Wrestling With God

(10/15/95 and 06/12/11)



Genesis 32:24

 “Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.”


When you think about wrestling, perhaps you think about The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and CM Punk. You think of “sports entertainment” where the moves are “worked,” and the outcomes are “predetermined.” That is “Rassling.” The wrestlers all have stage names like the Undertaker or Rhino or the Rock, and they have onstage personas. Typically, matches are staged between a protagonist ("the good guy", who is usually an audience favorite, known as a babyface) and an antagonist (“the bad guy,” an arrogant villain who is called a heel).

Our scripture today is about a wrestler who is definitely a “heel,” a bad guy. Genesis 32 is about wrestling match. God is the good guy. The heel is Jacob.

Jacob was one of the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. He was born right behind his brother, Esau. Jacob came out of the womb holding his brother by the heel. Thus, he was called Jacob, which means in Hebrew "supplanter" or "tripper." It was an apt name. Jacob spent most of his early life trying to trip up and replace Esau.

Because Esau was the first-born, he could expect the greater part of the inheritance when Isaac died, but Jacob persuaded Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of soup. That was surely one of the most expensive meals in history. Still later, Jacob impersonated Esau and deceived his old blind father into giving him the blessing that was intended for the eldest son.

Esau was probably not as smart as Jacob, but he was not stupid. When he learned that Jacob had stolen his blessing, he was so enraged that he wanted to kill this upstart brother of his. Esau was the stronger of the two brothers, and by far the better warrior, so Jacob fled the country.

One night on the road, he had a strange dream. He saw a ladder stretching from earth to heaven and angels going up and down it. When he awoke, he realized that the dream was a symbolic representation of contact between heaven and earth. The dream meant that God was present both in heaven and on earth. Further, the dream meant that God was with him. God was with Jacob even though Jacob had not been the kind of person we ordinarily think of God being with.

That is good news for us also. Sometimes we know that we have done things that make us unworthy of God. Jacob's ladder reassures us that God is still with us.

Jacob named the place where he saw the ladder to heaven Bethel, and he made a vow there that if God would protect him and be with him, that he would serve God, but he was not yet ready to serve God or to know God.

When he reached Haran, Jacob worked for Laban for twenty years. Laban was a wily Syrian who was at least as tricky a trader as Jacob. Jacob had manipulated and exploited others. Now he learned how it felt to be manipulated and exploited. But in the end, he departed prosperous. He came to Haran with nothing but his shepherd's staff. He left with wives and concubines and children and flocks and herds, but as he approached Canaan, he remembered that many years ago, he had cheated Esau, and he did not feel very good about that. He sent messengers ahead to Esau, hoping his brother had forgiven and forgotten. The messengers returned with the frightening news that Esau was coming with 400 men. We can almost see Jacob biting his nails with anxiety. Was Esau coming in welcome? Or was he coming to massacre the whole camp? What should Jacob do?

First of all, Jacob divided his people and his flocks into two companies. He thought that if Esau attacked the first company, the second could escape. Also, he sent presents to Esau: goats, sheep, camels, cows, and donkeys. He personally did all he could to deal with his problem. That is a lesson to us. Whenever we are faced with trouble, we should do what we can.

But that is not all Jacob did. He turned to God and poured forth to God a plea for help. In chapter 32:10-12, Jacob prays, "I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness which thou hast shown to thy servant ... Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother." So here is the second bit of advice for us when we have trouble--Pray.

However, Jacob's prayer escalated into a desperate confrontation with God. V22 tells us that night Jacob sent his wives and concubines and children across the ford of the Jabbok, while he remained on the other side of the river. The opening words of V24 are, "And Jacob was left alone." It was time to think and pray about his miserable excuse for a life. Now we know with the 20/20 vision of hindsight that Jacob will inherit the covenant that God made with Abraham and Isaac, but the problem is that Jacob is not yet the kind of person that God is willing to deal with. Jacob must face the darkness in his own soul and overcome that darkness before he can become the kind of man that God wants him to be. The same is true for us. We must face the darkness in our souls and overcome that darkness before we can be the kind of people that God wants us to be.

It was a time of crisis for Jacob: of outward crisis--Esau was coming with armed men; Of inward crisis--Jacob cannot go on being the kind of person he has been. Jacob must first settle his inward, spiritual crisis before he can deal with the outward crisis. That is the way it always is. We must always deal with crisis in our souls before we can deal with our worldly troubles. There is a cry in Jacob's soul that must be heeded, even if Esau kills him tomorrow, especially if Esau kills him tomorrow.

This inner spiritual crisis of Jacob is symbolized in V24 by the struggle in the darkness with an unnamed foe. Jacob had two great visions of God in his life. Twenty years earlier at Bethel he had the vision of the angelic ladder that assured him that God would be with him. Certainly, that was an inspiring vision. That is the kind of uplifting, positive vision that we would all like to have from God, but that was probably not the crucial event in the life of Jacob. The crucial event was when he wrestled with something in the darkness by the river Jabbok.

We should note that this spiritual crisis took place when Jacob was a middle-aged, supposedly successful man. He was the father of many sons, a man of property, a man of experience. Some might ask, Was not Jacob a little old to be having such a religious struggle. Some think that the crisis of religious life is for young people. They say that we have some sort of spiritual encounter in our youth, and never after should we concern ourselves about such things. They think that if they were "saved" as a teenager that is the extent of religion. The story of Jacob wrestling teaches a different lesson. Twenty years have passed since the young Jacob had the vision of the ladder--the promise of God's protection and security--but Jacob is just now getting to the place in his spiritual journey where he can apply that vision.

Genesis 32:24 describes Jacob's inner crisis in terms of a physical wrestling match with "a man." It is single combat, hand to hand. Yet as we read further on, it seems that this man is transformed into God. Now this is difficult to understand. First of all, God is not a physical being. God is a spirit. Secondly, Almighty God has such power that we cannot imagine wrestling with him for even a microsecond. Certainly, we cannot imagine a man wrestling with God and winning. But V25 says, "When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob." This man wrestled all night with Jacob and did not prevail? Can that be God? Clearly not. What is going on here?

First of all, this is much more than a physical wrestling match. This is a three-way struggle. Jacob is wrestling with a man, and the man is himself. The man is crafty Jacob, the old man of sin. Jacob defeats this man, and the defeated “man” is transformed into God. God of course is not defeated. The lesson is that as soon as we defeat our old man of sin, we encounter God.

To signify that God has come on the scene in Genesis 32, this “man” touches Jacob in V25 and puts his thigh out of joint. Jacob wrestles on. He is not yet aware that the struggle is over, then we are told in V26 that dawn is breaking, which is a symbolic way of saying that Jacob is about to receive spiritual knowledge. The breaking of day symbolizes the coming of light into the poor storm-tossed soul of Jacob.

Now Jacob realizes that he faces God, and he asks God for two things: To know the name of God and to receive the blessing of God.

At his first contact with God, when he saw the ladder to heaven, Jacob asked for purely material things: physical protection, food, clothing, but in Genesis 32 we find a more mature Jacob. He has come to have little confidence in the flesh. He has come to appreciate the value of spiritual things. Now he says in V29, "Tell me, I pray, your name." But God does not tell Jacob his name. There is a significance here that we do not want to miss. In seeking the name of God, Jacob wanted far more than a few syllables by which he could address God. He wanted to know God. Not that he does not believe in God. Of course he does. But he wants a deeper relationship with God.

Now God did not directly answer Jacob's question because he had already answered it in a far more effective way. This whole episode, this whole account of Jacob's wrestling with God, is God's answer to that question. Jacob met God that night. Jacob encountered the spiritual source of the universe, and that encounter had such an impact upon him that ever after he could affirm not only that God is, but that God is with me.

But of course he cannot really describe in human language how he knows or even what he knows. This is always the way it is with the great experiences of life. They impact us so deeply that words are always just a pale shadow of what actually happened, and all we can say is, "Too understand you just had to be there."

I remember when my wife and I visited Grand Canyon many years ago. I had seen pictures of the canyon, and I thought that it was just a big ditch. I was prepared to be unimpressed. Then we got there, and I walked out to the edge and looked at that big ditch, and I was stunned, because the pictures do not convey the immensity of the canyon. I learned why there is only one canyon they call “grand.” Now we took some pictures of the canyon, and I saw them again not long ago, but like all pictures, they fail to convey the sense of size you get when you actually stand on the rim of the canyon. So I would have to say, "You have to see it to believe it. You have to feel it and experience it." That is the kind of knowledge that Jacob obtained that night when he wrestled with God. It was an experience that went beyond the mind into the depths of his soul.

V30 says that Jacob named the place where he wrestled by the river Peniel, which means "face of God." For there he had met God and he could say, "I know that God is with me."

That is the way that we need to know God. No one can ever completely prove by scientific methods that God exists, but we do not really care about that anyway. What we want is to encounter God. We want to meet God with our whole being. We want to end our spiritual struggle and take our rest in the Lord of life.

The message of Jacob's struggle is that we can have that rest. When Jacob faced the darkness within himself and confronted the sin in his own life, he found God. So can we.

Also, v26 says, Jacob sought God's blessing. He remembered that blessing that he had stolen from Esau. Now he understood that a stolen blessing is no blessing at all. This is a new Jacob. He has learned some wisdom. He has learned that the things of the spirit are not gained by theft or treachery. He wants God to give him a blessing that will really be his. He wants a personal sign of God's favor.

So do we. We pray every day that God will be with us and help us, and that is asking for a personal blessing. But if we really want God's blessing, we must learn a new way of thinking and become a different kind of person.

In V27 God asked Jacob, "What is your name?" Jacob answered, "Jacob"--that is, “liar, supplanter, deceiver.” Jacob realizes that is not only his name that is what he has been. The confession of his old name reminds him of his old character. It reminds him of his sins, and yes, he must confess his sins before he can have anything to do with God.

But then God says to Jacob in V28, "Your name shall no more be Jacob but Israel." He has a new name because he has a new nature. He has become a child of God and so now he will be called Israel---which means "God rules." God rules now in Jacob's life, and God should rule in our lives and we should be Israel.

One final lesson then. After Jacob wrestled by the river and resolved his spiritual crisis, he went forth the next day and met Esau. We read in Genesis 33:4, "Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept." All the old hatreds, all the old quarrels were forgiven. The two brothers were reconciled.

When Jacob resolved his inward, spiritual crisis, his outward physical crisis took care of itself. This shows us then how to deal with the problems of life. Deal with the number one problem first. Deal with your spiritual problem and then you will find that many of those other problems that you are so worried about are no longer problems at all.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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