Genesis 27:46-28:9 “Then Rebekah said to Isaac, ‘I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.’ So Isaac called for Jacob and blessed him and commanded him: ‘Do not marry a Canaanite woman. Go at once to Paddan Aram, to the house of your mother’s father Bethuel. Take a wife for yourself there, from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham.’ Then Isaac sent Jacob on his way, and he went to Paddan Aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, who was the mother of Jacob and Esau. Now Esau learned that Isaac had blessed Jacob and had sent him to Paddan Aram to take a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he commanded him, ‘Do not marry a Canaanite woman,’ and that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and had gone to Paddan Aram. Esau then realised how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac; so he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, in addition to the wives he already had.”

This tangled story of a family at war with itself continues. Eventually the grace of God will be exalted even through these unsavoury escapades because this is a family on which God’s favour rests, God even identifying himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the sinners’ God, and we are mighty glad of this. In these chapters in Genesis is displayed a groaning divided family in a fallen world. It would be a happy family, but the good it would do it does not do and the evil that it despises that evil the entire family does. What a wretched episode in redemptive history full of deceit and pain. Only the God of grace can deliver it.

Here are a husband and wife, Isaac and Rebekah, who have each chosen a different one of their twins as a favourite and in the process they have cut up what should have been a Jehovahist united family into four warring units. One brother has cheated the other, who in return wants to kill his sibling. The husband thinks he can do things behind his wife’s back who herself cheats to get her way in opposing him. The family is in ruins. One thing unites husband and wife and that is their mutual loathing of the two Hittite wives of Esau and their dawning conviction that Jacob must not make the same horrific mistake. So Isaac does not need much persuasion by his wife to send their son Jacob to get a wife from her home country.

Isaac should have thought of this a long time ago, but his affections were consumed by Esau. His heart was hardened against Jacob though God had made it plain to Rebekah and so to him also that Esau was destined to serve Jacob, not the other way around (Gen.25:23). But now all of father Isaac’s plans to exalt Esau have come to naught. Jehovah himself has completely frustrated them and Isaac is beginning to learn that as for God his way is perfect. He has been goaded into doing what is right, and so he sends Jacob off to find a non-Hittite, non-Canaanite wife, but even in this he does not pay heed to what his father Abraham was scrupulous to demand. Abraham told his servant that he was not to leave the Promised Land in searching for a wife for Isaac. But Isaac sent his son out of the Promised Land. However, Isaac was finally recognizing what God had told Rebekah while Jacob and Esau were still wrestling in Rebekah’s womb, that the older boy would serve the younger. So here was see Isaac finally blessing Jacob as Jacob, not Jacob disguised as Esau. He gives Jacob the full blessing of Abraham. “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham.” (Gen.28:3&4). The patriarch Isaac used the very name by which God designated himself when he’d spoken to Abraham his father in Genesis 17 in making a covenant with him; “May God Almighty bless you.” Jacob was finally recognized by his father as the son of the covenant. Isaac uses further language of his son becoming fruitful and multiplying which is also from God’s words to his father Abraham. Finally Isaac makes it all explicit, “May he give you – Jacob – and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham” (v.4). The land God had promised Abraham and his descendants will now come to Jacob. Finally the comprehensive covenant blessing of Abraham has come upon Jacob, and this had happened because God had determined it would, but by what extraordinary tangles and hoaxes, what dressings up and disguises, by what deceivings and lies, by what family divisions and threats of murder all resulting from these parents and children refusing to obey the words of God, and this mother and son refusing to put their trust in the Lord.

There is still a craziness in this family, that they are intent on doing things their way, according to their whims. Consider Esau’s behaviour now. He hears how his father has gone ahead and declared that the blessing of Abraham was to come solely upon Jacob. Isaac has made that spectacularly public. Esau knows that taking two Hittite wives flew in the face of the Abrahamic promise and therefore did not please his parents. So what did Esau do? We know what he should have done. He should have lived so godly and loving before his wives and instructed them in the way of Jehovah so that both of them, Judith and Basemath, were won over through repentance and faith to serve the Lord, giving up their Hittite gods and their Hittite behaviour. They should have been drawn by Esau’s holy life to declare what another pagan women named
Ruth said to a follower of the Lord 800 or 900 years later, “Your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:16).

Alas, such a godly response was far from Esau’s thinking. What he did was to add a non-Canaanite woman to his harem, a third wife. He thought if he had one wife who did not represent his friendship with paganism then all would be well. But who does he pick? Mahalath, a descendant of Ishmael. Poor woman. Would you like to be a third wife with the two senior wives being Hittites? Esau still doesn’t get it! He still thinks like unbelievers think, that any descendant of Abraham will be fine. Esau thinks what he has done is acceptable because he has taken as a wife a descendant of Abraham according to the flesh just like himself. But this line of promise is not simply about having the right DNA. It is not the children of the flesh that are counted as Abraham’s offspring. Neither Ishmael nor Esau were counted as Abraham’s offspring; it is the children of the promise like Isaac and Jacob and you and me – if you believe in the Son of God, the Son of Abraham, Jesus Christ – because the promise is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” The promised Christ saves us those whose trust is in him. That is what it means to be a child of the promise.


There is Isaac, and he is determined that he can dodge the decision of God to establish the blessing through the younger son Jacob. Isaac thinks that his sneakiness can flummox the decree of the Almighty. He thinks that he can fool God.

There is Esau a rugged, strong, outdoors man who thinks that his position of favourite in his father’s eyes, with all his father’s power and love focused on him, will infallibly gain for him the blessing. His confidence is that hunting and cooking will always win over his father.

There is Rebekah and she is a mover and a shaker, and she thinks she is always one move ahead of her husband, and she can win out and have her way, and indeed she does, but on that rock the marriage union is almost wrecked, and her older son wants to kill his younger brother. She has to send her precious Jacob away and she will never see him again. Was Rebekah really in control?

There is Jacob and he goes along with his mother’s deceit and he acts the part and tells his barefaced lies. How long will any deceiver be in control? He is soon on the run, fleeing for his life. This stay-at-home guy ends up far from home, living in a foreign land. Is he in charge? Was he ever in control? Yes, it’s true that he got the blessing and the birthright in name, but in reality he could not enjoy them. All four of them ended up in a mess. Here is a picture of the evil devices of man.

Isaac despised God’s choice of Jacob. Esau loved the world. Rebekah was a plotter with little reverence for her husband. Jacob was a devious, blaspheming thief. Even though he longed for the holy blessing of Almighty God he would cheat and lie to get it. What a debased understanding of his Lord. Was there one of them which did any good? No not one yet. Was there any one of them that spoke the truth? No, not one yet. Was there one single action that was motivated by the love of God and the desire to do his will? Not even one yet. Here we are shown the most favoured family of the whole world, and yet they are prayerless people who kept God at a distance from their lives.


Only God got exactly what he planned. Jacob was blessed, just as God decided, and Esau was cursed as God had made up his mind to curse him. Jacob was protected from marrying a Canaanite though that decision came about through the rage of his murderous brother who made a disastrous choice of brides so that his parents said, “This must never happen to Jacob.” So Jacob was sent to the household of Laban to find a bride fit to be the heir of the covenant and promises of God. In other words, God used a disastrous polygamous pagan marriage, and the threat of murder to get Isaac going to find a true bride for Jacob. So, though we have been shown all the schemings, double crossings and deceit of man, yet through them all God has done exactly what his predetermined plan had ordained. His righteousness shines forth against this backdrop of human wickedness. Our own consciences testify to us that the actions of all these people were pathetic and childish and mean-spirited, so unlike the God they named. Only God has the right motives in doing what he is described as doing in this chapter. Only God can claim, “I have brought about all this for my own glory and for the good of those I love.” Even the combined sinning of all these four individuals could not frustrate God’s purpose. Jehovah used their schemings to his own end. All these four people furthered God’s purposes, reluctantly, at long last, through gritted teeth, fighting and kicking against the plan of God, however in the end, everything each one of these four people did actually advanced what God had determined to do. If ever there were born losers it was Isaac, Rebekah and the twins. All their schemes turned to ashes, God used them all to achieve his ends.


Here is a prime example from the Bible that shows us two great truths, firstly, that God is absolutely sovereign, that he controls everybody and everything as he works out his own foreordained purposes and plan. Secondly, that every human being is 100% responsible for every one of his actions, with the proper freedom that such responsibility requires. We may balk at that and says, “Both of them cannot be true. That is a contradiction. We have to choose one or the other.” But the Scriptures declare that both of these statements are correct. Both stand on the independent testimony to these truths that is found in Scripture. God is absolutely sovereign over everyone and will accomplish all his ordained plans, but also man is totally responsible for every one of his thoughts, words and deeds.

Let me show you from the Bible a couple of examples of both these truths coming into coalescence, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. One example of this is the evil thing that Joseph’s brothers did in selling him into slavery in distant Egypt, and telling Jacob – this Jacob of our text – that a wild animal had killed his dear son breaking his heart. The ten brothers had acted freely and they had acted sinfully. They would never say, and they did not say, that God had made them do it. But Joseph, so wronged by them, and yet so much more full of trust in a Sovereign God than they were, did in fact say to them, “God sent me before you to preserve life . . . so now it was not you that did send me hither, but God,” and again, “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Gen. 45:5 and 8; Gen. 50:20). God’s sovereign direction and control of their actions in no way relieved them of the guilt of their cruelty.

Again, do you remember how the
apostle Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached both these truths on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts chapter two. In verse 23 Peter standing up before them in some crude ready-made pulpit – a low wall – addresses the thousands of Jerusalem men. He brings together the decrees of a sovereign God and the free acts of responsible creatures. He exalts Christ as having all the credentials of the incarnate Lord, the promised Messiah, and then he says, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge . . .” (v.23). Whose hand was in control of the situation when our Lord was being taken by Herod and Pilate and the Jewish high priests and the people of Israel and they crucified him? Who was in ultimate control of everything that happened? It was our God, of course. We see that that conviction was part of the praying of the early church, their confident trust in God’s kingly power over everything that had occurred when they prayed about Herod and the high priest accomplishing the crucifixion of Christ. The church declared its confidence in God’s control as they said, “They did what your power and your will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:28).

Pilate was a haughty man with such delusions of grandeur. Do you remember when he had the silent Jesus before him and he asked Christ, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realise who I am? Aren’t you aware that I have the power either to free you or to crucify you? Don’t you know that you are in the presence of great authority and power? Can’t you see this?” Then Jesus said one brief sentence to him “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). That is one of the greatest statements of the sovereignty of God in all Scripture. Jesus gave the appearance of being a mere man, a helpless prisoner in the dock, subject to the power of the Roman Empire, the mightiest power in the world until then, but this whipped man said to Pilate, “You would have no power at all except it were given you by my Father.” In other words, the real decision had already been made – by God, not by man! Pilate, Herod, the Gentiles and the people of Israel were mere tools in the hand of a sovereign God who was accomplishing his purpose rather than theirs.

That is the comfort and assurance of Christians living in Muslim tyrannies, and Hindu –dominated lands, and in our own nation where increasingly Christians are being fined or dismissed or not allowed to arrange adoptions, all for maintaining the ethical standards of the Bible. Those judges and police and local authorities who treat our brothers so harshly must know this, that they would have no power over our fellow believers whatsoever unless it were given to them from above. You can imagine some Christians watching Stephen being martyred, the jagged rocks pounding into his body breaking his ribs and then his skull, and one of them grasping the arm of another saying, “You remember always that our heavenly Father was in charge of all this charade. He is using these despicable men – though they don’t know it – to accomplish his own purposes and is taking beloved Stephen home to glory now.” Certainly that was the strength of Stephen’s faith while he was being cruelly and unjustly murdered; “God is here; God is in control.”

Had God promised Stephen, “You will never become a martyr. I will never allow men to kill you because they hate Jesus so much.”? No. He has not promised any Christian that, but he has promised every believer something far better. He has promised that he will never leave us even when we are under the hail of stones, or chained to the stake and burned alive. As our loving heavenly Father he will be as close to us as the air we breathe into our lungs, even in the face of our greatest fears. He will use death to bring us to our eternal home. That is what he has promised and that is precisely what he did with Stephen and with every Christian who has died since that time. As we gather at this moment Stephen is enjoying the fulness of joy at God’s right hand for evermore. He is praising God for his sovereign power and faithfulness far more earnestly than he ever did when he preached on earth.

Eric Alexander tells of hearing Charles Colson recounting the time when he worked in the White House. “Colson said, ‘Henry Kissinger used to come in every day and say with a great sense of melodrama, “Mr. President, we have been making decisions today which are going to alter the course of history.”’ Charles Colson said that Kissinger was always altering the course of history – almost every day. He had a sense of grandeur in the decisions they were making, but the things that really matter in human history have already been decided by the living eternal God, who sits on the throne of the universe and will never abdicate it. He has taken decisions that are going to be worked out inexorably, and nothing will hinder him. Nothing! Even the wrath of nations becomes an instrument in is hand” (Eric Alexander, Our Great God and Saviour, Banner of Truth, 2010, p.40).

So Peter at Pentecost could say to his hearers that Jesus was “handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” and some of his hearers listening to that half of his statement could think that that got them off the hook, that God was ratifying their own decision that Jesus of Nazareth was a charlatan and a blasphemer, worthy of death because it was God himself who had handed him over to be killed. They could have heaved a sigh of relief and whispered to one another, “I thought he was really going to lay it on us for crucifying him, but now he says it was God who did it.”

However, Peter hasn’t finished. He goes on and he says, “and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (v.23). Peter is saying, “Yes, it was God’s sovereign purpose to have Christ crucified, but that in no way excuses you. Your hearts were full of hatred for the loveliest and the best and your wicked hands picked up the sledgehammer and the nails and you crucified him, then you taunted him as he hung there in horrible agony with wicked voices. He died because of you. His blood be upon your heads.” God used Judas’ betrayal, and the hatred of the high priests, and the weakness of Pilate, and the muscles of the Roman execution squad to kill Jesus but it was all to accomplish his own purposes. Yet he held those men responsible for what they did. How can you reconcile both those truths? How can they both be correct? Mustn’t one cancel out the other? To our minds they must, but not to God’s mind. Both truths run in parallel like the dual tracks of a railway line that seem to converge far in the distance, and these two apparent antinomies converge in the mind of the God of eternity.

Let me give you this truth in a classic statement from one of the Puritans. “What God sovereignly decrees in eternity, man will always demand in time.” Man’s ‘free will’ will always choose the very thing that God sovereignly ordained, so that it is God’s purpose that is being fulfilled; just as surely, man will be held responsible for his every act of sin. Listen very carefully to two simple questions.

Firstly, exactly what did God Almighty eternally decree would happen to his Son? He would come into the world as the seed of the women and his heel would be bruised as he crushed the head of the serpent. He would come as the Lamb of God and he woul
d take away the sin of the world on the cross. Exactly what did the Sanhedrin and the high priests and the crowd demand to take place? The crucifixion of Christ. What God sovereignly decrees in eternity, man will freely choose in time.

Secondly, what is the only thing that will satisfy the character of a holy God? The shed blood of Jesus Christ. What is the only thing that would satisfy the hate and passion of that crowd? The shed blood of Jesus Christ! What God sovereignly ordains in eternity, man will choose by his own free will in time.

So here we have looked at Esau and Jacob; exactly how and where and through whom did the God of Abraham decree the line of their father Isaac would flow? It would be through Jacob’s line. What did Jacob and Rebekah plot and scheme and lie to achieve? The blessing of Abraham and Isaac coming through Jacob. What God sovereignly ordains in eternity man will freely choose in time. All the members of that family did things they should never have done, things that were sinful which brought the condemnation of God upon them, but God had decreed that they would act as they did to accomplish his will. Thomas Watson once said these enormously wise words; “God always has a hand in the action where sin is, but he never has a hand in the sin of the action.” Nothing whatsoever happens apart from God. Everything lives and moves and has its being in God. It does not matter what might happen, or where it might happen, or when it happens, or to whom it happens, if it happens at all then God has a hand in the action. He is there. However, God is never guilty of any sin in the hearts of men that causes the sinfulness of the action.

Do you understand how practically and pastorally important that is for us? There is an accident, and someone is hurt or even dies, and the initial response of some church goers is to say to the people who are grieving, “Now you mustn’t blame God for this.” But the people who are grieving want to know if God were there when this fearful providence occurred. Was he there powerfully? Was he there near their loved ones? Surely he wasn’t merely a spectator watching it all in mute horror twisting his hands helplessly? Thomas Watson is saying that God has a hand in every action where sin and suffering and death is rampant. God is laying hold of it all as he did when his own Son suffered and died. He is not standing by and watching, letting Satan lay his hands all over the action, However, God is in no way responsible for the sin of those iniquitous actions.

You understand the comfort of this truth? We must never feel that we are mere pawns or the mere helpless victims of the ungodly. We should always believe that the hand of our heavenly Father is controlling things, even when we feel most impotent. We must always go back to the First Cause himself. If the wicked prevail for a moment or in any circumstance, it is only because God has purposed to use them for his own glory and for our good. Let’s imagine that we are the focus of criticism in our places of work from someone who is over us. Then we must be sure that we are doing everything, down to the smallest details, that we are supposed to be doing. We won’t leave things to the last minute and miss certain ‘small details.’ We’re aware that there are eyes watching us and mouths only too quick to criticize us for wanting people to know that we are Christians, and yet we’re not doing everything by the book. Perhaps there’s a tendency to be a little slipshod and neglectful in some areas. You can actually thank God that those difficult men or women have been given that job over you in your office. God could see you needed some ‘help’, that you would be a better workman with that person on your back.

That person’s grumbles at you might have come from his dislike of you and your faith. There was no motive of wanting to help you to glorify and honour God and strengthen a little Christian in his duties. That man was after you! But God had raised him up and was using him in order that you might walk more carefully and get on top of the details of your job. As believers we can learn from those words of Jesus and be sure that sinners can have no power over us unless it were given to them by God. Then when we pray to God we ask him that we might grow in faith, and love and every grace through this trial. God is answering our prayers. We are learning humility, and submission, and carefulness through that awkward critic, and if anyone rebels against that ‘teacher’ he is really rebelling against God. If you were picking both the teacher and the study course then you’d never learn the necessary lessons God has to teach you.


Why should this family fall apart in this way? This is Isaac and Rebekah and their boys – a family which started off so well. Why should it have ended so badly? The answer to that question is a secret that belongs to the Lord, but one day we will discover the answer. We are not facing eternal perplexities gnawing away in us for ever and ever. We will one day know, to our everlasting satisfaction, answers to our “Why’s.” There is no one whatsoever who can tell us before we get to heaven why some choice Christians go through such troubles; Job, David, Joseph, Jeremiah are examples of sufferers in the Bible. In history we know of the martyrs and people like Joni Eareckson to whose paraplegia has recently been added cancer.  It is not ours to question God and ask “Why?” Nor is it ours to challenge those texts that afffirm that God works all things after the counsel of his own will. It is ours to prove God’s grace and power by trusting him even when we cannot understand why our family is falling apart and why Christian men and women do things totally out of character. People you have loved and trusted might have deliberately deceived and lied in order to maintain a position of power. That is one of the most difficult experiences of our Christian lives. Did old Isaac, when he heard the voice of Jacob claiming to be Esau, want to cry out, “But Lord, Jacob knows he is lying. It is so cruel and unfair.”

What is our comfort when Christians let us down like the various members of this family let one another down? First of all we can remind ourselves that God has never indicated that it would be fair, that every action of every gospel congregation would be fair, that every action of every Christian family would be fair, that every action of every Christian friend would be fair. If we have even the slightest insight into the word of God and into the desperately wicked state of the sin that’s in our hearts then we have no grounds for believing that it is always going to be fair. It was not fair what happened in Isaac’s family; it was not fair when Joseph’s family sold him into slavery; it was not fair when the disciples all ran away and left Jesus alone; it was not fair when Peter cursed and said he did not know Jesus; it was not fair when after all the work Paul put into building up the church in Galatia other men came along and contradicted what Paul had taught them.

Many of the things that happened to Bunyan, and Whitefield, and Spurgeon, and Machen, and Lloyd-Jones by other Christians were unfair. But however did we get the idea than in this groaning world we should always expect life to be fair? What God has said is that we will not be tempted above that we are able. If God at one stage in our lives puts us into a furnace, then let us endure affliction as good soldiers of Jesus Christ and exhibit the saving, sanctifying energy of God&
rsquo;s grace. Let us cry mightily to him for that grace when our families are falling apart and let us say, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God and not bad also?” Our God is able to deliver us from enormous suffering but if he does not, we will still trust in him.

The great comfort from this incident in the life of Jacob and Esau is that the story is not over. We can go ahead and can read what happened next. To the family concerned it looked grim, one unmitigated disaster, the family devastated, would the brothers ever get over this? It seemed unlikely, but we can do what they could not do, we can go on to the next chapters, and turn the pages of the history of their lives. God had not finished with these men and women, and we can discover the wonderful things that lay ahead for these twin boys, especially the cheat and liar Jacob. God has not finished with you yet. Your future years can be your best, most profitable and useful years.

12th September 2010   GEOFF THOMAS