Jacob knew two things for sure: he was tired, and he did not intend to lose. He tightened his grip upon his unknown Opponent, and planted his feet into the earth. Raising his head, Jacob peered through the blackness into the face of his Adversary. The darkness shrouded his Opponent’s features, but it could not conceal His eyes. They stared knowingly back at Jacob, almost amused at the persistent struggle in which they were both engaged. And somewhere, just beyond the grasp of Jacob’s consciousness, there was something familiar in his Opponent’s gaze.
The two had been wrestling since just after the darkness had fallen, and still not one of them had gained the upper hand. The Opponent’s demeanor throughout the fight had been one of consistent serenity, almost as if he wasn’t really trying at all. Jacob, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly frustrated by his own inability to take down this mysterious Assailant. On and on, throughout the winnowing hours of the night, Jacob and his Opponent struggled – but neither had prevailed.
Suddenly, the Opponent thrust His hand toward the hollow of Jacob’s thigh. Before he could even react, Jacob heard a sickening pop. A searing pain coursed through Jacob’s body, like daggers being thrust into the back of his leg and the small of his back. He stumbled back and felt a shattering sensation as his heel slammed into the earth. Jacob grimaced at the overwhelming pain, and began to crumple to the ground. But just before he released the Opponent from his grasp, Jacob had an epiphany: his Adversary had barely touched him. With little more than a fleeting glance from the Opponent’s fingers, Jacob had been reduced to a physically broken man. The Stranger in Jacob’s grasp was no mere mortal; the Opponent was Divine.
A wave of realization flooded over Jacob. The Stranger’s gaze was familiar because Jacob had seen it before, fifteen years ago – in Beth-El. The dream from that night flooded Jacob’s memory, and the image of the ladder suddenly rose from the earth in Jacob’s thoughts. In his mind’s eye, he followed the angels once more, up the ladder and into Heaven. And there were the Opponent’s eyes, staring at him from the very face of God.
In an instant, the memory of the dream vanished as Jacob’s knee scraped against the desert floor and he came crashing back into reality. With a steely resolve, Jacob lifted his head again to look into the face of his Opponent – into the eyes of the Son of God. He pushed up on his heel, ignoring the cascading waves of pain that coursed through his injured leg. He gripped the shoulders of the Opponent with an even greater intensity, refusing – with every remaining ounce of his being – to release his grasp.
“LET ME GO,” the Stranger said, “FOR THE DAY BREAKETH.”
“I will not let thee go,” Jacob replied, “Except thou bless me!” With his thigh out of joint and throbbing in pain, Jacob finally realized that he had not prevailed by any strength of his own. The Man standing before him in the breaking dawn was none other than God Himself, in human form. In his heart of hearts, Jacob had a singular, burning desire – one that he had carried with him all of his life, one that had driven each step of his journey until this night – to know the blessing of his father’s God.
But Jacob had learned something. As hard as he worked – and as much as he schemed – there was nothing that he could do to earn the unmerited favor of God. And on this night, Jacob had learned that he was powerless to stand before God with his demands. Jacob had finally come to realize that he didn’t deserve the blessing of God at all, and there was nothing that he could do to win it. When he told his Opponent that he would not let go, it was not a statement of authority, nor of resolute determination. It was a perseverant plea of desperation, filled with unbridled faith in the goodness of God.
In essence, Jacob was saying this: “I can’t make You bless me. I can do nothing to gain Your favor. You have prevailed this night, and I have no power over You at all. It is only by Your grace that I have not been cast aside or destroyed. But so consuming is my desire to know Your favor, that I will keep my hands upon You until You choose to bless me or until you break free and leave me broken and alone.”
Jacob did not win the wrestling match that night. In fact, it was one of the few times in his life that he lost. With hardly a motion, Jacob’s thigh was thrown out of joint by the hand of God, and his entire life was changed. No more was Jacob the confident schemer, nor the consummate planner. All of his intelligence, his hard work, and his charm were useless without God’s favor – and they were useless to procure it. Nevertheless, Jacob was granted the blessing from God which he so diligently sought: not of his own merit, but buried within the recesses of God’s unfathomable grace.
Jacob had seen God, and he had not been destroyed. This alone was an incredible act of God’s grace. A sinner had stood in God’s presence and lived to see another day, unsinged by His terrible wrath. As if the preservation of his life was not enough, God had chosen to give Jacob a new name: Israel, “the prince with God.” Jacob had lived his life in pursuit of God’s favor, and God had freely chosen to delight in His prince.
It was not Jacob’s steely determination, or his magnificent cunning that won the match that night. Physically, he had lost. Rather, it was through his faith in the promises of God that the Lord determined that Jacob had “prevailed.” God had manifested His infinite grace in the life of Jacob to such an extent, that the son of Isaac was desperate to know God’s favor even more. God had endeared Himself to the heart of His servant to such a magnificent degree that Jacob simply would not let God go. So God bestowed His blessing, but only after He had created a broken man.
As Jacob limped away from that place, he gave that hallowed ground a new name: Penuel, “the face of God.” For the rest of his life, Jacob would be reminded of that place. He would be reminded of his powerlessness, and of God’s spectacular power. He would be reminded of his unwavering faith, because of God’s unmerited favor. For the rest of Jacob’s journey on this earth, others would catch a glimpse of the glory that Jacob beheld at Penuel. And Jacob would be reminded that God had touched his life – with every crippled step.
© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts