Jacob is exposed. His brother, Esau, the one he’d stolen the birthright from, is on his way to meet him and his family with 400 men. He comes up with a plan to appease his brother, but he comes to a sudden realization that none of his tricks will work this time. This could be the end for him and his entire family. When there is nothing you can do, what do you do?
Rather than put his faith in his own ability to deliver himself and his family, he prays. He remembers God’s promises (“O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good’”), recognizes his poverty before God (“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”), pleads God’s mercy (“please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children”), and closes his prayer by remembering his promises again (“you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”).
Pretty good prayer.
That night, a shadowy figure presents himself to Jacob and wrestles with him. Clearly, this Wrestler is stronger than your average bear (with a touch he dislocates Jacob’s hip), yet Jacob holds on for dear life. “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (32:26).
After receiving a life-long limp, he receives the Stranger’s blessing as well as a new name: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (32:28).
The prophet Hosea says this about the wrestling match: “He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor” (Hos. 12:3). At once there is strength (prevailing) and weakness (weeping) in Jacob’s performance.
Many commentators relate this picture to prayer, and I can’t blame them. Here is Jacob, holding to the promises of God (32:9, 12), holding on for dear life (32:26), unwilling to let go of God himself until he receives his blessing (32:28-30). You and I, when we approach God’s throne in prayer, do so holding to the promises of God (Heb. 4:14-16; John 14:12-14). But we can’t do it lightly; we must go to the Lord as if holding on for dear life, for Christ is our life (Col. 3:3-4). And we must, as Paul says, “be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12); if prayer is striving, it may take sweat and a few tears.
None of this should be burdensome to us. Rather, we should recognize, as Jacob did, that we have no hope apart from God. We have no power to change our situation unless God grants it. We have nothing of our own to offer, but rely wholly on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have the privilege of approaching God’s throne, because of what Christ has done for us, by the power of the Holy Spirit. May we pray in light of that reality.