In the 32nd chapter of Genesis, we find the first recorded prayer from the patriarch Jacob. Perhaps more than any other figure in Genesis up to this point, Jacob is a model of progressive sanctification. Through Jacob, we witness God’s mercy and grace on display, and most definitely His patience, as He works in the life of His servant Jacob to mold him into the man Israel. Jacob, as his name entails, is a deceiver or heel-grabber. He not only is born grasping the heel of his brother, but later deceives Esau of his birthright and outright steals his blessing from their father Isaac. After fleeing the wrath of his twin brother, Jacob has his first encounter with God in Genesis 28, where he dreams of a ladder extending from heaven to earth upon which angels ascend and descend. Later, in John 1:51, we read of Jesus applying the image to Himself, as the true bridge between heaven and earth.
After this first encounter and extension of the Abrahamic promises that God gives to Jacob, he anoints an altar and renames the area, Bethel, meaning house of God, which will be a significant place in the life and history of the nation Israel. After this, Jacob makes a conditional vow, a sort of quid pro quo, if God fulfills His promises, then He will be his God, revealing to us that Jacob is not quite the man God needs him to be, yet. After a drama filled twenty years with his uncle Laban, who himself was a self-centered deceiver, we find Jacob fleeing Laban with his two wives, and their children from Jacob, their two servants, and their children from Jacob, after receiving and considering the command of God, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.” After an encounter and covenant with Laban, who had caught up to the caravan, we find a third encounter with God and read of Jacob’s intention to proceed to the land which God had called him, however the path would be through his brother Esau. This sets the stage for the reconciliation of the brothers, however before that can happen, there must be a reconciliation between God and Jacob, not on the basis of quid pro quo, but on the basis of Who God is and what He has promised, alone.
Upon hearing the news from his messengers that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men, Jacob, for the first time, turns to the Lord in prayer.
9 And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12 But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” Genesis 32:9-12
In Jacob’s prayer, we find a good example and pattern for our own prayers, as well as insight into what Jacob was feeling before his encounter with his brother. As he begins, Jacob addresses God, the God of his father Abraham and his father Isaac. This places the prayer in a proper perspective as he recognizes Who God is that he is speaking to. There is a historical element with God and Jacob’s family and this serves as a bridge to Jacob himself. There is certainly significance in being able to claim God as the God of your family. Not only is it reassuring, knowing how He has worked in and through the lives of those who have come before in that their lives serve as a personal, familial testimony, but it is evidence of the goodness and faithfulness of God. This introduction of prayer is true and right for us as well, i.e. to begin our prayers with a correct understanding of Who it is that we are speaking to, and approach Him with solemnity.
After this opening recognition, Jacob refers to God as LORD or YAHWEH (YHWH), God’s personal, covenantal name. This is evidence that Jacob understands God as more than a transcendent God, rather He is also and equally a personal and imminent God. God in His condescension to man has revealed Himself in a very personal way and has allowed man to enter into a personal, covenantal relationship with Him. In Jacob’s day, God had already revealed Himself several times. In our own day, God has revealed Himself through His Son Jesus Christ.
This address to God using His covenant name sets up the next section of Jacob’s prayer, namely the blessing that God attached to the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant. The promise that Jacob recites is likely a reference to his initial encounter with God upon fleeing his brother on the way to his uncle Laban where God extending the Abrahamic Covenant to Jacob, promising him land and seed, while also the accompanying promise to never leave him and bring him back to the land. Genesis 28:12-22 Here, Jacob provides a clear model for us to remember God’s own promises and repeat them back to Him in our prayers. Not that God needs us to remind Him in order to be faithful, rather it is a practice to ourselves to remember these promises and when recited back to God, further assurance that this same covenantal and personal God is a faithful and good God. The same God that promised to be with Jacob wherever he went and to bring him back to the land is the same God who promised to never leave nor forsake those of us who have placed our faith and trust in Christ, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Heb. 13:5 We can feel confident to recite this promise back to God in our prayers because just as He has proven His faithfulness to Abraham and Jacob, and ultimately to Jesus Christ, so too will He prove faithful to us.
Next, in verse 10, we find Jacob setting up a contrast, in a sense, between this transcendent God who is also imminently personal and his own humility with respect to God. In the midst of stating his own unworthiness, Jacob again centers the focus on God, Who has been the God of hesed (steadfast love) and faithfulness to him, despite, we might add, episodes of unfaithfulness on Jacob’s part. This again is a good reminder for our own prayers. We can have tendencies even in stating our own unworthiness to make ourselves the focus. In a very ironic way, we can too often slip from stating our own unworthiness to receive the blessings of God into a slef-loathing and their is danger here. If not held in check, this self-loathing can descend into a How could God love me, woe is me mentality that feeds and fills our minds with lies. This is not what Jacob did, in the midst of stating his own unworthiness he highlights the character of God. God’s grace towards us is not conditioned upon our worthiness, rather it is a direct application of the character of a merciful God.
Following this, we have the petition or request of the prayer, essentially the heart of the matter, namely deliverance from Esau. At the center of this request is a confession from Jacob that he fears Esau and probably for good reason given all of the deception that has plagued their relationship from childhood. The concern of Jacob’s fear is that Esau will attack and kill Jacob’s family – the mother with the children. Now, in the moment, we no doubt would pray similar to Jacob and confess our fears and worries. However, in hindsight as we examine Jacob’s prayer we ought to notice that his fear, while grounded in human reason, ignores the fact that God has promised to bring Jacob back to the land – a path which will go through Esau, to be with him, and to do good to him. On the one hand, perhaps Jacob trusts in this promise but simply can’t see how the plan will work out, much like Abraham in sacrificing Isaac. (Hebrews 11:17-19) However, on the other hand, it is possible that Jacob still has a measure of doubt. Either way, it is a reminder for us to ground ourselves in God’s promises, trusting Him fully and completely, resting not upon our own wisdom or even will, but that God’s will would be done.
As Jacob’s prayer concludes, he again recites the promises of God given in the Abrahamic Covenant. This is a fitting conclusion to the petition for protection and the confession of fear. Essentially, Jacob has said that God has promised to do him good, he is afraid that Esau might kill him/them, but God has promised to do him good. Hopefully the tension here can be felt and perhaps even a certain amount of relatability between Jacob’s prayer and our own. Clearly he is wrestling; wrestling with understanding more fully who God is and how it is that He can and will be faithful in the midst of what seem to be insurmountable obstacles. This is how faith works. It doesn’t see with our eyes what is in front of us, rather it sees with eyes of the heart and trusts in the God who is. Jesus tells us in John 20:29 that blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.
Jacob’s prayer is a good model for our own prayers. It provides a clear and concise recognition of who God is; it repeats God’s own Word back to Him, focusing on His promises; it contains a petition with confession of doubt and fear; then it concludes with a reassuring recitation of God’s promises once again. May our own hearts be humble enough to recognize the deficiencies in our prayer life, but may we also be encouraged that with few words we may exalt the character of God, confess our own inadequacies, and rest assured on the promises of God. “The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.” 1 Thess. 5:24