Genesis 32:24
Great Texts of the Bible
Spiritual Wrestling

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.—Genesis 32:24.

This is one of the strangest stories under which the Bible, in a fashion suitable to the age in which it was written, presents eternal truth to us—strange in itself, strange in its setting, yet charged with deep meaning and full of most consoling instruction for those who have insight to pierce the shell of its Jewish complexion and colouring, and to seize its underlying and essential features.

The narrative is of manifold attraction. The highest poetical interest gathers round that dark wrestling by the rushing brook, while

The sentinel stars set their watch in the sky.

Our historical interest also is excited: what was it, actually, that touch of God? But the spiritual interest of the scene is the intensest, as we inquire what the conflict signified for Jacob’s inmost soul.

Let us take the subject in three parts—

I.  The Occasion of the Wrestling.

  II.  The Nature of the Wrestling.

  III.  The Result of the Wrestling.


The Occasion of the Wrestling

1. The past and the present.—The time when this occurred was when Jacob was returning from the East to Canaan, in very different circumstances from those in which he left it. He went out with his staff in his hand; he came back increased to “two bands.” He went out alone, with life before him, hopeful perhaps of happiness, and full of aspirations, fresh and eager to run the race of life. He came back an altered and sobered man, with life behind him, with what there was to enjoy of it mainly enjoyed; and, perhaps, the cup did not now seem so sweet as he thought it would be, before he put it to his lips. At all events he had drunk it fully. He had lived a many-sided life. Of sensual enjoyments he might seem to have had his fill; and he was not averse to use the petty passions of others as the means of gratifying his own larger ones. In business he was always fortunate. In those higher things which men’s hearts crave, though foiled at first, he was at last victorious.

Thus Jacob had lived a busy, clever, varied life—a keen, competitive, skilful, successful life; and, with the fruits of it now reaped and gathered, he would return to rest in the home of his fathers. It is sweet to dream in a foreign land of the place of one’s childhood. Imagination gilds even the sordid hovel of one’s birth. We remember but the good; we forget the evil, or change it into good. And so Jacob was using the necromancer’s art. The sunshine and shower of his early years he remembered but as sunshine. All the good stood out bright before him, and all the evil had disappeared. His own evil too was forgotten; or, if remembered, it was excused and forbidden to intrude itself. Our imagination of the past retains only the good; but God and conscience keep in reserve the evil. Jacob had not calculated on finding the beginnings of his life so visibly unaltered. Twenty years had passed since he did the evil. Surely the evil must have worked itself out of things long ere now. But it had not. It stood before him now, just as it stood when he fled from it twenty years before—only more formidable, grown in bulk and terror, with greater power to do him hurt, in proportion as he was now more susceptible of hurt. Then it was Esau, seeking Jacob’s life; now it is Esau, with four hundred men, seeking, not Jacob’s life merely, but all those other lives into which his has been partitioned, and which are dearer to him than his own.

It is a great spiritual crisis in Jacob’s life. That life might well be called, with no injustice to Jacob, the History of a Sin. Perhaps it is this very fact that invests it with its enduring charm. A life like Abraham’s, though far from perfect, is yet in many respects so august in its moral greatness, that, while we admire, we are liable to be somewhat discouraged; for, in the contemplation of so serene an altitude of faith, we are ready to say, “It is high, I cannot attain unto it.” But Jacob, so full of infirmities, and yet so desirous of better things; now overborne by temptation, and now strenuously contending—such a man is very near to us, and we are encouraged to believe that, if he conquered, we may conquer too. But with equal truth might Jacob’s life be called the History of a Retribution. Almost from first to last we see retribution following and smiting him, as it winds itself into all the sinuosities of his career. “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23)—with what relentless severity did this law fulfil itself! And now at the last, when he has escaped from danger after danger, although suffering, withal, so many and sore woes that might not be escaped; and when, perhaps, he had thought the sufferings all ended and the dangers past—now, once more, and more fearfully than ever, his old sin rises up to confront and condemn him, smiting him with all its terrors, as he cries out, “Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?” It is one of those crises in which a whole eternity is compressed into an hour.1 [Note: T. F. Lockyer.]

I sent back memory, in heedful guise,

To search the records of preceding years;

Home, like the raven to the ark, she flies,

Croaking bad tidings to my trembling ears.

O sun! again that thy retreat was made,

And threw my follies back into the friendly shade!2 [Note: Christopher Smart.]

2. The expected meeting.—Jacob had been guilty of a great sin at the outset of his career. He had deceived his father, had resorted to treachery to obtain the birthright, and the fact that that which seemed to be Esau’s was really his own by promise, though it modifies our judgment, does not alter the sin. But, however much we may understand that what he got in a wrong way was really his own, Esau did not choose so to understand it. Esau from the first had considered himself a deeply injured man, as most men would, and during all these years, Jacob might reasonably expect that Esau had been nursing and cherishing the sense of his injury. Now they were to meet again. Jacob had just received the intelligence of Esau’s approach, a meeting was inevitable, and the thought of it was sufficiently disturbing. How did Jacob prepare for the meeting?

(1) By prayer.—After receiving the threatening report about Esau Jacob retired to the privacy of his tent, and poured forth the acknowledgment of his trouble and perplexity in the first-recorded words of human prayer. They are words which tell the want and vibrate with the passion of a human heart. “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast showed to thy servant.… Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother.”

(2) By taking thought for his family.—Jacob, with a characteristic prudence that never forsook him, divided his Company into two bands—in the first which would meet Esau he sent those for whom he least cared, so that they might bear the brunt of Esau’s attack if he did attack; and so that the second band, composed of those whom he loved most, might be able to escape.

This is remarkable in the mind, that it is steadied by extreme danger, while it is thrown into confusion by a little trouble. The physician’s hand, which trembles when an insignificant sore has to be lanced, is steady and firm when an operation that may be fatal has to be performed. A petty encounter worries and excites the great military genius who is serene and master of himself in the thick of the conflict on which the fate of empires hangs. In this greatest trouble of his life, Jacob’s mind comes forth with a grandeur and a decisive clearness that are scarcely credible in one habitually crooked, and timid almost to cowardice. He so arranges that, if the stroke fall, it will not fall on all at once; if it smite some, it will spare some, perhaps, and these the dearest. And these dispositions made—made for those for whom he never thought to need to make any such dispositions at all, and while they were ignorant of the menace hanging over them, and though he knows how unavailing all may be—he leaves all in higher hands. But unwittingly this care about others, this greater earnestness for them than ever he had felt for himself, and this entrusting of them more sincerely into God’s hands than ever he had yet committed himself, have brought him nearer to God than ever he has yet been, or, perhaps, than he cared to be.1 [Note: A. B. Davidson.]

For now I live a twofold life: my own

And yet another’s; and another heart

Which beats to mine, makes glad the lonely world

Where once I lived apart.

And little lives are mine to keep unstained,

Strange mystic growths, which day by day expand,

Like the flowers they are, and set me in a fair

Perpetual wonderland.1 [Note: Sir Lewis Morris, Poems, 68.]

(3) By solitude.—“And Jacob was left alone.” We can understand that he felt he must be alone before he met with one who recalled to him the bitterest reminiscence of his life. He had, so to speak, to formulate his position towards Esau; to consider his line of defence if he met him as an enemy; to consider how he could meet him at all. It was one of those moments that imperatively demand solitude. The past has to be revisited, the ghosts of old sins have to be faced. In exile they were thrust out of sight; change of scene, new interests, had almost obliterated the sense of his own wrong-doing, but Esau’s face will bring it all back again, and Jacob must be alone before he sees him—alone in the still darkness, alone by the silently flowing waters, to shape and to reshape his life, to focus his old self by the new lights which twenty years of living had brought to him. None could share his load—none, not even Rachel, could be with him; he must bear his own burden.


The Nature of the Wrestling

i. A Spiritual Crisis

1. It should be observed at the outset that this crisis in the spiritual experience of Jacob took place when he was well advanced in years. Jacob was no longer a young man when he wrestled with the angel in the dark night by the ford of Jabbok. He was the father of many sons, a man of property, a man of experience; above all, he was a man who had long perceived the value of spiritual things, had long attached the highest importance to that Divine promise which had been transmitted to him by his father Isaac, and who had made a solemn vow at Bethel, twenty years before, that the Lord God of Abraham should be his God, and that he would serve Him all the days of his life.

2. There are those who would like to think that the crisis of the religious life is reached at a very early stage of spiritual experience, and that once passed there are no more grounds for apprehension or fear or care or caution. The story of the wrestling of Jacob teaches a very different lesson. First comes the vision of the ladder—the dream of glory, the sense of Divine protection and security. And then, long afterwards—after many years of service and prayer and worship and endeavour, when Jacob is getting on in years, at the end of much experience and patient trust—there comes the struggle—all alone in the darkness—the struggle that wastes and draws the strength of Jacob, the struggle in which the nature and character of the man are finally declared, and proved and sealed for ever.

Some may think the revelation given to Jacob at Bethel, on his way to Padan-aram, the most interesting event in his history. And to those beginning life it may be. There is an ideal brilliancy in it, attractive and fascinating. But that sombre, stern conflict, beyond the Jordan, in the grey, unromantic days of mid-life, is a profounder study, and there will always be found gathering round it those who know the imperfections of life, and the bright hues of whose early expectations have been toned down by the pale cast of experience.1 [Note: A. B. Davidson.]

3. In spiritual matters experience varies. The personal experience of each one of us differs in some respects from that of all others. There is no one rule that applies in every case. With some, the way of life is a way of peace and a path of pleasantness, leading the soul by green pastures and still waters. There are happy, sheltered lives that never know the burden of doubt, uncertainty, and inward distress—never are sifted like wheat with the fan of the Lord, or tried in the refiner’s fire of trouble and sorrow—never feel the ache of shame and self-reproach, or the agony of a broken and contrite heart. But there are others for whom the way of life dips into what is dark and painful, and who have to fight their way through much tribulation towards the light of God,—men and women who, from nature and circumstances, from the weakness and defects of their own character, or the faults and mistakes of early days, or a combination of causes which are known only to God, have to win the crown of life, if it is to be won at all, with wrestling and struggling—with a stern, often-renewed, and persistent conflict with themselves and the world and the flesh and the devil—a conflict that ends only with life.

As men from men

Do, in the constitution of their souls,

Differ, by mystery not to be explained;

And as we fall by various ways, and sink

One deeper than another, self-condemned,

Through manifold degrees of guilt and shame;

So manifold and various are the ways

Of restoration, fashioned to the steps

Of all infirmity, and tending all

To the same point, attainable by all—

Peace in ourselves, and union with our God.1 [Note: Wordsworth, The Excursion.]

ii. The Opponent

1. Why was Jacob thus mysteriously held back while his household was quietly moving forward in the darkness? What is the meaning, purpose, and use of this opposition to his entrance? The meaning is obvious from the state of mind Jacob was in. He was going forward to meet Esau under the impression that there was no other reason why he should not inherit the land but only his wrath, and pretty confident that by his superior talent, his mother-wit, he could make a tool of this stupid, generous brother of his. And the danger was that, if Jacob’s device had succeeded, he would have been confirmed in these impressions, and have believed that he had won the land from Esau, with God’s help certainly, but still by his own indomitable pertinacity of purpose and skill in dealing with men. Now, this was not the state of the case at all. Jacob had, by his own deceit, become an exile from the land, had been, in fact, banished for fraud; and though God had confirmed to him the covenant, and promised to him the land, yet Jacob had apparently never come to any such thorough sense of his sin, and entire incompetency to win the birthright for himself, as would have made it possible for him to receive simply as God’s gift this land which was valuable only as God’s gift. Jacob does not yet seem to have found out the difference between inheriting a thing as God’s gift, and inheriting it as the meed of his own prowess. To such a man God cannot give the land; Jacob cannot receive it. He, in short, was about to enter the land as Jacob, the supplanter, and that would never do; he was going to win the land from Esau by guile, or as he might; and not to receive it from God. And, therefore, just as he is going to step into it, there lays hold of him, not an armed emissary of his brother, but a far more formidable antagonist.

2. From the first Jacob knows that it is a man that wrestles with him. It is a person—it is with a personal will that he is grappling. But after a time both adversaries stand out more clearly. The morning begins to break, and with the light the spell of the Unseen over the patriarch will break too. The conflict must cease, lest its advantages be lost. The heavenly wrestler seeks to depart. He said, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.” And Jacob said, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” Ere now there had begun to break upon Jacob’s mind some consciousness of the rank of his adversary; and perhaps to complete it He touched the nerve of his thigh and paralysed it. And then the conflict quite changed its nature, from using force, to mere supplication. And here the details supplied by Hosea come in: “He had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication unto him” (Genesis 12:4). God had put out His hand upon him at last, having allowed him to wrestle with Him for a night—a symbol of that obstinate struggle which, in his confident, unsubdued strength of nature, he had been waging against Him all his lifetime. His Spirit cannot always strive with him: some decisive stroke must be put forth upon him, to break him once for all, to touch him in the vital part, that, utterly disabled, he may know whom he has been opposing, and how vain such a conflict is.

We discuss this wonderful event, and take sides as to whether it was a real, outward thing, or only a transaction in Jacob’s soul. Some think it important to hold it literal and outward, and unsafe to regard it as mental. It is characteristic of very many of the views for which men fight, that they are excellent things to fight about, because there is no means of deciding them. It is also occasionally a characteristic of them that no interest whatever attaches to their decision, one way of them being quite as good as another. If God presented a real, outward form to Jacob, so that he entered into a physical wrestling with it, it was very wonderful and Divine. If God’s Spirit of revelation and holiness so touched the conscience and the memories of Jacob’s heart that the agitated spirit deemed itself wrestling through the body, and did indeed in its own awful agony agitate and dislocate the bodily frame, was it less wonderful or less Divine? The balance of probability perhaps lies on the side of the external reality of Jacob’s adversary. Many a time in dreams the whole frame is agitated and wrestles. Men do rise weary after nights of conflict. They rise awestruck and terror-laden. Perhaps it cannot be shown that they have risen with bodily ailments, with sinews wrenched and joints displaced. Rather is the event to be held literal. An Angel entered Abraham’s tent. He let His feet be washed;—the same who in after days washed His disciples’ feet. He allowed meat to be set before Him;—as in after times He asked, “Children, have ye any meat?” And a man He wrestled with Jacob; as now man for ever He wrestles with us all in love, though we oppose Him in earnest.1 [Note: A. B. Davidson.]

iii. Victory

1. Jacob’s victory and the victory of the Angel were synonymous. When the Angel conquered Jacob, Jacob won the blessing—and so it always is. When God conquers man, man is victorious over self. Jacob faced his sin and discovered that his controversy was not so much with his brother as with God. It was not Esau’s wrath he had to dread so much as God’s; for the sin against his brother was in its ultimate ground a sin against God. Can he believe, despite of this consciousness of sin, that God is pacified toward him? And now, when all things seem against him, and God Himself sets Himself as an adversary to him, in this darkest hour, in this night of the soul, of which the actual night during which this conflict found place was but the outward sign, can he lay hold on the promises and still hope and trust and believe? That he can do this, that he is strong to contend, even when God seems to set Himself, and for the time does set Himself, as that adversary, against him, this it is that constitutes Jacob a prince with God, a champion who prevails with Him, and who therefore need not fear but that he shall prevail also with man.

After the loss of his wife, whom he had dearly loved and patiently tended through prolonged and severe affliction, Dr. John Brown wrote: “I have been thinking much lately of Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel, finding his weakness and his strength at the same time, and going on through the rest of his life halting and rejoicing. I believe this is the one great lesson of life—the being subdued by God. If this is done all else is subdued and won.”1 [Note: Letters of Dr. John Brown, 176.]

2. “Until the breaking of the day.”—That night which was the eve of Jacob’s meeting with Esau had seen a fierce struggle, but peace came with the break of day. Jacob was at peace with himself and God, and in a very short while he would know that he was at peace with Esau.

How naturally dawn wakes thoughts of victory and God! In her swift, gentle, noiseless triumph over night, she is tremulous with His presence. It was “at the turning of the morning” that “the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea.” And after a deliverance no less thrilling from a no less heartless foe, the Church of a later day sang—

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved.

God helpeth her at the turning of the morning.

But behind the victory lies a struggle always fierce and often lonely in the grey dawn. “Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him till the rising of the dawn.” Such a struggle in the dawn is the prophecy of a great and triumphant day.2 [Note: J. E. M‘Fadyen.]

We weep because the night is long,

We laugh for day shall rise,

We sing a slow contented song

And knock at Paradise.

Weeping we hold Him fast who wept

For us, we hold Him fast;

And will not let Him go except

He bless us first or last.

Weeping we hold Him fast to-night;

We will not let Him go

Till daybreak smite our wearied sight

And summer smite the snow:

Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove

Shall coo the livelong day;

Then He shall say, “Arise, My love,

My fair one, come away.”3 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]


The Result of the Wrestling

1. One result is a changed name.—What an epoch in his spiritual life this was, we understand best when we consider the name of Israel, which in this conflict he won, and which hereafter as a memorial of his victory he bore. For, indeed, we must contemplate this struggle as having left Jacob from that day forth a different man from what it found him. The new creature had by and in these painful throes extricated itself for ever from the old, won permanent form and subsistence, and thus demanded a new name to express it.

How does Jacob learn his own real character? “What is thy name?”—that is the searching question which God is forcing down into the very depths of his soul. And what is he compelled to answer? “I am Jacob”—a liar, a supplanter, a deceiver! How blackly does this name show, in the pure, burning light of that other name, the name of the Holy God! Thus does Jacob learn to know himself and sink appalled. But the very confession of the old name—which indicates the old character—is the necessary preliminary to receiving the new name—the new character.

2. But a changed name means a changed man.—The “Supplanter” becomes the “Prince.” He has a new name because he has a new nature. He becomes as noble as he had been false, worthy of the love and reverence of his children, worthy of standing in honour before kings; and a long train of genuine sorrow follows the embalmed remains of him who had once been a mean despicable boy. And yet he remains Jacob still. For the character is like the face which indicates it; the features do not change, though the expression does.

Think how this is with yourselves. If any one of you is changing for the worse, I tell you, you cannot help showing it. The shifty look of deceit, or the sneer of irreverence, or the absurd airs of vanity, or the dark lowering cloud of some secretly cherished sin—these, creeping over the features, do not change them, but they change the expression of the face. And so, on the other hand, if man or boy is passing from evil to good, it is as if the mists are rolled off some landscape by the sun as he climbs the heavens, and the gloomy scenery is lit up as with the joy of a new birth.1 [Note: H. H. Almond.]

3. There is no more confidence in the flesh.—“As the sun rose upon him, he halted on his thigh.” Like St. Paul, his “strength is made perfect in weakness.” The result of Peniel is not elation; it is contrition. There is joy in God, but there is no confidence in the flesh.

Contented now upon my thigh

I halt, till life’s short journey end;

All helplessness, all weakness, I

On Thee alone for strength depend;

Nor have I power from Thee to move:

Thy nature and Thy name is Love.

It is this recognition of conscious weakness that leads a man to grip the power of his higher self. When conscience wrestles with me, it is always in the form of a man. It is my higher self that strives with me—the Christ within. We have all a higher self—a photograph which God took in some pure moment. We have left it behind, but it follows us. It meets us in our silent hours. It confronts us with the spectacle of what we might have been. It refuses to let us go until it has blessed us. It is the same thing as Paul felt when he spoke of the spirit lusting against the flesh. The spirit was his better photograph, his Christ, his hope of glory. It is not the actual man that makes us feel immortal; it is the ideal man—the man that might have been. That is the reason why to me conscience is precious even when it wounds. It is no foreign hand that strikes me; it is my higher self, my inner man, my likeness as God sees it. It is the image of me that is hung up in heaven—the picture on which my Father gazes to avert despair. It is not only with me that the man wrestles; he wrestles with the Father for me. He pleads my future possibilities. He suggests my coming glory. He tells what I would be in less vile raiment. He shows what I may be with the ring and the robe. He reveals how I shall look at the breaking of the day.2 [Note: G. Matheson.]

Lord, I have wrestled through the livelong night;

Do not depart,

Nor leave me thus in sad and weary plight,

Broken in heart;

Where shall I turn, if Thou shouldst go away,

And leave me here in this cold world to stay?

I have no other help, no food, no light,

No hand to guide;

The night is dark, my Home is not in sight,

The path untried;

I dare not venture in the dark alone,—

I cannot find my way, if Thou be gone.

I cannot yet discern Thee as Thou art;

More let me see;

I cannot bear the thought that I must part

Away from Thee:

I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless;

Oh! help me, Lord, in all my helplessness!1 [Note: J. Sharp.]


Almond (H. H.), Christ the Protestant, 251.

Bramston (J. T.), Fratribus, 58.

Bright (W.), Morality in Doctrine, 199.

Chapman (J. W.), The Power of a Surrendered Life, 29.

Davidson (A. B.), The Called of God, 107.

Dods (Marcus), The Book of Genesis, 297.

Ewing (A.), Revelation considered as Light, 1.

Eyton (R.), The True Life, 385.

Greer (D. H.), From Things to God, 205.

Harrison (W.), Clovelly Sermons, 101.

Hutchings (W. H.), Sermon-Sketches, 2nd Ser., 95.

Lockyer (T. F.), The Inspirations of the Christian Life, 177.

McFadyen (J. E.), The Divine Pursuit, 17.

McNeill (J.), Regent Square Pulpit, i. 193.

Matheson (G.), Searchings in the Silence, 108.

Mitchell (S. S.), The Staff Method, 135.

Moore (E. W.), Christ in Possession, 180.

Moorhouse (J.), Jacob, 35.

Nash (L. L.), Early Morning Scenes in the Bible, 75.

New (C.), The Baptism of the Spirit, 98.

Parker (J.), The City Temple (1869–70), 373.

Pentecost (G. F.), Bible Studies: Pentateuch and the Life of Christ, 96.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, i. 73.

Robertson (F. W.), Sermons, 1st Ser., 36.

Trench (R. C.), Sermons in Ireland, 1.

Vaughan (C. J.), The Family Prayer and Sermon Book, ii. 531.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), 2nd Ser., i. No. 251.

Churchman’s Pulpit (Second Sunday in Lent), 456 (Watson).

Homiletic Review, xiii. 518 (Sherwood).

Treasury, xi. 1047 (Moment); xv. 762 (Kershaw).

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