Genesis 33:1-20 “Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother . . .” [and on to verse 20].

There are two brothers at loggerheads with one another. They are Peter and Christopher Hitchens. They are sons of an officer in the Royal Navy. They were never close but as they grew into manhood they drifted further apart and even into combat with one another. Christopher Hitchens (aged 62) wrote an atheist manifesto called ‘God is not Great’ while Peter (aged 60) had become a Christian. God may use strange means to convict his elect of his reality, and with Peter it was sparked by a sight of the 15th century painting of the ‘Last Judgment’ by Rogier van der Weyden in France, especially the painter’s delineation of naked figures fleeing toward the pit of hell. It was then, Peter says, that he was aroused to think of eternity; “I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time.” Now he has written a book which I possess and have read that counters his brother’s anti-Christian tract and this book is called ‘The Rage Against God.’ They have publically debated the existence of God in the USA. Peter lives in England while Christopher lives in the USA where he has become a famous literary figure, and now more so as it is widely known that he is seriously ill with esophageal cancer which sickness he endures with dignity and courage. I like to see him interviewed even though he defies God. We would love to see these brothers reconciled when both men become reconciled to the Lord Jesus Christ.

In our passage today we meet two brother who for twenty years have had no contact with one another, one brother badly treating the other, lying and cheating in order to take from him his entitlements. Will they ever be reconciled? The sinning brother was Jacob and the brother he had wronged was Esau, and Jacob has learned that Esau is coming to meet him accompanied by 400 men. Jacob had taken advantage of Esau’s vulnerability – he has been weak with hunger – and Jacob bought from him his birthright, that precious status discarded in exchange for a mere bowl of stew. Later he also cheated Esau out of their father’s blessing by a crude disguise which had deceived the partially-sighted old man into thinking that Jacob actually was his brother Esau. Jacob had then fled from the murderous rage of Esau. So let us consider first their reconciliation.


Was Jacob’s attempt to appease his brother firstly to send to Esau extravagant gifts – his goods, flocks and herds of the finest domestic animals? They were all sent before Jacob – before he even forded the Jabbok river, and he waited and then, finally he went, allowing the weight of his costly gifts to sink into Esau’s mind. Was he hoping to propitiate Esau’s anger towards him with gifts, to buy his favour, to win it in this way? Did Jacob hope that these gifts might somehow function as his protection from the wrath of Esau? I am not sure at all of this.

Remember that this remarkable night had occurred when the angel of the Lord came and he had wrestled with him, but the glory of that encounter had been that throughout that night Jacob, though so close to the Lord – cheek to cheek to him – was also being protected from the holy wrath of a sin-hating God. It had caused a revolution in Jacob’s attitude. I believe that that had outweighed any need in Jacob to feel any need he had to buy Esau’s favour with gifts; didn’t he have God’s favour? Here we’re meeting a new Jacob, a confident Jacob, and a trusting Jacob. What can a mere Esau do to him? Only what God would permit Esau to do. Jacob will still give his brother gifts but not to bribe his brother but for this reason, that justice required he give Esau what was Esau’s due, what he had cheated Esau out of.

So Jacob set out to meet his brother no longer behind a human shield; now Jacob went forth leading his wives and children: “He himself went on ahead” (v.3). Why had sinful Jacob escaped God’s wrath? Had he offered gifts to God and bought his approval? No. He had confessed his sin and wept and begged for God’s blessing – so the prophet Hosea tells us. The blessing of the Lord didn’t come to him because of his own merit; it came to him because of grace; God is merciful to our sinfulness, and he is gracious. So if Jacob is to be reconciled to his brother then it must also be on that same basis. The foundation has to be the divine pity – ‘tis mercy all immense and free.

So Jacob looked at the 400 armed men coming towards him. He heard their chilling sounds and he knew that they were Esau’s men – the followers of the famous hunter. In Noah’s day we are told that “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). Jacob had been singularly engaged in enlarging his flocks during the past 20 years while Esau had also been building up his private army. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that Esau was a “profane” or “godless” man (Hebs. 12:16). He despised the things of God and Jacob now saw him leading his armed men towards himself and his few servants and his family. So quickly Jacob arranged the grouping
of his family so that possibly some might escape if Esau cried, “Charge . . . take no survivors!” (v.2) At the front were placed the two maidservants and their children, behind them Leah and her children, and finally Rachel and the only son of Jacob to be named, Joseph (who is again named in verse seven). This naming of Joseph is to prepare us for the Holy Spirit’s description of the life and work of Joseph in the last part of Genesis. Rachel and this little boy were set at the rear where the protection would be the greatest. These precautions were not at all a lack of faith. It is the Puritan principle during the Civil War, “Pray . . . and keep your gunpowder dry.” God uses means. There are legitimate precautions we all take for our safety. That is the difference between fate and predestination. The voice of fate says, “whatever will be will be” and no precautions are taken. The voice of predestination heeds the cry to take every care. As John G. Butler has said, “If you pray that God will keep you in good health, then you need to take the precaution of eating a proper diet and engaging in helpful exercises. If you pray that God will protect you through the harsh winter months, you need to make sure your central heating is in good running order before the winter arrives. If you pray for protection during thunder and lightning, it is not a lack of faith to head indoors and refuse to stand under a tree which lightning might strike. As we have said before, God does not work miracles when they are unnecessary, nor does he work miracles to keep us from responsible actions. Taking precaution in danger is not inconsistent with faith in God for your protection, for faith promotes wise conduct. Failure to take precaution is not faith but foolishness” (John G. Butler, Jacob the Sower and Reaper, p.250).

When that was done Jacob walked out alone from his company right up to the armed men and to Esau standing in front of them. He stopped before him and bowed seven times. What do we say about that? Certainly we know that this was the standard way in the culture of the near east that one greeted a king. In fact we have as many as fifty examples of this on clay tablets; over and over again those we read of those who are greeting a tribal king bowing to the man seven times. Also we have to say that seven is the number of fulness. It was saying, “I want everyone watching to know that henceforth I am your servant; you are my master. I submit and bow to you.” Jacob put himself in Esau’s control; “Do with me just as you will.” So Jacob in fact was confessing his sin to Esau, just as he had confessed it to God the night before, and he was pleading for Esau’s mercy. But he was doing something else; he was beginning to give Esau back the stolen blessing. Isaac his father had blessed Jacob with these words, “Be lord over your brothers and may your mother’s sons bow down to you” (Gen. 27:29). Isaac their father had thought that the son he was blessing was Esau, but by his trickery Jacob had taken that blessing. He had stolen it. Here in his bowing to Esau he is returning Isaac’s blessing to the one who should have got it. He bows down to his mother’s son, just as the blessing asked. He comes to Esau as his servant and Esau henceforth is to lord it over him as his older brother. What Jacob is doing is acknowledging that he had stolen the blessing from Esau, that it belonged to Esau, and he wanted to see it restored to Esau. Jacob is saying in effect, “I give you back the blessing I owe you.” Jacob is not trying to buy Esau’s favour but to express his repentance publicly for sinning against Esau.

Jacob is also confessing his own dependence upon Jehovah. He had stolen the blessing from Esau because he thought that would give him happiness, and power, and security, but now he knows that he does not need Isaac’s blessing to get those things because the Lord he worshipped and wrestled with had given him his blessing! What need does he have of Esau’s blessing? We are to learn from Jacob. Here was a man who had needed this divine humbling from the Lord in order to prepare him for the immense privilege God was to give him. Henceforth God would identify himself to people by this title; “I am the God of Jacob.” Jacob must be prepared for such an honour; pride must be deflated; God must be exalted in his life. That is the pattern in the Bible. Don’t we see the leader of the twelve apostles, Peter, needing to be humbled by the Lord as Jesus asks him three times, “Do you really love me?” That was the appointed way Peter was lifted up from the humiliation of his three denials. The way of exultation is the way of abasement.

Consider the one who is the Son of God of whom God says, “I am the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are told that the incarnate Son needed to learn obedience by the things that he suffered. The way of being lifted up even for him was the way of being taken down very low. He was in the form of God and thought it not robbery to be equal with God and yet he made himself of no reputation and took the form of a servant and humbled himself to the death of the cross. Then God highly exalted him and gave him a name that is above every name. The one who filled the whole universe joined himself to Mary’s egg and developed for nine months in her womb. He was born in a stable and slept his first night in a feeding trough. What humiliation! That was the way to being given a name that is above every name. In Doctor Who there is a strange police box called a Tardis whose inside is far vaster than the outside. That is fantasy, but the reality was this that the inside of the stable at Bethlehem was bigger than the whole universe outside that stable, because the Lord of glory was in that stable and he is the fulness of him that fills all in all.

Some of you are being so cruelly favoured by God in being humbled by him again and again. I tremble for you that you are constantly being brought so low. I pray that your faith will not fail, but you should also be encouraged because if God is humbling you – and he is – then it is in order that he should also exalt you. God is preparing you for service and glory in the future, though you may be disappointed now. I am underlining this principle that those whom the Lord would exalt he first brings low. Remember that nothing can diminish us in God’s eyes. We are often diminished in our own eyes, and sometime diminished in the eyes of others, but for God we are never any less that his beloved children whom he has put in Christ.

Can you hear Eric Alexander’s voice saying the following, that “humility is one of the most difficult things to talk about, isn't it? — even to think about for ourselves, because almost as soon as you think about it you have become self-conscious. Yet I am persuaded that true biblical humility is one of the key elements in true use­fulness to God. As I read the history of the church, and see men I know, I think we have our finger here on what is one of the key areas. This is not false self-conscious grovelling, for the fruit of true Christ-like lowliness of heart and spirit is something of which you will be quite unconscious. Yet it is utterly vital. It derives from God being at the centre instead of self being at the centre. That is really what biblical humility is, and that is why it is so costly. It is not an affected thing. It is not the same thing as having a diffident, retir­ing personality by nature. It has nothing to do with personality
. It is something which flows from a deep work of grace.” (Eric Alexander, Our Great God and Saviour, Banner of Truth, 2010, p.161).

It is said that Alexander Whyte of Edinburgh had preaching for him on one occasion a young man who was getting a bit of a repu­tation as a preacher. He had come to Free St George’s (as it then was), and he went up into the pulpit full of a sense of what they were all expecting from him, the young luminary. Something went badly wrong, and he was shattered! He made a mess of the whole thing. He forgot what he was going to say, his mind went blank, and it was a disaster. He came down the pulpit steps, a broken-­hearted man, and he asked to Whyte, ‘What went wrong, sir?’ Whyte said to him, ‘Well, laddie, if you had gone up the way you came down, you would have had more chance of coming down the way you went up.’ How truly John Calvin wrote, ‘The first step towards serv­ing Christ is to lose sight of ourselves.’ Jacob’s encounter with God prepared him for his encounter with his estranged brother Esau.


Haven’t we met this situation very often in our lives? We feared something very much. We had no safety net. We were right outside our comfort zone and all we could do was be very sensible, and then cast ourselves on the Lord. We went forward in trepidation not knowing what would happen, and then we found something wonderful taking place in that the situation became full of encouragement and blessing. None of the things we feared would take place took place at all but rather we were welcomed and helped. So it is here; Jacob bowed down seven times to Esau – who in fact could hardly wait for the etiquette and protocol to come to an end and when at last it did, Esau set off like a greyhound coming out of the slips, and he raced across to his younger brother and threw his arms around his neck and kissed him repeatedly (v.4). Then the both of them broke down and cried and cried together, locked in one another arms. Men who are not homosexuals at all, do this. This is not discovering the feminine side of their personalities. This is how men made in the image of God respond. The father of the prodigal son did the same.

Jacob discovered to his amazement that Esau his brother was a ‘real nice bloke.’ I mean he comes across here as the nicest guy in the world, doesn’t he? He is under the wrath of God, isn’t he, but a lovelier man you couldn’t wish to meet. Aren’t you glad that there are still, because of an earlier grace in the world, grand men and women in every place and in all families who are not Christians, but fine people? And we all know that on the other hand there are awkward professing Christians who can give us a lot of heartache. We don’t understand them and they cause us distress. We sigh about their behaviour, but there are people we admire very much who are not religious people at all – not yet. We wonder how it is possible for them to have such graciousness but not be Christians. Of course it is no credit to them. It shows us how kind God is to treat rebels in that way, that he even gives them a taste of the Word of God and of the Holy Spirit. They are not regenerate but their presence helps us as we walk through the wilderness of this world.

Think of all that had preceded this scene, wave after wave of gifts had arrived at the feet of Esau with one servant after another chorusing the refrain that the cattle and camels and donkeys and sheep and goats “had once been Jacob’s but that he was presenting them as gifts to his brother Esau.” Do you understand? Jacob hasn’t finished giving back the blessing. Jacob’s wives and children are the next to bow down before Esau. They too are to be Esau’s servants and Esau is their master. God has graciously given these children to Jacob and so in effect he gives them to Esau. He puts them at Esau’s service, and he pushes all these gifts onto Esau. His brother is quite exasperated, “What do you mean by all these droves I met?” (v.8). He was simply pleased after twenty years to see his brother again alive and well. Jacob replies, “To find favour in your eyes, my lord” (v.8).

What does this mean? Is Jacob trying to buy the forgiveness of Esau? No. Jacob means that he wants to be pleasing to Esau and offers him these gifts. It is like the phrase, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.” Our forgiving others is proof of the power of the knowledge of the divine forgiveness in our hearts. The gifts of Jacob are the proof that he is repentant, and he desires the mercy of Esau for what he did to him. At Bethel God had once made promises to Jacob, and so Jacob gave a tenth of all he had to God. He was not buying favour from God; he was responding to God’s grace. These gifts to Esau were Jacob’s response to God’s grace to him.

Esau is quite embarrassed at the enormous quantity of gifts he has been given. “I can’t take these,” he says, “I’ve got plenty. You keep them for yourself” (v.9). But Jacob insists, and listen to his language; “If I have found favour in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favourably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need” (vv. 10&11). Jacob says, “They are gifts . . . please take them. I realise that they are not needed to win your love. You have shown your affection for me so sincerely, but I would wish you to take these gifts as an expression of my affection for you and sorrow at what once took place.” For Jacob (since his encounter with the Lord that previous night), heaven above is softer blue and earth around is deeper green. He looks into the face of his brother and he sees a man made in the image and likeness of God. Jacob is so insistent that he take the herds of animals that Esau reluctantly accepts all he gives him. So the return of the blessing that Jacob once had stolen from his brother is complete. The honour, and the family, and the possessions that Jacob had unlawfully taken have now all been returned. Jacob is saying, in effect, “Here is the so called ‘blessing’ for which I broke up the family and broke my mother’s heart so that she never saw me again, and was parted from my twin brother for twenty years – mere stuff! Please take all this from me! I misunderstood what blessing was. The real blessing of life is not things like that – mere material possessions. What a fool I had been to think so. It is the blessing that comes from the life of God in my soul, that the personal sovereign God will be my very own God and I will dwell in his presence for ever. What would it have profited me if I had gained the whole world and had lost my own soul? What could I give in exchange for my soul? Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.” Isn’t that what the gift of God’s Son, and the forgiveness of all your sins, and the gift of eternal life has meant to you? In Christ aren’t we rich beyond all measure, the possessors of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that fades not away? Esau’s full and free forgiveness w
as a sign to Jacob that God had forgiven him. This reconciliation of two brothers once at war was a sign that God himself had truly been reconciled to Jacob.

This is a great theme in the book of Genesis and especially in the New Testament that the mark of loving God is that we love one another, that being reconciled to God we strive to be reconciled to one another. God’s saving of his saints is often linked to family reconciliation. We are approaching the end of the life of Jacob where we are meeting this reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. In Genesis 50, we are going to see another reconciliation, a very tender coming together of Joseph and his brothers. We are told explicitly that they had once hated one another so much that they couldn’t even speak to one another. And isn’t it so that some of us can testify how God in his grace has brought about reparation in family relationships that we never, ever thought would be cordial again, and that God did it by his grace. Don’t give up hope of reconciliation. That’s a theme here in Genesis and all the way through to the New Testament letters. But the main lesson the Lord keeps pressing and pressing and pressing on Jacob is that he must trust in God’s providence alone, and that is what God requires of us as well. As Jacob had to learn to trust God especially when we are going into the unknown, uncertain of what reception we are going to meet, that we must trust God’s providence in every area of our lives, that it is all right, that he will work all things together for our good for so he has promised.


Maybe I should say that especially after great encouragements trials come. You talk to a person who shows real interest in the Christian gospel. What a blessing! They profess faith in Christ and they seem to have trusted in him, and then they do something so out of character that it takes your breath away and you realise that they are either baby Christians or they are not yet Christians at all.

So it is here, Esau eases himself into leadership in this relationship, as to the manor born. He is expecting to call the shots in this brotherhood from now on, and he says to Jacob, “Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you” (v.12). Esau was assuming that the two of them were on the same wavelength, travelling on the same way, with identical ambitions and plans for the future. So Esau is saying, “Let’s both go on to the land of Seir.” What’s wrong with that? Seir is not in the Promised Land. It is away from the presence of God. Esau is not a man of faith; Jehovah does not figure in his thinking. Esau is simply a ‘lovely bloke.’ He has not received the blessing of God that Jacob has received; he does not even understand it. Jacob has given back to him Isaac’s blessing but Esau is unmoved to think, “From now on I will live in the Land of Promise. I will seek the Lord. I will set him at my right hand.” Esau thinks like the natural man. More stuff . . . gifts of my brother . . . nice. Full stop. And he believes that Jacob thinks in this same way. The brothers can go into partnership and take over the livestock business in the Middle East, he with his 400 men guarding the range and Jacob with all his skill as an animal breeder, what an irresistible business partnership. They’re in the money now, and that’s where it all ends, in Esau’s eyes.

What will Jacob do? He once had had the great blessing of a sight of God and a word from the Lord at Bethel, and then he experienced twenty years of folly and riches. He now has wrestled with the Lord and received a great blessing from him and immediately he is being tempted. What is he going to do? His brother says, “I’ll accompany you. We’ll be a partnership.” Is Jacob going to depend on his unbelieving brother and 400 men? Is he going to trust in the arm of the flesh? Lots of people do. There’s many a preacher who would tone down or even give up many a conviction in order to draw a guaranteed congregation of 400 each Sunday. “How many go to your church? I get 400 listening to me,” they ask, and you are so tempted to exaggerate the size of your own little congregation. What will Jacob do? Will he resist his brother and from this day forward seek protection in the devices of men? Or will he cast himself on God alone. “I shall be more than conqueror through Jehovah, thank you very much Esau, but no.” Jacob does not need the companionship of Esau to survive.

To our relief we see that that is the decision Jacob comes to. He responds in faith; he declines Esau’s offer. Yes, and we would cry Praise the Lord except we read the convoluted and excuse-filled response of Jacob. Listen to it going on and on. How pathetic it is. “But Jacob said to him, ‘My lord knows that the children are tender and that I must care for the ewes and cows that are nursing their young. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die. So let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I move along slowly at the pace of the droves before me and that of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir’” (vv.13&14). There’s an absence of manliness here. There’s a lack of plain talking, a strain of dishonesty runs through this reply, and even the vague promise at the end that he will go to Seir and meet with Esau, a word that he had no plans to keep. It is sad.

We have been there ourselves. We have been intimidated by an older man and we have made excuses instead of speaking the truth in love. Jacob had no intention of going to Seir. He had lived outside of the Promised Land for two decades and that was enough. From now on he was going to live in the Kingdom of God, but he has been bought by his brother’s tears and affection and he can’t break with him. He couldn’t bring himself to tell his brother that he had absolutely no intention of leaving the Land of Promise. Esau seeks to persuade him to change his mind; “Let me leave some of my men with you” (v.15). Jacob will not have it. He knows that the God who has promised he will watch over him will protect him. All he wants is that the two men are brothers in spirit and love as well as in body; ‘just let me find favour in the eyes of my lord” (v.15). That is all he wants from Esau. Reconciliation and an end to the hostility.

The chapter ends even more sadly, not with a report of Jacob finally returning to Bethel where God had told him to go, to the place where he had set up the stone after seeing a vision of the staircase and hearing the voice of God and receiving his promises. Jacob went off, but he stopped at Succoth, and there he built booths; he built shelters for his flocks. It is not Seir, but it is still not in Canaan. It is the wrong side of the Jordan river, not quite in the Promised Land. It is in the suburbs of the Land of Promise. But it is not Bethel.

Then some time later Jacob crossed the Jordan and moved on again to Shechem, and there he settled. He bought land there. That was the terminus. How sad. It was a compromise p
lace. It wasn’t quite Bethel where God had told him to go but it was in Canaan in the Promised Land. But it was only one day’s journey away from Bethel. Then why stay there? Why provoke God by doing something which was not what God asked when it would take such little effort to do what he required? What was the powerful attraction of Shechem? Trade! Shechem was on the crossroads of trade. In other words it was money that stopped Jacob short of the place God has asked him to reach. It was a disastrous decision. You know what crossroads towns and ports are like, with people coming and going all the time. They are places full of temptation and immorality. And Genesis 33 is followed by Genesis 34 and that chapter delineates the cost to Jacob of not going to Bethel, a whole day’s journey away from the sinful city of Shechem. Jacob paid in rape, and treachery, and massacre for settling his family down in the midst of that community. One feels he would even have done better living with his brother and seeking to win him to the Lord in Seir.

How good God had been to Jacob but he was ungrateful, just like all of us. We sing, “Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all,’ but we give to God just some of ourselves, the parts that are most convenient. We are longing for a better servant of God than Jacob to appear. We are longing to see the Christ. Let those of us who have seen him have more confidence than Jacob, for he has promised to bring us to heaven. God has given us riches and a dwelling in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. God has protected us from unbelief, sin, death and the devil. Nothing shall separate us from God’s love, and since Christ has conquered our enemies we, through him, are safe. You have seen the face of God in Christ each time you have heard the preaching of Jesus Christ, and you have lived. God has embraced you. So turn your back on the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life and be always seeking and doing the will of God. Follow Christ and he will take you all the way to Bethel, the house of God and the gateway to heaven. Don’t be bought by other gods, especially Mammon . . . Trade . . . Money! It is the root of all kinds of evil as surely as Genesis 34 follows Genesis 33.

27th February 2011 GEOFF THOMAS