments that he saw the face of the Angel / God as if
it were the face of Esau (Gen. 33:10). And so God can masterfully
arrange incidents in our lives too, which are somehow the summation
of all our previous encounters and interactions with people...
to teach us His way. This is why there is sometimes a sense of
deja vu in our lives.
Fighting To The Kingdom
Jacob wrestled / struggled in prayer with the Angel. Consider the
Biblical emphasis on the idea of struggle, quite apart from the
fact that Jacob's night of wrestling is a cameo of the experience
of all who would be counted among the Israel of God:
- Job felt that his prayers were a striving with God (33:13).
Christ's prayers in Gethsemane are described as a " striving"
(Heb. 12:4); Paul asks the Romans to strive in prayer,
so that he may be delivered from unbelievers (cp. Esau),
and return to them with a blessing (Rom. 15:30).
This is all allusion to Jacob. Likewise Epaphras 'strove' for
the Colossians in his prayers (Col. 4:12 AVmg.).
- Prayer is portrayed as a struggle. The Romans were to strive
together with Paul in prayer (Rom. 15:30); the Lord's prayers
in Gethsemane were a resisting / struggling unto the point of
sweating blood (Heb. 12:2). " I would that ye knew what great
conflict I have for you...that their hearts might be comforted,
being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance
of understanding" is parallel to " We do not cease to
pray for you... that ye might be filled with the knowledge of
his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding" (Col.
2:1 cp. 1:9,10). Paul's conflict / struggle for them was his prayer
for them. Our groanings, our struggling in prayer, is transferred
to God by the Lord Jesus groaning also, but with groanings far
deeper and more fervently powerful than ours (Rom. 8:22,23 cp.
26). Our prayers are to give the Father no " rest" (Is.
62:7), no cessation from violent warfare (Strong). The widow by
her continual coming in prayer 'wearied ' the judge into responding;
Strong defines this Greek word as meaning 'to beat and black and
blue' (RVmg. gives " bruise" ). It's a strange way of
putting it, but this is another reminder of the intense struggle
of prayer. Jacob's wrestling with the Angel was really a clinging
on to him, pleading with tears for the blessing of forgiveness;
and in this he was our example (Hos. 12:4-6). Lk. 21:36 RV speaks
of the believer 'prevailing' with God in prayer. The 'struggles'
of Moses in prayer are an example of this; through the desperation
and spiritual culture of his pleading, he brought about a change
even in God's stated purpose.
- " The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent
take it by force" (Mt. 11:12) is constructing a parable from
the idea of Roman storm troopers taking a city. And those men,
the Lord teaches in his attention grabbing manner, really represent
every believer who responds to the Gospel of the Kingdom and strives
to enter that Kingdom. The same word translated 'take by force'
is used by the Lord in Lk. 16:16: " the Kingdom of God is
preached, and every man presseth into it" ; true
response to the Gospel of the Kingdom is a struggle. Entering
the Kingdom is a fight (1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7).
- The fact God uses such language is proof enough that He has
no room for those who want a passive ride to His Kingdom. Passivity
is nowhere to be seen in the above passages. It's an all or nothing
struggle, after the pattern of Jacob's. It has been widely observed
that God has expressed His purpose in a way which seems in some
way flexible; e.g. through intense prayer, Moses changed God's
stated intention to destroy Israel. It would seem that God reveals
Himself as a God who can be wrestled with in prayer in order to
militate against passivity in our relationship with Him; if we
know His purpose can be changed through intense prayer, we will
be powerfully motivated as Moses and Jacob were.
Jacob And Us
Here in this incident of Jacob's wrestling with God we see most
poignantly the similarities between Jacob and ourselves. Time and
again, our lives present us with our own selves, just in different
guises. And so with Jacob. He was probably surprised that Rachel
would deceive her father by stealing his idols and then lying to
him; he had thought she was so wonderful, so pretty, so spiritual.
But then he would have come to see that he too, for all his outward
spirituality, had also deceived his father. Likewise he would have
reflected how Leah must have been party to the cruel deception she
played on him at the time of his marriage. Her father Laban would
have advised her to do it, or she’d be left a spinster. And Jacob
too had listened to his mothers’ false reasoning in similar vein.
Leah had pretended to be her sister- just as Jacob had pretended
to be his brother, on anothers’ advice, in order to deceive his
own father. Jacob in a national sense must meet their watershed.
They are smart, they are fast, just as Jacob was. And just as so
many in the new Israel are too. As God worked with Jacob and gave
him material blessing even in his self-righteous years before his
final meeting with Esau and the Angel, so has Yahweh blessed His
people; material prosperity, a strangely fertile land, a charmed
life in international foreign policy, miraculous military victories
in 1948, in 1967, in 1973, a booming economy…and yet they must yet
meet Esau, and then the light of the Lord’s countenance. And we
are all following the same pattern. It may well be that the watershed
for natural Israel will be at the same time and in the same essential
form as for contemporary spiritual Israel. For each member of ‘Jacob’
must go through this in their lives. The material blessing of the
brotherhood at this present time may be the counterpart of 1948,
1967, 1973… And the outcome of it all is that Jacob ends his days
worshipping, as he leans upon his staff; i.e. he worshipped as he
limped, having lost his natural strength, and leaning upon the Lord’s
support. The muscle in the thigh which was touched is the strongest
muscle in the human body. Jacob’s strongest point was turned into
His weakest, and this is our pattern. Here is our happy end too,
in the very and final end: to worship, limping, leaning on our staff.