Discipline: 4. Jacob

 •  18 min. read  •  grade level: 8
The history of Jacob is peculiarly interesting to us, for in it are developed the activities of the natural will, not so much in contravention of the expressed counsel of God, but rather in an attempt to secure, by its own instrumentality, what was pre-ordained of God. The more intelligent and impressed the mind of man is 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 unaided efforts. Now, when this is the case, the Lord allows His servant to find, by sorrowful experience, the fruits of his own plans. And though the purposes of His love remain the same, they must be reached by the intelligently willful, in circumstances which declare, that He who blesses, and addeth no sorrow to it, has not been the undisturbed agent in the scene. “The fear of the Lord is wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy, that is understanding.” If I have not God before my eyes, 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: the link to knowledge is lost, 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 out that there is none so worthy of dependence as HE. If I love God, I know Him, but my love supplies 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 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 afterward 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 the Lord. If a mercy is not connected with the Lord, it may often make me more miserable; but if it is, if I know that it flows from His love, the heart receives it in tranquility and peace; 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 in its success. The Lord in His grace will bring 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 wrestled and obtained through grace the name of Israel, 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 wrestling 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 willfulness, 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.
What a course of discipline to subdue a willful 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 blesses 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 Padanaram everything succeeds, but through hard labor 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 willful 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 annihilated. 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? Has he come to such an end of himself that he rests on God, and God only, for the security of those blessings?
This the wrestling determines. From that struggle he emerges as an Israel, but with the deep sense of personal weakness, the marks 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. Jacob 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 to 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 being attained, Jacob enters the land, by faith, and as Israel; blessed, humbled, and having the mark of personal weakness.
And in this character, as the Israel, though halting, can he 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 the 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 honor set on one who surrenders his own will and comes out of the conflict prevailing with God and man We then find that, worthless 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 willfulness which delayed and obstructed our entrance. The path, to be a true one and suited to us, 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 nature to walk with God in the fullness 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 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 shortcoming 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 requires some other guarantee for his possession than the will and arm of the Almighty. It is a repetition of that willfulness which so characterized him; always seeking to secure by his own means the blessing 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 willfulness 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 worship, and nearness 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 other. Then we are in the presence of God, we cannot be occupied with our own state, save as to the exaltation we have received by 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, it is an occupation, right in its place, but lower than that which makes Him the supreme object; than that which Paul knew when his aim was to “win Christ.”
Jacob is here not only occupied with his blessings, but indulging his willfulness, 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 Shalem entails shame and sorrow on his family, and the only relief from it is to obey the word of the Lord.
Jacob is made to feel the shame and humiliation of the position which he had himself chosen, and then, the word of the Lord falls freely on his soul, and the discipline has prepared him to respond to it. “Arise,” says the Lord, “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 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 he taken to Bethel. The moment we take God's path—the way to God's house, we must be clean; “holiness becometh his house forever.” Now the title of Jacob's altar is “El-Bethel.” He has become enlarged in the purposes of God, and sees himself merely as an agent in expressing and unfolding them on earth. His thoughts now dwell less on Jacob, the blessed of God, than on God, the blesser of Jacob. Another step on the path of faith has been taken.
But now, although he has apprehended the Lord's teaching, he is not subdued into accurate adherence to His word. The Lord had told him to dwell at Bethel; instead of which we find that, after a little, he journeyed from thence; and, consequently, fresh discipline awaits him. The trials in his circumstances, up to this, had been many and various; but now it is the trial of his affections which he is called upon to suffer. Death created a blank that can never be supplied, for his bereavement, in the loss of Rachel, was not forgotten for the remainder of his course. Compare Gen. 35:1616And they journeyed from Beth-el; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labor. (Genesis 35:16), with 48. 7. In the latter passage Jacob alludes to his sorrow as if it had closed his own 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 buried the object of his affections, where Christ, the real balm for every bereaved heart, was to be born. If he leaves Bethel, the house of God, the place where God had appeared unto him, and told him to dwell, he is taught that there must be nothing but a desolate path outside. The clouds gather round his path. The immorality of his first-born, and the death of his father quickly follow. How deeply the former affected him, we learn from chap. xlix. 3, 4, where the bitterness 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 chap. xxxvii. 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! when the strong will is the man of natural might, there is not complete surrender while any link of nature remains; and all the sorrow of heart which we read of in chaps. xxxvii. and xliii. 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 chap. xxxvii. 34, 35, and in chap. xliii. 14. In 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;” in other words, “1 submit.” What a difference! what a desolation, when the heart is wrenched and there is no resource in God, but what a contrast, when the Almighty 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 never unsatisfied. The happiness of His people is the great purpose of God; and we often find that, when a trial has effected the necessary discipline, the tried one is given back the objects, the loss of which had occasioned its sorrow, and which it is now prepared to use and enjoy in dependence on God.
Jacob receives both Joseph and Benjamin again. But so unprepared is the heart of man for the tender mercy of our God, that the very announcement of it caused Jacob's heart to faint. So great had been the depth of his sorrow, that the unaccredited attempt to relieve it, for a moment almost annihilated him. Much discipline had been needed to break his strong will and unsubdued nature, but it had amply done its work. How broken is he now! To bind up the broken heart is one of the special services of Christ; but many a Jacob cannot believe it possible that such tender mercy awaits him, and even when known, it often causes more fainting of the heart than did the very discipline itself.
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,” &c. 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 honor and glory to Him. Discipline having done its work, we find that fullness of joy is the great desire of the heart of God for us.
Jacob's life in Egypt is, properly, the third stage of his checkered pilgrimage, and a bright stage it is. His last moments are the great event noticed by the apostle as the highest evidence of faith: “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph, leaning on the top 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 we have 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 lesson he reaches, to the satisfying of his heart, before his course ends.
Oh! how sweet 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.