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ALL the time that Jacob was in Padan-aram we search in vain for prayer, for praise. or for piety of any kind in Jacob’s life. We read of his marriage, and of his great prosperity, till the land could no longer hold him. But that is all. It is not said in so many words indeed that Jacob absolutely denied and forsook the God of his fathers: it is not said that he worshipped idols in Padan-aram: that is not to be supposed—only, he wholly neglected, avoided, and lived without God in that land. In the days of his youth, and when he was on his fugitive way from his father’s house, Jacob had passed through an experience that promised to us that Jacob, surely above all men, would ever after be a man of prayer, and a man of praise, and a man of a close walk with God, a man who would always pay his vow wherever he went. But Bethel—and all that passed at Bethel—was clean forgotten in Padan-aram; where Jacob increased exceedingly, 42 and had much cattle, and camels, and maid-servants, and men-servants.

Time went on in this way till the Lord said unto Jacob: “Return unto the land of thy fathers and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee.” And Jacob rose up to go to Isaac his father in the land of Canaan. But every step that Jacob took brought him nearer to the land of Edom also: where Esau dwelt with all his armed men about him. And that brought back all Jacob’s early days to his mind, as they had not been in his mind now for many years; till, by the time Jacob arrived at the Jabbok, he was in absolute terror at the thought of Esau. But Jacob never lacked resource: and at the Jabbok he made a halt, and there he did this. He took of that which came to his hand a present for Esau his brother. For he said, “I will appease him with the present that goeth before me, and afterward I will see his face: peradventure he will accept of me.” But, to Jacob’s great terror, Esau never looked at Jacob’s present, but put on his armour in silence, and came posting northwards at the head of four hundred Edomite men. Had Jacob had nothing but his staff with which he passed over Jordan, his mind would have been more at rest. But with all these women and children and cattle—was ever a man taken in such a cruel trap ? And he took them and sent them over the brook, and sent over all that he had. And when 43 the night fell, Jacob was left alone. Till every plunge of the angry Jabbok, and every roar of the midnight storm, made Jacob feel the smell of Esau’s hunting coat, and the blow of his heavy hand. Whether in the body, or whether out of the body, Jacob could never tell. It was Esau, and it was not Esau. It was God Himself, and it was not God. It was God and Esau—both together. Till Jacob to the day of his death never could tell who that terrible wrestler really was. But as the morning broke, and as he departed, the wrestler from heaven said to Jacob, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel.” And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: which by interpretation is The face of God: for he said, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

“Lord, teach us to pray,” petitioned the disciple in the text. Well, we see here how the whole of Jacob’s life was laid out, and overruled, and visited of God in order to teach Jacob to pray, in order to make Jacob a prince in prayer. And all his long and astonishing story, with all its ups and downs, is preserved and is told to us, to teach us also how to pray. Lord, teach us to pray!

1. Well, the first lesson we are taught out of Jacob is this—that as long as all goes well with us, we, too, are tempted to neglect God: we seldom, or never pray—to be called prayer. As Huysman 44 says in En route, “The rich, the healthy, the happy seldom pray.” You would have said that Jacob had had such an upbringing and had fallen into such transgressions, all followed by such mercies, and by such manifestations of God, that he could never again forget God. You would have said that. But no sooner was Jacob safely out of Esau’s reach: no sooner had Jacob’s affairs begun to prosper in Padan-aram than Jacob’s conscience of sin fell asleep. And Jacob’s conscience would have slept on till the day of judgment had God and Esau left Jacob alone. And that is our own case exactly. “The heart is deceitful,” says the prophet, “who can know it?” Well, we know it so far. We know it thus far, at any rate—that we easily forgive ourselves the hurt we have done to other men. We have short memories for our own sins, and for other men’s sufferings. Only once in a long while do we remember, and take to heart what we have done to other men. We have a long memory for what other men have done to us: but all that is changed when we are the wrong-doers. Let those, who have suffered at our hands be long enough out of our sight, and at a safe enough distance, and we say, Soul, take thine ease. From the day of the barter of the birthright, down to that arresting night at the Jabbok, Jacob had seen himself, and his share in all that bad business, with his own partial and indulgent eyes. Whereas Esau had seen himself 45 with his own injured and angry eyes: and, for once, God had seen all that evil transaction with Esau’s eyes also. Only, all the time that Jacob prospered in Padan-aram, God was as if He had not seen. God “winked,” as we say, at Jacob’s sin till Jacob was at the top of his prosperity, and then God opened His eyes on Jacob’s sin, and He opened Jacob’s eyes also. If you will read Jacob’s Padan-aram life with attention—with your eye on the object—you will see that Jacob had no time in Padan-aram for prayer—to be called prayer. “Thus I was,” complains Jacob, “in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night: and my sleep departed from mine eyes: Thus have I been twenty years.” You know it yourselves, and you complain about it. What with the pressure of domestic duties: what with the tremendous and cruel competition of modern business life: what with the too late hours of the best society in the city: what with the sports and games of your holiday: and what with the multitude of books and papers of all kinds that you must keep up with—sleep even, not to speak of salvation, departs from your eyes. “Thus was I,” complained graceless Jacob.

2.“So went the present over before Jacob: and himself lodged that night in the company.” But Jacob could not sleep. He could not lie down even. He was in a thousand minds. He was tossed with tempest, and not comforted. And he rose up, and 46 sent over the brook all that he had. One thing Jacob had quite determined on,—he would not return to Padan-aram. At any risk, he would set his face to go on to Canaan. And when he had taken the decisive step of crossing the Jabbok, and when his household had all laid them down to sleep—Jacob was left alone, and Jacob set himself to “watch and pray.” Jacob, deliberately and of set purpose, prepared himself for a whole night of prayer. “But thou,” said our Lord, “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and shut thy door.” Well, that was just what Jacob did that night, and I suspect Jacob, that he had not done so much as that for the past twenty years. Leave me alone he said. Lie you down and sleep in safety, and I will take a lantern and a sword, and I will watch the sleeping camp myself to-night. And he did so. And that is the second lesson out of Jacob at the Jabbok. This lesson, namely: that there are seasons in our lives when true prayer demands time, and place, and preparation, and solitude. When we are full of some great piece of business; when a lawyer is at a dying man’s bedside taking down his last testament; when a minister is in the depths of the preparation of his sermon, and when the spirit of God is resting on him with power; when any really serious business has hold of us, we have no scruple in saying that we must be left alone. This, I say is the second lesson here.


Let a long journey then—by land or sea—at one time, be set apart for prayer. A whole day sometimes, a birthday, the anniversary of our engagement to be married, or of our marriage, or again an anniversary of some such matter as Jacob’s deception of Esau, or of his flight, or what not. Every man’s life is full of “days to be remembered.” Then let them be remembered,—and with deliberation and resolution and determination; and your life will yet be as well worth writing, and as well worth reading as Jacob’s life is. Insist that you are to be left alone sometimes in order that you may take a review of your past life, and at the same time a forecast of coming danger and death: and that will turn all the evil of your past life into positive good: that will take all the danger out of coming danger, and death itself out of fast approaching death. Make experiment: pray with deliberation, and with all proper preparation-and see!

3: Jacob, we are delighted to see, deliberately and resolutely set apart that whole night to prayer: and his prayer took him that whole night, and until the “breaking of the day.” But, to do what? Why did it take Jacob so long to offer his prayer? Was God unwilling to hear Jacob? No, that cannot be the true explanation. God was neither absent nor was He unwilling. God had come down to the Jabbok for this very purpose—to hear and to answer Jacob’s prayer, and to 48preserve Jacob’s life from Esau’s anger. God was ready to hear and to answer: but Jacob was not yet ready to ask aright. Jacob had twenty years of unbelief and self-forgiveness, and forgetfulness of Esau’s injury, and total neglect and want of practice in penitence, and humiliation, and sorrow for sin. Jacob had all that, somehow or other, to undo, and to get over, before his life could be preserved: and the wonder to me is that Jacob accomplished so much in such a short time. You must all know how hard it is to put yourself into your injured brother’s place, and how long it takes you to do it. It is very hard for you to see, and to confess that God is no respecter of persons. It is a terrible shock to you to be told—shall not the judge of all the earth do right between you and your injured brother? You know how hard, how cruel, it is to see yourself as others see you, and judge you: especially as those see you and judge you who have been hurt by you. It is like death and hell pulling your body and your soul to pieces to take to heart all your sin against your neighbour, as he takes it to his heart. And that is why Jacob at the Jabbok has such a large place in your Bible: because, what you have taken so many years to do, Jacob did at the Jabbok in as many hours. You surely all understand, and will not forget, what exactly it was that Jacob did beside that angry brook that night? The evening sun set on 49 Jacob sophisticating, and plotting, and planning how he could soften and bribe back to silence, if not to brotherly love, his powerful enemy, Esau; but before the morning sun rose on Peniel, Jacob was at God’s feet—aye, and at Esau’s feet also—a broken-hearted, absolutely surrendered, absolutely silent and submissive penitent. “In whose spirit there is no guile . . . I acknowledged my sin unto Thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. . . . For this shall every one that is godly pray unto Thee in a time when Thou mayest be found: surely in the floods of great waters they shall not come nigh unto him.”

4. But Jacob at the Jabbok always calls up our Lord in Gethsemane. Now, why did our Lord need to spend so much of that Passover night alone in prayer? and in such an agony of prayer, even unto blood? He did not have the sins of His youth coming back on Him in the garden: nor did He have twenty years of neglect of God, and man, to get over. No. It was not that. But it was this. I speak it not of commandment, but by permission. It may have been this. I believe it was this. This. Human nature, at its best, in this life, is still so far from God—even after it has been redeemed, and renewed, and sanctified, and put under the power of the Holy Ghost for a lifetime—that, to reduce it absolutely down to its very last submission, and its very last surrender, and its very last obedience, 50 the very Son of God, Himself, had to drag His human heart to God’s feet, with all His might, and till His sweat was blood, with the awful agony of it. “I have neglected Thee, O God, but I will enter into my own heart,” cries Lancelot Andrewes, “I will come to Thee in the innermost marrow of my soul.” “It is true prayer, it is importunate, persevering and agonising prayer that deciphers the hypocrite,” says Jonathan Edwards, repeating Job. “My uncle,” says Coleridge’s nephew, “when I was sitting by his bedside, very solemnly declared to me his conviction on this subject. ‘Prayer,’ he said, ‘is the very highest energy of which the human heart is capable’: prayer, that is, with the total concentration of all the faculties. And the great mass of worldly men, and learned men, he pronounced absolutely incapable of prayer. ‘To pray,’ he said, ‘to pray as God would have us pray,—it is this that makes me to turn cold in my soul. Believe me, to pray with all your heart, and strength, that is the last, the greatest achievement of the Christian’s warfare on this earth. Lord, teach us to pray!’ And with that he burst into a flood of tears and besought me to pray for him! Oh, what a light was there!”

5. We understand now, and we willingly accept, and we will not forget Jacob’s new name of “Israel.” Yes: it was meet and he was worthy. For he behaved himself like a prince of the Kingdom 51 of Heaven that night. Prayer, my brethren, is princely work—prayer, that is, like Jacob’s prayer at the Jabbok. Prayer, at its best, is the noblest, the sublimest, the most magnificent, and stupendous act that any creature of God can perform on earth or in heaven. Prayer is far too princely a life for most men. It is high, and they are low, and they cannot attain to it. True prayer is colossal work. There were giants in those days. Would you be one of this royal race? Would you stand in the lot of God’s princeliest elect at the end of your days? And would you be numbered with His Son and with His choicest saints? Then, pray.

“Hitherto have ye asked nothing in My name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.”

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