And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the country of Edom . . . .

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. 

Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.

Genesis 32:3,6,7 

It was the apostle Paul who noted, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33). This unsearchable wisdom of God we find so evidently demonstrated in the life of Jacob. As to the nature with which he was born, Jacob had very little which can be considered commendable. He was weak, cheating, dishonest, proud, ambitious, and sinful. One thing only Jacob had, that was, the elective grace of God. Deep and mysterious were the ways through which that grace led him. Again and again it brought him unto sorrow; repeatedly it set him before temptations where only too often he faltered; but always it was near to lift him up again, to guide, preserve and keep him, to mold, form and build him into a saint of God worthy to sit eternally with Isaac and Abraham, his fathers. 

It was no doubt with a sigh of relief that Jacob saw the figure of Laban fade away into the distance. Twenty years he had spent in the household of his uncle; those years had been far from pleasant. During those years he had prospered immensely; but it had been in spite of his uncle, not because of him. Always and again Laban had tried to use Jacob only for his own advantage. No underhanded means was beyond him; lying, cheating, hedging on promises, changing terms of contract, all these and more Laban had tried. The worst of all, however, was that Jacob did not often have the strength to resist answering in kind. Life in Haran became a constant sparring match between two cunning minds. Such a life cannot but be vexing to a righteous soul. With relief Jacob saw it come to an end. 

Even more encouraging to him, was a revelation from God which appeared as Jacob and his host proceeded toward Canaan. A host of heavenly angels met him on the way. Of the details of this appearance Scripture tells us very little. About all we know is that Jacob named the place of their appearing Mahanaim, meaning, a double host. This has led to various speculations. Some have deducted from this that two different groups of angels made the appearance. Others have felt that there was only one group of angels, and, with the host of Jacob, they formed a double host. Again it has been suggested that the vision of Bethel reappeared with the ascending and descending angels forming the two different hosts. Which of these views, if any, most accurately reflects what actually took place, we can hardly determine. Regardless of the form of the appearance, the meaning is quite clear. God was reaffirming to Jacob the promise which he had made at Bethel. It reminded him of God’s Word of blessing, “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.” The host of the Lord’s angels watched over him in the way. A more comforting assurance a man could hardly have. 

Had Jacob been a man of greatest faith, this revelation would have been sufficient to alleviate all of his worries. But Jacob we know, as we ourselves, was inclined often to falter. As Jacob approached closer unto Canaan, his mind became more and more uneasy. An old fear, through the years almost forgotten, began once again to raise its ugly head. When he came to Canaan, he would have to meet once again with Esau. It had been out of fear for Esau, his brother that he had left for Haran in the first place. Esau had sworn to kill him. Through his extended stay in Haran, Jacob had found less and less occasion to think about this oath. His fear had become almost completely dormant. Now, however, as his footsteps once again led toward the place where Esau dwelt, this old fear began once again to revive. Although he had almost forgotten, what reason did he have to think that, Esau’s anger had abated? Each step of the way seemed to make this question more real and more critical before his mind. Even more, he began to review in his thoughts all of the old reports about Esau that travelers from Canaan had brought to him through the years. Esau had not retired in quiet seclusion unknown and unnoticed by all. Rather, his feats had been such that they attracted very wide attention. He had gathered about him a vast company of men, wild and belligerent like himself. As a wild Bedouin tribe, they had gone about laying waste the land wherever they went, especially the land of Sier on the east side of Jordan. If the wrath of such a group of men should be turned upon him and his household, what chance would there be for them to survive? Finally, to make Jacob’s fear overwhelming, there was his conscience that was not free from guilt. His dealings with Esau in the past had not been all honest and straight. He had given to Esau occasion for wrath. What mercy could he justly expect? 

Beset by his fear, Jacob felt that something had to be done. He called to himself some of his servants and sent them ahead to meet with Esau. The purpose of this was twofold: they were to try to discover the feelings of Esau toward Jacob, and they were to try as much as possible to soothe whatever wrath Esau still held. Neither would he leave these men to act according to their own discretion. He gave to them a carefully-worded message: “Thus shall ye speak unto my lord Esau; Thy servant Jacob saith thus, I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed there until now: And I have oxen, and asses, flocks, and menservants, and women servants : and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find grace in thy sight.” This message was carefully devised to leave a reconciling impression upon Esau. It bore a tone of meekness and humility such as Jacob had not had in former years. It assured Esau that he, Jacob, now had sufficient wealth of his own and there was no longer any necessity for him to contest with Esau for the inheritance of their father. It stated, finally, that he desired to live henceforth in Esau’s good graces. 

It was not long after leaving Jacob that these messengers met with Esau. Esau had heard of the approach of Jacob and was coming to meet him. The intervening years had, indeed, served to take the edge off Esau’s wrath. While still dwelling in his father’s home, it had seemed to Esau to be vitally important that he should receive his father’s inheritance. Now he was independent and self-sufficient and the memory of Jacob’s actions bothered him not nearly so, much. Nonetheless, he did remember the antagonism which had always existed between him and his brother. Their lives had always been in conflict. Esau was coming to find out if Jacob by returning to Canaan was intending to renew this conflict. If Jacob did, he was ready to oppose him. Nor was the message of Jacob sufficient to allay his fears. He was not one to trust a man’s mere words, especially not the words of Jacob. His reception of the messengers of Jacob was cold and formal. He received their message and sent them back without an answer. The only report that they could bring to Jacob was that Esau was approaching with four hundred men. 

To Jacob this message was frightening. The only conclusion that he could make was that Esau was still angry and intent on destroying him. What could he and his few domesticated servants do against four hundred armed and hardened men? Desperately he sought for an answer. Always before his mind had been capable of devising some plan of action in his troubles. Now he sought in vain. He divided his household into two different groups so that if one was attacked, the other could try to escape; but what comfort could be derived from a plan which at best could secure the safety of only half of his possessions and family. It was the grace of God which brought Jacob into circumstances for which he could not begin himself to devise the solution. It brought him to find assurance in his only true rock of defense. Jacob prayed. “O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lords which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands. 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. 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.” It was a simple and beautiful prayer of faith, a prayer which in essence could be repeated by any child of God in time of need. As every child of God should, Jacob in his prayer found only one basis for his plea, the promised mercies of his God. As every child of God should, Jacob in his prayer trustingly laid all of his needs in the hands of his God. And, perhaps in this case most significant of all, he made a complete confession of his own unworthiness. In his own mind and heart, Jacob saw his sins whelming up against him. All of his past pride and arrogance and rebellion accused him of his guilt. In grieving awareness of his own depravity Jacob cried, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed thy servant.” 

It was a different Jacob that rose from his knees that day. Still the fearsome attack of Esau seemed to be pending; still that basic conflict that had always existed between him and his brother was there; but, he was being prepared to meet it in a new and a different way. Always before it had been in his own strength that Jacob had sparred with Esau. He had matched the ingenuity of his own mind against his brother’s greater strength. This had led him repeatedly into sin and sorrow. Now Jacob was brought face to face with his own bankruptcy. His approach became entirely different. Jacob separated from his flocks 550 heads of cattle. These he divided into separate groups to go ahead to meet with Esau. The servants that drove them he commanded to tell Esau concerning these cattle, “They be thy servant Jacob’s: it is a present sent unto my lord Esau: and, behold, also he is behind us.” Jacob took the approach of humility. He was beginning to learn that he who will be the first in the kingdom of heaven must first of all be the least. He was learning the truth later set forth by the apostle Paul, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger feed him! if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:19-21

God was already answering the faithful prayer of Jacob. Jacob had prayed that God would deliver him from his enemy. In his own mind that enemy was Esau, and, in a very real sense this was true. But also in a very real sense that enemy was himself as he was inclined to follow the proud and sinful inclinations of his own flesh. From this enemy also God would deliver him. In fact, a very great step in that deliverance was ordained to take place that very night before he actually entered Canaan by passing over Penuel.