Genesis 32:25&26 “When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’”
Jacob is left all alone, his family, servants, possessions and his closest man-servant have all gone over the river Jabbok into the distance. There he stands, just himself, and then out of the silent darkness comes a man, an adversary, who proceeds to wrestle with him.
1. JACOB COULD NOT BE OVERPOWERED BY THE ANGEL.
They fight back and forth. Jacob needs to get away, to go past the man and to follow his destiny, his wives and children and possessions and be confronted by his brother, but the man grips him and won’t let him go. Jacob needs to go forward, to head towards the Promised Land, but this man puts his body on the line and stops him. They sweat and strain and struggle for hours until the light begins to change and dawn is almost upon them. Jacob cannot win, but the man doesn’t prevail either. In fact we are told that “the man saw that he could not overpower him.” (v.25). The first reason for this was that the person wrestling with Jacob was a ‘man’ not a superman. When the Son of God became incarnate he became a real man who got thirsty, weary, needed to pray, wept, bled and died. There were many people in the world bigger, faster, taller and stronger than him. He was not built like Goliath. So too the angel of the Lord who took upon himself the form of a man and wrestled with Jacob did not take on the form of a giant. The other reason why he could not prevail over Jacob was that God was testing Jacob as far as the limits the Lord had set for them both. In this way God could come to know, not by omniscience but from his own experience of wrestling with him, how strong men and women can be and they can be very strong. People can die long lingering deaths and refuse morphine so that they can be alert and think and speak to the end. They can suffer and never complain. They do this not because they are Christians but because they are made in God’s image. The Angel of God learned this from this encounter, and especially just how amazingly resilient this patriarch was; Jacob simply wouldn’t give up, in spite of weariness, exhaustion, fear and pain he still hung onto the Lord and gave as good as he got, refusing to be pinned down in defeat.
On October 29, 1941, during a most terrible period in the Second World War though some light and hope were beginning to dawn, Prime Minister Winston Churchill returned to his old school, Harrow, by an invitation of the headmaster. The boys sang the school song with an added new verse in honour of him, and then he spoke to them. The speech was less than five minutes in length but the climax of what he said spread around the nation in the days that followed. A single speech to 600 schoolboys but the nation pricked up its ears and was galvanized by it. This is Churchill’s climax: “This is the lesson: Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy . . .” That was also wrestling Jacob’s determination on the banks of the Jabbok brook. He would never give in to the stranger who came out of the darkness and wrestled with him.
You understand that I am not talking about a spirit of stubbornness. I am talking about the outworking of mental and physical fitness. Douglas MacMillan, as I have said, wrestled in the Highland Games, and this is a point he made; “We have all seen wrestlers, perhaps on television. We have seen people, up there in the ring, laying hold of each other in ferocious fashion and then exerting their strength and their skill – doing it all the more lustily and heartily, perhaps, just because they knew they were wrestling on television. Or it may be that we have actually seen those huge fellows wrestling on the field of athletics. There was a time when I did a little wrestling at our Highland Games in the north-west of Scotland. It did not take long to discover a very elementary fact about wrestling which helps interpret this story of Jacob wrestling the Angel of the covenant. It is simply this; you cannot wrestle with a man and stand six feet away from him. You have to get right in there and come to grips with your opponent, and the quicker you get in and do that, then the better it is for yourself and your chances of survival and of victory. Wrestling requires total commitment. So does a life of godliness” (J. Douglas MacMillan, Wrestling with God, Evangelical Press of Wales, 1991, pp. 61&61). This week I read these words of Don Carson: “People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.
Then Douglas MacMillan says, “I discovered this also: when you are wrestling with someone and he takes a hold of you and he is 250 pounds of muscle (seventeen or eighteen stone), you soon know that you are in the grasp of a mighty man! You know you are in for a struggle, and the only way to survive is to throw your whole heart into the contest and aim for nothing less than outright victory. A half-hearted approach will not do. It will endanger your very life and even the life and well-being of your opponent. What do you require in order to be a good wrestler? You need courage, and you need concentration, and you need strength, but above all you need enthusiasm and energy. You have to get in there and get on the attack with all your h
eart and soul . . . There is only one other person in the world for you, and that is your opponent. It is the same with the soul who truly comes to grips with God. The immensity and the reality of God come in on him and that is one of the factors that transforms the hearts of all who are confronted by God. They can never be the same again.” (J. Douglas MacMillan, Wrestling with God, Evangelical Press of Wales, 1991, pp. 61&61). So Jacob refused to be overpowered by the Angel of the Lord. So what were the events that ended this conflict?
2. JACOB WAS DEFEATED BY THE MEREST TOUCH OF THE ANGEL.
Of course it was not a smiting. A smiting of God is destruction, but if the living Creator of the universe merely extends his little finger and touches us then for us it is a mighty blow. We are told, “he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man” (v.25). The angel of the Lord could have won this battle at any moment by omnipotence alone. His is an irresistible force, but the man chose not to employ pure power. He decided rather to strengthen Jacob as he wrestled with him, sustaining his opponent to keep up the fighting, always seeking victory. But finally, as the dawn approached, he determined enough was enough and he weakened Jacob’s strength with this one little touch of God, and it was all over. Don’t we long at times to have such a little touch of omnipotence, so that we could push someone into the Kingdom of God, or conquer all the doubts in the mind of someone we’ve been persuading to become a Christian? We’re not given that power. No one will ever be given that power. It is God’s grand prerogative. Rather he gives us the strength to go on arguing, and praying, and pleading. It is God alone who can make a dead sinner live. It is God alone who can deflate a full self-sufficient ego in the twinkling of an eye. We know that that is so; it must be so or we would not waste our time in praying to a helpless God to do what he is unable to do. He will do what he can do in his time and in his way. Even so Father for so it seemed good in thy sight.
This conflict was purposed and instigated by God. The outcome was never in doubt, but we are made in God’s image with the necessary freedom that that entails. We are not shadow boxing; we are not challenging an obliging sparring partner. A sinner’s battle with God is the toughest conflict he can ever be involved in; eternity hangs on God triumphing over us. Think of the best sprinter on the Isle of Man, winning every race, running far faster than anybody else, and developing the strongest opinions of his own abilities. Then he flies to London and runs in the British Athletics Championships and he finishes last in the first heat of the hundred metres. It is in defeat, not in all the victories on the Isle of Man, that he gains fuller truth about himself and his own limited abililties – more than he ever knew before. My point is that you only know who you are when you begin to deal with a greater power than yourself, and especially when you deal with God. It is not until we confront him and then are overcome by this One, immeasurably greater than ourselves, that we can see what we have not seen before that time, the frailty of the flesh, our own impotence, the emptiness of the world, our own guilt and the almighty grace of the Lord Christ. Unlike every other battle where we fight to overcome and win a prize for ourselves, here we fight to be conquered by God, because he is infinite and we are finite; he is the Creator and we are created; he is omnipotent and we are weak; he is all-sufficient and we are dependent. He stoops to wrestle in his grace, to bring us to the end of ourselves, to teach us our own limitations, our great weakness and his almighty strength both consciously realized. That is why God chose to come to Jacob; that is why it was so long and painful a struggle. Then, quite mercifully, God acted and ended the wrestling. There was this coup de grace; “he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man” (v.25). Notice some things about this mighty blow:
i] That blow struck the socket of Jacob’s hip. He experienced a dislocated hip by the touch of the Angel of the Lord. That was the end of any hopes Jacob had of winning this combat. Douglas MacMillan said, “You will have noticed something very simple but interesting about wrestling. Even a little knowledge about it tells us that a wrestler depends of all things upon his thigh. Every single throw that a wrestler uses is a throw that centres around one pivot – the pivot of his thigh. If you want to destroy the power of a wrestler you injure his thigh, and he is finished. God just touched Jacob in the place of a wrestler’s strength and Jacob was as helpless as a baby in the hands of God. ‘Jacob, be still. Jacob, stop resisting. Jacob, be submissive and yield to the hand, yield to the touch. If I do this with one little touch, what will I do if I exert my strength against you?’ The most awe-inspiring thing for any wrestler to experience, and especially one tired and worn, is that he is in the hands of such strength that he might be a child” (op cit, p. 71). This is what I’ve been saying to you, that it was the greatest strength of Jacob that God touched. That is what God must bring low in every man so that he cries, “I am what I am by the grace of God.” It may be our strength of personality; it may be our sharp intelligence; it may be our high morality and sense of duty and calling; it may be our utter relentless conviction that it is impossible for us to become a servant of others or the wife of a servant of others. The touch of God homes in on our strengths and convictions, lest they destroy all our usefulness through pride..
ii] That blow was merely a divine ‘touch.’ “He touched the socket of Jacob’s hip . . .” What do we say? “It takes just a touch of the will that can and the dead rise.” No man could put Jacob’s hip out of joint with a mere touch. A terrible twisting fall; a head-on collision; a crunching, life-threatening tackle will achieve that. But that could not happen in a regular wrestling match; to accomplish a complete dislocation would require preternatural violence. Here is the sheer grace of God in his dealings with men. He came and he fought with the patriarch and of course he won, but he did not break Jacob’s back or his legs. He touched him very gently; the Hebrew text in particular employs a mild term for this ‘touch,’ the touch of a finger, not the touch of a whole divine iron fist, and yet he affected in Jacob the worst damage the patriarch had ever experienced in his life. He had never known such physical pain as this. That is the saving grace that teaches our hearts to fear and relieves our fears. This Lord came to persecuting Saul of Tarsus and he took away his sight. What horror, to open your eyes and see nothing whatsoever – but God did not touch Paul’s intellect. He came to murderous Moses and he took away his freedom; his sentence was to shepherd sheep in the back side of the desert for 40 long years, but God did not annihilate his gifts of leadership. So too at this hip dislocation, something died in Jacob – the pride in his strength, in his ability by his wit and energy always to achieve what he wanted. His self-confidence and self-reliance took a bad tumble. He was crushingly humbled.
iii] That blow could have been struck only by the living God. Who was Jacob deal
ing with? Steadily in the conflict it was dawning on him that this was more than some local Goliath. This was a messenger sent from God, possessing divine power. Jacob began to realise that he was held by a supernatural grip. Only God’s power could be doing this to him. It was no longer any good for Jacob to keep at the back of his mind the belief that God existed, that he was a Jehovahist. Jacob had encountered this God. “Jacob do you know that he is a personal God?” It was not good for Jacob to live the rest of his life with the idea that, well, Laban had his gods and that Jacob had Jehovah as his God, but knowing God made no practical difference to his daily life. Jehovah was not an idea, and not some agency who sometimes might bless him. God is a Person and the most powerful of all Persons, one who possesses infinite strength and might. To know him is to live. Think of the realities that sustained the whole existence of Hudson Taylor the father of modern missionary work in China. They were these; “there is a living God; he has given us his word; he speaks in the Bible; he keeps his promises.” Is God real to you? Is God the most supreme reality to you? Is the Lord a living God to you? From this moment on he was such a God to Jacob.
iv] That blow was not fair. Human referees would cry out, “Disqualify him!” the crowd of spectators would boo. It was an unfair fight because it ended, after all those hours of effort, with God cheating! It was like hitting below the belt, or head butting, or biting an opponent’s ear. Dislocating Jacob’s thigh with supernatural power was ‘unfair.’ Well, that is how it looked when judged by purely human perspective. Jacob couldn’t go on wrestling with a dislocated hip. His opponent, unlike everyone else in the whole world, was able to introduce such a knock-out blow into his wrestling, but according to all the wrestling rule books compiled by men, it wasn’t fair and God must be disqualified for cheating.
Please understand that God is just and right in all he does. He never breaks the rules, but it does appear in our lives that God is unfair in the way he treats us. I was speaking with one of my best friends this week, a fellow preacher, and we talked of one of our colleagues who has been taken seriously ill in these last weeks with little evident recovery so far. He said to me, “I think he is the best preacher in the world. There is no one I find more helpful than him. He runs their college and he speaks at our conferences and now we are wondering whether he will ever preach again. He is the last person we can do without.” It seems so unfair; why should God do that? What good can come from that? We all have instances like that when life crumbles around us and we cry out, “Oh God, that isn’t fair!” People say, “Preacher, you say that through the disobedience of Adam I have been conceived and born in sin and so death reigns over all men – because of Adam? It is not fair.” Correct, it is not fair, but God works through federal headship; all of us were in Adam. The Prime Minister determines war with Iraq and the nation – you and I – are at war with that country because life is lived under federal headships. And I tell you something else just as unfair, that God made his holy Son – blameless of any sin whatsoever – God made him sin and judged him as sin for us in his death and in our place in order that his righteousness and his cleansing blood should wash us of all our stain and guilt. The sinless one died. The sinful one is pardoned. It is not fair. No, but it is grace.
The Lord of creation who wrestled with Jacob says to us, “My child, I’m not playing by your rules. My ways are not your ways.” That is such a crucial lesson to learn: “Be still and know that I am God.” You wouldn’t want anyone else to be God. You yourself wouldn’t want to be God. The one true, living God doesn’t play by your rules or mine. That is why things happen in your life that on the surface appear to be unfair, but for whatever the reason, God is never unjust or unrighteous in anything he does. Think of it! You have been privileged to have the best father or the best mother or the best elder or the best of all school teachers, and yet you have also seen them maybe act foolishly, just once or twice in their lives, but you’ll never catch God acting foolishly. Our Lord, who sees the end from the beginning, accomplishes his own greater purposes by occasionally doing things that may appear to you to be unfair, but one day he will explain everything for all he has done to your entire satisfaction. He never afflicts willingly. God’s answer is always, “My child I love you more than you’ll ever know, but I am not playing by your rules.” The wife of that pastor whom Stuart and I were talking about this past week has spoken to me and she says that the comfort they have given throughout their ministries to hurting people in their congregation in perplexing times to trust in God they now are living by the same comfort. God knows what he is doing. God is just; God is fair. What he does is right. Cheer up, you are much more wicked than you realise. Cheer up, God loves you far more than you deserve.
So it was in the very act of wounding Jacob that God revealed to him who Jacob was. In the feel of the touch of the finger of God and the consequent agonizing pain and immobilization and defeat Jacob knew he hadn’t been dealing with mere man. In fact he had come face to face with the living God. It was as God broke Jacob that he made himself known to him and crushed his pride and purged his will, and redirected his energies towards a desire for God. The free will of Jacob had inevitably chosen the things that satisfied Jacob’s own self-interest. Jacob’s sickness had been the bondage of his will to self, but now God came and healed him of it by making him aware of his great weakness and redirecting his will henceforth to choose the glory and enjoyment of God.
3. JACOB WOULD NOT LET GO OF THE LORD.
“Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” (v.26). The man spoke for the first time, “Let me go for it is daybreak.” He could have torn himself away and left Jacob lying helplessly there, but our Lord is a gentleman, full of grace. Martin Luther King was a brave and muddled man, yet he said in one of his sermons, “God has a tough mind and a tender heart.” He has the tenderness of grace to deal kindly with us, and the toughness of his righteousness to drive sin from us, and finish any work he begins in us. So it is not Jacob but the Lord who requests an end to the conflict. “Let’s let go. Let’s finish it. Let’s end the conflict. There you go . . .” As the sun began to rise and the darkness disappeared one conviction began to dawn on Jacob just who this adversary was. It was God himself, the God of his grandfather Abraham and the God of his father Isaac. If the dawn breaks and Jacob sees this man’s face fully in the light of day, surely he will die. Yet Jacob would not let go of him. Though he was weary and in great pain he wouldn’t let him go. Even though the day was breaking and Esau and his armed men were on their way he wouldn’t let him go. How can I let go of the God I have come to know?
Here is one who could bless him. Here is one who could keep him safe in his encounter with Esau. Here is one who could truly give him that blessing which he had obtained deceitfully from his father Isaac, the blessing that he had stolen from Esau. Here is the
one who could give him heaven as an inheritance and eternal life as a possession. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he cried. Though all his family are on the other side of the river and all are waiting for him there – without him that scene would have been Hamlet without the Prince. Let him come and prepare them for the encounter with Esau and his men. But Jacob would not let go. Even though this is the last day of his life, and dawn is breaking, Jacob would not let go. Because Jacob has seen what millions of men have never seen, that Jehovah himself is the only blessing that matters. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever” (Psa. 73:25&26). Jacob has seen that God is not some kind of tool for us to pick up when there is a job to be done, to obtain blessings and to make ourselves happy people. We don’t turn to God in order to achieve more easily other goals in life. God himself is our supreme end; he is the objective of our existence. Jacob won’t let go of God; “Lord, I want you! I want you above everything else in the world. What will it profit me to gain everything else and lose you? I desire you.”
That is saving faith. To seek God for his own sake and for himself. To love him with all one’s being. To say, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water . . . my soul cleaves to you” (Psalm 63:1, 8). Jacob had changed. He no longer wanted the rights of primo-geniture, possessions, herds, wives or children. Now he must have God. He won’t let go of God. What about you? God had to touch the one thing in his life that was the centre of Jacob’s life, his strength, his confidence in himself, his conviction that he had never met anyone else that he could think of submitting to and that he never would. Then God moved his little finger and overwhelmed him. God had to disable him and shred all his confidence in himself, and give him not just a sense of dependence on him but a magnificent obsession with God. Do you want God more than anything else?
Jacob said, “I will not less you go unless you bless me.” There is such earnestness here. Hosea tells us in the twelfth chapter of his prophecy that his cry was accompanied by weeping and supplication (Hos. 12:4). “Don’t let me go now, in my weakness and my discovery of you.” That was Jacob’s cry. Think of the longsuffering of God. How long had God waited to hear those words from Jacob? Forty years – that’s how long God had been patient with the patriarch as Jacob kept operating on the principle, “Trust no one. Fight your own battles. The spoils come to the strong.” All along God’s invitations were there to come and cast himself on the mercy of God, but Jacob had done things his way. So God, in the wrestling match, had reduced Jacob to this state of total helplessness and dependence. Now Jacob had to cling to God or he would fall. He had to depend on God or he would collapse. It was a foolish woman who said, “Well, I guess there’s nothing left for it now but to trust in the Lord.” What folly! Trusting in the Lord is not the last resort but the first and the only resort.
Jacob cries for God’s blessing on his life. He wants that which alone makes men rich, to which no sorrows are added. He wants to be blessed in every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies. He must have God’s blessing resting on him every day of his life so that what hitherto had been used for evil should henceforth be used for God, and that which was used for trivial time-wasting activities would be used for the building of the kingdom of God, and that the energies used for earthly gain should henceforth be used for eternal profit. There is only one way that can happen to Jacob or to any one of us, by clinging to the Lord. Conversion is turning from all of that and cleaving to God for the rest of our lives.
A few years ago a pastor brought a troubled man to an American preacher named Conrad Murrell for counselling. When he asked him about his problem, the man replied, “I want to serve the Lord but I am having a terrible time.” “What seems to be hindering you?” he asked the man. “Oh, everything and everybody it seems,” he said. “Let’s get down to particulars,” Conrad insisted. This is his story.
“I have a smoking problem. I know I shouldn’t be smoking. It is harmful to me and a blight on my testimony but I am having a hard time giving it up. Then there is my wife. She thinks I am a fanatic and she says if I insist on living a Christian life, she is going to leave me. She wants to have some fun, but I don’t want to go back into that kind of life; yet I don’t want to lose my wife. Then there is my business partner. He is not a Christian and we are having a conflict over some unethical business deals he wants to pull. He says I am holding back the business with my stupid morals and if I don't shape up he is going to force me out. Then, last week I was down in Tucson in a restaurant feeling sorry for myself and this young divorcee approached me. She liked me and made some obvious suggestions and approaches. I almost fell into what she was proposing. But, I don't want to live like that. I'm just in a terrible mess.”
“You surely are,” Conrad said, “but maybe I can help you get some things settled. It seems to me you have about four options here. You can only take one of them so you may as well eliminate the other three. Let’s find out which ones you can take and which ones you cannot and then see what we have left. Here is your first option. You can walk out that door the same way you came in with nothing changed and nothing settled. Can you do that?” “I don't want to.” “But can you?” “If I had not wanted help I would not have come here.” “But can you leave without it? Are you willing to walk out of here the same way you came in? Can you do that? Can you go on living the way you are now? Think about it. Because if you can, you will. There is no use of me wrangling around here with you for two or three hours only to have you refuse to do what you must and leave the same way you came in. If you can do that, then go ahead and do it now. Let’s not waste anymore time.”
“He looked at me, saw I meant it, thought about it a bit and then said, “No, I can't do that. I have got to have some help. I cannot live any longer the way I am. Something has to be settled.” “Then we can eliminate that option. It no longer exists. Something has to be settled before you leave here tonight. Now we have only three left.”
“Here is your second option: Forget about being a Christian and serving the Lord. Put the thought of it out of your mind and go ahead and do what you like. If you want to smoke, stop feeling guilty about it and puff away. If your wife wants you to go out and get drunk and raise hell with her, go ahead. If your partner wants to pull some fast deals that can make you rich and won’t get you in jail, go to it. Take advantage of anybody you can, make as much money as you can, do what you like and live it up. If you see that divorcee again, take her up on the proposition. Whatever you feel like doing, help yourself.”
He stared at me incredulously. “Can you do that?” I asked. He shook his head, “No, I can’t do that. I can’t live that way.” “Are you sure?” “I’m sure.” “Think about it now, and settle it. If you
can do that then you ought to go ahead because you will sooner or later. But if you can’t, then settle it in your mind that you can’t and forget about it. It’s no use you ever thinking about it anymore. It is an utter impossibility.” “I can't do that.”
“All right, that eliminates two options and two more are left. Here is your third one: Go home. If you do not have one at home, stop off at a pawn shop and pick yourself up a pistol. Get out in the yard so that you won't make a mess in the house for someone to clean up, take good aim so that you don’t miss and put a bullet in your brain.” He jerked his head back and stared at me. “I can’t do that. I’d go to hell.” “Probably so,” I said, “but at least you wouldn’t have to live in this mess till you get there.” “No, I can’t do that.”
“Then it looks like you have only one course left. Cling to the Lord. Don’t let go of the Lord. Obey Him. If your wife leaves you, cling to the Lord. If you lose your business and all your money, cling to the Lord. If it costs you all your pleasures, cling to the Lord. You really don’t have any other option. You cannot do anything else. Live, die, swim or sink, you must cling to him.” “He thought awhile, then lifted his head and slowly as the truth began to dawn upon him, a relieved smile spread across his worried face. ‘That's right isn't it? It’s really very simple. He is my only hope of life. There is nothing else to do.’ I prayed with him, shook his hand and dismissed the meeting.
“Nearly two years later I was back in the same city and this man came to the meeting. His wife was with him, clinging to his arm. They had been, it seemed, through the greatest difficulties. His faith had been tried in the fire. The devil had exhausted his resources in his attempt to shake him from the commitment he made that night. But when he had left that counselling session, he was a single-minded man with only one place to go. His eyes were steadfastly fixed upon God as his deliverer; He would not let God go until he had blessed him. He and his wife both wore the broad sweet smiles of a victory that endures. They had learned indeed that clinging to the Lord is the victory that overcomes the world.”
Don’t waste your life on things that don’t matter. Turn from all of that and cling to the Lord and as you cling to him he will bless you. Never give up. Never let him go. Never. Never. Never. Never.
23rd January 2011 GEOFF THOMAS