Gleanings In Genesis

34. Jacob At Peniel

Genesis 32

In our last chapter we contemplated Jacob as he continued on his way home from Padan-Aram where he had lived as an exile for so long. As Jacob went on his way "the angels of God met him," apparently in two distinct companies or "hosts," probably one of them to his rear and the other before him. It was suggested that there was a symbolic meaning to this ordering of the angels; that as God had just delivered our patriarch from Laban and his company, who were now left behind, so would he deliver him from Esau and his company which were ahead of him. After the angels had disappeared, Jacob sent out messengers to meet Esau, to pacify him with friendly overtures, and thus prepare for their meeting. Shortly afterwards these messengers returned to Jacob bringing with them the discomforting news that Esau was advancing, accompanied by no less than four hundred men. Jacob was "greatly afraid and distressed," and after dividing his party and possessions into two bands, he at once betook himself to earnest prayer. We considered this prayer at some length, and sought to point out some of its striking and suggestive features. It was a prayer of faith, and one which, in its general principles, we do well to copy.

What followed Jacob's prayer is now to engage our attention. A striking contrast is immediately presented to our notice, a contrast which seems unthinkable but for the sad fact that it is so often repeated in our own experiences. Jacob at once turns from the exercise of faith to the manifestation of unbelief, from prayer to scheming, from God to his own fleshly devises. "And he lodged there that same night; and took of that which came to his hand a present for Esau his brother." (Gen. 32:13).

There was nothing inherently wrong in thus sending a present to his advancing brother; it was the motive which actuated him which is censurable, and which is "written for our admonition." (1 Cor. 10:11). In the verses which follow the Holy Spirit lays bare for us the heart of Jacob, that we may the better become acquainted with our own deceitful and wicked hearts. Had Jacob's motive been a righteous and praiseworthy one there was no need for him to have been at so much care and trouble in arranging his present for Esau. First he divided his extravagant present into three parts, or droves (for it consisted of cattle), putting a space between each and thus spreading them out to the best advantage, with the obvious intention of making as great an impression as possible upon his brother. Next, he commanded the servants who were entrusted with the care of his present, that when they should meet Esau and he inquired who these flocks and herds belonged to, they should say, "these be thy servant's Jacob's; it is a present sent unto my lord Esau." Clearly, the message which Jacob sent to Esau was utterly beneath the dignity of a child of God; such fawning phrases as "my lord Esau" and "thy servant Jacob" tell their own sad tale. This obsequious servility before a man of the world evidenced the state of his heart. Clearly, Jacob was afraid of Esau, and was no longer exercising confidence in God. Finally, Jacob's real design is made still more evident when we note his own soliloquizing- "For he said I will appease him with the present that goeth before me, and afterward I will see his face; preadventure he will accept of me." (Gen. 32:20).

Instead of trusting in the Lord to work in him a spirit of conciliation, he undertook himself to propitiate Esau- "I" will appease him. But mark carefully, dear reader, that after all his scheming and devising he could say only "peradventure he will accept of me!" So it is still; after all our fleshly efforts have been put forth there is no confidence begotten thereby, nothing but an uncertain "peradventure" for our pains. How different from the way of faith, and the calm but certain assurance which is the blessed fruit of resting on the Divine promise and trusting God to undertake for us?

Ere proceeding further we would pause to consider a pertinent and pressing question which naturally arises out of what we have seen above: How was it possible for Jacob to turn to fleshly scheming and efforts of his own to appease Esau when just before he had prayer with such earnestness? to God, and had not failed to plead the Divine promises? Was Jacob after all an unbeliever? Surely not- God's dealings with him previously dispel the idea. Had he then "fallen from grace" and become an unbeliever? And again we must reject any such suggestion, for the Scriptures are plain and explicit on the point that one who has been born again cannot be unborn- an unfaithful and unworthy child of God I may be, but I am still His child, nevertheless. The gifts and calling of God are "without repentance"- "without change of mind." (Rom. 11:29). Once a sinner has been called out of darkness into God's marvelous light, and once God has given to him light and salvation, he never undoes that calling or withdraws His gift, for the sinner did nothing whatever of himself to merit God's gift, and he can do nothing to demerit it. The basis on which God bestows His gifts is not that of works and human desert, but that of sovereign grace alone. This does not argue that we shall therefore be careless and free to sin as much as we want, for that would only go to prove that we had never received God's "gift" of salvation; rather shall we become more careful and have a greater hatred of sin, not because we are afraid of the consequences of wrong doing, but because we are desirous of showing our deep gratitude to God, by a life which is pleasing to Him, in return for His abounding mercy and goodness to us.

But this still leaves unanswered our question concerning Jacob. Jacob was a believer in God- a careful study of his prayer as recorded in Genesis 32:9-12 evidences that. But though Jacob was a believer there still remained the "flesh," the old evil nature in him. And to this he gave way. The flesh is ever unbelieving, and where it is not constantly judged breaks forth in God-dishonoring activities. The clearest exemplification and demonstration of the two natures in the believer is to be seen in the history of Jacob recorded faithfully by the Holy Spirit not for our emulation but for our "warning." The same two natures are in every child of God today, the spiritual and the carnal, the one which believes God and the other which disbelieves. It is because of this we need to cry daily, "Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief." (Mark 9:24).

"So went the present over before him; and himself lodged that night in the company. And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two women-servants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day." (Gen. 32:21-24). This passage introduces us to a most important crisis in the life of Jacob. The book of Genesis presents our patriarch in two characters, as he is exhibited to us as Jacob and as Israel; the one looking at the natural man, and the other at the spiritual man, the one telling of how Divine grace found him and the other of what Divine grace made him- this will become clearer as we continue these studies, if the Lord will. We are now to consider the memorable occasion when Jacob formally received his new name of Israel, when he who was rightly termed "the supplanter" became known as "God commands."

The circumstances under which Jacob formally received his new name are worthy of the closest attention. He was, as we have seen, in great distress. News had come to hand that Esau, accompanied by four hundred men, was on the way to meet him. That for which he had labored so hard and so long to obtain in Padan-Aram seemed about to be wrested from his hands; his wives and his children appeared to be in imminent danger, and his own life in peril. As a precautionary measure he had sent his family over the brook Jabbok,[1] and now he was left alone more desolate than when twenty years before he had left his father's house. Night had fallen, when suddenly a mysterious stranger appeared, and in the darkness grappled with him. All through the night this strange conflict continued.

"And Jacob was left alone." In this sentence we have the first key to the incident we are now considering. On these words it has been well said, "To be left alone with God is the only true way of arriving at a just knowledge of ourselves and our ways. We can never get a true estimate of nature and all its actings until we have weighed them in the balances of the sanctuary, and there we may ascertain their real worth. No matter what we may think about ourselves, nor yet what man may think about us, the great question is, What does God think about us? And the answer to this question can only be learned when we are ‘left alone.' Away from the world, away from self, away from all the thoughts, reasonings, imaginings, and emotions of mere nature, and ‘alone with God,'- thus, and thus alone, can we get a correct judgment about ourselves." (C. H. M).

"And there wrestled a man with him." In Hosea 12:4 this "man" is termed "the angel"; that is, we take it; "the Angel of the Covenant," or, in other words, the Lord Jesus Himself in theophanic manifestation. It was the same One who appeared unto Abraham just before the destruction of Sodom. In Genesis 18:2 we read of "three men," but later in the chapter one of them is spoken of as" the Lord." (Gen. 5:13). So here in Genesis 32, at the close of the conflict between this "Man" and our patriarch, Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face." (Gen. 32:30).

"And there wrestled a Man with him." Note we are not told that Jacob wrestled with the mysterious Visitor, but "there wrestled a Man with him," that is, with Jacob. This incident has often been referred to as an illustration and example of a saint's power in prayer, but such a thought is wide of the mark. Jacob was not wrestling with this Man to obtain a blessing, instead, the Man was wrestling with Jacob to gain some object from him. As to what this object is the best of the commentators are agreed- it was to reduce Jacob to a sense of his nothingness, to cause him to see what a poor, helpless and worthless creature he was; it was to teach us through him the all important lesson that in recognized weakness lies our strength.

"And there wrestled a Man with him till the breaking of the day." From dark till dawn the mysterious conflict continued. There are those who have taken exception to the view set forth above, and who argue that if it was God who was wrestling with Jacob for the purpose of bringing him to a sense of his impotency He would have taken a shorter cut and arrived at the designed end much quicker. But such an objection loses sight of the wondrous patience which God ever exercises toward His own. He is "long suffering to usward." Long does He bear with our fleshly struggling, but in the end He accomplishes His purpose and grace triumphs. The delay only serves to provide opportunity for Him to display His infinite forbearance.

"And when He saw that He prevailed not against him, He touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint as He wrestled with him." This shows us how quickly and how easily God could, when it so pleased Him, bring to an end Jacob's resistance and reduce him to helplessness; all He had to do was but to "touch the hollow of his thigh," and in a moment Jacob's power to continue wrestling was gone! And here we get the second key to the incident. Jacob was now brought to the end of his own resources. One swift stroke from the Divine hand and he was rendered utterly powerless. And this is the purpose God has before Him in His dealings with us. One of the principal designs of our gracious heavenly Father in the ordering of our path, in the appointing of our testings and trials, in the discipline of His love, is to bring us to the end of ourselves, to show us our own powerlessness, to teach us to have no confidence in the flesh, that His strength may be perfected in our conscious and realized weakness.

"And He said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me." (Gen. 32:26). Here is the third key which unlocks to us the precious contents of our narrative. Here we see the object of the Heavenly Wrestler accomplished. No longer could Jacob wrestle; all he could do was cling. The mysterious Stranger brought Jacob to the point where he had to lean his entire weight on Him! Hitherto Jacob had sought to order his own life, planning, scheming and devising; but now he was "left alone" he is shown what a perfectly helpless creature he was in himself. "The seat of his strength being touched, he learnt to say, ‘I will not let Thee go'- ‘other refuge have I none; clings my helpless soul to Thee.' This was a new era in the history of the supplanting, planning, Jacob. Up to this point he had held fast by his own ways and means, but now he is brought to say ‘I will not let thee go.'" But mark carefully, it was not until "the hollow of his thigh was touched" that Jacob said this; and, it is not until we fully realize our own helplessness and nothingness that we are brought to cling to God and really seek His blessing, for note, not only did Jacob say "I will not let Thee go," but he added "except Thou bless me."

"And He said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And He said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed." (Gen. Genesis 32:27, 28). We cannot but feel that these verses have been generally misunderstood by most of the commentators. Why should the Divine Wrestler ask our patriarch his name, if not to emphasize and press upon the conscience of Jacob the force of it, namely, supplanter or contender. And in the new name here given him, it seems to us Jacob received a rebuke, though its meaning also well sums up the central teaching of this incident which describes the occasion when he received it. But what is the significance of "Israel," his new name? The marginal reading of the R. V. gives "God striveth" which we believe conveys the real thought, though, "God commandeth" would probably be a happier alternative. One who was a profound Hebrew scholar tells us that "names compounded with ‘El' have that of the nominative when the other part of the name is a verb as here. Out of some forty Hebrew names compounded with ‘El' or ‘Jah,' God is always the Doer of what the verb means. Thus, Hiel=God liveth; Daniel=God judgeth; Gabriel=God is my strength." Israel would, therefore, be "God commandeth." Does not this furnish a most appropriate significance to the name of the Nation which were and will be again the center of God's governmental dealings on earth- Israel, "God commandeth!"

"And He said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed." (Gen. 32:28). "As a prince"- as a deposer, orderer (see the various renderings of the Hebrew word: rendered "ruler" thirty-three times); used not to dignify but to reproach. "Hast thou power"- hast thou contended (the Hebrew cognate is translated "rebellion," "revolt," etc).; Jacob had contended with Esau in the womb and thus got his name "Jacob." And long had Jacob, "the orderer" of his life contended "with God and with men." "And hast prevailed" or succeeded. To quote from the Companion Bible: "He had contended for the birthright and had succeeded. (Gen. 25:29-34). He had contended for the blessing and succeeded. (27). He had contended with Laban and succeeded. (31). He had contended with ‘men' and succeeded. Now he contended with God (the Wrestler), and fails. Hence his new name was changed to Israel, God commands, to teach him the greatly needed lesson of dependence upon God." Jacob had arranged everything for meeting and appeasing his brother Esau. Now, God is going to take him in hand and order all things for him. To learn this lesson, and take this low place before God, Jacob must be humbled. He must be lamed as to his own strength, and made to limp. Jacob's new name was to be henceforth the constant reminder to him that he had learned, and was never to forget this lesson; that it was not he who was to order and arrange his affairs, but God; and his new name, Israel, henceforth to be, him, that "God commandeth." As Jacob he had" prevailed," but now as Israel God would command and prevail.

In the above incident then- together with its setting and sequel- we have a most striking and typical picture of the "flesh" in a believer, its vitality and incurability, God's marvelous forbearance toward it and dealings with it and victory over it. First, in choosing and arranging the present for Esau we see the character and activities of the "flesh"- devising and scheming. Second, in Jacob's experience we are shown the worthlessness and helplessness of the "flesh." Third, we learn that our nothingness can be discovered only as we get "alone" with God. Fourth, in the Man coming to wrestle with Jacob we see God subduing the "flesh" in the believer, and in the prolongation of the wrestle all through the night we have more than a hint of the patience He exercises and the slowness of His process- for only gradually is the "flesh" subdued. Fifth, in the touching of the hollow of Jacob's thigh we are enabled to discern the method God pursues, namely, the bringing us to a vivid realization of our utter helplessness. Sixth, in the clinging of Jacob to the God-man we discover that it is not until He has written the sentence of death on our members that we shall cast ourselves unreservedly on the Lord. Seventh, in the fact that Jacob's name was now changed to Israel we learn that it is only after we have discovered our nothingness and helplessness that we are willing and ready for God to command and order our lives for us. Eighth, in the words, "and He blessed him there," we learn that when God "commands'' blessing follows. Ninth, behold the lovely sequel- "And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him." (Gen. 32:31). Does not this define or rather describe (symbolically) the spiritual nature of the "blessing!" Tenth, note how accurate is the picture- "The sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh. Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because He touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank." (Gen. 32:31, 32). The sinew only "shrank," it was not removed. Nor is the "flesh" eradicated from the believer!

Many are the important lessons taught in the Scripture we have been examining, but for lack of space we can but barely name some of them: (1) It is natural to the "flesh" to plan and scheme and to desire the ordering of our lives. (2) The mind of the flesh deems itself fully competent to order our life. (3) But God in His faithfulness and love determines to correct this habit in His child. (4) Long does He bear with our self-confidence and self-sufficiency, but He must and will bring us to the end of ourselves. (5) To accomplish this He lays His hand on us, and makes us conscious of our utter helplessness. (6) This He does by "withering'' us in the seat of our creature strength, and by writing the sentence of death on our flesh. (7) As the result we learn to cling to Him in our weakness, and seek His "blessing." (8) What a lesson is this! The "flesh" cannot be subdued, but must be "withered" in the very sinew of its power- "because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." (9) That which hinders us in our growth in grace is not so much our spiritual weakness as it is confidence in our natural strength! (10) Not until these truths are apprehended shall we cease to be "contenders," and shall we gladly take our place as clay in the hands of the Potter, happy for Him to "command" and order our lives for us. (11) Then will it be with us, as with Jacob- "And He blessed him there." (12) And so will the sequel, too, prove true of us- "The sun rose upon him," for" the path of the just shineth more and more unto the perfect day."


[1] Jabbok signifies “emptying”- appropriate name, for it emphasizes the fact that Jacob was “left alone.”

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