Is there a fear staring you in the face right now? Are you finding your faith in God’s promise shaking? If so, you are likely praying desperately for God to be with you. God will answer you. But you might, like Jacob in Genesis 32, be surprised by his answer.
Jacob leaned on his staff, staring at the stars. He was looking for hope. “Number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5). Yahweh had promised this to Father Abraham.
Jacob’s body was tired, but his mind was restless. Daylight was approaching and Esau with it.
He wrapped himself tighter in his cloak and squatted down. He was cold and the fire had cooled to glowing coals. He stared at the ground. “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth” (Genesis 28:14). Yahweh had promised this to him two decades ago when all he carried to Haran was this staff.
Now he was returning home with eleven sons and a daughter. A God-blessed abundance of offspring, even if not yet the dust of the earth.
But Esau was coming. And four hundred men with him. Hadn’t the fire of revenge cooled after twenty years? Four hundred! More than enough to turn his beloved children into the dust of the earth.
He prayed desperately. O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, deliver me from Esau! You commanded me, “return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred.” And you promised, “I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3). Yahweh! Four hundred men will wipe us out! Please! I need you with me!
Just then he heard splashing. He looked up, squinting toward the Jabbok. A man was crossing the ford, heading toward him. He didn’t recognize the determined gait. Jacob stood. Fear shot through him. Esau? No. He knew Esau’s stride. But he wasn’t relieved. He knew this man was coming for him.
The stranger stopped three feet in front of Jacob. He looked strong. His eyes were intense and inscrutable. Neither man spoke. Jacob felt a familiar fear. But he couldn’t place it. Had they met before?
Instinctively Jacob began to raise his staff in defense. With startling speed the man wrenched it away and threw it aside. Jacob was more confused. What did he want? Then the stranger struck a stance every Semite boy would recognize. Wrestling was an ancient martial art. This silent adversary wanted a contest. Jacob was perplexed, but knew he had no choice.
The men circled twice eying each other. Then a twitch, an adrenaline rush, and the two locked in grappled combat. This nameless foe was powerful. Yet Jacob was surprised at his ability to counter him.
But the longer they struggled the more Jacob sensed that his opponent was no mere man. He now placed the familiar fear. It was what he felt at every encounter with Yahweh. And he began to understand that this wrestling was somehow connected to all that lay ahead of him tomorrow. Who was this? An angel? Was it God? Was this struggle an answered prayer?
The men broke apart, each leaning on his knees to catch his breath. They shared a glance of recognition. And a desperate resolve formed in Jacob. Having been a deceiver living among deceivers, he had learned that God was the only rock that could support his trust. And the only real source of his hope was God’s promised blessing. His life depended on it, now more than ever. God was now within his grasp. Jacob would not let him leave without his blessing.
The stranger’s attention suddenly turned to the horizon. Light was glowing over the eastern hills. And Jacob saw his moment. Darting quickly he seized his opponent from behind and locked his hands around his chest. The challenger tried to free himself but Jacob held fast. Then he swung his fist down on Jacob’s right hip. Jacob screamed as the pain exploded. His leg gave way. But his grip did not. He could endure pain, but not this day without God’s blessing.
For the first time the man spoke: “Let me go, for the day has broken.”1 Jacob wincing hard whispered through clenched teeth, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Instantly he felt the man yield. The contest was over. “What is your name?” the man asked. “Jacob,” came a groan. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
Jacob crumpled to the ground and grabbed his hip. Striven with God? Panting, he said, “Please tell me your name.” The man’s eyes were intense with affection. He said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And with that he turned and crossed back over the Jabbok.
Jacob began the night believing his greatest need was to escape from Esau. He ended the night believing his greatest need was to trust in the blessing of God’s promise. And what changed him from fearing man to trusting God’s word was prolonged and painful wrestling with God.
Sometimes, in your battle with unbelief, your greatest Ally will wrestle you — he might even make you limp — until you’re desperate enough to say, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” It is a great mercy to be brought to the point where you’re desperate enough to insist on what you need the most.
1The quotes in the last two paragraphs of the narrative are from Genesis 32:26–29, English Standard Version.