On a day when many churches are focusing on love this morning, we are so counter-cultural we are focusing on misery. I guess it really isn’t all that odd. For many people, Valentine’s Day is miserable. Do you have any idea who Valentine was?
I came across a meme on Facebook on Friday. It has a picture of Valentine and contained the following caption: “Roses are red, violets are blue, I was beaten with clubs, beheaded, buried under the cover of darkness. Disinterred by my followers, and you commemorate my martyrdom by sending each other chocolates.” On that note, Happy Valentine’s Day! Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get serious.
Honestly though, Evangelicalism has lost its ability to be serious. Many come to church every Sunday as a means of escaping from reality. They want to hear jokes and stories. They don’t want to think too hard. On the week of Valentine’s Day, they want to hear something romantic.
But what about those who come to church weighed down by the miseries of life? Jokes and romantic stories sound very trite in a world that is filled with so much suffering and evil.
In an essay titled “The Sovereignty of God in Suffering” John Piper writes, “Against the overwhelming weight and seriousness of the Bible, much of the church is choosing, at this very moment, to become more light and shallow and entertainment-oriented, and therefore successful in its irrelevance to massive suffering and evil.”
We have seen Jacob steal his brother’s birthright, then the blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau. Following that he was sent to find a wife and he encountered God through a dream where he saw angels ascending and descending on a stairway. Last week we saw the tables turn as Laban became the deceiver giving his elder daughter Leah to Jacob instead of Rachel.
Over the next seven years Jacob will have eleven sons. After serving Laban for fourteen years he seeks to leave with his wives and children. But Laban, realizes much of his wealth has come because of Jacob’s work. He asks Jacob to name his wages, and Jacob makes the modest offer to care for the flocks and take only the odd colored ones as his wages. We learn at the end of chapter 30 that Jacob’s wealth has increased.
Chapter 31 begins with God calling Jacob to return the his homeland, but Laban does not make it easy on him. He will eventually flee while Laban is away and when Laban catches up to them, he accuses Jacob of stealing his household gods (which Rachel had done unbeknownst to Jacob). And that brings us to our first passage.
But before we read it let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
Genesis 31:36-42; 32:22-32
36 Then Jacob became angry and berated Laban. Jacob said to Laban, “What is my offense? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? 37 For you have felt through all my goods; what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, that they may decide between us two. 38 These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. 39 What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you. I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. 40 There I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. 41 These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. 42 If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands and rebuked you last night.
Eventually Laban and Jacob agree to make a covenant to never pass beyond the location where they were. Jacob’s concern shifts to meeting his brother Esau. He sends some messengers ahead of him and discovers that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 of his men. He divides his caravan into two camps hoping at least one of the camps will survive an attack. He sends several gifts ahead in order to appease Esau’s anger. Then we come to our next passage.
22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.
This is the Word of the LORD.
In this large section of Scripture we see contrasting stories running parallel. We notice what God has accomplished for the covenant family, but we also see that their lives are filled with constant tension and turmoil.
How come Jacob endured so much heartache throughout his life, while wicked people like Laban seem to prosper? How come the people who have been the recipients of so much mercy continue to suffer so much misery?
First, we will look at The Mercy of God. Second, we’ll see The Misery of Jacob. And third, we will note The Mind of Faith.
The Mercy of God
What is mercy? Maybe you have heard some say mercy is “not getting what we deserve.” That’s certainly true, but that doesn’t quite cover its full use. The Hebrew uses several words to get across the meaning of “mercy”. One of the words we see often is khesed which refers to God’s covenant faithfulness and loving kindness.
God is not required to show mercy to anyone, but he chooses to do so because he is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod. 34:6).
In an article for the Banner of Truth titled “Richard Sibbes and the Mercy of God”, John Brentnall writes: “Indeed, mercy is such a sweet attribute in God that all his other attributes would be a terror to us without it.”
When it comes to Jacob’s life we see God’s mercy displayed in several ways:
1. Jacob’s Growing Family (29:31-30:24)
Jacob has eleven sons! Now, even as we are considering this to be an example of God’s mercy, we can’t help but notice the frustration that surrounds this passage. Listen to the names of his sons:
- Leah delivers Reuben, which means See, “The Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.”
- Leah delivers Simeon, which means Hear, “The Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.”
- Leah delivers Levi, which means Attached, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.”
- Leah delivers Judah, which means Praise, “This time I will praise the LORD.”
- Finally, Rachel can’t take her barrenness any more and she give Jacob her servant Bilhah. Bilhah delivers Dan, which means Judged, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.”
- Again, Bilhah delivers Naphtali, which means Wrestling, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.”
- Not to be outdone, Leah gives her servant Zilpah to Jacob. Zilpah delivers Gad, which means Good Fortune, “Good fortune has come!”
- Again, Zilpah delivers Asher, which means Happy, “Happy am I! For women have called me happy.” Truth or mask?
- Then Leah delivers Issachar, which means Wages, “God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband.”
- Leah delivers one final son named Zebulun, which means Honor, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons.”
- Then, at long last, Rachel delivers Joseph, which means Add, “May the LORD add to me another son!”
- Later on, Rachel will die in childbirth as she delivers a son she names Ben-oni, which means “Son of my sorrow” but Jacob later named him Benjamin, which means “Son of the right hand” (Gen. 35:16-19).
A lot could be said about this, but at the very least we see God beginning to fulfill the promises he gave to Abraham back in Genesis 12. These sons are the beginning of what will become a great nation.
2. Jacob’s Growing Wealth (30:25-43)
Look with me at Genesis 30:43, “Thus the man increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys.” Despite the scheming and conniving Laban, God blesses Jacob and provides for him against all odds.
3. Jacob’s Growing Maturity (31-35)
Throughout his time with Laban, for the most part, Jacob deals with him in an upright manner. He doesn’t bicker or complain. He doesn’t retaliate. Every good thing in Jacob’s life came by the merciful hand of God. There was nothing commendable about Jacob. He didn’t earn God’s favor. That is where we must begin. Mercy will not mean much to us, unless we recognize who we are without it.
Ephesians 2:1-3 says,
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
This is the state of misery into which all mankind fell. “All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever” (WSC Q.19).
When we recognize the depth of our misery, we truly are in a position to receive God’s mercy. So let us turn now to…
The Misery of Jacob
Jacob’s life might be summarized as going from one degree of misery to another. Allow me to provide you with a quick overview of his life:
- Forced to flee home because of Esau’s murderous thoughts (Gen. 27:41-45).
- His Uncle Laban takes advantage of him (Gen. 29:15ff).
- He spends seven years in hard labor for Laban (Gen. 29:20), only to be given Leah, the wrong daughter (Gen. 29:23-26).
- After waiting a week, Jacob is given Rachel for another seven years of service (Gen. 29:27).
- Jacob ends up serving Laban for twenty years and has his wages adjusted ten times (Gen. 31:38-42)!
- His wives quarrel and hate one another as they battle over his affections (Gen. 30:1ff).
- When God commands him to return to the land of his fathers, he faces more conflict with Laban (Gen. 31:23).
- This is followed by fear of confronting Esau (Gen. 32:7, 11).
- On top of everything else, his daughter Dinah is defiled (Gen. 34:2, 5). No one can accuse the Bible of skirting difficult topics. Of all the miseries in this life, the mistreatment of women and children in this fashion has to be one of the most difficult.
- The revenge that his sons accomplish only brings further hatred upon them by the neighboring nations (Gen. 34:30).
- After this, the love of his life Rachel, dies giving birth to Jacob’s twelfth child (Gen. 35:16-20).
- While Jacob is away, Reuben sleeps with one of his father’s concubines Bilhah (Gen. 35:22).
- Then he is told that Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn son, has been eaten alive by a wild animal, when in reality his brothers had sold him into slavery (Gen. 37:31-32).
Now John Calvin says something very insightful at this point,
“Who can imagine that in such a flood of misfortunes [Jacob] would have a single moment to breathe in peace? Accordingly, as his own best witness, he declares to Pharaoh that his days upon the earth have been short and evil (Gen. 47:9). He asserts that he has passed his life in continual misery, and absolutely denies that he has experienced the prosperity which the Lord had promised him. Therefore, either Jacob was a hostile and ungrateful appraiser of God’s favor, or he truly professed that he had been miserable on earth. If this affirmation was true, it follows that he did not have his hope set upon earthly things.”
This misery certainly extended to Leah, who was throughly frustrated by her inability to win Jacob’s love. She has six sons and yet Rachel was the one he loved. Rachel also understood this misery. She was beautiful and had Jacob’s affection, but she suffered barrenness for quite some time before Joseph was born. We could tell of Job, Naomi, Joseph, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, and on and on throughout both the New and Old Testaments.
And the misery extends to us too doesn’t it? If God is sovereign, why does any of this happen? Why do bad things happen to covenant people?
If you are anything like Jacob, you may be immobilized by past sin. You may feel hopeless as you move through life from one degree of misery to the next. Sin has left us bruised and broken. Fear and doubt leaves us feeling spiritually dry and weary. It is in those times that we must remember the mercy we have received and the abundant promises of God.
Brentnall, summarizing the teaching of Richard Sibbes, points out, “The wonder of mercy is that Christ will never break the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax (Isa. 42:1-3; Matt. 12:18-20).”
It might feeling like that’s what he’s trying to do. But the promise is that God is there to restore us.
The question is this: Can you see your present misery as a form of mercy? Spurgeon says it like this: ‘all more than hell is mercy.’ In other words, every miserable event in your life is better than you deserve!
Now, I realize we have just read about some pretty difficult things in Jacob’s life. And I know many of you are familiar with some of those miseries. In light of that, I know this is really hard to hear. But you MUST hear this: If you don’t see your present misery as a mercy, the worst is yet to come. On the other hand, if you see the mercy of God in the midst of your pain and sorrow, you can be assured that the best is yet to come.
Richard Sibbes says, “The depth of God’s mercy is deeper than the depths of our misery.” Even in discipline, God is showing you mercy. If all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28), then we cannot eliminate anything we experience from his mercy—including events such as Dinah’s defilement.
It is in times like that where we press on with the hope of 2 Corinthians 3:18-4:1, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.”
Although many doubt the existence of a merciful God, no one questions the presence of misery. But what does this mean for the Christian who has…
The Mind of Faith
We can summarize this last point by considering Q. 31 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
The answer contains four parts (all of which we find in the life of Jacob): 1) Convincing us of our sin and misery, 2) Enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, 3) Renewing our wills, and 4) Persuading and enabling us to embrace Jesus Christ.
1. Jacob’s sin and misery
We have already seen this one quite plainly.
2. Jacob’s knowledge
Again, we have covered this in a previous sermon when we talked about Jacob’s response to the dream God gave him (Gen. 28:10-22).
3. Jacob’s renewed will
The last time we heard about Esau he was intent on killing Jacob. Now we learn that he is gathering 400 men to meet Jacob upon his return. What is this all about? This is no party. They are not planning on throwing a celebration. Every indication from the text is that Esau is planning to go to war.
So what changes? Jacob prays (Gen. 32:9-12)! He prays his first recorded prayer! There is no mention of him praying when he met Rachel. There is no mention of him praying during the twenty years that he worked for Laban. He acknowledged God with a vow at Bethel, but this is a personal prayer. His misery has served to humble him. “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love (khesed) and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (Gen. 32:10). He prays for deliverance reminding God of his covenant promise, as if to say “I’m trusting in you alone to fulfill these now.”
4. Jacob’s embracing of Christ
Jacob wrestles with God (Gen. 32:22-32). Most commentators view this as more than a theophany (a visible manifestation of God); they interpret it as a Christophany (a manifestation of the pre-incarnate Christ). Jacob was wrestling with the second person of the Trinity!
It is true that God initiated this encounter. But Jacob’s determination to be blessed is what kept him there. God brought Jacob to the realization of his brokenness and need for him. And Jacob simply held onto him from there.
Why does God permit misery?
- To convince us of the nature of our sin.
- To increase our knowledge of him and his suffering.
- To renew our wills, stirring up our faith and waking us out of a spiritual slumber. Misery teaches us to pray in humility and earnest faith that God will accomplish all he has promised to do in and through us.
- To cause us to cling to him for mercy.
“Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.”
At the end of the day, an entire life of evil and suffering cannot compare to the glories that await the children of God. Jacob’s experience in chapter 32 transitions from trembling > wrestling > clinging > limping. Does that define your experience? If not, I would challenge you to consider whether you have ever truly grasped the gospel.
Look to Christ! When you find yourself trembling in fear, go to God and—with the help of the Holy Spirit—wrestle in prayer for his blessing. Cling to Christ—even if it keeps you up through the night and into the next morning. Then limp forward in the humble recognition that your darkest misery is better than you deserve, and it too, soon enough will turn out for unfathomable blessings for you.
William Cowper reminds us in his powerful hymn “God Moves In A Mysterious Way”:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.