The history of Jacob is peculiarly interesting to us, for in it are developed the activities of the natural will, not so much in the contravention of the expressed counsel of God, but - rather in an attempt to secure by his own instrumentality what was pre-ordained of God. The more intelligent the mind of man is and impressed with the purpose of God, the more does it need subjection to God ; for otherwise it will seek to accomplish, by natural means, what ought to be left to the ordering of God ; and this produces restlessness.
The mind, thus active, has great need for self-judgment; for its error is not refusing or misapprehending the will of God, but in attempting to promote and secure it by its own efforts. Now, when this is the case, the Lord allows His servant to find, by sorrowful experience, the fruit of his own plans. And though the purposes of His love remain the same, they must be reached in circumstances which declare that He who blesses, and addeth no sorrow to it, has had to deal with the will of the one whom He blesses. " The fear of the Lord is wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy is understanding." If I have not God before me, I never can, with a natural mind and in a world of evil, walk wisely - for God is the fountain of wisdom. Therefore mere knowledge in itself is nothing; that is, it never leads a man to walk with God.
Faith comes before knowledge: there is no link to God in knowledge if faith does not precede it. If I am depending on God, all true knowledge must increase that dependence ; for, if I learn correctly, I find that there is none so worthy of dependence as He. If I love God, I know Him, but my love feeds my knowledge : otherwise " knowledge puffeth up."
Jacob is a remarkable example of one appreciating blessing, but ever and anon intercepting and anticipating the ways of God by his own plans. The heart was right, we might say ; but the mind was unsubdued, and the natural mind cannot act but according to its own perversity.
Thus in the first act of his life presented to us, he evinces a greater regard for the blessing, and the position which the birthright would confer, than for the means by which he should secure them. He takes the advantage of his brother's destitution to seize the valued, the justly valued, prize, which Esau ought not to have surrendered for any gain. Yet the possession of the birthright failed to give Jacob that assurance of the blessing which it represented : for if it had, he would not afterwards have so readily complied with his mother's unworthy expedient to secure it for him. And why? The desired mercy had been grasped by him in a natural way ; and he derived none of the satisfaction from it which he would have experienced had it reached him in a divine way; for a divine way always connects the soul with God. If a mercy is not connected with God it may often make me more miserable; but if it is, if I know that it flows from His love, my heart receives it in tranquillity and confidence; for I know that though I may lose the proof of His love, I cannot lose the love itself, and that the love cannot exist without declaring itself.
Moses was soon discouraged in his effort to rescue Israel from the bondage of Egypt. He appreciated the service, but, by not connecting it with God, he soon lost assurance as to its success. The Lord in His grace will teach us sooner or later to connect all our mercies or services with Himself; because He knows that without this we cannot reckon on His strength in supporting us. Thus Moses is forty years in the land of Midian, being prepared for the tidings of the burning bush. Paul in prison at Rome is confirmed in the reality of truths which had been communicated to him long before. And Jacob, when he was brought near to God, and knew His power while he wrestled against it, obtained through grace the name of Israel, and was confirmed in the assurance of blessings, which he became entitled to many years previously. The possession of the birthright, his father's blessing, the vision at Bethel, the dream at Padan-aram-all failed to assure Jacob's soul of the reality of the portion which he so prized and needed. The strong arm of God wrestling with him at Mahanaim, where he was brought into personal nearness and subjection to God, alone established him in the assurance of it.
The dream at Bethel was the divine communication of the blessing ; but not until Jacob is made to feel the bitter fruits of his own wilfulness, during a period of twenty years in Padan-aram, is he brought into that closeness of exercise with the Lord, which, though successful, results in personal disparagement. No one is restored to God after a course of wilfulness but must know in himself that the success of God's grace stands out in contrast to his nature by which he had been led and deceived, and as the grace obtains its place and value, the nature must be proportionately condemned and abhorred.
What a course of discipline to subdue a wilful soul! Jacob is blessed in everything that he desires, although often thwarted, and always in what he most prizes. His elder brother surrenders him the birthright ; his father blessed him with the best of blessings : the Lord reveals the purpose of His love towards him, when a wanderer from his father's house; in Padan-aram everything succeeds, but through hard labour and a series of thwartings, and when he returns to enjoy the accumulated blessings in the land of promise, he is met at the very entrance by his brother Esau, and the question must be decided whether he is really possessor of the blessing after all. What a moment of agony and suspense this must have been to his wilful spirit! Still unable to trust God, he fears that the cup, which God Himself has filled, is about to be dashed from his lips, and all his blessings lost. The issue was now at stake. All the previous education of his life was in reference to this moment. He was the blessed one ; but was he self-renounced enough to be invested with full and satisfactory possession? He has to come to such an end of himself that he rests on God, and God only, for the security of those blessings.
From that struggle--a struggle against God, he emerges as an Israel, but with the deep sense of personal weakness the mark of which he bears in himself. The sinew of his thigh shrank. A loser personally, he is a gainer positionally; or rather, he loses in a natural way, but gains in a divine way. He had sought to appropriate to himself the blessings of the land in the strength and resources of nature ; and after twenty years of discipline, when about really to enter it, he is brought into such straits and exercises of soul that God is his only resource. He is cast upon Him, and cannot proceed after all, unless God not only blesses but subdues him. But this attained, he enters the land by faith, as Israel, humbled and blessed, yet bearing marks of personal weakness.
And in this character, as the Israel, though halting, can hp meet Esau, or any one who may dispute his title. All the toil and success of twenty years are lost as to their bearing on that title; for it is God's blessing, not the proof of it, that really establishes his soul, and sends him forth as the humbled Israel, the indisputable possessor of the land! A history all this of ourselves! Seeking for blessings, but too unsubdued to confide the ordering of them to the Lord alone; apprehending the loss of them, and finding our own insufficiency when any demand is made on us. But the God of Jacob is our God, and He will not only discipline but bless us.
This properly closes the first stage in the life of Jacob. He now takes the place of faith, the only true link to blessing, and is a pattern to us of the honour set on one who surrenders his own will, and comes out of the conflict prevailing with God and man. We then find that, perverse as the will is in itself, the breaking of it is what God distinguishes with the greatest eminence, even giving such an one power to prevail with Himself and man.
We have now to consider Jacob in the land. Though the will must be broken in order to facilitate our entrance into a sphere of blessing, we seldom abide in that sphere without exhibiting a recurrence of the same wilfillness which delayed and obstructed our entrance. The path, to be a true one and pleasing to God, must ensure that suppression of nature which would exert a counter influence; and hence the sphere of blessing which I have entered on through the denial of my will must be retained and enjoyed in the same spirit. If I think or act otherwise, I must suffer, and learn by God's discipline, that the subjection, which fitted me for entering, I must not relax one whit, because I have entered and am in possession.
How often do we observe, and know too, the very contrary to this in ourselves! How often, after using great watchfulness, treading softly, and really humbly seeking to enter, do we, when we obtain and enjoy what we have sought, forget the mode and spirit by which we have obtained it, and thus fresh discipline becomes necessary for us! Israel fought and suffered in order to reach the blessings of the land, but when those blessings were obtained and enjoyed, Israel waxed fat and kicked, and forgot the God who had exalted him. It is more difficult to walk with God in the fulness of mercies than in the dearth of them. The water was a greater test to Gideon's army than any of the sufferings consequent on the, undertaking.
Jacob now, in peaceful enjoyment of all the blessings with which God had surrounded him, and in that land with which every blessing was connected, ought to have repaired to Bethel, according to his pledge. But instead of this, he considers for his own immediate necessities, and builds a house at Succoth. It might be asserted that his necessities required this ; but still, it was a departure from the principle of faith by which he had entered on possession. It was a divergence, however small, from the path of a pilgrim, and moreover, a halt on the way, which should have been steadily pursued onward until Bethel was reached. And, as one failure always leads to another, the next thing that we read of him is, that he bought a parcel of a field of the children of Hamor. He acquires some other guarantee for his possession than the will and arm of the Almighty. It is a repetition of that wilfulness which so characterised him; always seeking to secure by his own means the blessings which were derived from God, and which he doubtless owned as such. This is a very common tendency, and much more difficult of exposure and correction than that which seeks what is simply of the world. God Himself is not the first object of the soul. His gifts, alas! too often shut out God Himself; and, where He is not paramount, will must be somewhere at work, and we are in reality thinking of enjoying ourselves with the gifts instead of with Him.
So with Jacob at Shalem. Having yielded to nature, and departed in wilfulness from the path of simple dependence on God, he now erects an altar, and calls it " El-elohe-Israel," not surely forgetting that he was Israel, the blessed one, but magnifying this fact more than the grace of God that made him so. The true state of our souls is revealed by the title of our altar, if I may so express it, or, in other words, the character of our approach to God. When the soul is occupied with itself, that is, when its own condition is more before it than the greatness and excellency of the Lord, it is evident that the latter cannot be fully apprehended, or its superiority would necessarily supplant the former. When we are in the presence of God, we cannot be occupied with our own state, save as in thanksgiving for being admitted to such a place. When really with God, we are lost in God, and in His interests; but when we are occupied with our own blessings or necessities, though it is an occupation right in its place, it is lower than that which makes Him the supreme object, lower than that which Paul knew when his aim was to "win Christ."
Jacob is here not only occupied with his blessings, but indulging his wilfulness, and for this discipline is needed. The weight must be removed. He must learn that his own plans only produce sorrow and discomfiture. Thus, his residence at Shalern entails shame and sorrow on his family, and the only relief from it is to obey the word of the Lord.
He is made to feel the shame and humiliation of the position which he had chosen, and then the word of the Lord tells with effect on his soul, and the discipline has prepared him to respond to it. "Arise," says the Lord, 44 go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother." In pursuing the 44 race set before us " all goes right! Jacob, on departing from Shechem for Bethel, leaves all his defilements behind him. The idols must be left at Shechem : they cannot be taken to Bethel. The moment we take God's line-the way to God's house, we must be clean; " holiness becometh his house for ever." When at Bethel, the altar is El-Bethel-God of the house of God is the simple object of his worship. And while he thus names the place in connection with God, the name of it in connection with himself is Allon-baccuth, the oak of weeping. This teaches us an important lesson, even that if Jacob has reached the high place with God, as El-Bethel indicates, he must also on his own side taste excision from everything which had hindered him. Deborah, his mother's nurse, dies : the last link with the one who had so loved him, and allowed her love to carry her outside the path of faith, is now broken. The mother, we may conclude, had died long before; but now the nurse dies. Death supervenes, on Jacob's side, the moment his soul had risen to its true place before God.
Another step in the path of faith has been taken, and now God appears to Jacob again, and blesses him, and he is confirmed in the name Israel. Blessings may be conferred without being confirmed. For the latter they must be connected with the Giver, and known to the soul as established in His presence. But now having reached Bethel and having received the blessings connected with that step of faith, Jacob sets out on his journeyings again in order to reach Hebron where his father dwelt. Whether this journey was contrary to the Lord's mind directing him to dwell at Bethel, I do not say; but the fact is, that he had scarcely entered on his journey from Bethel before he is visited with the greatest trial to his affections. At Bethlehem Rachel dies. Here was a blank that could never be repaired to him-a bereavement never to be forgotten during the remainder of his course. Compare Genesis 35 : 16, with chap. 48 : 7. In the latter passage Jacob alludes to that sorrow as if it had closed all his hopes as to earth. " As for me," he says, " when I came from Padan, Rachel died by me in the land of Canaan, when yet there was but a little way to come to Ephrath : and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath; the same is Bethlehem." He buries the object of his affections where Christ the real balm for every bereaved heart would yet be born. If he leaves Bethel, the house of God, the place where God had appeared to him, and told him to dwell, he is taught that there must be nothing but a desolation outside. The clouds gather around his path. The immorality of his firstborn and the death of his father quickly follow. How deeply the former affected him we learn from chapter 49 : 3, 4, where the sorrow of his heart, unnoticed here, finds a vent in reviewing all in the light of God's counsels.
The next notice we get of Jacob is in chapter 37, where we read that " he dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger." This was his proper position, the one to which faith had called him; but, nevertheless, the discipline, after a respite, is continued. It was still necessary that he should be weaned from dependence on any object whatever. Though Rachel be gone, her two sons remain; and, through them Jacob undergoes a continued process of crucifixion to his affections.
If we were more careful to observe the manner and links of God's dealings with us, we should find that though there may be a suspension in the sorrow, and often a long interval of repose, yet that the trials are continued very much in the same line until the desired effect is produced.
We might have thought that Jacob's spirit was so broken, so shaken out of his interests and affections, that his path would, henceforth, be one of easy subjection to God. But, no! there is not complete surrender of the will of man while any link of nature is active ; and all the sorrow of heart which we read of in chapters 37 and 43, touching Joseph and Benjamin, is necessary to bring Jacob's heart and will into entire submission. That the discipline produced this effect we cannot doubt, if we compare his expressions in chapter 37 : 34, 35, and in chapter 43 : 14. the first instance he rent his clothes, put sackcloth upon his loins, and refused to be comforted. " For," said he, " I will go down into the grave with my son mourning." But in the last, he says, " If I am bereaved, I am bereaved "; or in other words, " I submit." What a difference! what a desolation, when the heart is wrenched, and there is no resource in God, but what a contrast when " God (as God) is a refuge," and the bereaved one can say, " If I am bereaved, I am bereaved! " " I take that place." It is simple submission to the will of God, and effects for us what God so much desires-even that we should find our resources in Him ; and the soul, brought to this, is fully satisfied. The heart alone, and near God, knows that He is its strength and its portion for ever. As our Lord tells the woman of Samaria, " He that drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but he that drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." This is the giving of God, and moreover the object, the loss of which had occasioned such sorrow to the tried and disciplined one, is given back when he is prepared for it and matured in dependence on God. Jacob receives both Joseph and Benjamin again. But so unprepared is he for the tender mercy of our God, that the very announcement of it causes his heart to faint. So great had been the depths of his sorrow, that the unaccredited attempt to relieve it, for a moment almost overwhelmed him. Much discipline had been needed to break his strong will and unsubdued nature, but it had done its work,. How broken is he now I To bind up the broken heart is one of the especial services of Christ; but many a Jacob cannot believe it possible that such tender mercy awaits him and the greatness of it subdues the humbled one more than the discipline had done.
But the Lord always makes sure of His work. He stoops to our weakness and gives us evidences. The nobleman (John 4) was assured by evidences that it was at the very hour that Jesus said to him, " Thy son liveth," that he was made whole. And so here: Jacob is first convinced by evidences of the reality of the mercy, and then, after recovering Joseph again, the relief is so complete, that he utters sentiments similar to those of the aged Simeon, when he held the infant Jesus in his arms: " Now let me die," he says, " since I have seen thy face," etc.
The cup is full! the heart, already so broken and subdued, is now satisfied, having received back what it had lost, directly from God, and with increased honour and glory to Him. Discipline having done its work, we find that fulness of joy is our portion according to the heart of God for us.
Jacob's life in Egypt is properly the third stage of his chequered pilgrimage, and a bright stage it is. In his last moments occurs the great event noted by the apostle as the brightest evidence of faith: " By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph, and worshipped on the top of his staff." He there appears before us as the witness for God, intelligent as to His counsels, broken in will, holy and elevated in utterance. What a bright and tranquil close to his distracted, self-willed, and disciplined life! How much have we to learn from his history! Valuing blessings but ever resorting to his own means and modes in order to secure them; learning by sorrowful experience the folly of his own plans, and that in whatever measure a man metes, it will be measured to him again. But on the other hand, he learns also that God is the only true rest and resource in sorrow; and this priceless portion he acquires to the satisfying of his heart before his course ends.
Oh! how helpful and instructive it is to retrace all the ways and dealings of God with us, when we are at last " settled in him " as our sure resource.