Jacob Have I Loved


I. Jacob does not presume but prepares. He has faced God and lived. He received blessing, not cursing, from this struggle and knew that God’s covenantal purpose for him would be performed faithfully. He did not know the details of its completion, but as God’s chosen he must be a careful steward of all that God had given him. While there are absolutely transcendent aspects of God’s providence, some of his arrangements operate through human prudence.

A. Jacob observed the situation. As had been reported, Esau brought with him 400 men. He could only conclude that such a party was not gathered for an amicable celebration of the return of the supplanter, but to exact a pound of vengeance for an ounce of offense.

B. Jacob discriminated between his wives and children.

  1. We can discern when considering the entire narrative that Jacob had paternal concern for them all, but he did not want to make the entire lot ready for slaughter by having them together.
  2. He arranged them therefore, in the order of his perception of their place in God’s original intent for the perpetuity of the covenant. Rachel and her son were to be the most remote from danger; the two handmaids and their children would be the first exposed to Esau’s revenge. Leah would be after the handmaids but still a second shield for the safety of Rachel.
  3. Before Esau would reach any of them, however, he would have opportunity to avenge himself on Jacob. Jacob put himself at the front, leading the way to the confrontation. He was not wielding a weapon. He had not made his arrival secret, but had sent messengers ahead to inform Esau. He had given impressive gifts. Now he appears before Esau with humility moving before the entre group, bowing himself to the ground seven times in complete submission to the will of Esau. He did not keep at a distance but “came near to his brother.”
  4. There are abundant ironies in this tense meeting. It could well have served as a major part of the resentment that Joseph’s brothers had for him. In being protected from the wrath of Esau, he had been made vulnerable to the jealously of his brothers. Their wrath against Joseph (and by extension against their father) did not eliminate Joseph but became the means of the preservation of the entire family. God makes the wrath of man to praise him (Psalm 76:10).


II. Esau gives a surprisingly exuberant welcome. The rest of the distance between Jacob and Esau was covered rapidly by Esau. Esau was impressed by the courage and the humility of Jacob. At the same time, this was a result of the secret operations of God’s providence in light of the prayers of Jacob, “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, for the hand of Esau; for I fear him, that he will come and attack me and the mothers with the children” (32:11). Jacob had included all in his prayer and put himself in harm’s way first before any of the family was exposed. Jacob could not control the sovereignty of God in election, but could from his standpoint seek to restore the temporal benefits and blessings that were Esau’s by right of the firstborn. He approached Esau as his brother, his twin brother, his elder brother, and the one whose recognition as first born had been rudely and deceptively ignored by him.

A. Esau also humbled himself by running toward Jacob. We are reminded of the attitude of the Father toward his returning son in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal (Luke 15:20). Even as the father did in the parable, so Esau does, he ran, he embraced, he kissed. In the parable the running father gave gifts to the son; in this instance the returning brother has brought gifts to his older sibling. The narrative has all the marks of a deep outflowing of long-suppressed emotion. The piling up of guilt, anger, sense of betrayal, fear, anticipation, and familial affection all erupt in this moment of reconciliation. Jacob sees the blessedness again of undeserved mercy from the secret counsel of God while Esau recognizes the futility and oppressiveness of harboring for so long such anger and a spirit of vengeance. This illustrates the Psalmist’s proclamation, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” (Psalm 133:1, 2).

B. Esau now is ready to hear good news from Jacob about the prosperity of his life. He asked about the next wave of humans, the handmaids and children, Leah and children, and Rachel and Joseph. Since it was seven years with Laban before Jacob married Leah, the oldest child is not yet fourteen. [Note this as a correction to an earlier statement that the eldest child could have been near twenty].


III. Jacob responds with consistent references to the grace of God.

A. He introduced the women and children with the acknowledgement—“The children whom God has graciously given to your servant.” The circuitous rout by which these children were born and the various machinations involved in such a diversity of progeny was not the prominent point in Jacob’s consideration, The overriding consideration, even in the midst of the tension and confusion, was the divine purpose of grace. He would be able to say with Paul, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Jacob’s initiation of humble deference and his testimony to divine intervention and provision controlled the meeting and the discussion.

B. All of them passed by Esau, and, reflecting the humble stance of Jacob, bowed down with respectful cordiality to Esau. Esau, even at this stage of his life (given the kind of company he carried with him), was not accustomed to such a show of civility.

C. After looking at the presence of mothers and children, Esau asked about the more than 500 head of livestock that had preceded the remainder of Jacob’s accumulated relations and wealth. Esau asked Jacob about the meaning of the gift.

  1. Jacob frankly admits that he has done this to “find favor in the sight of my lord.” It is an offering to seek reconciliation and favor, an admission of wrong and an attempt to atone. Jacob is making humble supplication for forgiveness and restoration.
  2. Esau, perhaps sincerely but perhaps as a test of Jacob’s sincerity, encouraged Jacob to retain that large gift as his own. Saying that he himself already had plenty, he said, “Let what you have be your own.” You have worked and labored for this; you have done well for yourself. Keep the fruit of your labor as your own, for I have no need of more than I already have gained.”
  3. Jacob, however, already had relinquished that gift, not just to Esau, but to the Lord in light of his recognition that all he had was of grace. It was not his to keep but symbolized the freeness with which God had chosen, blessed, and protected him.
  • To Jacob, the present to Esau represented the finding of favor from the face of one whose wrath could justly be exhibited. “No,” he responded, but with “please,” also. Then, “If I have found favor in your sight then take my present.”
  • By the response of Esau, he could see that it had been received as “an offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians  4:18). Jacob offered this sincerely, not grudgingly, but truly seen as a debt.
  • Jacob recognized that Esau had lost both honor and material gain by his participation in the deceit. He knows that reconciliation involves the restoration of fitting honor and must be consistent with justice. God asked Israel through Malachi, “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am the Father, where is by honor? And if I am a master, where is my reverence?”
  1. Jacob did not yet know how God could reconcile him and have his honor restored. That would come later. But he did know the principle.
  • He looked therefore on the reconciled face of Esau, and saw that God had taken away his angry face also and received Jacob (10). Millinnea later Paul would write, “In his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25, 26). Jesus died a propitiatory death in order that God’s reconciliation of sinners would be an act, not only of sovereign mercy, but of exact justice.
  • Reconciliation with God precedes, and is the foundation, for all true reconciliation with man. Our restoration to God comes from a matter of sovereign satisfaction and is complete at the moment of justification.
  • Our reconciliation with man comes as a process confluent with sanctification and a vital part of it. As issues of indwelling sin hamper sanctification and our recognition of its depths constitute an important element of sanctification, so does the issue of reconciliation with man involve a deep searching of lingering issues, both personal and corporate.
  1. Jacob reinforced his earnestness in giving Esau the gift by again giving testimony to his consciousness that all he had was from God’s grace. He has learned that the plenty he had was from the inexhaustible stores of divine provision (verse 11). More deeply and more fully would this lesson be pressed on God’s people when Paul reminded the Philippians, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. . . . And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Philippians 4:11,12, 19, 20).


IV. Esau offers help to Jacob as he continues his journey. Jacob shows his sensitivity to the needs of his people and possessions and also avoids making unnecessary trouble for Esau’s company.

A. Esau’s willingness to accompany Jacob and his group safely though the rest of their journey contrasts greatly with Esau’s descendants in their hostile bellicose posture toward the descendants of Jacob when the Israelites requested safe passage through the territory of Edom in their journey from Egypt (Exodus 20:14-21). The enmity established early, though reconciled in the two principle persons, festered in following generations. Not only did Edom refuse them passage, but centuries later, they harassed them as they sought to escape the attack of Babylon (Amos 1:11, 12). Though Esau was reconciled to Jacob, the house of Esau maintained its enmity and God brought judgment upon it. “For violence against your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you. . . . The house of Judah shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame; but the house of Esau shall be stubble” (Obadiah 10, 18).

B. Jacob knew that their respective companies required different rates of travel due to size and constituent elements. Reconciliation had occurred, and now his primary stewardship was toward his family, servants, and the livestock. Jacob did not want to slow down the men who had accompanied Esau for they probably had families and obligations for their care and needed to return with haste. Likewise with Esau.

C. Jacob, on the other hand, had the obligation to recognize the needs of youth and of the women in his caravan. Also driving all his herd with too great a speed could be cruel to them and also a significant loss to himself (verses 13, 14). This does not appear to be another deceit on the part of Jacob or an attempt to avoid further contact with Esau, but a mature recognition of his being the responsible person for a large group with diverse needs in light of their continual exposure to the elements, the difficulty of keeping such a group together and in good spirits and health.

D. Given that and the reconciliation with Esau, Jacob had no lingering fears but was willing to continue without any protective entourage provided by Esau. Now that he was restored to honor, Jacob appealed to Esau’s benevolence as a motivation to honor the desire of Jacob (15).

E. Jacob indicated that he would catch up with Esau at Seir. The rest of the journey is summarized with great brevity, but it is likely that Jacob did exactly as he said he would do. Also, it is unthinkable that he would not go also to see his father before the event recorded in 35:27. Probably Rebekah had died and only in Genesis 49:31 do we learn that she was buried in the cave of Machpelah. In Genesis 35: 8, we learn of the death of Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, and burial “below Bethel under the oak.”

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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