Genesis 32:28 (ESV) … 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.”
We come now to the second great spiritual crisis in Jacob’s life. At Bethel he saw the ladder, at the Jabbok he saw the Lord; at Bethel he became a believing man, here he became a broken man; at Bethel he became a son of God, here he became a saint of God. He came away from Bethel with a new spring in his step; he came away from the Jabbok with a lasting limp in his walk. At Bethel he died to his sin; here he died to self.
We see Jacob very much alone (32:24a). “And Jacob was left alone,” we read. His wealth had already gone on before, his family, his fortune, his servants had all been sent away. And now Jacob was alone. Most of us hate to be alone. We structure our time to the full because we dare not be left with absolutely nothing to do but face God. Yet there is nothing we need more than to be left alone with God.
But if Jacob was very much alone he was also very much alive (32:24b–25a). “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day and … he saw that he prevailed not against him.” That is, the unknown assailant was getting nowhere with Jacob. The old, carnal, stubborn, fighting, self-sufficient, unyielding Jacob was very much alive. The battle went on all night. How soon was it before Jacob realized he was really wrestling with God Himself, or that his assailant was none other than the second Person of the Godhead, who had come to confront him with his desperate need for full and unconditional surrender to God?
Then we see a Jacob who was very much altered (32:25b–32). That night was the climax of twenty years of God’s patient dealing with Jacob. We are in such a hurry; God never is. We can have instant everything today—instant meals, instant entertainment, instant transportation, instant communication—but we cannot have instant holiness. God takes His time to bring us to spiritual maturity. He never crowds us or ravishes us; He always waits and woos.
We see in Jacob, now, a man broken by God (32:25b–27), no longer fighting but clinging. “When he [the angel] of the Lord saw that he prevailed not against him [Jacob], he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.” The hollow of the thigh is the hip socket and, of course, nobody can wrestle with the hip socket broken. All Jacob could do now was cling.
“And he [the angel of the Lord] said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he [Jacob] said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” There is the basic difference between Esau and Jacob. With all his faults, deep down in his heart where the ultimate issues of life are decided, Jacob wanted the blessing of God; Esau never did. Thus we see a broken Jacob clinging and confessing.
“What is your name?” the heavenly visitor demanded. Did not the Lord know Jacob’s name? Of course he did. But once before when Jacob was asked that question he had said, “I am Esau!” “My name is Jacob!” now cried the broken man. Jacob! Cheat! Supplanter! One who “takes you by the heel!” or, as we would say today, “one who twists your arm!” “Oh, Lord,” cried Jacob, “you know me. I am Jacob. I am just a cheat, a liar.” That was all God wanted. He simply wanted Jacob to be broken in His presence, seeing himself as he really was in himself, confessing all that he was by natural birth. “I am Jacob!” Now God could work.
The man thus broken by God could be blessed by God (32:28–30). God breaks us only so that He can make us anew. “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” The name “Israel” comes from a word meaning “to be chief.” Thus the man who now enters Canaan, the land of blessing, is not the same man who left it twenty years before, a man who could cheat his brother, deceive a blind father and outwit an unscrupulous uncle. The man who now entered Canaan was Israel, God’s prince, the man who had learned that the heart of God could be taken by storm if surrender and supplication are the means employed. The new name Jacob received that day was a token of a new nature, so long dormant but now to be triumphant in his life.
With holy boldness Jacob asked his visitor to tell him His name. He wanted to know Him better. “Tell me I pray thee, thy name,” he said. In the Old Testament, God revealed Himself to men preeminently by His names. It was thus, for instance, that Abraham grew in his knowledge of God. It was not presumption therefore on Jacob’s part to ask the stranger His name; it was faith. If he was Israel, then Israel he would be! “What is your name?” he asked. The Lord did not tell him, because Jacob already knew who had broken and blessed him. But, in response to Jacob’s faith, the midnight wrestler added another blessing to the one already given.
“And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [“the face of God”], for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” A sense of awe and amazement swept over Jacob’s soul. He had seen God! He had looked into the face of God in one of His rare preincarnate appearances in visible form. And his soul was thrilled.
The chapter ends with Jacob branded by God and bearing in his body henceforth the “slave-brand of Jesus Christ” (32:31–32). He halted upon his thigh. We picture him fording the Jabbok, leaning heavily on his staff and limping into the camp where his wives and children were in the morning light. “Wives! Children!” he would call, and they would come running, staring at a different Jacob. “What happened?” they would ask. “Why,” he would say, “I met God last night and I shall never walk the same again.”