Jacob’s Prayer to the God of Abraham and Isaac

Jacob’s Prayer to the God of Abraham and Isaac

“Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”[1] These are the words that God spoke to Jacob after he had spent twenty years working for his father-in-law Laban. Specifically, as Jacob recounted to his wives, Rachel and Leah, the angel of God had appeared to him in a dream, telling him, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.”[2] Though as we saw last week Jacob did obey the LORD, he may not have fully trusted him for when he left Laban he did so secretly, not letting him know that he was leaving. After Laban chased him down, he and Jacob made a covenant in which they agreed to do no harm to one another after which Laban returned home.

Our chapter opens by stating, “Jacob also went on his way.” But verse 1 further—and matter-of-factly—states: “the angels of God met him.” Period. Really? Inquiring minds want to know more! Did the angels speak with him? If so, what did they say? How many angels were there? What did they look like? But we’re told none of this for none of this is the point. What is important, as one commentator observes, is that this appearance of “the angels of God” is “reminiscent of Jacob’s dream at Bethel (28:12), the only other place in the whole of the OT [sic] where the same expression is used.”[3] If you’ll recall, that particular dream occurs in the passage of Jacob’s ladder (or staircase) upon which “the angels of God were ascending and descending.” Bethel is where the LORD first disclosed himself to Jacob, telling him that he would be with him—and watch over him wherever he went—and that he would bring him back to the land of his fathers.[4] This timely reappearance of the angels of God was surely intended as a means of reassuring Jacob that as the LORD had been with him in his time in Paddan Aram, surely he was—and would continue to be—with him now. Jacob apparently understood this for, as stated in verse 2, “When Jacob saw [the angels of God], he said, ‘This is the camp of God!’ So he named that place Mahanaim”—Mahanaim meaning “two camps,”[5] perhaps Jacob’s earthly camp and God’s heavenly camp. This meeting with God’s angels no doubt served as a comfort and reminder to Jacob of the LORD’s promise to him as he now made his way back home to the land of Canaan, not knowing what he might find there.

This return home was fraught with danger in Jacob’s mind for there was a particular order of business he had to address, that of his older twin brother Esau who had been the catalyst for Jacob leaving in the first place. In anticipation of this encounter, Jacob sought to test the waters and try to discover how his brother felt about him after all of these years. As stated beginning with verse 3,

Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’”

There are numerous allusions to Esau in these few verses: Seir[6] is a word that means “hairy”—and when Esau was born, he was said to be “hairy;”[7] Edom means “red”—and when Esau sold his birthright for some red stew, he became known as Edom.[8] But the important part in all of this is that Jacob sought to “find favor” in the eyes of Esau, his “lord.” He needed to make amends because earlier in his life he, the deceiver, had stolen Esau’s birthright—and inheritance—and blessing. Consequently, twenty years earlier Esau had vowed to kill Jacob once their father Isaac died and the days of his mourning had passed.[9]

Well, what the messengers reported back to Jacob was far from comforting for they told him, verse 6, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” This was not the response Jacob had hoped for. Why bring four hundred men if not to harm him? Clearly any sense of trust between the two brothers had long ago been broken. At this point Jacob’s fears seem to have been well-placed. Therefore, as stated in verses 7–8, he set out a plan. “In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, ‘If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.’” Jacob did what he thought he had to do in order to survive an attack from his brother for twenty years of hard labor for his wives, children, servants, and flock were in imminent danger of disappearing.

However, in what follows we see a new feature in Jacob’s personality for he was learning not only how to obey and trust God but also, for the first time, to seek him out. As indicated in verses 9–12, Jacob was beginning to develop the instinct of a follower of God for he prayed his first prayer since the vow he had made to God when he appeared to him at Bethel twenty years earlier. At that time he had promised that if God would be with him and watch over him on his journey, providing food to eat and clothes to wear, so that he would return safely to his father’s household, then he would make the LORD his God, make a house of the pillar he had set up, and give a tenth to the LORD.[10] Verses 9–12 record what Jacob had to say to God on the other side of the vow he had once made as he prayed,

O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, “Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,” 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12 But you have said, “I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.”[11]

On the one hand, in this prayer Jacob was still referring to God as the God of his father Abraham and of his father Isaac; on the other, for the first time he used the personal name for God, “LORD” or “Yahweh.” Jacob understood—since God had made it clear to him—that this was the one and same God who had first appeared to him at Bethel, again, promising that he would be with him as he went to Paddan-Aram and who recently had appeared to him in Paddan-Aram telling him, “Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper.” In his prayer, Jacob expressed a genuine sense of humility. He admitted that he was “unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness” God had shown his “servant” noting how when he had first crossed the Jordan, he possessed only his staff but now he had “become two camps” (verse 10). Jacob had gone from pauper to prince; from owning but a staff and the clothes on his back to possessing more riches than he could have ever imagined. And through it all, God had been with him, just as he had promised. What a perfect example this is of what the apostle Paul taught years later—that God’s kindness is intended to lead to our repentance.[12]

Jacob now turned to God in his time of fear, a fear that was a direct result of his obedience for, as we’ve previously noted, when his mother Rebekah sent him back to her homeland to save his life and find a wife, she had told him that she would let him know when Esau’s anger had subsided, making it safe for Jacob to return home.[13] And though word from his mother never did come, the LORD had let Jacob know that it was time for him to return home. Had he chosen to remain in Paddan-Aram awaiting word from his mother, he wouldn’t have found himself in this predicament; but because he had chosen to obey God, he now feared for his life as he anticipated meeting up with his brother Esau who was coming to meet him with four hundred of his men. This is why Jacob now poured out his heart to God and prayed for deliverance, asking that he might save him from Esau’s hand; letting God know how he feared that his brother would come and attack him and his family. And lastly, in his prayer Jacob reminded the LORD—as though the LORD needed any reminding!—of his promise to him: “I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.” Though Jacob may have hardly dared to believe this promise, he nonetheless turned to the LORD, the Promise-Maker, as he sought his reassurance.

Receiving no immediate answer, Jacob spent the night where he had prayed, verse 13. And he decided to select “a gift for his brother Esau” from among his considerable possessions. Namely, verses 14–15,

14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats,

two hundred ewes and twenty rams,

15 thirty female camels with their young,

forty cows and ten bulls,

and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.

All told, he was gifting Esau over 550 animals from his flock. Then, verse 16, “He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, ‘Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.’” Having separated these animals into herds, verse 17, Jacob instructed the lead servant, “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ 18 then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’” If Esau was still angry with his younger twin, perhaps these animals would help assuage his anger. Next Jacob gave the same instruction to each of his servants, verses 19–20: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20 And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us’” (emphasis added). Notice that as Jacob had previously referred to Esau as his “lord,” he now referred to himself as Esau’s “servant” as he paid obeisance to him. And this was the case even though when the twins were yet in their mother’s womb, the LORD had told Rebekah that the older—that is, Esau—would one day serve the younger—that is, Jacob.[14] Not only that, but when their father had blessed Jacob, part of his blessing stated that Jacob would be lord over his brothers who would one day bow down to him.[15] In other words, from the womb it had been clear that Jacob would take precedence over his brother Esau. Yet as stated at the end of verse 20, Jacob thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” Jacob’s fear led to humility before God and to humility before his brother.

Having done everything in his power to set the stage for this meeting with his brother, Jacob “himself spent the night in the camp,” verse 21. And, oh, what a night it would turn out to be! Verses 22–23 state, “That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.[16] After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.” But then we’re told, beginning in verse 24, “24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.” Yet even this advantage didn’t cause Jacob to release the man. Therefore, beginning with verse 26 we’re presented with the conversation that ensued:

Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”—the name “Israel” likely means he struggles or strives with God.

29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So who was the man? From Jacob’s perspective, the man with whom he wrestled was none other than God. As recorded in verse 30, “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’”—and, again, “Peniel” means face of God. Whereas earlier Jacob had received a blessing from Isaac, his earthly father, so now he had sought—and received—a blessing from God.

But it’s worth pausing to ask here: “Was this really God with whom Jacob had wrestled?” In all likelihood it was. Now there are primarily two reasons that can be given to argue that it wasn’t God: First, because Scripture elsewhere speaks of God as being omnipotent, that is, all-powerful,[17] it seems unlikely that any man—even one who was as physically strong as Jacob had become—could win such a contest. Second, later in Scripture when Moses asked God to show him his glory, God answered him by saying, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”[18]

But I think that the arguments in favor of concluding that this man was indeed a theophany or manifestation of God are stronger:

First, as already noted, Jacob testified that he had seen God face to face and yet his life had been spared (verse 30);

Second, as we saw in Genesis 18 with the three men and Abraham,[19] or God and two of his angels, the LORD does occasionally appear in human or angelic form. As one scholar notes, “The mysterious Man was a theophany, a visible (and in this case tangible) manifestation of God who is intrinsically invisible, the Angel of the Lord;”[20]

Third, as another scholar notes, “Though Jacob was apparently a man of considerable strength (29:2, 10), the Angel of the Lord accommodated His strength to Jacob’s.”[21] In other words, we shouldn’t necessarily expect that God would manifest the fulness of his power even though, as God, he was and is indeed all-powerful;

Last, in using Scripture to interpret Scripture, we see that later on the prophet Hosea, in referring to this incident, makes clear that Jacob had wrestled with God. Hosea 12:2–6 states:

The Lord has a charge to bring against Judah; he will punish Jacob according to his ways and repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor. He found him at Bethel and talked with him there—the Lord God Almighty, the Lord is his name! But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always.

Though Hosea begins by stating that Jacob “struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor,” he ends by declaring that this angel was the God whom he found and spoke with at Bethel, concluding that “the Lord God Almighty, the Lord is his name!”

Well, chapter 32 in Genesis ends by noting, starting with verse 31, “31 The sun rose above [Jacob] as he passed Peniel,[22] and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.” Concerning this limp, one commentator observes, “God came to him in such a form that Jacob could wrestle with him successfully, yet he showed Jacob that he could disable him at will.”[23] Again we see that Jacob’s seemingly greater strength was more apparent than real.

So we’ve seen how over the course of his life thus far Jacob has gone from being a man who deceives man and is willing to even use God’s name deceitfully to do so,[24] to being a man who struggles or strives with both God and man—perhaps not a grand advancement but an advancement all the same. Therefore, he is no longer Jacob, the deceiver, but Israel, the man who struggles with God. He’s gone from acknowledging God as the God of his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac[25]—to obeying this God, making a vow to believe him if God would be with him[26]—to learning to trust God’s kindness and provision[27]—to now seeking God out in his time of need and having his life spared despite having wrestled with and seen God face to face.

Well, as we turn to our New Testament passage from 2 Corinthians 4, I want to pick up on this idea of seeing God face-to-face. For though at one time, as we noted earlier, people generally were not able to see God face-to-face and live, when God chose to enter human history by sending his Son in human form in the person of Christ Jesus, he did allow us to see him face-to-face. And not only are those who believe in and receive Jesus allowed to see God face-to-face and not die, but to all who do see him, he gives his very life, his eternal life,[28] by means of the Holy Spirit he gives to seal and indwell us.[29]

Paul begins by playing with the notions of blindness and sight, darkness and light, evil and good, Satan and Christ. As he states in verse four, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” The devil, Satan, that ancient serpent[30] who first appeared in the Garden of Eden seeking to destroy God’s good creation is—for the time being—alive and well, even though his doom is sure.[31] As this father of lies[32] lied to our first parents, Adam and Eve, causing them to question God’s Word[33] and goodness,[34] so today he’s “blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light” of Christ Jesus who is God incarnate, God’s image in human form. The reason that Paul and the other disciples preached “Jesus Christ as Lord” and themselves as our servants “for Jesus’ sake” (verse 5), is because God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” verse 6, “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”

Dear sisters and brothers, God’s light is the only thing that can open eyes that are blind to the truth of who Christ is;

God’s light is the only thing that can chase away the darkness that keeps us from seeing God;

God’s light is the only thing that can do away with lies about who God is for he is the Truth;[35]

For God is light and in him there is no darkness;[36]

Therefore without God’s light we remain blind, in darkness, separate from God; but with God’s light we are able to believe in and receive him; with God’s light we can know that to see the face of Jesus is to see the face of God; with God’s light we know Jesus as Christ, the fulness of the glory of God.

So let us pray this morning and every morning that by his quickening Holy Spirit we and all those whom we know and love might have this knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ; and let us seek to live as children of light, shedding Jesus’ truth—and love—and kindness—and grace into this world of lies—and hate—and unkindness—and vain human efforts. For when by the strength of God’s Holy Spirit we love others as we have been loved by our gracious Father in heaven, others will be able to see and experience for themselves the love of God in the face of Christ.

Let us pray.

Benediction: Numbers 6:24–26: 24 The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.

[1] Genesis 31:3.

[2] Genesis 31:13.

[3] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 31:1–2. Emphasis added. Genesis 28:12 states: He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

[4] Genesis 28:15: 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

[5] Mahanaim was located in Gilead, east of Jordan and north of the Jabbok River. It would later serve as a capital for Saul’s son Ishbosheth (2 Samuel 2:8) and a refuge for David during Absalom’s rebellion (2 Samuel 17:24).

[6] Located east of Canaan in Transjordan.

[7] Genesis 25:25a: The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau.

[8] Genesis 25:29: Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)

[9] Genesis 27:41: Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

[10] See Genesis 28:20–22: 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God 22 and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”

[11] Having descendants as “the sand of the sea” was a promise originally made to Abraham. See Genesis 22:15–18: 15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” To Jacob God had promised descendants as “the dust of the earth” (Genesis 28:14).

[12] Romans 2:4.

[13] See Genesis 27:42–45: 42 When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. 43 Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. 44 Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. 45 When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”

[14] Genesis 25:23: The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”

[15] Genesis 27:29: May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.

[16] The Jabbok river (today the Wadi Zerqa) flowed westward into the Jordan Valley about 20 miles north of the Dead Sea.

[17] See, e.g., Genesis 18:13–14: 13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”; Jeremiah 32:27: “I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?

[18] Exodus 33:18, 20: 18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory….” 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Earlier in the same chapter (verse 11), it states how “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” But this probably meant that the LORD spoke to Moses directly, rather than literally “face to face,” that is, God shared his heart with Moses as one does with a friend.

[19] See sermon preached on August 9, 2020, Laughter Transformed, on Genesis 18:1–15, 21:1-7 in which I discuss briefly the identity of the three men.

[20] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Genesis 32:24.

[21] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 32:25.

[22] The Hebrew is Penuel, a variant of Peniel. The town was destroyed by Gideon (Judg 8:8) and was later fortified by King Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:25).

[23] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Genesis 32:25. Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 32:25 introduces a possibility that has never occurred to me, namely, “God dislocated Jacob’s hip, the wrestler’s pivot of strength (v. 31). Having previously depended upon his wits and strength, Jacob’s natural powers were now crippled. Every step he would take in the future would remind him of his dependence upon divine grace.” I’m not completely convinced that this was the case since verse 31 merely states that Jacob “was limping because of his hip,” not that he was permanently disabled.

[24] When Jacob disguised himself as Esau and stood before his father Isaac, he lied to his father about how he had been able to find and prepare the game so quickly Genesis 27:20: Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?” “The Lord your God gave me success,” he replied. [In actuality, Rebekah had prepared two choice young goats from their flock.]


[25] Genesis 31:5: I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me.; Genesis 31:42: If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.

[26] Genesis 28:20–22: 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God 22 and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”

[27] Genesis 31:4–9:So Jacob sent word to Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields where his flocks were. He said to them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. You know that I’ve worked for your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.

[28] John 10:27–28: 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.; 1 John 5:11–12: 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.; John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

[29] Romans 8:9–11, 15: 9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you…. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”

[30] Revelation 12:9: The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

[31] Revelation 20:10: And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

[32] John 8:44–45: “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!” [Jesus is speaking to Jews who were disputing his teaching]

[33] Genesis 3:1: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

[34] Genesis 3:4–5: “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

[35] John 14:6: Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

[36] 1 John 1:5. See also John 8:12: When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”