The Meeting of the Brothers
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis 33. We’ll study this chapter tonight which recounts the meeting between Esau and Jacob. This much-anticipated reunion of the brothers. Jacob wasn't much anticipating a positive experience in this reunion. And so there has been some tension building in the succeeding chapters as we have seen Jacob making his way back towards Canaan to the promised land. And then hearing that he was going to turn toward Mt. Seir in the south, the country of Edom, before he went north to Bethel, and so we continue our study of the life of Jacob. All along we have said that in Genesis 30 through 32, God is preparing Jacob to trust in Him and to acknowledge Him alone. And that theme continues in this passage, although we reach something of a fulfillment of those promises in this chapter.
Last week we turned our attention to Genesis 32, verses 24 through 32, and I'd invite you to look at those verses for a moment. That's the well-known but mysterious passage about Jacob wrestling with the Lord himself. And we saw in that passage some things that teach us about how God deals with our wills, and how God increases our own trust. We saw in verses 24 and 25 where God initiates this struggle with Jacob in the form of the angel of the Lord that God would redirect and purge Jacob's will in preparation for the meeting with Esau. He puts Jacob in a position where he cannot win in his own strength. And so Jacob's only choice then is to cling to God, to be wholly dependent upon God. And in that context, Jacob begins to pin all of his hope on God and none of his hope in anything else. And then as Jacob responds to what God has done in verses 24 and 25, looking at verses 26 through 29, we said that Jacob went on the offensive. God had initiated this combat with Jacob. Now Jacob lays hold of God before God withdraws, and he craves a blessing of Him. In fact he says I'm not going to let you go until You bless me. And in this process God cultivates Jacob's desire for Him alone. Richards says, “Sometimes a wound is a very special act of God's grace. How often we need to be wounded because it is so easy for us to trust our own skills and ability.” And Kidner said that this was a defeat and a victory all wrapped up in one. Jacob is touched and wounded and at the same time he lays hold of God alone.
Now we didn't even get to the last three verses of the chapter in our study, so let me take you through those last few verses very briefly tonight. Because in those verses we find three enduring witnesses that God gave to Jacob of that life-changing battle. Permanent reminders of his encounter with God. Look at those verses. “So Jacob names the place Penuel, for he said I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved. Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel and he was limping on his thigh. Therefore, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of thigh because he touched the socket of Jacob's thigh and the sinew of the hip.”
Three things you see there that God has given to Jacob as permanent reminders. First of all the place was a permanent reminder. The very name that Jacob gave to the place was an indication of his encounter. The face of God. Jacob even in the place name remembers his encounter face to face with the angel of the Lord. Secondly, Jacob's limp was a permanent reminder. You know Jacob could have awakened and asked himself the question, was this all a dream? Did I just dream what just happened to me last night? And then he rolls out of his sack, or whatever he was sleeping in, or whatever position he finds him in and he stands up against the wall, and there's that limp. And he remembers this isn't a dream. This really happened. My hip has been touched and wounded. It's been smitten by the most high. And so there's this permanent reminder in his flesh of this encounter with God. And finally you see that thing which is recorded in verse 32, this practice of the subsequent generation of Israelites. That, too, provides a permanent reminder of the encounter, their practice of not eating that particular portion of the slain beef is a permanent testimony to this encounter between Jacob and God.
Derek Kidner has a beautiful word to sum this all up. “The great encounter with God came when Jacob knew himself to be exposed to a situation wholly beyond him. The threat of it had already driven him to prayer. We saw that in that beautiful prayer in verses 9 through 12. The threat of it had already driven him to prayer, and both his renewed desire to be alone, and the form that the night struggle took, indicate a hunger now for God Himself; a hunger which was awakened by the crisis but not determined it.” God used the crisis as an opportunity, as a situation, as a circumstance to cultivate Jacob's hunger for himself. But it really — at the bottom of it, it didn't determine Jacob's hunger. I mean Jacob could have reacted in a different way in that crisis. But God used it to grow in him a hunger for himself. And so as we've said, so many times throughout this study, God is preparing Jacob to trust in Him and to acknowledge Him alone. And we're going to see the fruit of God's labor in this passage tonight. So let's turn to Genesis 33, verses 1 through 20 and this climatic meeting between Esau and Jacob. This is God's word. Let us hear it attentively.
Our Lord and our God as we come to the conclusion of a story which we have been anticipating for some weeks, we pray that You would speak to our own hearts and our own situation. There can be few here who do not need to learn the lesson of trust in Your providence. There can be few here who do not need to learn the lesson of comprehensive trust in Your providence. And all of us need to remember to be grateful in our obedience, in the face of Your kind providence. And all these things that we learn in this passage. If anyone comes this night not believing in You through the Lord Jesus Christ, we pray that there would be a sweet testimony to the Lord Jesus even in this passage respecting our Father in the faith, Jacob. And we ask this in Jesus' name, Amen.
In this passage, there is an almost seamless flow in the narrative. So breaking it down into parts is almost artificial. Allow me to break it down into parts in order to emphasize two or three things in particular. I'd like you to look at the first three verses where you see Jacob preparing for his encounter with Esau, and then I'd like for you to look at verses 4 through 11 where we run into this surprisingly affectionate and emotional encounter between Esau and Jacob. This is not what we're expecting. I mean we're expecting this because we've read this since we were children. For the more we think about this, the less we're expecting this to be the conclusion to this story. We are waiting for the swords to come out from the cavalry, and a rush to come upon this poor defenseless multitude of Jacob's family, and that's not what we encounter. We see this affectionate, emotional encounter between these formerly estranged brothers.
And then in verses 12 through 20, we see Esau pleading with Jacob to come back with him to Seir. And we see Jacob very tactfully, and maybe even deceitfully, avoiding that temptation. And yet at the same time, as he avoid that temptation, he falls into another one, because the god of Bethel had called him back to Bethel to offer sacrifice. And Jacob doesn't quite get there, does he? I'd like to look at these three sections of this great passage with you.
I. The way of exaltation is the way of humiliation/the way up is the way down.
First, verses 1 through 3. Jacob is preparing again for this encounter with his brother, Esau. And surprisingly, Jacob, who in the promise, has been given the place of the greater between these two brothers. He is the younger brother, and yet he is the greater. And the older brother shall serve the younger and yet Jacob prostrates himself before Esau, his elder, but lesser brother. And I think that this reminds us of at least one important truth. The way of exultation always lies in the way of humiliation. It's divine algebra. The way up is always the way down. It was that way with Peter, it was that way with Jacob. It was even that way, and I say it reverently, with our Lord as we sing so often in these Christmas hymns and carols. Let's look at the passage then together. Even after this extraordinary encounter with God where he wrestles with God in human form, the angel of the Lord, Jacob still has to get up the next morning and face Esau. You see divine revelations in the Old Testament don't replace the believers responsibility for obedience. They strengthen the believer to carry out his responsibility of obedience. That's so important for us to remember because very often in our own context there are Christians who speak of having these extraordinary encounters, and they speak of these extraordinary encounters as if they are a replacement for the mundane, day-to-day drudgery of obedience in the Christian life. And they’re not. And they’re not in the Old Testament. That's not the Old Testament pattern. These Old Testament extraordinary encounters, first of all, come few and far between. Jacob doesn't have an encounter like this every other day. One time in his life Jacob has an encounter like this. And the encounter is wholly designed to strengthen him to trust in God and to be obedient in carrying out his response. As Kidner says, “True to the biblical pattern, Jacob's vision was no escape from reality. His language, (we’ll look at that language in a minute) shows that he saw the two encounters. The encounter with his Lord, the angel of the Lord, and the encounter with his brother as two levels of a single event.” Bear that in mind. He saw these things as two levels of a single event.
And so after taking appropriate precautions, Jacob himself steps forward to meet the approaching Esau. And when he comes near to him, he prostrates himself seven times. We have tablets from things which were written in the context of this era and this culture in the near east which tell us that this was a standard way that you would have greeted a tribal king. In fact, we probably have fifty examples of this in tablets where over and over those who are greeting a tribal king will bow seven times. And it's almost a standard formula in the way that they greet a superior figure.
But it's ironic, isn't it. It's Jacob bowing seven times before Esau who has been prophesied by God to be the lesser of these two brothers. What's going on here? Well, I don't think I'm reading too much into this to point this out. God had promised to Jacob that nations would bow down to him, and that he would be the master of his brothers. You can go back and see it in Genesis, chapter 27, verse 29. God had promised him that nations would bow down to him, and that he would be the master of his brothers. But not before he would prostrate himself before Esau seven times. Never was that kind of discipline more needed in anyone than in Jacob. Here was a man who needed the divine humbling of the Lord to prepare him for the position of exultation which God had planned for him, had promised to him through the covenant prophesy, all the way back in Genesis 27. But God, because He loved Jacob, was preparing him to play that role. And before he was going to be capable of sustaining the role as the head of the covenant, he would be required to humble himself. And we've seen Jacob, this trickster all of his life, and we recognize Jacob's need for it.
But we see this pattern over and over in the Scriptures. This morning we saw just a hint of it in that passage in Matthew, chapter 26, when in just a few moments we know Peter is going to deny his Lord three times. Now God knew that Peter needed the humiliation of that experience. It is not a mistake friends that Jesus spoke three times to Peter, directly corresponding to the three times that Peter denied Him and asked him, “Do you love me?” Peter needed to have his heart broken three times by the Lord. And then he needed to be called by the Lord three times to feed the sheep by the Lord in order to raise him up from the humiliation of his denial. But it was done because God knew Peter and God loved Peter, and the way of exultation is the way of abasement. And you see it's true even of the Lord Jesus Christ. I say it reverently, but the author of Hebrews puts it provocatively. He says that He learned obedience through that which He suffered. Now that's said of our Lord. I don't think any of us will ever see anywhere near to the bottom of that particular truth. But it's said of our Lord. The way of exultation was the way of humiliation for Him. We sang about it when we opened. Would you turn back to the opening hymn tonight. Turn to 196. It's beautiful this expression of the humiliation of the Lord on our behalf. Look at the third stanza. The whole of this hymn, by the way, is filled with this expression, but especially this third and fourth stanza. “Come to earth to taste our sadness. He whose glories knew no end, by His life He brings us gladness, our Redeemer, Shepherd, Friend, leaving riches without number, born within a cattle stall. This the everlasting wonder Christ was born the Lord of all.” And it's that image you remember that gives C.S. Lewis that glorious image that he gives when he talks about inside the stable being bigger than everything outside the stable, because the Lord of Glory is in that manager in the stable. The one who rules over heaven and earth is abased, is humiliated on the way to his exultation. And friends, we cannot expect it to be otherwise with us. Whom the Lord would exult, he humbles.
Now I suspect that many of you right now can testify to how he has done this with you and your experience. I cannot claim to being exalted to anything, but I know that God has so often in my life humbled me before a great blessing. He does that because He loves us. And He does that because that's the discipline which He chose for His own Son. And so surely we cannot kick against His providence. You know, officer elections are always an excruciating process for me and for many of you, especially those who have to go through them. And I can't but help but think that there are some men tonight who really have a heart for serving the Lord who were not elected. And that's a brutalizing experience. I wonder whether in the case of some of them it's not just the process of the Lord preparing them for some service in the future, and the very disappointment at this moment. And I could think of a hundred other examples, and you can too. But let's not ever forget that whom the Lord would exalt, He first humbled. It's of divine principle which always obtains in our experience. So when we face that humiliation in His providence, let's just embrace it.
II. Jacob acknowledges God's kind providence in every aspect of his life, including Esau's kindness.
Secondly, I'd like you to look at verses 4 through 11. This surprising and affectionate, emotional encounter between these formerly estranged brothers, in this passage the thing that strikes me, I mean Esau comes across like the nicest guy in the world. He really does, but the thing that strikes me in this passage is that Jacob acknowledges God's kind providence to him in every aspect of his life, including the way that Esau received him. Jacob gives all the tribute to God. This is so different from the Jacob that we know. He gives all the glory to God. He gives all the credit to God. None of this, in fact, in a very straightforward way he will confess that one of his strategies isn't what got him the receiving that Esau gave him. Let's look at the passage.
This is a stunningly surprising scene. Remember the preface to the scene. Jacob has sent train, after train after train of gifts to Esau to soften him up, hoping that after Esau has received all these gifts, he won't be so angry with Jacob. Derek Kidner catches this beautifully. He says, “This meeting is a classic of reconciliation. The stream of gifts and the demure family processions, are almost comically over-organized, and they give us some idea of the load that was on Jacob's conscience. And also the sheer grace of Esau's reply.”
Here again we see the spontaneity of Esau. We’re expecting Esau to be angry and then suddenly spontaneous Esau, the same spontaneous Esau who gave up his birthright for a bowl of soup, is now spontaneously overjoyed at this reunion with his brother, Jacob. And I must say that we are reminded in that of the common grace that God sometimes displays in the lives of natural men. Think of it, friends. It just may be that Esau was the model which Jesus deliberately chose to pattern the father of the prodigal son on. Don't believe me? Turn with me to Luke, chapter 15. The loving father that Jesus describes in Luke, chapter 15, verse 20, listen to Jesus’ words. Prodigal gets up, he comes to his father and then listen to these words, Luke 15:20, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Now listen to this. “Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”
Humanly speaking, sometimes we meet worldlings who are more attractive in their personality than believers. But God judges the heart, and we should never forget that. And though Esau is one who ultimately will dwell apart from the covenant, and apart from his father's spiritual heritage, we see a great deal of the common grace of God in him. Now all the credit goes to God, of course. But it reminds us that there are some people that we meet and it's just hard for us to believe that persons that have that much grace who do not embrace Christ, can be forever separated from Him. And when we remember, when we come into that kind of a situation, let's remember Esau. Sometimes worldlings can be incredibly gracious. But that grace is no credit to them. It's credit to God in His goodness.
Now Esau seems oblivious to the presence that Jacob is bringing him. Indeed, Esau's response is so gracious that we are tempted to overlook what God has done in Jacob. Esau said to him, well, what are these things? What's all this about? I mean Esau's totally focused on Jacob. Jacob is totally focused on saving his neck. And so we're sort of stunned and we're thinking goodness, is this the Esau that we knew? And yet God has done something in Jacob.
Look at Jacob's serious and thoughtful reply to Esau's question. Esau says, “Who are these with you” in verse 5. And Jacob says this, “These are the children whom God has graciously given to your servant.” Jacob acknowledges his children, his family to be the gracious providential gift of God to him. He's not responsible for it, he hasn't earned it, God has given it to him. He not only appreciates his covenant children, and the covenant family, he recognizes that God alone is the one who has given him this family. And by the way, that ought to be our attitude towards covenant children. We ought to be so thankful when the Lord blesses us with children, and we ought to acknowledge Him alone as the one who gives children, and the one who withholds. And there are so many in this room who know exactly what I am talking about, but it's easy for all of us to take for granted the blessings that we have in our children. When we see our brothers and sisters in Christ prospered with many children, we ought to rejoice with them that God has been gracious. And we ought to be sure to give God the credit for that.
Then in verse 8, Esau asks Jacob what he means by sending all those presents. And Jacob is surprisingly honest. Look at what Jacob tells him: I sent them to find favor in your sight. My brother, I sent them because I didn't want you to be mad at me, and I wanted you to like me, and I wanted you to be nice to me. I mean he just tells him that's why I sent you those presents.
And Esau stuns us again, and he says brother, keep it. I have enough, I don't need this. And that statement from that worldling Esau once again brings Jacob to his knees and brings about a recognition in Jacob's heart.
Look at what Jacob says in response. No, please, if now I have found favor in your sight, then take my present from my hand. Now notice that they are no longer to gain his favor. And now there are presents. And why are they present? Because I see your face as one sees the face of God, and you have received me favorably. Do you see what Jacob is saying? He's saying, Esau, you don't know it but the reason you have received me like you have is because my Father ordained that you would receive me like this. Not because of these stupid presents that I sent before me to try and get you to love me. You've received me like this because God has answered my prayers beyond my asking. So just keep every thing that I gave. They’re presents. Because God has shown me that He is able to give me what I need without my own strategies. And so Jacob is humbled in his response, and he acknowledges that God, not his gifts, gave him Esau's favor.
By the way, there's a side story that's quite beautiful here and we’ll see this revisited in Genesis 50. Have you noticed in the book of Genesis how God's maturing and sanctifying of his saints, and God's saving of his saints is often linked to family reconciliation. Towards the end of the story here of the life of Jacob and Esau, we see this reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. In Genesis 50, we will see a reconciliation, a very tender reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers when we are told explicitly that they hated one another so much that they couldn't even speak to one another. Again, many of us in this room can testify how God in his grace has brought about reparation in family relationships that we never, ever thought would be cordial again by His grace. And that's the theme here in Genesis. But the main thing that I want you to see in this section is that God will work on us until we resort to Him alone, and He keeps pressing and pressing and pressing on Jacob until Jacob gets that message. And so he teaches Jacob to trust in his providence alone. And that is what God wants us to do as well. As Jacob had to learn to trust God, and to acknowledge God's providence in every area of his life, so also we need to learn that lesson.
II. We are never immune from the temptation of ingratitude.
And there's one last thing here in verses 12 through 20. Now this is a very difficult passage. A very difficult passage to interpret. But I think especially because of what happens in Genesis 34, there's a good hint to us as to what specific application Moses wanted us to draw from the words that he records here. You know that the verses 12 through 16 is the section where Esau tries to get Jacob to come with him. In verses 17 through 20 is where Jacob goes on towards Bethel but doesn't quite get there. He stops in Succoth and then he stops in Shechem. And I think there are a couple of lessons here.
First of all, Jacob is wise in avoiding going back to Mt. Seir with his brother, Esau. Even though Esau has been gracious, and in God's mercy there has not been a violent meeting between these two brothers, Jacob is indeed the heir and the head of the covenant. And his job is not to mix and intermingle with this one who has chosen another way. And that would have inevitably happened had he gone back to Mt. Seir and settled there with his elder brother. So Jacob is wise to sidestep that. Now it may be that Jacob told yet another deception in order to get out of that. You remember Esau asked him to come, then he says look, I’ll leave some men behind. And Jacob says no, look we’ll make it to Mt. Seir eventually. And then he turns right North and heads to Bethel. And he never goes to Edom. And as far as we know, he never visited Edom. Now it may have been that that was all that Jacob was saying. Maybe he was just saying well, one day I’ll come visit you in Edom. But it may have been that he just couldn't quite bring himself to tell his brother that he had absolutely no intentions whatsoever of coming to his home territory. Whatever the case is, Jacob was right not to go there.
But, he was not right in what he did in verses 17 through 20. Jacob failed to carry on through in complete obedience. First, he stopped in Succoth. He built booths, he built shelters there for his flocks, and then he moved on a little bit further to Shechem. And there he settled. He even bought land. And this shows us, I think, that Jacob succumbed to the temptation of ingratitude. Listen again to what Derek Kidner says. “Shechem, or Shechem we say from the King James way that it's written, offered Jacob the attractions of a compromise. His summons from God was to Bethel; but Shechem, about a day's journey short of it, stood attractively at the crossroads of trade. Chapter 34 shows the cost of Jacob settling at Shechem. He paid in rape, treachery and massacre, a chain of evil that proceeded logically enough from the unequal partnership with the Canaanite community there.”
You see the proper response of gratitude for the Lord's providence would have been complete obedience to the summons of the Lord. And Jacob shows us in this passage that none of us are ever immune from the temptation of ingratitude. No matter how great gift that God has just given us, none of us are beyond being ungrateful for it and falling into the temptation of disobedience. And that's exactly what Jacob did here, and he paid for it dearly. Because God loves us so much, that he will not allow us to become comfortable in disobedience. And so when we fall short of that obedience we endanger ourselves, and God disciplines us until He brings us out of it. All those lessons are for us, just as surely as they were for Jacob. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for this majestic passage. We pray that You would speak to our own hearts with Your own lessons designed just for us. We ask that You would humble us that we might be exalted for the sake of the Savior's glory. We ask it in His name, Amen.