Fearful Jacob Meets Fearsome Esau

For Jacob the inevitable meeting with Esau could not have come at a worse time. Physically the man was in no shape for this ordeal. For he had spent a sleepless night in a bone-wearying wrestling match with God Himself. He was left physically exhausted. And, what is more, he was now a cripple who was in no condition to do any more wrestling with men. Yet he must go and meet the brother who threatened to take his life away as soon as their father was dead. 

And now, if you please, we are about to have the most unusual meeting that can be desired. This exhausted cripple with a tremendous herd of sheep, with kine in abundance, not to speak of camels, and with unarmed servants and four wives and twelve children, the oldest of which cannot be more than thirteen years old, and one of them is a daughter, must meet, and is on a collision course with, an advertised murderer who has no fewer than four hundred armed men with him. Jacob had just gone through a similar ordeal with his father-in-law, Laban, when his life and that of his family were threatened with harm. One must, therefore, consider that there is also a psychological element to be borne in mind. We certainly can pity the man, and before we take a pharisaical attitude of thanking God that we are not like Jacob, we had better try to understand his position, and then look at what we do in situations less tense. Jacob’s sins and weakness of faith and its works must not be minimized or lauded; but we had better remember that God has these matters recorded for our instruction. And to ignore Jacob’s weaknesses and sins as recorded in God’s Word is to ignore what God is saying to us on these pages of Holy Writ. 

There is also, therefore, that element that must be kept in mind, namely, that the tricky one now is about to meet the one whom he cheated out of the birthright blessing by his trickery. This is not simply a meeting between twin brothers who have not seen each other—and perhaps not even heard about each other—for twenty years. On the part of both of them there is an element of uncertainty as to what to expect. Esau comes with four hundred armed men not knowing how many Jacob has, not even knowing Jacob’s purpose in coming back. He may have surmised, because of past history, that Jacob is coming now to claim the birthright blessing and take all of his father’s possessions, perhaps even by force. Esau’s band of men seems to suggest that Jacob does not know how wealthy Esau is, and how much resentment he still holds. Neither one is expecting a joyful family reunion. 

One truth needs to be kept in mind, and that is that a believer is coming to meet an unbeliever. One whom God loves is meeting one whom God hates. And no amount of philosophizing will change Romans 9:13 that, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated.” That word hate is hate and not “love less.” Never, and I saynever, in Scripture does that word have the meaning of containing a bit of love. It is the same word that we find in I John 3:15, “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer, and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” And murderers do not kill because they love less. They kill because they hate. 

Now two believers walking in their faith would on meeting only create an atmosphere of “How pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1). How delightful this meeting would have been, if both Jacob and Esau had met as fellow believers after a separation of twenty years, even if the separation was caused by the sin of one of them. In forgiveness, in meeting in the shadow of the cross of Christ, in confession of past evil, and in mutual rejoicing in God’s pardoning grace and mercy, we could say of it, as the Psalmist continues to do, “There the Lord commands His blessing.” That we do not have now; and such a meeting is not to be expected, for these are not men with the same spiritual life bestowed upon them. No, Esau does not understand Jacob, and cannot be expected to understand him. When, therefore, Jacob speaks those words of faith in answer to Esau’s question, “Who are these with thee?”—and he had reference to the wives and children of Jacob—Jacob’s words go unanswered. Jacob replied to Esau, “The children which God hath graciously given thy servant.” Esau has no reply, because he cannot understand such language.

Jacob, on the other hand, in addition to possessing the new man in Christ has his old man of sin, and can therefore understand his brother. And his old man of sin knows how to handle the man of sin of Esau as well. Let it be noted that the child of God has an oldman of sin, because in his rebirth he obtains another and a new man. The unbeliever has only a man of sin, just one, and therefore it cannot be called an old man. But this does give the child of God an advantage which must not be abused. It pleases God to use men with a new life and an old life to preach the gospel to those yet in unbelief. And having that old flesh, knowing the very motions of sin in his own flesh, the preacher of today is able to understand the ways of the unbeliever and his needs. 

Jacob is to be commended for his language of faith here when he confesses God in His grace as the answer to the question as to who these wives and children are. God graciously gives them to us—our wives as well as our children, and our children through our wives. No room for boasting is there; nor for that matter is there room for complaint and resentment when God gives another child. That is not the language of faith or the speech of the new man in Christ. Jacob does approach Esau as a believer is called to witness before the unbeliever. He does manifest his faith here; and in this we ought to rejoice. 

But there is much of Jacob’s old man of sin here as well. And for that we ought to weep, and from it we ought to learn the lesson which Paul teaches us in Romans 7, that when we would do good, evil is present. This explains—although it does not excuse—the works of Jacob that did not proceed from faith. They did embrace, kiss each other and weep, because those natural, blood ties were still there. Not only were they brothers according to the flesh, but they were twin brothers. Not only did they live together in one family from birth, but before they were born they were together as womb mates, Jacob even having his little chubby hand around Esau’s heel when he was born. 

It may be argued that it was the oriental custom of the day for men to bow, and call each other lord. That kissing and weeping also may be attributed to the emotional character of certain peoples of that day. But what is true of the world and its man of sin, need not be and often should not be what the child of God with his new man in Christ ought to have attributed to him. And that Jacob wanted to give his brother a gift need not be an evil deed and one that is lacking in faith. Faith will cause the believer to give to the poor unbeliever. Is not that the point of Jesus’ parable about the Merciful Samaritan? He did not ask whether that wounded man was believer or unbeliever. He asked himself the question, “Whose neighbor am I?” The wicked Jews asked Jesus who their neighbor was. Jesus in the parable taught them and us that this is not the question, but that we should always ask, “Whose neighbor am I?” The question concerns those whom God has caused to cross our path in order that we might help, show mercy, assist with spiritual as well as material gifts. We cannot fault Jacob for giving his brother a gift, if indeed it was intended to show his love for his brother. And let it even be stated that Jacob did not know at that moment what Esau revealed later, “I have enough, my brother, keep that thou hast unto thyself.” If his conscience bothers him now about what did not touch him twenty years before, namely, that he by trickery had gotten his blind father to bless him while thinking it was Esau, let him now make amends and bestow upon his brother a goodly gift. Let him repay what he took away. Let him make amends and plead for forgiveness. 

You do not find that plea for forgiveness here. Jacob wants reconciliation—even before he knows that Esau comes with four hundred men—and being sent back by God, he knows that he must live near Esau, but in vain do you find a suggestion of such confession on Jacob’s part. 

It is true that he had a right to all the goods which he had. It is also true that he had a right to the birthright blessing, not in himself, but because God gave it to him through his blind father. But all this does not excuse him from his calling to confess before Esau his works of deceit. The meek shall inherit the earth. All things are ours for Christ’s sake. But this does not mean that we may deceive, steal, cheat, and take by force from the neighbor, and having done so to take the position that we owe them no apology, no confession, and we need not have sorrow in our souls for sin. 

This lack of one word of confession on Jacob’s part means that Jacob’s old man is at work in this gift, in the bowing seven times before he comes to Esau, and his act of calling him lord. In that light also must be seen his insistence that Esau keep that gift, even after he said that he had enough. This failure of Jacob to say one word of being sorry for his sin colours the work of his hands when he gives such an overwhelming gift and insists on Esau receiving it even after he has stated that he has enough. Here, too, it may be stated by some that this refusing was the custom of the day and the oriental way of politeness. But that addition of Esau that he has enough explains his refusal to accept as being other than the fact that it was the way of the day not to appear too anxious and eager to get a gift. Jacob is trying to buy his way into the good graces of Esau by his gift instead of confessing his sin before him. 

How true that even “the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience,” as the Heidelberg Catechism so correctly states it. We have only a beginning, and with Paul must say that we have not yet attained (Philippians 3:12) and are not already perfect. And even that beginning is a small beginning; and we have far to go and stand in need of much until the day of our death, when God graciously takes from us that whole old man of sin. 

And let it be pointed out that Esau is more honorable here than Jacob. Jacob, instead of all that bowing from a distance, should have run up to Esau with a confession on his lips. Instead it is Esau who runs up to Jacob and embraces and kisses him. Esau showed a far more forgiving nature than Jacob showed a penitent one. Had Jacob run up with a confession, Esau would have understood that great gift of Jacob. Now he is puzzled and must ask what it means. 

The question does arise, “Did Jacob really learn his lesson that he must wrestle with God in prayer and not with men in the arm of flesh or with trickery?” The answer is that he did. But we must not expect Jacob to be perfect. How wonderful it would be if, having learned a lesson in the preaching of the gospel, we would walk always in that way and never go back to our former sins. But the flesh is there and asserts itself. And this underscores not only that we have great need to wrestle with God in prayer for the grace that will keep us in the narrow way, but also that we are saved by grace. In heavenly glory we will look back on this life and realize that we do not deserve to be there, and that we are in this glory only by God’s grace.