Genesis 32:27-29 “The man asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob,’ he answered. Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.’ Jacob said, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he replied, ‘Why do you ask my name?’ Then he blessed him there.”
This famous incident is a turning point in the life of Jacob, the crucial moment in his whole life. When the sun went down, his name was Jacob. When the sun rose the next morning his name was Israel. Before that night Jacob was in excellent condition, a strong, fit man. After that night he walked with a limp. What happened? How did this change come about?
- THE MAN ASKED JACOB ‘WHAT IS YOUR NAME?’
This angel of the covenant, this Messenger from God, had been wrestling with Jacob through the hours of darkness. When the angel asked Jacob to end the bout and let him go the patriarch refused to release him from his grip, even though his hip had been dislocated. The angel spoke again, “What is your name?” The patriarch replied, “Jacob.” Why should the angel ask him his name? Didn’t he know already? Of course he knew. He was ignorant of nothing in Jacob’s life; “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebs.4:13).
i] He had been asked that question once before. His aged father Isaac with his partial sightedness had seen a figure coming into his room. It seemed like one of his twin sons, and he had asked him, “What is your name?” and this same Jacob had said, “I am Esau, your firstborn.” That was the first lie that day, and soon there was another because his father was surprised that so soon he had killed a deer as well as preparing his father’s favourite venison stew. “How is it that you did all this so quickly?” Isaac had asked him, and Jacob had said, “Because Jehovah had brought it to me.” He had not feared telling a lie in the name of the Lord. Then there was another question, after the touching and smelling of this son. There was still some uncertainty in the old man; “Are you my very son Esau?” and Jacob had said, “I am.” He had lied about his name then, and now he is being asked this same question again, “Who are you? What is your name?” There were very few occasions since that time he had been asked that question, and the words brought back the scene of his shameful deceit. Now he cannot tell a lie to the one to whom he is clinging, looking into those deep all seeing Angel eyes he can only sob out his own name, “Jacob.”
ii] The blessing of God comes to men and women on the basis of the truth. That is the only way God does bless people. It is when we deal with God just as we are, lost, ignorant, hypocritical deceivers – naked coming to him for dress. It is then that God comes and blesses us. Jacob now pleads no birthright privilege, true or false, in order to obtain God’s blessing. He simply acknowledges who he is.
iii] He asked Jacob’s name to make a point. Did Jacob know who he really was? Remember what the name ‘Jacob’ means. ‘Jacob’ means ‘supplanter,’ ‘deceiver,’ a ‘man of guile.’ Jacob meant ‘heel grasper’ because he had come out of the womb gripping Esau’s heel striving to pull him back in order to be the first born. The name ‘Jacob’ means one who takes what belongs to someone else. It means ‘thief.’ That name had come to stand for the basic reality of Jacob’s life, a man who fully earned his name. He was a ‘Jacob’ through and through. So when the angel says to him, “What is your name?” he is asking him, “Are you ready to admit who you really are? Are you ready to face up to yourself? Are you prepared to come to yourself?” That is the hardest thing in life to do. Most people will do anything to avoid the hard truth about themselves. The truth sets us free, but it hurts us first. It pained the prodigal son to come to himself looking after pigs in the distant city, friendless and so hungry that he would have eaten pig food. But the Lord brought the villain so low in his fight against the God of his father that he was forced to look squarely at the truth about the stupidity of his life. “There are servants in my father’s house far more comfortable than me. I will arise and go to my father and say, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and before you.’” The boy came to himself.
If you should ask him as he stands amongst the pigs, “What is your name?” He would say. ‘Prodigal,’ ‘fool,’ idiot,’ ‘sinner,’ Truth had come to him and so he was mobile because the truth had set him free. He was on his way from the shadow-lands of the distant city back home. When at Jabok’s brook the patriarch replied to the angel’s question, saying, “It’s Jacob,” then he was making a confession before that angel, a confession before God. “Call me Jacob.” In other words, “That’s a fitting name for me. It’s true that I am a sinner. I am a thief. I am a man of wicked character. I have forfeited every right to any blessing. I am Jacob.” God’s way is this; in order to go up to glory you have to go down; the way to save your life is to lose it; for the ego to live the ego has to die. Didn’t he remember what Esau his brother had said when he discovered that Jacob had lied to his father and claimed that he was Esau; “Esau said, ‘Isn’t he rightly named J
acob? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!’” (Gen.27:36)
iv] God spoke and gave him his new name after Jacob had humbly confessed his old name. When he confessed who he was, out of sheer grace God blessed him. Out of pure grace, because there was nothing good in him. He was a mere Jacob. Then God bestowed on him a new name, ‘Israel.’ Who has the right to rename God’s people? Only God. God had renamed Jacob’s grandfather Abram with the name ‘Abraham’ ‘the father of many’ which suited him better as a fulfilment of God’s promises. So God renamed Jacob. He took away that name which was a reproach. Had there been some times in his life that Jacob had overheard a play on words concerning his name? If you have one of those different names, like ‘Killer’ or ‘Darling’ or ‘Naughtie’ (which you pronounce ‘Noch–atee’) your peers are bound to make fun of it. God says to Jacob, “The time for teasing and foolery with that name of yours has ended. Henceforth you are ‘Israel.’” Literally the name means, ‘God strives,’ ‘God persists,’ ‘God prevails with man.’ He is called from this time on, ‘God’s grace is effectual.’ In fact we could say that God named Jacob after what was to become one of the five points of Calvinism, ‘Irresistible grace.’ Grace is omnipotence striving and achieving.
v] God then tells him what his new name means, “You have struggled with God and men and you have prevailed.” How do you prevail with God? It is in the strangest manner. It is by losing to him. Jacob had spent his whole life striving with men and in the end he was the loser wasn’t he? Look at him, all alone in the darkness, away from all who are dear to him and facing a vengeful brother. It is a bad way for any life to be ending, let alone the seed of Abraham. He had wrestled with men and he was the loser, and now Jacob had spent all night wrestling with God and what does he achieve? A dislocated thigh. He loses again. Jacob is bankrupt; beaten by men and by God, and now he knows that all that is left for him to cling to is the Lord who has come near to him and gripped him tight. God is his treasure; he has seen it; God is his end, his sure reward.
When we lose because we are grappling with God then we’re the winners. The man who wrestled with Jacob became incarnate 2,000 years later in Jesus of Nazareth and he said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it” (Mk. 8:35). The rich young ruler was told how to save his life. It was to lose it, to sell all he had and give to the poor and follow Jesus, and then what transformation would ensue! What an abundant, and exciting, and rewarding, and satisfying life he would live henceforth.
In a moment the patriarch is no longer ‘Jacob,’ the man who struggled with his brother Esau. Now he is ‘Israel’ and his name reflects a good struggle; it announced that God had prevailed with him and overcame him. God had overcome Jacob’s love of power and glory, his lusts of the mind, his hurting people who loved him. Jacob got the victory over all that. How so? Because he was strong? Hardly. Hosea tells us that when he struggled with the angel and prevailed Jacob wept. Jacob tearfully sought favour from the Lord. He said, ‘Please’ to God; he begged God for his favour. That was the way Jacob prevailed, not because he was a bully; not because of some superior strength. He could cheat his brother, and his father. He could out-trick his father-in-law Laban. No one can trick God out of anything. Jacob’s struggle was the fight of faith. He clung to the God whose grace is irresistible. He didn’t cheat; he didn’t go on sinning; he didn’t despair; he kept clinging to God in faith, believing that God rewards those who diligently trust in him even though they are conscious of their great weakness. You see what Jacob has done? He has turned his back on his old ways, on his cheating, and his lying, and deceiving. “No more!” he vowed. He clings to the holy God from that day on. Henceforth he will do nothing without him. You find him a year later and he is cleaving to God. Ten years later, and he is cleaving to God. Down he goes to Egypt to meet his son Joseph and he is cleaving to God – “I won’t go down to North Africa unless you go with me.” You see him as he dies blessing his children one by one, full of the spirit of prophecy; Jacob is cleaving to God. He is no longer the old Jacob, he is Israel, and he is striving with God and prevailing.
I will tell you of One greater than Jacob who clung to God all his life and always obeyed him, in the smallest and the greatest matters his delight was to do the will of God. Even to the cross Jesus went on and on doing the will of God in order that Jacob might be forgiven and that God could give him a new name ‘Israel.’ This is what God does with all his children who keep cleaving to him. The Lord Jesus says to the church in Philadelphia, “He who overcomes I will . . . write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, I will . . . write on him my new name” (Rev. 3:12). The mere Christian is a person on whom Christ has written his new name. Jesus calls Simon ‘Cephas’ that is, ‘Peter, the Rock.’ If any man is in Christ Jesus he has a new nature and a new name and all things are new. So what of you? Are your strengths now focused upon serving the Lord and serving your fellow men? Are you promoting the glory of God and enjoying God? My own name is Thomas, but I am not doubting Thomas any longer. I am the new Thomas, who like the apostle Thomas, has had a close encounter with Jacob’s Lord who became incarnate, died for sinners like me and rose on the third day. Then he said to Thomas, “handle and touch me and don’t doubt but believe.” I make my confession with his exact words to the Lord Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”
- JACOB ASKED THE MAN, ‘PLEASE TELL ME YOUR NAME.’
Why should Jacob do that? Doesn’t he know his name already? Of course; it is the God of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. But to know his name is to have power. To know the name of God is to be able to call on God for blessing at any time. What glory for saved sinners that would be, to call God by his name so that he is constrained to hear and answer. On Mount Carmel the prophets of Baal shouted until they were hoarse; they prophesied, and danced, and cut themselves; “Baal, we cry to thee. See the sacrifice we offer.” But God ignored their cries because he was not being addressed. His name is not Baal, and he has little respect for multi faith experiments. They cried in vain, but when Elijah stood on Carmel and prayed he addressed God thus; “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel” (I Kings 18:36) and God heard and answered. Elijah called him by his name.
The Angel replied by asking him another question, “Why is it that you ask about my name?” He didn’t tell Jacob his name. There is a mixture of good and bad in every prayer that a Christian prays. There has never been a sinless request prayed by a Christian this side of glory and there never will be. There was a holy longing in this prayer of Jacob’s and that was good. His is the desire of every
regenerate man, to know more of God and his nature, in other words, of all that God’s name stands for. As soon as we know Jesus we want to know more of his name:
More about Jesus would I know; more of his grace to others show;
More of his saving fulness see; more of his love who died for me.
The moment Jacob had gripped this Angel he never wanted to let go of him again, and he wanted to know more about him. Paul as an old Christian in prison is still longing, “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection . . .” So there is something right about that longing to know the Lord’s name.
We find that same question on the lips of another Old Testament saint, Manoah, the father of Samson. In the Book of Judges we read of a similar appearance to him of this same divine person who had wrestled with Jacob, the Angel of the Lord. Unaware of the identity of this person, Manoah asked the same question as Jacob: “Then Manoah enquired of the angel of the LORD, ‘What is your name, so that we may honour you when your word comes true?’ He replied, ‘Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding’” (Judges 13:17&18). Manoah received the same answer as Jacob. Both men got a counter-question as to why they should have asked for the name of God. In both cases it warned them against unseemly intrusion, but yet left the way open for God to reveal himself in other ways and at other times. In fact, it struck a happy balance between divine reserve and divine revelation.
What God is saying is this: “You know who this is, Jacob. I don’t need to tell you who I am. You know exactly who I am.” There is here a warning about seeking familiarity and intimacy with God for wrong reasons. We are not to suggest that God is illusive and has failed to tell us enough about himself for us to know him, and that we must have more before we will serve him and love him. We are not to ask for some Colossus to appear standing with one foot on St. David’s in Pembrokeshire in the south and the other foot on the Llyn peninsula in the north and there high above Cardigan Bay this Colossus stands and show himself to us and shouts like thunder, “This is me.” There is no need of such a sight because all men know God already in his glorious creation and from conscience, the divine monitor. Others also know from the coming of Jesus into the world following the prophets and followed by the apostles. They know him and they are clamping down on that knowledge in their unbelief. Jacob had wrestled with this very God. The heavens declared his glory. His father and grandfather had told him of this God so that he was without excuse if he suggested he did not know who this God was and needed to know his name.
When we are presented to the Queen to receive an audience with her, or even an honour from her, we would never say to her, “And who are you?” What an impertinence! We know who she is. So it is with God. We know him. All men know him and that they are made to honour him. Anthony Hopkins, the Welsh actor, says that the first thing he will say to God when he meets him will be, “What was all that about?” No! We know what life is all about. The fingerprints of God are all around; the Bible is his message to us describing what went wrong and how redeeming grace can put it right. If you have seen Christ then you have seen God. This God tells us how we should live. The ethical requirements for God’s creatures in God’s creation are amongst the clearest teachings in the Scripture. We don’t say to God, “And who are you?” We know who he is, a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. He is Father, he is Son, and he is Holy Spirit. Faith demands no more than God has richly revealed.
Again in that silence to those old saints’ questions as to his identity God was telling them they weren’t ready for the full revelation of himself; “it is beyond understanding.” In other words, it was beyond their ability then to grasp. If God had answered by saying one of the names of God, ‘Elohim,’ ‘Jahweh,’ ‘El Shaddai,’ ‘Adonai,’ what would that have meant to Jacob or to Manoah? Neither of them were capable of understanding all that is implied in God by one name of God. You need to see what God says of himself in the whole of the Bible, and how God is, and what he does in the lives of many of his servants, and especially so when his Son comes into the world. Jesus cleansing the Temple; Jesus on his knees washing the disciples’ feet; Jesus denouncing the Pharisees; Jesus praying for those crucifying him. It is in the life of the Lord that you learn, “This is God. This is how God is, the only God.”
There is in Scripture what we call a progressive revelation. God was not going to make himself known fully until he revealed himself in the comings into the world of his blessed Son Jesus Christ. The day of that revelation was a long way off from Jacob and Manoah. It would come only when the Son of God actually took a human nature into lasting union with himself, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Today we don’t go to God and say, “Tell me your name,” because we know his name. “Thou shalt call his name ‘Jesus’ for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Those words are on John Murray’s gravestone in Bonar Bridge. The name of God is “Jehovah Jesus!” Isn’t this the name that is above every name? Isn’t this the only name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved? Isn’t this why the Lord Jesus himself said that if we asked for anything in his name it would be done? This is what Jacob wanted but could not receive, but this name is given to you, oh child of God, that you may call upon the Lord and he will hear you and answer you. Only take heed from the divine answer probing Jacob and probing us, “Why do you ask about my name? Do you want a name, Jacob, only so that you can conjure me up whenever you wish – like Aladdin rubbing the lamp for the genie to appear? Do you want a name so that you can receive whatever sinful pleasures you desire?” This is not the sort of name God has given to us. Rather in Jesus he has given us the name of the one in whom he has kept all his promises, and to whom he has given all his blessings. To have this name, and by faith to come to God in it, is to have everything God can possibly give – every promise fulfilled, every blessing bestowed. Will this name give you long life or prosperity or good reputation or even next month’s rent? Such things might be an obsession of the world but are irrelevant to us. This name is enough; it will give you all that God can give, every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ . . . forever, yours. Nothing will separate you from the love of God. All things will work together for your good. You will learn contentment in whatever state you are in. Let us rejoice therefore and call upon God using this name, seeking all that he has for us in this name. For in Jesus we have his own Son, everything he has to give. So the Angel he clung to refused to tell him his name, but immediately “he blessed him there” (v.29).
- THE MAN BLESSED JACOB THERE BY JABBOK’S BROOK.
I loved hearing Douglas MacMillan saying these:
“When God commands, men are blessed; and when God blesses men he reveals himself in the doing of it, and men come to know his love. That lifts the soul on to a new plane of experience and knowledge of God. The power of his grace does what nothing else in all the world can do; it makes God known in actual experience. When the heavy, unwieldy fishing boats are left high and dry on a beach, nothing can move them except the tide flowing in. When the great power of the flooding tide covers the beach it is capable of floating the heaviest boat, and it lifts it so gently, and floats it so easily, that no strain or danger is involved at all. That is what the love of God in Christ does when it comes into our hearts. It has power to lift our spirits, cleanse our hearts, and move our innermost, stubborn wills, and yet it does it so gently and graciously that life is maintained and the soul is enriched. This is what is involved in the blessing of Jacob.
“Last century, the famous Free Church of Scotland leader, Dr Thomas Chalmers, preached one of the world’s most celebrated sermons under the title, ‘The expulsive power of a new affection.’ It centred on this thought of how, when the love of Christ comes into the heart of a sinner, it drives the other, old affections and lusts of life out before it and fills the mind with new thoughts, the heart with new desires.
“Where I come from, in Ardnamurchan, Argyllshire, there was a short distance from our house a little crofting village, where there was a little white sandy bay. Through one of the crofts a stream ran into the bay and when the spring tides were reaching their high-water mark, and running inland at their maximum height, this little stream, which had a flow of lovely fresh water in it, would be completely reversed. The tide would come up over the sands to the edge of the grass, and then rush up the narrow banks of the little stream. It was then that a strange thing happened. The tide pushed the fresh water of the river back on itself, until, two hundred yards upstream, in old John’s croft, the water was as salt as the sea far out in the bay. Why? Because it was no longer the stream; it was the sea water. The current of fresh water had been turned in its tracks; the tide of the mighty Atlantic had flooded in and pushed the stream back towards its own source.
“That is just an illustration of what the love of God in Christ does when it comes into our hearts. It changes the direction and flow of our lives. It reverses the current. It is not just something that happens only at conversion. It happens again and again. The current in which Jacob’s life had been moving was turned into another channel. That happens in conversion. It happens when we come to know Christ as Saviour and then it can happen again and again. The current of our life is being redirected to the source of life, to God himself. This process is called progressive sanctification. ‘The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day’ (Proverbs 4:18). (Douglas MacMillan, Wrestling with God, Evangelical Press of Wales, 1991, pp. 115&116).
So what is the blessing of God? Is it something that afterwards Jacob felt great? Is it the top ‘feel good’ factor? The stronger the emotions the greater the blessing – is that it? God’s blessing is in fact the nearness of Christ as our prophet, priest and king. It is a new assurance that when we confess to him our sins in Jesus’ name he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. We are forgiven. We really are. All our past sins are forgiven sins. The blessing of God is an assurance that Christ the King is protecting and keeping us day by day, not letting anything come between us and his love, working everything together for our good. That is the blessing of God. It is the coming of the word of Christ to us, edifying, educating, correcting us, instructing us in righteousness, making his way clear to us, teaching us all we need to learn, and not giving up, coming back again and again driving it home to our minds and affections what the gospel is and how we should live and how glorious God is. That is the blessing of God. It is not that you feel good singing certain songs. It is not that you feel good because there are crowd dynamics. Rather, it is because you are growing under the influence of Christ the prophet, Christ the priest and Christ the king. That is the blessing of God. It is the power of God that comes to you through Jesus Christ and it touches every faculty and every relationship in your family and in your congregation.
How much ‘feel good’ was there when Jacob wrestled with the angel? I don’t know, but I do know that that agonizing encounter resulted in Jacob’s humble submission and obedience and thus Jacob was blessed. In other words, the blessing of God may well be a very painful, hard, wounding experience as it was in Jacob, that long night. But it resulted in a new life of love to God and to his neighbour, that henceforth Jacob aimed at loving his neighbour as himself. If you want to know the blessing of God on your life then you must do what Jacob did here and submit yourself totally to the will of the Lord and cleave to him through thick and thin, ‘though troubles assail and dangers afright, though friends should all fail and foes all unite’ as John Newton describes dark days, yet at such times keep cleaving to the Lord. Don’t be afraid of those mighty hands that grip you and won’t let you go and take you one way. You know what Jacob did not know that one day those hands were pierced on the cross for our sins.
Jacob twenty years earlier, when he was leaving the Promised Land, got to a place to be called Bethel and there he encountered God. He had said, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it . . . This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:16&17, ESV). Here at Jabbok’s brook Jacob has deeper fellowship with the Lord for he has been grasped by him; he has been that near to his glory, to God the Son who is the image of God. Jesus said, “He that has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). God, whose morning light shone on Jacob at Peniel has made his light to shine in our hearts to us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Christ.
Jacob, now Israel, was ready to meet Esau face to face, for he had met God face to face. He had received God’s blessing and so he didn’t fear any man or army of men. Edmund Clowney says, “Jacob was a winner by grace, the Lord was the Victor of grace. Christ is foreshadowed in this account, not in one role, but in two. He is the Angel of the Lord, the mysterious figure in whom God himself is present. As the Lord, he wins by losing. Had he simply touched Jacob with the hand of judgment, Jacob would have lost irretrievably. But that was not his purpose. The Lord restrains his power, withholds his judgment, to hear the cry of faith, to give himself to the grasp that holds to his promise.
“Jesus Christ wrestles in the agony of Gethsemane’s garden. The Father hides his face from him in the darkness of Calvary in order that we might see his glory. He is the Victor because he is the Victim. Dying, he lives; struck down, he is exalted over all. He will not let go till he has received the blessing. His prayer to the Father is that one day we might see his glory.
“Ask ye, Who is this same?
Christ Jesus is his Name.< /span>
The Lord Sabaoth’s Son:
He and no other one
Shall conquer in the Battle” (Martin Luther).
Not in the grey light of Peniel’s morning do we see him, but in the disclosure of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. But the day will come when we shall see him and be like him . . . Because Jesus agonized for us, we may lay hold on him. Is your faith desperate? Do you know how much you need the Lord and the blessing of his face? Do you cry out, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”? The Lord still blesses desperate faith.