I am going through Psalm 84 as a way of being around someone who pursed and prised the presence of God. Here is the next verse:
O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah Psalm 84:8
I was struggling to see anything much in this verse other than of course that we need to pray to draw close to God when I suddenly got a tip off. An old commentary pointed to Jacob as relevant in some way but didn’t say how. (Again I need more commentaries!). He’s not thrown in just to identify which God is being prayed to (ie Jacob’s God as opposed to Bob’s God – although that is part of it) so what relevance does Jacob have to prayer? Well, I have a whole book on that. Hang on…”The man who wrestled with God” by Greg Haslam. Mmmm. I’ve got a lot of reading to do….
…Just read the book and it was great. It’s amazing how fast you can read when you are motivated and have a particular purpose in reading. I bought this book months ago but never got round to reading it. This is why I buy now and ask questions later! I really don’t like thinking “OH, I wish I had that book I saw last year, I need it now and should have bought it!”.
Anyway, who was Jacob? Well, he was a wheeler/dealer, a cheater and a trickster. He knew how to make life work for him. He had tricked his brother out of his inheritance, tricked his father in to blessing him. When he finally got the upper hand with his uncle Laban (Layban) and left him with the girl he loved, the livestock he coveted, plus his uncles prized collection of idols (his gods – but think of them as his classic car collection that they have meticulously and lovingly resorted). And he gets away with it!
He reminds me of some of the character on the apprentice. They wheel and deal and bend the truth and somehow get away with it. Until they are fired that is! Jacob suddenly finds himself in the board room about to be fired. He learns that his vengeful brother is coming towards him with an army of several hundred men and it looks like its game over for Jacob.
He had prayed a very good prayer. A really long prayer in which he had said all the right things and may have even meant some of it too. He was humble :”I am not worthy” (Gen 32:10) and he reminded God of his promises : “you said I will surely do you good” (Gen 32:12), but still Esau advanced and Jacob was afraid.
Jacob then sent everything he possessed in the world on in front of him to appease his peeved brother. It’s like throwing everything overboard in order to keep your boat afloat. Now, he is alone in the dark with nothing but the shirt on his back wondering what to do next?
That is when a man jumps out form the bushes and pulls him to the ground. The identity of the man is mysterious but just look at the facts: God was the one working through him in this encounter, God was the one Jacob was wrestling with, God was the one Jacob was speaking to, God was the one who changed Jacob’s name and this man changes Jacob’s name to Israel, God was the one Jacob came face to face with through the encounter. It really looks to me (and Jacob) that this guy is in some mysterious way God, or at the very least acting on behalf of God in a very intimate way. Like me Jacob wants to know who this guy really is but when he asks his name he get no reply. It’s like the name of this man is being deliberately held back for now.
I suspect that this passage, as others, describes the pre-incarnate Jesus. It doesn’t spell it out in crass predicates (there is one God, God is three person, each one fully God etc), but lets us experience it as the narrative unfolds. It’s a man. Blink and its God acting. It’s a man. But then God is talking. The man does something but its God doing something.
It’s as if God leaps on Jacob crying out, “enough religion! Enough with your pious prayers please! Enough of topping up your strength with mine. Enough trickery and schemes and plans and your strategies and games. Enough of your resistance to me and my ways. Enough keeping me at arms length!”
“You feel weak right now? Let me help you out.” There is a loud sucking, popping sound as Jacob’s hip is pulled out of joint. “Arg!” He must have screamed as his body is broken at its strongest part. As Greg Haslem points out “the object of a wrestling match is to establish who is stronger”. The man simply “touched” his hip and it tore apart. God is strong and we are weak. That is something that Jacob would never forget it.
Then the man says “I’m off”. ( Greg says RT Kendle calls this the “divine tease” ). I imagine the man getting up, dusting himself off as Jacob writhes in agony, immobilised on the floor. And then something else in Jacob breaks. The man feels Jacob’s hand grasp his ankle. “Let me go. It’s morning” he says and makes to go again but Jacob grip only tightens and as he cries out “I will not let you go until you bless me”. Like a man dangling off a cliff, desperately holding onto a rope, he would rather die than let go because if he let go he would die.
He has, up to this point, grabbed at everything else in life for happiness, security, joy and strength. He got status through his birth right, marriage through his hard work, possessions (sheep) through his trickery, and even a bag of various religions (idols). Now he clings for dear life to the only real source of love and life and joy and happiness.
Jacob confesses who he is; trickster by name and trickster by nature. As we are open with God about who we are and our failings he changes us and as a new day breaks he becomes a new man, with a new name and new identity. And there face to face with God Jacob is blessed. “God’s face” says Greg is
“his manifest glory overwhelming us by the weight of his presence”.
It’s what Jacob is after and it’s what the psalmist is after so let’s get back to Psalm 84 verse 8. What is it saying?He’s saying:
“I’m desperate God. You have taken hold of me in such a way that I cannot let go of you. I will not, I cannot do life without you. You blessed a rotten scoundrel like Jacob when he called out to you in the dark, now bless me! He saw you face to face, Moses saw you “face to face” (Ex 33:11, Deut 34:10). I’ve prayed (Numb 6:25-26) “the LORD make his face to shine upon [us] and be gracious to [us]; the LORD lift up his countenance upon [us] and give [us] peace.” Now I call out from the bottom of my soul to you. I won’t stop until you bless me! Until I see you face to face.”
The story of Jacob is about finding God in the low points of life. When things don’t make sense, when we can’t tell how God is working through a particular situation but we know he is sovereign. It is about God coming to us not simply to patch us up and send us off again but to drive out our self reliance and drive home our need of him. It tells us that if you’re desperate for God he may well take you beyond that desperation until you reach out for him and never let go. But is also is about someone who is desperate being blessed and seeing the face of God.
In verse 9 the psalmist writes “hear my prayer O LORD God of Hosts”. In verse 2 he wrote that his “heart and flesh cry out for the living God”. The story of Jacob puts meat on the bones of these statements. The psalmist is desperate like Jacob was desperate, weak as Jacob was weak but God met Jacob face o face and so he will answer the psalmists cries.