God the Aggressor


I. Crisis Followed by Crisis

A. Divine intervention resolved the first crisis (31:24) – God appeared to Laban and warned him not to take any punitive action toward Jacob. Jacob was enabled to set forth his reasons for leaving, his grievance against Laban, resolve the conflict by a covenantal arrangement, and see his father-in-law reconciled to Leah and Rachel.

B. Divine Assurance preceded the second crisis. Now as Jacob faces the reality of moving toward the territory of his twin brother Esau, remembering his rage and his plans to kill Jacob, he is met by “the angels of God.”

  1. Perhaps Jacob even recognized these as the angels that ascended and descended on the ladder from earth to heaven that he saw in a dream at Bethel. At any rate, it was a merciful assurance from the God who promised on that occasion, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” Jacob’s descendants must yet multiply exponentially.
  2. Jacob realized that God in his protective and covenantal power was present. Not only was this Jacob’s camp, it was God’s camp. He called the place, therefore, Mahanaim, which means “two camps.” We do not occupy any place on earth or in the universe where God does not dwell in his perfect power and immensity. He made it all and sustains it all. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139:8).
  3. Beyond omnipresence and power, however, God is with his elect in his redeeming, sanctifying, and protective purpose in all of their situations. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35, 39).

C. Jacob strategizes in light of the nature of the crisis. Not presuming on intervention in the face of carelessness, Jacob begins making overtures to his brother that indicate his propitious spirit toward him. He sends servants to find Esau and give him a message. Though he had received the birthright and the blessing, Jacob calls himself Esau’s servant. He indicates that he has been industrious and has gained sufficient wealth to support himself and is not returning as a vagabond, ne’er-do-well to absorb more of the possessions of his father. He also recognizes that Esau could well harbor resentment toward Jacob, perhaps even inflamed by its necessary repression for twenty years, and solicits “favor in your sight.”

D. The servants return with no word from Esau but only an observation of his preparation for vengeance. Esau does not respond with a message; he does not seek to give any kind of peace of mind to Jacob, but immediately mobilizes a band of four-hundred men who could easily inflict total destruction on Jacob, his family, his servants, and take possession of all his livestock. This kind of reaction seems to be his intent.

E. Jacob prepares in light of his fear. In earthly terms, Jacob’s fear was legitimate for Esau had pledged to kill Jacob but indicated that he was willing to wait until after his father’s death to do it (27:41).He prepares, therefore, to minimize the damage by dividing his entire company into two parts. It is possible that one of the parts would escape either by successful flight away from the slaughter or by Esau’s determined blood-thirsty revenge being satisfied by the elimination of half of Jacob’s company.


II. Crisis that brings Prayer. Jacob lays his case before God. God has come to him with guidance and grace on at least three occasions; now Jacob comes to God, reasoning with him in prayer.

A. He calls on God in light of the continuity of his purpose as revealed to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob does not call upon the household gods of Laban (and he might know even yet that Rachel had stolen them). He is now the third generation of God’s revealed purpose for blessing to all peoples. He does not mention Abraham and Isaac as if this God was not also his God, but he does it in a way of submission to God’s revelation and a willingness to go forward even toward danger through the cumulative power of the circumstances in which God has intervened to carry forth the hope of this promise. Abraham’s servant prayed for a very specific answer in light of the mission given him by Abraham for his son Isaac: “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham” (*Genesis 24:12-14). It is in that line of worship and supplication that Jacob prays.

B. He calls on God as the one who called him to return home, thus setting in motion the events that have provoked this crisis. This is not blame, but a recognition that he lives in the midst of divine purpose and so has need of divine power and intervention: “O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return … and I will prosper you’” (9). Even as God had spoken to Abraham and Isaac, He had spoken to Jacob. Even as the Lord had guided Abraham, so had he guided Jacob.

C. Jacob recognizes his unworthiness. Jacob left his home two decades earlier with only a staff in his hand and the threat of murder behind him. Though having to deal with a man who was intent on taking advantage of him, deceiving him, and even robbing his own daughters of inheritance, Jacob has prospered. Jacob recognized with profundity that this happened only because of God’s lovingkindness, mercy granted to sinners under the mysterious provision of redemptive grace. The next word could be translated either faithfulness or truth. These are not unrelated, for God’s faithfulness relates, at least in part, to his personal consistency with revealed truth. Jacob expressed his awareness that he was unworthy of all the special favors of God including the revelation of truth.

D. Jacob asks specifically for deliverance from the hand of Esau. This was the crisis immediatelybefore Jacob. He knew that without divine intervention, his life, the lives of his wives and children and servants, and all his accumulated property would be at the mercy of a man who lived by the sword. “He will attack me and the mothers with the children. This is an example of a person pleading for God’s engagement according to his best understanding of God’s will. It is consistent with the model prayer in its petition, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

E. He prays on the basis of the promise. He holds a vivid view of what is necessary for God’s promise of a virtually innumerable posterity to be fulfilled. If the promise is to come to pass, then Esau must not succeed.


III. Crisis that brings Planning. Those who are persuaded of the inviolability of God’s providence will also act with fitting and holy prudence in their response to the crisis. “God answers our prayers by teaching us to order our affairs with discretion.” (Matthew Henry). When we pray we put our minds more in harmony with the manner in which God acts in the world. We see situations in light of their inter-related dynamics and judge what honest means can be used to achieve the desired outcome. God himself uses means that are consistent with his purpose and his immutable character; we should, in order to reflect our confidence in his governance of the world, do no less.  Jacob considers what will have the tendency to pacify Esau and reduce his sense of justified anger.

A. Jacob sent a variety of gifts to Esau. These gifts represent the kind of gain that Esau might have had if he had received all of his firstborn rights from Isaac. The number and variety of animals was impressive and each group had the ability to reproduce quickly and abundantly.

B. He sent them in waves, each wave of gifts giving a more impressive display of Jacob’s success, his willingness to share with Esau, and the earnestness of his desire for peace with him. If Esau attacked, he could hardly gain more for himself than Jacob was giving to him, unconditionally and unsolicited. He had stolen words of blessing and favor, but now he bestowed on Esau the fruit of his own blessings.

C. He gave instructions as to what to say. Each wave of gifts was given with a statement so that Esau could not mistake Jacob’s intent. The herds were from Jacob himself, they belonged to him and he was giving to Esau out of his own possessions. These were a gift. Jacob laid no claim to them, but they were to be Esau’s without conditions. Jacob himself would follow to confirm both his gifts and his attitude of servanthood. “Behold, your servant Jacob also is behind us.” Jacob is a type of Christ in this instance: Jesus came from his glory taking the form of a servant and putting his life in danger; he came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.

D. He did this, by his own frank admission, “I will appease him with the present that goes before me. Then afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me” (20). Later he told Esau himself that he had sent all the gifts “to find favor in the sight of my lord.” Proverbs indicates that a “gift in secret averts anger and a concealed bribe, strong wrath.” (Proverbs 21:4). Jacob has not given in secret nor is it presented as a bribe, but the effect of the generous gift would, nevertheless, accomplish the same outcome. Jacob, the offender, offers the gift for reconciliation. Jesus, the offended one, offers the gift for our reconciliation.

E. Jacob sends his family across the river Jabbock and isolates himself for the evening.


IV. Crisis that Partitions (Deuteronomy 32:8, 9; Isaiah 44:1-5; Hosea 12:3-6)

A. When Jacob was alone, a man wrestled with him. Where did he come from? How did he get there? This was an act of aggression on the part of the visitor. Jacob did not initiate this, nor did he plan for it to happen. Once the match ensued, however, Jacob immediately joined the conflict. That this “man” could have destroyed Jacob at any moment is seen in the single action of dislocating Jacob’s hip, drying up the sinew that held the hip socket in place. Even as he initiated the struggle, however, he wanted the contest to last until Jacob saw his dependence on the one with whom he fought. Jacob wrestled with him even after his hip was dislocated for he did not want his assailant to leave, for he knew that harm was not the purpose of this attack but consummation of blessing. He was claiming Jacob and his offspring as his own. Hosea the prophet looked on this event as an extension of the experience at Bethel, the source of the Israel’s great privileges, and the hope for their restoration: “In his strength he struggled with God. Yes, he struggled with the Angel and prevailed; He wept and sought favor from Him. He found Him in Bethel, and there He spoke to us—that is, the Lord of hosts. The Lord is his memorable name. So you by the help of your God, return; Observe mercy and justice, and wait on you God continually.” (Hosea 12:3-6) Jacob was intent on finding spiritual favor in this match and so deeply did the opportunity present itself to him that he wept, not for physical pain, but for a gracious standing with God.

B. Though the engagement was physical resulting in a physical injury for Jacob, he sensed from the beginning that this was about his future well-being spiritually and his place in the covenant. The wrestler could not make Jacob give up, nor did he intend for it to end that way. This was to show that in all of Jacob’s striving, God was immediately involved. Jacob’s attempts to understand the ways of God with him were in themselves the outflow of God’s work within him. His desire for a blessing conformed to exactly what the initiating wrestler intended Jacob to desire. Paul told the Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work according to his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12, 13). Again, we find a similar idea when Paul testifies that he is striving to make his own that for which Christ made him his own (Philippians 3:12). The striving of Paul joins with the effectual operations of Christ so that the energetic pursuit of Paul expresses that God the aggressor had made Paul’s desires conform to his purpose.In his preaching of the gospel, Paul again pointed to this confluence of mutual striving initiated by God: “For this I toil struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29). Even in our prayers we demonstrate that our earnest desires and struggles before the throne of grace require an infusion of strength and clarity from God—“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches the heart knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26,27).

C. As the day broke, Jacob refused to let the contest end without receiving a blessing. God subdues us by sovereign grace to make us desire the very thing he intends to grant us. Asking Jacob his name, “supplanter,” he gave him another name, Israel, “Prince of God.” He would still be known as Jacob, but now a sanctified supplanter of men for divine purposes (Joshua 1:1-6) and one who still must prevail in his upcoming appointment with Esau. This new name, however, seals the promise, that as the chosen line from Abraham through Isaac he would be the channel of eternal blessings. “He set the boundaries of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the place of his inheritance” (Deuteronomy 32: 8, 9). “Yet Jacob I have loved; but Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1: 2, 3). To be embraced as an heir of God and joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17) has infinite superiority to any privilege or blessing a mere man can bestow and its eternal duration mean that the inheritance involved in the position is the “eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11). The wrestler does not tell Jacob his name, for he has revealed as much as is needful for Jacob at the time. Jacob clearly discerned that this was God and the source of all blessing whether in this life or in eternity.

D. Having seen the face of God and yet be preserved would prepare him for seeing the face of Esau (note Jacob’s awareness of this in 33:10). If one can look upon God and be preserved, though we deserve condemnation, we must conclude that grace and mercy consistent with immutable justice are operative in our lives. God, the All-Wise, has made a way and we need not fear. What can man do to us?

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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