Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 3

Jacob's Wrestling

Preached June 10, 1849

  Frederick W. Robertson

"And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and best prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there." - Genesis 32:28, 29.

The complexion of this story is peculiarly Jewish. It contains three points which are specially interesting to every Jew in a national point of view. It explained to him why he was called Israelite. It traces the origin of his own name, Israelite, to a distant ancestor, who had signally exhibited religious strength, and been, in the language of those times, a wrestler with God, from whence he had obtained the name Israel. It casts much deep and curious interest round an otherwise insignificant village, Peniel, where this transaction had taken place, and which derived its name from it, Peniel, the face of God. And, besides, it explained the origin of a singular custom, which might seem a superstitious one, of not suffering a particular muscle to be eaten, and regarding it with a kind of religious awe, as the part in which Jacob was said by tradition to have been injured, by the earnest tension of his frame during this struggle. So far all is Jewish, narrow, merely of local interest. Besides this, much of the story is evidently mythical.

It is clear at once that it belongs to that earlier period of literature when traditions were preserved in a poetical shape, adapted to the rude conceptions of the day, but enshrining an inner and a deeper truth. To disengage this truth from the form in which it is encased is the duty of the expositor.

Now, putting aside the form of this narrative, and looking into the heart and meaning of it, it will become apparent that we have no longer any thing infantine, or Jewish, or of limited interest, but a wide truth, wide as human nature; and that there is before us the record of an inward spiritual struggle, as real now in the nineteenth century as then: as real in every earnest man as it was in the history of Jacob.

We take these points:


I. The nameless secret of existence.

II. The revelation of that secret to the soul.


The circumstances which preceded this event were these: more than twenty years before, Jacob had been guilty of a deliberate sin. He had deceived his father; he had overreached his free-spirited, impetuous, open-hearted brother Esau. Never, during all those twenty years, had he seen the man whom he had injured. But now, on the point of returning to his native country, news was brought to him of his brother's approach, which made a meeting inevitable. Jacob made all his dispositions and arrangements to prepare for the worst. He sent over the brook Jabbok first the part of his family whom he valued least, and who would be the first to meet Esau ; then those whom he loved most, that, in the event of danger, they might have the greatest facility in escaping; then Jacob was left alone, in the still dark night. It was one of those moments in existence when a crisis is before us, to which great and pregnant issues are linked - when all has been done that foresight can devise, and the hour of action being past, the instant of reaction has come. Then the soul is left passive and helpless, gazing face to face upon the anticipated and dreadful moment which is slowly moving on. It is in these hours that, having gone through in imagination the whole circle of resources and found them nothing, and ourselves powerless, as in the hands of a Destiny, there comes a strange and nameless dread, a horrible feeling of insecurity, which gives the consciousness of a want, and forces us to feel out into the abyss for something that is mightier than flesh and blood to lean upon.

Then, therefore, it was that there came the moment of a conflict within the soul of Jacob, so terrible and so violent that it seemed an actual struggle with a living man. In the darkness he had heard a voice, and came in contact with a Form, and felt a Presence, the reality of which there was no mistaking. Now, to the unscientific mind, that which is real seems to be necessarily material too. What wonder if, to the unscientific mind of Jacob, that conflict, so real, and attended in his person with such tangible results, seemed all human and material - a conflict with a tangible antagonist? What wonder if tradition preserved it in such a form? Suppose we admit that the Being whose awful presence Jacob felt had no form which could be grappled by a human hand, is it less real for that? Are there no realities but those which the hand can touch and the eye see?


Jacob in that hour felt the dark secret and mystery of existence.

Upon this I shall make three remarks.

1. The first has reference to the contrast observable between this and a former revelation made to Jacob's soul. This was not the first time it had found itself face to face with God. Twenty years before, he had seen in vision a ladder reared against the sky, and angels ascending and descending on it. Exceedingly remarkable. Immediately after his transgression, when leaving his father's home, a banished man, to be a wanderer for many years, this first meeting took place. Fresh from his sin, God met him in tenderness and forgiveness. He saw the token which told him that all communication between heaven and earth was not severed. The way was clear and unimpeded still. Messages of reciprocated love might pass between the Father and His child, as the angels in the dream ascended and descended on the visionary ladder. The possibility of saintliness was not forfeited. All that the vision taught him. Then took place that touching covenant, in which Jacob bound himself to serve gratefully his father's God, and vowed the vow of a consecrated heart to Him. All that was now past. After twenty years God met him again; but this second intercourse was of a very different character. It was no longer God the Forgiver, God the Protector, God the covenanting Love, that met Jacob; but God the Awful, the Unnamable, whose breath blasts, at whose touch the flesh of the mortal shrinks and shrivels up. This is exactly the reverse of what might have been anticipated. You would have expected the darker vision of experience to come first. First the storm-struggle of the soul; then the vision of peace. It was exactly the reverse.

Yet all this, tried by experience, is a most true and living account. The awful feelings about Life and God are not those which characterize our earlier years. It is quite natural that in the first espousals of the soul in its freshness to God, bright and hopeful feelings should be the predominant or the only ones. Joy marks, and ought to mark, early religion. Nay, by God's merciful arrangement, even sin is not that crushing thing in early life which it sometimes in later years, when we mourn not so much a calculable number of sinful acts, as a deep pervading sinfulness. Remorse does not corrode with its evil power then. Forgiveness is not only granted, but consciously and joyfully felt. It is as life matures, that the weight of life, the burden of this unintelligible world, and the mystery of the hidden God, are felt.

A vast amount of insincerity is produced by mistaking this. We expect in the religion of the child the experience which can only be true in the religion of the man. We force into their lips the language which describes the wrestling of the soul with God. It is twenty years too soon. God, in His awfulness, the thought of mystery which scathes the soul, how can they know that yet before they have got the thews and sinews of the man's heart to master such a thought? They know nothing yet - they ought to know nothing yet of God but as the Father who is around their beds - they ought to see nothing yet but Heaven, and angels ascending and descending.

This morning, my young brethren, you presented yourselves at the communion-table for the first time. Some of you, we trust, were conscious of meeting God. Only let us not confound the dates of Christian experience. If you did, it was not as Jacob met God on this occasion, but rather as he met Him on the earlier one. It were only a miserable forcing of insincerity upon you to require that this solemn, fearful sensation of his should be yours. Rather, we trust, you felt God present as the Lord of Love. A ladder was raised for you to heaven. Oh, we trust that the feeling in some cases at least was this - as of angels ascending and descending upon a child of God.

2. Again I remark, that the end and aim of Jacob's struggle was to know the name of God. "Tell me, I pray thee, thy name." A very unimportant desire at first sight. For what signifies a name? In these days, when names are only epithets, it signifies nothing. "Jehovah, Jove, or Lord," as the " Universal Prayer" insinuates, are all the same. Now, to assert that it matters not whether God be called Jehovah, Jove, or Lord, is true, if it mean this, that a devout and earnest heart is accepted by God, let the name be what it will by which He is addressed. But if it mean that Jove and Jehovah express the same Being - that the character of Him whom the Pagan worshiped was the same as the character - of Him whom Israel adored under the name of Jehovah that they refer to the same group of ideas, or that always names are but names, then we must look much deeper.

In the Hebrew history are discernible three periods distinctly marked, in which names and words bore very different characters. These three, it has been observed by acute philologists, correspond to the periods in which the nation bore the three different appellations of Hebrews, Israelites, Jews.

In the first of these periods names meant truths, and words were the symbols of realities. The characteristics of the names given then were simplicity and sincerity. They were drawn from a few simple sources: either from some characteristic of the individual, as Jacob, The Supplanter, or Moses, Drawn from the Water; or from the idea of family, as Benjamin, The Son of my Right Hand; or from the conception of the tribe or nation, then gradually consolidating itself; or, lastly, from the religious idea of God. But in this case not the highest notion of God - not Jah or Jehovah, but simply the earlier and simpler idea of Deity: El-lsrael, The Prince of El; Peniel, The Face of El.

In these days names were real, but the conceptions they contained were not the loftiest.

The second period begins about the time of the departure from Egypt, and it is characterized by unabated simplicity, with the addition of sublimer thought and feeling more intensely religious. The heart of the nation was big with mighty and new religious truth - and the feelings with which the national heart was swelling found vent in the names which were given abundantly. God, under His name Jah, the noblest assemblage of spiritual truths yet conceived, became the adjunct to names of places and persons. Oshea's name is changed into Je-hoshua.

Observe, moreover, that in this period there was no fastidious, over-refined chariness in the use of that name. Men conscious of deep and real reverence are not fearful of the appearance of irreverence. The word became a common word, as it always may, so long as it is felt, and awe is real. A mighty cedar was called a cedar of Jehovah, a lofty mountain, a mountain of Jehovah. Human beauty even was praised by such an epithet. Moses was divinely fair, beautiful to God. The Eternal name became an adjunct. No beauty - no greatness - no goodness, was conceivable, except as emanating from Him: therefore His name was freely but most devoutly used.

Like the earlier period, in this too, words mean realities but, unlike the earlier period, they are impregnated with deeper religious thought.

The third period was at its zenith in the time of Christ; words had lost their meaning, and shared the hollow, unreal state of all things. A man's name might be Judas, and still he might be a traitor. A man might be called Pharisee - exclusively religious - and yet the name might only cover the hollowness of hypocrisy; or he might be called most noble Festus, and be the meanest tyrant that ever sat upon a proconsular chair. This is the period in which every keen and wise observer knows that the decay of national religious feeling has begun. That decay in the meaning of words, that lowering of the standard of the ideas for which they stand, is a certain mark of this. The debasement of a language is a sure mark of the debasement of a nation. The insincerity of a language is a proof of the insincerity of a nation: for a time comes in the history of a nation when words no longer stand for things; when names are given for the sake of an euphonious sound; and when titles are but the epithets of unmeaning courtesy: - a time when Majesty - Defender of the Faith - Most Noble - Worshipful, and Honorable - not only mean nothing, but do not flush the cheek with the shame of convicted falsehood when they are worn as empty ornaments.

The name of God shares this fate. A nation may reach the state in which the Eternal Name can be used to point a sentence, or adorn a familiar conversation, and no longer shock the ear with the sound of blasphemy, because in good truth the name no longer stands for the highest, but for a meaner conception, an idol of the debased mind. For example, in a foreign language, the language of a light and irreligious people, the Eternal Name can be used as a light expletive and conversational ejaculation, and not shock any religious sensibility. You could not do that in English. It would sound like blasphemy to say, in light talk, My God! or Good God! Your flesh would creep at hearing it. But in that language the word has lost its sacredness, because it has lost its meaning. It means no more than Jove or Baal. It means a being whose existence has become a nursery fable. No marvel that we are taught to pray, "Hallowed be Thy name." We can not pray a deeper prayer for our country than to say, Never may that name in English stand for a lower idea than it stands for now. There is a solemn power in words, because words are the expression of character. "By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned."

Yet in this period, exactly in proportion as the solemnity of the idea was gone, reverence was scrupulously paid to the corpse-like word which remained and had once inclosed it. In that hollow, artificial age, the Jew would wipe his pen before he ventured to write the name - he would leave out the vowels of the sacred Jehovah, and substitute those of the less sacred Elohim. In that kind of age, too, men bow to the name of Jesus often just in that proportion in which they have ceased to recognize His true grandeur and majesty of character.

In such an age it would be indeed preposterous to spend the strength upon an inquiry such as this: "Tell me Thy Name?" Jehovah, Jove, or Lord - what matter? But Jacob did not live in this third period, when names meant nothing, nor did he live in the second, when words contained the deepest truth the nation is ever destined to receive. But he lived in the first age, when men are sincere, and truthful, and earnest, and names exhibit character. To tell Jacob the name of God was to reveal to him what God is and who.

3. I observe a third thing. This desire of Jacob was not the one we should naturally have expected on such an occasion. He is alone - his past fault is coming retributively on a guilty conscience - he dreads the meeting with his brother. His soul is agonized with that, and that we naturally expect will be the subject and the burden of his prayer. No such thing! Not a word about Esau - not a word about personal danger at all. All that is banished completely for the time, and deeper thoughts are grappling with his soul. To get safe through tomorrow? No, no, no! To be blessed by God - to know Him, and what He is - that is the battle of Jacob's soul from sunset till the dawn of day.

And this is our struggle - the struggle. Let any true man go down into the deeps of his own being, and answer this - what is the cry that comes from the most real part of his nature? Is it the cry for daily bread? Jacob asked for that in his first communing with God - preservation, safety. Is it even this - to be forgiven our sins? Jacob had a sin to be forgiven, and in that most solemn moment of his existence he did not say a syllable about it. Or is it this - "Hallowed be thy name?" No, my brethren. Out of our frail and yet sublime humanity, the demand that rises in the earthlier hours of our religion may be this - Save my soul; but in the most unearthly moments it is this - "Tell me thy Name." We move through a world of mystery; and the deepest question is, What is the being that is ever near, sometimes felt, never seen - That which has haunted us from childhood with a dream of something surpassingly fair, which has never yet been realized - That which sweeps through the soul at times as a desolation, like the blast from the wings of the Angel of Death, leaving us stricken and silent in our loneliness - That which has touched us in our tenderest point, and the flesh has quivered with agony, and our mortal affections have shrivelled up with pain - That which comes to us in aspirations of nobleness, and conceptions of superhuman excellence? Shall we say It or He? What is it? Who is He? Those anticipations of Immortality and God - what are they? Are they the mere throbbings of my own heart, heard and mistaken for a living something beside me? Are they the sound of my own wishes, echoing through the vast void of nothingness? or shall I call them God, Father, Spirit, Love? A living Being within me or outside me? Tell me Thy Name, thou awful mystery of Loveliness! This is the struggle of all earnest life.

We come now to-


II. The revelation of the mystery

1. It was revealed by awe. Very significantly are we told, that the Divine antagonist seemed, as it were, anxious to depart as the day was about to dawn, and that Jacob held Him more convulsively fast, as if aware that the daylight was likely to rob him of his anticipated blessing, in which there seems concealed a very deep truth. God is approached more nearly in that which is indefinite than in that which is definite and distinct. He is felt in awe, and wonder, and worship, rather than in clear conceptions. There is a sense in which darkness has more of God than light has. He dwells in the thick darkness. Moments of tender, vague mystery often bring distinctly the feeling of His presence. When day breaks and distinctness comes, the Divine has evaporated from the soul like morning dew. In sorrow, haunted by uncertain presentiments, we feel the Infinite around us. The gloom disperses, the world's joy comes again, and it seems as if God were gone - the Being who had touched us with a withering hand, and wrestled with us, yet whose presence, even when most terrible, was more blessed than His absence. It is true, even literally, that the darkness reveals God. Every morning God draws the curtain of the garish light across His eternity, and we lose the Infinite. We look down on earth instead of up to heaven, on a narrower and more contracted spectacle - that which is examined by the microscope when the telescope is laid aside - smallness, instead of vastness. "Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labor till the evening;" and in the dust and pettiness of life we seem to cease to behold Him: then at night He undraws the curtain again, and we see how much of God and eternity the bright distinct day has hidden from us. Yes, in solitary, silent, vague darkness, the Awful One is near.

This morning, young brethren, we endeavored to act on this belief; we met in stillness, before the full broad glare of day bad rested on our world. Your first Communion implored His blessing in the earlier hour which seems so peculiarly His. Before the dull, and deadening, and earthward influences of the world had dried up the dew of fresh morning feeling, you tried to fortify your souls with a sense of His presence. This night, before to-morrow's light shall dawn, pray that He will not depart until He has left upon your hearts the blessing of a strength which shall be yours through the garish day, and through dry, scorching life, even to the close of your days.

2. Again, this revelation was made in all unsyllabled blessing. Jacob requested two things. He asked for a blessing and he prayed to know the name of God. God gave him the blessing. "He blessed him there," but refused to tell His name. "Wherefore dost thou ask after my name?"

In this, too, seems to lie a most important truth. Names have a power, a strange power, of hiding God. Speech has been bitterly defined as the art of hiding thought. Well, that sarcastic definition has in it a truth. The Eternal Word is the Revealer of God's thought, and every true word of man is originally the expression of a thought; but by degrees the word hides the thought. Language is valuable for the things of this life; but for the things of the other world, it is an encumbrance almost as much as an assistance. Words often hide from us our ignorance of even earthly truth. The child asks for information, and we satiate his curiosity with words. Who does not know how we satisfy ourselves with the name of some strange bird or plant, or the name of some new law in nature? It is a mystery perplexing us before. We get the name, and fancy we understand something more than we did before, but, in truth, we are more hopelessly ignorant; for before we felt there was a something we had not attained, and so we inquired and searched: now, we fancy we possess it, because we have got the name by which it is known, and the word covers over the abyss of our ignorance. If Jacob had got a word, that word might have satisfied him. He would have said, Now I understand God, and know all about Him.

Besides, names and words soon lose their meaning. In the process of years and centuries the meaning dies off them like the sunlight from the hills. The hills are there - the color and life are gone. The words of that creed, for example, which we read last Sunday (the Athanasian), were living words a few centuries ago. They have changed their meaning, and are, to ninety-nine out of every hundred, only dead words. Yet men tenaciously hold to the expressions of which they do not understand the meaning, and which have a very different meaning now from what they had once - Person, Procession, Substance: and they are almost worse with them than without them - for they conceal their ignorance, and place a barrier against the earnestness of inquiry. We repeat the creed by rote, but the profound truths of Being which the creed contains, how many of us understand ?

All this affords an instructive lesson to parents and to teachers. In the education of a pupil or a child, the wise way is to deal with him as God dealt with his pupil, the child-man Jacob: for before the teaching of God, the wisest man, what is he but a child? God's plan was not to give names and words, but truths of feeling. That night, in that strange scene, He impressed on Jacob's soul a religious awe which was hereafter to develop, not a set of formal expressions, which would have satisfied with husks the cravings of the intellect and shut up the soul. Jacob felt the Infinite, who was more truly felt when least named. Words would have reduced that to the Finite: for, oh, to know all about God is one thing - to know the living God is another. Our rule seems to be this: Let a child's religion be expansive - capable of expansion - as little systematic as possible: let it lie upon the heart like the light loose soil, which can be broken through as the heart bursts into fuller life. If it be trodden down hard and stiff in formularies, it is more than probable that the whole must be burst through, and broken violently, and thrown off altogether, when the soul requires room to germinate.

And in this way, my young brethren, I have tried to deal with you. Not in creeds, nor even in the stiffness of the catechism, has truth been put before you. Rather has it been trusted to the impulses of the heart - on which, we believe, God works more efficaciously than we can do. A few simple truths: and then these have been left to work, and germinate, and swell. Baptism reveals to you this truth for the heart, that God is your Father, and that Christ has encouraged you to live as your Father's children. It has revealed that name which Jacob knew not - Love. Confirmation has told you another truth, that of self-dedication to Him. Heaven is the service of God. The highest blessedness of life is powers and self consecrated to His will. These are the germs of truth; but it would have been miserable self-delusion, and most pernicious teaching, to have aimed at exhausting truth, or systematizing it. We are jealous of over-systematic teaching. God's love to you - the sacrifice of your lives to God - but the meaning of that? Oh, a long, long life will not exhaust the meaning - the Name of God. Feel him more and more - all else is but empty words.

Lastly, the effect of this revelation was to change Jacob's character. His name was changed from Jacob to Israel because himself was an altered man. Hitherto there had been something subtle in his character - a certain cunning and craft - a want of breadth, as if he had no firm footing upon reality. The forgiveness of God twenty years before had not altered this. He remained Jacob, the subtle supplanter still. For, indeed, a man whose religion is chiefly the sense of forgiveness, does not thereby rise into integrity or firmness of character - a certain tenderness of character may very easily go along with a great deal of subtlety. Jacob was tender and devout. and grateful for God's pardon, and only half honest still. But this half-insincere man is brought into contact with the awful God, and his subtlety falls from him. He becomes real at once. Every insincere habit of mind shrivels in the face of God. One clear, true glance into the depths of Being, and the whole man is altered. The name changes because the character is changed. No longer Jacob, The Supplanter, but Israel, The Prince of God - the champion of the Lord, who had fought with God and conquered; and who, henceforth, will fight for God, and be His true, loyal soldier: a larger, more unselfish name - a larger and more unselfish man - honest and true at last. No man becomes honest till be has got face to face with God. There is a certain insincerity about us all - a something dramatic. One of those dreadful moments which throw us upon ourselves, and strip off the hollowness of our outside show, must come before the insincere is true.

And again, young brethren, such a moment, at least of truthfulness, ought to have been this morning. Let the old pass. Let the name of the world pass into the Christian name. Baptism and Confirmation, the one gives, and the other reminds us of the giving of a better name and a truer. Henceforth be men. Lose the natural frailty, whatever it is. See God, and you will lose it.

To conclude, here is a question for each man separately - What is the name of your God? Not in the sense of this age, but in the sense of Jacob's age. What is the Name of the Deity you worship? In the present modern sense of Name, by which nothing more than epithet is meant, of course the reply is easy. The Name of yours is the God of Christian worship - the Threefold One - the Author of Existence, manifested in Divine Humanity, commingling with us as pure Spirit - the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. That, of course, you say is the name of your God. Now, put away names - give words to the winds. What do you adore in heart of hearts? What is the name oftenest on your lips in your unfettered, spontaneous moments? If we overheard your secret thoughts, who and what is it which is to you the greatest and the best that you would desire to realize? The character of the rich man, or the successful, or the admired? Would the worst misery which could happen to you be the wreck of property - the worst shame, not to have done wrong, but to have sunk in the estimation of society? Then in the classifications of earth, which separate men into Jews, Christians, Mohammedans, you may rank as a worshipper of the Christian's God. But in the nomenclature of Heaven, where names can not stand for things, God sees you as an idolator - your highest is not His highest. The Name that is above every name is not the description of your God.

For life and death we have made our choice. The life of Christ - the life of Truth and Love; and if it must be, as the result of that, the Cross of Christ, with the obloquy and shame that wait on truth - that is the name before which we bow. In this world "there are gods many, and lords many: but to us there is but one Lord, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."