Wrestling with God
Prayer for Understanding
Holy God, Your Word is bread for our journey. Send us Your Spirit so that we may grasp Your love and will for us as we listen to Your transforming Word. Amen.
I used to have wrestling matches with my daughters when they were younger. Obviously, it wasn’t like real wrestling as you see in the Olympic games, but it could sometimes become quite serious. It started on the couch with my daughter and I lying in opposite directions. We began playing with our feet, then kicking, and it then became wrestling.
Back then, I was much stronger so I could easily win over my little girls. However, I didn’t use all my strength to knock them out. I just made sure that they used all their energy so that they would stay quiet for a while then I let myself lose the battle. I made myself weak so that they could shout, “Yeah, I won!”
In today’s text, we find Jacob wrestling with an unknown man. The match became so intense that it lasted all night long until daybreak. Let us examine who the strange man was and why he came to wrestle with Jacob.
Who is Jacob? Let us refresh our memory about Jacob’s life. Jacob’s grandfather was Abraham. Abraham and Sarah didn’t have a child but God promised that they would have a son. They waited and waited and finally, when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90, they had their own son, Isaac.
Isaac married Rebekah but they also didn’t have a child for 20 years. Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife. God answered his prayer and Rebekah became pregnant. She gave birth to twin boys. The first one was named Esau because he was hairy. The second one was named Jacob, which literally means “heel-catcher” because he came out with his hand grasping Esau’s heel.
Jacob was a con artist who had been conned, a liar who had been lied to, and a manipulator who had been manipulated. In many ways, he lived up to his name Jacob, and carried the sense of ‘one who follows after to supplant or deceive.’
He took his older brother’s birthright with a bowl of lentil stew. He disguised himself as Esau with the help of his mother Rebekah to trick almost blind Isaac and get his blessing. Clearly, Esau became furious at Jacob’s manipulation that he said he would kill Jacob when Isaac was dead. So, Jacob had to run away from his enraged brother.
He fled to his uncle Laban’s place in Haran. There he married Leah and Rachel, Laban’s daughters, and had 11 sons from his two wives and two other maidservants. His life in Uncle Laban’s place was not easy. Just like how Jacob cheated on his father and brother, Laban cheated on him. So, Jacob also tricked Laban.
When Laban and his sons started treating Jacob unfairly, God told Jacob to return to the land of his fathers. So, after working for his father-in-law for 20 years, he decided to go back to his family in Cannan. But instead of telling Laban he was leaving, he fled with his family and all his possessions while Laban was away.
Laban pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him. However, the Lord came to Laban in his dream at night, saying, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” So, they made a covenant there and went on their own ways.
After the long journey, when they were closer to Seir where Esau was living, Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother. The messengers returned to Jacob and said that Esau was coming to meet Jacob along with 400 men. When Jacob heard that Esau was coming with 400 men, he panicked and was terrified.
Jacob assumed that Esau was bringing 400 fighting men to kill him. He had to figure out some plan to protect his family and himself. So, he divided his people, the flocks and herds into two groups, thinking, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the other group may escape.”
After setting carefully laid plans, he prayed to the Lord. “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, You told me to return to my country and my relatives. You promised that I will prosper. I’m unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness You have shown me. Save me from the hand of my brother Esau because I’m afraid that he will come and attack me and my family.”
However, as soon as he finished praying, instead of trusting God, he took up his own strategy again. He sent ahead impressive sets of gifts in an attempt to buy Esau's favour… goats, rams, bulls, camels, and donkeys, and he instructed his servants exactly what to say. “They belong to your servant Jacob. He sends them as a present to his master Esau. Jacob himself is right behind us.”
Jacob used his sneaky wisdom and tactics and his material possessions to prepare for Esau’s coming. As he was sending forth the gifts for Esau, he thought, “I will pacify him with the gifts, and when I meet him, perhaps he will forgive me.”
That night, he couldn’t sleep. Even though it was dark, he called his family together and crossed the Ford of the Jabbok. After sending all of his possessions across as well, he stayed behind, alone. Alone, in the darkness in fear…
What do you think he was thinking by himself? Maybe looking back at his life - how his life was full of struggles, cheating, tricks… how he had to fight for success, security, possessions… how he had to flee for his life not only once but twice… Regret? Guilt? Sorrow? Self-pity? Loneliness? Fear? Helplessness?
Then, suddenly a man appeared out of nowhere and attacked Jacob. They wrestled all night and it was almost the break of day. When the Man saw that He was not winning the struggle, He struck Jacob on the hip; and Jacob’s hip socket was placed out of the joint. Then the Man said, “Let me go; daylight is coming.”
In the beginning, Jacob might have not realized who the man was. But as he was wrestling with the unknown man all night long, he perhaps recognized the man was in fact God Himself. Some Bible translations say that it was the angel of God, but most scholars believe that it was Jesus, the incarnation of God.
“I will not let you go unless You bless me,” Jacob answered. Here we can see how desperate Jacob was. But out of the blue, God asked, “What is your name?” Did the Sovereign Lord really not know Jacob’s name? Of course, God knew his name. But then why do you think the All-knowing God asked Jacob his name?
Look at Jacob’s life. Even from the womb, he tried to supplant his brother, and he tried everything to make things happen for himself. When Esau discovered that Jacob had cheated him out of Isaac’s blessing, he said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? For he has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing.” (27:36)
When the Lord asked Jacob his name, Jacob might have felt ashamed because his name revealed how he had lived until now. How he cheated his father, brother, uncle… His name revealed his selfish nature and character. Moreover, instead of trusting God, he trusted himself, his own ability, and his material possession.
However, before the threat of death, only fear surrounded him. Then as he encountered the Lord, he must have realized that it wasn’t by his effort but by God’s faithfulness and kindness that he was there. Jacob might have understood that without God, he could not live.
And he had to cling to God. All he could do now was to cling defensively in desperation. Jacob sought God’s blessing by weeping. He knew he was defeated, yet desperately wanted a favour from God who had been faithfully with him. He had to be delivered from his own self-will and self-reliance. Hosea 12:4 records that Jacob wept and begged for God’s favour there.
This was a significant turning point in Jacob’s life. God wanted all of Jacob’s proud self-reliance, and He came to take it, by force if necessary. The hip bone is the strongest bone in our body. By breaking his hip bone, God was teaching him not to rely on his own strength. And by asking his name, God wanted Jacob to admit his past sinful life - how wrongfully he lived; how he struggled to live with his own strength, his own plans, and his own abilities.
When Jacob answered his name, when he acknowledged his shameful past life and sinful nature, God said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” God gave him a new name, like how God gave a new name to Abraham, Sarah, and Peter. And He gave us a new name, a ‘child of God.’
Then the Lord blessed Jacob there. Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” At that moment, the sun rose above him. It was a new day with a new name, new identity, new life, and a new beginning. He limped away from the site of transformation. He would never forget the encounter with God because each step he took reminded him of the divine touch.
Each of us is carrying our own struggle and burden whether it’s about our faith, our spouse, our child, grandchildren, health, financial problems, relationships, moving to a new place, or our future. Many times, we feel helpless and afraid after trying to figure out what to do or what’s next on our own.
Then Abba Father invites Himself in when we are alone in our anguish, uncertainty, fear, vulnerability, emptiness, exhaustion, and pain, and helps us release our grips and let go of our own will, plans, efforts, and worries. He lets us wrestle with Him until we realize that God is in control. All we can do is cling to the Lord.
Most of you probably have realized that it is impossible to live without God. If you have not, sooner or later you will realize that unless you cling to the Lord, unless you abide in HIM, you cannot go on, you can do NOTHING.
Sisters and brothers, Where is the Peniel in your life? When is the time you have wrestled, struggled, come out limping, but been able to declare, “I have seen God”?
It’s time to encounter God face to face. Cling to Him who doesn’t want to leave you alone with your trials, your fears, your battles in life. Don’t try to carry the burden by yourself. Lean on Jesus. Lean on God’s everlasting arms of Love. And then see how Abba Father takes away your fear, gives you peace, and helps you face a new day.
Let us pray.
Apart from You, our Lord and our King, we can do nothing. When You hold us in Your strong hands, we are safe. When You guide us, we know where to go. When You embrace us, we feel loved. When You call us our name, we know that we are Yours. We pray that at this moment, right here may we experience a life-transforming encounter with You. We pray that this place may become our Peniel.