Gleanings In Genesis
33. Jacob At Mahanaim
In our last chapter we contemplated Jacob, in obedience to the word of the Lord who bade him "return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred, and I will be with thee" (Gen. 31:3), as then leaving Padan-Aram and starting out for Canaan. We also paid some attention to Laban’s pursuit of our patriarch, and of the affectionate leave-taking which eventually ensued. Here we are to consider another important incident which befell Jacob by the way. "And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him." (Gen. 32:1). Jacob was now in the path of obedience and therefore God favored him with another revelation to strengthen his faith and inspire him with courage for what lay before him—the meeting with Esau and his four hundred men. While in the path of obedience we must expect to encounter that which will test our faith, and not the least of such trials will be that to all outward appearances God Himself is against us; yet as we start out along any path He has appointed, God in His grace, usually encourages us with a plain revelation from Himself, a token of His approval, a strengthener to faith; and at the end we find the path of the just is as the shining light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day. So it proved with Jacob.
"And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him." The word "met" here suggests a beautiful thought. It is not that the angels "appeared" to him, but they "met" him. Jacob is returning from his long exile, returning to the land given to his fathers (and later to himself) by Jehovah. These angels then came forward to greet him, as it were. God sent these messengers of His in advance to welcome his servant home, and to express to him His goodwill. On his journey out from Canaan to Padan-Aram the Lord Himself met Jacob and gave him a vision of the angels; and here, now that he is on his way back from Padan-Aram to Canaan, the angels met him, followed immediately afterwards by the Lord appearing to him.
"And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God’s host; and he called the name of that place Mahanaim," (Gen. 32:1, 2). Once again we note how timely are God’s interventions. Jacob had just escaped from one company of his enemies (Laban and his brethren—Genesis 31:22, 23), and another was now advancing to meet him, namely, Esau with his four hundred men. But at this juncture God’s host made its appearance, as though to show him to whom he owed his recent escape, and as if to further assure him that He who had delivered, did deliver, and he might safely trust would deliver him. It is to be remarked that the angels (Gen. 32:1) which appeared on this occasion were termed by Jacob "God’s host" in the singular number, but from the name which Jacob gave to the place Mahanaim—it is evident they were divided into two companies, for Mahanaim signifies two hosts. It would seem, then, there was one host of these "angels" of God, but divided into two companies, probably encompassing him both before and behind. Was not this God’s provision for the two hosts of Jacob’s adversaries, which at the same time, and no doubt with the same violent designs, were coming against him! The one had already been sent back without striking a blow (Laban and his company), and the other should yet also be. While this was not expressly revealed to Jacob, nevertheless, this host of angels before him, as well as the one behind, was most evidently a comforting assurance from God that He was with His child and would preserve him whithersoever he went. How it reminds us of the experience of the Children of Israel in the wilderness, centuries later, when the Pillar of Cloud went before them by day, and the Pillar of Fire protected their rear by night.
"And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau, his brother, unto the land of Self, the country of Edom. And he commanded them, saying, Thus shall ye speak unto my lord Esau; Thy servant Jacob saith thus, I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed there until now; and I have oxen, and asses, flocks, and men-servants, and women-servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find grace in thy sight." (Gen. 32:3-5). As yet Jacob had heard nothing of his brother Esau, save that he was now settled in the land of Seir; but recalling the past, remembering the angry threat of the man, he was plainly apprehensive of the consequences of meeting him again. He, therefore, decided to send messengers before him. much as an army which is marching through an enemy’s country sends on spies in advance. These messengers were evidently instructed to sound Esau (for they returned to Jacob with their report), and if needs be to appease his anger. These messengers were carefully instructed what they should say to Esau, how they should conduct themselves in his presence, and the impression they must aim to make upon him—all designed to conciliate. While they were coached to say nothing but what was strictly true, nevertheless, the craftiness of Jacob comes out plainly in the words he puts into the mouths of his messengers:
"And he commanded them, saying, Thus shall ye speak unto my lord Esau; Thy servant Jacob saith thus, I have sojourned with Laban, and staved there until now; and I have oxen, and asses, flocks, and men servants, and women servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find grace in thy sight." (Gen. 32:4, 5). Jacob does not insist on the fulfillment of the blessing which he had obtained from his father. Isaac had said, "Be lord over thy brother, and let thy mother’s sons bow down to thee." But here Jacob refuses to press the claim of his precedency, and instead of requiring that Esau should "bow down" unto him, he refers to Esau as "his lord" and takes the place of a servant"! Note, too, nothing is said of the reason why he had fled to Padan-Aram—all reference to his outwitting of Esau is carefully passed over—instead, he naively says, "I have sojourned (not found refuge) with Laban, and stayed there until now," Once again be it remarked, Jacob would have Esau plainly to understand that he had not come to claim the double portion, nor even to seek a division of their father’s inheritance—he had no need for this, for God had given him plenty of this world’s goods. How plainly the native shrewdness of our patriarch comes out in all this needs not be argued.
"And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him." (Gen. 32:6). It would seem from the sequel that the messengers sent out by Jacob never delivered their message, but only went far enough to discover that Esau was advancing toward them accompanied by four hundred men—to them, no doubt, with hostile intentions. It must have come upon Jacob as a terrible shock to learn that his brother was already acquainted with his movements. It could only be about a fortnight at most since Jacob had left his uncle’s farm, and as his journey had been conducted with all possible secrecy (in order to escape from Laban), how could Esau have learned of it at all? Was his thirst for revenge upon his brother so great that he had had him watched all these years? Was there some spy of his in the employ of Laban, who had now secretly communicated with Esau? Someone must have informed him, and the fact that Esau was now advancing upon him was disquieting news indeed. "Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed" (Gen. 32:7)—a guilty conscience needs no accusing.
"And he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and herds, and the camels, into two bands; and said, If Esau come to the one company, and smite it, then the other company which is left shall escape." (Gen. 32:7, 8).
There seemed no time to be lost, so Jacob acted promptly, and with accustomed shrewdness. First he divided his people and his flocks into two bands, so that if Esau came up with one and smote it, the other at least might escape. Second he betook himself to prayer. Ere condemning Jacob here, let us examine our own hearts and remember our own ways. How often we come to God only as a last resort! How often we scheme and plan, and not until afterwards do we cry unto God. Alas, how often we act on the principles of that God-dishonoring proverb that "God helps those who help themselves"—as though anybody was sufficient to "help himself" without God first helping him! The truth is rather, and how blessed, that God is ever ready to help those who have learned by sad experience that they are quite unable to "help themselves." His promise is "He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increaseth strength." (Isa. 40:29).
There is not a little in the prayer of Jacob which is worthy of close attention, the more so as it was a prevailing prayer, and that it is the first recorded real prayer in the Bible. "And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee; I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast showed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands. Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children. And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude." (Gen. 32:9-12).
First the God to whom he prayed. He approached God not merely as God the Creator, but as "the God of his father Abraham and the God of his father Isaac." It was God in Covenant relationship. This was laying hold of the Divine faithfulness; it was the prayer of faith. It means much to approach God thus; to appeal to Him on the ground of a sure and established relationship. We come before God not as the God of our forefathers, but as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore our "God and Father." It is as we plead this relationship He is pleased to bless us.
Second, Jacob cast himself on the sure Word of Jehovah, pleading before Him His promise. He humbly reminded the Lord how He had said, "Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee." Here again we do well to learn from Jacob. The Scriptures contain many promises given to believers in general, and it is our individual privilege to plead them before God in particular, the more so when, like our patriarch, we encounter difficulties and opposition in the way wherein He has directed us to walk. Jacob pleaded a definite promise; so must we. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 we read, "My grace is sufficient for thee." Come to the Throne of Grace at the beginning of each day, reverently and believingly remind the Lord of this declaration of His, and then say with one of old, "Do as Thou hast said." (2 Sam. 7:25). Again, we read in Philippians 4:19, "My God shall supply all your need." Tell the Lord of this in the hour of emergency, and say, Lord "Do as Thou hast said."
Third, Jacob fully acknowledged his own utter lack of desert. He confessed that the Lord was in no wise his debtor. He took a lowly place before the Most High. He owned that "he was not worthy of the least of all God’s mercies." Mark this well, dear reader, for very little teaching is heard in these days that leads to self-abasement. It has become a rarity to hear a saint of God confessing his unworthiness. There is so much said about living on a high plane of spirituality, so much Laodicean boasting, that many are afraid to acknowledge before other believers that they are "not worthy of the least of God’s mercies." One sometimes wonders if this is the chief reason why so few of us have any real power in prayer today. Certain it is that we must get down into the dust before God if we would receive His blessing. We must come before Him as empty-handed supplicants, if He is to fill us. We must own our ill deserts, and be ready to receive from Him on the ground of grace alone if we are to have our prayers answered.
Finally, notice the motive which actuated Jacob in presenting the petition he did. That for which he made request was expressed as follows: "Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children." At first glance it would appear that our patriarch was moved by nothing higher than the natural affections of the human heart. It would seem that this was the petition of a kind husband and a tender father. But as we re-read this request of Jacob in the light of the closing words of his prayer, we shall discover he was prompted by a far worthier and higher motive. He at once added "And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude." In this conclusion to the prayer we may see not only a further pleading of God’s promise, but an eye to God’s glory. Jehovah had promised to make Jacob’s seed as the sand of the sea, but if his wife and children were slain how then could God’s promise be fulfilled! Now it is natural, and by no means wrong, for us to be deeply concerned over the salvation of our loved ones; but our chief concern must center itself not in the well-being of those who are united to us by the ties of blood or intimate friendship, but for the glory of God. "Whatsoever ye do (in prayer, as in everything else) do all to the glory of God"—to this everything else must be subordinated. Here, then, is a searching test: Why am I so anxious to see certain ones saved?—simply because they are near and dear to me f or that God may be glorified and Christ magnified in their salvation? May Divine grace purge us of selfishness and purify our motives in prayer. And may God use these few words and cause both writer and reader to cry, with ever increasing fervor, "Lord, teach us to pray."