When a loving father lets his little boy tackle him to the ground or match muscles in arm wrestling, we don’t expect to see dad suddenly subject his young son to a painful arm twist or body slam.
So why then do so many of us feel roughed up, abandoned, and even left for dead by our Father in heaven?
That question might help us weigh a series of troubles that led a man named Jacob to an especially dark and sleepless night. While wondering if he was about to die at the hands of an angry brother, Jacob suddenly found himself wrestling with a physical sense of God’s presence—all night long.
Twenty years earlier, Jacob had left home to avoid being killed by his older brother whom he had cheated out of the family inheritance. With his father’s blessing, he had fled to Syria to find refuge, and hopefully a wife, among his mother’s family (Genesis 28:1-4).
What Jacob ended up with was more than he had bargained for. Over the next few years he got the kind of treatment he had given his brother. The uncle who became Jacob’s employer and father-in-law not only cheated him out of promised wages, but he even switched daughters on Jacob’s wedding night.
Yet in spite of all of the wrongs done to Jacob, he still prospered. He saw God’s favor on him even though he probably couldn’t explain why (Genesis 31:4-7). He must have thought often about the dream he’d had shortly after leaving home. In this vision, he heard the voice of God promising to protect and provide for him—until returning him safely to his father’s house (Genesis 28:11-15). At the time, Jacob resolved that if the vision came to pass, he would make the Lord of his fathers his God (Genesis 28:16-21).
In the years that followed, the vision began to come true. Jacob slowly began to see that God was being more faithful in taking care of him than he had been in trusting God.
Then Jacob had another dream. This time he heard God say that it was time to go home (Genesis 31:13). But going back wasn’t easy. Jacob had accumulated wives, 12 children, and large herds of livestock. To complicate matters even more, along the way, Jacob learned that his estranged brother was coming to meet him with 400 men (Genesis 32:6).
Jacob Meets His Match
As the sun set on Jacob’s worries, the darkness must have deepened his feelings of being alone and afraid. But he wasn’t by himself for long. Suddenly he found himself wrestling with a mysterious “Man” who seemed to appear out of nowhere (Genesis 32:24). The struggle that followed seemed to be without end. For hour after hour, Jacob and his mysterious contender fought to a stalemate.
Finally, just before daybreak, the unidentified wrestler said he had to go and, with a mere touch, put Jacob’s hip out of joint. But Jacob held on. Sensing the greatness and goodness of his visitor, Jacob insisted on being blessed.
Jacob got the mercy he was begging for, and more. The “Man” who wouldn’t give His name gave Jacob a new name. For as long as his story was told, Jacob would be known as Israel, a struggler with both God and man, who had survived only by heaven’s mercy (Genesis 32:27-29).
The promise came with evidence. The bloodbath that Jacob feared at the hands of Esau and his 400 companions never happened. Instead, Esau welcomed him home with a tearful embrace.
Yet Jacob got more than a new name and merciful reunion. He also got a limp and broken stride that reminded him of the night he had wrestled with God and lived to tell about it. As painful as his new walk might have been, it would be a reminder to both Jacob and his family of how gentle God is and how low the Father of fathers is willing to bend to show mercy to a mess of a man (Genesis 32:31-32).
Yet the sleepless night that Jacob spent wrestling in the arms of God was only a faint hint of how far God would go to rescue people like him—and us.
Jesus’ Sleepless Night
In heaven’s own time, in a garden called Gethsemane, one of Jacob’s descendants would have His own sleepless night. Once again, as the darkness descended on Israel, the night brought dread and terror. This time, though, the fears had a different source and outcome. Jacob worried about having to face the consequences of his own wrongs. Jesus struggled in anticipation of paying the price of Jacob’s sins—and ours (Matthew 26:36-44). Jacob clung desperately to the “Man” for blessing on his own life. Jesus pled with His Father to withhold the cup of suffering that was necessary to make Him a blessing for the whole world. Jacob’s persistent pleas for mercy were honored with a new name. Jesus’ surrender to the Father’s loving will was honored with a Name that is above every name (Philippians 2:7-11).
Father in heaven, thank You for helping us to see in Jacob—and in Your Son Jesus—that, even in the desperate struggles of the darkest moments of our lives, You are holding us in the loving embrace of Your eternal strength and presence.