GENESIS - CHAPTER 32
A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
Copyright 2000 James Melough
The spiritual counterpart of Jacob’s departure from Laban is the moment when the believer breaks with self-righteous pride and dependence on works for justification; and his leaving Haran to return to Canaan speaks of a believer’s abandoning pride to walk in obedience before God. This doesn’t mean, however, that the struggle is over, that there are no more foes. It is not yet time for Jacob to graduate from God’s school: his education is not yet complete.
Jacob is no sooner free from the tyranny of Laban than he finds himself confronted with another foe, his brother Esau. In fact he is back where he started, for it was his brother’s hatred that had brought him into bondage to Laban in the first instance.
When we remember that Esau represents the old nature, the lesson then becomes clear. It is the old nature that is the real tyrant, and now after twenty years, Jacob still has to face that enemy. In this, God would teach us that whether we find ourselves serving self-righteous pride, envy, greed, lust, etc., the real master is the old nature within us. It was Esau who kept Jacob in bondage to Laban. It was he who kept Jacob out of Canaan, separated from the fellowship of his father’s house. It is the old nature that keeps us in bondage to sin, that drives us into disobedience (this is what the Israelite’s absence from Canaan represents), and that separates us from the joy of fellowship with our Father. If these lost blessings are to be recovered “Esau” must be faced and overcome. This present chapter teaches us that we overcome, not in our own strength, but in God’s
32:1. “And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.”
Here in the very first verse comes the assurance that it is God Who gives the victory, “the angels of God met him.” We do well to note, however, the circumstances of that meeting: it was when “Jacob went on his way.” That way was the way marked out by God. Jacob was in that way in obedient response to God’s command given in chapter 31:13 “... now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy kindred.” We will “meet angels,” that is, know God’s power working for us only when we are walking in obedience.
32:2. “And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God’s host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.”
Mahanaim means double camp, Jacob giving the place that name simply because it was not only the place of his own encampment, but also the place where God’s protecting host was encamped around him.
Whether those with him also saw this angelic host we aren’t told. It is possible that Jacob alone saw them, for Scripture indicates that others don’t see what faith beholds clearly. For example, in 2 Ki 6:17 when the city of Dothan was besieged by the Syrian army, only Elisha saw the protecting hosts of the Lord, “... the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire.” In Ac 9:7 we read, “and the men which journeyed with him (Paul) stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.” Paul saw there what was hidden from the others. Whether the revelation was given to those with Jacob isn’t important. All that matters is that he saw the angelic host encamped around him for his protection. It doesn’t matter whether others have faith to believe in God’s protecting care of His own: it is enough that you and I have the faith to believe it. That care isn’t diminished for us by the failure of some to believe that it exists.
32:3. “And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the country of Edom.”
Just freed from his bondage to Laban, Jacob learns all too quickly that he has not thereby escaped from the one who had caused him to enter into that bondage. The Esau whose wrath had forced him to exchange the happiness of his father’s house in Canaan for the servitude of Laban’s house in Haran, must still be faced even though twenty years have passed since their last encounter.
Victory over the old nature in one form should never be construed as its total defeat. Laban may have gone, but Esau remained. The old nature will be with us while we are in the body, and its power may be gauged from the fact that God sent a host of angels to guard Jacob against Esau. In our own strength we are no more able to defeat that old nature than was Jacob able to defeat Esau accompanied by four hundred men. But as God guarded His fearful servant then, so will He also guard us.
One important fact is indicated in this verse, and it is there for our learning: Jacob, it would seem, had not crossed over into Canaan following Laban’s departure from him at Gilead, but rather had gone southward towards Seir, Esau’s territory on the eastern side of Jordan. We aren’t told why, but there doesn’t seem to have been any instruction from God to do so, which would indicate that this was a step taken apart from divine authority.
Esau and Seir are almost identical in meaning. Esau means shaggy: his doings: and Seir, shaggy: hairy: goatlike. As the ruler is, so is his kingdom. The shaggy hairiness of the goat (type of sin) is connected with both. We found this same thought in earlier studies, Genesis chapters 1 and 2, and 3:18, where the dark, water-covered ruined earth reflected the dark ruined state of its fallen spiritual ruler, as the thorns and thistles reflected also the fallen state of its fallen human ruler. In addition, “the country of Edom” is literally “the field” of Edom, and the field is a type of the world. Edom means red, and is very similar to Adam which means man: red earth.
All of these names blend together to present us with what seems to be a picture of a believer who has turned from what began as an obedient walk, to follow a path of disobedience. It shows us in symbolic language, a believer turning back to the world, and by that very act, placing himself again at the mercy of the old nature.
One thing only relieves the dark hue of the picture: Jacob was going southward, and the south is the Scriptural direction of faith. This may indicate perhaps, that his journey was less that of deliberate disobedience, than of well-meaning, but none the less mistaken good intention.
It may be that human reasoning (never a trust-worthy guide) had led him to seek a reconciliation with Esau that God hadn’t authorized. Many of us have made the same mistake: we have thought that there could be some accommodation between the old nature and the new, and like Jacob, have had to learn, often by bitter experience, that there can be none.
Added to the fact that he appears to have been travelling towards Seir, is the fact that Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau. It seems clear that it was he who sought Esau, and not Esau who sought him. From this we may learn that mere human reasoning can sometimes lead us into contact with the old nature, from which spiritual wisdom would have preserved us.
32:4. “And he commanded them, saying, Thus shall ye speak unto my lord Esau; Thy servant Jacob saith thus, I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed there until now.”
Jacob’s referring to Esau as “my lord” is the symbolic declaration that the believer, whom Jacob represents, is still in bondage to the old nature, which Esau represents. Esau wasn’t Jacob’s lord. God Himself had said “the elder shall serve the younger” (Ge 25:23). The old nature is to be subject to the new. For Jacob to call himself Esau’s servant was to advertise his failure to act according to the position given him by God. He was Esau’s lord, and that by divine appointment. But he had gone into Esau’s territory, apparently without God’s command, (God had told him to return to Canaan), and his taking the place of Esau’s servant tells us that when we walk in disobedience, the result must always be the same: we forfeit our God-appointed right, and place the new nature under the control of the old. In Eph 4:1 believers are exhorted to “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.” That exhortation can be obeyed only when we walk obediently.
”I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed there until now.” This statement seems to be but a thinly disguised plea, “Are those twenty years of bondage not sufficient to appease thy wrath?” This is an attitude completely unworthy of the man whom God had made Esau’s lord, and it is designed to teach us that we are guilty of the same sin when we reverse God’s order by submitting to the control of the old nature.
32:5. “And I have oxen, and asses, flocks, and menservants, and womenservants: and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find grace in thy sight.”
In declaring his wealth, Jacob was very obviously seeking to assure Esau that he wasn’t coming back with intent to take any thing that belonged to him; a very necessary expedient in view of the fact that Jacob had not only bought the birthright from his elder brother, but had also, by deceit, secured the blessing that Isaac had intended for that same elder son.
In verse fifteen camels are listed among the animals that Jacob sent as a present to Esau, yet it is significant that there is no mention of them here as being part of his wealth. The reason for the omission becomes clear when we remember that the camel represents the believer’s body dedicated to the service of the new nature, and therefore, to God. In Jacob’s going to Seir instead of Canaan, and in his taking the place of servant to Esau, his body was not dedicated to God’s service. The Holy Spirit therefore, omits from the list of Jacob’s possessions the symbol of that dedication. Since this virtue was missing from his life, the symbol of it must of necessity be missing from the record of the things that were symbols of spiritual things belonging to Jacob.
The ox is the Scriptural symbol of service. Jacob’s giving oxen to Esau therefore, speaks of his taking service that belonged to God, and giving it to the old nature.
The ass represents the body as the servant of the old nature, gratifying the lusts of the flesh, so that Jacob’s giving some of them to Esau was the symbolic announcement of the truth that he was in some measure permitting his body to be the servant of the flesh.
The sacrificial animals were taken from the flocks, and since such sacrifices represent worship, the lesson of Jacob’s having flocks is that he possessed what was necessary for worship, but in giving some of them to Esau he was symbolically giving some of that precious thing to the old nature.
The manservant represents the activity of the believer’s will in service, just as the womanservant represents the submission of the believer’s will in service, i.e., rendering service according to God’s direction, and not at the impulse of the old nature. Jacob’s possession of these servants bespeaks both an activity and a passivity of his will in relation to service, and the fact that no servants were included in the things given to Esau presents the picture of a believer, who as far as his service is concerned, hasn’t given over complete control to the old nature.
The animal missing from the list here in verse 5, the camel, declares the lack in Jacob’s life: his body wasn’t dedicated to God. That this is an evil that may be found in all of us is clear in view of Ro 12:1 “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”
“I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find grace in thy sight.” Grace takes up where mercy leaves off. Mercy withholds punishment, but grace bestows undeserved blessing. Here is the sorry picture of Jacob, upon whom divine grace has bestowed every blessing, standing like a beggar, seeking blessing from the man whom God has rejected and called “a fornicator and profane person” (Heb 12:16). It is the picture of the believer refusing to keep the old nature in the place of subjection, and who, by that very failure, makes himself its servant.
32:6. “And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him.”
Jacob now finds himself in a far worse plight than he had ever known during his twenty years of service to Laban. It must have seemed to him that he had lost one bad master only to fall into the hands of a worse one. Laban (self-righteous pride) represents only a part of the old nature: Esau represents all of it, and some measure of that old nature’s power is conveyed in the approach of Esau with his four hundred men.
In Jacob, however, we see an all-too-accurate picture of ourselves. He had just been met by “the angels of God ... God’s host,” but as he learned of Esau’s approach, he trembled as though the angelic host didn’t exist, or if it did, was no match for this approaching company of the enemy. Was not the Captain of that angelic host the God Who had promised “the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it.... I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land” (Ge 28:13-15)?
Is it not the same God Who “hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness ... whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises”? And yet do we not also like Jacob, quickly forget, and tremble as though we had no defence against the enemy?
Since four is the number of testing, these four hundred speak also of testing. It is the old nature, with all its intimidating power, that tests the reality of our faith.
32:7. “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed: and he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks and herds, and the camels, into two bands.”
Fear and distress must be the portion of the believer who fails to walk in the God-appointed path, for by that disobedience he places himself again under the dominion of the old nature.
Since division is always indicative of weakness, it is easy to read the lesson of Jacob’s dividing both people and flocks into two bands as he awaits Esau’s approach. Submission to the old nature brings weakness because it is disobedience, and disobedience makes it impossible for God’s power to work in us.
It is significant that the camels, omitted in verse five, are included here among the animals that were divided into two groups. This may point to the fact that the weakness lay in Jacob’s failure to do what the camel speaks of, that is, submit his body to the service of God.
32:8. “And said, If Esau come to the one company, and smite it, then the other company which is left shall escape.”
Jacob’s hope wasn’t a very bright one. At best he might save half of his company. This should teach us the folly of ever putting ourselves at the mercy of the old nature. Our expectation can be only of loss, not gain.
32:9. “And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee.”
Here is the man who had experienced God’s power put forth on his behalf in the multiplication of the off-color animals; who had heard Laban confess that God had forbidden him to hurt Jacob; who had seen the angelic host sent by God for his protection; who had been assured by that same God “I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest” (28:15), and yet he displays a faith so faltering and weak as to be scarcely worthy of the name. Having made his own arrangements, which afforded no better hope than that half of his company might escape, he then called upon God, almost as though it were an afterthought, and as a resort in which he really placed little faith. It is an accurate, if unflattering, picture of ourselves. How often we plan and scheme, without consulting God, and then, almost as an afterthought, ask Him to bless us!
Jacob wouldn’t have been in this predicament if he had obeyed when God commanded him to “return unto thy country.” Instead he seems to have travelled south on the eastern side of Jordan, and was going in the direction of Seir. He had come to the bank of the river Jabbok, and it is significant that Shechem lies directly west of his campsite at Peniel or Penuel. Shechem is the first-mentioned camping place of Abraham when he left Haran and came into Canaan, and a movement westward speaks of approach to God. The exact location of Galeed (Gilead) is unknown, but it must have been north of the Jabbok, and we can only wonder why Jacob hadn’t already crossed over into Canaan. Whatever the reason, his disobedience caused him much unnecessary distress, and God would have us learn from Jacob’s experience.
32:10. “I am not worthy of the least of all thy mercies, and of all thy truth, which thou hast showed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands.”
Jacob’s confession of unworthiness must be the confession of every man, but especially of those who are believers. We are unworthy of any of God’s blessings.
He described himself as “thy servant,” but certainly he had been an unworthy servant; and in this we are reminded that all of us are unworthy servants. How far short even our best service falls of being what it should be, is indicated in Lk 17:9-10, “Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him...? So likewise ye, when ye have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” We have all fallen far short of that standard.
He had crossed over Jordan with only his staff, but God had multiplied him so that he was able to divide his company into two bands. This is the symbolic picture of every believer. When God took us up we had nothing except the certainty of eternal wrath and judgment, but now we are blessed “with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places (things) in Christ” (Eph 1:3). We are “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Ro 8:17).
The staff is generally accepted as being a symbol of the Word of God, so that Jacob’s crossing Jordan with only his staff, tells us that this is where we must all begin. (Crossing Jordan, the river of death, is symbolic of our becoming dead to the world). It is only when we live as those who are dead to the world, that we walk in the enjoyment of God’s peace, having only “the staff,” in which are recorded all our promised blessings, and the assurance of His presence and provision for every step of the journey through the wilderness of this world on our way home to heaven.
His having become two bands would remind us that we also are “two bands.” As believers we are still in the body, subject to earthly experience, but in those experiences we have the assurance that “All things work together” for our good. But in addition we are also spiritual men, having the capacity to live above mere earthly experience. We are able, in the Spirit, to walk through the length and breadth of the “good land” into which faith has brought us. We are able, in the Spirit, to enjoy our inheritance even now, here on earth before we enter heaven.
32:11. “Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children.”
It seems that Jacob perhaps, had little confidence in the success of his own scheme; that he realized that unless God delivered him, Esau would destroy him. In his fear he cried out to God, “Deliver me.” It was that cry that saved him, not his own scheming. We have noted already that Esau represents the old nature, and Jacob’s confession, “I fear him,” should be the confession of every believer. Our own old nature is a terrible foe, and we do well to fear it, for given the opportunity, it will slay us. But the resource that was available to Jacob is available to us. It is in our weakness that God’s strength is made perfect, and His promise is, “Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me” (Ps 50:15).
”... and smite me, and the mother with the children.” The wife we have seen to represent the expression of the believer’s new life; and the children, the fruit of that new life. Jacob’s fear with regard to them therefore, translates into a warning for us. But for God’s preserving care, our old nature would destroy our testimony which is the expression of our new nature, together with the spiritual fruit it should be producing. While that new nature cannot be destroyed because it is divine, it can be attacked, and its fruit destroyed by our old nature. We are under the constant necessity to walk obediently before God, for every disobedience is the work of the old nature, and if we permit that activity to continue it will wreak havoc with our spiritual life.
32:12. “And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.”
Jacob claimed God’s promises when he presented his plea, and that is the basis of every suppliant’s confidence. God will not go back on His word. He has promised to bless and keep us, just as He had promised Jacob.
Two aspects of God’s promise are emphasized, “I will surely do thee good.” “All things work together for good to them that love God” (Ro 8:28). “... and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.” This points to the perpetuation of Jacob’s life in his descendants, and of an ever-increasing power in the multiplication of those descendants. We have similar promises. We have eternal life, and one day we shall reign with Christ.
32:13. “And he lodged there that same night; and took of that which came to his hand a present for Esau his brother.”
Though he had called upon God, Jacob clearly hadn’t abandoned all confidence in his own scheme, and it is to his shame that he takes of that which God had given him, and prepared to give it to Esau in the hope of buying his goodwill, but in giving to Esau, he made himself poorer, for he reduced his own flocks and herds. The lesson God would teach us in this is that we also make ourselves poorer when we yield anything to the old nature. Had he had the faith to leave himself in God’s hand, Jacob need have given Esau nothing.
32:14. “Two hundred she goats, and twenty he goats, two hundred ewes, and twenty rams,”
32:15. “Thirty milch camels with their colts, forty kine, and ten bulls, twenty she asses, and ten foals.”
Clearly these animals given to Esau represent something given up to the old nature. Since the goat was the animal usually presented for the sin offering, they seem to speak of sin being taken from the control of the new nature which will not permit it to be practiced, and of its being yielded to the control of the old nature, which will.
Since the male represents the activity of the will; and the female, passivity, there being both males and females implies the involvement of both the activity and the passivity of the believer’s will in permitting the old nature to take control.
Two is the number of witness or testimony, and multiplication to twenty or two hundred doesn’t change the meaning. The principal factors of twenty and two hundred are the same, two and five, and five is the number of responsibility. These two hundred she goats and twenty he goats represent something related to the believer’s responsibility as to his witness or testimony, yielded up to the control of the old nature; which means simply failure in our witness for God. The greater number of females indicates that the sin which is portrayed here results more from passivity than activity of the will.
I regret being unable to discern the meaning of the sheep. This animal represents us both as sinners and as saints. “All we like sheep have gone astray....” (Isa 53:6), but conversion has made us His sheep, “I am the Good Shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine” Jn 10:14). Jacob’s surrender of the sheep therefore, speaks of a believer’s surrendering to the control of the old nature those who belong to God. One way at least in which we may do this is when we stumble other believers, particularly the young and the immature, our disobedience encouraging them to follow our bad example. The males and females, as well as the numbers, have the same spiritual significance as in the case of the goats.
We have noted already that the camel represents the believer’s body yielded to the service of God. These camels therefore, given to Esau, speak of the believer’s body being taken from its rightful service, and being given to the service of the lusts of the old nature. The camels were females, which points to the fact that the sin portrayed here is entirely the result of passivity, rather than activity of the will. We sin all too frequently by passive submission, when what is needed is active resistance of evil.
Their colts, too young yet to work, may represent a potential service made impossible by present folly. Some have found to their sorrow that one thoughtless yielding of the body to sin has made impossible any further effective service for God. We do well to remember Paul’s plea, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service (spiritual worship) (Ro 12:1).
There were thirty camels and presumably thirty colts. The factors of thirty are two, three and five, reminding us that our lives are to be a testimony (two) to the truth that as men possessed of resurrection life (three), we are responsible (five) to yield our bodies to God for His service, and to refrain from yielding them to the service of the old nature. Since thirty is only a multiplication of three, the thought connected with the camels is of resurrection, reminding us that the judgment seat of Christ will follow our resurrection, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Co 5:10).
The cow is usually regarded as the symbol of service, so that Jacob’s giving forty cows and ten bulls to Esau represents a believer’s taking what belongs to God for His service, and giving it to the old nature. This time the numbers are forty (number of testing), and ten (number of divine government). God’s government is the test of every man’s obedience. What Jacob did here symbolically, we often do literally. We take time, talent, money, etc., that should be used to serve God, and we place them at the disposal of our old nature.
The fact of there being more females than males points again to the truth that the sin being portrayed is that which results more from failure to do God’s will, than from deliberate evil activity.
The final item on the list of things given to Esau was the twenty she asses and ten foals. The ass represents the body as the servant of the old nature, so that Jacob’s giving these asses to Esau speaks of a believer’s relinquishing control over natural impulses, and placing them under the control of the old nature, which of course will use them only for evil. For example, the body needs rest, but rest may become sloth. The body needs food, but excess in eating is gluttony.
Whether we take the factors of twenty to be 2 x 2 x 5, or 4 x 5 the lesson emerges that we are responsible to control the impulses of nature, the life we live before God and men being the witness that we exercise that control. That the testing of our obedience is involved, is indicated by the factor four.
The lesson of the ten foals is similar to that of the camel colts, except that in the case of the young asses it is not the impossibility of future service that is in question, but rather the impossibility of regaining control once it has been given up. There being ten of them points to the truth that God’s government extends to our natural impulses: they are to be controlled for His glory.
The lesson of there being in every case more females than males is that much of what is dishonoring to God in the believer’s life comes, not from deliberate disobedience, but from a passivity that fails to vigorously oppose evil. Nothing facilitates Satan’s work more than apathy on our part.
32:16. “And he delivered them into the hand of his servants, every drove by themselves; and said unto his servants, Pass over before me, and put a space betwixt drove and drove.”
This spacing out of the droves speaks of a gradual, rather than an abrupt submission of the new nature to the old, and experience shows that this is indeed the usual pattern. It is questionable in fact whether any believer ever just abruptly abandons righteousness for evil. The process is almost invariably subtle and gradual, and therefore, the more dangerous. The Word neglected, or the throne of grace abandoned “just this once” may be the beginning of a path that will find us grovelling at the feet of “Esau,” calling him “lord,” and giving to him for God’s dishonor what we should have kept and used for His glory.
The lesson of these separate droves on their way to Esau is one we should take to heart. For some it may be already too late to call them back, but where God may use this portion of His Word to warn while there is still time, may we have the wisdom and the courage to recall the “droves,” and instead of seeking to placate the old nature, exercise our God-given power to keep it where it belongs - in the place of death.
32:17. “And he commanded the foremost, saying, When Esau my brother meeteth thee, and asketh thee, saying, Whose art thou? and whither goest thou? and whose are these before thee?’
32:18. “Then thou shalt say, They be thy servant Jacob’s; it is a present sent unto my lord Esau: and, behold, also he is behind us.”
Everything here speaks of the abnegation of the new nature. The servant may have belonged to Jacob, but since Jacob was placing himself in the role of servant to Esau, Jacob’s servant was also Esau’s. That servant may have been going on Jacob’s business, but that business was to appease Esau. The animals driven by the servant may have belonged to Jacob, but they were about to be handed over to Esau. Jacob who had been appointed by God to rule over Esau, in his fear reversed the roles and described himself as “thy servant Jacob.” He referred to Esau as “my lord,” and bade the servant assure Esau that Jacob was coming along behind the droves to place himself at the disposal of him in regard to whom God had said “The elder (Esau) shall serve the younger (Jacob) (Ge 25:23).
All of this is a picture of what happens when a believer permits the old nature to assume control of his life. First, the “droves” are given to “Esau,” and as Jacob was coming along behind them to present himself, so is it with the man who begins to yield to the old nature. It won’t be long until the giver finds himself giving himself completely over to that evil nature.
32:19. “And so commanded he the second, and the third, and all that followed the droves, saying, On this manner shall ye speak unto Esau, when ye find him.”
Drove followed drove on its way from Jacob to Esau, making the latter richer in proportion as it made the former poorer. The result is always the same: we can’t permit the old nature to rule without making the new nature poor.
32:20. “And say ye moreover, Behold, thy servant Jacob is behind us. For he said, I will appease him with the present that goeth before me, and afterward I will see his face; peradventure he will accept of me.”
Appease means “to cover” and is the translation of the word which is generally rendered “make atonement.” It would seem that this present was Jacob’s attempt to make atonement for the deceit he had practiced years before in order to obtain Isaac’s blessing. With all his elaborate scheming, and his costly present, however, the best he could hope for was that “peradventure” Esau would be appeased. The atonement made by the Lord Jesus Christ is of a vastly different character. Without effort, without price, the man who trusts in Christ has the certainty of sins forgiven, and of a reconciliation that enables him to stand before God unafraid.
32:21. “So went the present over before him: and himself lodged that night in the company.”
In sending over the present he had done all that he could, and must now spend an uneasy night awaiting the outcome. Such must be the condition of every man who relies on his own schemes rather than on God.
32:22. “And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.”
That his night was a restless one may be gathered from the fact that in the course of it he appears to have moved his whole company across the Jabbok river. Jabbok means he will empty out, and it is significant that Jacob’s crossing was on the same night in which he was “emptied out” of human strength (he was permanently lamed in his wrestling with the angel); and his name was changed from Jacob supplanter to Israel he shall be prince of God. Clearly the crossing of the Jabbok marked the beginning of a new era in Jacob’s life.
32:23. “And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.”
It seems that after having sent over his family and possessions, Jacob himself remained still on the north side of the river, and this would further emphasize the significance of the meaning of the name Jabbok, for Jacob was indeed “emptied out.” The river flowed between him and all that he possessed.
32:24. “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.”
It is generally agreed that this “man” was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. This would indicate that Jacob’s returning to the north bank of the Jabbok was of God’s ordering. God had business with His servant, and in Jacob’s being separated from everything, we learn the lesson that when we do business with God everything else must be left aside.
This wrestling has generally been taken to represent a believer’s “wrestling with God in prayer,” and while such an application might be made, it seems clear that the picture is not of man’s wrestling with God, but of God’s wrestling with man. It is surely a mistaken view of prayer that sees it as a “wrestling” with God in order to win His blessings. God delights to bless. We have only to ask, not “wrestle” in order to receive every blessing we desire. When God says “No” to our requests it is not because He refuses to bless, but rather that in His perfect wisdom His “No” is more of a blessing than what we had sought.
It was God Who “wrestled” with Jacob, and the purpose of the wrestling was to teach Jacob his own weakness. That the wrestling continued throughout the night shows, not that Jacob was almost as powerful as God, but that God is patient and willing to match His instruction with our feeble ability to take it in. The touch that ended the wrestling, and lamed Jacob, could just as easily have been given at the beginning, but Jacob had to be taught that night, in this dramatic encounter, that we can’t fight against God and win. By gentler means God had tried to teach this lesson over more than twenty years, but Jacob wouldn’t learn. The price of that refusal was that now he must walk for the rest of his life a lame man. This lesson Jacob would never forget: his lame leg would be a constant reminder.
It is to be feared that many of us similarly force God to separate us from our possessions, and “wrestle” with us, before we learn the folly of opposing His will, and the wisdom of trusting and obeying Him.
There is a lesson also in the fact that the wrestling continued in the darkness of night, and ended as a new day began to dawn. God “wrestles” with us only as long as our spiritual “darkness” lasts, and the result of that “wrestling” is that a new day dawns for us spiritually. Having taught us our weakness, God then teaches us that His strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Co 12:9).
32:25. “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.”
It is apparent that this “man” who wrestled with Jacob deliberately limited his strength so as just to match Jacob’s, and it was only when that failed to accomplish the desired result that he did what He could easily have done at the beginning: He lamed Jacob. We would save ourselves much unnecessary sorrow and pain, and many a “night of wrestling” if we simply submitted to God, saying, Not my will, but Thine.
32:26. “And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”
Again, there is no question as to the ability of the divine “wrestler” to free himself from Jacob’s grasp. The wrestling had accomplished its purpose, but God would hear that confession from Jacob’s lips, and the confession was given. It was no longer a Jacob dependent on his own scheming, but Israel dependent on God who said, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” The wrestling had taught Jacob, now become Israel, that blessing comes, not from human scheming, but from God Who delights to bless, and Who can bestow that blessing only upon obedient faith.
32:27. “And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.”
Since the interrogator was God it is clear that the question was asked, not to elicit information, but confession, for as Jacob’s name was, so was his character. As the sinner must confess his state in order to be saved, so must the backslidden saint also confess his state in order to be restored and blessed. Jacob’s declaration of his name was also the confession of his state. With that confession made, he could receive a new name, which in Scripture, is always indicative of a new state.
32:28. “And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with man, and hast prevailed.”
As the next chapter demonstrates, Jacob didn’t begin immediately to walk worthy of his new name, but certainly from that point on he began to manifest more of the Israel character and less of the Jacob. “As a prince hast thou power with God and with man.” Linked with his new name was the assurance that he now had power with God, that is, God’s power was now at his disposal, and because it was, he had power with, or over, men. The lesson we may learn from this is that God’s power is at the disposal of every man who is willing to make himself “a prince of God” by allowing God to control his life. (It should be noted here incidentally, that while the meaning of Israel is generally taken to mean a prince of God, there is good reason to believe that it may more accurately be God’s fighter: may God strive (fight for him)).
”... and hast prevailed.” Prevailed here means literally “to be able.” The thought appears to be, not that Jacob defeated the divine wrestler (clearly impossible) but that in the breaking of his self-confidence (portrayed in his displaced hip joint) he had prevailed, not over the angel, but over his own self-confidence. It was in his very inability to overcome the angel that he learned his own weakness, and learned that he must trust God.
God’s ways are not our ways. It is by means of what men would call defeat that God in Christ has won His mighty victory over death and Satan, as the poet has put it, “In weakness and defeat, He won the meed and crown; trod all His foes beneath His feet, by being trodden down.” The same principle applies to His people. It is only as we learn the weakness of our own strength, and cast ourselves upon God, that we become truly strong, and are able to say with Paul, “When I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Co 12:10). As soon as we learn that we can do nothing in our own strength, God takes us up and enables us to say, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Php 4:13)
32:29. “And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? and he blessed him there.”
In Ex 6:3 we read “And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name Jehovah was I not known to them.” God’s nature is unfolded in His names; and the disclosure of His names is indicative of special intimacy between Him and the one to whom the name is revealed. The promise to the Philadelphian overcomer is “I will write upon him the name of my God ... and I will write upon him my new name” (Re 3:12).
Though the divine wrestler bestowed a blessing, He did not disclose His name, and in this we may learn perhaps that Jacob, even with his new name, wasn’t yet ready for the degree of intimacy that disclosure of the name would have implied. Though his name had been changed to Israel, he continued to walk as Jacob, and in chapter 35:9-10 we read, “And God appeared unto Jacob again ... and said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name; and He called his name Israel.” God reveals Himself to faith, but the fullness of that revelation is in proportion to the obedience of the recipient. Jacob’s obedience was yet far from being complete.
32:30. “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”
Peniel means the face of God (lit., turn thou, God). This is not a contradiction of Ex 33:20 “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me and live.” God has been pleased at times to reveal Himself to men in human or angelic form, for example, Ge 18:1-2; Ex 33:20-23; Jos 5:13-15; Jg 13: 18-23; but no man has ever seen God in all the fullness of His unveiled glory. Jacob was aware that he had been face to face with God but it was God in the form of an angel.
32:31. “And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.”
Penuel, the unknown spot near the Jabbok river where Jacob wrestled with God, is simply a variant spelling of Peniel, and the meaning is practically the same turn ye (to) God: the face of God. The primary thought in both has to do with the face of God, and in the case of Peniel the turning relates also to God: it is He Who is implored to turn; but in the case of Penuel it is man who is commanded to turn to God. If God has been gracious enough to turn to man (and He has), then man is under the most solemn responsibility to turn to God. God had turned to Jacob. Jacob must turn to God.
As he crossed the river at Peniel (Penuel), “the sun rose upon him.” The transition from the darkness of night to the light of morning reflected Jacob’s spiritual experience. The result of that night’s wrestling was that his spiritual darkness had passed away. Henceforth, though it would be with faltering steps, he would walk in the light of his experience at Peniel.
We too have been brought out of spiritual darkness into the light of God’s eternal day. Surely we shouldn’t forget that “night” when God “wrestled” with us. “For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light” (Eph 5:8). As the result of that experience we too, are to walk as men for whom the darkness of night has been replaced with the light of morning.
“And he halted upon his thigh.” That lamed thigh was the token that in Jacob the strength of nature was broken, and was never again to be relied upon. A lame Jacob, now become Israel, would walk from that day forth, not in his own strength, but in God’s. Our strength too, will be great only as we walk in the light, and “halt upon our thigh,” allowing God’s strength to be made perfect in our acknowledged weakness.
32:32. “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.”
Since strength is connected with eating, the lesson here is that spiritual Israel doesn’t “eat” (find its strength in) that which God has “touched and lamed,” i.e., the flesh. Those who are God’s “princes” have no confidence in the flesh, for as God that night destroyed the power of Jacob’s thigh, so has He also destroyed the power of nature for the believer.
Israel’s abstinence wasn’t just on certain occasions: it was “unto this day.” In this God would teach us that we are never to rely on nature as long as we live. He alone is to be our strength. For the believer, nature is never to be anything except that which God has “touched” and made useless. But this is only that He might replace it with a mightier strength - His. God assured Paul, as He also assures us “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” May we also be able to say with Paul, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me ... for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).