It is well for us that the blessed God never abandons His purpose to bless His people, and well for us too that He blesses after the thoughts of His own heart; this being so, what limit can we put to the blessing?
It is both instructive and interesting to observe the way and method of God's sovereign goodness to His people; it is thus, the wise "understand the loving-kindness of the Lord."
In Jacob's history, which I think furnishes a striking illustration of this principle, every dealing of God with him was in view of making good the sovereign goodness revealed to him at the outset. If we turn to Genesis 28, which may be termed the start, what do we find? Why, a poor outcast wanderer from his father's house and home, overtaken by night, lying down to sleep on the stones for pillows. It were hardly possible to find circumstances more untoward or gloomy; yet here it is God can be; for while man's falsely boasted independence repels Him, man's need and misery become occasions to Him, blessed be His name, as the most suited platform upon which to display that sovereign goodness which delights to bless the weary and the outcast.
Jacob dreams, and God speaks! and wondrous utterances they are: "I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land wherein thou liest, to thee will I give it and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of." Oh, what grace, what sovereign goodness on God's part! No wonder that this spot, the witness of it, should be called Bethel, that is, the house of God.
Now this manifestation of sovereign grace and goodness on God's part, contained within it the full scope of blessing for His poor servant. Many and various were the ways of God with him in bringing it all about, and making it good in him, yet nothing was bestowed in the end which was not unfolded in promise at the first. How faithfully He keeps His word with us, as He kept it with Jacob! To the latter He said, "I will not leave thee until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of," and He never did leave him, His hand was never withdrawn, in accomplishing the purpose and plans of His heart: stroke after stroke, blow upon blow, witnessed how true God was to His purpose and His word.
The circumstances in which Jacob is found are remarkable, but ever, I believe, those in which sovereign grace asserts itself and acts; let us name the circumstances as recorded in this chapter.
1. The threat of his injured brother Esau (chap. 27:41) placed him in the condition of a banished man from his home and father's house; as such he fled.
2. Overtaken by the darkness of night, without shelter or friend, the stones of the earth are his only pillow.
3. In the above circumstances he sleeps, and dreams, and the Lord draws near, and gives him to hear His voice.
Now this last fact, namely, his sleeping, is the time when the blessed God acts, for sleep is the type of nature's inactivity and expressed helplessness. I say expressed, because though nature is always a weak helpless thing, yet sleep is in the fullest way its expression; when nature is thus silenced, as it were in type, and subdued, the power of the man being in abeyance, God speaks and acts.
Let me cite another instance of this type. If we turn to 1 Kings 3:5-15, we shall find it. "In Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night: and God said, Ask what I shall give thee. And Solomon said, Thou hast showed unto thy servant David my father great mercy, according as he walked before thee in truth, and in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with thee; and thou hast kept for him this great kindness, that thou hast given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day. And now, O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father; and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in. And thy servant is in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered nor counted for multitude. Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?"
This scene, beautiful and striking as it is, presents the other side of the truth which is sought to be illustrated: we have seen how, when nature is inactive, the blessed God draws near and speaks; here we may equally see in type how that, in nature's inactivity in God's people, divine thoughts take the place of all that is merely human. Solomon asked for wisdom, "And the speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing," Surely we never please Him in what we ask or do, save as nature's claims are disallowed, and to this end sleep sets forth its inactivity, and fasting the denial of its claims in its activities. When it is so, the blessed God stands at the top of the mystic ladder, heaven is then not far off, or wisdom is asked as the thing most pleasing to Him. To us, this is Christ, God's wisdom and God's power.
I turn now to chapter 32. A long and trying period intervenes between chapter 28 and chapter 32. Suffice it to say, that Jacob departs from Laban, full and not empty; at Bethel he had but the stones of the earth for his pillows, but now he is rich; as he said himself he had "oxen and asses, flocks, and men-servants, and women-servants;" he has now, as we may say, a stake in the world. During those twenty years he had been with Laban, amid trial and vexation, he had been gathering around himself all the materials for the discipline which awaited him; the approach of Esau brings on a crisis-moment in Jacob's history. He lets out his natural character to its full extent in view of meeting his enraged brother; he plans, and prays, and plans again; he makes every provision, and then is "left alone." How like man as man! But this solitude, while on the one hand it was Jacob's folly and selfishness, was God's moment of blessing; "There wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day." Who was the mysterious, unlooked-for, unexpected stranger? No doubt it was God Himself, and He is here to deal with and put down dependence in self; and hence, as the picture of this, what was touched and shrank was the known sign of man's strength. Yet while this power of nature was being withered, Jacob himself was sustained; the same hand that dried up, as it were, the sources of natural strength, imparted new power from above; and so it is, he enters upon a new day, gets a new name, Israel, and is blessed as a crippled man; and not only this, but when the sun rose upon him, that is, when the influences of the day are around him, he is in the expression of weakness; "he halted upon his thigh."
I think there can be but little doubt, that this scene in the patriarch's history is that to which the apostle alludes in Galatians 6:15, 16. "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walked according to, this rule; peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God." What is "this rule"? Is it not for us the new order of things into which through grace we are introduced? and was not Jacob after the night of Peniel, the picture of one who, having been delivered through the cross of Christ, has learned now the power practically of the death of Jesus in his mortal flesh?
Let us consider well the excellency of such weakness as this; for it is not the mere inability of one who is powerless, but it is the case of one who, having been in the full flow of natural energy, was met and contended with by Him who knew how to put out of joint the spring of creature strength; it is therefore divinely wrought weakness. How blessed to go halting and limping all one's life after this fashion! to be so indebted to Him for lack of nature-power, that His strength becomes our ability, as Himself becomes our solace and stay. "I will not let thee go," though the utterance of a vanquished man is the announcement of victory.
Now similar to this in many respects, is the case of the apostle in 2 Corinthians 12. He could boast and glory in that which made little of him before men, because thereby the power of Christ rested upon (lit., pitched its tent over) him; thus it was he knew that, by being weak, he was strong; paradox it may seem, yet who that knows the deep blessedness of the secret would have it otherwise? On the contrary, may we not justly and truly say, "out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness"?
There is this difference in the two cases just touched upon, that whereas with Jacob it was the breaking down and withering up the seat of energy of one strong-willed and unsubdued, in the case of the apostle of the Gentiles it was the preventive grace of God, in order to cut off the resources of nature; in Jacob it was the subjugation of natural force and will at their height; in Paul it was the anticipative prevention of divine grace; both are excellent and perfect in their time and place, like every way of our God.
This weakness, which is really our strength, is the moral power of death, practically withering and setting aside the man in the saint, in order that the plant of renown in each one of us may spread forth its roots, and produce its fruit, even the life of Jesus, in our mortal bodies. Blessed it is, if in any measure we have learned to be in subjection to our Father's heart and ways, even in that which is naturally death to us; but no language can convey the blessedness of being so in communion with Him as to be able to say, "I take pleasure" in them.
A vessel in the power of weakness is a sight for angels truly; yet this is what God delights in; but how little any of us seem to have the sense of being simply vessels! There is too much of that which tells of our being actors or agents, but a vessel is distinct from both, and is simply to retain and manifest the treasure placed in it. In Gideon's army we read of (Judges 7) three hundred tried and proved ones, who were retained because they had manifested a reality of devotedness to which the ten thousand that had remained were strangers; it is this vessel-character which marks them; they are at the disposal of another, they were those pre-eminently to whom their chief could say, "Look on me; as I do, so shall ye do." It is this very three hundred that carried "empty pitchers," and lamps within them; at a given signal and moment they brake the pitchers, and this was the hour of their victory. What moral beauty there is in all this; surely it speaks in its typical import of that greater victory which is announced as won in these words, "We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed." (2 Cor. 4:8.)
It need not surprise us that such are the ways of our God with His own; nothing could set aside man in his badness or goodness, but death. Why should we shrink from it? We brought death into this world; solemn thought for us all. The Son of the Father goes through death, that the man who brought it in, might be for ever set aside; thank God it is so before God, and He recognises only the risen and glorified Christ; but then, practically and experimentally, death alone can secure to each of us divinely wrought weakness, or the practical setting aside of the man in each of us, which can neither be reformed nor restrained, and thus alone is room made for the power of Christ to display itself in us, once agents or actors, now but vessels at the disposal of His pleasure and will. May each heart thankfully be enabled to say, "Be it unto me according to thy word."