Genesis 31:22-25 “On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country of Gilead when Laban overtook him, and Laban and his relatives camped there too . . . [and so on to v. 31].
In the Bible things are noticed as occurring on the third day. Something takes place . . . have we understood it properly . . . is it temporary or is it permanent? Is an absent girl staying overnight with a friend without telling anyone . . . or has she been abducted? By the third day you know that something is a new state of affairs. A time of confirmation has taken place; this is the third day since it happened. Jesus was killed and buried; three days have gone by since it happened and he is still buried and so he is certainly in a state of death. Then on the third day he rose. It is resurrection. Jonah was thrown up on the land from his three days in the ocean, and then he went on his way to Nineveh to obey God and preach to that city on the third day. Hosea longed that on the third day God would restore them, for they were utterly moribund. The only hope of life was for God to act. Revive us that thy people might rejoice in thee. Saul of Tarsus had been blind for some time after meeting the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, and then on the third day God sends Ananias to him to restore his sight. “I once was blind but now I see.” Obedience, restoration, resurrection and illumination – all on the third day; the facts have sunk in and the plight is only too clear on the third day. You hear my preaching and can feel moved by it. You are also touched by being with sincere believing Christian people on the Lord’s Day . . . but how will it be on Wednesday? What will your feelings be like on the third day? Will there still be a new desire, and obedience, and restoration, and life, and light? Will it still be there and growing? Three days have gone by, a time to think and reassess your life, and are you still serious about changing? How will it be on Wednesday?
So three days after Jacob and his wives had fled from Haran old Laban was told of the fact. His son-in-law Jacob, his two daughters, a dozen grandchildren and the choicest livestock had all disappeared three days earlier. He knew at once they weren’t coming back; a family division had occurred. It had never happened before that the whole of Jacob’s family had upped and gone. On hearing the news he was out for vengeance. He was not going to run after Jacob in order to kiss his girls good-bye and give them a Bon Voyage card. He wasn’t taking cold mutton with him for a desert going away party – despite what he’d claim later. He gathered his men together, summoned them from their other duties – it took some time to organise all this because this was a serious hunt – and Laban set off about a week later to get Jacob. Laban was full of resentment from the moment he heard the news on that third day. Jacob and family had left Haran and they were heading to Jacob’s home in Canaan, a place he had left twenty years earlier. The manner in which he absconded from Haran was another deceitful act of Jacob, not first to have faced his father-in-law man to man to tell him they were going. He could announce to his wives that Jehovah was with them, yes but big Jacob still feared his father-in-law (v.31) with good cause. Laban was a monster of a man. Any man who treated his daughters as he’d done was a ruthless tyrant. So the scared Jacob had slunk off, taking the opportunity that the sheep-shearing season provided, for his father-in-law was involved in this activity in another place. Jacob didn’t tell anyone except his own household of the fact that they were leaving, or why they were going, or where they were going because Jacob was still afraid of Laban. Jacob needed to deal with that fear, (as we all need to deal with our fears) and by the end of this incident he has dealt with them. At long last a time came when he was no longer afraid. What a lengthy process is this activity of ours as Christians of learning really to trust in the Lord and not being afraid.
1. LABAN WENT AFTER JACOB.
Laban went in order to bring Jacob back, or to take his possessions and livestock, and send him on his way empty-handed. They went as a posse pursuing an outlaw. When they caught up with Jacob he wouldn’t be meeting one man Laban but a gang of men hoping for plunder. All of them opposed Jacob doing what God had told him to do, “Go back to the land of your fathers” (v.3). So here is a picture of an organised group of men determined to prevent an Old Testament believer doing God’s will. There are plenty of such organizations about today, there is much in the media and the newspapers and the publishing houses and education, which is designed to prevent a Christian obeying God. Worldly men never seem to have trouble getting a group together to do evil and oppose the work and will of God. There always seem to be organizations everywhere that will harass and oppose those who are obeying God. You have a Life conference that is meeting in a hotel to discuss the cruelty of abortion, and there outside the door of the hotel will be gathered a group of militant, chanting, so-called ‘pro-choice’ women. You walk their gauntlet to get in. There are times when we need our eyes opened like Elisha’s servant’s eyes were opened to see the vast numbers of God’s hosts that are around. They are protecting us even as we are here.
It was seven days from hearing of Jacob’s flight that marked the departure day of Laban. He did not catch up with his runaway son-in-law and daughters until he reached mount Gilead, directly on the route to Canaan. That is about 300 miles from Haran. That w
as good going. Jacob was driving relentlessly for home and he knew that those first days were essential to put a long distance between himself and the area of Padam-aran where Laban lived. In those first days they were all at their freshest, and he aimed at accomplishing 30 miles a day which was manageable for his family on their camels but hard-going for his men driving the flocks and especially the women servants. Jacob had taken the very best of his animals with him. Do you want to know how many he took? Some of the animals are listed in chapter 32, his gifts to Esau: “two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys” (vv.14&15). That is over 560 animals, but they were his gifts to Esau; there were also his own animals. So maybe they were driving a thousand animals, providing them with food and water, and as I say, they were initially going 30 miles a day.
Laban, pursuing him, was evidently full of driving anger to destroy Jacob. Would he have kept going for 300 miles, sleeping under the stars in uncharted territory, simply for flocks and herds? No, not for the animals. Laban was motivated by a heart of hatred for Jacob, and he would have chased him all the way to Beersheba if necessary. “You can run but you can’t hide,” he might have muttered, the sentiment if not the exact words were his. That single-mindedness indicated his burning resentment. He wouldn’t have gone all that distance simply to kiss his daughters and grandsons good-bye, but neither would he have gone that far for the 500 animals. He had his own vast herds. Would that we were as zealous to be peacemakers as the world is zealous for revenge!
2. GOD WENT AFTER LABAN.
When Laban had virtually reached Jacob’s family and flocks, catching up with the stragglers, hearing his cattle lowing and the sheep and goats bleating, knowing they were a mile or so away, Laban settled down to sleep planning his great encounter with Jacob the next morning. But during the night something happened; God met with Laban. We know it was that night because Laban told Jacob, “Last night the God of your father said to me . . .” (v.29). He was an hour away from Jacob when God acted. The Lord didn’t come to him in the days of preparation back in Haran to say to him, “Don’t bother to go.” God let him come very close to Jacob before he intervened. Is that unusual? No. Isn’t that something you have noticed, that the enemy gets very near before God will act?
“The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming like silver and gold
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea
As the blue waves roll nightly on deep Galilee.” (Lord Byron)
Sennacherib was allowed to come to the walls of Jerusalem itself and mock the people before God destroyed him and delivered his own. When Paul was on his way to Damascus to decimate the people of God then the Lord met with him and stopped him, “near Damascus” – the Christians in that city were waiting prayerfully and in fear of what would happen next. God waited to drive a few more goads into the conscience of Saul of Tarsus before he saved him. God delays in order to give us a chance to repent. He delays to show his people his mighty power. Jacob, Rachel, Leah, their children and servants were confronted that morning with the arrival of armed ruthless men hoping to return with booty. The sisters were petrified and yet both saw the deliverance of God; nothing happened but bluster. All the boys and little Dinah learned that God could protect his favoured servants. Nothing was taken. Not a finger was laid on one of them. None was molested. Not a lamb was stolen. How they were humbled at the mighty protecting care of Jacob’s Lord. That was observed by them more clearly in this last minute deliverance than if God had stopped Laban moving 300 miles away and ten days earlier.
That night God said to Laban a dozen words; “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad” (v.24). God was standing between him and Jacob protecting Jacob. Laban could only reach Jacob if first he could get by this Lord of hosts who was speaking to him. “Take care,” God was saying. “Take care now. Don’t even speak to him. Don’t open your mouth. Don’t say anything to him, no good words and no bad words. Don’t mess with him.” In other words, God was warning Laban about trying to sweet talk Jacob into going back to Haran – “name your wages and you shall have any increase you ask.” “And don’t bad mouth him with threats that you will kill him and his family if he doesn’t do what you say. Take care Laban.” God intends Jacob to go on to his own land, the land God has promised him, and no force in heaven, earth or hell will prevent this happening, and so the Lord is standing between him and Jacob. Laban has gone all that way, 300 miles, and what has he discovered? God was mighty in that place too – unlike his local household gods. Jehovah was there with walls of salvation delighting to defend his son-in-law from the evil designs of man.
Who were the three great patriarchs? Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and to each one of them God came and delivered them from their enemies by meeting with their foes directly in a dream. To the enemies of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob God came in the night and addressed them solemnly saying, “Take care . . . don’t touch this one. He is mine.” God showed his covenant faithfulness to grandfather, to his son and to his grandson. He delivered each one from a certain predicament that they were in, created partially by their own folly, but God never said, “let them stew in their own juice,” he had pity and he rescued each one of them and their wives, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. So here God tells Laban that there’s no way he will allow him to interfere with Jacob going home, but he would permit Laban to meet him.
Now that is very fascinating, and we should ask why God acts like this, letting our enemies come near so that our hearts are beating and stomachs sinking but then saying to them, “But no nearer.” Why should he let us smell their breath, hear the anger in their voices and see the scorn in their faces? Why does he allow us to feel the reality of their hostility? Have you thought of that? Let me ask you, do you examine your life? Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Why, I ask you, do you watch the news on TV three times a day, but not examine your own life? Do you think that the politicians in London or Washington have redemption or a new life to offer you? Then why not examine your life? Say to yourself, “Why is God letting me and the family go through this thing?” There are some secret things that belong to God that he will wait to disclose to us in eternity. I am not saying that we will have all the answers in this life, but there will be the answers that God wants us to get. Ask and it shall be given you. There will be answers, maybe that God is underlining how precious life is, how important is our family and friends, what enormous responsibility we have in our choices and actions and words, how uncertain life is and how we are t
o handle it with care – such lessons are very valuable and we often need to be reminded of them. So on that very morning, when into his camp Jacob’s father-in-law and the armed posse entered and came walking towards him, then Jacob on that day was to have some great truth reinforced. That fearful providence taught him what he already knew, but now in a new way. He learned how personal and powerful was the divine protection of Jehovah in every place; he learned what it meant for God to be with him. He was as safe as houses confronting fifty armed men, utterly outnumbered by personnel and fire-power. Jacob would never have known how God would protect him from Laban if God had acted ten days earlier in Haran and stopped the whole expedition in its tracks. So God allowed Laban to catch him up, but then God prevented Laban laying a finger on him, because this cruel tyrant of a man was helpless under the authority of the God who spoke, “Take care . . . don’t mess with him.” Don’t you see Jacob, don’t you see congregation, what a mighty Shepherd you have caring for you, protecting you, and keeping you? You were afraid. You knew what a fiendish slow death Laban was capable of inflicting on both men and women, but nothing happened because the fear of God was on Laban.
I believe that some of you know this. You have experienced this for yourselves, when the hand of providence has been upon you. You passed through an unpleasant experience, a horrible experience, and now at last you are beginning to see some of the lessons you’ve learned from it, how the hand of God has been upholding you through those deep waters. You are now more equipped to help, and comfort, and strengthen others with the experience that you yourself endured from the Lord. I am saying that God is at work before his people know that they need him. How slow of heart we are to believe all that is written concerning the work of Christ for us:
A sovereign Protector I have, unseen yet for ever at hand,
Unchangeably faithful to save, almighty to rule and command. (Toplady)
Who can harm you O believer? Our Saviour (whose atonement we celebrate today at the Lord’s Supper) has bought our persevering and protecting grace by his agony and bloody sweat. That is part of the triumph of Calvary over the devil and the world. He guarantees to all his people that be his death and the earnest of the indwelling Holy Spirit that no power on earth or in hell shall be able to separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. In this world we are immortal until our life’s work is over.
3. LABAN DEFIED GOD AND ACCUSED JACOB.
Of course Jacob knew nothing at all of God’s dealings with Laban during the hours of darkness. It is a reminder to us that we do not know what is going on in the hearts of those we love in a night and also when the great night of the soul is coming nearer to them. We don’t know whether God is dealing with them. Jacob had no idea that at midnight God had met Laban and told him that he was protecting Jacob and so “Back off!” All Jacob saw was the posse of armed men led by his monstrous father-in-law. Was this his end?
Things seemed to be looking worse when Laban actually proceeded to bring out his indictment against Jacob. But what had God told him? “Don’t say anything to Jacob,” and yet what do we have here? A speech, five verses in length, directed wholly at Jacob utterly maligning his son-in-law. God had said, “Don’t speak a word,” but Laban did. God had come to him in a dream at night and told him to be silent, but it made little difference to a rogue like Laban. Today so many in the professing church says, “That is what is needed if we are going to see people saved, and turned right round. They must see visions and hear the voice of God speaking to them, and then they’ll be changed.” Yet Laban saw God, and heard his voice and remembered it for the rest of his life and could quote exactly what God said to him to Jacob here (v.29), but he still went on to defy God, because Laban was a vain man, and a powerful man, and an arrogant man who always had his own way, and even God was not going to silence him. His heart was at enmity with God. Nobody stopped Laban in his tracks once he had made up his mind. He had been mulling over the wicked behaviour of his son-in-law Jacob. It had been eating him up for six years, and now he would bring his charges against him. Commentators speak of his conduct quite wryly; Whitelaw writes of Laban’s “pompous harangue;” Matthew Henry says, “Those who mean ill are the ones who put the worst construction on what others do innocently.” Leupold says, “Laban put Jacob’s behaviour in the worst possible light.” Like all liars and cheats how grieved this man became when someone got one over him. So Laban brought these accusations against Jacob:
i] You’ve carried off my daughters (v.26). Laban is accusing Jacob of abducting Rachel and Leah, as if he had tied up his wives and taken them away. We know the truth, that Jacob had talked to them for hours, and sought their opinion and both daughters of Laban, though often disagreeing with one another, were here in perfect agreement. They wanted ‘out’ as far as Haran and Laban were concerned. “Let’s go,” they said. Their father had treated them so poorly so that now with Jacob they were co-conspirators against their own father. The one who’d like to do some ‘carrying off’ would have been Laban who would remove them from their husband.
ii] You’ve stolen my children’s affection from me (vv.27&28). He says, “My children and grandchildren have had no opportunity of receiving my hugs and kisses. I’d have organised a band and some music and we’d have had a farewell party, but you did this foolish thing and carried them off.” Of course Jacob should have stood up to Laban and told him that they were leaving Haran and organised an official farewell, but where had these displays of affection for his grandchildren and daughters been hiding during the past years? Both Rachel and Leah angrily affirmed that their father Laban had been treating them like foreigners. They felt strangers in their father’s house. He’d been ignoring them for years. He had almost sold them to Jacob like slaves and he had taken their dowries and then spent them all on himself. Where is the affection for them in that? Why wasn’t he thinking of leaving his riches to his grandchildren? Suddenly they hear this transformation in Laban. Now it is ‘Focus on the Family,’ and he’s trying to win the ‘father of the year’ award who just wants to kiss the grand-kids good-bye. Come on! Again he can talk the talk when it suits him.
iii] You’ve shown no respect for my authority (v.29). ‘You’ve dissed me.’ “I have the power to harm you” and ‘yet you gave me no good-bye, no request for my permission to leave and for my blessing.’ Evil people love to boast of their power and coerce respect from others. London teenagers in many neighbourhoods are under the power of gangs who dictate to them how they are to behave. I was reading this week, that as many as 30 teenagers were stabbed to death in London in 2007. Think of it! A level students, boys with promising futures knifed on the streets. A probation officer, Harry Fletcher was quot
ed as saying, “If a teenager living on this estate doesn’t become a gang member he ends up being victimized. If he joins, then he gets protection from other gangs, so it’s double protection to belong to a gang.” It is double jeopardy to refuse. Today we are exactly where Laban was 4000 years ago as he says to Jacob, “I have the power to harm you.” Men do not change. Violence is in every man’s heart. For a teenage to walk on the wrong side of a London street with a different postal code can be a dangerous and provocative act. He does what the men with the knives and their followers tell him. “I have the power to harm you.” What a world for teenagers to live in! Laban is taking a swing at Jacob that whizzes two inches past his nose! He wants Jacob to turn pale! What a contemptible man. God had spoken to him maybe eight hours earlier – the living God had addressed him telling him, “Don’t say a word,” but who is the Lord that Laban should obey his voice?
iv] You are a weakling suffering with home-sickness (v.30). “You have gone off because you have longed to return to your father’s house.” Do you hear the disdain in those last three words? Do you see the curl of his lip? That Jacob should want to leave the wonderful home of Laban to return to ‘his father’s house’? It was incredible to Laban that anyone should want to leave him. He took it as a grave personal insult. What a devious man he was, one moment a whinger complaining that Jacob was showing no regard for filial and paternal affection, driving a wedge between a father and his children by removing his kids from him, but then in the next minute he taunts Jacob, “You are a Daddy’s boy – a big fellow like you!” The man had a forked tongue.
4. YET LABAN TESTIFIED TO THE TRUSTWORTHINESS OF GOD.
Laban was an untrustworthy man and yet he reveals the trustworthiness of God. The Lord can strike a straight blow with a crooked stick. He makes his speech full of these accusations, and yet he acknowledges that the only thing stopping him from harming Jacob is Jacob’s God. He had appeared to him just a few hours earlier in the night in a dream and he has warned him not to touch him (v.29). Laban cannot be trusted, but God will speak truth through his forked tongue testifying to God’s great faithfulness. This God had met with Jacob a couple of weeks earlier and he had said to the man, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you” (v.3). Again you can see the low impact that such encounters with God and direct words from God make on the people receiving them. You would think that Jacob would be walking on air for months after he heard the voice of Jehovah telling him “I will be with you.” You’d think Jacob could walk through a wall. But here he is, afraid, and needing to have those words of God confirmed to him by the evil man who wants to murder him. Wouldn’t Jacob be humbled by that? Like you backsliding, and going to the pub and a stranger drinking his cider speaks to you and he says, “I think those chapel people have the answer. The Bible is right.” Wouldn’t you feel foolish, guilty and ashamed? Wouldn’t you think that God was speaking to you? Has this happened to you? Here is Laban surrounded by his posse, and before them all he tells Jacob that his father’s God appeared to him and he believes this God, though he defies this God in speaking to Jacob as he does, however Laban will act upon what God says and he refuses to touch him. He will harangue Jacob, but he won’t lay a finger on anything that is Jacob’s because God has warned him not to. Jacob is utterly safe, though his father-in-law is so angry and an armed posse are there longing to help themselves to the women and the animals. Jacob is safe because God is protecting him. “Take care Laban. Don’t touch your son-in-law Laban.” If God is for Jacob what does it matter if Laban had brought an army of a thousand savages to rape and plunder – who can touch a hair on their heads? Laban can do nothing to thwart God’s plan of taking Jacob safely home.
So who rebukes Jacob’s fear and lack of faith? Of all men it is Laban. There is not a Christian who has not been ashamed when an unbeliever has pointed out something he has said or done that was wrong. “Are you a Christian? Then why are you here . . . why do you speak like that . . . why do you behave in that way?” God had made a great promise to Jacob that this man was going to go home, and he would be taken there by God. However Jacob acknowledged that he was still afraid of Laban (v.31). The man he was afraid of told him that the Lord (in whom Laban had no faith), was protecting Jacob and he actually believed what this Lord said was true that though he was totally untrustworthy the God of Abraham and Isaac was trustworthy. “I hate you Jacob, but God loves you, and God is more powerful than I am.” So Jacob was strangely and sweetly rebuked for his lack of faith by a powerful unbeliever of whom Jacob was scared.
So it is with the person you are most afraid of in the world – and I don’t know who that person may be, but I know that God will warn him if he starts to get too close, saying, “Don’t speak anything good or bad to that person. Leave that person alone. That person is mine.” You can have more confidence than Jacob. God won’t allow you to be tempted and tried above your ability to bear it. He won’t allow you to stumble and fall into hell. He will preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth and even for evermore. Don’t be afraid of the threats of the world. Nothing can harm you for God himself is with you, even more than he was with Jacob. The Spirit of his Son dwells within you. The Lord Jesus will never leave you nor forsake you. He will be with you always even to the end of the world.
So Laban is all talk and no action. He huffs and puffs but Jacob is safe. Yet he has one more accusation, “Why when you left did you steal my gods?” Do you miss the irony of those words? The one living and true God has appeared to Laban in the night and spoken to him declaring the power he has to protect Jacob and his entire household. What power! And Laban is halted. Then why doesn’t Laban say, “I am coming with you to the land of promise? Your God will be my God from this time forth, and your people will be my people. I have met the living God.”? Why didn’t he say, “Thank you for taking my impotent wretched household gods. I hope you’ve burned them all. I won’t need them any more.” He doesn’t say that. He says, “You have such a powerful God and you don’t need my gods, now can I have them back from you!” How utterly pathetic! He sees the living God, and he worships gods that can be stolen from him, but still he can’t let go of them! It was a rebuke against Jacob. He did not worship a God that can be stolen, and yet his life had failed to make the living God real and mighty before Laban.
“Jacob, you have a mighty God, so lay aside your confidence in everything else. Idols are nothing, riches are nothing, reputation is fleeting. The favour of the Lord endures for ever. Fear God and keep his commandments. Walk with the one who will never leave you and protect you to the end and don’t be ashamed of him.”
7th November 2010 GEOFF THOMAS