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, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the 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 companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”
Genesis 32:9-12 NRSV
The more I read the Bible, the more I find its heroes redeemed from their Sunday school polishing to be revealed as deeply flawed women and men in desperate need of God’s help and provision. Jacob’s a great example of this. Sunday school Jacob was known as a smart guy who stole his hairy brother’s inheritance and had an unfortunate work situation going on for fourteen years. The latter’s always held up as the kind of love and devotion to aspire to. But Bible Jacob? Hooboy. Bible Jacob was a schemer and a coward; paranoid and manipulative and a bit of a fool. His family life was…less than ideal. So were his tactics. Altogether he wasn’t the best of men. Yet he was blessed by the Lord, and I want to talk about his prayer in Genesis 32:9-12.
To put it in context: Jacob, his family and all their possessions were on their way back to Canaan, back to his family. Considering the history he had with Esau, Jacob was understandably nervous about the reunion, thus this prayer. You’ll have noticed that there are three parts to the prayer: first, Jacob praised God and remembered how God had been faithful in the past; second, he brought his fear before the Lord; and lastly, he subdued this fear in the sight of God by relying on God’s promise rather than on fear’s logic. Let’s break this down and see what we can learn from it.
Remembering his faithfulness
We all have stories of God’s faithfulness (yes you do!) These stories aren’t always of rivers parting; indeed, sometimes it feels like God throws us a pool noodle and cheers us on as we swim. But this doesn’t make his help any less of a miracle, and it doesn’t make him faithless. The entire Bible is a journey through God’s faithfulness: his faith in us, his provision when we’ve failed, and our ultimate redemption through Jesus Christ. It’s up to us to remember this faithfulness, though, especially when we are feeling faithless. All these stories in the Bible? They were a way for a people to rehearse, over and over, the past provision of God, particularly in a present where they were filled with doubt and confusion. Many of what we know as the OT was collected during the exilic period, after Jerusalem had been destroyed. Most of what we know today as the NT was collected during times of persecution and danger. In this sense, the whole Bible is a prayer about God’s faithfulness.
Bringing our fear before God
Something we humans excel at it pretending what we’re not: frightened, hurt, affected, sad, angry. We like to save face in front of others, you see; it’s never nice to feel exposed or vulnerable in a world that’s seemingly neither. Unfortunately this same pretence tends to carry over into our relationship with God. We love pretending we’re fine, everything’s fine, everything is under control, at least until the wheels come off entirely. Then we will humble ourselves, confess our shortcomings, and ask God for intervention.
Isn’t it incredibly silly to pretend with God? Like, he knows. That sin? He knows! That anger? He knows! That fear? He knows! But the longer we consciously or unconsciously keep him out of the loop, the longer we allow our fears to morph and to grow into monsters, when turning to God could have strangled them stone dead from the get go.
Our fears are squashed by one simple truth: the promise of God. God’s very name and character are in themselves a promise. This is something I keep coming back to. God calls himself simply “I am.” That’s it, that sums him up. He is. That’s enough for him, and that’s enough for us. Because what it means is, “God is.” And if he is, then what? Then Jesus Christ is! Then salvation is! Then this whole book of promises fulfilled is true!
He has made us specific promises, beyond his name. If you need to, look them up: John 8:36; 1 Corinthians 10:13; Psalm 61:3; Psalm 34:7; Deuteronomy 31:8; Lamentations 3:22-23; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:3. But those are purely for our sake, because the fact that He Is encapsulates it all.
Living this prayer
I’m not a big fan of prayer formulas, and this certainly isn’t that. Rather, this is a way of life, a constant loop we go through: remembering that God has been faithful, renouncing our fears to the contrary, trusting that God will continue to be as he has always been. Jacob’s prayer is a reminder to seek God constantly; to search his word and experience it all as a prayer, to expect the blessing of God’s faithfulness at every turn in your life, as Jacob did.
No, Jacob wasn’t a perfect human being – and neither are we. But Jacob had this down pat: he knew God was on his side, and he lived, fought, fell, and rose in that certainty.
Prayer inspiration: Psalm 91:14-15
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.