Just a few thoughts on Peniel and the need to wrestle with God.
There can't be many folk who don't want to be blessed. Yet there would be a wide range of opinions on how blessing might be sought.
For almost his whole life Jacob had been obsessed about being blessed. It seems that he believed the Promise of the Covenant relayed by his parents. God had told his grandfather that his family was chosen to bring world blessing. Jacob was keen to get a large slice of God's Covenant-Blessing action.
Yet given his shady history there can be little doubt that though Jacob craved God's blessing he went about it the wrong way. A birthright for a stew-bowl was hardly a fair swap. Resorting to schemes with goatskins was hardly an honest way to blessing. Cunning, guile, deceit, opportunism, stealth and abuse - these were the character traits Jacob used to get by and survive. This kind of conduct marked his crooked path that led to a flight to Paddan Aram, where the chickens came home to roost and he got trapped and tricked by uncle Laban.
Two decades had now passed: it was at this juncture, that Yahweh called Jacob back, as Moses records in Genesis 31.3:
"Then the LORD said to Jacob 'Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred and I will be with you.'"
It had been a circuitous route that hadn't seen great blessing yet. For all his skill and schemes the realization of the promise fell far short. He learned the painful lesson, through his marriage to Leah and Rachel, that blessing by deception had injured those involved. So when, in chapter 32, we find him camped at Mahanaim, he still fears for his life, and so plans to appease Esau, with an escape plan as his fall-back option.
We mustn't think that what happened the following night was merely of personal import: he had woken in the wee small hours in a state of high anxiety and then led flocks and family nervously across the Jabbok gorge; now he returns across the river to the Jabbok's northern bank to await an expected meeting with Esau (which could be a matter of life and death) - this rendezvous concerned the whole future of the Church and the outcome of their meeting held God's program of Gospel blessing, humanly-speaking, in the balance.
It seems rather likely that Jacob retired to pray. Yet instead of seeking God it is God who assails him. In the form of a man the LORD himself attacks and puts up a fight to block the path of Jacob back. What happens next is a till-sun-up wrestling match. One on top of the other. Next the positions reverse. All night long it continues. Can you see the tussling figures, engaged in hand-to-hand combat, rolling about in the dust, as each tries to get the upper hand.
Jacob, you'll remember, was a champion weight-lifter: the stone that took many Aramean shepherds to move was quickly shifted aside by the new arrival from Canaan. The angel of the LORD was ready to admit that his opponent in this match was far from a pushover. Sinewy and tenacious, stubborn and powerful, He finally resorts to divine power to dislocate Jacob's hip.
This aggressively physical struggle now becomes anxiously spiritual. As the prophet Hosea, in 12:3-4, reminds us, Jacob now supplicate blessing from the LORD with tears.
"In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor."
The Patriarch realizes this the previously unknown man is divinely supernatural. Here is a golden opportunity, finally, to obtain blessing from heaven in the God-ordained way.
Without further ado he is forced to identify himself. 'Jacob', or 'Grasper', he says, recognizing he's well-named. Now the penny drops! What blocks the path to blessing, all along, is Jacob's cheating and deception. He cannot have God's best, or re-enter the Land of Promise, until he learns to trust and not to grasp! It is in sheer mercy that the LORD launched this attack: the purpose is simply so that the promised heir Jacob, being emptied of self, and weakened in his joint, might learn that God's blessing comes not by guile or guts but grace.
So let me just close this piece by suggesting three reasons, from this encounter at Peniel, as to why believers sooner or later are forced to wrestle with God.
- To put an end to schemes.
Too many schemes in churches transparently bear no fruit. Blessing it not gained by guile, craft or plot but by heeding God's Word, doing His will, trusting His promise and waiting for His gift.
- To put an end to self.
Much activism in churches is generated by natural force of personality. Blessing is not gained by human mind or might (apart from Word and Spirit). The church in the West, generally speaking, is far too self-reliant. Blessing lies along the road of humble, broken, confessing, submission that sees human strength as futile and wrestling prayer as powerful.
- To put an end to sin.
How much harm is done in and by churches with pastors or members whose lives are marked by naked, ambitious, grasping. Blessing is withheld or withdrawn while we continue to damage others. God stands in our way to force us to face harsh facts and confront us with our crimes. When our projects falter then our character needs change.
In the end of course Peniel leads to Christ. Here is a man who had no plan of His own and whose agenda was all God's. Here is a servant who refused to exalt self but rather offered up His life. Here is a Saviour who refused to grasp at glory and had no sin of His own... Who went to Gethsemane, with Church History in the Balance, and as the One True Israel, wrestled to blood-sweat, and bowed beneath the Cross, that all blessing might be ours.
When God confronts us, and we find our path obstructed, we must turn to Christ, who by His powerful grace, makes us willing to confess, to deny self on the Cross, and seek His light and wisdom, to wrestle-on in prayer to obtain blessing from God.