Having been strengthened inwardly by his wrestling with God in prayer the night before, Jacob now faces a most critical moment in his earthly life. Physically exhausted from his wrestling with the arm of flesh, in that night-long struggle until the day began to dawn, but with spiritual strength graciously given to him, he goes to meet the man who twenty years before made known his intention to kill him.
He goes to meet Esau, his twin brother as far as the flesh is concerned, but a spiritually different brother as far as the soul is concerned. He goes in obedience to God, Who commanded him to return to the land of his fathers. And let it be understood that walking in obedience to God will always bring us face to face with enemies. We live in a world of enemies of God. We are children of light in the midst of a generation of children of darkness. And when we make friends with these children of darkness by disobeying God, we find that we are face to face with a far more formidable Enemy than these children of darkness. “Know ye not,” James asks, “that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?” James 4:4. We ought not overlook that truth; and by all means, we ought not try to talk it away. We are surrounded by enemies; and if as God’s friends we walk in obedience to Him, these enemies of God, seeing God in our walk, are going to oppose us. Yet this is far to be preferred to disobeying God in order to obtain or retain the friendship of the children of darkness and experience the wrath of an holy God.
Now these enemies of God are not always those of other races and nations and families. They can be and often are blood relatives. That surely was the case here in the family of Isaac. Jacob, who had just received his new name, Israel (Prince of God), goes to meet an enemy who is his blood brother, but is called by God Himself a “profane person.” When Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, had obeyed God and left Ur of the Chaldees to go to Canaan, his obedience brought him where he was surrounded by enemies of another race and people. He, the descendant of Shem, came by God’s command into the land of the descendants of Ham whose son, Canaan, was the object of the curse pronounced by Noah. And God is beginning to fulfill His promise to Shem that Canaan would be a servant of servants to his brethren. But with Jacob now it is a case of enemies that are not only related by blood ties, but of a brother so closely related to him that at birth he had hold of this brother’s heel, and that came into being through the same conception and birth.
Jacob knows of his brother’s hatred and of the threat which he made to take his life. This is evident in that he sends his servants ahead to assure Esau that he is not coming to take his possessions away, and that he has plenty of cattle and riches which he did not take from his brother. Jacob also knows that his brother is able to destroy him and all his family, and then take possession of all his cattle for which he worked those six hard years in the house of Laban his father-in-law. It is indeed a critical moment in his life when the day has come for him to meet his brother. It is not merely a case of meeting a brother not seen for a long time. It is not a case of a reunion with one who has been letting you know how much he misses you. It is the case of one who deceived meeting the one whom he deceived. And it is the case of one who believes in God meeting one who is not ruled by the fear of God. Although they are twin brothers, they are in no sense of the word alike. Spiritually they have a different source of life. In outward appearance they were very different from birth. The one now is a strong healthy man, with four hundred men like him, all fully equipped with sword and spear. The other is a cripple who has difficulty walking to meet his brother, and is completely unarmed as far as weapons of war are concerned. And it is to be understood that Jacob is uneasy. Wemust not make light of the situation and ignore the facts in the case. There was very real danger here for Jacob. The events of this day will reveal what the future holds for Jacob. The past is colored with shameful deeds of deceit and works which occasioned this hatred in Esau, and threatened death to Jacob personally. The present is filled with the potential explosion of vengeance of the man who has no fear of God in him. The future is clouded by what may happen today.
Understand well that Jacob has divided his family so that Esau, if he kills some of the wives and children, will not be able to kill all of his seed. Remember also that Jacob has no certainty that he himself will escape Esau’s sword. God had given him no such promise. When God gave rich promises to Abraham that he would inherit the land, this did not mean that Abraham himself personally could be sure that he would live to see the day when all of the land from the River of Egypt (which is not the Nile) to the River Euphrates would be his to live in and enjoy as his land. God gave it to Abraham in his seed. And God gives it to Abraham and to us in that the new creation will be ours. So, although God repeatedly promised Jacob to make a great nation of him, and to give him that land promised to Abraham, Jacob could not conclude that he personally would escape Esau’s sword to live long enough to be able to say of that land of Canaan that it was his, and that all the Canaanites had been driven out. Jacob never did have such a fulfillment of God’s promises to him; and he died in Egypt when none of his seed was in the land that was promised. And so the danger that Jacob himself might die that day was very real to Jacob, and in very fact. It was not a matter of unbelief for Jacob to fear such death at Esau’s hand. He understood full well that God’s promise would be fulfilled in his children; and in fact it was in his children’s children many generations farther down the corridor of history.
Yes, God did promise Jacob at Bethel to be with him in all his way and to bring him back to this land (Genesis 28:13-15). But it is Jacob’s vow that Jehovah will be his God, if He will bring him back “in peace” to his father’s house. God did not tell Jacob that he would return in peace and would escape Esau’s sword. Similarly today, we have God’s word for it that we, as those that fear Him, shall see our children’s children, according to Psalm 128:6. That is no promise, however, that in this lifeall those that fear God are going to see their children’s children on this earth, and in this life. It points to the new Jerusalem where we shall see our children’s children in the glory of God’s kingdom. And that means a whole lot more than merely seeing them in this life before we die. So Jacob is assured his seed shall obtain the land, while Jacob himself cannot conclude that he will live to see that day.
God did tell Jacob in that wrestling match that he must in the way of prayer, and in full reliance upon God, expect God to keep all His promises. He did teach Jacob that he must not in sinful ways seek to obtain what has been promised. God even changed his name to Israel (Prince of God) because he prevailed through prayer. Yet here as well God did not promise Jacob that Esau would not kill him. What Jacob was sure of, and what God promised him, was that Esau could not kill all his seed. Therefore it is that he prays that beautiful prayer, “O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord which saidst to me, Return unto thy country ,.and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee: I am not worthy of the least of thy mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast showed to Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan, and am now become two bands. Deliver me I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the handof Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children.”
Note: “Deliver me, I pray Thee,” which shows that Jacob had not the promise that Esau would not kill him. Note also that the ground for his assurance in the next verse is that some of his children will escape, “For Thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered.”
In light of all this, we must not judge Jacob to be utterly carnal and up to his old tricks in seeking safety from Esau, and in striving to keep his children from Esau’s sword. His tremendously great gift to Esau is another matter with which we will have to deal later. But putting his wives and children in separate groups, those of the handmaids first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last, was not a matter of trickery or of unbelief.
All use of means for safety is not to be condemned. Carelessness is never God’s way. We may not pray to God and then sit down and wait for Him to keep us safe, when danger is present and life is threatened. Jesus never rebuked those who came to Him for healing. Scripture never tells us to throw all caution to the wind and just pray and pray and pray. If we run to the physician without any thought of God, if we seek means and put our trust in these means, we sin greatly. But if after we have committed the whole matter to God, we make use of the means which He has made available, we may not be called carnal, and be accused of walking in unbelief. After Hezekiah prayed for his life when desperately ill, and in fact “sick unto death,” God sent Isaiah the prophet to tell him that he would recover. God even told Hezekiah through Isaiah that he would live another fifteen years. Did he then refuse that treatment of the lump of figs, and say, “God promised me I would not die, and so I do not need that lump of figs”? And he had the promise of living another fifteen years, which Jacob did not have. Throwing caution to the winds and walking carelessly is not walking by faith.
No, Jacob is throwing himself upon God’s mercy, and is holding on to God’s promise when he puts his seed with their mothers in the safest place that he can find there on the way to Bethel. He is holding on to God’s promise, and because of his firm conviction that God will give him seed like the sand of the seashore, he does what God gave him to use to defend and make safe this seed which must live, and which he is sure will live. In this we may not accuse him of wrestling with men, or of trusting in the arm of flesh.
Jacob could be very tricky and deceptive; and Jacob certainly had a besetting sin. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the new principle of life was in him. His name Israel, or Prince of God, contains the name of God, and Jacob had God not only in his name, but in his heart as a reborn child of God. We ought, therefore, to seek to find manifestations in his life of that new life and its faith, as we take note of what shows up his carnality and works of unbelief. We ought to rejoice as greatly when we hear him speak words of faith, as we feel sad when we see him wrestling with men.
Therefore his prayer after he heard that Esau was coming with four hundred armed men should assure us of his great faith in God. How humble he is here before God to confess that he is not worthy of the least of all God’s mercies. How firmly he clings to God and pleads in full trust and confidence in God when he cries, “Deliver me from my brother….whom I fear.”
Do not close your eyes to Jacob’s sins, nor to the sins of fellow members in the church. But by all means rejoice in their acts of faith. Help them to fight their sins, but let them also know that you have noticed their faith in God and that you rejoice that they too are His children with the same promises that you have.