Genesis 32: Jacob the Supplanter Becomes Israel the Supplicator
As Jacob faces his past sins and his fear of Esau, he learns that if he can prevail in prayer, God will give him favor before men.
Have you ever felt like God is dealing with you?
Now making his way back to Canaan, Jacob once again has a vision of angels, prepares to meet Esau, and wrestles all night with the pre-incarnate Son of God.
vv. 1-5 - 20 years after his first meeting with angels in the vision of the ladder, Jacob again has a vision of angels at Mahanaim, meaning two hosts or two camps. Like the first experience at Bethel in Genesis 28, Jacob needs this to strengthen his faith and trust in God in the face of trials. Thus, he is reminded that God’s camp will take care of Jacob’s camp. Jacob could have attempted to avoid Esau, but he wants to reconcile. So he sends messengers to Esau and reflects language of humility, and communicates his material comfort so that Esau knows he is not interested in anything material.
vv. 6–23 - His messengers return to tell him that Esau is on his way with 400 men. What does Esau plan? Jacob is “greatly afraid and distressed.” So he does two things: there is the practical and the prayerful. He divides his household into two groups, and then he gets alone with God to pray. Note how the man who thought he had the right to negotiate to get his brother’s birthright, now prays the longest prayer in Genesis. He addresses God in covenantal language, and says, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth thou hast shewed unto thy servant.” Here is a man marked by humility. He knows he does not deserve mercy, but seeks for deliverance, and bookends his prayer by rehearsing to God His own promises. His prayer of repentance is then backed by evidence of repentance, being willing to part with an enormous gift of 580 animals for Esau, possibly as a reflection of the material part of the birthright he took from his brother. He is trying to right wrongs. However, he does it strategically. He sends five large groups of animals, one after another. Each one designed to buffet Esau’s anger into submission. Some see this negatively. They view Jacob as scheming. Positively, we know he is trying to obey God in getting back to Canaan, and praying in dependance on God. Perhaps it is a mix of faith and carnality, just like most of our labors for God, but he wants to “appease” i.e. atone for his wrongdoing. Thus, the animals represent a sort of tremendous sacrifice in order to obtain peace.
vv. 24–32 - It appears from v. 23 that Jacob wanted to be alone. Here is a man seeking for a closet in which to meet with God. He is learning stir up himself to take hold of God (Isaiah 64:7). We are told in James 4:8, “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” At some point in prayer, a man engages with Jacob. We don’t know how this wrestling begins. Maybe initially he felt he was under attack by some man. Maybe a servant of Esau, or maybe Esau himself? But at some point he realizes he is wrestling with God himself (v. 30). Perhaps at the point at which he simply touches his thigh, and it is put out of joint? This immediately reveals the impossible strength of the one resisting him. Jacob is curious as to the angel’s name, but there are some questions that shouldn’t be asked. Instead, Jacob is blessed, which was what he wanted, and calls the place Peniel, knowing that he had met with God. Many years later our Lord Jesus in Gethsemane would wrestle with God, not for blessing upon Himself, but with an eye to His people.
Fear can be a tool in God’s hand to produce righteousness in His people. When we are told in v. 7 that Jacob is greatly afraid and distressed, this is an example of how God will providentially do what is necessary to alarm His people to seek Him. While certain fears are sinful, being numb or stoic to a providence that God has appointed to stir you to a pious response can be a sign of spiritual lifelessness. The psalmist said, “What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee” (Ps. 56:3), and Jacob models that trust by going to God in prayer. Christ did the same when in Gethsemane He “began to be sore amazed” (Mark 14:33). You must do the same. Sense the fear, but go to God in prayer.
It is right that God’s people maintain a sense of their personal unworthiness. Jacob prays in v. 10 that he is not worthy. Because of the believer’s position in Christ, some might argue that such feelings are wrong or unnecessary. However, God never takes issue with the person who speaks this way. In fact, the centurion who says, “Lord, I am not worthy” (Matt. 8:8) is highly commended by Christ. Stay low in your own estimation.
God’s people must learn to pray God’s Word back to Him. In v. 9 and 12, Jacob does this very thing. David also does it (2 Samuel 7:25-29). This does not mean that believers must only pray the precise words of Scripture, but we should make the case for a matter based on God’s Word. Children, this is why it is good for you to memorize the Lord’s Prayer and to rehearse it in prayer to God.
God’s people must learn to seek peace at almost any cost. In the last chapter we see Jacob entering a peace agreement with Laban. Here we see him sacrificing enormous wealth for the sake of peace with Esau. People will harm their own family because of greed that can be seen in inheritance disputes. Don’t be that person. Sacrifice anything for peace except for truth. Never elevate money over righteousness.
God is in the business of changing His people. Jacob is asked, “What is thy name?” Is not this similar to Isaac’s question, “Who art thou?” and he had replied, “Esau.” How that deception had haunted his conscience. Now he replies honestly, his name meaning ‘supplant.’ But now he is a broken man, and so God gives him a new name. Esau had said, “Is not he rightly named Jacob?” (Gen. 27:36). But here is the point for young and old, God, having made us partakers of the divine nature, is in the business of progressing our sanctification.
God’s people honor God when they renounce all dependence on self. This experience with the Son of God is tailored to diminish Jacob’s self-reliance. Christian, remember what Mary said, “He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away” (Luke 1:53). Those who come to God with nothing, are filled with good things from Christ’s hand. Jacob would forever walk with a limp, but he would also carry around a new name that indicated the blessing of God upon his life. Our Lord Jesus also obtained the blessings of eternal salvation for His people, but at the cost of forever possessing human nature and bearing the scars of His death. Should we avoid a life without scars? Paul said, “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). Christian, God will bring you into wrestling seasons, the most difficult seasons of your life. Sick family members, lost children, unemployment. They may leave their mark on you, but you must learn the perseverance that says, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”
“He that can pray well is a princely man. He that can prevail with God will certainly prevail with men…when once a man is taught of the Lord to pray he is equal to every emergency that can possibly arise.” — Charles Spurgeon