Chapter 7 – Jacob, or the Discipline of Faith

The most illustrious of all the patriarchs, the one who, humanly speaking, founded the Hebrew nation and gave his name for all time to Israel — the literal progenitor of the tribes of God’s chosen people — was naturally the least noble and attractive of all the patriarchs, nay, was the meanest and most selfish of all the characters of the series. Twelve hundred years later the prophet Isaiah speaks of him as the “worm Jacob,” and the figure well expresses the insinuating and undermining nature of the man. And yet, out of this wretched material God made His own great Prince, to show to poor sinners what grace can do with a sinful man, if willing to receive the divine discipline. Let us look at the five chapters of his history.


Jacob chose the birthright and the blessing which it involved. He set his heart upon the covenant blessing of his race. Selfish, grasping, intriguing, he may have been, in the means that he took to accomplish his purpose, but nevertheless the one thing which eternally distinguishes him from the earth-born and earthly-minded Esau is this, that he appreciated and claimed, with every fibre of his being, the great, the one all embracing prize of God’s covenant promise, which Esau on his part profanely despised and cheaply bartered away. Below and beyond all the other defects in Jacob’s character, the eye of God saw this one thing, the preference, the choice of his will, for spiritual and divine things. And so Jacob represents the first germ of the spiritual nature in any soul, the determination of the will, the direction of the heart, the singleness of the purpose, the value which man may place on eternal things.

Here Esau is superficial, transient, sordid, earthly-minded, animal. His highest good is the present gratification; his horizon stretches only to the setting sun. His deepest desire and aspirations are the instincts, passions, wants of his animal or physical nature. He is impulsively generous, frank, and affectionate, but it is an animal instinct. He is the fleshly man. “Behold I am at the point to die, and what profit shall this birthright do to me?” That was the very time when faith would have looked out on the eternal profit, or claimed that, with such a promise, he should not die till the birthright covenant was fulfilled. But Jacob saw “the land that was very far off,” and sprang to meet it; sold all that he had for the pearl of great price; and grasped with both hands the priceless blessing of which his fond mother had often told him, but whose full significance, so far, he could dimly comprehend. But this he knew, that it was linked with all the promises of God and all the hopes of his race.

God loved Jacob for this choice. It was the mightiest thing in his life. It is the mightiest thing in any life; a will that sees the heavenly prize, and gets its hand upon it to let it go no more forever, to claim it and hold at any cost the great inheritance. It was this same mighty will which afterward, at Peniel, held fast to the angel presence and cried, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me.” This is the very essence of faith — to choose God, His promise, His inheritance, His blessing, and let heaven and earth pass away rather than relinquish the claim. It was of this Christ said to Mary, “She hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” It was of this He said to the Syrophenician woman, “O woman, great is thy faith, be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”

Jacob’s faith was not complete. Had it been so, he would not have begun to work out so cunningly his chosen destiny, but rather would have trusted God to do what He had promised before his birth. All this he had slowly and painfully to learn, so as to be saved from the scheming, supplanting, restless spirit of Jacob. But he had the germ, a single aim, a fixed will, and a perfect heart toward the covenant blessing, and God could well afford to hew and polish and cut away the rest.

As to Esau, there was nothing to prune and purify. The roots of his nature were all in the world. He had not one chord in common with the heart of God. He was, perhaps, handsome, generous, and large-hearted, but so is many a dumb creature that knows not God. A noble dog, a generous horse, a fond mother-bird are attractive too, but they are only animated clay, and for man to lift his eyes and heart no higher is to be lost for ever. The world is full of Esaus, fine fellows in their way, but “their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they mind earthly things.”


Jacob has chosen God, through his mother’s teachings, no doubt: but he has not yet seen God for himself. The Most High has not yet spoken to his heart. He is a good deal like the soul that has given itself to Christ on simple faith and choice, but has not yet received any deep experimental sense of eternal things. But now the time has come for further knowledge. As often happens, it comes in the dark and trying hour. Separated, for the first time, from his home and his mother’s tender love — through the consequences of her artifice and his own — he lays his head on a stony pillow, which might well represent the feelings of his heart; and so he goes to sleep. In his dreams the Lord meets him in His first revelation of covenant grace. A ladder set up on the earth, its top reaching to heaven, was the fitting figure of God’s own high purpose. He, too, has set his ladder no lower than the skies, and God meets him at the top as the God of Abraham and Isaac, and gives him in covenant the promises he had claimed, pledging to him His constant presence until all His promised will is finished: “I am with thee in all places whither thou goest, for I will not leave thee until I have done all that I have spoken to thee of.”

Jacob awakes with a solemn sense of God’s immediate presence, and while his words express the deepest reverence and the same inflexible purpose, yet there is all the distance and the dread of the yet unsanctified heart. “How dreadful is this place,” is the language of the soul that does not yet know its sonship. But he is a true servant, and knows henceforth that his choice is sealed, that the God of Abraham is his Lord, that the covenant blessing is now his own, and that the angels of God’s providence are henceforth encompassing his path, and with ministries of constant blessing are ascending and descending the shining way.

For us the vision means more than Jacob saw. That ladder is the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Heavenly Way, through whom God becomes our Covenant Father, and all heaven’s blessings are made our inheritance. Has our faith claimed the glorious revelation, and have our feet begun to climb the blessed ascent?


More than twenty years have passed by, and Jacob has grown little, if any, in his spiritual life. He has been just like we all have been in the low plane of spiritual life with which we began and were so long content. He has allowed idolatry to be retained by his wives; he has continued to plot and scheme in order to outwit the crafty Laban; he has accumulated a fortune in herds and flocks, and perhaps his heart has begun to rest in the prosperity of his outward estate. But God lets new troubles gather around him, and as he goes back once more to his old Canaan home, the most terrible peril of his life confronts him. Esau with an armed band is coming to meet him, and all the treasured bitterness of a quarter of a century, no doubt, is waiting for the opportunity of terrible vengeance. It is the crisis of his life, and all his policy and shrewdness are insufficient to meet it. Still he does all that tact can do. He sends on a costly present to Esau, and separates his little band in the safest way he can contrive; and then, with a desolate sense of his utter helplessness, he falls at the feet of God. It is again with Jacob the midnight of life, and again it is the dawn of a brighter morning. The hour of despair becomes the hour of self-renunciation and divine victory. Alone with God at Jabbok’s ford, he wrestles in all the strength of despair, and when his strength is gone, and he sinks under the withering touch of the angel’s hand, he finds the secret of power, and exchanges his strength for God’s omnipotence.

It was not that the mighty wrestlings of Jacob’s prayer were wrong, or are wrong for us — all things are born in the throes of travail — but it was that he should learn that another than he was wrestling too. “There wrestled with him an angel.” And when he yielded himself up to that presence in the submission of perfect trust, then came the fulness of God’s working and God’s victorious love. Ah! this is what we must learn — that the secret of our deepest desires after God is His own preventing grace; the spring of our mightiest doing and praying must be His doing and praying in us, so that we shall ever say with Paul, “I also labor, striving according to His working, which worketh in me mightily.” Jacob rises from that hour a new man. “Thy name shall no more be called Jacob, but ISRAEL shall be thy name, for as a prince hast thou had power with God and hast prevailed.”

Jacob has not a word now to say about Esau, or the trouble that had almost distracted him before. God had not even mentioned it, and Jacob had lost all thought of it in another presence. He has God Himself now, and with Him he must have all things. Oh, when the soul reaches the heart of things in Him, all its cares and questions are fled. It is not even that He has spoken of them, but He Himself is the answer to them all. Perhaps the trouble was the occasion that brought us to Him; perhaps we came thinking of little else and with very little thought of Him, but we go away lost in a presence that bears us and our burden too. It is well to bring our difficulties, even the very least, to Him; for an aching finger is as good an occasion to know God as the vastest issue of life. But it is the Blesser and not the blessing; it is the Lord and not the deliverance, that is the real benediction. Oh how often has some commonplace thing, some trouble or difficulty that others might call simply secular, become a link to bind us forever to the very throne of God, and to form a chain of communication for infinite blessing! And, as a little bit of common glass is sufficient to reflect the full glory of the sun, so the smallest trifle has often had room in it for a whole heaven of God’s love and help to come to us.

The trouble with Esau is all right. The brothers meet next day with tears and embraces of affection from spirits that God had touched while Jacob prayed. Could you have seen behind the curtains that night, you would have beheld a sleepless man in his Idumean tent, tossing on his bed as he reflects upon childhood’s memories, and fights with bloody purpose of revenge; and you might have said that it was the impulse of a generous nature that made him spring to his feet and resolve that bygones should be bygones, and ride forth to meet that forgiven brother with the traces of tears still on his rugged face. No! it was God, it was prayer, it was the law of faith that binds unseen all hearts to the touch of His hand, and the hands that touch His throne.

But this was the least part of it by far. Esau had soon come and gone, but Jacob’s life is moving on, still moving upon the higher plane which began that night. Henceforth he was God’s Israel, and fit to become the head of the chosen tribes. Now, how different God is to him; He is not now at the distant top of the ladder, but near at hand, in his very embrace, and encompassing all his future life with His presence and blessing.


Jacob has got his blessing. God now begins to burn it into him in the crucible of suffering. We never know the full meaning of trial until we fully know the Lord. And so Jacob’s severest trials came after his consecration. First is the dishonor of his daughter Dinah, and the murder of the Shechemites by his wilful sons, thus involving him in future strife with the inhabitants of the land. This was not so much a trial as a punishment for his unjustifiable lingering on forbidden ground. God had sent him back to Canaan, and he had no business tarrying. We cannot remain upon the borders of an evil world without peril to us and our children. Immediately after this the command comes, with great and solemn emphasis: “Arise, and go up to Bethel and dwell there, and build an altar to the Lord!” “The house of God and the very gate of heaven ” is henceforth to be his dwelling-place. And so, renewing his consecration and separating himself and his household from every doubtful thing, he goes back to the scene of his early blessing, and rears at once the tent and the altar to the God of Bethel. It was well he did not wait, for the great and bitter trials soon began which needed the refuge and support of the divine presence.

First, his beloved Rachel was torn from his side in the pangs of Benjamin’s birth. Then Reuben committed an unnatural crime, and dishonored his father’s name in a way which, on his dying bed, the old patriarch remembered with fatal emphasis. And then came the saddest, longest, darkest, strangest of all — the loss of Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn son. For a quarter of a century, perhaps, that weary trial dragged along, and not one ray of light fell on the blackness of his desolation. And then came the years of famine, the necessity for the journey to Egypt for corn, and, the last drop in the overflowing cup, the demand for little Benjamin, too. It was too much for the broken heart to bear, and he cried out in agony, “Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away; all these things are against me!” But even this drop must be drunk, and all he has on earth must be left in trust and complete abandonment in God’s sole hands. And so he waits the issue.

It is enough. The cup is empty at last, and it shall be filled with “a joy so strangely sweet” that even Jacob’s faith shall scarcely be able to believe it. To think that God could have for him, after these buried years, so great a joy — not only Benjamin safe, but Joseph, too! Oh! it needed the sight of Joseph’s wagons to convince him that it was true, and Jacob cried, “It is enough — Joseph, my son, is yet alive.”


First, all evil was overruled by God’s great hand, and out of the darkest Providences he saw come blessing and honor to his child, joy to his own heart, teaching to his wild and wayward sons, and salvation from famine for the whole world, and he could truly say, instead of “all these things are against me,” “THE ANGEL WHICH REDEEMED ME FROM ALL EVIL, BLESS THE LADS.” Secondly, Jacob himself had learned to be still at last. The eager doing spirit had got quieted, and with a sense of all it meant he could say in his death-bed benediction, “I have waited for Thy salvation, O Lord.”

Out of filthy rags, human skill loves to create the exquisite sheets that form our printed volumes, the illuminated card, the glowing picture, the letter of affection, the Sacred Bible. Out of the soiled and wrecked remnants of human worthlessness God is making the tablets on which He loves to write His character, His thoughts, and His own glorious image. So Jacob glorified the exceeding and marvelous grace of God. Let us trust Him, too; and in the ages to come He will show also the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness to us by Christ Jesus.