The Dependent Prayer of Jacob - Jacob, Part 1
Lately, I’ve immersed myself in the life of Jacob. Initially, I began to study Jacob’s life in preparation for some teaching I was doing. Isn’t that the way it often is? The need to prepare a lesson compels us to look at a certain passage of Scripture. Before we know it, the richness of the Bible draws us in, and we are studying well beyond the scope of our original teaching.
It happened this way: my task was to teach on Jacob’s reunion with Esau. As I began reading Genesis 32, I was struck by Jacob’s prayer (Gen. 32:9-12). I had always thought of Jacob as a schemer. In fact, I had always wondered how he made it into the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11. But to my surprise, Jacob’s prayer revealed him to be a humble man utterly dependent on God.
Context is King
What had happened to so transform Jacob?
Only context could answer that question. Context is looking at a passage of the Bible while considering the surrounding chapters, the book as a whole, or even the entire Bible. Context enhances our interpretation of a single story by revealing how it fits into the grander narrative of Scripture.
To appreciate the context of Jacob’s prayer, I reread the passages about his life. From the moment Jacob came out of the womb grasping Esau’s heel, he had been trying to get ahead (Gen. 25:24-26). His very name contains a double entendre. It means “he takes by the heel,” but it can also mean “he cheats,” according to the ESV Study Bible. When Jacob acquires Esau’s birthright, it’s as if he’s been patiently waiting to catch Esau in a moment of weakness (Gen. 25:29-34).
Next, he colludes with his mother, Rebekah, to trick Isaac into offering him Esau’s rightful blessing. This deception makes Esau so angry Jacob is forced to flee for his life and take refuge with an uncle he’s never met (Gen. 27:1-28:5).
En route to his uncle’s home, Jacob has a dream, in which God makes himself known to Jacob and promises to give him land and many offspring. When Jacob wakes up, he confronts his uncertain future. This doesn’t lead him to pray but to make a vow. It’s as if he’s cutting a deal with God. Of course, it’s an unnecessary deal since in the dream God has already promised to provide for him (Gen. 28:10-22). Jacob doesn’t yet realize he can't negotiate his way to success with the God of the universe.
When Jacob meets Laban, he is once again relying on his own abilities. Bringing nothing to the table, he successfully bargains for the hand of Laban’s daughter, Rachel. But in Laban, Jacob has met his match. Before Jacob realizes it, he is married to Laban’s elder daughter Leah, rather than to the beautiful Rachel.
However, Laban promises Rachel to Jacob in exchange for seven more years of service. Perhaps being at the receiving end of trickery, in addition to encountering God, causes Jacob to abandon his own deceptive ways. Regardless, Jacob honestly works off the bride price for both Leah and Rachel. He is then ready to strike out on his own (Gen. 29:1-30).
But Laban isn’t ready to let him go. He’s prospering because of Jacob’s presence. Negotiations begin again. And so does the cheating and the trickery. It’s complicated and confusing, but behind their scheming God is at work, causing Jacob’s flocks to grow, just as he’d caused Jacob’s family to grow (Gen 30:43).
Jacob realizes that Laban won’t ever let him leave, so he eludes a direct confrontation and slips away with his family and herds. Once again, Jacob finds himself between a rock and a hard place, an angry father-in-law behind him and an uncertain reception from his brother in front of him. And once again, God intervenes with a dream. This time it is Laban who has the dream and is told to leave Jacob alone.
Jacob still has to face Esau, however. A foreboding message arrives that Esau is on his way to meet him with 400 men. Jacob does what he can to lessen the risk, dividing his family and servants into two camps. But he is afraid and in distress.
And this is where we come to Jacob’s prayer. It was when I looked at Jacob’s prayer in light of what came before that I looked at Jacob with new eyes. I noticed three things that had happened in Jacob’s life:
First, Jacob the trickster had been deceived repeatedly by Laban.
Second, God had abundantly provided for a man who didn’t deserve that provision.
Third, Jacob had been able to get by on his own abilities in the past but had finally found himself in a situation utterly beyond his control.
Combined, these events turn Jacob from a self-reliant man into a humble man. It is this humble man who turns to the Lord in prayer.
Jacob does not pray to a vague god he hopes is out there, but to the specific “God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac” (Gen. 32:9). He then reminds God of the promises God had previously made to him. Most importantly, he acknowledges his unworthiness, God’s provision, and his fear of Esau. He lays himself bare before God and begs God to deliver him from his brother. Gone is the self-reliant Jacob of the past, and in his place is a Jacob who is utterly dependent on God.
Now I understand why Jacob is a patriarch and an example of faith. He renounced his reliance on himself and became dependent on God. I saw myself in Jacob. How many times have I relied on my own abilities as my first line of defense, only to be brought to an end of myself? Only as a last resort do I call out to the Lord in prayer.
Jacob’s life reminds me to quickly and humbly come to God in prayer, and Jacob’s prayer teaches me how to pray.
When I pray, I need to remind myself to whom I am praying: the God who has been revealing himself to his people and keeping his promises since the beginning of time.
Furthermore, I want to recognize that God owes me nothing but has graciously given me all things. Most importantly, he has called me to himself and forgiven me in Christ, desiring nothing in return. All of this was prompted by his lavish grace.
In light of these things, I must honestly lay out my situation, ask God to be at work, and then trust him. May we all pray more like Jacob.