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In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Concerned about the past catching up (Genesis 32)

Many intriguing features in Jacob’s walk with God are described in the Book of Genesis. One of them is the way in which God dealt with Jacob’s fears, and that issue is one of the concerns of this chapter. In Genesis 32, Jacob is obviously worried about an imminent meeting with his brother Esau. Should he have been concerned?

On the one hand, we could say yes. After all, his last news about Esau was twenty years old and at that time he wanted to kill his brother for taking his father’s blessing by deceit. Jacob had no idea if Esau was still angry about that incident. On the other hand, we could say no. During those twenty years, God had shown his powerful care of Jacob many times. Even here in verse 1, Moses records a special meeting with Jacob’s camp and a host of angels, which should have been a great encouragement to Jacob because their appearance was a reminder that he was protected by the armies of the Lord.

So how did Jacob deal with this difficult situation? Moses mentions three responses of Jacob. First, he tried to be friends with Esau; second, he prayed about the situation; third, he assumed that Esau could be placated by lots of gifts. The first response was common sense; the second response was a prayer that expressed, at least, surface trust in God; and the third response suggested careful thinking about the problem.

The first response of Jacob sending several messengers to Esau backfired. They made contact, but they failed to find out what Esau thought about Jacob. What should we make of the message he gave them to pass on to Esau? To begin with, we can see that the message of Jacob to Esau made no mention of God. Instead it reads like the claim of a self-made man who had prospered well during his time with Laban. Further, the message to Esau reads as if Jacob had not previously received the birthright and the blessing from God – Jacob gives to Esau the title and position that Esau should have been giving to him (lord, your servant Jacob). If these were the only words of Jacob that we had, we would not think that he feared God.

So Jacob now felt that he had to pray (32:9-12), which is always a good sign. In many ways his prayer is very commendable, indeed Spurgeon in one of his sermons calls it ‘Jacob’s Model Prayer’. We can see that in his prayer Jacob addresses God appropriately as the covenant God of his fathers, that he reminds the Lord of his recent requirement to go home. He confesses his unworthiness of all the evidences of God’s loving faithfulness to him over the past two decades. He presents his concern in very clear terms (v. 11) and reminds the Lord that he cannot allow Jacob’s family to be harmed without breaking his previous promises. He mentions the cause of his concern in plain words that are easy for others to understand.

It seems clear that Jacob’s time of prayer did not enlighten him regarding the attitude of Esau, which was his main concern. Jacob had gone to pray because he was apprehensive about his brother’s arrival, and after he had finished praying he was still concerned about what would happen when Esau came. Therefore Jacob’s priority was still about placating his brother, and so he devised a plan in which instead of merely telling Esau what he had received, which he done when he sent the messengers, he now shared with him a large number of the animals he had accumulated. There was wisdom in this plan because it would show Esau that Jacob was a changed man, although we cannot say that is why Jacob chose it. Yet there is an important lesson for us in this policy. Those about whom we are praying should see that we have been changed by the grace of God.

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