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The Christadelphian | February 2011

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Which translation?
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “The door was shut” | Ken Clark
  • Between the Testaments 2 – Jewish matters | Peter Caudery
  • The Messiah in Zechariah Part 3 | Stephen Whitehouse
  • Providence in the life of Jacob 2 – “I have seen God face to face” | Dudley Fifield
  • Ezekiel – prophet to the exiles 14 – One nation and one king | Andrew E. Walker
  • Workers together 5 – Many helpers | John Boulton
  • Swept by storm | Sally Wright
  • The Comforter | Trevor A. Pritchard
  • Signs of the times Uprising in Tunisia
  • Israel and their land “The Palestine Papers”
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Providence in the life of Jacob

2 – “I have seen God face to face”

WHEN he came to Padan Aram Jacob found his two wives, Leah and Rachel, but he also found in his father-in-law Laban a man who was even more devious than he had been when dealing with Esau and his father Isaac. There was in Laban a ruthless and unscrupulous streak that was totally foreign to Jacob.

Jacob and Laban

Nevertheless, Jacob showed himself to be a man of courage and resourcefulness, who took whatever action he could to protect his interests, while maintaining his trust in God. By his knowledge of husbandry, while doing his utmost to persuade Laban to allow him to return to the land of Canaan, he increased in cattle, servants, camels and asses (Genesis 30:25-43). As a result of his growing prosperity the sons of Laban were moved to jealousy and Laban himself, no doubt influenced by his sons, was no longer prepared to look upon him with favour (31:1,2).

Faced with this situation, Jacob acknowledged that all his efforts would have been in vain if he had not been blessed by God:

“God suffered him not to hurt me … Thus God hath taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me.” (verses 7,9)

Receiving instruction by an angel in a dream Jacob leaves Padan Aram to return to the promised land, only to be pursued relentlessly by Laban who admits that he would have done Jacob harm but for the fact that the God of Jacob had warned him that he was not to interfere with him and his company in any way (verse 29).

It is at this juncture, moved with anger at the reaction of Laban to his desire to return to the land of Canaan, that Jacob reveals the true circumstances of the long years that he had spent in exile:

“This twenty years have I been with thee; thy ewes and thy she goats have not cast their young, and the rams of thy flock have I not eaten. That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto thee; I bare the loss of it; of my hand didst thou require it, whether stolen by day, or stolen by night. Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes. Thus have I been twenty years in thy house; I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy cattle: and thou hast changed my wages ten times. Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely thou hadst sent me away now empty. God hath seen mine affliction and the labour of my hands, and rebuked thee yesternight.” (verses 38-42)

In these words we have a remarkable insight into the manner in which God had chastened Jacob during his long years of exile, fashioned and formed him into everything that He desired him to be. Significantly, through all these long years of hardship that he had endured, Jacob recognised that the hand of God had been at work.

His return to the land

As Jacob came back into the land his thoughts turned more particularly to the reception he might receive from his brother Esau. It was in a spirit of fear and trepidation that he began to prepare himself for the confrontation that he anticipated. The God of Jacob, however, once more revealed Himself to strengthen his hand and to encourage him to face whatever might lie ahead, for –

“Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God’s host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.” (32:1)

The name Mahanaim means ‘the two camps’, and Jacob recognised that his company was surrounded by the camp of the angels who were directing his ways and were there to protect and deliver him out of whatever troubles might lie ahead. David in a similar time of uncertainty was to write:

“The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them.” (Psalm 34:7)

It is a strange thing that although Jacob was granted this vision of the angels who were active on his behalf, when he was told that Esau was approaching with four hundred men, he was “greatly afraid and distressed” and promptly divided his company into two camps (Genesis 32:7).

We do not know what message, if any, was conveyed by the angels that met with him in the way, but clearly Jacob was still filled with anxiety and apprehension regarding that which lay ahead. He feared lest Esau should come and “smite (him) and the mother with the children” (verse 11). Perhaps in mitigation of Jacob we might say that the unknown can always be a source of fear and uncertainty, and we know from our own experiences that even the conviction that God will do that which is best for us does not always quell the fear of what might befall us. Nevertheless, Jacob turned to his God and presented his prayer in the conviction that in Him only was help to be found (verses 9-12).

Having thus resolved and come to terms with his fear and uncertainty, Jacob makes the necessary preparations for his meeting with Esau. It is at this stage in his life that the changes that had been effected by the chastening hand of God become more apparent. He sends messengers to meet his brother and gives them instructions as to how they are to address him:

“Then thou shalt say, They be thy servant Jacob’s; it is a present sent unto my lord Esau.” (verse 18)

Note that the man who had stolen the birthright and the blessing now defers to Esau as his lord. Similarly in chapter 33 he again defers to Esau addressing him as lord (verse 8). Perhaps following the custom of the times Esau insists that he has enough and has no need of the gift offered, but on Jacob’s insistence he takes it with Jacob emphasising that he too has enough (verse 11). Interestingly, Jacob does not use the same words as Esau, although the AV translates them in the same way. Literally what Jacob says is, ‘I have all things’ and surely embraced in those words are the eternal things which God had promised which he coveted so earnestly. Jacob had learned that the inheritance was an eternal possession and not a present reality. The only birthright that Esau was interested in he had already obtained (see Genesis 36) and Jacob was happy to let him have it.

“There wrestled a man with him …”

However, before he met his brother, Jacob had yet another encounter with an angel in what we might describe as the defining moment in his life. Having sent his wives and all his family safely over the brook Jabbok, he remains there alone. The word “brook” (32:23) is somewhat misleading for it indicates a valley or ravine. Ellicott’s Commentary points out that it was probably between four and six miles wide. In winter the river running through it would be a rushing torrent of water and in this respect it was a suitable location for that which Jacob was to experience there.

The fact that Jacob remained there alone is significant. It was of his own choice and it was surely his intention, with Esau so near, to make his prayer to God and thereby to settle any uncertainty that he might have felt about the promises that God had made to protect him and deliver him out of the hand of his brother. Nevertheless, it was God’s intention also to put Jacob to the test and to teach him lessons that in fact he had wrestled with all his life. Clearly in Jacob’s mind also there were issues to be resolved with regard to his relationship with God, and it is in this connection that he wrestles with the angel whom he first perceives to be a man. It is only as the struggle continues that Jacob comes to recognise that the one with whom he grapples is in fact an angel. The word translated “wrestle” means literally ‘to strive, to clasp around’ and perhaps our normal understanding of a wrestling contest, where the combatants seek to throw one or other to the ground, does not convey the true significance of the struggle. Jacob had clasped the angel in his arms and would not let him go. Hosea adds to our understanding of this incident when he tells us:

“Yea, he had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication unto him: he found him in Bethel, and there he spake with us.” (12:4)

As the struggle progressed Jacob came to realise that just as now the struggle was not with man, and so it had been throughout his life. In all the difficulties he had experienced, he had been striving not just with men but with the hand of God that was working through them to fashion him as God desired. In his determination Jacob said, in full recognition that in the person of the angel he was actually wrestling with God, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (Genesis 32:26). So the angel blessed him and Jacob, whose birth name means the supplanter, became Israel, a prince with God. They wrestled until the break of day and as the sun rose he called the name of the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (verse 30).

As he went, he carried the wounds of the conflict into the new day, for “he halted upon his thigh” (verse 31). So it must always be for the man who recognises the hand of God in his life. As he contends with the vicissitudes of life he comes to appreciate that his wrestlings are in fact with the angels that encamp round about him, and in every new phase of life through which he passes it might be that he will carry in spirit the wounds of the conflict – those lessons that he has learned under the chastening hand of God.

To Bethel

Jacobs’s ultimate destination was Bethel where we might say his spiritual journey had begun. In preparation for his arrival he first cleansed his house at Shechem, ensuring that they put away from them all the strange gods that were among them (Genesis 35:1-4).

Included amongst these were the household gods that Rachel had stolen from her father (31:17-35). It has been suggested that these gods conveyed the right of inheritance to the one who possessed them – thus the determination that Laban showed in his anxiety to recover them. In burying them in this way Jacob showed that he did not seek any inheritance that this world had to offer. He cast away from him all the vanity and emptiness of human aspirations and showed that he had put his trust in those eternal things that God had promised.

On arrival at Bethel God appeared to him again and reiterated the blessing given at Jabbok, and confirmed the promises that He had first made to him at this place (35:6-15).

The lessons for us

We may not meet with angels in the way that Jacob did, but we have David’s assurance (Psalm 34:7) that they are as active in our lives as they were in his. In all the vicissitudes of life we might sometimes find it difficult to recognise the hand of God at work. We try to resolve our own problems when sometimes events and circumstances are pushing us in a different direction. Whenever this happens we must remember that God is in control and in our uncertainty and indecision we are not simply wrestling with things contrived by human arrangement, but with the angels of God who have power over our lives and direct our ways. Like Jacob we must lay hold on those eternal things that we have become related to in the Lord Jesus Christ and never let them go. We must show our commitment by “continuing instant in prayer” (Romans 12:12); in the spirit of the importunate widow (Luke 18) we must give God no rest “till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth” (Isaiah 62:7). (concluded)

Dudley FifielD


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