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Jacob said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me.” (Genesis 32:26).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Jacob and his caravan reach the Jabbok, a stream that flows into the Jordan from the east just about midway between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. After leading family and flocks south across the Jabbok under cover of darkness, Jacob himself goes back across the stream, apparently to spend some time alone with the Lord in prayer. As he begins once again to pour out his heart to God, he suddenly becomes aware that out of the darkness someone has grabbed hold of him and is wrestling him to the ground. The mysterious struggle continues—for hours—until the first streaks of dawn appear in the eastern sky.
In commenting on this passage, Martin Luther said, “This text is one of the most obscure in the Old Testament.” Although there are elements of this wrestling match that are difficult to understand and to explain, there are some basic truths that are immediately clear.
Jacob is struggling with God in earnest prayer. This struggle involves a spiritual striving with God for His blessing, but it involves a physical struggle as well. Jacob’s opponent, at first referred to “a man,” later identifies Himself as God.
But why should God appear to one of His children as an opponent, as an enemy fighting against Him? Surely not to crush the life out of him. If God so wanted, the wrestling match would be over in half a second. In the heat of the struggle, Jacob may be tempted to think of God as his enemy; in that case God would not want to bless Jacob. But God has promised to bless, and Jacob knows that God cannot lie. Yes, God is an opponent, but He is not the enemy.
The struggle continues until Jacob’s divine opponent, by merely touching Jacob’s hip, throws the entire hip socket out of joint. Now Jacob can’t continue the painful struggle any longer, so he throws his arms around his opponent and holds onto him. His opponent says, “Let Me go, for the day has broken.” He is delighted to hear Jacob answer, “I will not let You go unless You bless me.” God doesn’t want Jacob (and He doesn’t want us) to be timid with Him. He delights to let us win victories over Him on the basis of humble believing prayer. Jacob clings in faith to God and to God’s promise, and he receives the blessing he desires.
“What is your name?” the Lord asks him, not because He has forgotten but because He wants to remind Jacob that he has been born a “heel-grabber,” one who takes unfair advantage of a rival. But that old name no longer fits this man, and so God gives him a new one. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
Bible names often serve as more than convenient labels for people. Here Jacob’s new name describes the new nature and character the Spirit of God has patiently and painstakingly created in him. No longer will he rely on his own cleverness to overcome anyone who opposes him. The heel-grabber has become the persistent fighter who clings to God’s promise and wins God’s blessing legitimately. He has learned to lean on God.
God apparently feels that Jacob needs a memento of his victory, as a warning against relapsing into his old nature. So, as Jacob leaves the scene of the wrestling match, he is limping. All of God’s children need to learn that in and of ourselves we have no strength, no power with God or man. Our only strength, like Jacob’s, lies in holding on for the blessing, on holding firmly to God’s promises.
For Jacob another blessed fruit of this mysterious struggle is that he is freed from the terror that has gripped his heart since he learned Esau was coming for him with four hundred men. With the Savior’s promise ringing in his ears, he is now ready to meet Esau, ready for whatever surprises the new day might bring.
God still appears to His people on occasion as though He is an opponent. Each of us has known dark hours when we were unable to see God’s blessing and have seen only a face that looks angry. Jacob holds on to God even when He appears as his opponent, and he wins a blessing. We will have that same experience when we learn how to say, “My Savior, I will not let you go unless You bless me. Keep holding on for the blessing!
Jacob learned the hard way a lesson we all need to learn—in and of ourselves we have no power with God or man. We are much like helpless babies. Our only strength lies in holding firmly to what God has promised and crying out to Him for help. Apart from Jesus, we can accomplish nothing spiritually. Without the Holy Spirit, we do not know how to pray or for what to pray.
Unlike babies, we do not outgrow this helplessness. We never become spiritually self-sufficient but grow in our dependence. If there is one thing we discover as we mature spiritually, it is that before God we are nothing but beggars. In the face of death and God’s judgment, we can only cry out to Jesus as beggars did in the ancient world: “Lord have mercy!” Or as Jacob did in our Old Testament lesson: “I will not let You go until You bless me!”
Yet that experience of helplessness is the best thing for our spiritual growth. As long as we can manage quite well by ourselves, we have no need to pray and never learn to praise God. But when we have come to the end of our own rope, our only hope lies in prayer. Only those who are helpless can truly pray. Only those who have been helped by God in answer to their prayers can really praise God.
You are on a journey through this fallen world to the Paradise of God. You live in a land where there are temptations, and in which you have fallen often. Perhaps it is pride that keeps you awake in the darkness before the coming dawn. Maybe it is slavish fear in the middle of the night. You are alone as you wrestle with your past, with your conscience, and with that ever-increasing load of guilt.
Then the Lord permits you to wrestle with Him throughout the darkness of this world’s night. He may reach out His finger and touch your heart or your home or a loved one. There is instant pain and it continues. You hobble around and, in spite of the hurt and suffering, with strength and determination that can only be from above, you hold on until you have God’s intended blessing.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? Striving with God and men… and prevailing. Suffering. Enduring hardship. Hearing the accusations of the Law. All the time, holding God to His gracious promises in prayer. Holding on for the blessing.
“The wages of sin is death…”
Yes, Lord, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“The soul that sins shall die…”
Yes, my Lord, but He was wounded for our transgressions.
“There is none that does good; no not one…”
Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.
Why does the Lord engage in such a wrestling match with you? Why does He inflict or permit a variety of painful injuries, horrid diseases, and awful injustices that might dog you the rest of your earthly life? In order that you might hold on for the blessing. In order that you might turn from your prideful independence to humble dependence upon Him. And in Christ you are! In order that He might bring you forgiveness. And in Christ you are forgiven! In order that your slavish fear might be replaced by godly fear. And in Christ you are! In short: In order that He might bless you! And in Christ you are blessed!
The Lord provides you with His Word and Sacraments, not only to bring you into the Israel of God, but to sustain you in His Church. Recall your Baptism daily by drowning the Old Adam through contrition and repentance. Declare to Satan: “I am baptized. And if I am baptized then I belong to Christ.”
Know yourself… both the sinner and the saint. Know God’s Word… both the Law that accuses and the Gospel that forgives. Listen as the absolution is announced and take it to heart. Receive the true body and blood of the Incarnate Son of God, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sin and the strengthening of your faith. Through these means of grace, the Holy Spirit gives you the strength to endure whatever the Lord God may permit to come your way and to remain faithful unto death and be given the crown of life.
This literal encounter between Jacob and God provides an object lesson for our prayer life. We wrestle with God in prayer. It isn’t always easy. Eager as He is to hear us and help us, God is no pushover. He is no magic genie at our beck and call. Often He must oppose us when our sinful will is out of sync with His perfect will. He challenges, convicts, judges, evaluates us and our requests. But when our will is in accord with His, God graciously lets us prevail. Graciously, He gives us the blessing we ask for.
Like Jacob, may you continue to hold onto the Lord even in those dark hours when you are unable to see God’s mercy and see only a face that looks angry. May you learn to say in prayer, “My Savior, I will not let You go unless You bless me.” Indeed He does bless you. He soothes your suffering spirit. He calms all your fears. And He gives you peace and comfort even in the midst of strife.
In Christ, you are blessed. That is to say: You are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.