Jacob at Peniel

“And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.”  Gen. 32:30

Jacob – a more colorful character in all of Scripture there could not be! Contending with his brother before he was born, clutching his brother’s heel as he was born; conniving, cheating, and running most of his life. What a history and what a life! And yet, when we come to Hebrews 11:21, we read that Jacob as an old man, “worshipped, leaning upon his staff”.  Like many believers, God had faithfully seen this patriarch through many snares and pitfalls of personal experience. But how did He do it? How does the Lord do it with any of us? The account of Jacob’s experience at Peniel in Genesis 32 provides the clue and the paints the backdrop to answer this all-important question.

A Rough Start

As a twin, Jacob seemed destined for conflict from the start. His rambunctious personality was evident even before he was born. Rebekah his mother sensed the struggle between the two brothers while yet in her womb. Mothers seem to know the tendencies of their children from their earliest days and Rebekah was no exception. Jacob was rightly called a supplanter and it does not take long in the biblical account that this part of his character was clearly manifested as he bargained for the birthright and stole his brother’s blessing, Gen. 25, 27. Advised by his mother to make a run for it to avoid his brother’s wrath (Gen. 27:43-44), Jacob intended to stay with his uncle Laban for only a “few days”, a plan that turned into years. It was while en route that he had a dramatic encounter with God, Gen. 28:10-22. His elementary understanding of the principles of faith was expanded when he had a vivid dream of angels ascending and descending upon a ladder which had been set up on earth and reached to heaven. It would turn out to be the start of a spiritual journey for this man whose hard ways were symbolized by the rock that he put at his head as he lay down to sleep. It is a wonderful picture of the salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ who meets people at their point of need and is Himself the “ladder” set up on earth that reaches to heaven. He is the means of divine communication and is the only avenue for sinful man to connect with God, John 1:51. The promises given to Jacob (v. 15) have their spiritual parallel for the NT believer. It highlights the faithfulness of God and the assurance that He will patiently and faithfully keep everyone who belongs to the “house of God”, (Phil. 1:6; 2 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 10:21). What God promised to do He did throughout Jacob’s sojourn even during the low points (Gen. 31:5; 7) right up to the end of his life, (Heb. 21) as He will do with all who know and love Him.

The Plot Thickens

Despite these assurances however, the attitude of Jacob was far from perfect. Looking out for His own interests, he makes a self-motivated vow to “seal the deal” at Bethel. To his credit, he establishes and anoints a pillar, an indication that he apprehended the importance of the spiritual life, though his understanding of its privileges and priorities were incomplete and carnal at best. But God is gracious and had great things in store for this man, as He does for us! Jacob promises to give the Lord a tenth of his money, provided that God would take care of him and bring him back, as if the Almighty needed his money!  How much like us, who so often are looking more to get than to give. It is the slanted perspective of someone young in the faith who has a long way to go in the school of God. That school with all its difficulties and disciplines was something that Jacob had not yet experienced, but would in time. Despite Jacob’s growing family and his success in business (Gen. 29-31), the life of Jacob for the most part was devoid of any vital testimony for the Lord. Like many Christians, he was knowledgeable of only the basics of the faith and had not progressed beyond a certain level spiritually. God had called him back to Bethel, the place of his spiritual beginnings, (Gen. 31:13) but that return (both practically and spiritually) had not yet occurred. Peniel would become the place in which Jacob would “turn around” would become the defining event in spiritual life.

Jacob’s Defining Moment

Nearly twenty years later, Jacob was still the object of his brother’s scorn. The events of previous years undoubtedly festered and garnered resentment in the mind of Esau. When Jacob came near Edom, it was no surprise that Jacob’s mind was already at work to effect a strategy of self-preservation.  God was still present in his life (Gen. 32:1-2), nevertheless Jacob put together a plan followed by a prayer—vintage Jacob running ahead of the Lord and asking Him to bless his self-driven efforts. How hard it is to die to self and to cast ourselves fully upon the Lord! Yet anyone who has been in similar circumstances understands how pride and self are often the last pillars to fall. His own “me first” attitude was further evidenced when he sent his family over the brook Jabbok, where he remained by  himself (vv. 21-24). It was at this juncture that the Lord began to work in a special way in Jacob’s life. God had already been at work in his life for a long time, first at Bethel and in the years that followed. But God had called him back to Bethel where he had first acknowledged the Lord and priorities of the life of faith. But Jacob, whose strength was more in his legs than his faith always ran from one problem to the next—to every place but Bethel.   

It was while Jacob was all alone at Peniel that the Angel of the Lord, an OT appearance of Christ wrestled with him all night. Often the greatest work that the Lord does in a believer’s life when they are all alone under dire circumstances. The condition was bleak: it was night and Jacob was by himself with nowhere to turn. It was a perfect situation for the Lord to work and demonstrate the truth of His promises. It is also intriguing to note that the Angel of the Lord initiated the wrestling match with Jacob. God had desired change in Jacob’s life all along, but to this point it was minimal on Jacob’s part. Now the Lord was taking further action to effect a deeper change in his life. It occurred after a long struggle that lasted all night. It was not until the Angel of the Lord was successful in getting Jacob to cling to Him and begging to be blessed that this transformation took place. What God had wanted in Jacob (and desires for us as well) was now happening. He had gotten him to the point where he was “close” to the Lord and not relying in his own strength. This same Angel of the Lord that slew 185,000 Assyrians in a single night (2 Kings 19:35) was patiently working to gain another type of victory in the heart of this heir of faith. Touching the hollow of his thigh, He aimed at his strength, making him weak but in the process helping him to prevail. And all it took was a “touch”!  It is a key principle in the school of God as 2 Corinthians 12:9 reminds us of the words of the Lord – “My strength is made perfect in weakness”.  How can we not refrain from declaring: “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!”, Rom. 11:33?

The Ways of God                 

The scene afterwards of Jacob limping as he headed over the brook Jabbok to face up to his brother Esau is a poignant one indeed. Here was a man who had gloried in his ability to keep one step ahead of his problems, but who had been subdued by the hand of the Lord and made to sense his own frailty before God. What a sight it was – a new walk, limping instead of running; a new direction, heading toward his problems and not away from them; a new name, Israel – “prince with God”; and a new purpose, reconciliation with his brother. What a change had taken place in this man’s life! It was all part of the process of Jacob becoming the person that God wanted him to be and one step closer to getting back to Bethel, Gen. 35.

In many ways, the life of Jacob is a composite picture of God’s work in the life of the Christian. It is certainly a portrait in miniature of God’s faithful and patient dealing with the nation of Israel as He will eventually bring them around to the point of submission, Zech. 12:10. Perhaps the biggest lesson however, is that God’s words and promises are true and He works in our lives, especially in our desperation to bring about significant change in our lives. May that be true for us as well.

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