24 Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. 25 Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. 26 And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.” But he said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!” 27 So He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.” 28 And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.” And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there. Genesis 32:24-31
We find at the beginning of Genesis chapter thirty two that Jacob had an angelic encounter. He was on his way home after over 20 years of self-imposed exile. Behind him was Laban, ahead of him was Esau, whom he had cheated before he left home. Jacob was in a very serious distress. But reassuringly, he saw this company of angels. He realised that he had an ‘aerial cover’. He called the place Mahanaim, meaning two camps: God’s and Jacob’s.
You would think that the encounter with angels would assuage his fears. Not at all. Jacob sent advance message to Esau that he was on his way home from Laban’s house and that God had blessed him. The messengers returned with a terse feedback. “Then the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he also is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” (Genesis 32:6). This is not the kind of messenger you need when you are in a distress!
Now, for a minute, imagine yourself in Jacob’s shoes. The last word he heard from his brother Esau which made him flee from home in the first place was, “I will kill Jacob.” “So Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father blessed him, and Esau said in his heart, “The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41). And now he is hearing that Esau was coming with 400 men. Jacob was totally distraught! He knew his brother to be a violent man. Isaac had said concerning Esau “By your sword you shall live.” Apparently, he now led a local militia and they were heading for Jacob. No one goes to meet his brother with 400 militants!
Jacob resorted to prayer. The last time we heard him pray was when he was in a distress (Genesis 28). Now again he is in another distress and is praying. Why would some people pray only when there is a problem? Why should prayer be a last resort instead of our first resource? Anyway, when a man is in this kind of situation you don’t need much motivation to pray – your life depends on it. Jonah didn’t need a motivation to pray in the fish’s belly! (Jonah 2:1).
Jacob acknowledged God’s mercy upon his life. He realised that he didn’t deserve all the blessings he had received, he reminded God about His covenant with his parents and how he is returning home in obedience to God’s instruction to him. He wanted God to deliver him and his family from the hand of Esau (Genesis 32:9-12). By this time Jacob was a broken man.
AND JACOB WAS LEFT ALONE
After the prayer, Jacob began to strategize. He divided up his resources in twos. His calculation was that if Esau destroyed some, others would be able to escape. He did all that he could humanly do but that didn’t still solve his problem.
Then Jacob was left alone. There are times when we must face life alone, when everything we’ve counted on would make no meaning. Jacob was left with nothing. He had passed all his possessions over the Jabbok, which means ‘pouring out or ’emptying.’ Here he empties himself of all his possessions and relationships to the other side. He now had to face the reality of life.
It was in this state that he realised that though he was alone, he wasn’t really alone. There was another being that showed up. He wrestled with a Man. Jacob was in such distress that anything or anyone that could be of help was welcomed. Whether Jacob initially knew that this was God or not is not clear. However, God showed up.
For a moment, let’s imagine this situation, God chose to show up at the time that Jacob needed Him the most and in a form that Jacob could relate to. Jacob was already steep in fear and it was night. By this time he was at his wit’s end. Lifeguards know that the best time to save a drowning man is when his strength is all gone. God chose not to come in His magnificence but in human form. That’s similar to the story of redemption – God became Man so that we could relate to Him..
JACOB WRESTLES WITH GOD
What transpired that night would remain a mystery until we see Jacob and ask him. However, one thing is sure: it wasn’t an easy fight. It was an intense struggle. Jacob’s life has been a struggle right from the beginning. In the womb he struggled with his brother; at Laban’s house it was all a struggle. Even to marry a wife was a big struggle – what other people get so easily, for Jacob it’s a struggle. Hosea twelve verse three captures it this way: “He took his brother by the heel in the womb, And in his strength he struggled with God.” Though Jacob had the birthright and the father’s blessing yet his life was a struggle. There are people who are seemingly blessed but their life is filled with pain and sorrows.
Now, Jacob’s struggle is with the Almighty God. It was so serious that God asked Jacob to let Him go but Jacob held on. When he wouldn’t let go, God touched his hip and it was disabled. Then Jacob realised that this was not a mere man he had been struggling with. This struggle has not been with ‘flesh and blood.” You would think that by now, having realised that he was dealing with God, Jacob would let go. A drowning man would even die holding a straw if he found one! Jacob must have been saying to himself, “my hip may be out of joint, but I won’t let you go until you bless me. Behind me is Laban, ahead of me is a revenge-seeking violent brother, I won’t let you go unless you bless me. I’d rather die here than let you go.” Jacob was desperate. A person who is desperate is a person who has lost hope in everything except his last option.
Have you ever faced that kind of desperation? We live in a generation where people don’t know how to hold on. The saints of an earlier generation knew what was called “praying through!” People tarried in prayer. They waited upon God until they received an answer.
All this was happening in the night. Jacob was weeping and pleading with God for a blessing. The psalmist said “I entreated Your favor with my whole heart; Be merciful to me according to Your word. (Psalm 119:58). Jacob was passionate about it, he prayed like his life depended upon it. He was tired of a life of struggles; he was tired of living beneath his potentials; he was tired of being at the mercy of circumstances.
WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
God asked Jacob a crucial question: “What is your name? You would wonder, “Why would the Omniscient God ask a man his name”? Well, remember that 20 years earlier, this same question was asked by Jacob’s father, Isaac. Then, Jacob’s answer was “I am Esau.” It is therefore significant that when Jacob is asking for a blessing God is asking for his name.
God was saying to him: identify yourself. A person’s name gives him identity. In a sense, your name says something about your character. The saying, “tell me your name and I’ll show you who you are” is almost always true in the Bible. With Jacob it was true. Jacob means: heel-grabber; ‘supplanter’ and he really lived up to his name. See how his brother described him: “And Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright, and now look, he has taken away my blessing!” And he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” (Genesis 27:36). Jacob had an ‘evil-bent’ from childhood that had dogged his path through life to this point. God would bless him but He would first of all deal with the character issue in his life.
God wants us to be real. He doesn’t want us to be fake. He doesn’t want us to have one reputation at church but a different character at home. He doesn’t want us to wear a mask, pretend to be one thing while we are really another. If God blesses us in our duplicity we would think that He endorses that kind of lifestyle!
When Jacob came to terms with who he was, he inadvertently located the source of his struggles and was ready to be delivered, to experience the change that he had always longed for. God now told him, “And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28). From this point forward Jacob was going to have another identity. He would now be a “prince with God,” a person that would always prevail no matter the circumstances. This would not only be true for Jacob as a person but it would be the reputation of his descendants through the ages.
A NEW DAY
Jacob rightly captured what he had experienced. “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:30). To see the ‘face of God’ is to obtain the favour of God. After this encounter, Jacob was never the same again. The life of struggles ceased and he entered into rest; he was now living like a ‘Patriarch’. By the time he was meeting with Pharaoh, he went as a statesman. He even blessed Pharaoh!
A new day dawned in Jacob’s life as he left from the place of divine encounter, Twenty years earlier, the sun had set on him (Genesis 28:11). It had been a long night of struggles and disappointments. But now, “Just as he crossed over Penuel the sun rose on him, and he limped on his hip.” (Genesis 32:31). The shadows of the past that had hunted him up till this time had been driven away by the rising of the sun. He was now ready to meet with his estranged brother. While he was having an encounter with God, God was also touching Esau, such that when they met the next day everything had changed. When God changed Jacob He also changed his circumstances.