Of all the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, probably none are maligned as frequently as Jacob. Many dismiss him as a usurping, conniving self-seeker, citing his bargain with Esau over the birthright and his subsequent acquisition of Isaac’s blessing. Since before their birth God had promised Jacob’s ascendancy over Esau (Gen. 25:23), if we fault Jacob for anything, it ought to be for impatience. At his mother’s instigation, Jacob tried to get by cleverness what God had already promised him in faithfulness. He was not a scoundrel, but merely human, with human failings like the rest of us. Examination of a 20 year period of Jacob’s life reveals four ways he dealt with God. These provide both negative and positive lessons in prayer.

Bargaining with God

Jacob used that approach at Bethel when he first fled from his brother Esau (Gen. 28:18-22). At Bethel, Jacob dreamed about a ladder stretching from heaven to earth. At that time God appeared to him and promised him increase, fame, security and great blessing. Best of all, the Lord promised to be with him. Jacob sealed this agreement by erecting a pillar of story which he anointed with oil, as a sign of the covenant between himself and God.

After this marvelous vision, Jacob dared to spell out to God the conditions which he expected the Holy One to fulfill. In effect, Jacob told the LORD, If you’ll come through in all these areas, then you will be my God.”

Many believers use this same approach with God. They pray, “If you’ll get me out of this jam, I promise to be more regular in my congregational attendance,” or “If you’ll get me a husband (or a wife), I promise to serve you better.”

At best, bargaining with God is a naive insult to him. God is beholden to no one, for from him and of him and to him are all things. We have no leverage with God, other than the leverage he in his grace grants us. It is always wrong to treat God as less than God.

Bribing God

This is the approach exemplified in Jacob’s attempt to bribe his brother Esau. When Jacob left Paddan Aram and contemplated with dread the prospect of again encountering his brother, he devised a strategy to placate his brother’s anger. He divided his goods and his encampment into an elaborate system of gifts and advance parties. These were designed on the one hand to appease Esau through gifts, and to propitiate his anger by offering Jacob’s wives and children as a sacrifice in battle, or as an appeal for mercy. Last of all, at the very back, Jacob himself followed.

Many approach God in this manner. They offer him goods, services and sacrifices, while yet withholding themselves. This is an insult to the Holy One. Just as Esau was rich, and didn’t need Jacob’s goods, God is the source of all wealth, and cannot be bought off or placated.

Humbly Reminding God of His Promises

This is the approach Jacob used when he was terrified of his brother’s taking revenge. (32:9-12) He prayed, “O God…I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies…thou hast shown…unto thy servant;…Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother.…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.”

At last Jacob exhibited a complete absence of bravado. His attitude, 180 degrees removed from his bargaining posture at Bethel, shows humility, vulnerability and dependency. He did not grovel, but acknowledged his weakness and need, with no self-protective posturing, respectfully reminding God of his promises. This honored God because the underlying assumption was that God was honorable and would live up to his promises. In this time of prayer Jacob spoke the truth about himself and God.

Wrestling with God

This is the approach God taught Jacob at Peniel (32:24-32). The account of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel is admittedly mysterious, so it is right that we also should find mysterious our experience of wrestling with God in prayer.

The initiative in the wrestling match was with the God figure, not with Jacob. God took the initiative. The figure was God or his intimate representative. That is clear from the name Jacob gave to the place (“Peniel” means the face of God) and from the fact that this mysterious individual was the source of blessing.

The God figure obviously made an accommodation to Jacob’s humanity in that he became as a man and allowed himself at least to appear, at first, to be bested in the wrestling match. This accommodation and condescension is further illustrated in Jacob’s admission that he had seen God face to face (although in the darkness), and yet his life had been spared. Clearly, the One who had spared him was the stronger wrestler, who could have taken his life had he wished.

Jacob persisted in the match, not merely to gain the victory, but to win a blessing from God. In the process, he inquired, “What is your name?” In this, Jacob asked for revelation of his antagonist’s nature, for knowledge of his name would give Jacob power in dealing with him.

Jacob’s wrestling partner dealt with him as God often does with humanity: he asked Jacob his name, even though he already knew it. Perhaps the purpose was to enable Jacob to bring his name (and reputation) to the forefront of his own consciousness, and thus to find the name change that much more significant, for that is precisely what happened. Jacob’s wrestling opponent changed his name from Jacob (“Supplanter”) to Israel (“One who strives/wrestles with God”).

Jacob’s name change is important. It signified a change in nature and reputation. He was no longer the supplanter but the prevailer.

The crucial lessons for our own lives

1. As in Jacob’s life, so in ours, when we enter a new phase in our prayer lives, it is always because God has taken the initiative. Whenever we go to prayer, it is always because God has first stirred us to do so.

2. God’s goal in Jacob’s life was that he recognize God as his sole and adequate source of benefit, protection and security. Jacob was inclined to rely too much upon his own resources. In our lives too, God works to deepen our recognition of dependence upon him.

3. The life of prayer rests upon the realization that God has accommodated us by making himself available in a manner which would not otherwise be. By nature God dwells in unapproachable light, but he has made himself approachable because of his love, and through the blood of the everlasting covenant.

4. The wound in Jacob’s hip was put there as a permanent reminder of his dependence upon God and his limited ability to help himself. We too need a reminder of our human frailty.

5. It was no accident that Jacob found himself in a crisis situation, having exhausted all of his own coping mechanisms, desperately in need of being redeemed. God brought him to that place of loneliness, vulnerability, fear and openness to change. God brings crisis points to the life of each believer in order to:

  • reveal something about himself,
  • reveal something about ourselves,
  • change our way of dealing with life and restore our vision of our dependence upon him.

Moving forward in the life of prayer

We move forward in our prayer lives when we develop a deepened sense of our dependence upon God.

We move forward in our prayer lives when we depend more and more upon his promises and character.

We move forward in our prayer lives when we move away from reliance upon old coping mechanisms and trust solely in the Lord.

We move forward in our prayer lives when we recognize our crises as opportunities to encounter God in a new way.