The turning point of his life started like this: “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak” (Genesis 32:22-32). In the end, Jacob, Heel-grabber, brought low and crippled, hung on for dear life to the heel of God himself. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he sobbed. The mysterious Man’s reply added insult to injury. “What is your name?” he asked. “Jacob,” he replied, like someone saying, “Guilty, your honor.” (The last time he’d been asked that, by his aged, blind father, Isaac, he’d lied and said his name was Esau.)
The great irony of this story is that during his life Jacob had been blessed, re-blessed, and divinely reassured not once but twice, not to mention seeing God’s favor over twenty years in both children and herds despite the conniving of his uncle, Laban. He knew God. He’d seen God. He heard God’s promises. He saw God’s favor. He met God’s angels. And he prayed his heart out. But he just didn’t believe God’s blessing could be his without a fight. So it was as if God said, “OK, if you won’t receive this great, free gift package I want to give you, I’ll wrestle you for it.” Because that was the only language Jacob seemed to understand.
In the sport of wrestling there is a move called a reversal, when the guy on the bottom suddenly pulls a move that puts him on top. That is what Jacob pulled off that night. Hosea 12:4 says of Jacob, “He struggled with the angel and overcame him;” (and here comes his reversal) “he wept and begged for his favor.” Jacob overcame his divine opponent?! By weeping and begging for his favor? That, my friends, is the only way to wrestle successfully with the Almighty. God falls for it every time.
“Then the Man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.’” Jacob got three bonus blessings: his limp, his new name, and his glimpse of God’s face. His name, Israel, is captured by The Message as “God-Wrestler.” Frankly, I think I’d rather just be named Champ and skip the bout.
Alexander Maclaren wrote, “That name [Israel] was transmitted to his descendants, and has passed over to the company of believing men [and women], who have become overcome by God and prevailed with God. It is a charter and a promise. It is a stringent reminder of duty and a lofty ideal. A true Christian is an ‘Israel.’ His office is to wrestle with God.”
All who serve the Lord will wrestle with him sooner or later. Even Jesus. It seems that at certain times the God-blessed life requires a heartbreaking struggle with the Lord. He may require us to face our resentments and disappointments over the Labans and Leahs, the long, lean years, or our lurking Esau-fears. Perhaps it’s the deep disappointment that we never really got the life or ministry we hoped we had coming to us. We may have to face sins or follies we’ve ignored. In the mercy of God, we might realize that the good we strived for all these years was a free gift of grace that was ours for the taking all along, thanks to Jesus. God doesn’t defeat us so much as he finally makes us willing to surrender to his mercy.
Our unseen contests with God mark us; they give us a new identity, as they did Jacob. We become Israels—humbled, limping, mercy-driven, blessed God-Wrestlers. And for that fine reason …
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.