“Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (Gen. 35:3).
It is remarkable that of the three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), the biblical writers often designate God singularly as the “God of Jacob” (Ps. 46:11). This may be the most surprising designation of God in the Bible. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son must have been taken from the real-life story Jacob. Yet, the story was never meant to offset Jacob as worse than all other sinners. It is intended to provide unspeakable comfort for those who have squandered the love God and done terrible things in their life. Does anyone not fit into this category? We are meant to study Jacob’s life and see ourselves against the wonderful backdrop of the relentless pursuit of God, who never let this prodigal go, no matter how much Jacob was prone to leave the God that he did not love.
A Rebel Without a Cause
A brief survey of Jacob’s life shows just how profligate this church boy really was. Moses begins Jacob’s story in the womb by designating him as a heel-grabber of his older brother Esau, establishing the trajectory of his life as a thief. He entered the kingdom on the coattails of his brother Esau, only to supplant him by stealing his birthright through the deception of his blind and dying father, Isaac. Have you ever done such a thing to your dying father? I doubt it. It is no wonder that this womb-fighter and heel-grabber was given the unflattering name, “Jacob”, means “to supplant”. We are intended to stand before the womb in wonder that a child of God could be named this way.
Jacob stood with the best of them in the art of a crooked deal. Not even his great uncle Laban from Haran was a match for this son of Abraham. By the time Jacob’s twenty-year service to Laban was complete, Jacob had worked over the most notorious schemer in all of Mesopotamia. With the likes of a modern-day Ponzi-scheme, Jacob pulled off the greatest heist of the day by deceiving his uncle through a faulty, yet successful, superstitious practice of animal reproduction. From there Jacob secretly departed with flocks, herds, wives and children, all of which Laban claimed legitimately belonged to him (Gen 31:43).
It is no wonder Jacob would characterize his life and days as “few and evil”. He gave us a good look at what is means to hate the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as well. He was a child of the covenant, yet dead in trespasses and sins.
The God of All Grace
When studying the life of Jacob, we desperately want to find a Damascus road incident that once and for all changed him. To be sure, there are a few big moments that happened along the way, but what is most remarkable about Jacob’s story is that the eye-opening moments seem to come at unexpected times.
One of these surprising moments comes later in the life of Jacob. When Jacob returned to Bethel, he spoke to his household, calling them to put away idols and properly worship the Lord. Jacob’s reasoning is important. Jacob said, “God has answered me in the day of my distress and [He] has been with me wherever I have gone.” Often, we too quickly read and underestimate this remarkable development in Jacob. Ponder it for a while.
When God first appeared to Jacob at Bethel, dropping a ladder of salvation to him, Jacob responded by saying, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen 28:16). Toward the end of Jacob’s life, he realized something he did not appreciate along the way: the Lord had always been with him, wherever he went. That is the promise of the covenant of grace: God is our God who is always with us, wherever we go.
The surprising comfort in this story is that God’s presence was not one of judgment, but of mercy and grace to Jacob the entire way. This is why the biblical writers do not begin Jacob’s story at the moment of birth. More overwhelming is the truth revealed in Scripture, that before Jacob had done anything good or evil, according to God’s purpose of election, God loved Jacob (Mal. 1:2-3; Romans 9:11-13). It was God’s good pleasure to love undeserving Jacob; a truth that has been heralded across the generations.
When Jacob deceived his father and stole the blessing, the blessing was something that God had always intended to give him. When Jacob ran away in fear to Bethel, the Lord dropped the ladder of grace to him. When Jacob deceitfully schemed against Laban, God was the one multiplying his flock because of the promise. At the pinnacle of his rebellion, when Jacob was alone and at rock bottom, Jesus came to him, wrestled him down to dislocate his old self, and change his name to Israel. Yes, God loved Jacob. Jacob’s story is that of the overpowering and relentless grace of God.
Jacob’s prayer says it all:
“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (Gen. 32:9-10).
Yes, Jacob’s story is a story of God’s love creating and making for himself a new “Israel” for his own good pleasure.
The God of Jacob is With You!
I hope you can better appreciate, dear Christian, how special it is when God says to you, in the midst of all your sin and fear, “the God of Jacob is [y]our fortress” (Ps. 46:7). God chose to love you too, since before you were born or had done any good or evil. God has shown his love to you, even though you have not deserved the least of his mercies. If you have the least bit of hindsight, you can see that he has proven his love for you throughout the course of your whole life. You may have thought you were alone, and often gone “wherever you wanted to go”. Even so, from the beginning, the Lord has relentlessly pursued you to bring you to himself (Bethel). We would have never sought or found the Lord unless he had first found us, alone in the darkness of our rebellion. The Lord’s steadfast love is what has kept you, and will keep you, wherever you go.
The Lord has proven his love by making atonement for your sins through the blood of Jesus. The love Jacob received, the love we receive, is because God gave his only begotten son to purchase us. Therefore, as we continue to struggle against our sins and failures, you and I can say, “with uplifted head, I confidently await the very judge who has already offered himself to the judgment of God in my place and removed the whole curse from me” (Heidelberg Catechism, QA 52).
Don’t lose heart in your struggle against sin, look to Christ and believe his promises. He has more than enough grace to give you. The God of Jacob has said that he is for you, and that means everything.