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Gleanings In Genesis

35. Jacob Meeting Esau


Genesis 33

"And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids. And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost. And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother" (Gen. 33:1-3). Here again we meet with one of those strange and sudden transitions in this living narrative of our patriarch’s history. Truth is stranger than fiction, it is said, and no doubt this is so, but certainly truth is more accurate than fiction. In the Epistle of James the one who is a hearer of the Word and not a doer is said to be "like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass" (Jam. 1:24). There is no other book in the whole range and realm of literature which so marvelously uncovers the innermost recesses of the human heart, and so faithfully delineates its workings. In the biographical portions of Scripture the Holy Spirit, as everywhere, paints human nature in the colors of truth. An uninspired writer would have followed Jacob’s wondrous experience at Peniel by a walk which was henceforth flawless. But not so the Holy Spirit. He has recorded just what did happen, and shows us Jacob distrusting God and yielding to the fear of man. Thus it is all through. Abraham in faith-obedience to the call of God went out "not knowing whither he went," but after his arrival in Canaan, when a famine arose, he seeks refuge in Egypt. Elijah displays unexampled courage on Mr. Carmel, as alone he confronted the four hundred priests of Baal; but the next we hear of him he is fleeing from Jezebel! David dares to meet Goliath, but later, he runs away from Saul And thus we have recorded the sad inconsistencies of the noblest of God’s saints. So it was again here with Jacob: what a change from clinging to the Divine Wrestler to prostrating himself before Esau!

There is a lesson and warning for each of us here which we do well to take to heart. It is one thing to be privileged with a special visitation from or manifestation of God to us, but it is quite another to live in the power of it. Jacob’s experience at this point reminds us of the favored disciples who were with Christ in "the holy mount." They were deeply impressed with what they saw and heard, and Peter, acting as spokesman, said, "Lord, it is good for us to be here." But observe the sequel. Next day a father brought his lunatic son to the disciples, but "they could not cure him," (Luke) and when they asked the Lord the cause of their failure He said, "Because of your unbelief." Is not the juxtaposition of these two scenes—the Transfiguration witnessed by the disciples, and their failure in the presence of need—intended to teach us the lesson that unless faith remains active we shall cease to live in the power of the Vision of Glory. Such is also the lesson we learn from Jacob’s failure following immediately the visitation from God from Peniel. Ah, there was but One who could say "I do always those things that please Him." (John 8:29).

Let us mark for our instruction just wherein Jacob failed. He failed to use in faith the blessedness of his new name. The lessons which the all-night wrestle ought to have taught him were the worthlessness and futility of all his own efforts; that instead of putting confidence in the flesh, he needed to cling to God; and in the new name he received—Israel, God commands—he should have learned that God is the Orderer of our lives and can well be trusted to undertake for us at every point. But O, how slow we are to appropriate and live in the blessedness of the meaning of the new names which God has given us "Saint!" "Son!" "Heir!" How little we live our daily lives under the comfort, the inspiration, the strength, the elevation, which such titles ought to bring to us and produce from us. Instead of trusting God to manage Esau for him Jacob at once resorts to his old devisings and subtleties.

Hardly had Jacob passed over the brook Jabbok and regained his family when, lifting up his eyes, he beheld his brother approaching accompanied by four hundred men. To flee was impossible; so at once he took whatever precautionary measures were possible under the circumstances. He had just sufficient time before Esau came up to arrange his family, placing his different children with their respective mothers, and putting those in the rear that he had the most love for. This shows that though outwardly he appeared to treat Esau with confidence, nevertheless, he was secretly afraid of him. He was obliged, however, to put the best face he could upon it, and goes out at the head of his company to meet his brother—"And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother." This betokened the fact that Jacob was ready to take the place of complete submission to his elder brother. His action reveals plainly the real state of Jacob’s heart, he was anxious to impress upon Esau that he intended to make no claim of preeminence but rather was willing to be subordinate to him. This will be even more apparent when we attend to the words he used on this occasion.

"And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him" (Gen. 33:4). It seems to us that most of the commentators have missed the point of this. Instead of discovering here the power, goodness, and faithfulness of God, they see only the magnanimity of Esau. Personally we have no doubt that had Esau been left to himself his reception of his erring brother would have been very different from what it was. But he was not left to himself. Jacob had prayed earnestly to God and had pleaded His promise. And now, He in whose hands is the king’s heart and who "turneth it whithersoever He will" (Prov. 21:1), inclined the fierce and envious heart of Esau to deal kindly with Jacob. Mark it: and he "fell on his neck and kissed him!" Is not the hand of God further to be seen in the fact that Jacob’s wives and children all uniformly "bowed" too, to Esau—"Then the handmaidens came near, they and their children, and they bowed themselves. And Leah also with her children came near, and bowed themselves; and after came Joseph near and Rachel, and they bowed themselves" (Gen. 33:6-7).

"And he said, What meanest thou by all this drove which I met? And he said, These are to find grace in the sight of my lord" (Gen. 33:8). Esau desired to know the meaning of those droves of cattle which had been sent on to him earlier as a present. Jacob’s answer is quite frank, but it shows what it was in which he placed his confidence he was depending on his present, rather than upon God, to conciliate his brother. Note, too, as in verse 5 he had spoken of himself to his brother as "thy servant," so here, he terms Esau "my lord." Such obsequious cringing ill-became a child of God in the presence of a man of the world. The excessive deference shown to the brother he had wronged evidenced a servile fear: the fawning obloquy was manifestly designed to imply that he was fully prepared to acknowledge Esau’s seniority and superiority.

"And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself" (Gen. 33:9). Whether we are to admire these words of Esau or not is not easy to determine. They may have been the language of independency, or they may, which is more likely, have expressed the generosity of his heart. Esau was no pauper; in any case, no such present from Jacob was needed to heal the breach between them. Such was the plain implication of Esau’s words, and in them we are shown the futility and needlessness of Jacob’s scheming. Jacob had devoted much thought to the problem how he could best propitiate the brother whose anger he feared, and had gone to much expense and trouble to this end. But it accomplished nothing! It was all labor lost as the sequel shows. God had "appeased" Esau, just as before He had quietened Laban! How much better then had Jacob just been "still" and trusted in the Lord to act for him. Let us seek grace to learn this important lesson, that not only are all our fleshly plannings and efforts dishonoring to God, and that they are quite uncalled for and unnecessary, but also that in the end God sets them aside as they accomplish NOTHING.

Jacob was not satisfied with the generous words of his brother, and proceeded to press his present upon him, urging him to receive it as a token of good-will. "And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand; for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me" (v. 10). The receiving of a present at the hands of another has always been regarded as a pledge of amity and good-will. None will receive a present from the hand of an enemy. The same principle underlies God’s dealings with us. He will receive no offering from His sinful creatures until they are reconciled to Him by faith in the Atonement of His Son. Let the reader make no mistake upon this score. The Lord God will receive nothing from your hands until you have first received from His hands, received the Savior which His love has provided for sinners. Many there are who suppose they must first bring something to God in order to win His favor. But no matter how beautiful their offering may be, no matter what self-sacrifice it has entailed, if Christ is still rejected God will not accept it. To offer God your own works while continuing to despise Christ is but to insult Him and to walk in the way of Cain. The teaching of Scripture on this point is most emphatic—"The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord" (Prov. 15:8).

Jacob continues to press his suit. To have his present accepted would be proof to him that his brother no longer bore him any ill-will. Hence, he continues to assure him how highly his favor was regarded, yea, to have seen his face, was, he says, "as though I had seen the face of God." Finally, he adds "take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough" (v. 11). In the end, he prevailed upon Esau to accept his present—"And he urged him, and he took it."

"And he said, Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before thee. And he said unto him, My lord knoweth that the children are tender, and the flocks and herds with young are with me; and if men should overdrive them one day, all the flock will die. Let my lord, I pray thee, pass over before his servant; and I will lead on softly; according as the cattle that goeth before me and the children be able to endure, until I come unto my lord unto Seir" (Gen. 33:12-14). If there can be any question raised as to Jacob’s secret fears when he met his brother, what we read of in these verses surely settles the point. The old Jacob is here very evident. Now that his brother had accepted his present, he was only too anxious for them to separate again. Esau suggests they resume the journey in each other’s company. But this was not what Jacob wanted. Old memories might revive in Esau’s mind, and when that time came Jacob wished to be far away. However, he could not afford to offend his brother, so Jacob, at once, begins to frame excuses as to why they should journey separately. Then Esau suggested that some of his own company should stay behind with Jacob—"And Esau said, Let me now leave with thee some of the folk that are with me." This was probably to afford protection for Jacob and his herds while passing through a wild and dangerous country. But Jacob seems to have suspected some unfriendly design lay behind Esau’s offer, and so he declined it—"What needeth it? Let me find grace in the sight of my lord."

The sequel is indeed a sad and humbling one. Not only was Jacob distrustful of his brother but he lied unto him. Jacob had said "let my lord, I pray thee, pass over before his servant . . . until I come unto my lord unto Seir" (v. 14). But after Esau had taken his departure we read, "And Jacob journeyed to Succoth and built him a house, and made booths for his cattle." (v. 17). Instead of making for Self, the appointed meeting-place, he journeyed in another direction entirely. Even after the unexpected cordiality which Esau had displayed, Jacob would not believe that God had permanently subdued his brother’s enmity; therefore did he mistrust Esau, refusing his offer of protection, and sought to avoid another meeting by a deliberate untruth. Alas, what is man! How true it is "that every man at his best state is altogether vanity" (Ps. 39:5).

Jacob’s unbelief explains why his journey back to the Land was delayed, for instead of pressing on home he settled down in Succoth. Not only so, but we are told that "Jacob came to Shalem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan-Aram; and pitched his tent before the city. And he bought a parcel of a field, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money" (Gen. 33:18-19). And this in the very face of God’s word "return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred, and I will be with thee" (Gen. 31:3). But he had to pay a dear price for his unbelief and disobedience. Divine retribution did not sleep. We have only to read what happened to his family while Jacob abode at Shechem to discover how, once more, Jacob was called upon to reap that which he had sown—Jacob’s sojourn in Succoth was followed by the ruining of his only daughter!

Little light seems to have been given as yet upon the closing verse of our chapter—"And he erected there an altar, and called it God the God of Israel" (Gen. 33:20). That this was an act of faith on the part of Jacob cannot be doubted, but as to how high his faith rose the best of the expositors are not agreed. When Jacob denominated this altar "God the God of Israel" was he losing sight of Jehovah’s covenant relationship with Abraham and his seed, and thinking of God merely as his God! Or, was he appropriating to himself his new name of Israel! Whichever view be the true one it should be carefully noted that in the very next word our patriarch received from the Lord it concerned the "altar" and intimated that God was not pleased with the altar he had erected in Succoth—"and God said unto Jacob, arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there, and make there an altar unto God" (Gen. 35:1). But this belongs to our next Genesis study. In the meantime may Divine grace open our eyes fully to see the wickedness, as well as the vanity of placing any confidence in our fleshly devisings and bring us to trust the Lord with all our heart.


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