Jacob wrestles with a man. “Passed over the ford of Jabbok.” The Jabbok rose near Rabbath Ammon, and flowed into the Jordan, separating North Gilead from South, or the kingdom of Og from that of Sihon. “Jacob was left alone,” on the north side, after all had passed over. “A man wrestled with him.” When God has a new thing of a spiritual nature to bring into the experience of man, he begins with the senses. He takes man on the ground on which he finds him, and leads him through the senses to the higher things of reason, conscience, and communion with God.
Jacob seems to have gone through the principles or foundations of faith in God and repentance toward him, which gave a character to the history of his grandfather and father, and to have entered upon the stage of spontaneous action. He had that inward feeling of spiritual power which prompted the apostle to say, “I can do all things.” Hence, we find him dealing with Esau for the birthright, plotting with his mother for the blessing, erecting a pillar and vowing a vow at Bethel, overcoming Laban with his own weapons, and even now taking the most prudent measures for securing a welcome from Esau on his return. He relied indeed on God, as was demonstrated in many of his words and deeds; but the prominent feature of his character was a strong and firm reliance on himself. But this practical self-reliance, though naturally springing up in the new man and highly commendable in itself, was not yet in Jacob duly subordinated to that absolute reliance which ought to be placed in the Author of our being and our salvation. Hence, he had been betrayed into intrusive, dubious, and even sinister courses, which in the retributive providence of God had brought, and were yet to bring him, into many troubles and perplexities. The hazard of his present situation arose chiefly from his former unjustifiable practices toward his brother. He is now to learn the lesson of unreserved reliance on God.
“A man” appeared to him in his loneliness; one having the bodily form and substance of a man. Wrestled with him – encountered him in the very point in which he was strong. He had been a taker by the heel from his very birth, and his subsequent life had been a constant and successful struggle with adversaries. And when he, the stranger, saw that he prevailed not over him. Jacob, true to his character, struggles while life remains, with this new combatant. touched the socket of his thigh, so that it was wrenched out of joint. The thigh is the pillar of a man’s strength, and its joint with the hip the seat of physical force for the wrestler. Let the thigh bone be thrown out of joint, and the man is utterly disabled. Jacob now finds that this mysterious wrestler has wrested from him, by one touch, all his might, and he can no longer stand alone. Without any support whatever from himself, he hangs upon the conqueror, and in that condition learns by experience the practice of sole reliance on one mightier than himself. This is the turning-point in this strange drama. Henceforth Jacob now feels himself strong, not in himself, but in the Lord, and in the power of his might. What follows is merely the explication and the consequence of this bodily conflict.
And he, the Mighty Stranger, said, Let me go, for the dawn ariseth. The time for other avocations is come: let me go. He does not shake off the clinging grasp of the now disabled Jacob, but only calls upon him to relax his grasp. “And he, Jacob, said, I will not let thee go except thou bless me”. Despairing now of his own strength, he is Jacob still: he declares his determination to cling on until his conqueror bless him. He now knows he is in the hand of a higher power, who can disable and again enable, who can curse and also bless. He knows himself also to be now utterly helpless without the healing, quickening, protecting power of his victor, and, though he die in the effort, he will not let him go without receiving this blessing. Jacob’s sense of his total debility and utter defeat is now the secret of his power with his friendly vanquisher. He can overthrow all the prowess of the self-reliant, but he cannot resist the earnest entreaty of the helpless.
“What is thy name?” He reminds him of his former self, Jacob, the supplanter, the self-reliant, self-seeking. But now he is disabled, dependent on another, and seeking a blessing from another, and for all others as well as himself. No more Jacob shall thy name be called, but Israel – a prince of God, in God, with God. In a personal conflict, depending on thyself, thou wert no match for God. But in prayer, depending on another, thou hast prevailed with God and with men. The new name is indicative of the new nature which has now come to its perfection of development in Jacob. Unlike Abraham, who received his new name once for all, and was never afterward called by the former one, Jacob will hence, be called now by the one and now by the other, as the occasion may serve. For he was called from the womb
Gen_25:23, and both names have a spiritual significance for two different aspects of the child of God, according to the apostle’s paradox, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” Php_2:12-13. “Tell now thy name.”
Disclose to me thy nature. This mysterious Being intimates by his reply that Jacob was to learn his nature, so far as he yet required to know it, from the event that had just occurred; and he was well acquainted with his name. And he blessed him there. He had the power of disabling the self-sufficient creature, of upholding that creature when unable to stand, of answering prayer, of conferring a new name, with a new phase of spiritual life, and of blessing with a physical renovation, and with spiritual capacity for being a blessing to mankind. After all this, Jacob could not any longer doubt who he was. There are, then, three acts in this dramatic scene: first, Jacob wrestling with the Omnipresent in the form of a man, in which he is signally defeated; second, Jacob importunately supplicating Yahweh, in which he prevails as a prince of God; third, Jacob receiving the blessing of a new name, a new development of spiritual life, and a new capacity for bodily action.
Peniel – the face of God. The reason of this name is assigned in the sentence, “I have seen God face to face.” He is at first called a man. Hosea terms him the angel (Hos_12:4-5 (3, 4). And here Jacob names him God. Hence, some men, deeply penetrated with the ineffable grandeur of the divine nature, are disposed to resolve the first act at least into an impression on the imagination. We do not pretend to define with undue nicety the mode of this wrestling. And we are far from saying that every sentence of Scripture is to be understood in a literal sense. But until some cogent reason be assigned, we do not feel at liberty to depart from the literal sense in this instance. The whole theory of a revelation from God to man is founded upon the principle that God can adapt himself to the apprehension of the being whom he has made in his own image. This principle we accept, and we dare not limit its application “further than the demonstrative laws of reason and conscience demand.” If God walk in the garden with Adam, expostulate with Cain, give a specification of the ark to Noah, partake of the hospitality of Abraham, take Lot by the hand to deliver him from Sodom, we cannot affirm that he may not, for a worthy end, enter into a bodily conflict with Jacob. These various manifestations of God to man differ only in degree. If we admit anyone, we are bound by parity of reason to accept all the others.
We have also already noted the divine method of dealing with man. He proceeds from the known to the unknown, from the simple to the complex, from the material to the spiritual, from the sensible to the super-sensible. So must he do, until he have to deal with a world of philosophers. And even then, and only then, will his method of teaching and dealing with people be clearly and fully understood. The more we advance in the philosophy of spiritual things, the more delight will we feel in discerning the marvelous analogy and intimate nearness of the outward to the inward, and the material to the spiritual world. We have only to bear in mind that in man there is a spirit as well as a body; and in this outward wrestling of man with man we have a token of the inward wrestling of spirit with spirit, and therefore, an experimental instance of that great conflict of the Infinite Being with the finite self, which grace has introduced into our fallen world, recorded here for the spiritual edification of the church on earth.
“My life is preserved.” The feeling of conscience is, that no sinner can see the infinitely holy God and live. “And he halted upon his thigh.” The wrenching of the tendons and muscles was mercifully healed, so as to leave a permanent monument, in Jacob’s halting gait, that God had overcome his self-will.
Peniel, or the mysterious contest.
I. THE DESCRIPTION OF THE STRUGGLE.
1. The scene. The north bank of Jabbok (vide Exposition).
2. The time. Night; the most suitable season for soul exercises, such as self-examination (Psa_4:4), meditation (Psa_63:6), devotion (Luk_6:12).
3. The circumstances. Jacob was alone. In solitude the human soul discovers most of itself, and enjoys most frequent interviews with God (Psa_77:6; Dan_10:8; Joh_16:32).
4. The combatants.
(1) Jacob: by nature the supplanter, by grace the heir of the covenant; who in early life by craft had overreached his brother Esau in the matters of the family birthright and theocratic blessing, and who had now, by the dispatch of his munificent present to “my lord Esau,” renounced both, so far at least as renunciation was possible, i.e. in respect of material and temporal advantages.
(2) A man, i.e. one who in outward appearance wore the form of a man, though in reality “the visible revealer of the invisible God” (Delitzsch); the angel of Jehovah, who had previously appeared in like guise to Abraham at Mature (Gen_18:1), and who subsequently, in the fullness of the times, incarnated himself as the Word made flesh (Joh_1:14).
5. The combat.
(1) Its commencement. When precisely this mysterious conflict began, and how Jacob was engaged at the moment of the unknown wrestler’s approach, are points upon which the narrative is silent, though it is probable that Jacob was employed in fervent supplication, and that, without knowing how, he suddenly became conscious of being involved in a close physical struggle with a powerful antagonist. Perhaps this was designed to suggest that God’s approaches to the praying soul are mostly sudden and inexplicable (cf. Joh_3:8).
(2) Its character. Though unquestionably depicted in the narrative as a veritable contest between two human beings, it is apparent that underlying the physical struggle, and related to it as the substance to the shadow, as the soul to the body, was another spiritual contending carried on by means of prayers and tears (Hos_12:4).
(3) Its continuance. Beginning probably at midnight, it was protracted until dawn, a circumstance suggestive of Jacob’s earnestness and determination, and yet attesting the severe character of all true spiritual conflicts, and the extraordinary difficulty of achieving victories with God (Mat_12:12).
(4) Its course. Four stages are discernible in this mysterious struggle.
(a) The wrestlers appear to be equally balanced in their strength and skill, so that the stranger finds himself unable to prevail against Jacob, and laying his finger on his adversary’s hip, puts it out of joint—a hint to Jacob that though seemingly the victory inclined towards him, it was due not so much, or even at all, to his wisdom and prowess, but rather to the stranger’s grace and good-will.
(b) Jacob having thus been disabled, his mysterious antagonist, as if owning that the mastery remained with him, requests permission to depart, alleging as a reason that the ascending dawn proclaimed the day’s return, and called to other duties—a valuable reminder that religion has other necessary works for God’s saints besides devotion and contemplation; but Jacob, who by this time recognized his antagonist as Divine, objected to his departure without confirming the blessing he had formerly received at Bethel—and this, the personal reception and enjoyment of the blessing of the covenant, should be the end and aim of all the saint’s contendings with God and communings with Heaven.
(c) Inquiring Jacob’s name, the Divine adversary now discovers his true personality by authoritatively changing that name to Israel, prince of El, in token of his victory—an outward symbol of the completed spiritual renovation which had taken place in Jacob since God first met with him at Bethel.
(d) Probably excited, or spiritually elevated, by what had just transpired, Jacob ventures, either with holy boldness or with unthinking curiosity, to inquire after his heavenly antagonist’s name, but is answered that in the mean time he must rest satisfied with the blessing Which was then and there pronounced. It was either a rebuke to Jacob’s presumption, or, and with greater probability, a reminder that even holy boldness has its limits, beyond which it may not intrude.
(5) Its close. Suddenly and mysteriously as the stranger came did he also disappear, leaving Jacob in possession of the blessing indeed, but also of a dislocated limb. So God frequently accompanies spiritual enrichment with material and temporal deprivation, in order both to evince his own sovereignty and to keep his saints humble (cf. 2Co_12:7).
(6) Its commemoration. By Jacob, who called the place Peniel; by Jacob’s descendants, who to this day eat not of the sciatic nerve in animals they kill for food.
II. THE REALITY OF THE STRUGGLE. The question arises whether the contest just described had an objective reality (Havernick, Kurtz, Murphy, Alford, &c.), or partook of a purely subjective character, being in fact an allegorical description of a spiritual conflict in the soul of Jacob (Kalisch), or a wrestling which took place only in a dream (Hengstenberg), or in an ecstasy (Delitzsch, Keil, Lange), for the idea of its being a myth (Bohlen, De Wette, Oort, Kuenen) may be discarded.
1. Against the notion of a dream-vision it is sufficient to remark that if Jacob’s wrestling was a dream, so also were his victory and his blessing dreams. Besides, limbs do not usually become dislocated in dreams.
2. To read the passage as an allegory is both forced and unnatural, and “little better than trifling with the sacred narrative” (Alford).
3. There is no insuperable objection to the idea of an ecstasy, provided it is not intended to exclude the objective manifestation yet.
4. There does not seem sufficient reason for departing from the obvious and literal sense of the passage, according to which there was a beret fide corporeal contest between Jacob and the angel of Jehovah in human form; for
(1) the narrative gives no indication that it was designed in this part to be interpreted otherwise than literally and historically, as in the surrounding context;
(2) unless on the hypothesis that the supernatural is the unreal, there is no imperative necessity why exception should be taken to the objective character of this remarkable struggle;
(3) the dislocation of Jacob’s thigh points to an actual physical contest; and
(4) the other events in the narrative appear to require that the historic credibility of Jacob’s wrestling be maintained.
III. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STRUGGLE. That a momentous crisis had arisen in Jacob’s history is universally admitted. He was now returning to the land of Canaan a man of mature age, being in his ninety-seventh year, and of a singularly diversified experience, both natural and spiritual, In his early life he had twice supplanted Esau by means of craft, depriving him of his birthright and blessing, and now he was on the eve of meeting that formidable brother whom he had wronged. That the prospective interview filled him with alarm is explicitly declared (Gen_32:7); but it likewise drove him to take refuge in prayer, in which exercise it is scarcely doubtful he was engaged when his mysterious assailant approached. What then did this extraordinary combat signify in the spiritual consciousness of Jacob? Putting together those views which do not necessarily exclude one another, and which appear to contain an element of truth, it may be said that this remarkable experience through which the patriarch passed at Jabbok was designed to have a threefold bearing.
1. On his fear of Esau. Apprehensive of his brother, he now learns that not Esau, but Jehovah, was his real adversary (Keil, Kurtz, Gerlach, Candlish), and that before he can ever hope to triumph over Esau he must first conquer God.
2. On his retention of the blessing. Having previously, as he thought, obtained the birthright and its accompanying blessing by means of carnal policy and worldly stratagem, he now discovers that it cannot be received, or, if he renounced it in the act of homage done to Esau (Lange), cannot be recovered except directly from the lips of God, and by means of earnest cries and entreaties (Keil)—a truth taught him, according to Kurtz, by the dislocation of his thigh, which caused him to discontinue his corporeal wrestling, and resort to prayers and tears.
3. On his personal character. Jacob during all his past career, from his birth, when he caught his brother by the heel, to his last years in Haran, when he overreached the crafty and avaricious Laban, having been a person who sought to overcome by means of self-reliance and personal effort, it was now designed to teach him that, as the heir of the covenant, the weapons of his warfare were not to be carnal, but spiritual, and that his advancement to the place predestined for him of pre-eminence over his brethren was to be brought about by earnest reliance upon God (Murphy).