Editorial: Fighting With God and Winning

It was night, and he was all alone. Jacob couldn’t stop thinking about Esau and the horde of men with him. He hoped his over-the-top generosity would pacify his brother’s anger, for a meeting with him was imminent. However, it wasn’t Esau he needed to worry about. Out of nowhere a total stranger slammed into Jacob and threw him to the ground. And so began the wrestling match that lasted all night long, emblematic of Jacob’s entire existence. He rightly concluded that his opponent was divine (Gen 32:30) and that he had been fighting Him, not just for a night but for a lifetime.

But the fighting needed to end, so the Lord did something both painful and ultimately beneficial to Jacob. Striking his hip He left Jacob helpless; his only option was to cling, and he wouldn’t let go. However, the dawn was breaking, which meant that Jacob’s life was in danger – and not because of his injury. To see his opponent in the full light of day meant certain death. Yet Jacob took the risk with these words, “I will not let you go … unless you bless me” (v26).[1] Jacob had made a career out of manipulating blessings from others, whether from his father Isaac, his brother Esau or his father-in-law Laban. But for the first time in his life, he was forced to seek blessing from its proper source – God Himself. And he received it, not by fighting the Lord but by clinging to Him.

The blessing came in the form of a new name. He had lived up to his name Jacob (“supplanter”), seizing from others by trickery whatever he desired. His new name was Israel (“God fights”), and we are thankfully told how to interpret it: “You have fought with God …  and have prevailed” (v28). How did the 97-year-old patriarch prevail? Certainly not by besting his divine opponent, who was able to disable him quite easily. Hosea 12:4 says Jacob “wept and begged for his favor,” hardly language for one who overpowered his rival. Jacob prevailed in obtaining this blessing, not by clever maneuvering but by holding fast to the Lord. Yet, he was not always called by his new name from this point on. Unlike Abraham and Sarah, who, once given their new names, were never referred to by their old ones, Jacob was called both Jacob and Israel. Prevailing with God was only potential, whereas crafty scheming was always a sad possibility.

The lessons from fight night in Peniel are plentiful, not the least of which is that, like Jacob with a new name, we have been given a new nature. His old name wasn’t removed, and neither has God removed our old nature. The struggle between being Jacob or Israel would always afflict him, as does our struggle between yielding to the flesh or to the Spirit. And as the Lord initiated the fight with Jacob, so will He often invade the lives of His people with trials that leave us wrestling with His will and Word. The experiences can often be painful, just like Jacob’s. But if they scrape away our self-sufficiency and drive us to cling to the Lord in dependence for all we need, they will be worth it. For it is, ironically, by giving up and clinging to Him that we truly prevail and secure His blessing. When we wave the white flag of surrender to the Lord, we win.

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the NET.