There are three parts in the history of God's ways with Jacob which are not only important because of their prophetic character, and still future application in blessing to Israel and the whole world, but on account of the deep moral instruction they convey to us, in the man who was thus called out to walk with God. The first is in Gen. 28, called "Jacob's vision at Bethel; " the next in Gen. 32, where "an angel wrestles with him;" and the third in Gen. 35, when "Jacob is again summoned to Bethel."
The name of Jacob (supplanter) casts its dark shade upon the man; and, as Esau said at the beginning of his path, "Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he bath taken away my blessing." With such an one as this God had to walk in all the way by which He led him, but to correct him in grace, and to teach him in the end that human policy and cunning (especially when used in connection with the promises of God) only complicate the path of faith, which finds its sufficiency in the Promiser alone. One great lesson we all have to learn, who have to do with "the living God," is that the ways and means by which He accomplishes His purposes touching our "birthright," and also our "blessing," are as distinctly His own care as the things He promises. Indeed, we may ask, How can it be otherwise, if His own glory lies hidden in the promised blessing? Human contrivance and cautious planning, which are the open faults in Jacob, not only stamp his character, but necessarily create, by their action, a moral distance between himself and the "God of his father Abraham and Isaac," which must not be allowed. Intercourse with Abraham, we may observe, did not begin in the distance of "a vision by night" (though he had a vision), nor was it measured by "a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reaching to heaven" - whatever this may and does mean prophetically. These would have been as much out of place morally in God's intimacy with His "friend," and with the head of the family of faith (who bound his only son Isaac upon the altar, in the day when God taught Abraham), as they were consistent and in keeping with Jacob, the supplanter and schemer. His first lessons were when "the sun was set, and he tarried all night in a certain place," in the day that he fled away from Esau to Laban, at the advice of Rebekah. It seems to me that the ladder, whilst it allows of communication between parties at the top and at the bottom, yet marks as plainly the distance which it maintained. In John's gospel "the ladder" is done away and gone; for how could there be a ladder when the Word was made flesh? "The angels of God henceforth," Jesus said, "ascend and descend upon the Son of man." God will not, however, allow anything in the man at the foot of the ladder to interfere with His purposes and objects; on the contrary, the promises are repeated and confirmed to Jacob, without condition or reserve on the part of God; for who or what can withstand Him when He is risen up out of His place? Still, as regards Jacob, when he awaked out of his sleep it was to say, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not." Does not this mark his state? and is not the moral distance of the ladder confirmed by what follows? "And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place!" though he adds, "This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." Nevertheless, Jacob does not lose the relation of a worshipper; and this is very precious on the part of the God of Abraham towards the object of His love, for he took the stone pillow, and "set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it," and changed the name of Luz into Bethel - though he be only at "the gate," and "the ladder."
The ruling passion of the supplanter and the bargainer breaks out even in this intercourse with God at Bethel. "And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on; . . . then shall the Lord be my God: and I will surely give the tenth [of what He bestows] back to Him." Nature, which always fears the circumstances it is in, shows itself to be at work under this form of piety, in order to find relief in God; but it does not get beyond their reach by such means. There may be a measure of faith in all this; but the stipulation is for God to be with Jacob in the way that he takes, so that he may come again to his father's house in peace. How far outside and beyond this little circle of mere human interests and ideas lay the promises of God, which He had just rehearsed to the ear of faith: "Thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad . . . . and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." Instead of getting out into liberty by the exercise of faith in the largeness of God's thoughts about him, which embraced "the whole earth" in ultimate blessing, Jacob would have been content with the measure of his own individual safety, and satisfied if the Lord would have limited Himself to the littleness of the vow that Jacob vowed, immense as this vow may have seemed to the contractedness of flesh and blood. Alas for us, if we see clearly the mote that is in our brother's eye, and discover not (nor remove) the beam that is in our own eye!
Genesis 32 seems to me the correction of this forwardness of the flesh by the wrestling of the angel which it records. The beginning is significant - "And Jacob went on his way" - which introduces us to his methods and plans for appeasing the wrath of his brother Esau, whom he feared. The faith which strengthens itself, and can be at home only in the revealed purpose of God, and then, occupy itself in intercession for those who lie outside, as Abraham did for Lot, is not after this pattern in Jacob. On the contrary, unbelief and carnal policy, carefully wrapped up in their own fears, betray themselves by the very expedients to which they have recourse, as well as by their style of action. The resources which would have commended another man in Jacob's eyes are the things to which he turns, that he may find grace in the sight of his brother. All this fleshly cunning mixes itself up too with a certain dependence upon God, expressed in his prayer, though he has not confidence enough to be quiet in the hand of God for protection and deliverance. How often the flesh exposes itself to another by the very concealments which it practises upon its owner! So he turns again to the presents and gifts which he designs to employ in order to pacify Esau. He gets no answer to his prayer, and follows his own devisings with his goats and sheep, camels and asses. Nor is this enough; but he delivers them into the hands of his servants, every drove by themselves, with a further charge to "put a space betwixt drove and drove," and arranges even the form of words for the messengers' mouths. So far away is the heir of promise from the dignity that attaches to him as appointed by the Lord, that he is lost in the guilt of his own act, by which he supplanted his brother, and cringes before him as a servant in the presence of "my lord Esau." Lower than this he cannot well go; and at this point it is, when at his wit's end, that the Lord takes him in hand for gracious discipline: "Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day." The flesh itself is now to be dealt with, which occasioned all this corrupt and deceitful planning between himself and his brother; and the bargaining with God in Gen. 28, when lying at the foot of the ladder he was afraid and said, How dreadful is this place."
The beginning of a deep lesson was introduced here, when the wrestler prevailed not, but put forth his hand, and "touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him." In later times, and in a more spiritual and personal way (by grace), has the flesh and its actings been put to the proof, and discovered and dealt with summarily. It was when Jesus was on the earth, and had gathered the company of His disciples round about Him day by day in the enjoyment of His love, that "they all forsook Him, and fled." It was in the weakness of their own flesh and when so intimate with such a One that they broke down, and denied Him in thy hour of His own danger and death!
Wrestling even till "the break of day" did not cure Jacob the supplanter, whatever the severer course of the touch, and the sinew that shrank in the hollow of the thigh, may have done with him individually. Nationally, when the law was given through "the disposition of angels" by the hand of Moses, wrestling, if we may so say, was again established with the tribes of Israel; but the effect of this striving was to learn that "the strength of sin is the law," and they are dispensationally "broken out of their olive tree" as the consequence. It is indeed a long and humbling history of the wrestling, and the sinew that shrank up in the very place of its strength, from Jacob's day to Peter's, when the Lord said to him, "Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not." The wrestling at Peniel, the law as the school-master, Jesus in the midst of His disciples on earth, or Paul caught up to the third heavens, could not get rid of this "sin in the flesh." Jacob might "halt upon his thigh" all the days of his life, and Paul might come from paradise with "a thorn in the flesh," the messenger of Satan to buffet him, lest he should be exalted above measure; but the flesh in each was flesh still. Severer and final measures, which far exceed the sinew, or the law, or the sieve, or the thorn, thank God, have been adopted at the cross of Christ for our effectual deliverance from its dominion. It is there only it has received its death-blow; for there God has "condemned sin in the flesh," and set it aside for ever between Him and us. In prospect of this it may be, and at "Peniel," that Jacob learnt his early lesson by "the sinew that shrank" under the touch of the angel.
It is well to remember, too, that in this struggle "the name of Jacob," the supplanter, was refused by the wrestler, and changed; for 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." Nor is it without meaning that Jacob on his part called the name of the place Peniel. "For I have seen God face to face," said he, "and my life is preserved." And yet further we may notice what is pointed out to us, that as Jacob "passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh." Precious combinations were these in the experience of Jacob; and still more so are they to us who commemorate the deeper truth of death at the cross, where we reckon "the old man crucified," and know in effect that we are "alive unto God through Jesus Christ" (not that life is preserved), and we see God face to face in our risen and ascended Lord: "For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." This is our Penuel; and when we by faith in communion with the Father's love pass over (like Jacob in his day), our sun rises upon us, and "we all looking on the glory of the Lord with unveiled face, are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Lord the Spirit."
On the other hand, may we as steadfastly refuse the flesh in all its affections and lusts, and mortify our "members which are upon the earth," as did the children of Israel by their affinity with Jacob their progenitor. In acknowledgment of the day of his wrestling, and their identification with him as "Israel," they eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh "unto this day." Do we perpetuate this refusal of the flesh as they did? Are we faithful according to the judgment of God upon the flesh, which He condemned on the cross? Do we bear about in the body "the dying of the Lord Jesus," that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our body? As a consequence of this "suffering in the flesh," do we no longer live the rest of our time in the flesh, to the lusts of men, but to the will of God? (See 1 Peter 4:1, 2.) The Spirit says of us, "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts." (Gal. 5:24.) Neither Israel nor we eat of the sinew that shrank.
In Genesis 35 the ladder is gone, and with it Jacob in his original character of supplanter and bargainer is gone too; nor do we find any more the activity and strength of the flesh, which lasted up to the break of day in its determination and will. God Himself can come in and take His own place now that the wrestling is over, and has perfected its work. Refreshing it is to the heart that knows anything of itself and of the ways of God to find Him take all out of our meddlesome hands into His own. It is in this way our chapter begins: "God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel; and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the, face of Esau thy brother." Quite in character with this gracious direction are Jacob's own proceedings; for it is not only himself who is once more in the presence of God, but, like Abraham, he commands "his household after him" to judge themselves according to what becomes the face of God, whom he saw at Penuel: "Then Jacob said to his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments; and let us arise, and go up to Bethel."
He gives God the right place now; for even the altar is no longer to be commemorative of Jacob and Bethel; but it is henceforth to bear the name of El-bethel, or the God of Bethel, as its great and distinguishing character. This entire change from the garments they wore, to the altar of their worship, and the stripping themselves of their ornaments, as well as the denial of the strange gods that were in their hands, and their burial "under the oak, which was by Shechem," stamp another pattern upon Jacob. "Be clean" is now his word, as indeed it was afterwards by the priests, and then again by the prophets whom God sent into the midst of His people, until Christ came forth, and did the work which enables God Himself to testify that "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin."
So "God appeared to Jacob again, when he came out of Padan-aram, and blessed him; and said, Thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name." Thus the whole circle widens, and is filled with the light of God's own presence; and in grace Jacob, and all that his name implied, is buried at Shechem too. The same grace that refused to call him any more Jacob declares henceforth his name to be Israel; and He who loves to roll away every reproach from off His people writes upon Him this new name, sealing it as His own act, for "He called his name Israel." Here too we may remark that the reserve which was maintained on God's part whilst the wrestling with the flesh was going on, so that He said to Jacob, "Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?" and declined to give it, has no place or occasion longer. "And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings . . . . and the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee." All is now as it should be, without let or hindrance; "and God went up from him in the place where He talked with him," without ladder or angels on His part, and in the absence of all terror and fear about person or the place on Jacob's, for the distance that produced both is gone. There is an advance also in the character of the faith that followed, now that Jacob is no longer a wrestler, but in the peace and communion of a worshipper and a prince with God. Thus the pillar and the oil poured on its top, which was in keeping with "the vision" of the house of God, and the gate of heaven at the outset, must here, in the reality and enjoyment of "the presence," have its drink-offering superadded. Jacob can no longer say, "The Lord is in this place, and I knew it not;" for God had come down to him, and changed him into a prevailer "with God and with men." Moreover, he now stands identified under the name of Israel with all God's purposes and promises to patriarchs or tribes, and to peoples and nations, whether for their own covenanted blessing or for the glory of all the kingdoms of the world. What could Jacob do in the presence of such grace? He "set up a pillar in the place where God talked with him . . . and he poured a drink-offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spake with him Bethel." There is remarkable progress and advancement here, as amongst any in our day, when there is growing "in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." Without these elements our worship will be impoverished, and the worshipper be feeble.
When this is not the stand-point of faith before God through Christ, and communion is not maintained upon the fact that we are "clean every whit, and made nigh," there must be again the ladder, or may be the gate of heaven. Perhaps, too, "how dreadful is this place," if conscience be not purged and ruled by the blood of Christ, but is only quick in a deepening sense of what God is in His own holiness, and what Jacob, the supplanter, is likewise in the flesh as in His presence. Nor will any escape out of this moral distance by doing as Jacob did, and taking a part with him as a bargainer with God, or a vow-maker. We must be receivers, and not givers, and abide under the new name of Israel (after the wrestling is finished), for we are dead. Then "the fruit of the Spirit" takes the character which David gave to his offerings and the offerings of the princes, "Of thine own have we given Thee;" for whatever comes from God goes back to Him in the sweet savour of Christ, by whom, it is produced in us. This intermediate process must be gone through with Jacob, and the flesh withered in the sinew, where its strength dwells, by taking part, and reckoning by faith that God has entirely done with it by death at the cross. This is indispensable now before the nearness and intimacy of the soul is established with God in unclouded confidence at Bethel, or with El-bethel and its drink-offering Here it is that Jacob comes out from under the cloud of his crooked policy, and follows on in the pathway of God's own footsteps. And we never walk so securely as then, though it will surely be with sorrow and yet with rejoicings. "They journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed" in birth with her son. In the depth of her trouble, and the hour of her death, "she called his name Ben-oni," (or, the son of my sorrow); "but his father called him Benjamin," (or, the son of my right hand), giving forth the double titles, which by birth belong to Jesus alone as "the Man of sorrows," and yet on the other side of the cross and His sufferings the Son of the Father's right hand, exalted to be "a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance" (in a yet future day) "to Israel, and remission of sins." How blessed thus to have been a link in the chain of God's purposes, quietly and happily following Him in the path by which He accomplishes "the birthright and the blessing" for His own glory and the glory of His "Ben-oni - Benjamin" in that day. Far better, as now, in the perfect revelation He has made of Himself, as "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," and our God and Father in the Son of His love, by death and resurrection, to wait for His shout, and the Church's rapture!
In conclusion, we may notice how "wittingly" Jacob acts in his last days in full accordance with the mind and ways of God, instead of continuing crafty and cunning in his own as at the first. The instance which is narrated in Genesis 48 gives us, I think, this proof. "It came to pass . . . that one told Joseph, Behold, thy father is sick: and he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim," whom Jacob claimed as his own, saying, "as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be mine." In the bestowal of the blessing Israel guided his hands wittingly, though Joseph was displeased, putting his right upon Ephraim's head, and his left upon Manasseh. The sovereignty of God "according to election" had been established in the birth of Jacob and Esau; and now the firstborn is to be set aside in the divine order of blessing. So he set Ephraim before Manasseh, saying, "His younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations." All the lessons which Jacob had to learn touching "the birthright," as well as the order of "the blessing" (apart from the venison and the mess of pottage), are now well gone over with God, and learnt. He has but to gather all his sons around him, and, as a prophet of the Lord, "tell them all that shall befall them in the last days." He charges them further to bury him with his fathers in Machpelah, in. the land of Canaan, that he may stand in his own lot in the resurrection, and be found in the right place till then, in the cave where Abraham buried Sarah, and where they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and where Jacob said, "I buried Leah."
In the bright record of those "who obtained a good report through faith," this last act of the order of the birthright, and of the blessing upon Ephraim and Manasseh, stands out as sufficiently remarkable to memorialize Israel. "By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph" (in the unclouded certainty of the promises of El-elohe-Israel); "and worshipped on the top of his staff." He thus passes away from us as "the heir of promise," and content to be only "a pilgrim and stranger on the earth" - a true worshipper leaning on the top of his staff - till "Ben-oni - Benjamin" comes a second time in His own glory, and the glory of His Father, and the glory of the holy angels! The staff will then give place to the throne and the sceptre and the royalties of the kingdom promised to him by the "I am" at Bethel. And many "shall come from the east, and the west, and sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob," and drink wine new with their Messiah, and great shall be the peace of His people.
How happy to accept all our blessings, whether now or hereafter, on our birthright title, and hold them in undisturbed communion with "the Father and the Son," under the anointing and witness of the Holy Ghost that dwelleth in us, till the day of our translation and of the Church's rapture comes!
Rebekah's counsel at the first, and the clever contrivances of Jacob, have been made foolish and contemptible, as all ours will surely be too; for God catcheth the wise in their own craftiness. His new order is, "If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise."
"The birthright" and "the blessing" are ordained of God to us in the Son of His love. May we value them so highly as to walk in true character with Him! May we be regardless of the venison in the hunting-field, and Rebekah's savoury meat, but keep close to the appointed Heir of all things till He comes to claim possession and take us, in as joint-heirs with Himself.
J. E. B.