It was good for Jacob that the Lord was on his case, even if Jacob was unaware of it. The final action of Jacob on this important evening was to send his wives and children across the Jabbok. Then he was left alone, or so he thought. Perhaps he intended engaging in further prayer or maybe he intended to function as a guard, keeping an eye on any of his men or animals who might attempt to return. Whatever his intentions were, he was in for an unusual night. Jacob was going to spend several hours participating in a wrestling match with a Stranger.
Quite often we read this passage as if Jacob was wrestling in prayer and we use him as an example of persistent prayer. Yet the passage does not say that he was praying to God, it does not even indicate that he spoke to God until near the close of the wrestling engagement. The wrestling was a physical activity, but it has a spiritual lesson. Through this lesson the Lord dealt with a fault that was obvious in Jacob at this time. We can approach the incident by asking several questions.
Who was actively wrestling? It is clear that both individuals were engaged in the conflict. But one was active and the other was defensive. The active participant was the Stranger and Jacob was resisting his advances. This was not a wrestling match in which Jacob wanted to engage, but it was one in which the Stranger was determined to take part.
Who was the Stranger? It is clear from Jacob’s response that the One wrestling with him was God (Hos. 12:3-4). We cannot tell at what stage Jacob realised it was God. Why was God wrestling with him? I suspect God wanted to show Jacob the folly of depending on his own ideas. Of course, God could have easily made Jacob immobile at any time; after all it was not difficult for God, with a touch, to make Jacob limp. Yet Jacob did not show any spiritual discernment until the Lord touched his hip socket. Jacob immediately realised who had done this, and instead of wrestling with the Lord he clung to him tenaciously.
The incident was a test for Jacob as to how he would obtain future victories. In the past he had won a victory over Esau by his cleverness when he obtained both the birthright and the blessing. Now he was anticipating another clash with Esau and it looks as if Jacob thought he could deal with it by combining prayer with his cleverness. From one point of view, he was not the old Jacob, but from another point of view the old Jacob was very involved in his strategies. I suppose we could ask, ‘At that moment, was Jacob like Abraham or like Laban?’
Why did Jacob triumph? He triumphed when God took away an important aspect of Jacob’s strength, which was his ability to stand on his own. The Lord was aware that Jacob would not fully depend on his Maker until there was no other alternative. It was not sufficient that Jacob be a praying man. In addition, he had to become a broken man, a dependant man, one who was no longer depending on his own abilities. Jacob learned here what Paul would also learn, that it is when we are weak that we are strong.
When did Jacob triumph? Strangely, it was when he stopped wrestling with God and began clinging to God. The victory came when he said to God, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’ (v. 26). Because he had become weak, he was now strong. God had so dealt with Jacob that he was now unable to run away from Esau. Whatever Esau would do the following day, Jacob was totally dependent on God. Now Jacob realised this was the case and he held on to God.