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The Fears of Jacob

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 28, 1999

Genesis 32:1-23

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Genesis 32:1-23
The Fears of Jacob

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis, chapter 32. When we were last together in our study of the life of Jacob, we had come to the end of Genesis 31. And we said there are at least four great scenes in Genesis 31. First of all in those first three verses you remember Jacob overhearing the complaints of Laban's other son, and then God actually coming to him and instructing him to leave from Paddan-aram and to make his way back to his ancestral home. And then secondly, in verses 4 through 21, or really a section of that section, there's that tremendous record of his conversation with Leah and with Rachel. As he goes in to make his case why they need to leave their father's household and to go back to his homeland, and you tell that the man is expecting all manner of resistance because he piles up the arguments. And then suddenly he finds out that Leah and Rachel are ready to leave more than he is. And so God in His goodness has prepared the way for Jacob to do his will. And then in verses 22 through 42 you see that initial encounter with Laban. Laban rides hard, he catches up with Jacob in his hot pursuit, and he encounters him and accuses him, and we saw that twenty years of anger in Jacob's heart were sort of uncorked on Laban at the end of that section. And then finally in verses 43 through 55 they make a covenant. It's an uncertain thing, this relationship between Laban and Jacob. Jacob doesn't trust Laban as far as he can throw him. And Laban is now frightened of Jacob. He's seen God's hand of blessing on him, and he's afraid that one day he’ll ride across those boundaries with truths and attack him for all the things that he has done wrong to him. And so they enter into this covenant in order that they might be assured of one another's goodwill.

Tonight we come to Genesis 32. Laban is already relegated to the back of Jacob's mind. But someone larger and more ominous looms. Esau. The brother that he had defrauded twenty years before, who he knew hated him, and had been hating him ever since. And now he will encounter him again. So let's hear God's holy word here in Genesis 32.

Genesis 32:1-23

Our Lord and our God, we come to You this night seeking Your word for our hearts, and knowing that our faith is weak, and we need to be strengthened. Speak to us then precisely of how you grow us in grace and in faith, as we read this Your holy word. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

Throughout Genesis 30 and 31 we have said that God is preparing Jacob to trust in Him alone and to acknowledge Him alone. That lesson continues here tonight in Genesis 32. I'd like to look at four sections of the passage that we've just read. In the first two verses of this passage you see this angelic visitation. God sends a company of angels, a camp, a host, an army of angels to remind Jacob of his promise and His presence with him. And then in verses 3 through 8 you see successively Jacob give a command to his servantS to divide his camp. You see the report of the messengers coming back from Esau, and that strikes fear into Jacob's heart. And then you see Jacob began to make his plans for how he will encounter his brother. In verses 9 through 12 we have recorded the longest prayer so far that Jacob has prayed in the book of Genesis. Then in verses 13 through 23 we see the presence that Jacob gives in order to appease Esau and the crossing over of the first group into the presence of Esau. Let's hear God's word, then, as we look through this passage.

I. God never forgets His promises and indeed often providentially reminds us of them so that we might not forget.

First, in verses 1 and 2, this angelic visitation comes. And this is a reminder of God's promises. God never forgets His promises. But often times He has to remind us of His promises. That's one of the interesting things, isn't it? We forget God's promises. If the bank has made us a promise of a return on an investment we probably wouldn't forget it. But we often forget the promises that God has made to us. And so God providentially reminds us of them so that we might not forget. Geographically speaking, friends, there was absolutely no reason for Jacob to go the way he was going. Mount Seir was in the far south. Bethel was in the north. There was no need for him to go through the land of Esau. And so you need to understand that Jacob's choice to meet his brother, Esau, at this time was a deliberate choice. He knew that their land bordered on one another. Sooner or later there was going to be an encounter with his brother, Esau. And he figured it might as well be sooner. He might as well go ahead and see if he can bury the hatchet with his brother. Jacob feels constrained to encounter his estranged brother now. After all, the meeting is going to come sooner or later.

Derek Kidner reminds us that the very sequence of chapters 32 and 33 when Jacob goes to meet Esau and then in 33 and 34 receives the blessing of God, is the same order which we find Jesus recording us to take in the case of estrangement from a friend in Matthew, chapter 5, verses 23 through 25. If you were on the way to offer sacrifice to your god, and you remember that your brother has something against you, first, go and be reconciled to your brother and then worship God. And that's exactly what we see Jacob doing.

I submit to you that that in and of itself is a sign that Jacob has done some growing in his sojourn in the land with Laban. That is a spiritual instinct that we have not seen before in Jacob, and we see it here in Genesis 32. So he's on his way to perform his brotherly duty. And the Lord intercepted him, and He encourages him by unveiling to him, by showing his eyes the heavenly armies that surround Him. Now I think there are several things here to note.

First of all, notice that just as Jacob departed the land with a vision of angels, now he re-enters the land accompanied by a host of angels. Back in Genesis 28:12 at Bethel, Jacob had seen the angels ascending and descending on the ladder into heaven. And now God gives him a vision of angels on his return. What is God doing? God is reminding Jacob that He has not forgotten His promises to him. He is recalling the scene of Bethel, and all the things that He promised Him at Bethel. That's the first thing that we see as we look at this story of the angelic visitation.

Secondly, notice that this reassurance comes to Jacob while he is already in the way of obedience. God had told him to return to the land. He is now in the way on the way back to the land. And as he is going forward in the way of obedience, God comes to him with this reassuring vision. It's not the other way around. It's not that Jacob says okay, reassure me and then I’ll go forward. He goes forward, and the Lord reassures him. And that's the pattern we see in the gospels as well. If we were to turn to Luke 17, verse 14 and the story of the lepers. You remember the Lord Jesus says to them go the priest. And on their way what happened? They are healed. You remember the story of the royal official who comes to Jesus in John, chapter 4, verse 51. He says, Lord, my son is desperately ill. And the Lord says, go to your son; he is healed. And on his way he finds out that his son has been healed. On the way of obedience they find their blessing. And that's the case of the reassurance of Jacob.

One last thing I want you to note about this. Jacob sees the heavenly hosts, this heavenly army of angels, and he says, Lord, this is a double camp. Here's my camp here and here's the heavenly host. It's this double camp. I'm being accompanied by this angelic band of angels. And this very sight, this very vision, is designed in part to make Jacob more aware of the overwhelming heavenly realities which assure the security of the believer. But, as glorious as that vision is, its function is to witness. The purpose of this vision is not to draw attention to itself, as if this is what Jacob is going to be reassured by. The whole vision is designed to do what? To cause Jacob to think about God's word. His word of promise. God had given him a word of promise the last time he had seen the angelic visitation. And God is calling on Jacob to be remembered of that word and to focus on that word of promise. Calvin says this: "The use of this vision was two-fold. First, since the holy man was very anxious about the future, the Lord designed early to remove this cause of terror from him, or at least to afford him some alleviation. And secondly, God designed that when Jacob should have been delivered from his brother, so to fix the memory of the past benefit in his mind that it should never be lost." God never forgets his promises. But Jacob in his fear might just. And so the Lord visits him to remind him of that word of promise that He had already given.

II. God strengthens our faith, not by removing all danger and pressure, but by sustaining us through it.

Now we look at verses 3 through 8. Jacob gives a command as he approached to separate his people into companies, so that at least some of them might have a chance to escape if Esau should attack. And Jacob hears this report that Esau indeed is coming to meet him, and he's coming with 400 armed men. And Jacob is filled with fear and grief, distress and anxiety, and begins to plan again. And this very encounter reminds us that God strengthens our faith not by removing all danger and pressure, but by sustaining us through it. God strengthens our faith, not by removing our trials, but by upholding us through them. Jacob's messengers go out. They go with a message of peace. Jacob sends his messengers to tell Esau all the things that he has collected while serving Laban in Paddan-aram. Not to boast. Jacob is not trying to tweak Esau here. Jacob is basically saying my brother, Esau, I am a very wealthy man. I don't need anything of yours. I don't want to take anything of yours. I'm not going to trick you out of anything that's yours. You can have everything that's yours, because I don't need it because God has prospered me. Jacob is sending these messengers with this word with the hope that he can establish some sort of peace with Esau. He seeks nothing from Esau. He seeks nothing that belongs to Esau.

But apparently there is no verbal response from Esau to Jacob's messengers. Only a menacing silence and a frightening report that Esau is approaching with cavalry. So Jacob fears the worst, and he begins to prepare. Jacob's reaction is characteristic. In verses 7 and 8 he plans. In verses 9 through 12 he prays. In verses 13 through 21 he plans. In verses 22 through 32 he prays. And in Genesis 33, verses 1 through 3 he plans. And so he prays and plans and prays and plans. Now by the way, I don't think that's necessarily a sign of the weakness of Jacob's faith. God uses means and it's very clear from the prayer in verses 9 through 12 where Jacob is placing his ultimate trust. But God wants us to be responsible in the midst of our trust on Him. And so Jacob both prays and plans. But the point of the whole passage here is that God grows our faith by employing circumstances that force us to resort wholly to Him, only on Him. God strengthens Jacob's faith in this circumstance not by removing the trial, not removing the trial that he fears, but by strengthening him as he faces the one that he fears. Whatever Esau's purposes, and we’ll never know until we get to heaven, we don't know whether Esau started off down the road to attack Jacob and then softened on the way. Or we don't know whether Esau was already soft to him before Jacob ever crossed the brook. We won't know. But whatever the case is, in the end it turns out that Jacob's fears were bigger than the reality that he was facing.

Calvin says, "God often suffers us to fear things which are not terrible in themselves. Or, although He anticipates our wishes and opposes our evils, yet He conceals His remedies until He has exercised our faith. For they who fancy that faith is exempt from all fear, hath never experienced the true nature of faith." Calvin knows from experience that even real faith is sometimes mixed with fear. And he goes on to say this: "God does not promise that He will be present with us for the purpose of removing the sense of all our dangers, but in order that fear may not prevail and overwhelm us in despair." In other words, God did not say I'm going to remove from you every danger and every sense of danger. He says no, in the midst of your fear, I'm going to uphold you so that your faith is not overwhelmed by fear. And by doing that God grows our faith.

III. Biblical believing prayer pleads God's person and promises.

And then in verses 9 through 12 we see this glorious prayer. Jacob had not had many of his prayers recorded. Apparently, he wasn't the same kind of a praying man that Abraham was, or that the servant of Abraham was. But here Jacob provides us with a model prayer. And I'd like you see five things that he prays in this great passage, because biblical believing prayer pleads God's person and promises. And Jacob gives us an example of that right here.

First of all, if you’ll look at verse 9 you’ll see that he ransacks his dictionary for the names of God as he addresses Him. He addresses God in three ways. First, he calls Him the God of Abraham, reminding Him of the promises that God had given to Abraham which were now his. Then he calls Him the God of His Father Isaac. You remember Isaac had never worshiped idols, and so he's identifying the true God. The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac. And then he goes on to call Him the Lord who told me to go back to my land. Lord, You’re the God who got me into this mess in the first place. You’re the one who told me to go back to the land where Esau was. This is the God to whom I am praying. And so he lists these names of God in order to remind himself things about God. And that's what we ought to do in our prayers. The reason that we open our prayer is of adoration. Morning and evening and on Wednesday evening as we worship together, focusing on the person and the character of God is that each of the names of God are designed to deliver to us a particular comfort. And so Jacob draws comfort simply from contemplating his God.

Secondly, if you’ll notice in the very name that he uses at the end of verse 9 he pleads the command of God even as he names the name of the Lord. Look at the phrase again. Lord, You are the one who said to me return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper you. What he is really doing is pleading the implied promise that God made to him when He commanded him to go back to his country. It is implied that God will be with him, and that God will prosper him, and that God will protect him. And so by recounting this, even as he calls on the name of the Lord, he is pleading the promise of God.

Thirdly, if you look at verse 10, he goes on to acknowledge his own unworthiness; his unworthiness of all the blessings of God. The loving-kindness of God, the mercies of God. The faithfulness of God. All his prosperity, he is saying, is due to sovereign, free grace. I haven't merited any of this. I haven't even earned any of this, Jacob is saying. What a change, by the way, in Jacob's attitude. This man who used to have to take things that God had promised him for fear that God wouldn't follow through on His promises. Now he recognizes that everything that he has been given is not due to what he has done, but merely due to God's grace and mercy. All his prosperity is of grace and not of his own energy.

Fourthly, you look at verse 11, he renders up a specific petition. He cries out for deliverance from Esau. Notice that Esau is the occasion of his fear, but he is forepetitioned in this prayer before he ever mentions Esau. Do you see the god-centeredness of this prayer? Even when he has the anxiety of Esau pressing, Jacob dwells on the sovereignty and goodness of God. Could that be a secret for our own sense of reassurance in times of trouble? At any rate, he renders up this specific petition. He asks God to deliver him from his brother, Esau.

And I want you to note here that Jacob's old self-sufficiency has now been replaced by a sense of his vulnerability. If you look at the end of verse 11, he says, after praying deliver me, he says that he will come and attack me and the mothers with the children. The phrase literally could be translated that he's going to come and attack me and he's going to wipe us all out, including the mothers and their children. The idea is that Esau may come and just destroy everything, including the mothers and children. And so Jacob senses his vulnerability. He's no longer self-sufficient. He knows that he's dependent upon the Lord.

And then finally in verse 12 he bases the whole of his prayer on the covenant promise of God given to him. You know, it's interesting that Jacob's phrase here in verse 12 borrows both from Genesis 28:12 and from Genesis 22:17. Now you’ll recognize Genesis 28:12 through 14 as the passage of Bethel. That's where God came to Jacob and specifically made to him the covenant promises that had originally been given to Abraham. He speaks them and Jacob quotes from that passage. So God's work has worked on Jacob, because now Jacob is remembering the promises that God had made to him. But Jacob also, in the second half of that phrase in verse 12, quotes from Genesis 22:17. Those words were not spoken to Jacob. They were spoken to Abraham. So what Jacob is telling you here is that he now realizes that the promises of Abraham are promises to him as well. Not only what God said to him at Bethel, but all the promises of God to Abraham are His. This moving prayer is a model of its kind. It rests on the foundation of God's covenant, God's command and God's promise. And it shows the true spirit of worship in its wonder at the mercy of God. And our prayers ought to be modeled on this kind of frame. They ought to be chock full of scripture and scriptural ideas, scriptural thoughts, scriptural promises, scriptural ascriptions of glory and praise and adoration to God. And scriptural descriptions of the character of God. And so Jacob gives us an example of Bible-believing prayer.

IV. God grows Jacob's faith here by exploiting his area of greatest weakness.
Finally, in verses 13 through 23 Jacob begins to send his presence across the creek. God grows Jacob's faith here by exploiting his area of greatest weakness. You need to think about that for a minute. God is going to grow Jacob's faith here by exploiting him right in the area of his greatest weakness. Jacob has committed himself to God in prayer and now in verses 13 through 21 he makes plans to appease Esau by a series of extravagant gifts. It's important for you to recognize Jacob is not sending people ahead thinking that they will get wiped out, and he will be spared. In fact Jacob probably thinks that it's the other way around. Jacob, by sending the other droves ahead, hopes to spare his people and to face Esau's wrath alone, if necessary. As Esau comes up on the drove, he asks, is Jacob here? And they all wanted to say what? No, Jacob is behind. And so he hopes to appease Esau. As Esau receives gift, after gift, after gift, after extravagant gift, Jacob is hoping against hope that by the time he finally gets to him, Esau's heart will be softened towards him.

Derek Kidner makes an interesting comment. He says, "The pagan approaches his deity just like Jacob approached Esau." Now I want you to think about that for a minute. The pagan thinks he needs to appease God in order to get God to bless him. Now that's not how Jacob relates to his God, but it is how he relates to Esau. He fears him, he thinks he's against him, he thinks that he needs to do something to get him on his side. And that's just how the unbeliever approaches God. The unbeliever knows in his heart of hearts that God ought to condemn him. But instead of fleeing to God for mercy, the unbeliever tries unsuccessfully to appease God by doing certain things to try and get him to be for him, not realizing that God has provided only one way that we might experience His blessing and that is through trust on Jesus Christ alone.

Why does Jacob grovel like this before Esau? Why does he call Esau his Lord? Why does he call himself Esau's servant? Because he knew that he had done him wrong. For twenty years Jacob had had the opportunity to meditate on the fact that he had defrauded his brother. As Shakespeare said, "Conscience doth make cowards of us all." Larry Richards puts it this way. "The remembrance of the wrong that he had done Esau twenty years before, as well as of Esau's hatred combined to produce guilt and terror." As Jacob's fear of Esau was rooted in something that Jacob himself was responsible for, and which Jacob himself could not correct. It didn't matter how many presents that he gave Esau, there was no guarantee that Esau's heart would be softened. As Jacob's fear of Esau was rooted in something that he was responsible for and that he couldn't correct, Jacob had to trust in God alone to extract him from this mess.

God had reached out and touched that part of his heart where Jacob was most vulnerable. A guilty conscience for his sinful dealings with his brother twenty years ago. And right in that area God chooses to grow his faith. It was the area of his greatest weakness, and God would use it to strengthen his faith. Perhaps God has dealt with you in that way. He has reached out, and He has touched you right in your weakest area. And you say Lord, what are you doing? And the Lord and His word says, I'm going to strengthen your faith because it is in the area where you realize your need and your vulnerability the greatest that I am most able to teach you not to trust in yourself, but to trust wholly and solely on me. Calvin says this: "After he has prayed to the Lord and arranged his plan, he now takes confidence and meets the danger by which examples of faithful are taught. That whenever any danger approaches, this order of proceeding is to be observed." First, we resort directly to the Lord. Second, we use whatever means of help may offer themselves. And thirdly, as purposes prepared for any event, we proceed faithfully wherever the Lord has commanded us. Let us pray.

Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for the example set before us in this passage. And we pray that you would grow us in faith that we might trust in Christ and trust in Your promise to the very end of our days, perseverance in faith. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

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